April 15, 2010

Issue 2: April 2010

April 2010

Anybody can make history. It takes a great man to write it.
Oscar Wilde


Steel in the Morning by D. J. Cockburn
The Pretender by Kenneth Radu
Shaitan's Daughter by Barbara Davies
Coming Home by Townsend Walker
The Last Arrow by G. K. Werner
Prodigal Son by Alex Myers
Execution of Charles by Anish Bhalerao
The Inextinguishable Fire by Christian Jackstien
Scarecrow and Moccasins by Michele Stepto


Into Suez by Stevie Davies
Memoirs of a Vampire Hunter by Peter Allchin


Lacuna now has a Twitter page! Follow us at http://twitter.com/lacunajournal.

Just a friendly reminder: Lacuna will be closed to submissions from June 1, 2010 until October 1, 2010 so that we can clear up our backlog. The last day to send in new submissions is May 31, 2010.

Steel in the Morning


Steel in the Morning
by D. J. Cockburn

A knock on the door. Le Méridien rose from his chair and picked up the lantern from the floorboards. He turned it in a slow arc so the figures on the diagrams of fencing actions seemed to move with the shadows it cast. He buckled on his smallsword and paused by the door, breathing the aura of sweat that never quite left the air.

Le Méridien opened the door to Sarratt, who wore a smile that looked forced even in the flicker of the lantern.

"A fine morning for it," said Sarratt.

Le Méridien followed him down the stairs to the street. Sarratt knew better than to intrude on his mood.

Sarratt had a hackney carriage waiting, and Le Méridien's breath misted in the light of the driver's own lantern.

"'Morning, sirs!" The driver made to open the door, but Sarratt deftly placed himself between the driver's ebullience and Le Méridien. Le Méridien climbed in and arranged his cloak around himself. "Hyde Park it is, then," said the driver, "and seeing how it's such a fine morning, I think we'll make it a crown."

"That wasn't what we agreed." Sarratt's voice was as frosty as the April morning.

"That it weren't," said the driver, "but I didn't know why we was going there when we agreed it."

"You've no idea why we're going there, and it would be none of your business if you did," said Sarratt.

"Beggin' your pardon sir, but when a gentleman asks me to take 'im and 'is sword to Hyde Park this early in the morning, I don't have to ask for why. Also beggin' your pardon sir, I might agree that it's none of my business but his honor the justice o' the peace might not agree with me. So it's a crown."

Sarratt glanced at Le Méridien. "Very well. A crown." His voice came from between clenched teeth.

"Thank you kindly, sir." The driver shook his reins. The dull ring of horseshoes on cobblestones greeted the grey dawn that trudged between the rooftops.

Le Méridien allowed his eyes to close and his mind to wander. Fencing actions clamored for his attention, but he knew he must not heed them now. He must not allow the feel of a blade snared into counterquarte to occupy his mind lest it was still in possession when his life depended on his wrist turning into septime. Time enough to consider the moment when an opponent's parry would signal the second part of his une-deux when there was no danger of his anticipating it before it happened. He clasped his hands gently so his right hand would not stray to the hilt of his sword. How could a man who had gambled his life on the events of the next two hours think of anything but his gamble?

Le Méridien allowed himself to think of where the gamble began. He was handing a towel to a pupil sweating from his third lesson. "You've a good wind, Ensign Downe, but you mustn't let your body escape your mind."

Downe answered with a puzzled look that made him look much younger than his seventeen years.

"A fencer needs a quick body and you have that. But he also needs a strong mind, otherwise he becomes a brawler with a sword. I can train your body, but only you can keep it under your mind's mastery."

Downe bit his lip and nodded up at Le Méridien, whose six feet placed him a head higher. Le Méridien sighed. Downe learned the actions quickly enough, but there was something that prevented him from putting them together correctly.

"I'll make a pact with you," said Le Méridien, "I'll answer your question if you answer mine."

"My question?"

"The question you ask every time you flick your eyes at me. Like that." Downe looked away. "My father was Le Vicomte d'Arles. He took my mother as his mistress while on his plantations in Martinique, and took her back to France when she fell enceinte. I was born on their last day at sea, hence my name. My mother was born a slave, but the Jacobins raised her to the aristocracy when they guillotined her. I escaped to your own fair land, where I found that life on a country estate had taught me only one way of earning my bread." He tapped the button of a practice foil.

Downe's eyes were as wide as cannon muzzles. "You've hardly any accent," he said at last.

"Thank you. Now you must answer my question. Why do you wish to learn to fence?"

Downe's eyes wandered round the room, and Le Méridien saw a dozen lies rise to his lips and pass them by. They both knew he would tell the truth.

"I must kill my brother-in-law." He spat the word 'brother'.

"Why? Has he cheated you at bridge or merely spoken slightingly of your regiment?"

Downe's mouth hardened into a line that was beyond humor. "He seduced my sister."

Le Méridien almost asked whether she enjoyed it, but Downe's hands bunched into quivering fists and he held his peace.

"He slipped laudanum into her wine. She was only sixteen. She didn't know what was happening to her. My uncle found them…" Downe's voice tailed off, but left no doubt as to what he found them doing. "My mother paid him my father's legacy and ruined our family to make him marry her. I'll never forget Caroline's face the last time I saw her. She made one mistake and now her life is sold for our family's reputation."

"So now he must die?"

"Then Caroline can return to my mother with the legacy and her reputation. But I don't think I could kill him for those reasons alone. I must kill him for seducing her."

"And you'll all be a happy family again?"

A ghost of fear paled Downe's cheeks. "My regiment takes ship for Moore's army in the Peninsula in six weeks. I don't know when we'll come back."

Le Méridien paused for a moment to rue his question. He'd seen Downe as just another guinea-a-week pupil for the last time.

"Monsieur Le Méridien," said Downe, "I think this might be a fool's question, but is there–can you teach me—the perfect thrust?"

"Yes. Perhaps not today, but yes I think I can teach it to you."

Downe looked surprised. "Captain Fisher—the best fencer in my regiment—says it doesn't exist."

"It exists. A perfectly executed lunge with the correct disengagement at the ideal distance is impossible to parry."

Downe looked disappointed. "I've heard rumors of other actions. Secret actions."

Le Méridien smiled. "You've been listening to rumors of bottes secretes? Secret thrusts?"

Downe didn't meet Le Méridien's gaze. "They say my brother-in-law knows one."

"He's been out before then?"

"Several times. He's always killed his man."

Le Méridien raised his eyes to the ceiling. "I've met many swordsmen who strike with a favorite move that's difficult to parry if you're not anticipating it, but they all can be parried. The thrust that I shall teach you is known to every man who ever took lessons in fencing, and if any could execute it in more than one attempt of a hundred, fencing would be a dead art. Now to business. Is your brother-in-law right handed or left?"


"How tall is he?"

Le Méridien saw steel in Downe's eyes as he spoke of his brother-in-law, and began to believe that it might be possible to keep him alive.

* * *

A keen wind blew across London Bridge. Sarratt nudged Le Méridien and offered his hip flask. Le Méridien shook his head, as Sarratt must have known he would. Le Méridien felt a twinge of sympathy for Sarratt, who would much prefer a late night discussion on the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society to helping Le Méridien risk his life early in the morning.

The riding lights of barges moored near the bridge glowed like the eyes of beasts of prey, their bulk just visible in the twilight. The great dome of St. Paul's Cathedral loomed ahead, promising the judgment the morning would bring. Le Méridien closed his eyes again, and saw Downe's customary pensive look.

"Will you act for me?"

Le Méridien raised his eyebrows. "There must be officers in your regiment who know the conventions as well as I?"

Who wouldn't be mulattos, but there was no reason to labor the obvious.

Downe picked up a foil and practiced a few parries without looking at Le Méridien. His silence told the story of a friendless boy who could not tell his brother officers of his family's shame.

"I'd be honored." Le Méridien was surprised to find he meant it. "Smallswords, I presume."

"He always fights with smallswords." Downe's hand shot out to lead his body in a lightning lunge, bending the foil against the exact centre of a target.

"Downe, you may not thank me for saying this, but I must say it."


Le Méridien inhaled slowly. "The ball of a pistol usually misses, however deadly the aim. The edge of a saber cuts to the bone, but rarely deeper. The point of a smallsword needs only to enter a finger's length into a man's body, and if he doesn't bleed to death in an hour, he'll die of putrefaction in a week. Sometimes—often—the best choice is forgiveness."

Downe hit the target again and followed with a perfect recovery to the en garde position. "I must kill him."

"Then you had better tell me his name."

"William Olde."

* * *


* * *

Sarratt glared at the carriage driver and handed him a crown.

"I won't go far," said the driver, "It's only sixpence to go back."

"Damn your insolence," muttered Sarratt.

Le Méridien's feet were already crunching the morning frost as he strode into the park.

"Good luck, mate." The driver's voice sounded subdued as it floated after him. Le Méridien raised a hand in thanks, but did not turn back.

He strode the mile or so to the meeting place, feeling the exercise pump his blood around his limbs and drive out the cold and stiffness of the carriage. He'd need that blood flowing fast before long.

He wasn't surprised to find they were the first at the meeting place. Le Méridien felt a coldness that did not come from the air as he recalled that his challenger liked to appear late, to give his opponent time to nurture his fear. Today, Le Méridien vowed, he had mistaken his man. All he would nurture would be that coldness, and to do that he must not think of the last time he had waited for the same man in the same place. To do that would be to risk rage, which was as dangerous as fear. Yet he could not keep his eyes from straying to the grass where he fancied he could see the indentation of a body, and the memory of a bloodstain that would be revealed when the frost thawed.

He could almost see the footprints on the patch of ground where he had given Downe his last minute practice. Practice would not help Le Méridien now, but Downe was of a different temperament and it had kept him from dwelling on what was to come. There had been a mist that morning, and the four figures were only fifty paces away by the time they took shape. A man as tall as Le Méridien led with a much smaller woman on his arm. Her features were hidden by the hood of her cloak. Two fat men waddled behind. One carried a surgeon's bag and Le Méridien guessed the other was Olde's second. Le Méridien looked back to the tall man, who must be Olde. He was about forty, with the florid complexion and bulging midriff of a man who lived well, but there was a strength and quickness in his stride that belied his inelegant figure. He would be puffing like a grampus by the end of one of Le Méridien's lessons, but Le Méridien guessed his wind would last for the few minutes that the encounter would probably take.

The woman stopped dead, dragging on Olde's arm. He jerked her forward. "Come along, Caroline," he said as though to a disobedient dog.

Her hood slipped back from her head and Le Méridien saw she was barely more than a girl with the same wide eyes as Downe, on whom her shocked gaze rested as she stumbled after Olde.

Le Méridien turned to Downe and his heart sank. Downe's eyes and mouth gaped in an exact reflection of the girl's.

"Caroline," breathed Downe, then he called her name aloud. Olde's second glared at the breach of protocol.

Le Méridien knew that the reins he had taught Downe's mind to control his body with were tenuous at best, and he could see the girl's presence sawing through them. He guessed that Olde had told his wife she was coming to watch him fight, but not that he was fighting her brother. She looked as astonished as Downe.

Le Méridien stepped in front of Downe, blocking his view of Olde's party, and seized his shoulders. "Look at me Downe. Look at me! Now listen to me. Are you listening?"

Downe swallowed and nodded.

"Don't look at her. She isn't here. The only people here are you and him. Do you understand?"

Downe nodded again.

"You can fight for her, but don't look at her because she isn't here. Just you and him, and he's a dead man who still thinks he's alive. Isn't he?"

"He's a dead man."

"Good man. Now turn to face the tree behind you, and take your cloak off while I meet his second."

Downe's jaw tightened and he didn't look so young any more. "He's a dead man."

Le Méridien searched his mind for a way to postpone the meeting, but there was none. He could no more stop it than he could stop a falling stone pushed off a cliff, and the stone had been pushed before he even met Downe. It was too late now because he was face to face with Olde's second. Le Méridien imagined the man's doubled chin flapping with laughter when Olde explained his plan to unman Downe with the presence of his sister. Yet he had to offer the man his hand. "My name's Le Méridien. Your servant, sir."

