April 15, 2012

Issue 6: April 2012


History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.
~Maya Angelou


On the Appearance of the Wolves by Edgar Mason
The Battle of Sablat by Barb Siples
Jehan de Mandeville, Returned From The East, Orders His Affairs by Jacob Rakovan
Do Not Repent by Pamela Freeman
The Messiah’s Wife by Bezalel Stern
Against the Current by Townsend Walker
Harmon’s Start by Roger Pincus
Episodes in the Navajo Degradation: A Five-Poem Sequence by Charles Tarlton
Eighteen Inches by Mallory Wycoff
Rob in the Hood by G. K. Werner
Four Sacrifices by Jonathan Edelstein
The Peace Criminal by Vaughan Stanger

Questions, comments, or concerns may be e-mailed to the editor at markenberg[at]yahoo[dot]com. If you are interested in submitting fiction, poetry, or nonfiction to Lacuna, please see our submission guidelines.

On the Appearance of the Wolves


On the Appearance of the Wolves
by Edgar Mason

By the grace of God – I am obliged to say that, though I couldn’t be farther from feeling it – I am the emperor of the East; by the grace of Eutropius, the husband of Eudoxia; by the grace of some hideous misunderstanding, I have come to rule over both an empire and Empress that will not be controlled.

And thus, the wolves appear.

* * *

I was unprepared for this. I was woefully unprepared for any of this. I did not expect my father to die; I did not expect him to leave me the throne. He should not have left me the throne; he should have given it to someone else, anyone else. A beggar in the street would have been more fit to rule than I. I was raised among the gilded pillars of the palace – no, not the palace – many palaces. Running about through gardens and fountains is no way to become an emperor. No way at all.

They hailed my father as “the Great” before his body had even reached the capital. The only man more powerful and more beloved was the very Bishop of the west, and he gave the funerary oration.

I was raised in the golden corridors of the palace, and nowhere near the battlefield, nor the speaker’s podium. I was brought up to be a prince; nothing more. I remember my tutor said as much to me when I was young. He was an old man, brought from Alexandria, and his skin looked like cracked, dry dirt. He was a learned man – though later he was taken away; I don’t know why.

But he said to me once, “Thank God, Arcadius, that you will never have to rule. Thank God you’ll have advisors and wiser men, who know Pythagoras’ theorem and how an army should be led. Thank God for those men, Arcadius, because you are a fool.”

My old tutor was right. I am no emperor. I am no leader of men. I lack even the physical characteristics: My face would be more at home on some fresh-water fish; my limbs are long and thin as they dangle from my torso. That is all a sign, surely. And I lack any form of ambition, really – my only wish is to remain in bed in the arms of my lover, and see no one else.

My father was called “Great.”

How does one live up to that? What does one do?

* * *

I was lucky Eutropius presented himself; I was lucky the Magister Militum presented himself. I suppose I was lucky, at any rate. They seemed to know what they were doing.

I was probably wrong to trust in them. But how was I to know that? I was named – my name, even, turns against me – for some unearthly paradise, and I have never known the right thing to do. I have always been able to trust in others; it is how I was raised. I was brought up to trust in others, in some far off God, in some other person, in my own great, beloved father. So trust in them I did, because they… Well, they were there and these things come to us as they will.

I have been told that Eutropius schemes behind me and about me, and I know that the Magister Militum is. Eutropius has sold provinces from under me; the Magister Militum has attempted to take them outright. The problem is, I would not know what to do without them. They are what I have in place of my father’s genius.

* * *

I loathe my wife. It is an open secret; the entire city – the entire empire – knows of it. My slatternly wife, with her hair combed down like a common courtesan. She is beautiful, I suppose. She is a barbarian by descent, and she changed her name to sound more like one of the ruling class. She has the pale skin and hair of her people, and it glows in the sun against her purple robes and golden jewelry. They say that she is beautiful and cultured; I know only that she is hideously arrogant and terribly unpleasant, even to have in the room.

I knew it from the moment we were married, the moment we were alone together. For at that moment, she tore off her bridal veil, turned to a Western vase – that clear, shiny thing, so difficult to come by still intact and so worthless and ugly in a room – fixed her hair, then turned to me.

“You’ll let me do as I like,” she said. She smiled closely, as if she knew some secret. “You’ll let me do as I like, and see whom I please.” She took a step closer to me, her soft, soft sandal making not a sound against the cool, stone floor. “I’ll do the same for you,” she breathed, eyes half-closed and heavy with kohl. Her eyebrows, I saw, were pale beneath the kohl she’d used to draw them in, and her thick, blonde hair was held out in rolls by lambswool. Everything about her face, down to her very smile, was false. She is a liar, and she is vain. I knew this in that instant – and then she said, “I’ll do the same for you, because I know your secret.”

For all my many faults, I am at least honest enough to know that I have them.

That was Eutropius’ doing, making her my wife. He was right to do it, but I cannot forgive him for it. He has made amends, and more. He has done a great deal for me, and it is improper of me not to forgive him for her, after all he has done in exchange. But I cannot. I cannot. I loathe her too much.

* * *

It was the bishop. Chrysostom, The Golden Mouth. Eutropius was hiding… the Magister Militum was out for him. He wanted Eutropius’ blood; I don’t know why.

That’s the problem with the two of them. I know they’re both very good at their jobs: The magister militum keeps us all safe from barbarians, and Eutropius – well, I suppose Eutropius, if nothing else, makes sure that there is gold in our coffers.

And the Golden Mouth… It was all very confusing. Apparently – well, I was there. Words were spoken, harsh words, by the Golden Mouth to everyone in the city, on the subject of Eutropius. He speaks beautifully, the Golden Mouth, but he does tend to say things that he shouldn’t. Everyone was bewildered, but we found out eventually. And then… Well, I don’t know quite how these things happen. It seems that that sermon about vanity was all about my Eutropius, but I can’t believe that. I’m much more ready to believe that it was about my wife.

She was the one to exile the Golden Mouth. It was she; I’m sure of it. Only so loathsome a female would be foolish enough to exile so holy a man. She was the one; I suppose she took the homily too personally.

The populace is unhappy. Rightly, the populace is unhappy. The empire is a joke, it’s for sale – there’s a card with the going rates. Either I or Eutropius – it’s questionable where I end and he begins, sometimes – have acquired a number of villae and fine titles in exchange for far-flung provinces and suchlike. Lucrative, for someone, I suppose, but I don’t believe that there is a single man in the empire – nor, indeed, a former man, such as my Eutropius – who could honestly say that that is how an empire should be run.

What am I writing here? I am no one to say how an empire should be run.

* * *


* * *

My bedroom is beautiful. My bed is covered in silk and soft linen; my walls are decorated with bright frescoes and tiles. My windows are covered by fine, fine curtains and the breezes blow cool above the city. I have statues taken from the far corners of the empire, and furniture inlaid with precious metals, and my bed is softer than any other.

I do not share it with my wife, thank God. Eutropius is the servant of my chamber, and he takes his role seriously.

His face is ugly and yellowed, I know this. He is as bald as an egg; God knows why (well, actually, I know why, but we are careful). But his hands – my God, his hands. So smooth, fragile and trembling, like old silk. A tenderer caress cannot be found anywhere in my empire.

* * *

The bishop is gone. My wife’s doing, perhaps, but the fact remains: The Golden Mouth is gone, and the portents have begun to appear. Birds. Entrails. Clouds and stars.

God only knows what may happen unless my wife will mend her ways. Or if Eutropius can be made to disappear.

I would sooner lose my wife than my lover, but I may have no choice.

* * *

It was terrifying, the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me.

I was on the parade ground, dressed in that hot, uncomfortable armor that I am forced to wear for no reason but to put on a show. My horse was restive in the hot, wet air; I was sweating fit to drown the poor creature.

The troops were in mid-wheel when I heard shouts. Cries rose from some of the soldiers as they broke ranks and ran towards me. They had their spears leveled at my horse.

Is it perhaps telling that my first thought was, “Mutiny”? I am no horseman, but with my own troops charging towards me, I – I think understandably – tried to turn and run, but I couldn’t. My horse had taken a fright; I was almost thrown.

Hands held my horse; hands pushed me back into the saddle. Voices cried in terror, and mine soon joined them: Circling below my feet, around the feet of my horses, were three wolves. They were great, skulking, muscular things, with black fur and slavering, hungry jaws. Their eyes were ravening, golden even in the gray light. Someone screamed – to my shame, it was more than likely me. Suddenly, one of the soldiers that had charged me struck a mighty blow – I could never strike such a blow – against first one, then another, of the wolves. The creatures screamed in pain, and their fellow tried to run – but it, too, was caught on the blades of my soldiers’ spears. Blood burst from the creatures as the soldiers slew them.

Brusquely, the drillmaster slit their throats, ensuring their death. Someone drew my horse back as the soldiers fell upon the wolves, for a wolf skin is a valuable thing. And then another cry went up, washing back from the soldiers like ripples in a fountain.

For when the wolves’ bellies were slit open, inside were human hands. White hands, amidst the red blood that pooled inside the black bodies of the beasts. And then the gray and lowering sky, the gold and much-marred sands of the parade ground…

My gilded life is gone.

* * *

I feel the hands of fate upon my shoulders. I do not know what I should do now, nor how I should act. Do I incur the wrath of my wife by summoning back the Golden Mouth? Do I dare to act in such an… acting way? Or do I cower and allow someone else to make the decisions for which I am so ill-prepared?

I do not know.

But I saw the pale hands in the wolves’ bellies, and I know this to be a sign.

* * *

When not grubbing away at Greek and Latin, Edgar Mason can usually be found reading, writing, knitting or wandering around trying to figure out where she's supposed to be. Her work has appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer, Bull Spec and The Lorelei Signal, among others. She is inspired to write by people around her, Great Literature (with the caps) and Giorgio de Chirico, to name just a few, and continues because she hopes one day to bring joy to the world through the power of words (no, really!). She blogs at http://radiosaturday.blogspot.com.

