Tuccia

Rome, 31 A.D.

Tuccia pulled her veil firmly around her head. She didn’t want to attract any more attention than necessary. She prayed for the respect of the citizens as she descended the steep steps of the Atrium Vestiae.
At the edge of the square she strained to see through the crowd of onlookers. Their attention was focused on the column of condemned, meaning for the moment she stayed unnoticed. The parade of tragic souls moved slowly past, harassed and beaten by the ruthless Praetorian Guards. One by one Tuccia studied the manacled prisoners, hoping beyond hope her information was wrong.
She gasped when she saw that it was not. In the middle of the thirty men, she recognised Gallius, her childhood friend. It was obvious he had been treated as poorly as the others, his blonde curls and body caked in blood. The crowd remained eerily silent. None wanted to incur the displeasure of the guards. Established by Augustus, they once symbolised the strength and mercy of the emperor. But under the rule of Tiberius, they had become much feared. Led by the cruel Sejanus, the guards had become manipulators of the city, the state, and therefore the empire itself. A network of spies and informants fuelled their zealous drive. Few were safe from their growing dark reach. On their authority alone, without trial or even discussion, nearly anyone could be marched away to their death. While Tiberius led a life of debauchery in Capri, he grew steadily more ignorant of their activities.
The prisoners were minutes away from the end of their lives. Sweet Gallius, the only pure hearted man she had ever met, was going to die. For nothing. The time had come for Tuccia to act. She wormed her way through the crowd.
A gap presented itself when two guards focused their attention on a stumbling man. Within earshot, Tuccia called her friends name.
Gallius reacted to her familiar voice, but did not look at her. Brave, noble Gallius. Despite her position, despite his fate, he would not risk endangering her. He only had to look upon her to be free.
He would not.
She had no choice. Rushing forward, she threw her arms around him.
“No Tuccia!” he pleaded.
A blow from the hilt of a sword knocked her to the ground. As she fell her cloak parted enough for the guard to see the red and white bands of the goddess. Shamefaced, he ushered her to her feet. The line of condemned men halted as other guards came to the scene.
Regaining her composure, she addressed the forlorn soldier who had struck her.
“I have touched this man. He is pardoned.”
He, and the other guards who had gathered, bowed their heads in respect. This law was beyond all statutes and arguments. Her order predated the Praetorian Guard by seven centuries.
Gallius held his place, his shock visible. The nearest guard produced a ring of keys, stepping forward to free the man.
“Wait!” came a booming command from the rear of the column.
Tuccia felt a cool shiver as she recognised the voice.
The voice of Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Personally responsible for twelve thousand elite soldiers. The man whose power exceeded even the emperor himself. Why was he here today?
His troops parted like obedient children as he strode toward her. His deep bronze shield, breastplate and helmet contrasted with his cold pale complexion. In his hand, a silver lance with an intricately decorated grip. He fixed her in his proud amber gaze.
She stank of the goddess.
“Who are you, bitch?” he demanded.
“My lord,” began the guard who had knocked her down.
Like a striking snake, Sejanus spun the deadly lance in an arc. As he did, the tapering end flared into a narrow blade. Tuccia saw this clearly although it moved at such incredible speed. With a whoosh it was back at the side of Sejanus. The soldier’s severed head slid noiselessly down the angle of the cut. Like an overripe tomato it splotched to the ground.
“I was talking to her” he continued, casually kicking the severed head into the throng.
Tuccia stepped next to Gallius. She loosened her veil to reveal more of her face.
“I am a Virgin of Vestia” she announced boldly but not loudly. “And by my touch I free this man of all false charges against him.”
Sejanus looked over her with obvious contempt.
“The only falsehood before me is that of your chastity” he sneered.
Her mouth fell open in disbelief.
“The pontifex maximus will confirm it” she stammered.
He spat on the ground at her feet. He strode to her, tearing away her veil to reveal her shorn hair. Then her cloak, uncovering the palla pinned over her left shoulder. Roughly he tore away this shawl of dignity, leaving her bare breasted in the centre of all. The red and white ribbons of Vestia fluttered around her. She made no effort to cover herself.
“I see the Virgin!” shouted one of the prisoners. Like wild fire, the cry spread amongst the condemned. They all knew that even the sight of a maiden from the temple, while en route to execution, meant their freedom. Their voices grew in number and volume along the line.
“Silence!” bellowed Sejanus. “I see only a whore. For who but a fornicator would throw themselves upon this pig.”
He turned with malice to the shocked Tuccia.
“I offer you the chance to prove yourself. A challenge. For is it not true that your goddess empowers you?” Her knees trembled, threatening to give way, but she held her ground and his terrible gaze.
“My goddess walks with me always” she said bravely.
“Good” He took a metal pot from the kit of one of his men. “Then this will be simple for you. You will take this to the Tiber. Fill it with water and return it to me. If it is still full when you get here, I will release every prisoner. If it is not, you will take loaf and wine to Campus Scelerus. Do you agree?”
“I agree” replied a defiant Tucci quickly. The prefect of the city had given her an easy task, apparently upon realising the impropriety of his actions. She was proud to have stood firm against this arrogant bully. The threat of Campus Scelerus, the evil field, was empty. She would not be joining the skeletons in the underground chamber of death. The food and drink were traditionally provided so that the victim was not killed, which was sacrilege, but rather died “by their own choice.”
He stood, holding it aloft so all could see. He turned slowly, scanning the sea of faces for the real target of his actions. She was here somewhere. He smelled her.
“The Virgin of Vestia has agreed to the challenge. Her word is binding. If she fails in this task, she is deemed unsuitable to maintain the flame. She will end her days in Scelerus.”
Sejanus dropped to his haunches. He pulled a jewelled dagger from his belt. Aggressively, he punctured the inverted pot with numerous holes, turning it into a sieve.
He threw it to her. She was too stunned to catch it and it clattered noisily to the ground.
“I will wait on the steps of your temple” he laughed. He walked away, resheathing his knife.
“Wait!” she called to him. Sejanus spun on his heels.
“You have changed the conditions of the trial. I demand the same right.”
His chest heaved in anger and his hand instinctively went to his sword. Still she would not cower beneath his cruel eyes, as so many had before. He cursed the obvious influence of the goddess.
Tuccia had pulled her garments around her and held the battered pot in one hand.
“I will bring you your water, but surely the Tiber is too far away. On such a warm day, you must be very thirsty. The fountain of our temple is just over there. You can watch me, to ensure there is no trickery. For surely water is water my lord. And this business can be ended much sooner.”
His fingers played eagerly upon the hilt of his lance. How easy it would be. But the hundreds gathered round would not tolerate the murder of a Vestal Virgin under any condition. His gold eyes flittered amongst them. Where are you?
He bowed with exaggerated grace to accept her condition. He still held the upper hand.
Tuccia turned to the people. This time she held the pot aloft. She raised her proud voice to the masses.
“The Prefect of Rome has given his word. It is as binding as my own.”
Sejanus bristled at her mockery.
The crowd parted to form a corridor from the steps to the fountain. She walked purposefully over and knelt before it.
She was no fool. The task was impossible. Her training had given her courage and conviction. But not the ability to perform miracles.
Trembling, Tuccia dipped the bowl beneath the surface, reluctant to raise it.
Her genuine devotion to Vestia had brought out her brave demand to draw water from the temple fountain. She had known nothing else since the age of eight.
Now, twenty years on, she would have her faith tested at the risk of forfeiting her life. She prayed it would be enough.
Her goddess answered.
On the temple steps, Sejanus tensed as he felt the influence of his sister.
Tuccia felt another pair of hands cup her own, giving her strength.
She raised the pot, trickles of water dripping off the outside. She watched the surface, for surely it must drop.
It did not. None escaped from the holes Sejanus had made.
She carefully got to her feet and carried it back to him.
He did not look in the least surprised.
Tuccia gently dropped to one knee and offered him the pot.
He smashed it away with the back of his hand.
He stepped past her, calling his troops to follow.
The prisoners were left, dazed in the middle of the square. Families and friends rushed to their loved ones, weeping with joy.
Some remained around the figure of Tuccia. She had fallen onto the steps and lay without movement. They longed to help her but none could touch one such as her. Several called to the temple for help. Finally two other maidens of Vestia came down to aid their fallen sister.