The other man guffawed and pressed Le Méridien's hand as briefly as protocol allowed. "Servant? Look more like a slave to me. My name's Theobald Inkham. Are you really the best the pup could do?"

Le Méridien raised his chin. He looked down his nose at the cat's cradle of veins tangling across Inkham's face. "I acknowledge I'm a nigger, but I am at least a sober one."
Inkham snorted and his nose grew even redder. "I'll be sober when you're still a nigger."

"I'll wager you won't be sober for as long as I remain a nigger."

Inkham's jaw quivered, sending a wave of tremors across his chins. "Damn your eyes! Tell the pup we're ready as soon as he's got his nerve up. You can tell them to begin. See if I care!"

He turned and clumped back to Olde, who stood with a hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword. His posture was a study in nonchalance, and Le Méridien doubted anyone without his fencing master's eye would see the tension in his shoulders.

He got Olde and Downe en garde as soon as he could. He did not want to allow Downe any time to think, though he could see how taut his muscles were. It was a far cry from the fluidity that allowed the explosive movements he'd mastered over the last month, but there was no help for it now. "Allez!"

Le Méridien could see Olde's sneer was studied, but it probably looked confident enough to intimidate Downe. Olde tapped Downe's blade with his own a couple of times. Downe's sword jerked into an unnecessary parry. Le Méridien winced. He saw exactly what was going to happen, how Downe would try to follow his teaching and get it disastrously wrong.

It happened. Downe stepped forward into the perfect distance for the perfect thrust, and lunged. His point dropped to deceive Olde's parry and flicked up to drive into the torso. But Olde hadn't parried. Downe had anticipated a move that Olde hadn't made. His blade rang on Olde's and scraped harmlessly past his body. Olde riposted. Downe somehow managed to parry it as he stumbled back.

Olde stepped back to avoid a wild and mistimed thrust. They came back en garde and Le Méridien let out his breath. It was a miracle that Downe had survived that riposte.

Downe's lips were drawn back to reveal the bared teeth of a cornered animal that might run away or fight desperately, but couldn't think and so couldn't fence. A grim purpose that Le Méridien did not doubt was entirely authentic had replaced Olde's sneer as he advanced and beat Downe's blade. Downe parried wildly. Olde stepped back. Downe followed and Olde was flying back from him, but for all the apparent panic in his attempts to catch Downe's blade, Le Méridien saw Olde's feet fall exactly where they should fall. He saw Olde's back leg stretch behind him, take his weight, then snap straight like a spring. He closed his eyes so he didn't see Olde's perfect thrust impale Downe. A falsetto scream bored into Le Méridien's skull and tore his eyes open.

Downe's contorted body lay before Olde, who threw his head back, stretched his arms out to his sides and bared his teeth at the sky. Air rushed out of his lungs in a hissing roar of exultation. He took one more look at Downe, and turned on his heel. "Inkham! My cloak if you please!"

Inkham scurried forward, his congratulations stumbling over each other. Le Méridien realized that Inkham was here as much to do Olde's boasting for him in the drinking clubs of the gentry as to hold his cloak.

Caroline Olde's dull eyes moved from her brother to her husband. Her jaw hung as though she was unsure of what she had just witnessed.

"Caroline!" barked Olde. "Stop dreaming! Time to go!" He pushed his arm through hers and towed her after him. She turned back once more, and Le Méridien saw comprehension beginning to dawn. It was the face of a girl who had thought she had already lost everything, and just discovered that she had been wrong.

Le Méridien forced himself to look at Downe. Blood poured from a slash that ran six inches to the left from just below his sternum. Olde must have sliced his blade across after he drove it home. No wonder he always killed his man. The surgeon lifted Downe's head and tried to force a bottle between his lips, but Downe's mouth was clamped shut so tightly that he had bitten through his bottom lip. He was determined not to scream again.

The surgeon shrugged and took a pull from the bottle himself. "I loathe these encounters," he said to Le Méridien, "but it was a decent enough thrust in all fairness."

Le Méridien shook his head. "A man takes a bribe to make a girl his slave, kills her brother for loving her, and the only one who sees wrong in it is the dingy Christian."

It took Downe an hour to bleed to death. It took Le Méridien less than five minutes to decide another man must die.

* * *


* * *

There was no mist this morning; just the usual haze of smog, so Le Méridien saw the three men coming some way off. He shook off the memories, annoyed with himself for succumbing to them when he needed a clear head.

Olde strode in front, unencumbered by his wife today, and Inkham and the same surgeon scuttled behind him. Le Méridien forced himself to stand calmly. He would have preferred to sit, but the grass was wet from the recently melted frost. Le Méridien was a fencing master, but it had been years since he had last fought in earnest. Olde was a skilled swordsman who had earned his lethal reputation. Le Méridien closed his eyes and pushed the thought from his mind.

It had taken some finesse to bring Olde here. A direct insult from a mulatto would just invite him to break down the door with a riding crop in one hand and a pistol in the other, even if he had tacitly accepted Le Méridien as an equal by not objecting to his seconding Downe. Instead, Le Méridien had sent a letter to Inkham on the previous Saturday afternoon, asking if he was aware of Olde's conduct towards the Downe family. As Le Méridien had foreseen, Inkham thought it was a huge joke and spent the evening in his club blurting the contents of the letter to anyone who would listen. By Sunday morning it was the talk of the Fancy and Olde's reputation depended on sending a formal challenge.

Le Méridien opened his eyes as Olde strode to the same spot he had occupied when Le Méridien had last seen him. Le Méridien turned towards him but kept his eyes unfocused, allowing his mind to remain clear. Olde looked everywhere but at Le Méridien, but Le Méridien caught the occasional raking glance that Olde did not want him to see. Le Méridien smiled inwardly. A swordsman sees a man best when he does not look directly at him.

But the time for smiling was past. Sarratt was going to meet Inkham, and Le Méridien allowed himself a single sharp look at Olde. This man would die. No, not this man, for it's no easy thing to cut into a breathing, sweating man's body. This beast who had taken a defenseless girl. This thing.

Sarratt was coming back. His angry flush told Le Méridien that Inkham had not improved his manners. Le Méridien knew what the arrangements would be so he allowed Sarratt's explanation to wash over him while he took off his cloak. He unbuttoned his shirt to the chest to show he was wearing no amour beneath it, and felt the cold caress of the morning on his bare skin.

He drew his sword from his scabbard and raised it before him. He tilted it so the reflections of the wan sun chased each other up the Solingen steel to the point. Their smooth progress told him his hand was steady. His gaze lingered for a moment on the point, so sharp he could plunge it through an inch of cured leather with a good lunge. He took a deep breath, drawing sharp air into his nostrils and savoring the cleanliness of it, so different from the stink of too many people in one place that he could never escape in the city.

Le Méridien realized Sarratt had unbuckled his scabbard. He walked towards Olde, who was walking towards him. For a moment, Olde could have been his reflection in a looking glass as both men converged on the same point. Le Méridien felt the slight impact of his feet on the ground with a keenness that he welcomed as an old friend.

Sarratt stood between them, slightly to the side. "En garde."

Le Méridien's muscles slid his limbs into the stance as easily as putting on a well-fitting jacket. Sarratt passed his own sword between their points to show they were separated. Le Méridien looked at Olde's face for the first time. He wore the same sneer that he had worn against Downe. The sneer of an aggressive man with no fear of his opponent. A man who expected to attack, who would not retreat unless he found himself desperate.


Olde advanced immediately. Le Méridien let him, and kept his grip slack so he did not react when Olde tapped his blade. Olde tried a more aggressive attack, though without closing the distance. Again Le Méridien did not react, watching what Olde did without revealing anything of himself.

Olde attacked again, trying to take Le Méridien's blade aside. Le Méridien stepped back. Olde stepped forward in a way that announced he was ready to raise the tempo. Le Méridien stayed on the defensive, parrying and retreating. Olde's aggressive look may have been studied but it wasn't a sham, and there was a chance he would get carried away and over-commit himself.

The firm ring of a perfectly placed parry. Le Méridien's right hand shot out in an almost involuntary riposte. Olde sprang back and parried weakly. Le Méridien seized the initiative and advanced and suddenly Olde was flying backwards, his blade frantically seeking Le Méridien's.

It was the moment Le Méridien had been waiting for and he followed, waiting for the slight stiffening of Olde's posture there that warned him to stop his weight on the front leg there so he was in the right place to parry the thrust that killed Downe. He bound Olde's blade out of the way with a sweep of the wrist. Hurled himself into his own lunge. Olde's left arm shot in front of Le Méridien's point. Le Méridien swept his point up so it didn't touch Olde. He stepped back.

Olde was frozen, his blade out to one side, seemingly unable to believe he was not cut. His face was crimson and streaked with sweat and confusion. He raised his eyes to Le Méridien's. Le Méridien raised an eyebrow and nodded as he would to a pupil acknowledging his own mistake. Olde's mouth tightened as he realized that Le Méridien had pulled back because he did not want the encounter to end with a wound. He wanted a death.

Olde came back en garde and advanced, but the resolve was gone from his step. The sneer was trying to return to his face, but it was an insipid shadow of what it had been. The habit of aggression was still with him, and Le Méridien suppressed a surge of triumph as he saw Olde following him, unwittingly allowing him to set the distance.

Le Méridien continued his slow retreat. Back foot, front foot, back foot, front foot, back foot just a tiny way back and Olde fell for it. He made a full step forward. Le Méridien lunged. The merest twitch of the beginning of Olde's panic-stricken parry as he saw Le Méridien closer than he expected. Le Méridien dipped his point under the parry, dropped his left hand to his thigh, drove the point into the open line. The grate of a rib, the grudging yield of flesh. Le Méridien's right hand flew across to cover Olde's blade with his own before he had even withdrawn the point. Olde tried to step forward, the vestige of his sneer still on his face. Blood foamed from his mouth and poured down his shirt. He sank to his knees, his elbows, his side.

Le Méridien's legs, so supple he had not even been aware of them a moment ago, threatened to drop him to the ground. His fingers locked on the grip of his sword so hard his forearm ached, and he had to press the hilt against his hip to keep the blade from shaking. He felt a burning need to empty his bladder.

"Damn it all, Le Méridien, how do you manage to look so calm?" Sarratt's face swam before him, looking every bit as strained as Le Méridien felt. Sarratt offered his hip flask and Le Méridien took a pull. He shuddered with pleasure as the rum burned down his gullet.

He took another breath of the wonderful, clean air and looked down at Olde convulsing in the arms of the surgeon. Le Méridien's eye fell on the slash below the sternum. Had he intended to kill Olde with the same wound that had killed Downe, or had he simply returned to a position of defense before he fully recovered from the lunge? He knew he would believe both possibilities when he was in different moods, but now with the act fresh in his mind, no answer came to him.

Le Méridien took another mouthful of rum and handed the flask back to Sarratt. He smiled. "Thank you, my dear Sarratt. Now shall we to breakfast?"

Sarratt's grin broke through his furrows of worry. "Excellent idea. Before the justice asks if he may join us."

"Or if we may join him. I don't doubt that he's a man of parts, but I have a widow to return to her mother and I fear his company may be a hindrance."

* * *

D. J. Cockburn says: I have been publishing occasional stories for several years now, in between receiving a long monologue of rejections and earning a living through medical research on various parts of the African continent. Other phases of my life have included teaching unfortunate children and experimenting on unfortunate fish.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

They usually start with either an idea from something I read or a place I visit that strikes a particular resonance. I’ve been fascinated by the Regency period for a long time, which inspires me to read as much as I can about it and my reading tends to spin off story ideas. Most of what went into ‘Steel in the Morning’ came from Richard Cohen’s excellent ‘By the Sword’, which describes the history of the sword duel with vivid detail and introduced me to Le Chevalier de St George, the son of a Haiti plantation owner and one of his slaves who became one of the most renowned fencers, musicians, athletes and lovers of eighteenth century France. St George embraced the revolution when it came but did not shake of the stigma of aristocracy and was destroyed by the Terror. He was far too interesting not to base a character on, even if I did have to have him born a couple of decades later and let him escape to England.