The Battle of Sablat


The Battle of Sablat
by Barb Siples

The coals in the brazier were dead. The only red in the tent smoldered in the rich weave of the Ottoman carpet beneath my boots, and doubtless in my face, for I was sweating despite the chill of late spring in Bohemia. I stood at attention before von Buquoy’s desk and waited for him to remember he had summoned me.

At length the count looked up, but past me, as someone rustled the door flap and came inside. That someone smelled strongly of gardenias. The scent reminded me of the little flower garden my mother maintained on our estate in the Rhineland and I felt a pang of pure, pointless longing.

“Madame Pomeroy,” von Buquoy said, standing to take the lady’s gloved hand. He raised it briefly to his lips. “Allow me to introduce Lieutenant Sebastian Maibach. You’ve heard of him, I’m sure.”

Madame Pomeroy ignored my crisp bow and settled herself into the folding camp chair beside the desk. “The hero of the Battle of Lomnice? The army’s abuzz with it, my lord. I understand he slew a great number of the enemy. In most dramatic fashion. The ranks of horse bearing down, young Sebastian here elbowing his men out of the way, slashing about with gusto. They say he split an adversary’s skull, shouting ‘Death to the Hussite!’ as the devil rode past.” There was an unmistakable twist to the rouged lips. Madame Pomeroy was mocking me.

Von Buquoy busied himself with opening a drawer and placed three silver cups, hardly bigger than thimbles, on the desktop. The vertigo that had seized me upon hearing mention of Lomnice, and my role in the slaughter, slowly ebbed in consequence. I trusted von Buquoy had noticed nothing, but I was not so certain of the lady.

Looking up from the cups, the count gave me his full and sudden attention. His eyes were sharp beneath the curls rioting on his dark head. “Tell me, lieutenant. What do they say about Madame Pomeroy?”

“That she is your best field spy, sir,” I told him frankly.

Von Buquoy laughed. He poured a colorless liquor into each of the three cups. The smell of peaches bloomed between the fabric walls, overpowering the beeswax scent of the candles.

“Here’s another question for you, Maibach. Do you believe in the erlenvolk?” When I stared at him blankly he snapped, “Fairy tales, man. Surely you’ve heard of the high elves, the children of the wildwood.”

“Elves, sir?” I said hastily, thoroughly bewildered. “No, sir.”

“Well then,” von Buquoy continued casually, as if the subject had never arisen. “You’ve proved yourself capable of a certain viciousness, Lieutenant Maibach, and by your birth I know you are not lacking in education and courtliness. These are precisely the divers qualities some of the army’s less...regular duties require.”

“That’s one way of saying it,” Madame Pomeroy murmured and a twitch of humor flitted across the commander’s lips before he went on.

“I am therefore pleased to present an opportunity for you to demonstrate your usefulness to the Empire. Think of it as a trial. If all goes well, other opportunities will follow, in which you will play a greater role. And reap a greater reward. But for now, Madame Pomeroy is in command and you are to offer her your support. In whatever capacity she requires. The secrecy of this mission is of the utmost importance. It must remain known only to the three people presently in this company. I will say no more until—”

“I accept,” I said.

Madame Pomeroy sat up in her chair and clapped her hands like a little girl. “He doesn’t even want the details,” she trilled.

“Excellent,” the count said, and handed around the schnapps. We drank to his most Catholic majesty Emperor Ferdinand the Second, and a swift victory in Bohemia. I hardly tasted it. Could it be that my luck was changing for the better?

* * *

I followed the sparse orders I’d been given and met my rendezvous at the eastern picket shortly before dawn of the following day. The wagon and the team I’d expected, but not the oversized crate in the bed, and certainly not the boy perched in the driver seat. The crate was oddly fashioned, a crude, deep cupboard the height of a man. Sturdy nails secured the lid, and the two hinged doors that met at its face were secured with a padlock. It brought to mind the cage of some rare and dangerous animal, a lion of Africa perhaps. I pressed my fingers to the iron lock. The metal felt oddly warm.

“Where’s Madame Pomeroy?” I asked the boy.

He lifted a corner of his shapeless hat and peered at me crossly. “You make a terrible spy.”

A noise of embarrassment escaped me. I recovered with, “But I’m not a spy, madam.”

“What are you then? A soldier? Where’s your uniform?”

I had no reply to that. I wore the rough clothes of a crofter, as I’d been ordered. I barely had time to clamber onto the seat beside her before Madame Pomeroy snapped the reins across the horses’ shoulders and the beasts trotted off.

I didn’t speak again until the sun bullied its way through the clouds. I knew better than to ask what we carried in the massive crate at our backs. Munitions or gold, I suspected, although the horses stepped lightly. Our destination was a guesthouse called the Krone in a town called Sablat.

“Have you been long in Count von Buquoy’s employ?” I inquired cautiously.

“Small talk, lieutenant?”

I looked around at the empty farmland. “How else will we become acquainted?”

“Oh, but I know all about you already, Lieutenant Sebastian Maibach,” Madame Pomeroy said with relish. “I know, for example, that you are also one of the lords von Spiegler. Not a terribly significant branch of the aristocracy, politically speaking, but the von Spieglers do figure in society. Or did, until fairly recently. I’ve been given to understand that the house of Maibach is on the verge of bankruptcy. Your sister Charlotte has been marriageable for almost two years, with no prospects. Your cousin—Dietrich is his name—is seeking a buyer for the family holdings once he inherits—”

“Dietrich won’t sell,” I said sharply. “Never.”

“Is that what he told you?” she asked, cheerful as the songbirds that called from the hedgerows.

“How much of this does von Buquoy know?”

“Everything that I know,” she said, “von Buquoy knows. It’s why he pays me. It’s why you’re here.”

“How do you mean?”

“Did you think it was your bravery? Your manly height? Your broad shoulders? No, Lieutenant Maibach. You’re here because von Buquoy knows you’re desperate to save the family estate. And desperate men are loyal men.”

“I’m here because I impressed him,” I countered, refusing to surrender my dignity. Or what little of it remained.

“Well, partly,” she conceded. “Von Buquoy doesn’t suffer cowards. I understand Lomnice was your first engagement?”

My mouth went dry. I put a steadying hand on the bench, stunned by the roar of cannon, the shock of resistance as my saber tore through living flesh. I licked my lips and said, “Yes. My first.”

“Well, those fencing lessons certainly paid off. The von Spieglers will be quite—”

“About that, about the family difficulties. I know it must seem—”

“Save your breath, lieutenant. I don't care one whit about your uncle’s disastrous penchant for games of chance. Or your cousins’ fondness for fine tailoring and jewelry.” While I registered her cruelty in shocked silence, she said with feeling, “Honestly, Maibach. They’ve piddled away your inheritance. What more is there to say?”

“I have a duty to my family,” I began but stopped short on seeing her expression. “Is duty so amusing to you?” I demanded. She was really quite infuriating. “You serve the count—”

“I serve von Buquoy, yes; but my duty is to myself. You’re young yet, lieutenant,” she said blithely. “I trust it won’t take you long to discover that duty is merely a word, a word men employ to convince others to do their dirty work for them.”

I clenched my jaw against an angry retort. “What happened to you,” I said at last, “that you should feel this way?”

Madame Pomeroy looked at me keenly before turning her attention back to the horses.

“Perceptive, Lieutenant Maibach. And correct. I was once like you. I believed in duty and honor. And love. I came to discover that these things are nothing more than the walls of a prison.” She smiled like a cat. “I suppose you could say that von Buquoy liberated me from my jailors. Very perceptive, indeed. Perhaps there’s more to you than a pleasing face.” She laughed at my startled expression. “You’ll really have to forgive me. It seems I’ve forgotten how to behave in civil company.”

I could find no response. Some part of me—a part I had forgotten existed—was absurdly delighted: von Buquoy’s best field spy thought I had a pleasing face.

Dusk brought us to a shed at the edge of a field, a passable shelter in which to spend the night. Tomorrow we would reach Sablat, leaving the countryside behind. I would regret it. The soil here smelled fresh, newly turned in anticipation of the sowing. I stooped and lifted a fecund clod to my nose. It smelled like home. After a lingering look at the color-smeared sky, I let it drop and went, with some trepidation, to join Madame Pomeroy in our accommodation for the night.

“We’ll be some time in each other’s company,” she remarked pleasantly when I stepped inside. She was on her knees, arranging her bedroll. Her hat lay in a corner and the tresses of her honey-colored hair swept over her shoulders. “I’d like us to feel at ease. Would you prefer I address you as Lieutenant Maibach, or Lord von Spiegler? I’m afraid I’m not quite clear on the protocol.”

It was a vexing question. She was my superior in rank, but I was noble born. To complicate matters, we were both incognito.

“I’m a soldier by necessity more than choice,” I said after a moment’s deliberation. “Army protocol’s not something I’m keen on. And I hardly feel the need to play the lord, not in these clothes.” She grinned impishly. Despite her comments about my youth, she could not be much older than me. “It’s only the two of us,” I continued impulsively. “Please call me Sebastian.”

“You prove yourself generous as well as brave. Call me Katja.”

“Brave,” I said bitterly and wished I’d held my tongue.

“Well, yes,” said Madame Pomeroy—Katja, if I dared—rising to her feet and regarding me quizzically. “You are the hero of Lomnice—”

I groped for the wall. Instead I caught Madame—Katja’s arm.


“It’s nothing,” I said, but the words felt wrung from my throat and barely discernible. These spells—attacks—were growing worse. Katja helped me sink to the rough planks of the floor, where I sat and blinked away the memory of artillery smoke stinging my eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me.”

“You’re trembling,” she said. “You’re shaking all over.”

I leaned back to feel the reassuring solidity of the wall, breathed deep at the sensation of Katja’s cool hand on my forehead. Her fingers moved to my cheek, my hair…and all the while her eyes searched mine. Then her lips met mine. I felt them rove over my face, her breath at my ear, murmuring soft, whispering words that were little more than sounds, comforting things one might say to calm a nervous horse.

“I’m no hero,” I said around her lips. I had done at Lomnice what duty demanded, what family honor demanded, compromised though it was. I had done what was needed for von Buquoy to notice me, and now I was sick with it.

“Poor Sebastian,” she whispered. “I can help you. Let me help you.”