Within days, Sejanus’ reign of terror had ended. Statues of him were torn down. Any mention of him removed from public records. His broken body was left, ironically on steps. The Germoin Stairs. He had been strangled. A crowd descended upon the body, tearing it to pieces.
In their rage, few noticed the fierce amber of his eyes gone. In their place, the kind blue ones he was born with.
As though his spirit had flown, leaving only the shell of his battered corpse.

from the novel “Last Goddess”

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Leaf Raker

Liam didn’t like offices so he raked leaves at St. Magdalene. He did other things as well; mowing, clipping, watering. But raking seemed to occupy most of his time during his school holiday job, tending to the shedding of indifferent elms. He nodded over his rake to the stoic locals, and the steady visitors who included the historic church in their itinerary of Nottinghamshire. They trickled past throughout the day, in ones, in twos, in lines and in groups.
Liam swept the last pile together next to the open sackcloth bale. The public had gone now, and he dropped to his haunches behind an elm for a quick cigarette. He’d returned to St. Magdalene to avoid his father’s generous offer to join him for five weeks at his city accountancy firm. Both parents had frowned when he declined once again, apparently clinging to the hope that Liam would become the third generation of McAllisters at the firm. Why, it would be such a sad waste of his school results if he didn’t plunge headlong into accountancy, crunching numbers and filing tax returns until he was a hundred and thirty.
Liam lit up a Marlboro, drawing slowly before sending a plume of silver smoke over the neat grass towards Nottingham. There his father; an overweight caricature and mother; a flittering socialite, ran their daily schemes and schedules. Oblivious both of course, to their troubled son’s love of only two things; his guitar and Geraldine Harker. Neither of whom seemed to love him back quite as much. Liam was in a holding pattern, neither content nor not. He teetered on the edge of introversion and he knew it. His job here is not just in opposition to his parent’s wishes. It’s almost like hiding out. He sent another trail of smoke crawling away into the setting sun, stubbing the cigarette into the soil. The wispy tendrils snaked and intertwined before breaking apart again, like the promise of a revelation snatched away. These are the best years of your life, people told him enviously. Liam seriously wondered if he would look back on them that way. The scourge of acne seemed a mountain in itself, let alone his dissatisfaction with his music or shyness around Geraldine. He bunched some grass in his fist, angry at the gods of adolescence and frustrated in that ongoing, yet unexplainable way of the young.
Liam sighed, stood up to bale the last of the leaves, and noticed him.
A man came down the long path towards him with a quiet gliding walk. Through a narrow gap in the tree Liam took in his strange appearance; a flamboyant felt hat pulled low in the front: a plume of feather crowning the purple brim. Out of place atop a long brown and ragged overcoat. A homeless prince.
The man stopped where thousands do, at a carved black stone book set in the lawn. Liam had looked at it a hundred times and still couldn’t remember exactly what it said besides the name and years. In fact, he only knew one quote from the poet by heart.
The man glanced up at the tree, catching Liam off guard. Not knowing if he could be seen or not from the other side, he simply remained still as the man looked away again. That choice now hastily made, Liam froze and waited for the man to move on.
A tall woman was now following the same path. Her laced boots clicked softly on the stones, under a full, deep green skirt. Her long hair, dark cocoa locks spilling over a white blouse buttoned at neck and sleeves. Illuminated by the low gold of the sun, Liam could see the dull powdered pallor of her face and bright painted lips. She clicked to a stop next to the man, peering as well at the marble pages.
“But I have lived, and not lived in vain;
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,”
her voice is steady and sincere.

Liam recognises the words from the memorial as the man recites:
“But there is that within me which shall tire,
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire.”
The man’s tone is quiet and flat.

It is a ritual, to mumble the verse on the black book while standing there.

The felt hat tips toward the woman. The man’s voice is a little louder, more genuine.
“Her glossy hair was clustered oe’r a brow
Bright with intelligence and fair, and smooth.”

“Thank you sir, that was lovely. I see you too are an admirer of the great Lord Byron.”
“Not at all.”
“Really? Yet you stand at his stone and quote from Don Juan?”
“Many know his words” replied the man coldly, “Not all fall at his feet.”
The woman frowned, lightly shaking her head.
“He was a brilliant man. Unique.”

“He was a spoilt pretender. A fake.”

“Though every scribe, in some slight of diction,
Will hint allusions never meant
Ne’er doubt This when I speak,
I don’t hint but speak out.”

She looked at the man as though pitying him.
“Doesn’t sound like pretence to me. He expressed himself freely and openly. Provoked thought and debate. He was no fake!”

“Self important and full of wind then.”

“I may stand alone
But would not change my free thoughts for a throne.”

She shook her head at the man in the coat beside her.
“I cannot agree with you sir. He fought for the freedom of Greece. The home of democracy.”

“No. He was bled dry by the Greeks in exchange for their worship. It was a futile quest.”

“At his funeral, the coffin was followed by forty seven black carriages representing the great houses of Britain.”
“The carriages were empty” the man snarled. “They showed their appreciation and disgust at the same time. Women left parties because of him. Men refused to speak to him. He was an animal. The passage of time does not change that.”

“But he was always going to be different. Handsome, but handicapped. Philandering deviant father. Wealthy and titled at ten? Sexually abused. I forgive him plenty.
Joy’s recollection is no longer joy,
While Sorrow’s memory is Sorrow still.”

“Do you have to keep quoting him?”
The woman turned away, her blush kept safe under the matte of her makeup.

“You speak of him as a forward thinker, but he didn’t move with progress. He wasn’t a forward thinker. He sought to encapsulate the moment, oblivious to, or at the expense of all around him. His only legitimate child was taken from him as a baby. Her mother feared his influence on the girl would be nothing but detrimental.”

“She wasn’t even allowed to see a picture of him until she was twenty years old” said the woman quietly.

The felt hat turned sharply from her countenance just as she looked over at him. Liam saw her troubled face, as though she’d been denied as much as the poet’s daughter. The woman’s long hair dropped just as the man glanced over again, this time his voice held the discomfort.
“Ada was force fed mathematics. Discouraged from literature, particularly poetry. Especially his poetry. Her imagination curbed, she still somehow managed to foresee the future of the modern computer. Her work with Charles Babbage pioneered the way the whole world now communicates. In the eighteen forties! She was ahead of her time. A century ahead.”

“And look at where computers have got us. What they have made us:
Society is now one polished horde,
Form’d of the two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.”

“Those tribes have always existed” admonished the man. “Byron was speaking of himself as well no doubt.”

The woman sighed.
“Now, by my foul, tis most delight
To view each other panting, dying.
In love’s extatic posture lying
Grateful to feeling, as to sight.
He was fourteen when he wrote that. Not many fourteen year olds speak with that kind of passion. Neither bored or a bore.”

“Perhaps not many fourteen year olds know that kind of passion.”

“Oh, I’m sure plenty do. But the writing is the thing. The bold cadence of the words. The rawness.”

“The raving of the insane.”

“Did you come here just to mock him at my shoulder?”

“I come to pay my respect to none of the Lord Byrons buried here. I’m only here because of Ada.”
“His daughter is in the family vault beneath the church” the woman said as if to direct him there.
The man looked over at the pretty church, clad in late afternoon shadow. “I don’t feel that welcome in churches.” He turned his head a little to look at her profile.
“Ada used logic. Incredible reasoning and foresight.”
“But the analytical engine they devised was never built. Her program never tested.”
“It was built. But it took another hundred years. Even then they only built what Babbage foresaw; a super calculator, not the vision of Ada. She predicted uses far beyond maths and simple problem solving. Ada envisaged computers fed more than numbers, machines analysing and creating music. No one else thought that way. Spared the impurities of her father, she changed the world!”
“But she wrote algorithms, the poetry of mathematics. She dreamt and doubted. Preened and struggled. Ripped and tore at her life. Tried to elope at sixteen. Confessed adultery to her husband on her death bed. Perhaps her father had more influence on her than he ever realised.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to influence her. Not in that way. He didn’t fight for her you know, no matter what his heart may have told him.”
“If he thought her life would be better without him, then doesn’t that make his decision quite noble?”
“None of his decisions were for others.”

