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.

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 Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Alt Hist short story becomes novel and audiobook

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetI thought Alt Hist readers might like to know that one of the stories featured in Alt Hist Issue 2 has become a full-blown novel and audiobook!

The Watchmaker of Filigree Streety by Natasha Pulley is available from all good booksellers and is now a 336 book published by Bloomsbury.

There’s an audio clip that you can listen to from the whole book.

And here’s a link to an excerpt from the original short story that appeared in Alt Hist: http://althistfiction.com/2011/08/24/interview-with-n-k-pulley-author-of-the-watchmaker-of-filigree-street/

Enjoy!

Classic Historical Short Story: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

As part of Alt Hist’s mission to promote the best in historical short fiction, I am going to be posting on occasion copies of classic historical fiction short stories. This one by Ambrose Bierce was published in 1890 and looks back at the American Civil War.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce-1
Ambrose Bierce-1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest—a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.

Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground—a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway up the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators—a single company of infantry in line, at “parade rest,” the butts of their rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good—a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat. He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.

The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgement as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift—all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by— it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience and—he knew not why—apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”

As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.

II

Peyton Farquhar was a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure to perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.

“The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.”

“How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.

“About thirty miles.”

“Is there no force on this side of the creek?”

“Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”

“Suppose a man—a civilian and student of hanging—should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”

The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied. “I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”

The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

III

As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened—ages later, it seemed to him—by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness—of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!—the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface—knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. “To be hanged and drowned,” he thought, “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”

He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!—what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. “Put it back, put it back!” He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!

He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—he saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.

Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.

A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking at the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work. How coldly and pitilessly—with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men—with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words:

“Company!… Attention!… Shoulder arms!… Ready!… Aim!… Fire!”

Farquhar dived—dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.

As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream—nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.

The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning:

“The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”

An appalling splash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, DIMINUENDO, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken an hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.

“They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me—the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round—spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men, all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color—that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream—the southern bank—and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of AEolian harps. He had not wish to perfect his escape—he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

A whiz and a rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.

All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.

By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which—once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.

His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue—he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!

Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene—perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

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Historical Fiction Short Stories – the Long and the Short of it

Like fantasy, historical fiction often seems to favour the epic mode where authors (and readers) can get to grips with extensive world-building and a deep setting. That’s at least what you often hear these days on online forums and discussion groups.

But is that really the case? Of course at Alt Hist we don’t think that is true as we publish a magazine dedicated to short fiction with an historical setting. In the case of Alternative History, with its links to the Science Fiction genre, the tendency to write short stories is much more ingrained – Alternate History stories often focuses ideas and these can sit naturally with the short story length.

But I really think there is a place for the short story for historical fiction as well. Just because the tendency of historical fiction authors is to write epic tales of romance/adventure, doesn’t mean that you can’t fit historical fiction into a short story. After all in Science Fiction the author may have to create whole new worlds that they reader may never encountered before, so what would prevent the writer of historical fiction from portraying an historical setting, which might be much more familiar to the reader? I would suggest the tendency is more about tradition and commercial pressure. Short fiction today is strongest in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery because it always has been and its often a good starting point for writers in those genres. But the same tradition isn’t the same for historical fiction – as far as I know there weren’t any pulp magazines dedicated to historical fiction unless you include Westerns.

Commercially the emphasis is always on the novel length work. Short stories tend not to be a commercial format for most publishers. So if you’re a historical fiction writer and you want to make a living then its only natural to turn to the novel. Interestingly it seems that some authors once they’re established do then turn to short stories – especially for characters that run through their novels – there’s some tales that fit better into a short story rather than a novel.

So maybe it is possible to write and read historical short stories, but are there many of these rare birds about? Well yes actually. Check the reviews on the Historical Novel Society website and you will find reviews for 72 collections of historical short stories – and most of these were published in just the last few years.

If you have a favourite historical short story then please post a Comment and tell us about it.

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Alt Hist Issue 4 Now Published!

Alt Hist Issue 4 CoverIt gives me great pleasure to announce that Issue 4 of Alt Hist: The Magazine of Historical Fiction and Alternate History has now been published. It is available in both print and eBook formats as follows:

Print – Amazon US

Print Amazon UK

eBook Amazon US

eBook Amazon UK

Issue 4 will also be available from other flavours of Amazon as well – Italy, Spain, France etc – so please check your local sites. It will also be available for other e-readers in the future.