I reached for her, found warmth and brought it in close, let it become fervor. The world spun away. I felt a confusion akin to Lomnice so that I hardly knew what I did. But unlike Lomnice, when the heat and the fury had faded it was peace that lingered; peace, instead of regret.

I lay in the dark breathing the scent of hay from Katja’s hair and said, “The world feels far away just now.”

“Very far,” she agreed. “But it’s still out there.”

“You know I can’t marry you,” I began.

Katja jerked her cheek from my chest. “Good Lord, why would I want to do that?”

“If there’s a child, I’ll do my duty by you. You’ll be well―”

“Oh, Sebastian, ” she said. “You really are an innocent.” She burrowed into my side, warm and fragrant. “There won’t be a child. And as to the other, haven’t you been listening? I had that once. It’s not what I want.”

“What do you want from me?”

“Just this.” She shifted against me. “Just warmth. It gets cold.” She laughed a little. “Out on the open road.”

“But surely—”

“I’m no delusional tavern girl, Sebastian. Stop talking, would you? Go to sleep.”

It was good advice and I took it.

* * *


* * *

I was upright with saber in hand without knowing what had roused me. Katja was quicker still, and beat me to the door and through it though she paused to snatch up her coat. Stepping onto the moonlit road, I caught my breath in a sharp, unmanly gasp.

The space around our wagon teemed with astonishing life. At its farthest edge a full herd of deer milled in a nervous circle, hooves churning, defining the outer arc of the uncanny scene. Closer in, a pack of foxes chased their tails, broke off to weave with graceful long limbs over and through and under each other, only to turn in frantic circles once again. At the center at least a hundred gray hares crouched trembling beneath the wagon, kicking now and again an agitated leg, twitching a restless ear. Owls there were too, perched atop the crate, softening the sharp angle of the roof with a carpet of rustling, restless feathers.

And I saw in the starlight that the earth beneath each of the four cartwheels had erupted with life—a garden of fronds and questing vines—to lace the spokes and bind the wagon to the track.

Katja stepped forward with a shout. I threw up my arms on instinct, felt the wind of many creatures passing into the twilight, knew with some primitive sense that we were alone again on the road even before I lowered my arms and could see again. But not entirely alone.

“What is in that crate?”

“My orders are to keep it locked,” Katja said, her breath visible in the brittle air, “and its contents secret. At least until Sablat.” But she fished inside the seam of her coat and produced a key.

I wrestled the lock open and flung the hinged doors wide. Moonshine glowed from twin discs of light at the rear of the long crate. A clot of shadow shifted and came toward me.

Wolf, I thought. I danced backward and raised my saber.

But what lunged for freedom was no animal. In the blur of motion I glimpsed wan, beardless cheeks, a cloud of fine, silvery hair. The long, lean muscles at arm and shoulder summoned to mind a troupe of acrobats I had been taken to see as a child. Like them, this man was clothed in nothing more than a breech clout. Yet neither was this a man.

He flew forward and I stood dumbfounded, utterly useless, all soldiery cast aside. At the last moment something checked his momentum, something I heard as a snick of metal, a chain drawing taut. The prisoner collapsed in a heap of finely shaped limbs just inside the threshold of his prison. The spider-web tresses of his hair obscured his face and draped his shoulders like a veil. It was a manacle around his ankle that had arrested him, fixed by a short chain to the interior of the crate.

All this I perceived in a moment’s time. As the wretch lay shivering inside his prison, I remembered to breathe. I saw in the gloaming that his back was marred by great bruises, black fading to purple, and that the flesh around the ankle-cuff was swollen and angry. My lips moved, but nothing emerged from my throat.

“When von Buquoy told me,” Katja said quietly at my side, “I took it for a jest. A misfired shell, exploded in the wood; a man who was not a man, found dazed beside the crater. When the count insisted on his story, I feared him mad. The pressures of his post, you see. But then I saw—” Her hands jerked toward our cargo. “I saw for myself.”

“What you are saying…” I began. It was inconceivable.

“The erlenvolk. They’re real. They’re real, Sebastian.” She stepped to the tailgate and with a startling familiarity, tugged the erlenman’s shoulder so that he rolled onto his back. I strained toward him.

High bones; a pointed chin; eyes closed but moving beneath the lids; arched, feathery brows. And all of the most delicate beauty, otherworldly beauty, painful to behold.

“But why?” I demanded. “What does the count want with—? Wait. What is it, there at his throat?” A wound, festering and evil.

“Watch,” Katja said, ignoring my questions. She held in her hand a bit of dry winter grass, torn from the roadside. I had not seen her pluck it. She let it fall to the erlenman’s chest.

He twitched, moaned, clutched the dead stalks against himself, all without fully rousing. In a moment a climbing green tendril curled from between his clenched fingers. Another followed, and another, and in a moment’s time it appeared he held a bouquet to his chest. Blossoms burst forth like fireworks, like mortar fire.

Gott im Himmel,” I breathed. The silver eyes snapped open. I staggered backward and sat down in the road.

Katja blurted out a laugh, more surprise than amusement. “Sebastian! Are you alright?”

I was far from alright. The world had dropped out from under me. Here before me was evidence of the wild and the utterly free, an impossible creature, untrammeled by the constraints of humanity. I staggered upright and returned to the tailgate, legs trembling. The erlenman had retreated to the far shadows of the crate and regarded us balefully.

“Why is he, why have we—?” My mind, my heart, were racing. I glanced about wildly. “We need to unchain him. Katja. We need to let him go.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re taking him to Sablat.” Katja stepped around me and pushed one of the doors shut with a bang. I stopped the other with my hand. “Sebastian?”

“We can’t,” I told her.

“We’re under orders,” she said with precision. “Does that mean nothing to you, lieutenant?”

“What happened to ‘Sebastian?’”

“Don’t bait me! I’m in command here.”

I stared at her, deciding whether or not to use force. While I considered, her hand slipped into her pocket. Had she armed herself with her pistol?

“Do you intend to shoot?” I asked quietly.

“Do you intend to make me?” I found no response, noting the unkempt wildness of her hair, the deadliness of her gaze. I realized I wanted to kiss her, to convince her. And then she said, “Listen!”

The drum of hooves, coming fast.

“We’ve got to move. Now, Sebastian.”

With a curse, I stepped aside and let Katja secure the padlock. No sooner had I scrambled over the sideboard than the wagon tore from its green restraints and hurtled forward, knocking me to my seat. I retrieved the musket from beneath the bench and cast along the road behind us.

“Just one.” Katja’s voice was loud in my ear. “A highwayman. Or a spy—” The rider drew closer. Moonlight glittered across the brass buttons of his coat. “He’s in uniform. One of ours.”

She threw the brake, snatched the musket from my hands and bounded down to confront our pursuer. They exchanged a series of terse phrases I understood to be a code, and the rider tossed her a wallet. From it she extracted a heavily inked document, which she read and tore into pieces without showing it to me, though I stood now at her side. She handed the bits back to the messenger. “What are your orders?”

“To accompany you,” he said in a heavy Schwabian accent.

“Then do so,” Katja told him bluntly. “But bury those scraps first.” She walked past me, pulling her gloves from her coat pocket, and said, “A slight change in plans. We’ll make a detour to Bulgravad. It’s a town just east of here.”

“Why?” I demanded, following her to the wagon.

“Yes, you asked me that earlier,” she said in a low voice, conscious of von Buquoy’s messenger watching us. “About our prisoner, and why the count has tasked his best spy with delivering him to a tavern in Sablat.”


She turned to face me. “Trust me, Sebastian. There’s more to this than meets the eye. Everything will be revealed to you in Bulgravad.”

* * *

Bulgravad was a surprisingly populated town, a provincial seat for the Bohemian governor. This man, Chemnitz Birsing by name, was a collaborator for the Empire and an old friend of von Buquoy’s. Birsing had been wounded the day before by his secretary, a staunch Calvinist and independent, or so our Schwabian messenger informed us. Von Buquoy ordered us post-haste to his bedside.

I was not to worry. Katja assured me that Birsing’s secretary and his fellow heretics had been subdued and the town was again in the control of our allies. There was only the matter of Birsing’s condition to attend to. I was far from worried. More troublesome to me was the impossible fact that an erlenman lay bound inside the crate at my back.

As we rattled through the empty streets, I found myself remembering odd tidbits, nursery stories, about the children of the wildwood. They lapped cream from saucers left on the back step. They healed with a glance. They traveled the woodland on the backs of stags. They crowned themselves with flowers and danced in moonlit glades. They could not bear the touch of iron…

“We’re here,” Katja said, jolting me from my thoughts. I looked up at a stately, dark-beamed building decorated with the Emperor’s colors.

Katja descended to the deserted street and unlocked the doors of the crate. At her gesture the Schwabian dragged the erlenman from his prison. The creature collapsed immediately to the flags of the street and crouched there shivering. The iron band still cuffed his ankle, though the Schwabian had left the chain inside the box. The skin around the manacle remained dark and swollen. Darker, perhaps.

The Schwabian had no apparent understanding of what lay in a heap at his feet. He seized the erlenman by the hair and would have dragged him upright had I not intervened. I shouldered the brute aside and lifted our captive with a hand at his elbow and hip. He felt bird-boned, impossibly light.

The servants, retainers and officials that occupied the governor’s residence began to spill from the doorways, curious as to the nature of our late visit. Katja stepped hastily forward and threw a cover over the both of us, the horse blanket that cushioned the bench of our wagon.

I followed a narrow view of Katja’s heels inside. The erlenman swooned against me, bare feet stumbling to meet my stride. Once past the doors, at the foot of a narrow staircase, I tore the cover away and carried him up the steps like a child.

I brought the erlenman into a room smelling of blood. I had walked among the wounded in the surgeries after Pilsen and Lomnice and knew what to expect even before I stepped over the threshold. In a shuttered bedroom, a stocky man lay sweating atop a substantial four-poster. He tossed his gray head against the soaked pillows, moaning with fever. I caught a glimpse of the weeping hole in his side and turned my eyes away again.