Again she defended Byron.
“I am the very slave of circumstance
And impulse-borne away with every breath.”

“Yes, the impulses of a pig.”

“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes
Sin is a pleasure.”

This time a thin smile played upon her lips.

“You don’t have to keep quoting him.” He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. “I know them all.”

“Of course you do.”

They looked at each other, actually face to face for the first time. The woman reached out, tilting back the felt hat. She traced a finger over his cheek. Across the nose so like hers. Like a baby daughter might, on her troubled father’s face.”
“So you knew it was me all along Ada?”

“Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.

God dad, look at that hat!”
Liam could see the glistening of her eyes. “Why, after all these years do you still hate yourself so much?

“To fold thee in a faint embrace,
Uphold thy drooping head;
And show that love, however vain,
Nor thou nor I can feel again.”

He smiled weakly at her. He covered her hand with his own.
Liam caught the chill of the moment. The cold certainty of confession and all its consequences. Like a statue, like part of the tree itself he was drawn to the pair at the black book. The sun had sunk to the horizon. The woman seemed so fragile in the last dying rays.
“I’ve only ever sought one thing. The approval of my father. This day I finally have it.” Her voice broke a little, the crystal chipping. “To know you think so much of my work means everything to me.”
The man swallows hard. Not as if he’d never given a compliment, but as though he’d waited so long to give this one.
“You are amazing Ada.”
“Thank you” she whispers as though the words hurt her throat.
Liam thinks they will embrace. They both flinch as if they will. But the man holds back so she does too.
“I seek a single thing as well. In this life or any other.” And now his eyes are wet. “The forgiveness of my daughter.”
She shakes her head softly. As daughters do to silly things their fathers say. She opens her arms and he fills them, weeping like a child. The ugly felt hat falls away. She strokes his wavy hair as he sobs and sobs.
“Then both of us have had our wish fulfilled.”

Liam is crying as well. Weeping at something he has seen in the light and overheard from the shadows. Knowing against all the things he does, that these two are no actors. No fans. That their performance is genuine. Their feelings raw and tears cathartic and oh too real. Liam has never believed in ghosts. He’s still not convinced even now. But what he’s witnessed cannot be explained. Neither can the feeling inside him, as though he’d been laid bare in the twilight and forever changed. He recalls the only lines of Byron he knows by heart. And as seems to be the way, it fits just right.
“Tis strange but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction.”

The two continue to hold each other, meshing into one. And Liam sees the most amazing sight he will see until he holds his own daughter in his arms five years later at Geraldine’s bedside.
The ragged coat turned to moths. Grey and brown and white they take flight, magical in the last rays of the sun. The brown hair, the white blouse, the green skirt explode as though a giant Christmas cracker has been pulled. They erupt into thousands of butterflies, intertwining with the moths. The flying creatures form a spiral, drawing the leaves from the open bale next to Liam. They join the fluttering wings, dancing on the air as they follow them towards the moon.
Liam laughs after them. He will never rake leaves again. Those or any others. Warmth washes across him. The swirling breeze of words and numbers and magic assaults him. It mixes with the honesty and simplicity of his love for Geraldine. He shuts his eyes as the music fills him. An orchestra of madness and emotion in a wave of simple beauty. He rocks back, nearly falling. It is beyond wonderful.

Under the confetti moon the leaves fall like snow.

This revelation doesn’t dissolve like cigarette smoke. It soaks him. Shakes him. Fills him.

He picks up the rake, humming the tune as he carries it back to the shed.
Then he’ll ride home to get his guitar.

He’s going to see Geraldine, the girl he knows he’ll marry. Who he’ll share everything with. He’ll show her first.

After all the song is about her.

(from the short story collection “nine”)

EPILOGUE

History provides great literary characters; it’s the angle that is the key, the fire to the coals. Sometimes the premise for a story reaches out and slaps your face, demanding you take action, as this one did for me.
The figure we know simply as “Lord Byron” was in fact the sixth Baron Byron, George. His father Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, squandered his mother’s family inheritance, then acquired enough debt to force him to leave England. Byron saw little of his father, who died in France aged just thirty six. Coincidentally, Byron died at the same age. And remarkably, so did Ada.
I knew Ada, famed for her mathematical contribution to computer programming, was Byron’s daughter. But that’s all.
I knew nothing of her, or even her father’s life, really. I was pretty sure Byron was the poet who wrote Don Juan (but didn’t know a word of it) and that he was a controversial figure in his time. Oh, and one other dinner table snippet of trivia: that Byron and some house guests once spent a stormy weekend swapping ghost stories. From that gathering came John Poldini’s inspiration for the novel Vampyre, and Mary Shelly’s for Frankenstein.
It interested me that father and daughter excelled in such different areas. I decided to do some research.
The incidents mentioned in my story are all reportedly true, both about Byron and his daughter. The poetry Ada quotes is of course all his. Byron was born with a club foot, an infirmity he apparently hid with the “gliding” stride he walked with. He became Lord Byron at the age of ten upon the death of his great uncle, inheriting a title and a rundown estate. Not quite the spoilt rich kid I’d imagined. His first published volume of poetry was recalled and censored. Some of his work was considered immoral, especially considering he was fourteen when he wrote them. In “The Leaf Raker”, Ada quotes from “To Mary”, one of the poems omitted at the time. Byron came to real prominence due to his use of satire, firstly targeted at not only critics, but other poets.
As his literary successes escalated, so did his excessive lifestyle. Byron accumulated a reputation with a debt to match. He was the prototype of the modern celebrity, revered and despised simultaneously. His sexual misadventures created the most scandal. Openly bisexual, adulterous, possibly incestuous, his passionate affairs consumed and inspired him. He spoke dramatically in parliament, kept a mind boggling cornucopia of animals and sailed warships at the powerful Ottoman Empire. People went to extraordinary lengths just to catch a glimpse of him. Upper class women would bribe and dress as hotel chambermaids to get close. His wife Annabella coined the term “Byronmania” to refer to the public’s fascination with him.
She also took her infant daughter Augusta Ada, and of course herself, away from him in fear of his self destructive lifestyle. Annabella, gifted in mathematics, kept “Ada” as separate from her father’s influence as possible, not even allowing her to look at his portrait. From this far removed household Ada followed a career in numbers instead of words, in time becoming one of the most famous mathematicians in history. Her revolutionary work with algorithms superseded the machines which would use them by a century. When she too died at thirty-six, it’s interesting that her body was placed next to her father’s in the Byron family vault. It seems Annabella could only trust him with her in death.
Having daughters of my own, I couldn’t imagine a lifetime of separation from them. How much did this affect Byron and Ada? How much genetic influence did he have upon her, for her private life too held a shadow of impropriety? Did they secretly communicate without Annabella’s knowledge? Presuming dangerously that history is giving us the truth here, and that their lives never intersected, father and daughter could only meet in the afterlife.
Unencumbered, they could talk freely. Argue, laugh, apologise, console. Because for all the scandal and stories, the fact that Byron and his daughter never spoke together has the most impact on me. And what magic would come from their meeting?
That’s the face slap. And that’s where “The Leaf Raker” comes from.

The inscription on the “black book” is from Canto IV of Childe Harolde. He quotes Don Juan to her. Byron’s work that Ada quotes to him from are in order: Don Juan, Don Juan, Marino Faliero, Don Juan, To Mary, Sardanapalus, Don Juan, Don Juan. When Ada asks Byron why he still hates himself, he quotes from And Thou Art Dead As Young As Fair. The line Liam remembers is from Don Juan.