The Pretender


The Pretender
by Kenneth Radu

Stepping off the train in Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten station, Olga shuddered. Since her family’s exile, she had developed a distaste to the point of disgust for Germany. The havoc it had wreaked during the war years on her poor country, the shameful treaty it had engineered with the Bolsheviks to Russia’s great disadvantage, and Willy the Kaiser who had betrayed all family connections and feelings—she would have preferred to avoid Germany at all costs, not to speak the language. But God in the end dealt with an even hand, for despite all his puffing and strutting like a wind-up toy soldier, Willy had also been deposed—although not executed, like her own brother. Careful, Olga, however tempting under the dreary Berlin sky this March day, revenge was an emotion best avoided.

At least she had worn her favourite “good” dress of grey wool with its vertically pleated bodice and circular white collar, and a single strand of pearls, a gift from her father. With hair in braids neatly arranged on her head, feet in sturdy English brogues and a thick sweater under her coat, all effective outside the station where she hunched against the chilly bluster of the German winds, Olga looked like a country hausfrau come to town for a doctor’s appointment. Across the road stretched the great zoo, home apparently to the world’s largest collection of imprisoned animals—or was that more German hyperbole? There had been wildlife in Tsarkoe Selo, a more modest kind of zoo established for the entertainment of imperial children. Odd, she hadn’t given those animals any thought at all until this very moment. What would have happened to them during revolution and times of starvation and mass murders?

In German, Olga told the driver to take her to a hotel on Kurfuerstendamm, a boulevard passing through an elegant neighbourhood of Berlin where a woman claiming to be her niece Anastasia waited to meet her Aunt. Waited for official confirmation that she was indeed Anastasia, that she had survived the massacre. Why, oh why, Olga thought in English, the language she resorted to more than Russian or French since her escape from the Crimea, had she allowed herself to travel from Denmark to speak with this woman, so obviously an imposter? Her mother categorically refused to participate in any lunatic’s charade, would have nothing to do with claimants and pretenders, so exasperated by their importunity that she denounced them in French, German and English: ils sont tous les menteurs et les fraudes; sie sin alle Lugner und Schwinde, liars and frauds all. It both infuriated and saddened the Dowager Empress that a few Romanovs on the edges of the family with their hangers-on believed this strange woman who called herself Frau Tchaikovsky was truly the tsar’s youngest daughter.

Paying the driver, Olga looked up to the third floor of the elegant white hotel, surprised that a woman bereft of fortune, if not name, could afford the rates. Of course, people who thought to gain from supporting a pretender’s claim probably paid the bills. Gain what? That mythical Romanov horde of gold and jewels? True, some money remained in a Berlin bank, but raging inflation the last few years had diminished its value to insignificance, hardly worth the effort of machinations and charades. Stories of shoppers pushing wheel barrows full of German marks to the local butcher shop were not far off the mark, Olga recalled. No real fortune existed, just her mother’s box of personal jewels kept under her bed in a Danish villa. The Dowager Empress and her own sister Xenia, the closest surviving kin of the butchered imperial family, would not live on the charity of royal relatives if a great fortune were available.

Bracing herself outside Frau Tchaikovsky’s room, trying to fathom how to greet this woman, what to say, what language to use, Olga reached into her purse for a handkerchief to wipe her nose dripping from the cold. If emotion overwhelmed sense, the wrenching ache of her heart would topple reason and force her to embrace the lost Anastasia simply because, if truth be told, she wished it to be so, to discover her niece alive. She had asked to speak alone with the pretender so as not to be in any way influenced, so the woman herself would not in any way be prodded or reminded of her pre-revolutionary life.

No doubt Olga would hear any number of “facts” to prove the woman was who she said she was. Anastasia had been her favourite. All the four sisters often spent a Sunday in her St. Petersburg home, and Olga knew the intimate details of their cocooned lives in the Alexander palace. Who better to know the truth than Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, sister of the tsar, aunt and confidante of the imperial sisters and that dear sweet boy, the tsetsarevitch Alexei? How they had romped through her St. Petersburg rooms, playing hide and seek, and staying up late at night putting on little plays of their own creation and telling stories. Olga knocked on the door, gently at first, then harder as if to demand entrance.


Startled by a short-bearded man in glasses and German worsted suit who opened the door, Olga said nothing but nodded when he introduced himself in Russian as Her Imperial Highness’s personal physician. At first Olga was tempted to say “you can be no such thing,” but little was to be gained by arguing with a retainer. Ah, there she was, sitting up in bed wearing an white eyelet bed jacket, unsmiling, although much of her face remained in shade—for the draperies had been drawn against the hard winter light—and not holding a hand out to greet her aunt. Olga stepped forward, surprised to be so calm as if she were simply piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

The doctor—perhaps that much could not be disputed, after all—leaned over the bed to check the woman’s pulse. Olga had been told by English relatives that Frau Tchaikovsky had attempted suicide by throwing herself into a river—Paris? Berlin? She had forgotten the exact locale. And of course, whatever injury sustained during the horrid execution of her family continued to have consequences of a severely traumatic nature. Imagine what Anastasia had witnessed. The family’s loyal Doctor Botkin had also been shot to death in the basement.

The problem only existed if Frau Tchaikovsky were in fact Anastasia. Something about the lips, the face, the eye colour, Olga could see a resemblance. But what of that? Many people unrelated by blood resembled one another. If she were allowed to sit on the bed and peruse the face, watch the lips move as the woman spoke, search for the familiar glints in Anastasia’s eyes, but clearly the woman, who raised the blankets to her neck, preferred not to be closely examined.

The son of Dr. Botkin, Nicholas’s personal physician, supported Frau Tchaikovsky’s claim. Olga shrugged off the notion that a strong case could be made simply on a basis of resemblance. How unfriendly the glance; Anastasia had been full of frolic and mischief, pouted occasionally as all children did, but this woman’s unfriendly, forbidding stare visible through the shadows, as if to say how dare you—Anastasia could never have managed such a contemptuous, hateful look as an adult. But perhaps anxiety, perhaps fear, could twist an expression contrary to one’s intention, and for a moment, Olga thought she recognized—oh so fleeting, so vague—how could it be? How dare she what? It had not been her idea to travel to Germany by train and waste her time with a pretender.

Some courtesy, please.

Unless the Frau believed that hauteur and rudeness constituted regal demeanour, a common misconception. The Tsar’s children were taught to be dignified, gracious and humble in public, never presuming upon their station as imperial personages. Avoiding Olga’s perusal by looking down, looking away, not meeting eye to eye, this woman covered her lower face with a hand, pointing to a chair away from the bed for Olga to sit down as the physician constantly bustled between them, checking the woman’s pulse again, examining her eyes, fluffing the pillows, whispering in her ear. The very sound of her voice when she deigned to speak offended.

Olga addressed her in Russian.

“Pardon, madam,” the doctor answered in Russian, “but Her Highness has lost the use of her native tongue.”

“Lost? Whatever do you mean?”

“A blow to the head ... trauma ... affecting that part of the brain where language resides, also her memory.”

“Yes, of course, I understand.” Although Olga retained her doubts, she supposed such an unspeakable and terrifying experience in that dreadful house, such appalling physical injuries, if not mortal, could have resulted in a loss of language and amnesia.

She then asked the woman in French if she was unwell.

“Pardon me, madam,” the doctor spoke, again in Russian, “but Her Highness does not understand French.”

“She has lost that language as well?”

“The trauma, you understand, was severe.”

“Anastasia also spoke English.” Olga reverted to the language she preferred to speak.

“Ah, forgive me, Madame ...”

Then the woman in bed blurted out in German, “What are you talking about, what are you saying about me?”

So taken aback, Olga almost forgot her own German. Anastasia had never learned that language.

“You speak German?”

“After her escape from Yekaterinburg and Russia,” the doctor answered on behalf of his patient, “she spent time in a German hospital, you see.”

“Yes, how unpleasant it must have been for you, Anas....” Olga stopped in German, unable to call the woman "Anastasia."

“What shall I call you?”

“I am her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolayevna.”

Olga stood up and walked to the third floor window, both shocked and offended by the woman’s presumptive appropriation of her niece’s name and status. The doctor responded to what appeared to be the onset of a mild hysteria as Frau Tchaikovsky grabbed at her neck and shouted in a mixture of German and Polish, two languages Anastasia had never learned. Nor had she begun to talk about her niece’s childhood, about her family life in St. Petersburg, Tsarkoe Selo, Peterhof, of yachting in the Finnish fjords, of summers passed in the Crimean palace of Livadia, to find out what the woman knew. Allowances had to be made for trauma, many allowances it seemed. And yet, despite fighting against her doubts, Olga saw, refused to accept what she thought she had glimpsed in the darkened room, perhaps no more than the play of shadows on a face, that indefinable look, a kind of subcutaneous expression, reminding her of Anastasia when she was upset as a child. If only, if only—Olga removed her handkerchief again to dab her eyes, for she wanted to cry.


The woman in bed kept pushing the doctor’s arm away, refusing to swallow pills he offered, swearing in German, something Anastasia could never have done as a child in any language, so obviously distraught that Olga’s heart and scepticism softened. Clearly the woman had lived through a ghastly experience like many of the surviving Romanovs, a hell on earth. Other family members had died terribly, her poor brother Michael, tsar for a day after Nicky’s abdication, then shot to death in a forest. The tricks of the heart, Olga lamented discreetly by the window, parting the draperies and looking at a row of lime trees in front of the hotel. How cruel these pretenders were, so adept at playing on human pain and yearning, like expert violinists plucking the strings until they responded in tune to their version of the events. In the end, one played along with them like the Frau’s supporters for the sake of believing that the unimaginable had not in fact occurred, that nightmare need not be permanent, for the sake of whatever private fantasy they wished to fulfill.

Coughing first, Frau Tchaikovsky began shouting out childhood events in German, what Anastasia did, what she wore, facts dredged up from a broken memory, ill-assorted, often incomplete, often inaccurate—the blow to the head, you see—but a few containing enough truth to persuade those who needed to believe that yea, verily verily, Anastasia lived. Some relatives, those not intimately connected with the family and those who enjoyed little, if any, acquaintance, already declared this woman’s story to be true. Dr. Botkin’s own son verified her identity to his satisfaction. Were their motives dishonourable and mercenary?

An opportunistic line of light creeping in between the parted draperies reached as far as the bed and Olga gasped ... no, it couldn’t be ... so many killed at once, innocent children all, surely God in His mercy ... then Frau Tchaikovsky hid her face behind a raised hand ... the light hurts my eyes, she cried out in German. Olga admitted the possibility, just as she believed that unhappiness often distorted reality, that missing a person often made one see her double suddenly on a bus, or become friends with someone who resembled the beloved. Oh dear, this woman in her crudity and linguistic deficiency and conveniently fractured memory could not be Anastasia. As suddenly as it had arisen, the hysteria passed and the woman directly appealed to her Aunt Olga not to deny her, to remember the snowball, she cried out, when she put a stone in the snowball outside the palace and threw it at Tatiana?

“You used to call me malenkaya, remember, Auntie? Or shvibzik?

She mispronounced the Russian nicknames. True, the family often called Anastasia shvibzik because of her impish behaviour, something about how Frau Tchaikovsky recited the words suggested mere repetition of what she could have learned from any number of sources. Dear God, how painful to stand by the woman’s bed, for Olga could sit no longer, doubting the words spoken in a language Anastasia did not know, but yearning to embrace her sorrow and suffering. She had nursed wounded Russian soldiers, had held dying young men, boys really, whispering her name, their blood seeping through inadequate bandages. Oh, she had witnessed horror and had never developed a protective carapace around her heart.