My hands hummed with sensation where they pressed the erlenman’s body. It was like clutching a beehive to my chest. I was loath to release him into what seemed to me an abattoir. The field of Lomnice felt too close. The floor swayed beneath my feet. I couldn’t make myself let go of him.

Katja enlisted the governor’s attendants to relieve me of my burden and secure the erlenman to a chair. The Schwabian took part as well, appearing to relish his task of binding the erlenman’s ankles and wrists to the frame. Once accomplished, Katja made haste to clear the room. Now only the two of us—and the erlenman—kept company with the wounded Birsing.

“What will you do?” I asked, hardly recognizing my own voice for the horror in it.

“Wait and see,” von Buquoy’s spy told me. When the door opened I realized we had been waiting for the Schwabian to return with Katja’s traveling case. She placed it on the bed at Birsing’s side, unbuckled the straps, and withdrew a syringe. But rather than approach the governor she turned to me where I stood beside the erlenman. “Hold his head. Show me his throat.”

I merely stared at her. The Schwabian squirmed past me and did as Katja required, exposing the raw veins that stood raised in the pearly skin near the wound. Dry blood crusted the inky patch of skin at its center. But it was to this spot that Katja took her needle.

When the point penetrated the erlenman’s skin a powerful shudder wracked him, though his bonds held him to the chair. He made no further move as von Buquoy’s agent filled the shaft of her syringe. Unlike the crust at the erlenman’s throat, his heart’s blood appeared luminous in the glass cylinder, like quicksilver. I pressed my knuckles to my lips and prayed I would not fall crashing to the floorboards.

“Watch closely, lieutenant,” Katja demanded, and when she stood again at Birsing’s side she was careful to position herself to my best vantage. I saw that she held her needle above the governor’s wound and let the contents drip slowly onto it.

Birsing’s reaction was immediate. He gasped a great breath and sat up, eyes wide. His hand groped his side.

“All is well, governor,” Katja said. “You’re cured of that bullet hole. Count von Buquoy sends his compliments.”

“Von Buquoy?” Chemnitz Birsing said uncertainly. He flung his legs over the bedside. “Von Buquoy’s here?”

“Gently, Herr Birsing. You must rest now. Though really,” she said, turning to me, “staying abed is more for the benefit of the staff.” Katja turned back to the governor. “A full day if you please, your honor. We don’t want to alarm anyone. Or rouse anyone’s curiosity.”

“But I feel very fit,” Birsing said in a rush. “I don’t understand what has happened here.”

“That’s just as well,” Katja told him. I heard the steel beneath her cheerful tone. “The less said the better. Count von Buquoy would like it that way. And that isn’t a request, Herr Birsing.”

She had orders for the Schwabian as well. Once he had dragged our prisoner back to the crate she dismissed him with instructions to return to von Buquoy’s camp. When the cobblestones gave way to a road of packed earth at the outskirts of town, she gave me a look that was oddly shy. “We’re well rid of him, I think.”

I could think of no suitable response. My mind swam with all that I had witnessed. Katja sighed and said, “So now do you understand, Sebastian?”

“No,” I said unhappily. My teeth were chattering with more than the cold. “What is von Buquoy’s purpose?”

She was silent a moment over the thud of the horses’ hooves. “Emperor Ferdinand’s army marches at our back. We’re headed toward the front, toward a mighty battle. Many men will be wounded. Theirs will perish, Sebastian, but ours will live to fight another day. Don’t you see? We’ll set up a surgery in Sablat. In the cathedral perhaps, or under tents upon the main square. We’ll be well prepared. The erlenman will be well milked—”

“No!” I seized the reigns and forced the horses to a stop. “For men to butcher each other is terrible enough. But a creature such as he, confined in a crate, in a coffin? He belongs far from here. In the deep places of the wood, in its sacred groves. He must not be used by us, Katja, most certainly not for war. How can you think otherwise?”

“How can you not? You’re a sworn officer, Sebastian. Would you ruin von Buquoy’s scheme, his army that cannot die? The siege of Pilsen was ruinous for him. Lomnice was a second disaster. He needs a victory.”

“The erlenman must be set free.”

“And your family?” Katja demanded. “I thought your intent was to save the Maibach lineage, not disgrace it further. Betray von Buquoy and you betray your country. Would you forfeit your honor, your good name? What about your duty to your family?”

“You don’t believe in duty,” I said in petty spite, angry because Katja’s reasoning was having an effect on my resolve.

“That’s not what I said at all. Look.” She drew a calming breath. “Do you really understand what you’d be throwing away? One stretch of farmland’s as good as another. You can earn your own parcel in the Sudatenland. On your own terms. Make your own choices.”

“My own choices,” I repeated. “I’m setting him free.”

“Why, Sebastian? It won’t stop the war. It won’t stop the fighting.”

“No. It won’t. But it might… It might cure what’s wrong with me.”

Katja turned to me and put a hand on my wrist. Her fingers felt cold, unearthly. “I’ve seen it happen to other men, you know. Harder men than you. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’ve seen men die, that’s all. Now von Buquoy has the means to prevent that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.

Katja’s hand moved to her coat pocket and I recoiled at the glint of metal. I had no doubt she would shoot if forced, but it was a flask that she retrieved from the stiff fabric and not her pistol. “Here. Brandy. It’ll settle your nerves. Sebastian. You know I can’t let you ruin von Buquoy’s best hope for victory. Have a drink. Think about it.”

I sat and thought, wrestling with consequences. In the end I stretched out my hand and accepted what Katja offered. I pressed the flask to my lips and swallowed fire. Perhaps she was right. I was a nobleman’s son and an officer. My duty was clear. Katja reached for the reigns where they rested across my knees. The horses were soon in motion, swift and obedient under her steady hand.

* * *


* * *

Scant hours later, the rising sun liberated the steeples and towers of Sablat from the distance. We passed unspeaking through the town and watched it wake up around us. All at once Katja recognized a wrought metal gate with little golden crowns decorating the finials. She navigated our cart through it.

“Shut it behind us,” she demanded of the tidy boy who trotted into the courtyard. “Tell your papa to bring me the key to the cellar.”

When Katja opened the door of the erlenman’s crate, my heart sank. It was apparent the bloodletting in Bulgravad had weakened him further. I bore him down the steps in my arms and felt again the raw, humming power that rose from his skin. The sensation felt weaker than I remembered, subdued though not yet quenched. I reasoned that whatever dungeon awaited him in the cellar of the Krone could be no worse than his present confines.

“At least get rid of that cuff,” I told her as I eased the erlenman to the earth floor. Instead, Katja secured the end of the ankle chain to a rivet in the wall. It looked new, fastened there in anticipation of this very circumstance. She cast me a deliberate look.

“It would be best for you to make peace with this, Sebastian. Neither you nor I can stop it.” I said nothing, trying to believe her. The erlenman watched me through the curtain of his hair. I could feel his eyes on me even as I stood on the other side of the door. Even as I lay down in utter weariness on the starched linen sheets in the room I was shown.

It was a dream that woke me, a dream that was like a play I had seen over and over again, like the puppet shows performed on the Tiergasse for little children. But this dream took me a thousand leagues and a thousand years from boyhood, onto the field of fire, the smoke, the uneven ground bucking beneath my feet. My saber felt heavier than the weight of all the earth and still I must lift it and move forward, against a tide, a red sea. And so I woke, fighting still, gasping and sputtering like a man drowned. Katja sat on the bed beside me and gazed calmly down at me.

“It’s said you shouldn’t wake a soldier from a nightmare. It feels cruel, but it’s best to let the dream play itself out.”

I sat up and scrubbed my hands over my face. “I’m no soldier,” I said wearily.

Katja clambered onto the pillows beside me and some of the dream fell away. I saw she had lit candles while I slept. A little plate on the nightstand held cheese and apple slices. The shutters were closed, but I could sense dusk beyond the windows.

“No, not a soldier, not any longer. You can be as I am.”

“An agent of von Buquoy’s?”

She laughed at my contempt. “Is that so terrible? I plan to give him a favorable report. Von Buquoy listens to me. He has reason to want to please me. I work hard for him.”

“Yes, I know. Out of duty.” I tried to make it sting, but my heart wasn’t in it.

“That’s the last thing von Buquoy wants from me. He knows it’s self interest that keeps me loyal to him. As long as he gives me what I want, I do the same.”

“And what is it you want?” I turned to face her as she made herself comfortable among the pillows, her skin gleaming in the candlelight. “What is it von Buquoy gives you?”

“A certain amount of freedom, Sebastian. More than someone in my circumstances should expect.” Her face grew solemn. Her eyes dipped to my mouth. “If you let me, Sebastian, I can help you.”

“Then for God’s sake do so,” I begged her. She ignored my despair. Perhaps she wasn’t aware of it. And then, for a blessed little while, neither was I.

* * *

With Katja’s consent, I spent a good deal of the next day in my room. I paced the five steps along the side of my bed and back again, pausing now and then to stare from my window into the yard below. Katja, costumed now in the dress of the townswomen, spent her day in the cellar with Sablat’s only doctor.

When first he came to the hotel in answer to her summons, the doctor was a sallow, skeletal man with a ferocious cough. He emerged from the erlenman’s cell with a dazed countenance and an energetic stride. Returning some hours later, towing a straw-lined little wagon stuffed with empty specimen jars, he positively glowed with health.

I knew what she and the doctor labored at. The mere memory of her words—well milked—made my stomach heave. My appetite failed to return at dinner, even when Katja brought the scent of soft rolls and butter, meat and wine into the little chamber. Other appetites were keener. I longed for release and the oblivion of sleep thereafter.

“Trust me, Sebastian,” she whispered as she kissed my mouth, my hair, my fingers. “Be here with me. Forget everything but now.” I did my best to comply. But in the morning I stared into the cold courtyard and tried not to imagine what Katja and the doctor did behind the locked door.

On the afternoon of our third day at the Krone, as I paused in my restless pacing, I noticed something peculiar. It involved the inn keeper’s son and a broom and a flurry of wings. I asked Katja about it later, as we lay together in the dark, our spent bodies steaming the starch out of the sheets.

“Songbirds,” she said. “Roosting in the eaves above the cellar door. Every day more of them arrive. Rapp sends his son to shoo them away, but they always come back.”