Alt Hist Issue 4: The Magazine of Historical Fiction and Alternate History contains seven top-quality stories from a variety of genres: horror, alternate history and fantasy, as well as straight historical fiction, including four stories set during World War II. If you’re looking for something other than World War II then we also have two stories from the Nineteenth Century and one from the Middle Ages.

The seven stories featured in Alt Hist Issue 4 are:

  • ‘Restless’ by Dylan Fox set in the 1860s onboard a fleet of British ironclad warships steaming towards China.
  • ‘Kleine Menschen’ by Eric Jackson is a historical fantasy story set in World War II Germany.
  • ‘Feast of Faith’ by Shane Rhinewald explores the struggles of common soldiers during the First Crusade who don’t have enough to eat.
  • ‘Three Months of Summer’ by Svetlana Kortchik is a love story that happens during the German occupation of Ukraine in 1942.
  • ‘The Stork’ by George Piper is a backwoods horror that will scare and surprise you.
  • ‘Battalion 202: A Blinded Falcon’ and ‘Battalion 202: Into the Darkness’ by Jonathan Doering are two alternate history stories about the resistance to a German invasion of Britain.

Alt Hist – changes to Submission Policy

Alt Hist’s submission policy for fiction has begun to creak a little bit. I have realized that I haven’t been clear enough about what we’re looking for. To that end I have updated the submissions policy for fiction. Here’s the new policy:

Fiction submitted:

1. Must be a short piece of fiction – under 10,000 words.
2. Must be either historical fiction, alternate history, or historical fantasy.
3. Must be a well written character based story rather than an exercise in ‘what if …’
4. Must not be simultaneously submitted to another publication.
5. Must be an original work that has not been published elsewhere.

If anyone has any questions please let me know – it will be a sure sign that I need to refine things a bit more!

Interview with Brooks Rexroat, author of ‘To the Stars’

With Brooks Rexroat we wrap up the interviews of authors from Alt Hist Issue 3. Brooks’ ‘To the Stars’ is set during the Cold War space race and is a very human story of the effect on one family in particular.

Would it have been possible to write ‘To the Stars’ before 1989?

A cheeky answer first: I doubt it. I was doing most of my composition in crayon at that time.

In all seriousness, though, I think someone could have written this story at that point. There are no great tactical secrets here, very little that would’ve been unknown to Westerners and most Russians – and even James Bond – prior to 1989. While the setting is a bit exotic to most of us, the main themes could be placed in lots of locales of time frames and still function nicely – the question of whether the grass really is greener elsewhere, the convoluted battle of individualism versus selflessness, the dream of giving children a gift of opportunity, and so forth.

Cosmonaut or astronaut?

For me? Neither. I’m terrified of heights. How about launch room controller?

‘To the Stars’ is written in the present tense. What were the challenges and benefits of writing in this tense?

I’ll start with the benefits. This story was my first stab at historical fiction, and so one of my chief concerns was to bring something very distant chronologically into a closer proximity for the reader, and even for myself as a writer. There is an immediacy to the present tense, which I hope helps to connect readers to some very contemporary themes, even when the vehicle is a slice of our past. The first draft was, in fact, written in past tense, and it felt very cold and inaccessible. There were some nice things about that aesthetic, but it didn’t strike me as a story many folks would connect with. As I changed it to present tense, it felt much closer, far more energetic, and, more importantly, more real. My biggest challenge in switching it over to present tense was simply to maintain consistency.

How did you get into writing?

I’ve always been a writer of some sort – I remember making up stories and speaking them into a tape recorder before I had mastered the physical act of writing, and I very much wish I still had those cassettes. I had my angsty-teen-hidden-notebook-of-bad-poems phase. I suppose that, in terms of professional writing, a pair of professors opened that door by simple telling me that writing was viable as a career. High school counselors like to send students into sensible paths. Professors seem to like opening the doors a bit, and I’m glad I encountered two such individuals. I spent some rewarding time as a journalist, and now creative work serves as a good companion to life as a teacher.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I’m generally lecturing, deigning courses, or grading student essays–that takes up most of my existence. I’m a musician as well, so I play an occasional gig and like to catch live performances whenever I can. I run on occasion, and play a dangerously absurd amount of digital Scrabble.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