Yes, yes, the weeping, Olga wondered how miraculous it would be if the woman’s story were true. She wanted to believe if only to bring an end to the dear soul’s unspeakable suffering. To be denied who you were, to be rejected by those who had loved you, after crawling through the muck and mire of history—what a nightmare! Those eyes, at least as much of them as Olga had been able to see, something there, the expression, a few facts not many would have known, but how to prove on shaky evidence, on derivative information: all the Romanovs lived amidst contingents of servants with eyes and ears and tell-tale tongues.

Olga asked the doctor questions about why Frau Tchaikovsky came to be in Berlin. What was the exact nature of her injuries aside from the obvious? Would she ever recover her Russian or speak English and French the way Anastasia used to: those child-like inflexions, the solecisms and non-idiomatic phrasing in English, despite Mr. Gibbes—gracious, Olga hadn’t thought of Mr. Gibbes in years—despite the English tutor’s insistence on correct usage, demanding linguistic perfection. No, the woman did not remember the tutor’s name. Yes, of course, amnesia, you see.

With a dismissive wave, Frau Tchaikovsky closed her eyes and said in German, “I cannot speak anymore. Please leave.”

The doctor sought to apologize, offering medical excuses, but Olga had not taken offense this time. She also wished to leave. Allowing the doctor to kiss her hand, a fawning gesture, she stood in the corridor outside the door, and heard the large intake of her breath. Her mind confused as if her own memory had suffered a blow, she could not think in any language she knew, just a whirl of yearnings and regrets, and hoping against hoping, mingled with unspoken prayers.

Of course, she would return tomorrow. The woman perhaps would be calmer, more rational, and they could speak. The Dowager Empress had refused to participate in the unholy game of pretenders, as she called it, and perhaps she had been right to do so. Sister Xenia also advised her not to be seduced by a pretender. And yet, and yet, one had to know, one wanted history to be otherwise, one sought an end of wishing and the painful void left in her heart by the murder of her family.

If murdered she had been. News had been partial, selective, facts scarce, rumour more rampant than truth. Who knew what had actually occurred, except the firing squad, and could their accounts be trusted, Bolsheviks all? Not only Anastasia, but pretenders also claimed to be Marie and the dear blessed, sometimes mischievous boy himself, heir to all the Russias. Frau Tchaikovsky was a deluded, tortured soul, desperate for attention and recognition, and had attached herself to the most dramatic personal story of the day to compensate for the tragic meaninglessness of her own life.

If a fleeting look in the eyes reminded Olga of Anastasia, if one or two facts escaped the woman’s mouth in German, if she recalled details of the tsar’s personal quarters, they collectively failed to build a sufficiently persuasive case. Grief made one wish to believe, and Olga quickly left the hotel room so as not to cry in front of the two strangers. She had struggled heroically against tears since her exile, since the appalling murders, but how easy to bend reason to one’s wishes, and how easy to seduce a compassionate or mercenary heart.


Olga decided not to return the next day, finding the quandary, her doubts, dismay, and half-belief too much to bear. So many relatives had denounced this woman without meeting her and she, Olga, had doubted first, then allowed desperate love to half-persuade, then faltering reason to dissuade: no, she could not correct history or corroborate this woman’s identity because momentarily she might have wished to do so. To apologize, Olga sent a gift of a scarf, an expression of regret and a wish that Frau Tchaikovsky recover her full health and spirits.

She returned to Copenhagen by train, careful not to bring up the subject of her trip to her mother whose disapproval chilled the morning tea, but she had confided in her sister, expressing her doubts, perhaps not as strongly as she should have, of the woman’s claims. And when the old Empress died three years later in 1928, Olga signed a letter along with several other surviving Romanovs including her Xenia sister to be published in newspapers that Frau Tchaikovsky could not be Anastasia.

Neither she, nor anyone else who knew Tsar Nicholas’s youngest daughter, was able to find the slightest resemblance between Grand Duchess Anastasia and the person who calls herself Frau Tchaikovsky.

Alone at night in her bedroom Olga prayed before her favourite icon, praying not to be troubled by the dead miraculously arising from their grave, not to be tempted to believe in fantasy. Olga knew that issuing such a statement had been the proper thing to do. She only regretted that she had not been firm in that hotel room and instantaneous in her denial of the woman’s claim. Of pretenders there would be no end. Poor deluded Frau Tchaikovsky, poor murdered Anastasia.

* * *

Kenneth Radu's stories have appeared online in Foundling Review, Writers' Bloc (Rutgers), Two Hawks Quarterly, Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), and elsewhere. He is also the author of a memoir, The Devil Is Clever (HarperCollins Canada). He lives in Quebec.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?

Like any writer of fiction I am interested in the dynamics of human character. Within historical fiction, however, character should not be separated from the actual historical facts as we know them. We may imagine plausible scenes, given our knowledge of events and participants, but we cannot alter the known facts. For example, my character Olga was a Grand Duchess of Russia before the First World War, and not a Chinese empress. That is a simple indisputable fact and her characterization, therefore, whatever I have made of her, has been written within the context of her time and place. Similarly, if we are writing a fiction about Shakespeare, we know a few bald facts about his life so we are free to imagine his character and what he did. We are not free to divorce him from his social and historical setting, unless we are producing a fantasy. To answer the question, therefore, I would have to say that both the character of a historical personage and his or her relation to actual historical facts as we know them are the two most important parts of historical fiction.

Shaitan's Daughter


Shaitan's Daughter
by Barbara Davies

“Shaitan's Daughter” they called her, and she certainly looked the part. Dealing out death with her hawk-headed scimitar, a feral smile on her lips, while the breeze off the ocean tried to snatch off her cap.

* * *

No smoke rose from the watchtower on the cliffs to the south, and no gunshot or blare of a conch shell sounded the alarm. Perhaps the watchman had been as taken unawares as everyone in our village. It was midmorning, and slavers usually come in the early hours, kicking down doors and dragging their victims naked and drowsy from their beds.

I was down on the jetty, earning a few extra reales by helping load the weekly shipment onto Tito's boat: alum, agates, jasper, and gold from the mine a little way inland, and salt from the salt marshes. It was hot work, and I had straightened to take a breath when I saw them—three low slung, narrow ships, a galley accompanied by two galliots, gliding across the turquoise water of the bay towards us, as sleek and deadly as sharks.

The sight of the colourfully turbaned figures, armed with scimitars and arquebuses, silently crowding the prows struck me dumb, but my expression alerted Tito.

He swung round in horror. "Turks!"

Some of his crew scrambled to loose the mooring ropes—as if the lumbering boat had any chance of setting sail before the raiders reached us!

Banks of oars rose as the approaching ships coasted the remaining distance. By the time the galliots' keels crunched on the sand and the galley drew alongside the jetty, I was running, my thoughts on one thing: Damita!

At this hour, my little sister should be helping with the laundry.

Past the racks of drying sardines and the fishing nets strung up to dry I darted. In spite of the sun’s heat, the shouts of “Allah” from behind as the corsairs attacked Tito’s men chilled me to the bone. I glanced back. Any hope I might have had that they would be content with his cargo was dashed as they split into two groups.

Something odd about the figure directing the raiders’ movements snagged my attention. From the splendour of his clothes and his commanding stance he was their captain. But he was beardless, and wore a modest cap rather than a turban. I had no time to consider his appearance further. With a roar, the Turks started up the beach after me.

My panting and the thud of my running feet made heads turn as I reached the outskirts of our village.

An old fisherman half rose from the upturned barrel on which he had been sitting, whittling a piece of driftwood. "What—"

"Turks!" I gasped. The men with him exchanged shocked glances and reached for whatever was close to hand—an oar, a gaff, anything that might serve as a weapon. I shook my head and thrust a fist into my aching side. "Too many. Hide yourselves."

They hesitated for only a moment, then scattered, shouting to everyone within earshot to run for the caves. I headed for the laundry troughs, my panic easing as I saw my sister helping old Albertine wring water from a sheet.

She pushed a strand of hair back from her face and smiled at me. "Adriano!" Her smile faltered as the alarm bell in the village square started to clang. "What’s wrong?"


The old woman dropped her laundry and ran off. Damita gave her an astonished glance.

"We have to get out of here, now," I told my sister.

"But what about...."

Screams mingled with shouts of “Allah”. Black smoke curled upwards from the beach.

"We must get to the caves." I grabbed her by the arm. "Hurry."

But her eyes were wide, her attention on something over my shoulder. I turned and saw the first of the corsairs, a huge Moor in a red turban, his sleeves rolled up to reveal massive biceps. He grinned and made a show of twirling his scimitar.

Damita let out a piercing scream, tore herself free, and ran.

"Not that way!" I shouted as, out of instinct, she headed for the safety of our house.

More of the raiders, many with moustaches rather than full beards, were on the heels of the Moor. I set off after my sister.

Damita cut left at Albertine's house, then right. Panic drove her steps and deafened her to my shouts, but I was gaining on her with every stride. Then a corsair in a blue turban stepped into the alleyway directly ahead of her, and she halted and looked round wildly.

"Come here, my pretty," called the corsair in bad Spanish.

I pounded up beside her and put myself between them. Her tears put me in a rage and I turned on him and shouted, "I won’t let you take her."

The clangs of the alarm bell stopped abruptly, replaced by screams and triumphant bellows.

"How are you going to stop me, boy?" His teeth gleamed behind his bushy beard. "With your fist?"

I produced the gutting knife from my belt.

"Don’t be a fool. If you can find someone to ransom you..."

Who would pay for the release of a poor fisherman and his sister? I wrapped an arm around Damita, and pressed the knife to her throat. She squeaked in surprise. "I’m sorry," I whispered. "I’ll make it quick. You’ll see mother and father very soon."

"You would kill your sister?" asked the corsair, astonished.

Better that than let her suffer at the hands of the Turks. My hand was shaking but I should still be able to make the slice across her throat swift and sure—

"Stay your hand!" A woman’s voice with the ring of command to it made my hand freeze. I looked round. No wonder the corsair captain’s appearance had struck me as odd. She wore a man’s knee length tunic and trousers, her only concession to her sex being the cap covering her dark brown hair.

"Release her and she goes free," she said in perfect Castilian.

I gaped at her.

"It’s galley slaves I’m after, not concubines or house servants. Come with me freely and I will let your sister go."

The man in the blue turban threw her an indignant glance. "But, re'is!"

Her raised hand stopped him. His jaw worked, then he gave her a sullen nod and stalked off.


I could feel my sister’s body trembling. "How do I know I can trust you?"

"I give you my word, by Allah."

I spat on the ground. "The word of a corsair."

She studied me. "And of a sister who loved her brother."

"Adriano!" whispered Damita, a pleading note in her voice. My will to kill her drained away and the knife dropped from my slack fingers with a thud. I let her go and she turned and regarded me in confusion.

The corsair captain nodded. "Your name?"


"Say your goodbyes to your brother, girl, and run for the caves." She saw my puzzlement and shrugged. "There are always caves."

Damita remained frozen.

"Go!" The woman’s bellow broke my sister’s paralysis.

Eyes brimming, Damita hugged me and ran. I watched her disappear into the distance—she didn’t look back.

The woman motioned me to join her. We walked back through the now empty village towards the beach, where the corsairs were busy loading cargo and captives onto their ships.

My heart thumped as the magnitude of what I had done came crashing home. But my sister was safe. A touch of bravado came over me. "I told you my name. What’s yours?"

Her lips twisted, as if at some private joke. "They call me Shaitan’s Daughter."

"And are you?"

We mounted the jetty and walked towards the galley. "You decide."

* * *


* * *

"Welcome aboard the Ruby Scimitar," said the grizzled old Spaniard whose rowing bench I was to share. He held out a calloused hand, chain clinking. "I’m Alvaro."

I waited for a Turk to finish attaching my wrist to the heavy oar and my ankle to a chain that ran the length of the bench, before taking his hand. "Adriano."