“They come back?”

“I think they’re drawn to him, to the erlenman,” she said dreamily, her voice floating in the dark beside me. I could just make out that she lay on her back, that her eyes were open. “Every morning we enter that cell, we’re forced to trample through the garden that has sprung from the floor in the night. It’s as if the erlenman has replaced the sun.”

“Dear God,” I said.

“I shall be glad when it’s over, Sebastian, if you want to know.” She turned onto her side. “It shan’t be long now.”

“How do you mean?”

“Nothing,” she said, rousing a little at the quality of my voice. “Just that von Buquoy will be here soon, with the army. We’ll be given another mission. Will that please you?”

“And the erlenman?”

“Will remain von Buquoy’s business.” She pulled the covers closer and said more gently, “I know it upsets you, Sebastian. Stop torturing yourself. We’ll be on to other things soon enough.”

“Yes, of course,” I said softly, but my mind was racing. “I just hadn’t thought.”

“Well, what did you think? That you’d pace up and down this room forever and stare mournfully from the window?”

“No, of course not.” Saying those words, I realized Katja had been suppressing her annoyance with me. I also realized she was right. Von Buquoy would soon arrive with the army. The luxury of my indecision had come to an end.

It proved a struggle to keep my body from displaying the agitation that consumed me. After what felt an eternity Katja’s breath slowed and grew deep. I rose and went to stand beside the upholstered chair in the corner. It was lumpy with Katja’s clothes. I began a thorough search of them. I tried not to think of my mother, walking the leaf strewn paths of a winter garden.

The birds—finches, pigeons, turtledoves—rustled overhead while I paused to unlock the cellar door with the key I had liberated from Katja’s skirt pocket. A meadow of wildflowers, scent and color, sprang to greet me as I threw the door wide. The erlenman lay chained in their midst. It was only when I tugged the two halves of the manacle from his ankle that he stirred at all. Sat up, though he had lain among the blossoms as one dead. Sat up and regarded me. His eyes caught the lantern light beyond the open door and glowed with reflected light. He bared his teeth at me.

I moved slowly backward, crouching, lifting my hands. I let the iron cuff and chain slip from my fingers. He followed the motion with his eyes.

“Go,” I said. I jerked my chin toward the open door. “Free!”

Whether or not he understood my words, there was no mistaking the velvet sky framed by the doorway. The erlenman tottered to his full height, staggered through the flowers, and fell in a miserable heap upon the threshold, half within and half out of his prison. I pulled him upright and set off through the yard, dragging, clutching, stumbling.

I chose the stable for a destination, a quickly realized mistake. The erlenman’s approach sent the horses into a frenzy. What else, for creatures born to the harness? I spun him about, tripped through the empty yard, laughed when the gate swung open and we slipped unhindered onto the street.

We staggered through the dark. Now and then a square of yellow lamplight fell from an unshuttered window onto the cobblestones. Stepping through the glow, I had the sensation of moving through sunlight, a high mountain glade burnished by summer. And then the shadows would return, the darkness of ferns, the small noises of the forest at night, until the creations of men and the concerns of men disappeared entirely and I walked through a dream of the wildwood.

All the while I felt the erlenman press my side, felt the hum that rose from his body, soaring and waning, but growing stronger, growing deeper, the farther we went from the town. We walked for leagues and instead of fatigue I felt impatient to stretch my legs, eager to feel the earth sweep past and beneath me as it does for the noble creatures that flee the hunt.

State your business!” someone shouted and I woke with a start, though I had not been sleeping, only dreaming. “You, fellow! What are you doing there?”

I looked up at a mounted man, a soldier wearing Imperial colors. The sun rode the sky at his shoulder. Another rider waited beside him, his hand poised above the pistol in his belt. In a moment I understood. These men were scouts. The vanguard of von Buquoy’s army, as Katja had disclosed to me.

“I—nothing,” I stammered, twisting wildly to see that the erlenman crouched in the tall brown grasses beside the road. “My—cousin. He’s ill. Dying. I’m taking him to…”

It was just as well I ran out of ideas. The erlenman stood up like a shot, went suddenly taut and lifted his nose into the air, casting and sniffing like a hound. His head twisted left, to the west, his hair flowing over his shoulders like foam over river stones. I followed his gaze, saw the shadow of trees in the distance. The erlenman darted across the road, past the soldiers, setting the horses rearing and the riders shouting and cursing.

Run! I thought, my heart leaping. Run!

And at the same time I heard Katja’s faint voice demanding, “Stop! Stop him!” barely audible over the rumble of hooves.

I did not wait for the soldiers to recover or for Katja’s approach. Like a hound unleashed, I flew after the erlenman. I saw him some distance ahead, lost in the golden light on the bronze grasses, swift and surefooted as a stag. I ran after him until I thought my heart might burst and ran past that still.

I labored up a rise to find the him waiting for me between two ancient oaks, the threshold and the gateway to the forest. Their branches dappled his skin with green light, the first unfurling of spring. I could hear the riders coming hard and fast at my back, but still I stood, and he stood, and we regarded each other in the twilight of the trees.

A shot rang out. I whirled, ran toward the horse barreling down, seized at the rider. I grasped a handful of fabric and pulled. Katja landed at my feet, limbs tangled in her skirt. I twisted about, felt the heat of the horse as it passed, felt the heat in my shoulder before I heard the second shot. I never heard the third.

* * *


* * *

“Don’t bother.” Katja’s voice stung me awake, but it wasn’t me she was talking to. “Go in after him and neither of you will come out again.”

I lay in the road, my cheek pressed to the dirt. The tall, brown grasses of the roadside shivered mere inches from my face. The erlenman was long gone.

“Who was he, madam?” I recognized the voice of the scout.

“A state secret,” she said curtly, and her eyes found mine. “Ah, Sebastian. Awake? Does it hurt? I hope so.”

I lay on the ground, my wrists bound at my back. Two flaming coals seared me at chest and shoulder.

“Is this what you wanted? To make me shoot you?”

“Don’t,” I managed to gasp. “Don’t be angry.” I tried to rise, to tell her. Something hot and viscous trickled past my lips.

Katja stepped quickly over the cold ground to kneel beside me. Her face was very pale. “Don’t be a fool, Sebastian. Lie still.”

I woke again and again to heat and pain and the rattle of harness, the jolt of cart wheels over stiff ground. I sensed the presence of a large company of riders. I couldn’t fathom where they were taking me. When I closed my eyes the branches of ancient trees brushed my naked shoulders and the sharp scent of pine pierced my nostrils.

I woke again as I stumbled over a threshold, slid down a crude stair to embrace a garden of wilting flowers. Katja stood regarding me for some time before she shut me in, down in the cellar of the Krone...

“Sebastian!” she hissed.

“No,” I said hoarsely, leaving the dream wood behind. “I don’t want to hang. Let me die here.” But she had a grip on my shoulder and I was weak, too weak to fight her. Until the erlenman’s blood dripped from her syringe, penetrated my skin and chased along my veins, like a leaf unfurling. I scrambled upright, breathing hard.

Katja rose to her feet. I watched her shake out her skirts.

“I’ve been pardoned,” I said.

She made a noise of exasperation. “No, Sebastian, they mean to hang you. Von Buquoy’s even concocted an offense. The von Spieglers will never forgive you, so you’d best not look to them for help. Would you like to know what you did?”

“No.” I crossed the floor and stood close, peering into her eyes. “Why did you come?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” She stepped away from me. “I’m setting you free.”

“What about von Buquoy?”

“As I’ve told you, my duty isn’t to von Buquoy.” She drew her brows together in a scowl. “Mark me, Sebastian. I won’t be able to protect you if you’re recaptured. Which is more likely, the longer we stand here.” I had but a moment to notice the knapsack in her hand, before it went tumbling through the air. I caught it clumsily. “You’ll have to keep running. Maybe Britannia.”


“Von Buquoy won’t look beyond the continent.”

“That’s not what I mean. I betrayed you. Why come here, why let me go?”

She shrugged and looked away. “For the opportunity to tell you what a fool you are.” I could see the slightest quiver at her mouth. “You could have had everything, Sebastian. But instead you threw everything away.” She looked up at me, daring me to deny it.

“I could ask you to come with me,” I said at last.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, sounding more like herself. She stepped to one side, made a gesture toward the open door. There was nothing else left.

I moved, rushed past her, taking the steps two at a time. The earth hummed through the soles of my boots, vibrating with secret life. The courtyard, the stable flew past. A vast kinship waited for me to come and claim it, and it wasn’t in Britannia. I slipped into my stride, feeling the long muscles heat and stretch. I smelled the moist green scent of trees in the air and followed it out of the city.

* * *

After spending time on three continents, Barb Siples currently enjoys citizenship in The People's Republic of Portland, Oregon. Taking full advantage of her city's public transportation system, she amuses herself by secretly casting fellow rail passengers in the fantasy, sci-fi, horror and historical fiction stories she writes. Read more of her stuff at www.barbsiples.com

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

Travel. Sail down the Nile on a felucca, haggle for a carpet in the sun-baked streets of Samarkand, survey the ruins of Chaco Canyon from the summit of Pueblo Bonita. Taste the flavor of the centuries in the air.

Jehan de Mandeville, Returned from the East, Orders His Affairs


Jehan de Mandeville, Returned From The East, Orders His Affairs
by Jacob Rakovan

On Michaelmas day, when the divil fell from heaven, we took to the sea and it was a black going, and long ways we came at last to the holy land,under letters from the Sultan,
I saw the blood stained rock where our lord Jesus died and going further then we came to the sea of Ind where adamant stones bristle with the masts of ships and iron, and going on, went through that valley where the head of the devil stands,and saw the heaps of gold and murdered men and touched them not, and came round at lastto the kingdom of Prester John.

And what telling is there of that black king, and the wonders and terrors of his land?
How they honored their dead, throwing gobbets of flesh to the vultures and called them angels, come to take them to heaven, and drank toasts to their fathers from the brimming bowl of their skulls and yet marched the cross before them into battle, and how I kissed the yellow robes of the patriarch of St. Thomas the doubter. In the north of that land there is a wall of steel, set by Alexander, who they call Dulkannon, to bind Gog and Magog, till such time as the earth shall cast it asunder, and beyond that end we could not travel. In Tartary I drank once, from a well they said could keep a man from death, but now, in my own country, swollen with gout and wonders,

I await the opening of that other door, that other angel,
blacker than buzzards against the sun,
wait departure for that other kingdom, that other king.