And yes, Byron did keep a tame bear at school.

Petrov

Serpukhav-15 Bunker, Russia September 26th 1983.

Shortly after midnight the unthinkable happened. The button that must never light up flashed red. The alarm that must never be heard cried out loud and shrill as a screaming child.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislov Petrov stared non-believing at the blinking light. The room burst into a cacophony of voices.
“They’ve launched! The Americans have launched” “Call Moscow!” “ We must counter attack” “American pigs!”” My family!”” My wife! My children!”
Petrov tried to focus among the crescendo of panic and anger. Surely they would not release a single missile. It made no sense. Why would they risk a retaliatory strike? Perhaps there was a glitch in the system.
“Sir, our orders are clear!” A phone was thrust towards him
Trust your instincts.
Despite the pandemonium around him, Petrov heard the voice clearly. A woman’s voice, little more than a cool whisper.
Trust your instincts.
“We will wait” he announced calmly.
The soldier next to him lowered the offered phone in shock.
“But sir!”
“What does the computer analysis say?” asked Petrov.
The piercing alarm was silenced at last.
“Not static sir. The evaluation is…” The last of the panicked voices dwindled away to hear the answer.
“Well? The evaluation is what?”
“That it’s a real launch.”
Stay calm Stanislov, she cooed. He glanced around the busy room.
Was his conscience female?
Stay calm.
“Sir, we must report this!”
“For the moment we shall wait, is that understood?”
No one answered. Petrov scratched the scalp through his short hair. On a double shift he didn’t want, he felt twice his forty four years. As commander of the facility, it was his call as to what action to take, though the other men were adamant that there was only one course of response. Report immediately. Launch the counter attack.
But just one missile?
Petrov dropped into his chair. The red glow of the button taunting him from the display panel. But only one.
No.
Not only one.

A second satellite report triggered another button to flash red.
Then another.
And another.
And another.

Five.

“Sir. Computer analysis predicts the launch of five minute man missiles.”
Only five, said the woman.
True, thought Petrov. They would not send five when they could send a hundred and five. A thousand and five.
It is a mistake. There are no missiles.
“Sir, the phone.”
“I didn’t ask for the phone.”
“It’s Moscow sir. They have been automatically notified of a multiple launch. The phone was extended towards him until he reluctantly accepted it.
“Petrov. Are you there?” The voice sounded metallic and distant.
“This is Petrov.”
“Do we have inbound warheads Lieutenant Colonel? Are we being launched upon?”
Be brave. Tell him what you think, said the cool whisper.
“I doubt it sir” answered Petrov. “I believe the system is compromised. It is a mistake.”
“You believe? What does the equipment tell you?” rattled the distant voice.
“The equipment is indicating five incoming missiles.”
“But you don’t think so?”
“No sir, I doubt it very much.”
“Lieutenant Colonel, you realise that we have very little time to launch a counter strike. Your judgement as a soldier, and a scientist, must be correct.”
“Yes sir.”
“Then your recommendation is what exactly?”
Nothing.
“My recommendation is that we do nothing.”
Silence filled the phone line. Then Petrov heard muffled voices. His name mentioned. The murmur of discussion. The metallic voice returned.
“Nothing?”
Trust your instincts.
Only five missiles?
“Nothing” Petrov heard himself say.

At that point the world had less than two minutes to find out whether his instincts were right. If he was wrong, five cities would soon be reduced to ashes.
There was no greater agony than watching the seconds tick by. One man placed a hand on his shoulder. The only silent support he received. One slumped to the floor. One went to the lavatory to cry. One went to vomit. Others stared transfixed at the display screen forecasting their impending destruction or on phones talking to loved ones.
A minute passed.
Petrov gripped the arms of the chair, tapping a finger for each second. Prickling beads of sweat gathered on his high forehead.
Two minutes.
At three minutes he allowed his grip to relax. He wiped his brow.
Four minutes.
They were safe.
He was right.
Wherever she was, whoever she was, he silently thanked the calm voiced woman.
Further analysis showed the satellite had picked up a group of reflections on the cloud tops. Petrov never heard her voice again.
But they had averted nuclear war.

They were right.

(from the novel “Last Goddess”)

The horse told me…

The hands-free phone rang in the land cruiser as David entered the outskirts of the city.
“David? It’s Jen. What in the lord’s name happened at Hannafords? Rex called me. He doesn’t seem to know if you’re a fraud or a holy man. Did you really not examine her?”
David blew out a sigh. Here we go.
“She was in shock Jen. Something must have got into the stable. Got her into a panic. When I got there she was just getting over it. No physical damage. Mother and baby both O.K.”
He cringed at the short silent pause.
“How can you possibly know that without examining her?”
A simple and logical question, demanding a simple and logical answer.
“David?”
If only he could give her one.
“David?”
Another sigh. No matter how crazy, he had nothing else to tell her.
She told me, Jen.”
“Who told you? Mrs. Hannaford?”
“Evader.”
“The -horse told you?” Jennifer asked slowly and carefully.
“Yes.”
Silence again, though David knew she hadn’t hung up the phone. The quiet stretched out for half a minute or more.
“Drive safe David” said Jennifer softly.

He drove on, under a maddening sky impossible to ignore, thinking of what George, with his cheeky smile had said the day before.
When rain turns to raspberry.
Evader’s deep brown eye looking up at him.

The sky. It brings bad.

(from the novel “Last Goddess”-available on Amazon)

Valenki

My knife is dirty and dull as the grease paper sky. Dull from carving burrows, carving throats. Spilling raw wet gut on the always icing pepper earth. Like me, with me, as me; the knife struggles. Chilled to a ghost and thin as invisible.

A year ago, or maybe a thousand years ago, I’m not sure; I was a postman.

I wept when I found him. The tears froze instantly on my cheeks. No happiness is permitted here. It has been banished with hope and sanity. Together the three of them walked hand in hand into the black, blizzard night.
The big Russian lay on his back in the snow, frozen to indigo. A mortar had blown off half his head. The heat of the shell cauterized the wound into the stringy black satin of All Hallows Eve. Rats had chewed off his remaining ear and the soft flesh of his throat. Rats, or dogs.

Or a man.

“It’s only a matter of time” the others used to say.
They are dead now. And they are wrong.

I will never eat human flesh. It’s the only shred of humanity I have left to cling to. Few horrors I have not enjoyed. And few have I not enjoyed. I am doomed to this frozen hell, beyond redemption. Beyond imagining.

My soul is a bleak and broken harpsichord, strummed by mad musicians and monsters.

So long since any real food. Since I’ve eaten actual meat.

“You will” they whisper. “You will.”

Dead they are. And wrong.

The material of the Russian’s uniform yields as easily as honeycomb spider web. I tear the weary fabric up past his purple knees.

But his flesh shaves stubbornly, hard grey crayon beneath the warmth of my dead blade.

I think of the first time I used the knife. On a boy of just eleven. I know his age because his mother screamed it me over and over until I ended her as well. The others pulled me aside to have their way with her body before the warmth left it. While I vomited.

Then joined them.

I use rock to smash the Russian’s shins. I have no strength to saw bone.

Only the need to wear his valenki. His winter boots.
Only the crazy desperate need to get his dead feet out of them. And my dead feet into them.
I salivate at the thought, and that too freezes, on my wind cracked lips. Or am I drooling because the flesh softens under the friction of my final cuts? Because perhaps it could be mutton the former postman sees. Or venison.

Meat is meat is meat.

“You will.”

No! I yell it to the wind and the nothing at the end of the earth. I stagger back, nearly into the fire. And now I laugh. Laugh at the fire I can’t remember building and out of what I can’t recall. Laugh at my dizzy starving insanity and my dead Russian friend.

His dead fucking feet in his dead fucking boots.

I laugh at us. All of us. You included. The demented mosaic of mankind.