He jerked his thumb at the two men sitting on his other side. "Miguel. Giacomo."

They peered at me and nodded a greeting.

Before I could ask questions, the mooring ropes thudded onto the decking, and there came a series of whistles. A Turk at the boat’s stern began to pound a drum. My bench mates reached for the oar and the chain around my wrist yanked my hand with it. It took me a moment to pick up the rhythm.

Alvaro gave me an approving nod. "You’ll get used to it."

As the galley reversed out into the clear waters of the bay, Turks gathered round the prows of the two galliots, ready to shove off and follow us. The smoke from Tito’s burning boat receded into the distance, taking the coastline and all I held dear with it.

A lump formed in my throat. I’ll return, Damita. By the Holy Virgin, I promise. I had seen no sign of my cousin among the captured men. He would look after my sister. At least she’s alive.

"Cheer up," said Alvaro, catching my expression. "This ship’s not as bad as some. You can thank our re’is for that." He jerked his head towards the corsair captain, who was standing on the poop deck, staring out over the ranks of rowers.

I grunted my disbelief. The men on the bench in front wore ragged linen breeches that covered their privates and little else. Their sunburned backs were scarred with lash marks, courtesy no doubt of the overseer prowling up and down the central catwalk, a tar-dipped, knotted rope’s end dangling from one fist.

"You’ll see," Alvaro went on. "She may be the bitch from hell, but she’s not a sadist."

As if the woman knew we were talking about her, her brown eyes rested on us, then her helmsman distracted her with a question and she turned away.

Pungent, sweet-scented smoke drifted over from part of the stern that had been enclosed to make the only shelter on the vessel. Moustachioed, armed fighting men lounged there, talking and smoking pipes.

Alvaro caught my glance. "Janissaries. That’s opium you can smell."

"It’s all right for some," grumbled Giacomo.

As we rowed, we exchanged our stories. Giacomo came from Lisbon and spoke Spanish with a thick accent. He was an arquebusier with the Portuguese infantry, on leave when the corsairs took him seven months ago. It had been four years since Miguel had been snatched; he was tending his goats on a hillside near Valencia. As for Alvaro, six years had passed since his fishing boat was attacked further up the coast from my village. All were younger than they appeared, their hair prematurely grey, lips chapped, and with deep creases around the eyes from squinting against the sunlight reflected off the water. I wondered how long it would take me to acquire the same characteristics, including the stench of stale sweat.

Alvaro briefed me on the galley’s command structure. The re’is had overall charge, but the fighting men answered to their aga.

"Pace yourself," he advised. "It’s a long pull to Algiers."

"Is that what happened to my predecessor? They didn’t pace themselves?" There had been empty places on several of the rowing benches, now filled by men from my village. "I wondered if it might be plague."

"Not this time," said Alvaro. "The re’is works us hard. Some galeottis just aren’t up to it. Pedro’s heart burst in his chest."

At the mention of their former bench mate, Miguel crossed himself and muttered, "Should have given him a proper Christian burial. Heathens!"

"You there, save your breath for rowing!" called the overseer, his glare fierce. After that we rowed in silence.

Already I could feel blisters starting to form on my palms and my back was aching, but the oar’s demands were relentless. I tried to distract myself by following the progress of the re’is around the galley. I was not the only one watching her; there was something about her that drew the eye. Taken separately, her features weren’t anything out of the ordinary: olive skin, a piercing gaze, a rather hawkish nose. But taken as a whole....

"Fascinating, isn’t she?" said Alvaro, when the overseer was safely occupied at the other end of the walkway. "You’ll probably dream about her." He grinned. "The rest of us do."

"But a woman as captain! And she speaks Castilian. Is she a renegade turned Turk?"

"Her name’s Muhya, but you must address her by her title. She’s a Mudéjar from al Andalus." Alvaro threw me a significant glance. "Her family were forced to flee to the Maghreb."

I grimaced, knowing how hard life was for Muslims under King Charles. "Little enough reason to love Christians, then."

He grunted agreement.

"But she wears no yashmak," I persisted.

"Likes her victims to see who killed them?" guessed Giacomo.

Miguel shuddered. "Unnatural creature."

"What turned her into a slaver?"

"God knows." Alvaro was rowing one-handed so he could scratch a fleabite. "They say she sailed with Barbarossa for a while, learning the ropes. And that he had a soft spot for her."

"More like a hard one!" Giacomo's grin was lascivious, and Miguel threw him a disapproving glance.

Alvaro ignored them both. "Then she struck out on her own."

Something cool feathered the side of my neck. I glanced round.

"Praise God!" said Alvaro. "A breeze!"

Muhya's second-in-command let out a shout and sailors unfurled the sails. Shortly after, the flap of canvas, creak of block and rigging, and the cries of the seabirds wheeling above our masts replaced the splash of the oars and the relentless pounding of the drum.

As we sat, recovering, a Turk came round handing out hard black biscuits and let us gulp our fill from a skin of watered vinegar. I grimaced and thought longingly of sardines cooked with oil and garlic.

"I thought you said The Ruby Scimitar is better than some!"

Alvaro winked and bit into his biscuit. "It is."

* * *

I had been hoping for respite in Algiers, but it was not to be. A Turk in a purple kaftan was standing on the quay, and Muhya left her men unloading goods and captives, the latter bound for the slave market, and went to meet him. The pair walked away, deep in conversation, and when she returned, her eyes had a distant look, her jaw a determined jut.

Her junior re’is took some convincing before they nodded and went back to their galliots. She beckoned her second-in-command and the janissaries’ aga to her. Their voices drifted towards us from the poop deck, but they were speaking too fast and in the lingua franca I had yet to pick up. From the expressions and gestures, her proposal was unpopular.

"What’s happening?" I asked Alvaro, who was listening intently.

"Hush." After a moment he breathed, "Holy Mother of God! She must have a death wish."

"What is it?" asked Miguel.

"A Hospitaller ship’s been sighted off Tunis. She’s going after it."

Miguel’s face paled.

"Merda!" Giacomo crossed himself. "Everyone knows they’re like scorpions—best avoided."

"What are they doing this far west?" I wondered.

Alvaro shrugged. "Whatever the reason, they’re within our range."

The aga threw up his hands and let them drop, then stalked off to talk to his janissaries.

I scratched my jaw. "They don’t look happy."

Alvaro glanced at me. "Would you? They were expecting feasting in celebration of a prosperous voyage. Instead we’re putting to sea again."

He was right. A turn of the hourglass later, we were rowing out of Algiers” harbour, water barrels restocked, banner flying.

There were several fresh faces this voyage, replacements for those corsairs who had opted to stay in Algiers.

"Watch out for that one," muttered Alvaro, eyeing a bald corsair with a ring in his right ear and a badly scarred face. He was called Omer, and the way he liked to puff out his chest and strut reminded me of a rooster.

Alvaro’s instincts were proved right when Omer snatched the whip out of the overseer’s hand, and administered a flogging to a slave himself. Only when the man lay bloody and unconscious over his oar did Omer stop, a satisfied gleam in his eyes.

Muhya had watched the proceedings with a frown, and I thought that, had the slave been anyone but Joseph, who according to Alvaro had once been a Hospitaller knight, she would have intervened.

"Why does she hate the Knights of St. John so much?"

Alvaro sighed. "Few Muslims have cause to love them."

A breeze sprang up, and Muhya ordered the sails raised. The drum fell silent and we shipped our oars and dozed, ate, or clambered over one another, chains clanking, to the opening at the hull side of the bench to relieve ourselves.

The wind carried the scent of heat, dust, and the faintest hint of jasmine—the Maghreb was not far to our south—and a longing for home nearly overwhelmed me. Night fell, and the stars winked down as we snatched a few precious minutes of sleep. But all too soon the breeze dropped and the whistle blasts I had grown to hate woke us, followed by the beat of the drum.

We took up our oars once more.

All night we rowed, at the fastest cruising speed a galeotto can sustain without collapsing. The coming of dawn revealed haggard faces among crew and slaves alike; only the janissaries looked well rested.

"Why doesn’t she put in to the coast somewhere and let us sleep?" asked Miguel.

Giacomo rolled his eyes. "Isn’t it obvious? She’s afraid our prey will slip away before we get there."

We rowed for two more hours and were coming up on Tunis when the lookout’s cry went up. Muhya shaded her eyes, then her face split into a grin. We glanced at one another in apprehension.

"God save us!" said Miguel.

The galliots drew level, their captains exchanging shouts with Muhya across the water. We were sailing blade to blade, and I feared that at any moment an oar would become entangled, but the helmsman’s skill kept us clear. Above the sound of our drums, I heard the beat of the enemy’s and the blare of trumpets.

Then our forward guns opened fire. Moment later came the reply, as a shot screamed overhead and splashed into the ocean. On the catwalk, the overseer clapped a hand to his shoulder with a look of pained surprise. When he studied his bloody hand, I saw he had been shot. Another Turk ran to relieve him.

A crossbow bolt thudded into the hull beside Giacomo, and the ball from an arquebus chipped splinters from the wood between my hands. I cursed and let go of the oar.

The new overseer lashed out at me with his whip. "Keep rowing, dog!"

Back stinging, I grabbed the oar once more.

The galliots dropped astern, then came the order for our side of the galley to ship oars. The boat began to turn, and I caught my first glimpse of our prey.

"Mother of God!" breathed Miguel.

The Hospitaller galley was almost on top of us, and she was a sight to chill the blood. Larger and more imposing than the Ruby Scimitar, she was painted a brilliant scarlet, and the triangles of her sails were red and white, emblazoned with the eight-pointed, black cross of the Order of St John. Sunlight glinted off armour and burnished mail as knights and men-at-arms milled on her deck and peered at us over the railing.

There was a cracking and snapping of wood. Splinters rained down on us and a judder went through the galley. Her speed faltered before picking up again.

"We’ve crippled their oars!" shouted Giacomo.

We came about and started rowing once more, the galliots resuming their position on either side, then our forward guns opened up again. The crash of a mast toppling was followed by agonised screams and shouts of "For Our Lady and St. John!"

The drumbeat rose to a furious tempo and the overseer began to run up and down, lashing out indiscriminately.

"Ramming speed!" said Alvaro. "Brace yourselves, lads."

His words were lost in the great crash as the galley’s metal-tipped spur hit home. If we hadn’t been chained to our bench, the impact would have sent us flying. As it was, the oar winded us, and we lay across it, gasping.

A great roar went up and I raised myself in time to see the janissaries charging across the ram onto the impaled Hospitaller ship. Muhya was with them.

Crossbow bolts and arquebus balls rained down on us as I watched the blur of colour and movement that was Muhya slashing her way towards the enemy’s poop deck where the enemy captain was regarding the melee below him with a frown.

The clash of blades and crack of arquebuses mixed with roars and screams, and the acrid stink of gunpowder grew stronger. Soon a pall of smoke was obscuring the view and when next I saw the re’is, she was engaging the enemy captain. Unlike him, she wore no armour for protection, but his was bulky and hampered him. They appeared equally matched, but what did I know?

Then the smoke obscured the two fighting figures once more. Moments later, a severed head flew, bounced off the rail, and splashed into the sea. My heart pounded, but before I could voice my fears, the smoke had cleared again.

Muhya stood alone on the poop deck, bloody scimitar raised in triumph. At the sight, the Turks let out a great roar and the Knights of St. John groaned.

* * *


* * *

Both sides of the Ruby Scimitar were packed with slaves jubilant at being freed from the Hospitallers’ rowing benches, some still sobbing with relief. They leaned on the parapet or sprawled on the planking jutting out over the oars, rubbing shoulders with tired corsairs and sailors. The janissaries had retired to their shelter and once more the scent of opium wafted to our nostrils.

The Hospitaller captain’s comfortable chair had been installed on the poop deck beneath a hastily erected awning. On it sat a grey-haired woman in expensive silks. For all she was clearly exhausted, her back was straight, her manner haughty. Muhya and her men treated the woman as solicitously as if she had been their own mother. She was the aunt of the wife of the pasha of Algiers, apparently. The Hospitallers had intercepted the ship bringing her from Athens, and demanded a ransom. The pasha would reward her rescuers handsomely.