* * *

Jacob Rakovan is a 2011 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in poetry and a resident of Rochester, NY.

Do Not Repent


Do not repent
By Pamela Freeman

I could draw you a diagram, yes, yes, that would be best. See, the castle is here, on the hill, secure, took forty engineers ten years to design that battlement, another twenty to build it with serf labour.

Now, down below, the river valley, yes, see, the river curves like this. You think it's calm, it runs so quietly through the valley but then, here, it turns and falls sharply, white water, rocks with sharp edges, sharp as ingratitude, that's what they call them, the Serpent's Teeth, yes, but there's a path goes up behind the rapids, the old porterage path, before they built the bridge at Pontville they had to carry their boats over the rapids, now everything comes up the river to Pontville and then by road, but that's not important, what's important is this old path, here, see, it comes up the back of the valley and then down to the postern gate.

So come up the river as far as you can then drag your coracle up behind the bushes and go up the path to where it curves down to the castle.

Don't go down. Keep on the line of the path and go up, up as far as you can, yes, yes, as though you're climbing all the way to Heaven on your own two feet, until you can look down at the wards. There's only one spot that overlooks the inner keep, they decided it was safe because it's impossible to get any more than one man up there at a time and it's well beyond arrow shot, so climb until you reach there, look, I'll put a cross where you should be. Now, here, yes, yes, here, there is a way into the mountain. Bless yourself and go through there, find the Cauldron, drink from it and then… well, then you shall see what you shall see.

Just make sure you're shriven and fasting before you begin, and keep all lustful thoughts from your mind.

God go with you, sir. Don't ask me what to expect, no-one ever comes back with the same story. Everyone sees something different, or at least that's what they tell me. They say if you spend a night there you will come down either a poet or a madman. I have seen both come back down the mountain.

* * *

Everyone had told her what to expect. She had heard stories about the mountain since she was a baby. Arthur is buried there, they told her. A door to another world, they said. No-one spends a night on the mountain and stays unchanged. A poet or a madman, they said. But it had been a generation since anyone from the court had gone.

She wanted to be a poet. She was a poet. The court musicians played her compositions, the local bards sang her rhymes. But she wanted to be an acknowledged trobairitz like the Comtessa de Dia and Marie de Dregnau de Lille. She wanted to be world famous, with troubadours singing her songs, sighing her melodies. She wanted her name to be a byword for unfulfilled passion and passionate devotion.

It would help if she were actually in love with someone, but that would come with time. She was only sixteen, after all, and married barely a year. Plenty of time yet to find her true love.

But time was pressing, nonetheless. She had to climb the mountain before she became pregnant. Once she was carrying they would watch her like hawks, safeguarding the heir.

This would be her only chance. Now that the roads were open, Bernard, his father, Seigner Raoul, and his brothers were making their annual visit to their liege lord, the Count; they would be gone three or four days and home in time for Easter. She would tell her mother-in-law she was going on a retreat to the abbey, alone, on foot as befitted a pilgrim, to pray for conception.

It was only a mile outside the castle gates, they could stand at the moat and watch her safely into the abbey guesthouse. The abbess would not lie for her, but neither would she betray her. She was a kinswoman, her mother's half-sister, and she knew better than to make an enemy of the girl who would be Domna at the castle, one day.

So she went to Caligonus, the court astrologer, and got the directions she needed. He was her friend, he had taught her the fundamentals of his craft over the long cold winter: trine, square, sextile. A black art, the priest called it, but looked the other way when the Seigner ordered a natal chart as a gift for a vassal's new-born, or consulted the astrologer about the best day to begin sowing.

Caligonus was a dark, spare man with a mind like a hunting cat's; watchful every moment, with the caution of a practitioner of an officially banned craft, but also with the curiosity of a born observer.

"Na Doette," he said to her, calling her "Lady" in the shortened Occitan style she had yet to become entirely used to, "there is a transit occurring. Nothing is secure; I cannot predict what will happen. You were born under Venus; this is a time of great change for you."

"Yes!" Doette said with delight. "A true change! I will become a great troubairitz, and my cansos will be sung from Castile to Bretagne."

"When we go looking for a miracle, we may not like what we find," he said, and looked sideways at her and stroked his beard. But she laughed at him.

"The Blessed Virgin has me under her protection. I have completed a novena, I have fasted all through Lent, I will give the abbey a fine altar cloth which I myself have embroidered. With the Holy Mother to protect me, what should I fear?"

He was silent for a moment. Then, very gently, he spoke, " Domna Doette" She warmed to the familiar term, her title at home. "Domna Doette, your heart is brave as a lion's and no doubt the Holy Mother will protect your soul from harm. But there are other kinds of harm"

"Who would dare?" she asked. "It would be death to harm me."

"It was not physical harm of which I spoke."

"What, then?"

He shrugged. "Disappointment, the lure of the impossible, a taste of freedom which might unfit you for your position… Domna, I do not know. I only know that my scrolls tell me tomorrow is a night of great change, when the very nations will shift in their sleep. It is not a night to be alone on the Mountain of Malheur."

"It is the perfect night. The only night," she said, and he bowed in acquiescence.

* * *

She set out from the castle gate at noon with the whole of the household watching her, from stableboy to cellarer. Her mother-in-law stood with the other ladies at the top of the steps by the main door, waving approvingly. Na Maria wanted a grandson, and this was a very proper pilgrimage for Doette to undertake: short, focused and done without disturbing the household, by which Na Maria meant her husband and sons.

She would light a candle in the chapel and pray for Doette's success. And then she would finish embroidering the neck of that fine linen nightdress, so that the girl would have something alluring to wear when her husband came home. She would scent it, too, with musk. One could pray, but there was no sense leaving everything to God and the Blessed Virgin.

Doette disappeared into the abbey gate, and Maria's ladies rustled around her. The Spring wind was chill, even in the middle of the day.

"To my solar," she said, and the women followed her inside.

* * *

Doette picked her way carefully so the rough road wouldn't cut her bare feet. She hummed under her breath as she turned into the abbey gate and went towards the guesthouse.

"Therefore I beg of you, if you please, that noble love
and joyfulness and sweet humility
may so commend me to you
that you may grant me most hope of joy…"

It was a love song by Beatriz de Romans, but Doette sang it to the Virgin. The words fitted. She thought over that for a moment, that a trobairitz's words might be taken by someone else and changed in meaning completely without changing a syllable. It so distracted her that she was three paces inside the guesthouse door before she realised that the abbess herself had come to greet her.

Doette sank into a courtesy and kissed the abbess" ring dutifully.

"Come, daughter," Mother Paulinus said, "walk with me."

They moved side by side to the long cloister. The flagstones were cold under Doette's feet, but they were smooth.

"Well, are you still determined on this ridiculous course?" Mother Paulinus asked sternly.

"Yes, mother."

Paulinus smiled. "So. I have laid clothes and boots ready in your cell, and some provisions. You will attend Vespers and retire to the cell. I do not expect to see you for two days."

days, mother? I should be home by Prime tomorrow."

"And how will you enter the abbey court in broad daylight? You will leave under darkness and you will return under darkness. And then you will remain in your cell for a night, fasting and praying, so that neither you nor I will need to lie when asked about your retreat."

Doette looked at her: the clever eyes, the restrained mouth. This was the wisdom a woman needed to become a power in her own right. For a moment Doette regretted not taking the veil; at least Paulinus answered to no-one but the bishop. But as a nun, the only melodies would have been hymns and psalms; beautiful, but without the plaintive loveliness of the troubadour songs.

She would find power of a different kind on the mountaintop.

* * *

"Behold, we have seen him with neither beauty nor comeliness;
his appearance was unsightly.
It is he who carries our sins,
and he suffers for us."

Doette sang with good heart through Vespers. She noted how the melody wavered on the word for "carries" ("portavit"), curving around the B natural note and then climbing on "sins" (iniquitates) to the 5th mode in the next phrase. It was an interesting effect. Perhaps that wavering of voice could be used to depict earthly love…

Next week would be the Passion; the great feast of the church, her confessor at home had always called it, as though it were one word: Easterthegreatfeastofthechurch. She loved Easter Sunday: the dark-church-set-alight conflagration of the Vigil Mass, the return of the Gloria, whose Lenten absence left such a strange dislocation in the Mass, the white vestments of the priests instead of the forbidding purple… Even Good Friday, heart-wrenching though it was, and physically tiring, had a splendour about it… the Way of the Cross, the terrible, tragic afternoon service, the removal of the Holy Body to the Altar of Repose…

She brought her thoughts back to the psalmody

Surely, he has borne our infirmities and our sorrows he has carried.

As always, the act of singing drove all coherent thought from her head. She was a river of sound, her throat a channel through which God made music. Blessed Virgin, she thought as the cantor gave out the strophe, guide my footsteps tonight.

* * *


* * *

The moon was only half full and almost setting, of course, the week before Easter, but Mother Paulinus had included a dark lantern with the clothes and food. Doette opened one panel to light her path; from behind no light would show. She found the path and closed the lantern, then waited a few moments for her eyes to become accustomed to the faint light.

It was a rough trail, up along the river and then curving up behind the castle. In daylight she might have been frightened by the heights; in moonlight she was entranced by the silver, shifting shadows, by the cry of night birds, the rushing of the river which covered her footsteps, the sharp scent of rosemary and cypress. She had not been alone, fully alone with no-one within earshot, since she came to the castle. Since she became a wife instead of a daughter. For a moment she thought of Bernard, dining at the Count's table. He would be pleased when she became famous. He was a patron of the arts, an accomplished lutanist, although unfortunately with no voice. He sounded like a crow squawking. She giggled.

At the point where the trail curved down towards the castle, she stopped to catch her breath. The stars were sharp as needles, the pines and cypresses on the hillside whispered. She wanted to sing, exultingly. All alone. She started on the upward path.