I’ve got a file of 37 stories in some stage of completion, half a dozen of which are solid in structure and close to being finished. They’re eclectic in topic, but many of my current pieces involve the “Rust Belt” section of the American Midwest – stories of the folks who have long been dealing with the economic struggles that have now reached coastal population centers. This landlocked region is my home, and there are plenty of stories to tell – hence the extensive ‘in progress’ story file on my laptop.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

At this stage of life, I think of myself as a teacher who writes. I’m fortunate to teach writing and talk about the craft with bright university students every day, and so I go home from the office eager to fill some pages, to tell some stories. My ambition is this: to keep writing as long as something’s rattling around in my head – to keep revising and shaping those thoughts until they represent a truth that might be meaningful to others. Alt Hist, incidentally, represents the beginning of my published ambitions – it was the first magazine to accept my work. I’ve had eight additional stories published since receiving that tremendous news that ‘To the Stars’ would be printed. Links to those pieces can be found at http://brooksrexroat.com.

Don’t forget to check out Brooks’ story ‘To the Stars’ in issue 3 of Alt Hist.

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Interview with Matthew Warner, author of ‘Bummers’

Matthew Warner is the author of ‘Bummers’ the second story in Alt Hist Issue 3 set during the American Civil War. We caught up with Matthew to ask him more about this story and his other writing.

Matthew Warner picture

How did you find out about female soldiers in the American Civil War? And can you tell us a bit more about the historical reality?

It started from a desire to write a story featuring a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered person. I have a lot of LGBT friends, and I feel strongly about supporting them whenever possible. So, in the course of researching possible characters, I stumbled across the topic of women who cross-dressed as men in order to fight in the Civil War. I’d never heard of this and was fascinated – doubly so because the Civil War is one of my favorite historical periods. (My collection, Death Sentences, includes a reprint of a short story I wrote about a plantation mistress.) What if the cross-dressing soldier were also a lesbian? I wondered. The story took off from there.

Here and here are links to photos of a real-life Frances who dressed as a man to fight in the war. According to the National Archives, at least 250 women dressed as men to fight for the Confederacy, and perhaps just as many fought for the Union, although the exact numbers are unknown. Like the Frances in my story, their motivations included money and the comparatively greater freedom that men enjoyed.

The American Civil War is a popular topic for US-based historical fiction writers. What do you think the main attraction of the period is?

Because it marked the end of slavery, the Civil War is still tied up in our minds with the issues of civil rights and racism, which remain enduring social issues. People still get upset when high schools use Civil War imagery for mascots or when state governments occasionally display the Confederate flag. Although it happened almost 150 years ago, the “War Between the States” (or the “War of Northern Aggression,” depending on your point of view) is still very much alive.

Also, the Civil War still holds the record for our bloodiest conflict. Even worse, it was “brother against brother,” as Hollywood says. Its artifacts permeate the old battle ground states. Here in Virginia, I can reach a Civil War monument in about five minutes. At my local cemetery, in fact, a couple thousand Confederate soldiers lie in a mass grave. Places like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run a thriving tourist trade of Civil War attractions. The ghosts still walk.

How did you get into writing?

I was fortunate to attend a public school system that encouraged creative writing from an early age. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to write fiction professionally, but I took a sideways step into journalism for a while. Eventually, I wound up working in law, and now I’m a website designer. (How’s that for a crazy career path?) But I’ve never stopped writing. My first novel, The Organ Donor, came out in 2002, and my fifth book just came out this year.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Mainly take care of my sons, Owen (age 2) and Thomas (4 months). My wife Deena and I run Deena Warner Design, which services writers and publishers. I’m also a pianist and hope to get back into martial arts one day.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

The ink is drying the contract for a novel that’s coming out in 2013 from a Canadian publisher (official announcement coming soon!). In February 2012, a local community theater is premiering a two-act comedy stage play I wrote called Pirate Appreciation Day. And yes, I’m always grinding away at the rough draft of something or other.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

My biggest ambition right now is to seek an ever wider readership. That’s actually more important to me than making a bunch of money as a writer. If money were my goal, I would’ve committed suicide by now.

Union or Confederacy?

Union in political views, Confederacy in family heritage and location. With all due respect to the great grandfather who was wounded at Gettysburg, I’m glad I’m not living in the Confederate States of America today.

You can find out more about Matthew Warner at his website: http://matthewwarner.com/

Don’t forget to check out Matthew’s story ‘Bummers’ in issue 3 of Alt Hist.

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