His reluctant skin finally gives way. The severed legs look wrong, like they don’t fit the body I’ve sawn them from. I press them up against the stumps to reassure myself. Of course they fit. I release the breath I’ve been holding just in case.
I place them near the fire, the beautiful valenki facing me. Soon his skin begins to bubble, the sharp smell biting through the grey night. I poke the severed legs with my knife as they soften. The skin curls and crackles.

My shrunken stomach violently uncurls in lust at the smell. It feels as though I’m being torn in half. A surge of adrenalin rushes through me, screaming at me to have my meal. It floods my withered muscles, sending me into convulsions. When they end I barely have the strength to move my head.

I roll to the side and see one of the boots has worked loose.
My threadbare fingers slowly scrabble their way to it. The Russian’s lower leg slides out with surprising ease. I push it into the fire, which flares as it swallows the limb. My gut cartwheels as the leg blackens. It begs me to reach into the flames. Insists that I do.

I’ve thrown away lobster and kept the shell.

“You will.”

It smells like roast pork.

I….don’t.

I focus on my prize. The precious boot is too close to the fire and I move it away so it warms but doesn’t burn. Then I move it again, and again. A matter of inches each time. Too close. Too far. The sinew in my forearm tightens with cramp, my dulled brain eventually signaling my body to save its fading energy for a more important task. The other boot.

But the Russian’s other foot likes its warm valenki boot. Loves it. I poke and pry at it with my tired knife, my tired arms. A quarter of a dead Russian is more than a match for an ex-postman; chilled to a ghost and thin as invisible. I can see the fire clearly through the transparent flesh of my withered arm.

Feebly, finally, I wrestle the shin bone free.

I drop it into the fire, almost stumbling in after it. I smile at my own slapstick. I must look hilarious dying.

But they are mine. I place the precious valenki lightly on the ground next to me. My sharp breath is scarce and sandpaper sour as I struggle to remove my old boots. They are cracked and parchment thin. Brittle. Another even contest. An eternity passes before I coax them both off.

Now.

I pull the valenki on over blackfrost feet. The stories were true. They are much warmer than ours. Heavenly.

But one of them bites. There is something sharp inside. I tip out a heart shaped pendant and slip the boot back on.

I unfold the small locket. The Russian’s wife and daughter look back at me.

His bride glares at me accusingly as her husband’s legs bubble like pork in the fire.

But his daughter smiles sadly, pitying me as I stand shakily in her father’s boots.

They stare at me and I stare back. In this place only God looks away.

My stomach roars and shrieks. It demands that I fill it. Begs me to.
You will, you will, you will. You will. You will. It is no use now. My triumph to take the Russian’s boots has taken all of me. Every last drop.

And they were wrong.

I can do nothing now but fall to the icing pepper earth. The permafrost rushes up to greet me, smashing my face to splinters. My gasps rattle out of a broken mouth, clearing a small spot on the ice of its miniature debris.

My life does not rush before my eyes. I’m much too tired for that. The shiny patch my breath creates on the ice is soothing somehow. A tiny perfect paradise in the middle of hell.

I tuck the locket into my boot and close my eyes, grateful for the young girl’s forgiveness.

At least my feet will be warm.

Inquisitor

The grand inquisitor, bony hands clasped, did not look up at him.
“Did she confess?” he asked wearily, looking at the fire.
“Yes my lord” answered the young man proudly.
“Of course she did” laughed the inquisitor. “Let her go.”
“But she confessed.”
“Wouldn’t you? Set her free Alverez. Tomorrow we leave for Irun.”
“But sir, if I may be so bold, if we are setting another one free, what is it we are seeking? Are we not bringing God’s justice to bear on those who practice witchcraft?”
The cold green eyes climbed the face of the young novice. They brought more fear than any of the accused wretches he had seen in the chamber below the monastery.
“Close the door Alverez.”
The young man hastily swung the heavy door shut. He was about to learn something special, secret. Something that Carlo and the others would not. He stood expectantly before the Grand Inquisitor.
“Do you believe in witches Alverez?”
What a strange question.
“Of course my lord. The Pope himself leads the fight against them.”
The inquisitor rose, picking up the book from the corner of his desk. The Malleus Maleficarum The hand book of the witch hunter. He held it thoughtfully, a strange smile on his thin lips. Alverez envied him touching it. What pearl of wisdom would the inquisitor extract from its hallowed pages to share with him?
Casually, the pale man tossed the book into the fire. Alverez moved instinctively to retrieve it, but the cold eyes prevented him from doing so.
Unbelievably, he watched the hungry flames devour it with his master.
“There are no witches.”
The young man’s eyes widened at the statement.
“There are good. There are bad. But there are no witches. The church seeks to re-establish its authority by fear. Nothing more than that.”
Alverez summoned enough courage to question his master
“If you believe that my lord, why are you an inquisitor?”
“I seek someone well beyond a witch.” The crackling flames reflected against the dull pallor of his face. “I seek the devil herself.”
Alverez crossed himself hurriedly.
“Her? You’re saying the devil is a woman?”
“And why do you presume the unholy one is a man?”
“Because the devil is Lucifer, the fallen archangel. The scriptures tell us this.” He held his bible before him in shaky hands to emphasize his point.
The inquisitor snatched it from his trembling hands and threw it into the flames as well.
Again they watched the fire do its work.
“How could you know this?”
“Because long ago, I met her. I tried to take her but she eluded me.”
Again the novice crossed himself. His legs struggled to hold him up. Now he realised the meaning in the eyes of his master. He had seen the devil. It had taken the fire from his eyes but not from his mission. The ultimate mission.
“Knowing this, do I still have your loyalty Alverez?” asked the pale man quietly.
The novice dropped to his knees, kissing the hem of the inquisitors robe.
“More than ever my lord” he grovelled.
“Bless you” said the pale man, rolling his eyes above the supplicant at his feet.
Alverez looked up with reverence. “How will we know when we find her my lord?”
“None of our methods will mark her. None will harm her.”
“Demon queen!” shouted Alverez excitedly.
“Indeed.”
He lifted the young man to his feet.
“Tell none other of this my boy. We do not want fear amongst them.”
“I understand my lord.” He felt the stirring of an erection beneath his cassock. This revelation was for only him to know!
“I wish to have you at my side for this quest. But if that is to be, I need more than word of your devotion. I need proof.”
“Anything my lord. Ask anything of me.”
The pale man walked to the window. He looked down at the ten year old girl sweeping the monastery courtyard with a wicker broom. She caught the movement at the window and waved daintily at the Grand Inquisitor.
“Only one blue eyed girl in the village has not been interrogated. It will be thorough. And you will do it personally.”
“Yes my lord” whispered Alverez.
The pale man returned the girl’s wave, beckoning her into the building.
Lucia Alverez leant the broom against the wall and took the steps excitedly up to them.

(from the novel “Last Goddess”)