On the re’is’s orders, every last one of the Knights of St John had been slain. Our final sight of their galley had been of her red-painted hull, now canting at a precarious angle and gaping with holes from cannon shot and ram strikes, sinking beneath the waves. Muhya’s lack of mercy shocked me. It had also upset some of her men, though for different reasons.

"Omer thinks it’s all very well rescuing the aunt, but the re’is should have ransomed the knights and their galley," reported Alvaro. His eyes were fixed on the bald corsair with the scarred face, who was talking to his friends not far from our rowing bench. "They’d have fetched a tidy sum, Omer says. She’s cheated them out of their share."

"He’s jealous," said Giacomo.

"No man likes having to answer to a woman," said Alvaro.

I wondered if Muhya was unaware of Omar’s resentment or didn’t care. But if he was disgruntled, the freed slaves adored her. Heads turned and respectful greetings followed her as she made her way round the galley, inspecting the damage done to both vessel and occupants. One Muslim even kissed the hem of Muhya’s trousers and called her his saviour.

"A pity there’s no one like her around to save us!" muttered Giacomo.

Our losses had been light—three corsairs dead and few serious injuries. As the doctor treated the wounded, Muhya’s clerk took notes of their injuries. The families of those corsairs who had died would be sent compensation. No such consideration applied to us. I watched a Turk tie a length of chain round a dead galeotto's ankles and pitch him overboard. It was Joseph, and as his corpse splashed into the deeps I said a silent prayer that he had found relief from his torment.

Depression settled over us like a pall and we rowed in silence. The sun beat down on our heads and backs, until the helmsman changed course to put us closer in to the Maghreb—Muhya wanted to put ashore, so the Muslim dead could receive proper burial. A welcome breeze picked up.

The re’is paused on the central catwalk to talk to a corsair who had lost two fingers. We hoped she would move on soon, for her presence made the overseer overeager.

"Uh oh." Alvaro spied Omer at the same time I did. An air of frustration and banked anger cloaked the corsair as he made his way towards Muhya.

Her head came up as he drew near. "Omer."


They were so close I could hear their conversation clearly, but lack of lingua franca hampered my understanding. Omer's meaning was plain, however. He bunched one hand into a fist and smacked it into his palm for emphasis. Muhya’s lips tightened and her reply was terse. He bowed his head, but I could see he was far from satisfied. And as he turned away he caught sight of me watching him.

"Look out," warned Alvaro, as Omer’s face suffused with anger.

Too late. The corsair had snatched the whip from the overseer and the rope’s tip caught my left earlobe and tore it off. Pain lanced through me, and I felt the warm gush of blood down my neck. I raised my arm and ducked, fearful the next blow was going to take out my eye, but the attack stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

I blinked and saw a thwarted Omer glaring at Muhya, who had taken possession of the whip. She returned it to the overseer and walked away. Omer scowled at her back, his face growing redder by the second. Then he started after her along the catwalk, his hand going to his sword hilt.

"Re'is, look out!" I shouted.

But she was already turning, her own scimitar sweeping up and out in a great arc. Blood sprayed over the rowing benches, and something landed at my feet with a thud. The severed hand was still clutching the scimitar. I gaped at it then sought its owner. Omer was kneeling at Muhya’s feet, his face ashen, his expression one of disbelief, trying to staunch his bleeding wrist with one hand.

Silence had fallen, broken only by the slap of waves against our keel and the sound of a man being sick. All eyes were on Muhya. Her expression was glacial as she regarded Omer. She hefted her still dripping sword and for a moment I thought she was going to lop off his head. Instead, she gestured, scattering yet more scarlet droplets over the decking, and said something. I thought I heard the word for “fire”. Moments later, a sailor brought her a burning torch.

As Muhya herself cauterised his wrist, Omer let out a terrible scream. I can still hear it in my nightmares sometimes. Mercifully, unconsciousness cut short his suffering. His friends carried him to a corner of the poop deck and erected a makeshift awning over him. Normal activity resumed, but what had been a joyous atmosphere was now muted. Only Muhya was unperturbed by what had happened. But she seemed deep in thought.

"She’s planning something," said Alvaro.

But what she had in mind, I could never have imagined.

* * *

My bench mates looked on in dismay as two Turks unshackled me, dragged me to the poop deck, and forced me to my knees in front of the re’is. She was cleaning her sword with a rag; its hilt was shaped like a hawk’s head. A few feet from her, the pasha’s wife’s aunt dozed in her chair.

Muhya glanced up, grunted, and resumed her task. When the blade’s cleanliness satisfied her, she sheathed it and turned her attention to me.

"So," she said in Castilian. "The man who would save his sister’s life now seeks to save mine."

Her expression was unreadable. I glanced towards the awning, where the unconscious Omer lay, then ducked my head, uncertain how to respond.

"What made you think I needed your help, slave?"

Deep down, I had been hoping, almost expecting her to thank me. My heart pounded.

"Is it that I’m a woman?" she went on, her voice gaining in volume. "Weak and feeble and unable to defend myself?"

Several corsairs exchanged baffled glances. After a moment, one began to provide a low-voiced translation of Muhya’s words.

"No, re’is." But there was truth in her words, and I felt my cheeks redden. "Your back was turned when he drew his sword. It seemed a cowardly act, treacherous."

She stood up and took a menacing step towards me. "You thought Allah would not keep me from harm?"

It dawned on me that I was in serious trouble. I blinked the sweat from my eyes. "Yes, re’is. I mean no. I thought—"

She cut me off with a gesture. "Slaves don’t think. Slaves obey."

That drew a laugh from the listening corsairs and she smiled at them before continuing.

"I don’t like troublemakers." She drew her sword and pointed it at me. "Any man who causes trouble, be he a member of my crew—" she gestured with her free hand towards the unconscious Omer, "--or a slave, I punish."

A fit of trembling overtook me. How could I have so badly misjudged her? She had been named Shaitan’s Daughter for a reason. And I had seen from the Hospitallers how ruthless she could be.

But she didn’t cut me. Instead, she issued a crisp order and I found myself being carried over to the parapet. A roar of approval went up, and the aunt woke from her doze with a start.

As they dangled me over the side by my ankles, the waves rushing beneath my head terrified me. "Have mercy, re’is!"

I tried to convince myself that they would soon pull me back up and return me to my bench. She was merely playing with me as a cat plays with a mouse. But the minutes passed and the blood rushed to my head. Planking brushed my reaching fingertips. I tried to grab hold of it but could get no purchase. Then a face peered down at me over the rail.

Even upside down I recognised Muhya. For a moment I felt hopeful. Her brown eyes were alight, her lips curved in amusement.

"I hope you can swim, Adriano," she said.

Then the grip on my ankles vanished and I plummeted into the sea.

* * *


* * *

For a long time after, I hated her. I had tried to help her, and she had made me shark bait. It was fortunate we were heading shoreward when they pitched me overboard. Fortunate that, unlike many of my countrymen, I was a strong swimmer. Even so, we were far enough from land that it tested me to my limits.

By the time I dragged myself up onto the beach and retched up a lungful of seawater, I was close to exhaustion. A fisherman found me, sprawled as one dead, and carried me home. There, a fever ravaged me—my torn ear lobe had become infected—but I recovered, though it left me weak and shaky.

Though I was an escaped slave in hostile territory, I found kindness as I slowly made my way west, bypassing Algiers and other corsair haunts for fear of recapture. Common folk took me in and fed, clothed, and hid me. I was never far from exhaustion, and several times was on the verge of giving up, but my hatred for Muhya and a longing to be reunited with my sister drove me on.

Eventually, I crossed back into Christian territory and was able to relax my vigilance. In the Portuguese-run port of Ceuta, where on a clear day you can see the Spanish mountains, I found a sea captain preparing to set sail across the straits. He let me work my passage and two weeks later, footsore and weary almost to death, I arrived home.

The first thing I did was to drop to my knees and kiss the sand. The second was to wrap my arms around Damita, for to my joy and intense relief my sister was safe and well.

It had been a long, nerve-shredding journey, however, and now reaction set in. The slightest thing—the cry of a gull, the sight of my sister sitting quietly sewing—could reduce me to weeping. I could not explain why. Damita quickly grew accustomed to my fits, merely rolling her eyes and telling astonished onlookers to ignore me.

I tried to pick up the threads of my old life, but some of the villagers couldn’t overcome their resentment that it had been I who had returned and not their son or brother. I caught myself repeatedly scanning the horizon and the slightest sound made me jump. Every night I dreamt I was at my oar again. And every morning I woke and felt relief that the drum beat was only the pounding of my heart.

In the end I moved Damita and myself to a village further inland that had never been the target of corsairs. There I found work on a farm, and the simple labour helped rebuild body and mind.

One day, after I had recounted my bitter tale to Lucita, the pretty young woman who would become my wife, she asked me a question that turned everything on its head.

"That captain hoped you could swim," she said, as we lay in each other’s arms. "Did she mean it?"

I raised myself up on one elbow. "Of course not! She was taunting me."

"Then you are lucky she didn’t tie a chain round your ankles, Adriano," she said with a yawn. "You’d have sunk like a stone."

Lucita's observation triggered doubt where there had been certainty. Gradually it dawned on me: was it possible that I had misunderstood Muhya’s intentions? That for all this time I had got it wrong? Listeners to my tale often remarked that I was fortunate. Galeotti usually died at their oars. If I had not escaped, I would probably have died there too. But escape I did, unshackled, and within reach of land.

Could it be true that Muhya had made it look like a punishment but it was in fact a reward? She had risked my life, for she had no way of knowing whether I could swim or if a shark might not take me before I reached land. But how else could she set me free without losing face in front of her men?

I will never know for certain. Muhya de Belvis, for that was her name I later learned, died a few years after my escape. At the hands of Hospitaller knights—apt, considering her background and bloody exploits.

She was only ten when the galleys of the Knights of St. John came raiding along the coast and scooped up her brother. Six years she searched for him, without success. What she eventually discovered broke her parents’ heart and made her vow revenge. For her brother was a galley slave like me. But unlike me, he died a wretched death at his oar.

My dreams of the rowing benches have faded and grow less frequent by the year, but I don’t think they will ever vanish entirely. I now own the farm I used to labour on and Damita and her husband live close by. Though my scarred ear twinges from time to time, I’m hale and prosperous enough that Lucita and Nerea, our daughter, need never lack for anything. Nerea is the same age that Muhya was when our paths crossed. I can’t help but contrast their lives.

People have tired of my tale of the female corsair, so these days I rarely tell it. But if a stranger asks, I make sure to inform him of one thing: “Shaitan’s Daughter” they called her, but she was an angel to me.

* * *

Barbara Davies is a freelance writer and reviewer and lives in the English Cotswolds.

Her short fiction has appeared in various genre magazines, ezines, and anthologies, including Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, The Lorelei Signal, Khimairal Ink, Byzarium, Neo Opsis and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

Her two lesbian historical novels, Christie and the Hellcat and Rebeccah and the Highwayman, are available from Bedazzled Ink, as well as a collection of her short specfic: Into the Yellow and Other Stories.

Barbara's website is: http://www.barbaradavies.co.uk

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

To someone more used to writing science fiction and fantasy, the big attraction of historical fiction is that I don't have to make up the setting. It's there already, in all its grime and glory - all I have to do is find it. Cue lots of research, but I have always enjoyed that. Besides coming in handy for answering quiz questions , researching a particular period of history always throws up unexpected and fascinating nuggets of information that I can use to enrich my characters and plot too.

Coming Home


Coming Home
Townsend Walker

Buda, 1839. Colonel Janós Hajdú strode out of Cavalry Headquarters cursing his commanding officer.

