The Walter Scott Prize for Historical History has announced the shortlist for 2019:
The winner will be announced on 15th June.
The Walter Scott Prize for Historical History has announced the shortlist for 2019:
The winner will be announced on 15th June.
Will be interesting to see how this new alternate history from literary writer Ian McEwan pans out. Published in the UK on 18th April.
Sounds a bit like the TV series Humans?
Machines Like Me takes place in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first synthetic humans and—with Miranda’s help—he designs Adam’s personality. The near-perfect human that emerges is beautiful, strong, and clever. It isn’t long before a love triangle soon forms, and these three beings confront a profound moral dilemma.
In his subversive new novel, Ian McEwan asks whether a machine can understand the human heart—or whether we are the ones who lack understanding.
Alt Hist readers might like to know that there’s a new book out by Eric Flint in the popular Ring of Fire series: 1637: The Polish Maelstrom (Ring of Fire Book 26)
The Ottoman Empire has captured Vienna and is now laying siege to the Austrian government-in-exile established in the city of Linz. Both the United States of Europe and the Kingdom of Bohemia have come to Austria’s assistance, but everyone knows this is going to be a long and brutal struggle.
In order to relieve the pressure on the Austrians, General Mike Stearns proposes to open a second front in the Levant. The USE’s emperor Gustavus Adolphus gives his approval to the plan, and Mike sets it in motion, with the very capable assistance of his wife Rebecca Abrabanel, now the USE’s Secretary of State.
Meanwhile, Poland is coming to a boil. Gretchen Richter, the newly elected chancellor of Saxony, has seized control of Lower Silesia. Her small army is now approached to form an alliance with the Polish revolutionaries who have seized power in the Ruthenian province of Galicia—which, in the universe the time-displaced Americans of Grantville came from, would have constituted the western Ukraine.
Now, the Bohemians send an army led by Morris Roth into Poland, ostensibly to aid the revolutionaries but also with the goal of expanding King Albrecht Wallenstein’s growing empire in eastern Europe. And—the icing on the cake—Mike Stearns sends the Hangman Regiment of his Third Division under the command of Jeff Higgins to reinforce Jeff’s wife Gretchen in Silesia.
The maelstrom in Poland grows . . . and grows . . . and grows . . .
Will it drag all its displaced Americans and their allies down with it?
At the publisher’s request, this title is sold without DRM (Digital Rights Management).
About 1635: A Parcel of Rogues:
“The 20th volume in this popular, fast-paced alternative history series follows close on the heels of the events in The Baltic War, picking up with the protagonists in London, including sharpshooter Julie Sims. This time the 20th-century transplants are determined to prevent the rise of Oliver Cromwell and even have the support of King Charles.”—Library Journal
About 1634: The Galileo Affair:
“A rich, complex alternate history with great characters and vivid action. A great read and an excellent book.”—David Drake
“Gripping . . . depicted with power!”—Publishers Weekly
About Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series:
“This alternate history series is . . . a landmark…”—Booklist
“[Eric] Flint’s 1632 universe seems to be inspiring a whole new crop of gifted alternate historians.”—Booklist
“ . . . reads like a technothriller set in the age of the Medicis . . . ”—Publishers Weekly
Eric Flint is a modern master of alternate history fiction, with over three million books in print. He’s the author/creator of the multiple New York Times best-selling Ring of Fire series starting with first novel 1632. With David Drake he has written six popular novels in the “Belisarius” alternate Roman history series, and with David Weber collaborated on 1633 and 1634: The Baltic War and latest Honorverse series entry Cauldron of Ghosts. Flint’s latest Ring of Fire novel is 1636: The Ottoman Onslaught. Flint was for many years a labor union activist. He lives near Chicago, Illinois.
I was doing some research recently into which historical fiction novels are recognized as being the best of all time – the books that every budding historical fiction author and reader should have read. Of course there is no definitive list – such a thing can and should only ever be a matter of opinion. I found lists on the Telegraph site, Publisher’s Weekly, and of course Goodreads has several reader-curated list- as well.
The most reference one however seemed to be a list published by the Guardian/Observer back in 2012. Here’s what they have:
I have to confess that I have only read War and Peace, Wolf Hall, I, Claudius and the first of The Regeneration Trilogy – so no idea about the others. I think given that this is the Guardian its quite a literary fiction based list. I’d agree with these 4 titles that I know being on the list for sure, but I think for pure entertainment value I would have to add The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas well. But also what about Tale of Two Cities by Dickens?
What about you? What else should be on the list – please comment below – I’d love to hear what you think.
I think that I may have a problem as a writer. Hopefully not in the quality of what I do, but in the choice of one of the genres that I like to write in. I do write mostly historical or fantasy fiction, and quite often what I enjoy most is to write historical fantasy. However, I think there’s a problem with that.
The problem is that Historical Fantasy (note switch to capital letters – to provide some more gravitas) is a slippery genre to define. If you check out the listings at online retailers or on places like Goodreads – or reader discussions online – then you realise that Historical Fantasy means different things to different people – and don’t get me started on Wikipedia.
The issue is that my definition, I believe, doesn’t match with that of some others. For me Historical Fantasy should be a piece of fiction actually taking place in an historical setting. So for instance, for my Hell has its Demons story, the setting is Fourteenth Century England. I then add in fantastical elements – basically demons and magic in my story are real.
Yet it seems for other people – and for those genre listings on online retailers particularly – the genre is in fact anything that has a vague historical tinge to it. So you get books by Tad Williams, G R R Martin, Brent Weeks, Michael J Sullivan and Joe Abercrombrie all appearing. If you then look at the sub-genre of Medieval Fantasy – which I think I’m writing in, then you get pretty much the whole Epic Fantasy genre. I just can’t understand how those books muscle into my ghetto and claim historical/medieval definitions!
But another issue with the genre, even if you take a stricter view of it, is that it is a bit of a mash-up. There’s no Historical Fantasy section in traditional bookshops or libraries. There’s actually not that many well known authors/books in the genre. I would say a handful really still writing – Gabaldon, Novik. Susanna Clarke – who wrote what I would say is the defining book of recent Historical Fiction – doesn’t seem to be producing anything new at all, which is a great shame.
So in a sense I am writing in a genre without much of a real fan base. But hey, maybe that’s a good thing! I think there is a desire for this kind of fiction, and it would be great to see it better defined and promoted by the big retailers – kick out the second-world fantasy that includes armour and swords please!
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!
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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 …”
“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 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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.