Doll House

“What’s happening Urs?”
With a sigh, Ursula of Welf clunked her dolls down on the stone floor. Turning from her beloved doll house, she rose on tiptoes to lean across the broad sill of the window. Craning her neck and squinting her eyes she identified the figures on the other side of the bridge below.
“It looks like Mama and the king are still talking.”
“Is she standing or kneeling?”
“Kneeling of course, Matteus. He is the King! She’s kneeling on both knees.”
She’s not kneeling, she’s begging.
Matteus would have spat if he could. Instead he weakly shook his head on the plump goose down pillow.
“He is no more a king than a goat in the mountains. No one here believes he is our monarch. Everyone in Bavaria supports uncle Henry. King Henry the Lion. King Conrad doesn’t even sound right…” he trailed off in frustration.
“Mama’s standing up. The k…he’s patting her on the shoulder.”
“Like patting a dog” muttered Matteus. “I’m sorry Duchess Uta” he mimicked in an aristocratic manner. “But your husband and his pesky brother have opposed me for the last time. I will be taking Weibertreue as my own, and those inside will be put down as the dogs you all are.”
“Don’t say that Matteus!” squealed Ursula.
“Well what do you think he’s going to say Urs? Uncle Henry and father have been causing him trouble since grandfather died. Running him ragged through all of Bavaria. That buffoon has the support of the treacherous princes, Rome itself. He can do what he likes now that he’s caught up with them.”
Ursula looked over at her bedridden brother, her eyes shining with moisture.
“Don’t say that Matt.”
Matteus managed a thin and unconvincing smile, regretful at the words which had escaped his bitter lips. Ursula was only ten, five years younger than he. Still a child. And his only regular companion.
His sister had no idea of the politics of war. No idea that Conrad, camped outside the castle for ten days, had run out of options. Their father, Welf VI, and uncle, Henry “the Lion” had defied him for months. Their refusal to forfeit the castle of Weibertreue must be infuriating Conrad. Surrounded by his inactive and frustrated troops, he would be forced to take the action of a king, whether a rightful one or not. Matteus knew what his little sister did not. The siege would only truly be over when their brave father’s head sat on the point of Conrad’s battle pike.
Ursula had returned to play. Matteus watched her golden ringlets bobble as her wooden dolls engaged in tea parties and small talk inside their beautiful home. The doll house, an heirloom passed on by their grandmother, was his sister’s whole world. Within its gloriously lacquered doors, its sumptuously decorated walls, Ursula’s dolls lived their lives without conflict, hatred or fear. Without the reality of war and the inevitability of death.
Ursula herself had somehow carried the heavy blackwood house up the steep stone steps to his room. Although she was good enough to keep her invalid brother company, her most prized possession had to come up those sharp stairs as well. Matteus remembered the tantrum she’d thrown when they were forced to take refuge in Weibertreue. Having to move quickly before Conrad’s advancing army, Ursula refused to budge until one of her father’s men agreed to strap the doll house to his back and bring it along. More than a pretty wooden doll house to her, it represented her hold on childhood. It held her dreams, her imagination and her innocence.
In the ballroom of her little house, Lord Applehead and Lady Lavender laughed and danced their wooden waltz, while across the grey bridge outside their mother begged for the lives of real people inside the walls to be spared.
Mostly confined to bed for the best part of two years, Matteus’ mind had grown sharp, nurtured by the words of Lords and Generals, while his body paled and weakened beneath the covers. He’d deduced the almost certain conclusion to the situation they were now in. Conrad would allow the women to go free-it was unlikely the new king would want to be known as a murderer of women. For the men inside the castle however, there was no hope whatsoever. Conrad would not be allowing any of them to oppose him in the future, and to make sure of it, all would be slain. Matteus accepted this readily, a simple and logical reality of war. He did not blame his father, he could not. Welf was brave and honourable. His father Henry the Proud, the rightful king, was stripped of title, land and wealth in a coup by the corrupt princes of Bavaria, who promoted Conrad III in his place. Henry’s sons, Matteus’ father and uncle, supported by the Saxons, continued the resistance to the injustice their father had displayed until his death the year before.
Nor did Matteus fear death. Since being struck down with the sleeping sickness, he expected the Reaper to come for him sooner rather than later. Barely able to move, let alone fight with the others, he saw himself as no more than a burden. If he hadn’t been born the son of Welf VI, he would have already been left behind as a liability.
Ursula giggled. Lady Lavender had once again fallen in love with the handsome Lord Applehead as she did on a daily basis.
Matteus smiled sadly, a hard lump in his throat. Very soon his sister would be forced into a very different reality. With her father, uncle and brother gone, she and her mother would most likely be forced into the servitude of their enemies. The elegant polished doors of her doll house would close on her innocence forever, either reduced to the kindling of a victory fire or worse for Ursula; claimed by one of Conrad’s brood-a child’s spoil of war.
He closed his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to contain his tears. When he opened them again Ursula stood over him, eyes also wet.
“What’s wrong Urs?”
“You’re crying Matt!” she said hoarsely. “You never cry.”
She stared at him as though seeing him for the first time. When she spoke again, her voice sounded as fragile as the most delicate crystal.
“You never cry. You’re so courageous. So strong.”
Matteus frowned up at her. Courageous? Strong? Was that what she really thought? Foolish girl. He felt neither, and cursed not only his escaping tears, but his part in stealing from his sister’s childhood. He couldn’t stand the distraught look on her face another moment.
“Look again Ursula! Tell me what you see” he demanded.
Reluctantly she turned away from him and hoisted herself up to the window ledge. The sun was beginning to set, bringing the light stinging cool of the evening breeze across her reddened face.
“What do you see Urs?” asked Matteus, taking the chance to wipe his eyes on a nightshirt sleeve.
“Mama is returning.”
“How does she carry her head?”
“What?”
“Is her head up or down?”
“Down. And she’s walking really slow. Like an old lady.”
Matteus hated the thought of his proud mother being forced to beg before the false king. His sadness escalated with frustration and resentment. He formed a tight fist, surprising himself with the surge of strength.
“Oh!” Ursula put her hand to her mouth.
“What is it Urs?”
“She fell.”
Matteus closed his eyes, jaw set tight as he shared his mother’s anguish. The response to her desperate plea had been as he expected.
“They’re helping her back across the bridge Matt. Do you think she’s hurt? She looks like she’s sick.”
“Urs, listen to me. Mother will need you once she gets back inside the gates. Fetch a blanket and go down to her.”
“But she has her ladies with her.”
“Trust me Urs. She will need you. Go to her right away. Give her a big hug. An Ursula hug.”
His sister edged uncertainly towards the door.
“I’ll be fine. Just go. Give her a hug. From both of us.”
Ursula darted to the bed and pulled his blanket a little higher.
“Thank you” said Matteus quietly. For a thousand reasons.
She backed towards the door, unable to decipher the strange look on his face.
“I’ll be quick. I’ll take her a big warm blanket. Give her an Ursula hug.”
“A Matteus hug too.”
The gold ringlets bounced lightly as she nodded. “I will.”
Screwing her face into grin she slipped through the door. He almost laughed aloud as he heard the heavy bolt slide across.
That suited him just fine.