"I will go all alone to the mountain…"

She sang under her breath. That wasn't a bad tune. But mountain was hard to rhyme.

"I will go all alone to the- to – through the…greenwood" Yes, that was a good word.

"I will go all alone through the greenwood.." What came next?

The mountain rose under her feet as she hummed and sang, forgetting even shortness of breath and the crowd of stars that seemed to blaze brighter with every step.

At last she reached the little platform from where, in daylight, one could look down on the castle. She opened the lantern and searched for the cleft in the rock. Now, for the first time, as she stared at that slit of darkness, she felt nervous. Not afraid, exactly (what did she have to fear, being under the protection of the Blessed Virgin), but with butterflies in her belly and her breath coming a little short.

She held the lantern high and entered.

It was a passageway, leading down, the floor strewn with rocks. She picked her way carefully, giving it all her attention and therefore less aware of her fear.

She watched the floor so carefully she had taken three steps into the cavern before she realised.

She had heard of places like this, where the very stone grew into strange and sometimes miraculous shapes. High, huge, the cavern stretched out further than the light from her lantern could reach. Astonishing. Glinting, coloured… she wandered among the pillars and almost-statues in a daze. There was a stag, antlers raised; an eagle, wings stretched for flight; two spreading trees, oaks, so lifelike that in the flickering lantern light it seemed as though leaves moved in the wind… a man.

A man. A true man, no stone shaping. He bent and lifted water in his hands, and drank, then stared at the rough blob of stone before him as though bewitched, a candle on the ground beside him. She drew in her breath sharply, and the whispering sound travelled and echoed around the great gallery. The man - a young man - jumped and staggered back, knocking his candle over. It went out.

"Don't be afraid," she said urgently, and the cavern sang back to her, affffrai affrai affraidddd. How ridiculous, she thought, that I should be reassuring him.

He looked from her to the blob of rock. "Mother?" he said, so softly that the cavern only hissed thertherther. He went down on his knees.

Doette had had men kneel to her before. Serfs, troubadours, pages, of course. But this man was an adult and, from his voice and clothes, no serf. And she was no-one's mother.

She came nearer. His hair shone in the lantern light like autumn leaves. He fixed his eyes on her and his eyes were as blue as Our Lady's Mantle. He reached his hand to her and his hand was beautiful.

"I am no-one's mother," Doette said, whispering. Ss Sss, went the cavern.

"Domna," he said, shaken. "I thought…" He looked again at the rock. Now she was closer, Doette saw that from this angle, the rock looked very much like a Madonna and child, with a curved rock beneath it that held water. No wonder he was shaken. He had been thinking of the Blessed Virgin and then she had appeared.

She giggled. The cavern giggled back. He smiled reluctantly.

"You are a light-hearted visitation, Domna," he said, but his voice shook. The cavern echoed him, but she had stopped listening to the cavern.

"No visitation, seigner. A pilgrim, like yourself, I think."

"They told me that no-one came here anymore."

"No-one does. It has been a generation since anyone in the valley dared the mountain."

"And tonight, after so long, the two of us? What Fate has brought us both here? Would you be a poet, Domna?"

She stiffened a little. He was older than she, but not by so much that he could question her.

"I am a poet," she said. "I want to be a great poet."

"Then you must drink from the Cauldron," he said. He looked from her to the rock as though he saw her face there, as though she were truly a visitation.

She stepped forward, cautiously, and bent to cup water in her hand. It tasted strange, like chalk and metal. The edges of her tongue furred. Then she straightened up.

The lantern lit his face from below, casting the eyes into shadow, the hair into a halo. A saint in a stained-glass window, she thought. Saint Christophe, patron of wayfarers, protect us. Saint Anne, patron of good wives, protect me.

But it was far too late.

* * *


* * *

He was a troubadour, of course. His name was Oliver. Not quite noble; the bastard son of a baron from Normandy. He travelled the world, as such men did. He would leave in the morning, and never return.

They sang together, notes rising in perfect pitch towards the invisible roof, as though in a cathedral, as though in prayer.

They sang Pistoleta's duet Good lady, give me your counsel, and Down there in the meadows and then, as he stood watching her from the shadows, tears on his cheeks, Doette sang the Comtessa de Dia's I have been in great perplexity.

"My love, handsome and good,
when will I have you in my power?
If only I could sleep with you one night
and give you a loving kiss!"

She had never sung like this before, as though the song came from her heart with no need for thought, as though the notes were truly hers, not learnt from some troubadour for a guerdon, for a silver penny.

He sang a new melody for her, the words coming from nowhere:

She is the light of the world
That Lady of my heart
Surrounded by glory she comes
Where she is there is no shadow.

His eyes were blue as forget-me-nots, as blue as cornflowers. His hair like bronze, as fine as silk. His voice a thick brown velvet ribbon, soft and plush with clear edges. She could have drowned in that voice. She could have lived in it forever.

She was married. He was unobtainable, unsuitable even if she had not been. She thought, I wanted to become a byword for unfulfilled passion and passionate devotion.

* * *

His name was Oliver. She wrote many songs about olive trees in later years. Bernard thought it was in nostalgia for the olive groves of her youth. She sent them out with troubadours and jongleurs, hoping he would hear them and understand.

Down there beneath the olive tree
- Do not repent –
A clear spring wells up.
Dance, girls!
Do not repent
of loving faithfully.

They marvelled from Castile to Bretagne that she could write so feelingly of love, who was so chaste, so faithful to her husband. In all these years, there had been no whisper of a love affair, not even of the pure love allowed between lady and knight.

You do not feels the pangs of love as I do, she wrote.

Perhaps he did not. On the morning she went to be churched after her third child, another boy, the choir sang a new hymn to Our Lady in her honour.

She is the light of the world
That Lady of Mercy
Surrounded by glory she comes
Where she is there is no shadow.

It was composed, she was told by the chorister, by a monk in the Cistercian order, who was making a great name for himself in church music. Brother Revelatus.

"His new Mass is eagerly awaited," the chorister said. "I am sure your ladyship would be pleased with it."

She nodded. "I will pay for you to have a fair copy made, Father. The glory of God shows itself most clearly in music."

He beamed and thanked her and watched her walk away, the baby in her arms. The living image of Our Blessed Virgin, he thought. Anyone who sees her sees God made manifest on Earth.

She went home and cried over her lute, then took it up and finished the song she had begun on the mountain, so many years ago.

I will go all alone through the greenwood
since I have no company.

* * *

Pamela Freeman is an award-winning author of 23 books for both children and adults. Her novel, The Black Dress, won the NSW Premier's Literary Prize for Historical Fiction in 2006. She is best known for historical and fantasy writing, but has also published in crime and science fiction. Her most recent books are Ember and Ash, a stand-alone fantasy novel for adults, and Lollylegs, a short children's book about a very cute lamb. Pamela's books have been published in the UK, USA, Italy, Indonesia, Canada, Korea, Germany, France, Portugal and Spain, and are distributed to India and South Africa. Pamela is a Doctor of Creative Arts (Writing) and also teaches at the Sydney Writers" Centre (face to face and online).

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Mostly I answer: "I don't know" to this question, but in this case I got the idea while I was listening to 12th century troubaraitz music and was struck by how many of the original songwriters were women. The story came out of real songs of the period--the ones which are attributed to "anonymous". I started to wonder who might have written them and why...

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

My husband says I'm not inspired, I'm addicted… and I think he may be right. I think it's also true that I write the stories I'd like to read but can't find anywhere, so if I'm going to read them I have to write them first!

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

I think there is a tension between creating the characters in a way which is truthful to their reality - for example, belief in God or hell or the divine right of kings - while making them comprehensible and human for the contemporary reader. I hate historical fiction which is full of "modern" characters in historical dress; that is, where the modes of thought of characters are profoundly modern rather than arising out of their upbringing and environment. This is part of world-building - but it's also, deeply, a question of imagination. It takes a huge effort to imagine oneself into a medieval mindset fully enough to write a novel, for example. Part of that is research, of course. The more you know, the easier it is to be faithful to the characters" reality.

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

I think humans are fascinated by other humans - we are social creatures. And we learn about ourselves by seeing how others have been or could be different to us. Historical fiction shows us ourselves in a new light. And it has some of the best stories!

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

Do your own research. So often I have found ideas for plots and characters arising out of my own reading. I am currently researching 13th century Italy for a new series and the more I research, the better my plot gets!

The Messiah's Wife


The Messiah’s Wife
by Bezalel Stern

True believers continued on the quest for the Holy Land, which turned out to be a snake and alligator-infested place near Helena, Arkansas. Bullard apparently died. All that was left of the Pilgrims were his wife and another woman, who lived in a shack.

-David S. Reynolds

* * *

It has been two years four months and seventeen days since the Messiah left us. His ascent to heaven was a thing unimaginable. Now, it is unimaginable that we will carry on.

The wife of the Messiah has been hounding me of late, admonishing me to do my share of the work. It is hard, though, although I try. The land is arid and dry. There are few people among our surroundings, all of them heretics. They do not believe in the Messiah. Of the believers, only the Messiah’s wife and I are left.

* * *

It was three months ago that the last of the men passed on. To heaven, I am sure. Where there is plenty of room. When I think of it, it takes my breath away, almost. Thousands of years this world has been around, and no one was saved until the Messiah came. And no one will be saved but for the few of us who knew him and loved him. The pastures of heaven will be green and wide and empty.

I do not regret the heretics. I understand their ways. It is hard to believe in a Messiah that has already ascended. Or, as they claim, that has died. It is true, I will admit, that our Messiah was buried, that he illed for a time of the malaria, as we call the sickness of the swampy region of this Southern state that is the Holy Land. But although his earthly body disintegrated – I know this because I dug him up, one night, to ask for advice, to seek some solace; the bones were already crumbling in my grasp – his spiritual self has flown to be in heaven with his and my God. I still believe in him, although it is hard.