General Bauer had been brief. “Hajdú, there are rebel bands in Borsod County. They’ve stepped up their activity in the last three weeks. They attack then disappear into the countryside. The local garrison can’t stop them. You know the land better than anyone. I’m giving you five hundred men. End this.”

The General was asking Janós to suppress a rebellion fomented by people he had grown up with, people he knew.

Bauer stepped closer. “Hajdú. Do it quickly. Vienna is watching.”

As Janós mounted his horse, deformed images surged through his brain: streams he swam in as a boy flooded and running red like those in the Carpathians; fields he had worked in, flattened and strewn with trampled crops. His orders horrified him, but he would have no other commander charged with this mission. No one would do it as carefully, or as well.

* * *

The mess hall glimmered with candlelight and its reflections off the heavy gold braids on the hussars’ white jackets. The walls were draped with campaign flags and banners. Janós was greeted with a loud huzzah. He appreciated the acclaim, but would not let it register. Morale of the units under his command was always high. Many in the room owed their lives to his swiftness in checking an unnoticed sword or diverting a thrusting spear or to his battle tactics—he was a scholar of strategists from Sun Tzu to Napoleon. Janós was proud, some of his superiors complained “to the point of arrogance,” of never having lost a battle, and of the rarity of casualties to his men.

While port was served, he addressed the officers. “Gentlemen, this is a not an easy mission. We are being asked to suppress a rebellion of Hungarian peasants. I am Hungarian; some of you are also. But do not confuse your sentiments with your duty.”

He turned to the wall map of northern Hungary. While showing the volcanic cliffs and caves dotting the Bükk Mountains west of Miskolc, he remembered the lingering smell of sulfur mingled with the anise of the beech trees that wooded the area. To the east and south of town were foothills; beyond, wheat fields and villages. His voice thickened thinking about soldiers quartered in the country he’d ridden over as a boy and in the woods where he’d hunted. He felt a humid summer heat and heard the whirr of flies over bodies littering the fields. Not the fields of Lombardy, but his fields, the ones his family owned, that he now owned, the ones tilled by his tenants, Imre and Katalin.

“In small units you will hide in the foothills and pastures so you can capture the rebels as they return from their attacks in the town,” he said. “Your goal is to rip out the roots of the rebellion with a minimum loss of life.”

Janós left the same night with five cartographers to gather intelligence and map the area before the main body. They arrived in the hills overlooking Borsod County late in the day. The plains were sprinkled with fiery reflections off thatched cottage roofs and threads of streams. He was home.

Janós arrived at the farmhouse after dark. He’d sent the cartographers to billet at the Miskolc garrison. Katalin and Imre had worked for Janós’s father since he was a baby. They were sitting at the table, bent over their bowls when Janós knocked. A hug from Katalin, a warm handshake from Imre. She had a sixth sense about unexpected guests, and his bowl was on the table in minutes. She understood that his goulash could never have too much paprika; plus he thought her dumplings were confected from air. He had three helpings.

“Is everything all right?” she asked. “You don’t seem yourself.”

“Fine. Fine. No problems,” he said, looking down at the toes of his boots. Katalin knew him too well.

“You’re early this year,” Imre said.

“I’m between assignments so I’ll probably be here longer than usual. You’ll have an extra hand for the harvest.”

“Well, the crop looks good,” Imre said. “I only hope this fighting doesn’t get worse.”

“I’ve heard stories; what’s it about?” Janós asked.

”A collection of things, some small, some large. Last year the governor appropriated ten hectares from the village. People got frustrated. Felt they needed to do something.”

Katalin cut in. “Tell him about Anna.”

Anna: that name, he saw her blonde hair on the hay, felt her tongue teasing him, he never forgot; now, on her hand, another man’s ring.

“You remember, the girl who lived next door?” Imre said. “Her husband was killed by a soldier from the garrison in the spring. Totally unjustified. From what I heard the soldiers started the fight.”

“I lost track of her,” Janós said, struggling to avoid showing his feelings. István, killed? “She moved after I went off to the academy.”

“Over to Sajólád after she got married,” Katalin said.

“Her children, they should be old enough to help on the farm, no?” Janós asked.

“Well, there’s only her daughter, eighteen. Looks like her mother, but has her father’s temper,” Katalin said. “He was always getting into fights.”

Imre said it was shortly after the murder that the rebels started their attacks. They were passionate about replacing the Austrian governor of Borsod County with a Hungarian. Their numbers were increasing as they kept winning.

“They’re becoming legends,” said Katalin. “They seem invincible. In the last four months their worst injury was a broken arm, or at least that’s what I’ve heard.”

“Anna must have relatives though, to help in the fields,” Janós said.

“Not really,” Imre said. “Her brothers went in the army and haven’t been back.”

“You should go see her, Jan,” Katalin said.

“She probably wouldn’t remember me.”

“I saw her at the market a month ago,” Katalin said. “Your name came up.”

“Her cottage is the small one at the west edge of the village,” Imre volunteered. “There’s a stream just to the south of it.”

* * *


* * *

Janós remembered this room as a boy, dreaming of galloping cavalry and clashing swords. The white washed walls were covered with pictures, some yellowed now, of soldiers and horses. His father had brought them back. Otherwise it was a simple room, a bed and two wooden chests, one for clothes and the smaller one for books. The memories were comforting, but he couldn’t sleep.

The news of Anna’s husband resurrected feelings he had long tamped down. When he was little, Anna had lived nearby and they’d played on the floor of her parents’ cottage or in their garden. They’d grown older, and school and work in the fields took over, but whenever they’d passed in the lane a sideways glance of her grey eyes and a tilt of her head said you’re-my-friend-come-along-we’ll-play. She and her family were his refuge from an ex-drill sergeant father and a mother who lived in the shadows of the room. Anna was, by turns, soft and warm, quick and fiery; and how she rode! If the wind were a horse she could have ridden it. They chased one another on horseback across the plains, jumping streams and leaping fences. The day before Janós left for military academy, they swam in the river and lay in the sun far from everyone. At the end of that day, they’d made love for the first time, urgently and desperately, promising eternal fidelity. But then, only three months after he’d left, she’d married a farmer, a lout named István. When he’d heard, Janós had been shattered. He became prickly and got into so many fights with his fellow cadets that the commandant threatened to dismiss him from the academy.

Letters to Anna had gone unanswered. On earlier visits back to the village he had ridden out toward her cottage a few times, but was turned back by the thoughts that assailed him: Does she look at her husband with the same glances she gave me? Does she melt into him when he puts his arm around her? Imagining was difficult; seeing would be impossibly wrenching.

Looking back, he knew it was Anna’s marriage that had made him decide on a career in the cavalry. He had more control over what happened to him. Soldiers did things for reasons he understood.

* * *

The next morning, Janós rode out to meet the cartographers in the foothills. He showed them how to find the tracks and paths the farmers and herdsmen used to cross the countryside. He was sure these were being used by the rebels. After they rode off, he sat for a moment, looking over the tall grasses, remembering the time he and Anna--they were probably four or five, shorter than the grass, anyway--they’d been playing hide-and-seek. She’d gotten lost trying to find a hiding place and he’d gotten lost looking for her. Her parents finally found them by following the zigzags they’d trampled in the field.

He wheeled his horse towards the southeast. From a hillock he saw the chalk-white walls and thatched roof of a cottage, a stream just south of it; that had to be Anna’s. She came to the door as he rode up. With the sun in her eyes, she could only distinguish a figure on a horse. He saw her hesitate.

“Anna,” he said. “It’s Jan.”

She took a step backward.

“Jan, Janós Hajdú.”

He dismounted and walked towards her, but she seemed trapped in a strange stillness, inspecting him.

As if to absorb the recognition more slowly she paused, and then said, “Come in.”

The contrast with his tenants’ cottage upset him. Imre and Katalin had four rooms; Anna had one. The walls were bare except for some caraway, paprika and bay drying above the fireplace. Fresh wildflowers and three books were on a table in the center of the room. Shiny copper cook pots were beside the fireplace. Bedding was stacked neatly under a bench by the window. Janós saw only four small food baskets. How was she getting by?

She stood at the far side of the table and motioned for him to sit across from her.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked.

“How are you? I hear you have a daughter.”

“The harvest will be good this year,” she said. “We’ll be fine.”

He looked at the woman who had been the girl he loved. The suns of summers in the fields had left fine wrinkles to frame her eyes and mouth. But there was the same light at the corner of her eyes, and her lips were wide and full as he remembered. And he could almost feel the tapping of her tongue when they had kissed.

“Tea would be nice,” he said. “Thank you.”

As Anna put the tea in front of Janós, her hand accidentally brushed his. The touch startled both of them. They sat sipping tea, Janós making appreciative murmurs.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, looked up, about to say something. He opened his mouth and blurted, “Anna, I don’t know how to start, for a long time I thought I’d done something or said something, I never heard from you, and three months after I left, you . . .”

She leaned across the table and put her finger on his lips. The touch surprised him, but when he leaned forward, she drew back. Words stumbled out. “My father got sick, my brothers were small, and I couldn’t take care of the farm alone. I had no choice. For years I wanted to tell you.”

Janós felt he needed to say something. “Why didn’t you let me know? I could have come back.”

Her shoulders slumped and she looked tired. “It’s easy to say that now, but your father would never have let you.”

He looked down at his cup. It was true.

Then she told him: István’s stall had been next to hers at the Miskolc market; he had proposed to her every market day from the time they were fourteen; she kept telling him no; he’d get mad, then ask the next week.

“I never told you about any of this. I knew you didn’t like him and I didn’t want to cause trouble. But, with Father sick and you gone . . .”

Janós looked away. “You didn’t write.”

“I thought I’d see you when you came home on leave. I wanted to tell you in person,” she said. “Once or twice I saw you, and I think you saw me, but you rode off in the other direction.”

“But you knew I’d be with Katalin and Imre,” he said.

“I couldn’t go there; István was insanely jealous.”

“Didn’t you get my letters?” he asked.

Anna blushed. “No.”


“Jan, I’m sorry, I should have written.” She reached across the table and took his hands in hers. “You must have been hurt never to have come to see me.”

He nodded and bowed his head, tasting again the old chagrin. He looked up reluctantly, “It wasn’t an easy time.”

They sat quietly with their tea. Janós was trying to reconcile his feelings with what she’d said. To avoid the awkwardness of more silence he asked, “What happened to your husband, how did he . . .”

Behind Janós the cottage door opened and Anna quickly pulled her hands back into her lap.

“Mother, who’s here?”

“Márta, I’d like you to meet my old friend Janós Hajdú; we grew up next door to one another. He’s in the Cavalry now. Jan, this is my daughter, Márta.”

Márta was Anna at eighteen: tall, blond, and grey-eyed, in a bloused white shirt and pants tucked into soft black boots. This was the image of Anna he carried from that last day they were together. Janós could feel his face getting red.

Márta turned to leave, but Anna took her arm. “Sit down. Please pour us another cup of tea, and one for yourself.”

Márta served the tea, but sat on the bench near the wall, folding her arms tightly across her chest.

“I was about to tell Jan what happened to your father,” Anna said.

“I’ll tell him,” Marta said. “A friend of mine saw everything.”

She swung around in her chair and looked directly at him. “My father and his friends were in a bar in Miskolc. A bunch of Austrian soldiers called them Jews and Gypsies, knocked over their glasses. My father didn’t put up with that sort of thing. He and his friends pushed the soldiers away. Then one of them punched my father in the mouth and everyone started fighting. All of a sudden one of the soldiers pulled out a gun and shot my father. Murder. And the garrison commander did nothing.”

Janós reached over toward Márta. “I’ll talk to him.”

She pulled back. “What’s the use? It’s over now. I don’t want to have anything to do with soldiers,” she said. “So why are you here?”

With two Annas in front of him and wanting both of them to like him, he lied. He explained that he came back at harvest time nearly every year to see his tenants and help bring in the wheat.

“Why should I believe you?” Márta asked.

He said nothing. And then as the sun shifted into Janós’s eyes and he realized how long he had been there. He mumbled an excuse about seeing someone else and stood up. Anna walked outside with him.