As her slippered feet descended the stairs, Matteus pushed back the covers. He swung his thin legs over the edge of the bed, feeling the blood surge through them. They tingled as sensitivity returned to them. Carefully he pulled himself up, wobbling unsteadily for a moment before shuffling unsteadily to the window.
In the valley below the crimson banners of Conrad fluttered boldly over his vast encampment. To the south east, Weinsberg lay dark and silent, most of its inhabitants now within the tall arms of the castle. The town had been decimated, reduced largely to ash and rubble by the zealous hordes. Conrad had attacked Webertreue fiercely as well, pelting the walls with cannon fire until he realised its trapped inhabitants presented no real threat. To continue attacking would simply be damaging an asset he was to acquire soon enough anyway. Matteus knew from the moment his father had ushered the last of the townspeople inside that despite their brave obstinacy, Weibertreue would not be their salvation. It would be their tomb.
Conrad’s men occupied most of the plain back to the river Sulm. Since the start of the siege their numbers had swollen, as soldiers facing death had swung their allegiance to the side with the obvious advantage, joining the king’s platoons who had rejoined the main body of men. But not only fighting men filled the trampled fields below. Matteus heard musicians, those of bow and lute and drum, using song to amuse the restless throng. Cooking fires crackled, the slaughtered beasts of nearby forests roasting on spits. No doubt to be accompanied by the famous wines of the valley, plundered along with everything else of use. The voices of women carried on the sunset breeze, supplemental to the camp with their cooking, mending and nursing. A particularly high pitched laugh reached his ears, and Matteus presumed there were also women present to indulge other interests of the soldiers. The fifteen year old was aware not only that such women existed but also how they eased the tension of men. And though he would never himself experience the charms of such a companion, here, on the last night of his young life, the thought held no remorse for him. Only one regret hung over him and he spurred himself to action because of it.
From under his bed he extracted a coil of coarse rope. On the fifth shaky attempt he managed to throw it over the heavy wooden roof beam.
Concentrating hard, he fastened the rope so it would not, could not give way.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Ursula made her way down stairs; past soldiers and villagers who a week earlier would have dipped their heads in courtesy and now did not. She reached the store cupboard which held sundry bedding but found it bare. With a shrug of her small shoulders she closed the door, taking a step toward the next flight of steps leading down to the front of the castle. Then she stopped. Instead, she turned the other way, padding softly along the corridor to the gallery above the dining hall. Using the broad stone pillars for cover, she edged along the gallery to a place she had once used to sneak a look at a reception for her grandfather. There was a spot between a large earthenware vase and one of the pillars that someone very small could squeeze into. Here she secreted herself and waited.
A few minutes later the doors of the great hall swung open, allowing entry to just three people before closing again. Peering over the low bottom edge of the railing Ursula saw her parents in a deep embrace. She bit her lip for not following her brother’s instructions, wondering if her father’s hug was anything like an Ursula hug. But if she’d met her mother at the gate Ursula couldn’t have been privy to the meeting in the hall below.
Uta broke from her husband’s embrace and prostrated herself before Henry the Lion.
“Please Uta. Get up.”
Quickly she did, throwing herself into his arms as she had Welfs.
“There there’ cooed Henry, straightening her up.
Now Ursula could see her mother’s tear streaked face. Her stomach lurched at the sight. It was like looking at a stranger. Unlike her father-prone to emotional outburst, Uta had never shown weakness and it scared Ursula, gripping her insides with icy fingers of fear. The large empty hall carried her unsteady voice easily to Ursula’s hiding spot.
“He is past talking my liege. He seeks no more parlay. No more negotiators from within Weibertreue.” Her words shook with the trembling of her body.
“Conrad says his patience is worn to its end. That ten days is ample time to surrender a struggle that cannot be won.”
The Duchess of Welf dropped her head.
Her husband reached forward, gently raising her chin. “Go on Uta. Continue.”
“At first sun tomorrow we have but two options” she said quieter. “Open the gates. Or not.”
Ursula’s hands gripped the railing tight. She remembered the joking words her brother had said. Imitating the fake king with that silly voice. Words too terrible to be anything but a bad, bad joke.
“If we open the gates, his troops will not storm straight in. They will allow the women to leave unharmed. Only the women. They may cross the bridge and be free.”
Now Ursula was shaking too.
“Then Conrad’s men will enter the castle and put every man to the sword.”
A joke, thought Ursula. They will take them prisoner, surely. Their families had been friends. Her aunty had married Conrad’s brother. She wanted to run to her doll house and be in a world where it always worked out. Where you could start again the next day no matter what. There had to be a next day. There had to be a next day for her father.
“If the gates are not opened at the trumpets of dawn, he says he will knock them down. If he is forced to do so, no one inside will be spared. These are the only two choices.”
“The monster!” snapped Welf.
“A firm hand clapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s over my brother. We no longer have the numbers to oppose him. The arms to oppose him. The supplies. We have no choice but to open the gates. This outcome was always a possibility Welf. You know that. Uta and the other women did not take up arms. Their hands are clean of this. They do not deserve our fate.
Shoulders slumped, Welf nodded. “Yes Henry. I know. At least the women and children will be spared.”
Uta fell forward, shaking her head. Trying to form words through her sobs.
“Uta! Our sons Uta? The young ones?”
Her mother’s words were too quiet to hear. Perhaps they weren’t even spoken. But her mother’s head, like a metronome on her father’s chest. No. No. No. No. No. Henry dropped to his knees beside them.
No male was to be spared. Not just the men. The boys. The babies.

Ursula pushed herself out of her hiding place. She fell backwards, her head hitting the flagstones with a crack. Ursula didn’t care if they heard her. She scrambled to her feet and ran for the stairs.
She struggled with the bolt, finally sliding it free.

Hanging from a beam was a length of rope. She ran to the window it led to and looked down. A frayed end showed her the rope had snapped ten feet below the window. Another sixty feet down the surface of the moat water lay black and still in the creeping shadow of the castle.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

His eyes opened to an unfamiliar ceiling. Matteus watched it waver in rippled torchlight. His entire body screamed at him in pain except the lower part of his left leg which he couldn’t feel at all.
“Hello young man.”
He managed to roll his head in the direction of the old woman’s voice. She sat near him on a low wooden stool. A long white shawl covered her head and shoulders, over a simple dark dress.
“Try not to move. You have a broken leg. Possibly a broken back as well. My men pulled you out of the moat. They think you were trying to kill yourself.”
“I didn’t j—j-j jump.”
“I know. I saw the rope. You were trying to climb down. You fell.”
“The rrr-rope.”
“Yes Matteus. It broke.”
“You know my name? How?”
“I was at your christening. I haven’t seen you for a long time but I knew you when you were very young. You haven’t changed much.”
“I’ve been sick.” His voice was thick with blame. The woman paused at his accusatory tone.
“It looks like it. Which leads to a very interesting question. Why does a sick young boy try to climb down from the clouds and into the arms of a man sworn to take his life.”
“I need to speak to your son.”
“Oh, so you recognise me?”
“Y-y-yes. You are Agnes. Wife of Frederick I. Conrad’s mother.”
“King Conrad.”
“He is not my king. Nor even yours.”
The woman’s eyes widened a little. “Not our king? I’m afraid you’re wrong about that. Conrad was crowned by the Princes of Germany.”
“The corrupt Princes! Cheats and thieves. Traitors. My uncle has the support of the people. Surely that makes him a more worthy king than your son the charlatan.”
“You have found your strength quickly Matteus of Welf. That poor little body hides the heart of the lion.” She rose from her seat with a wry smile. “And the mouth of a crow.”
Matteus tried to sit up, indignant at the insult. The pain forced him back down.
“Is that how you would address the King of Germany?”
“No. But it’s how I would address your son.”
Agnes smiled more genuinely. She walked to the door of the tent. Looked out at the long twilight shadows.
“What do you wish to say to him, Matteus?”
“That is between he and I.”
Agnes laughed softly. “You are very brave for one so young. I admire that. But Conrad will not meet with you. His wishes are known. The King has spoken.”
“He is not my king.”
“I’m afraid he is Matteus. No matter what you may think, how you may delude yourself. Conrad is King and does not wish to debate with his enemies any longer.”
“Then I will speak to him as his subject.”
Agnes laughed. She turned back to him. “There is nothing you can say to him Matteus. He has decided. This is the way of things. You have come for nothing but to lose the life you would beg him to save.”
“I did not come to beg for my life. I know that to be futile. I am not oblivious to the ways of siege and war. Nor do I beg for the life of any other.”
“Oh? Then why are you here?” asked Agnes in surprise.
“Because of my sister. Ursula.”
Agnes walked back to the stool and sat down. She leaned forward.
“Go on.”
Matteus licked his dry lips. Looked into the eyes of the King’s mother. And told her about a ten year old girl and a doll house. Agnes listened intently. When he finished speaking she rubbed one eye with the back of her hand. Then she stood, smoothing her gown. She gestured to the guards across the room Matteus hadn’t seen.
“Pick him up. Bring him.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Ursula sat numbly on the floor. She stared straight ahead in shock. Lord Applehead and Lady Lavender stared back with glassy button eyes. Mechanically she picked them up by their stiff legs. They danced.
The dance of no tomorrows.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