I do not try to convert the heathens anymore. It is of no use, to them or to us. The wife of the Messiah is angry at me for this. Of course, having had relations with the Messiah, she was above the rest of the flock (that is, me), and did not deign to strive to convert, let alone to speak with the heretics that abound in the world. It has been up to me, then, to deal with the outsiders, to bargain for food and drink and supplies, to trade what meager sustenance we grow, here, in the Holy Land, for what we do not have.

As I said, I tried, for a time, to convert the heathens. But it is hard. They laughed at me, scorned me to my face. It was easier when there were men with us. They would fight, sometimes, with the heathens. Make them recant. Jedediah, my husband, who passed years ago (I hardly remember his face, now) was a strong one, and he made many a heathen recant his felonious testimony. Still, the converts, even at the height of the Messiah’s powers, were few. Now, that the Messiah is no longer with us, the converts too have ceased.

* * *

I must admit, it has been a long time since I believed in the Messiah with a perfect heart. I hope to God this does not make me a heretic, that there will still be a place waiting for me in Heaven, with Jedediah, with the Messiah. The wife of the Messiah is harsh with me, though. It would be a comfort to have a man to help with the work. The wife of the Messiah refuses to do chores. She lounges about the house, commanding and exhorting, reading the Bible and interpreting its verses. Sometimes, when she speaks, I feel as if I can hear the voice of the Messiah through her. Other times, though, I feel as if it is just the wind rushing through the rocks outside.

The venomous snakes killed off my Jedediah. It was the malaria that destroyed the bulk of the flock. I wish I could talk to the wife of the Messiah about this, ask her how the Messiah can treat his few, precious people so unkindly. But I know I must not. The wife of the Messiah herself is a harsh woman. Strong, but harsh. She alone, of all the myriads of us who had the sickness, passed through it unscathed. I myself did not become ill.

As I confessed, I have had trouble of late believing the Messiah with all my heart. This is not, however, because I do not love him. Contrary to this, I have never loved the Messiah more. Sometimes, as I go to bed last night, my legs leaning against the bed-frame, looking at the legs of the wife of the Messiah beside my own face (there is but one bed between the two of us), I think about how wonderful it would be to be her. To have shared the Messiah’s bed and his soul, as she had. And, I must admit, at these times I become jealous. I contemplate the undying love I have for the Messiah – a man of God I have not seen for so long, now – and it ills me to think of it.

Yet, I find myself questioning my belief.

* * *

* * *

It has been a long while since I have felt unlonely here. The wife of the Messiah is a good woman, even with all her hardness. She tries her best to take care of me, exhorting me to always follow the right and the good, reminding me of the last words of the Messiah. They were to her, of course. The light of his life, his mouthpiece to the world in his final days and months.

“Be fruitful and multiply,” he said to her, and she says to me. “And you will live long and prosper on this earth.”

Only now there are but us two. And it is impossible, without another Virgin birth, for woman to be fruitful alone.

Besides, I am getting old. It is past the time of childbirth. My two children, Belthazar and Thomas, died at seven and fourteen months. They were good boys, both, although Thomas did not have much time to manifest his goodness. They are gone, now, to heaven, where I hope and pray they reside with Jedediah and the Messiah, may he always watch over them, forever.

Yet still I doubt. I know it is foolish. I know there is only one way to go in this world – it all leads toward death. This is what the wife of the Messiah exhorts, despite herself, despite the relentless optimism she pushes upon me, saying I will find another husband, will remultiply the flock. Where am I to find another husband? Among the heretics that lie among our outskirts? It is forbidden. And furthermore, I have no desire for them. The wife of the Messiah, of course, cannot remarry. To lie with a human after having lain with God would be a mortal sin.

And so the task lies on my shoulders. Yet it is clearly an impossible one. And so, there is only death. To be taken away from this Holy Land, the land of the living, and to be escorted by my husband into the land of everlasting life is my eternal wish. I do not think I am the only one in this world who prays of dying. Yet I know I am alone, of all the members of this godforsaken earth, who will enter heaven when she dies. I and the wife of the Messiah.

I cannot help having doubts, especially in the dark of night. I return to my questions, as they gnaw at me constantly. It was different when the Messiah was alive. It was so clear, then. His voice, that voice alone, with its melodious harmony and its sing-song beauty, was enough to captivate me, all those years ago, in our shady corner of Vermont. I brought my husband to hear the Messiah preach that very next day. He was preaching daily, then, exhorting converts and potential converts to join him, to let him lead the way to the heavenly city on earth.

Unlike me, Jedediah needed some convincing. In fact, it was only after I threatened to leave him and follow the Messiah on my own that Jedediah claimed he became convinced, and agreed to join us on our journey. By that time, I had already given birth and buried my two boys, and I was ready to live the peaceful life in the heavenly city below, and to join them in death in the heavenly city above. The Messiah claimed, and I believed him then with all my heart, that my conversion would effect my boys, too, who, until that time, had surely been festering in hell. Since my conversion, the Messiah assured me, my children were safe and comfortable in heaven. Safe and comfortable and waiting eagerly for their mother.

Now, though, it is harder. Now that the Messiah is gone, it is hard to remember his singsong voice, hard to retain his endless enthusiasm. When we came to this Holy Land of snakes and scorpions, when we first camped for what we all assumed would be a night, maybe two, before we were on our way, I became somewhat scared. I am not sure why. A premonition, maybe. My husband always told me I was attuned to the spiritual world. It is what finally convinced him to join us on the journey to the Holy Land. That, and his fear of being left alone.

My unholy fears were played out the next morning, as the Messiah announced to us, his eagerly serving flock, that this was, in fact, the Holy Land. The land of our desires. This land beyond the swamp, at the very extremities of human civilization.

Here, where even the savage Indians refuse to dwell.

I accepted it, as did most of the congregation. The weak and the tired among us left, but that was to be accepted. They were the rabble in our midst, and were never fit to enter the heavenly city. The Messiah was glad to be rid of them, and so was I.

When the malaria came, we at first took it as a sign from heaven. The Messiah was weeding out his flock, killing those who did not deserve to live in the city of God. I was among the few saved, and, at first, I was happy for this. When Jedediah took ill, though, it became hard. As a sinner – which he was presumed to be, as he took to the disease – I was forced to abandon him to his fate. He was moved with the other victims outside of the camp, where I hear he died a relatively painless death.

When the Messiah and his wife took ill with the malaria, several months later, a proclamation was given. The malaria was no longer a sign that one was cursed. On the contrary, it was a symbol of blessing. God wanted his Son near him, in heaven, along with his Son’s children, his flock. It was the will of heaven that the malaria take all those who would not survive it. I, being one of the few left in our camp without the disease, was now seen as something of an outcast. True, I was not expelled from the camp. However, my life was not made easy. I spent the bulk of my days tending to the ill, who were now placed prominently in the large wooden meeting house in the center of the camp. It is a wonder to me that I did not become ill, as so many of our flock passed away, one by one, into the glorious kingdom of heaven.

But I remained.

By the time the Messiah’s physical self passed on, there were only a few dozen of us left. I was one of perhaps five who remained untouched by the malaria, and who dug the grave where we placed the Messiah’s body. It was a shallow grave, I knew, so that he could rise again if called upon. He has not yet been called, however. And when, filled with a manic longing, I dug up his bones, and saw how wickedly worm-eaten his remains were, I knew his physical body would not again be made use of.

The wife of the Messiah, unlike the others touched with illness, eventually returned to full health. This was a surprise to me, and a not unwelcome one. At that point, only three of the faithful, other than myself, remained. The rest of the survivors had fled, aiming to return to their ancestral homes in Vermont, abandoning the Holy Land that promised them succor.

It has been hard, though, with the wife of the Messiah healthy. As much as she tries to fill his place, she is not the Messiah. This she knows, as do I. Thus, her exhortations often fall on deaf ears. In my weakest moments, I must admit, I no longer believe in the Messiah. I love him, in truth I have always loved him, but I do not know if he lies beyond.

I have hoped for so long to see my husband Jedediah once more. I had dreamed for so long of taking Belthazar and Thomas once again to my bosom. But I do not know, any longer, as I once did, that this will be the case. I do not know that the Messiah will be my succor in the next world, as I am no longer certain that he was my savior in this one.

I would not speak of my fears to the wife of the Messiah, however. On the contrary, I will continue to serve her, and to speak well of the Messiah and his Holy Land, until the end of my days, or hers. We will live out our lives together, in this godforsaken Holy Land. And whether the Messiah comes, or whether He fails to come, we will continue to preach His name, although we may be the only ones that hear it.

* * *

Bezalel Stern is a writer and lawyer who lives in New York. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Jerusalem Post, City Journal, The New Yorker, Emprise Review, Untoward Magazine, The Rumpus, The Second Pass, and The Millions, and was short-listed for the Center for Fiction's Emerging Writer Fellowship in 2011.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Ideas for my stories come from everywhere. Most often, actually, I get my ideas in dreams. Every few weeks or so I'll have a dream so vivid I'll wake up and know it needs to be written. Other times, I get it from things I read or see. I got the idea for "The Messiah's Wife" when reading David S. Reynolds fascinating book about mid 19th Century America, Waking Giant. Reading about this man who proclaimed himself the Messiah, brought his followers to a literal wilderness, and then died, leaving a wife and one other woman, made me want to get inside these people's heads.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

The answer to this one is easy: I can't not write. When I have a story inside me it gnaws at me until I put the words on paper. Often a first sentence or two or three will float around in my head for a few days and when I write it out the rest of the story just flows. Writing is hard, and it can be very discouraging, sitting there with your thoughts and your words. But it's important to remember that you're writing, ultimately

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

Giving a real flavor of the time and place, while making the characters the author's own. The best historical fiction - all good historical fiction, really - realizes that the past is another country. I just started watching Boardwalk Empire, which takes place in Atlantic City in the 1920s, and I think for the most part the show succeeds at doing this.

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

I think there's a false and a real attraction. The false attraction, which I think is a real attraction to many, is that you'll learn facts. Historical fiction doesn't (or shouldn't) teach facts. That's why it's fiction. What it does - what it should do - is bring you into another world, one that is unfamiliar, a place that by its very difference enlightens the present.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

Read. A lot. Not just fiction, but history. It's very hard to write historical fiction without a strong understanding of the period and the place about which you are writing.