“Excuse her, Jan. Sometimes she becomes very bitter about what happened,” she said. “Will I see you again?” She touched his hand.

He replied with a smile.

Janós rode away slowly. There was a time he hadn’t wanted to see her; now, he found her beautiful in a new way: a restive, suffused glow had replaced her shimmering exuberance.

* * *


* * *

Janós and the cartographers rode out to check their maps. After an hour they split up. He wanted to scout the routes from the mountains into the plains for the soldiers who would be arriving. First he rode to Anna’s cottage. She came to the door; he guessed she’d heard his horse.

“I came by to see if you wanted to take a ride in the mountains.”

“I’d like that; it’ll be like old times,” she said. “Do you want me to pack some food?”

Janós pointed to his saddle bags. “I’ve got enough for the two of us.”

“So you presumed, did you?”

The tone of her quip was somewhere between coquetry and annoyance. He couldn’t read her intentions the way he once had.

“No, but I had hopes,” he replied.

She smiled.

They rode through old beech forests and grassy meadows of violet-blue gentian and yellow yarrow. Eagles and falcons wheeled lazily on the high currents. Anna found a bough-sheltered alcove by a brook. As they ate and talked, she became his memory: her mouth tilted up in the corner; she brushed her hair behind her left ear, always her left ear, even as it fell across both eyes. He didn’t talk much, thinking that tales of his battles or stories about his missions in Paris and Vienna would seem out of place.

She was full of stories about Márta. She’d weighed only two kilos when she was born and Anna had worried. But as a young girl Márta had shown a fierceness and determination that made up for her size. When she was four she’d take a book from the shelf, shove it in her mother’s hand and command, “Read.” She lost none of her fire as she grew. Even boys her age wouldn’t go up against her.

Anna began to look wistful, her eyes half closed. “I didn’t have more children,” she said. “So I let Márta have her own way, maybe too often. But she can read, write, ride, herd, and farm. I made sure of that.”

During a lull in the conversation, Janós stretched out on the ground and closed his eyes, seeing himself with Anna, raising a daughter; he, not István. Janós was pleased she hadn’t mentioned him.

Anna began to lie back.

“I think I’m softer,” he said. And guided her on top of him.

Back at the cottage, he was awkward helping her down from her horse. He shuffled his feet and stammered. She made it easy: looked up, kissed him quickly and said, “I’ll see you again.”

At that moment the sun seemed to enclose only them in its fading glow.

* * *

Janós rode out to meet up with his squadrons in the mountains. Five hundred soldiers in peasant clothes. Horses stripped of military accoutrement. It was dusk when he addressed them.

“Every evening you will move out of the mountains. You have your maps. You will be on every path a rebel could use. Find him. Capture him. Return before dawn.”

The soldiers trickled out of the mountains into hornbeam and oak covered knolls, behind grassy hillocks, and into the sandy stream beds below Miskolc. Two nights later, four rebel bands attacked government buildings and the garrison in town. As they returned to their homes, soldiers sprung from hiding places. Fifty rebels were captured and taken to the stockade in the mountains.

The next night was quiet, and the next night, and the next. Janós knew the rebels might think they could hold off until the soldiers got tired of waiting and went back to Buda, but he had prepared for this: extra rations and the promise of extended leave when the campaign was over.

* * *

Seven rebel attacks. No one was killed, but ten soldiers were wounded and three captured. Seventy rebels were captured, but none would divulge the names of their leaders. Then two weeks with only sporadic small eruptions. Janós understood the need for patience but circumstances were beginning to wear on him. To maintain the fiction that he was unaffiliated with the military campaign, he had supper with Katalin and Imre every night, listening to them talk in great detail about bloat, foot rot, milk fever, and sweet clover poisoning.

When he received a dispatch from General Bauer reminding him that “Do this quickly” was part of the orders, Janós replied in a tone that indicated Bauer’s dispatch was unnecessary, and unwarranted. He reminded Bauer that the plan the General had sanctioned was working well, and the results were as expected: no one had been killed, the stockade was nearly full. If the villagers wanted enough men to bring in the harvest, they would be forced to turn in the rebel leaders and that would be the end of the rebellion.

* * *

Janós knocked at Anna’s door; it flew open and Márta stormed out, yelling back, “Your soldier is here,” and shoved past him.

“Maybe I should go,” he said.

“No, stay; we were only having an argument about the harvest.”

She led him to the small bench, sat close and took his arm.

“I’ve been thinking about things, about you, about us,” she said. “It’s been a very long time, and lot has happened with both of us, but these last days . . .”

Janós interrupted, “I’ve been thinking too; Anna, would you, will you . . . come back with me to Buda, be my wife?”

She smiled and lowered her eyes, “Yes, I . . .”

The door crashed open. Márta stormed in, flushed. “Mother, did you know he was leading the army here? Our neighbors are rotting in a mountain stockade because of him.”

Anna stood with a start--her anger adding to her height.

“Márta! You can’t come in here and level accusations like that. Apologize.”

“I won’t,” she said, turned, and slammed the door.

Anna wheeled on Janós. “You’re in charge and you haven’t told me. This is your idea of relaxation: locking up people who are fighting for their rights.”

“I couldn’t. I haven’t told anyone, not even Katalin and Imre. I couldn’t,” he repeated. “It had to be done this way. But I promise; it will end soon.”

“That’s not what I am talking about. After all these years you come to my home,” she said. “Like a fool I thought it was because of me.”

She backed against the wall, putting as much distance as possible between them.

“Did you think about me? Being seen with an officer in the Austrian army while this was going on. I’ve told everyone you’re the same person I grew up with: someone they can trust. Now this.”

Janós took a step toward her, head hung down.

“I’m sorry. I should have said something. I’ve never forgotten you; that’s why I came. Can’t you forgive me?”

She reached up, put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him down in a chair, then drew another up in front of him. Her eyes were defiant and her mouth was a thin white line.

“Something I haven’t told anyone. Márta is our daughter, yours and mine. I got married so she’d have a father. I didn’t tell you before because it didn’t make a difference: to us, or to her.”

Janós felt the walls close in on him, he was hot, the sun was sitting on him, he heard his blood moving through his head, racing his thoughts, then stopping them; Anna’s face was shrouded in light, then distorted by closeness. He kneeled and put his arms around her.

“I have missed so much: you, being with you, having a family.”

Minutes passed before either of them breathed. Then she took his head in her hands and bent her face to his. She threatened, “Be careful, be very careful. Our daughter is one of the rebels. You must absolutely make sure nothing happens to her.”

“I promise; she will be safe,” he said. “On my life.”

* * *


* * *

A delegation of farmers came up to the encampment in the mountains. “Colonel, you’re a son of the land, you know we start the harvest in two days. You’re holding nearly two hundred of our most able men.”

“Bring me the leaders of this rebellion and I’ll release the men in the stockade.”

“But Colonel, we don’t know who they are.”

Janós’s face displayed incredulity; his voice, steel. “That surprises me, but I’m confident you’ll find out. Come back when you have them.”

After the farmers left, Janós spat out orders: “Prepare for an attack on the stockade. Triple the guards. Post men along the mountain paths.”

That evening the rebels were allowed to come up the mountains to the stockade. They fell back in disarray when met by the reinforcements. Scrambling back down dark paths, the rebels were easily picked up by waiting soldiers. Another hundred were captured with few injuries to either side. The stockade was jammed.

Within an hour the delegation of farmers was back with five men in ropes trailing them. In the light of the camp fires Janós saw the rebel leaders ranged from grizzled farmers to young men. He thought he recognized an acquaintance from twenty years back and quickly turned to avoid eye contact.

“These are the five? There are no more? You are sure?”

“Yes sir, we are sure,” the delegation chorused.

“If you are wrong, you will never worry about a harvest again.”

Janós stood back, crossed his arms, and ordered the men in the stockade released. Then went into his tent. He’d send the five to Buda. General Bauer dealt with traitors. They’d be put in front of a firing squad.

An aide opened the tent flap. “Your orders, colonel?”

“The prisoners leave for Buda tonight. I do not want anyone trying to rescue them. I will question them when they are tied and mounted.”

Janós came out of his tent and saw the rebel leaders being bound and put on their horses. It was a routine procedure: the prisoner’s wrists were tied, two soldiers hoisted the prisoner into the saddle, his hands were lashed to the back of the saddle, and feet were tied into the stirrups. The last one was being lifted into the saddle when the prisoner spurred the horse. It broke away and galloped into the trees. To Janós’s left, soldiers shouldered their rifles. His “No!” was drowned by the bark of the bullets.

The rider’s cap fell off as the horse passed under a branch. Long blond hair spilled out. Twenty years earlier, the same streaming hair he had chased across the fields.

He saw the bullets spinning out from the rifle barrels, moving towards her, arrows of fire. He heard thuds as three hit the trees. He saw two others pierce her blue linen jacket, tear her flesh and enter her back. Her body writhed from the impact. She tumbled from the saddle, scrambled awkwardly for a few yards, and then lay face down on the ground. Janós ran, pushing his way through the soldiers. He cut away the ropes and slowly turned her over; a large dark stain covered her chest. He drew the hair away from her eyes and cradled her in his arms. Her cheeks were cut and bruised. He carefully brushed the dirt from her face.

“Márta,” he whispered. “Márta.”

She opened her eyes, recognized Janós, and her pupils narrowed to pinpoints of hatred, a look so black and feral he turned away. Soldiers crowded around them. They looked dumbfounded, anxious, and disconcerted by what they were seeing. He looked back to Márta. In that short space of time her face had gone slack, the fire in her eyes had gone out, and blood burbled from between her lips.

Janós slumped. He saw the shape of Anna standing in front of him; he was kneeling in front of her. In the cottage that afternoon: “Marry me?” “Yes.” “She will be safe?” “I promise.” The vision twisted, broke apart, then faded into the night. Lost, lost forever.

Janós picked up Márta and called for his horse.

“I’m taking her to her mother.”

He rode slowly out of the mountains towards Anna’s cottage, his daughter in his arms. Knowing: there was no explanation, no reason, nothing he could say.

A light from Anna’s cottage shone through the starless night. She’s been waiting for Márta, Janós thought. He kneeled his horse in the shadows and carried the body to the cottage. The door was open.

He called, “Anna. Anna.”

No response. He went inside and laid Márta on the table, carefully arranging her hair. Outside, he heard Anna call.

“Márta, is that you? I’ve been out looking; where have you been?”

She came inside, saw her daughter’s colorless corpse, buried her head in her bloodied chest, and wailed, oblivious to Janós. Minutes passed; she became very quiet, and then turned on him.

“You promised! You promised!”

“She was trying to escape; I didn’t know; no one knew it was her.”

“On your life, you said.”

“It was a horrible, horrible accident; I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

* * *

They kept vigil through the night, saying nothing, their daughter lying on the table between them. At daybreak, Anna moved to the window where Janós stood, watching the wheat molding in the heavy rain.

“Look at me, me,” she cried. “You’ve emptied me, emptied me out. I’m a shell.”

She put her face in her hands, sobbed, then an eerie stillness seemed to come over her. She lifted her head and in a small haunted voice said, “I will go to Buda; I will marry you. I will be there to watch you empty out, to wither and crumble, to atone for what you have done.”

He looked into eyes that once held the promise of love, but saw nothing; they had separated from her soul. He took her hand, but there was no warmth in her touch.

* * *


* * *

Townsend Walker lives in San Francisco . During a career in finance he published three books: on foreign exchange, on derivatives, and the last one on portfolio management. Four years ago he went to Rome and started writing fiction inspired by cemeteries, foreign lands, paintings, and strong women. His stories have been published in over two dozen literary journals, on-line and print.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

The attraction of historical fiction: it is an interesting and entertaining way to learn about history and society. It gives color and texture to the dryness of text books. Hardy has a lot to say about 19th century English society; Dumas is a grand historian with his tales of the French nobility.