They stopped before a wide black marquee. Matteus knew the significance. The King took the black tent as a symbol to those inside the castle. Game over. Conquest. You lose.
“Stand him up.”
The guards lowered Matteus onto his good leg. One of them wedged a crutch into his armpit. He swayed, gasping a painful breath of cold air.
“Can you walk in?”
“Yes” he winced.
“I’ll bet you can. Listen to me young man. I can open the door for you but beyond that I cannot guarantee anything except your almost certain death. The king may not even see you. If you do get a chance to speak, chose your words well. Do not waste them. Are you ready?”
“ May I ask one thing first?”
“What is it?”
“Why are you helping me?”
Agnes looked at him thoughtfully.
“I doubt that I’m helping anyone right now. Except perhaps myself” she shrugged. “But I’ll tell you one thing Matteus of Welf. If I had a brother..” She paused, glancing toward the castle which was now steeped dark in shadow. “..like you Matteus, I do not believe that kingly qualities are only held by those beneath a crown.” Agnes leant to his ear. “And, if I had an older brother, I would be honoured to have one such as you.”
With that she stepped through the flap of the tent. Her guards held the doorway open so Matteus could hobble through.
The King and a tall armoured man leant over a long candle lit table. Maps and charts lay unfolded across it, illuminated by fat flickering candles. Conrad looked up; tired eyes behind bushy brows complemented by a coarse beard.
“What is it?” he growled.
“Your majesty.” Agnes bowed low before her son.
The armour clad man turned quickly at the interruption, as angry as the king looked fatigued.
“Who is this?” he demanded angrily.
“This is Matteus of Welf, Captain Berkemmer” announced Agnes calmly.
“What?” he roared. In one swift action he drew his sabre, pointing the tip towards Matteus’ chest. “You dare bring the son of that dog into the King’s presence? Against his orders?”
He raised the sword, touching it against the boy’s throat. A thin line of blood trickled from it. Matteus didn’t react. He concentrated on not letting his battered body fall forward.
“Piece of shit” sneered Berkemmer. “You should be trembling in fear before King Conrad.”
He kicked away the crutch with his boot. Matteus collapsed, a shallow wound opening across his throat as he slid along the blade and to the ground. He howled in pain, the broken bone protruding through the flesh of his lower leg.
“Tell me…. Captain…….” panted Matteus. “Is your king a…… good man?”
“How dare you! Of course he is a good man! The best of men!”
Matteus raised his eyes to the fanatical soldier. He drew several more quick breaths.
“Why should I fear the best of men?”
“You!…” Berkemmer lifted his sword. Conrad grabbed his wrist, preventing the strike.
“No. He is a cripple Berkemmer, unarmed and on the ground. And yet he has bested you in moments with mere words. We will keep some honour this day.”
The red faced Captain angrily resheathed his sword as his King stepped past him. He squatted in front of the boy, looking over his thin figure.
“So you are the son of Welf VI? The nephew of Henry? You prove your bravery is beyond them both simply by being here. Or perhaps you share their foolishness.” He looked up at his mother, trying to read her implacable visage. Without breaking eye contact he continued.
“You have one minute before I turn you over to Captain Berkemmer.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

There was a thud against the gate of Weibertreue. A guard checked through a small viewing window. Two soldiers were retreating back across the bridge. A misshapen object lay in front of the gate, a note pinned to it. The guards had heard that Matteus had gone missing. With trepidation one of them squeezed through the barely open gate. By torchlight he bent to the small figure. The fluttering fire revealed the bloodied corpse of Welf’s son.
“Fetch our lords. It’s the boy.”
Gently he scooped up the battered body, carefully carrying it inside the castle. Placing Matteus on a low pallet, he fetched cloth and water. He attempted to clean the boy’s face, but had done little to hide the butchery when hurried footsteps arrived.
Welf pulled him away from the body. “Matteus” he sobbed. Uta appeared at his side and fell to her son as well. Eyes wide and fixed in shock, she reached for the parchment attached to him.
“Matt! Is it him? Matt!”
“Keep her back” growled Welf. He spun his head to the sound of his daughter’s voice. His face softened in grief. “No Ursula. You cannot see him this way.”
Obediently she ceased to struggle with the arms that restrained her.
Uta unrolled the page. Those near her could see the red wax seal of Conrad on it.
“What does it say Uta?” whispered a voice that all in the castle knew. It was Henry that held Ursula still.

Men of Weinsberg this is your fate. Your stubborn, and foolish leaders, not I, have led us all to this
outcome. Unfortunately neither of them possess the bravery nor the honour of this boy. He made one selfless request which in respect I concede to grant. Upon leaving the castle, the women of Weibertreue may take one personal possession each. No weapons. No jewellery. No baskets, bags or carts. An item which they carry by hand. All other conditions remain.
Conrad III.

Uta rose and turned to her daughter. “He did this for you Ursula.” She covered her face with her hands for a moment. Their hopes had turned to muddy nightmares but her sweet son had brought some humanity back to the valley of Sulm. Standing next to his corrupted body, she formed an awkward smile. “Matteus.”
Ursula could not see her brother clearly, but what she could was ragged and red. Her uncle stroked her hair, she like one of her dolls in his large hands. A large crowd had formed, standing in silence around the men they had followed without question up to this point. But here among them, the charismatic Henry and the passionate Welf were no more than mere mortals. Their tears fell just the same. Their pain just as deep. At sunrise the women would be clinging to their trinkets while the ground ran red with the blood of their fathers, their husbands. Their brothers and sons.
Welf met the gaze of his brother, the familiar glint of steel in his eye.
“Send the women to gather what they chose Henry. Let us see what weapons we can gather.”
“Welf!”
“I will not give my life without a fight! I will not stand by while children are slaughtered around me.”
“The fighting is over my brother. We are outnumbered by twenty to one. If we resist, Conrad is sure to make it worse for the boys. For the women. We must accept his terms. If we do not, he has no reason to either. Everyone will die Welf. What sort of hell will we be assigned to if we condemn Uta and the others to death when they can be spared?”
Ursula leant back from her uncle’s grasp. Her tear stained face looked up at him. The ten year old had realised what no one else but Agnes had seen. A strong body, a velvet robe, an ill fitting crown, even the support of the people did nothing to make a king. Her invalid brother had shone with a wisdom and compassion beyond those noblemen who decided who would live and who would not. He had given them a tomorrow.
“Uncle.”
Henry the Lion bent down to the girl tugging at his tunic.
“I know what to do.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

At the first streak of dawn, Conrad’s trumpeters bleated their tune, calling an end to the siege of Weibertreue Castle. The King’s men lined the bridge in single file on both sides, murmuring in expectation. Conrad himself stood at the edge of the meadow on the other side, in the full regalia of a German king. Behind him, fifty columns of soldiers waited in the dull light of sunrise.
“Open the gates!” bellowed Captain Berkemmer from beside his king.
With a loud groan the thick wooden gates were pushed open. All heads turned to the dark space beyond them.
For a few moments there was no movement, until a small girl emerged, struggling under the weight of her load.
The muttering amongst the soldiers ceased. They watched in silence as Ursula struggled slowly across the bridge, desperate not to drop and forfeit her burden. Conrad saw Berkemmer flinch next to him, instinctively reaching for his sword.
“No Captain. I gave my word.”
Agonisingly slow, Ursula stumbled along, perspiration and tears mixing and pouring from her young face. Still short of the meadow, she staggered and nearly fell. One of Conrad’s young soldiers, unable to restrain himself, moved forward to assist her.
“Stay where you are!” demanded the frustrated Berkemmer.
Each small step she took resonated throughout the Sulm valley. The long conflict now distilled into this one time and place. Conrad’s men were confronted by something beyond the cries of battle and the clash of weapons. Many had wives, sisters and daughters of their own. The pitiful sight before them was humbling, extinguishing the euphoria of victory in its poignant simplicity.
Finally Ursula stepped onto the grass. She pitched forward, falling with her brother’s body in her small arms. She lifted her grimy face. Through her sweat bedraggled hair she sought the face of the king of Germany. She found him, dipping her head in acknowledgement. In return he did the same.

All along the bridge, soldiers lowered their weapons. Many simply dropped them to the ground. Emerging from the gateway were the women of Weibertreue. Each carried a man, a boy or a baby toward the freedom of the meadow.

Unseen by others, Agnes placed a hand gently on the shoulder of her monarch. Conrad put his own hand over it, not as king but as son. His eyes wandered to the small sign bearing the castle’s name. It leant over near the foot of the bridge, where for ten days it had been brushed past and ignored.
“ Weibertreue.” The faith of women.
He squeezed his mother’s hand, then signalled for his men to stand down.

Ursula sat with Matteus, hugging him to her. An Ursula hug. Holding him in the way only the most precious of things can be held.

(from the short story collection “nine”-available on Amazon)