Archive | April, 2022

Book Review: The Romanov Rescue

25 Apr

The Romanov Rescue

by Tom Kratman, Justin Watson, Kacey Ezell

“I can [speak to your father that way, Anastasia],” Chekov said, quietly maintaining eye contact with Nicholas. “I can because he isn’t the emperor anymore, and he isn’t the emperor anymore because he refused to hear the things he didn’t want to hear.”

(Fair Warning: Spoilers.)

The First World War, and the collapse of the Russian Empire and the civil war that ended in a communist victory, is not a very common stamping ground for published alternate history, although there are quite a few essays and timelines wondering what might have happened if the war had been avoided or if the Tsar and/or the Russian Whites had come out on top.  I suspect that owes much to a sense of historical inevitability surrounding both events – 1914s Europe was a tinderbox, waiting for someone to light a match, while 1917s Russia had reached and passed the breaking point quite some time ago.  The Provisional Government that took over, in the first heady days after the Tsar abdicated, was unable to either satisfy its British and French allies nor tend to the legitimate demands of the Russian population, leaving a gap for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to take power themselves.  The Bolsheviks took the calculated risk of conceding defeat in the war, making huge concessions to the Germans so Russia could step out of the fighting and concentrate on internal affairs.  This might have seemed insane in London and Paris, and would have been if the Germans hadn’t lost the war, but it paid off.  The Bolsheviks secured their power, executed the Tsar and his close family, won the civil war and unleashed a regime every bit as awful as their enemies claimed.

A second reason for the shortage of novels set in this period is a certain awareness that just about everyone involved was bad, from the imperialists of Imperial Germany to the weak and foolish Tsar, the opportunists who surrounded him, the various social classes who finally wanted to get theirs and, of course, the Bolsheviks themselves.  It is hard not to look at the era and think there are few good guys, certainly in any position of power.  Nazi apologists who argue Versailles was an unwarrantedly harsh treaty should take a good look at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was even more harsh to the losing side.  The only true innocents in the affair were the Tsar’s children, who were murdered with the adults of their family, and even they had their flaws.  But they did not deserve their fate.

But what if they’d been rescued before they could be murdered?

The Romanov Rescue starts with the premise of the Germans, under pressure from the near-powerless Kaiser (who was actually a relative of the Tsar, as was true of most European royalty of the time), mounting a bid to rescue the Tsar and his family from the Bolsheviks before their time runs out.  Realising that an openly German rescue force would be unlikely to work (and it would be easy to brand the Tsar a German puppet), the Germans hunt through POW camps and recruit a force of Russian loyalists who can be relied upon, with a little help from the Germans, to liberate the Tsar and take him to safety.

The book effectively splits into three separate storylines before closing up again near the end of the story.  The first section focused on the recruitment and training of the infantry, something that plays very well to Kratman’s strengths as an author.  The second follows a team of infiltrators sneaking into Russia to locate where the Tsar is being held, allowing them to call the infantry force down on them.  The third follows the Tsar and his family themselves, seen through the eyes of Grand Duchess Anastasia (who is popularly thought to have survived the slaughter in OTL).  Kratman does a very good job of keeping the three separate and interesting; the first focused on solving technical challenges, the second explores 1917/8 Russia as the country slips into chaos, the third studies how the captives adapt themselves to their situation, and how some of their guards become sympathetic to them while others remain implacable foes.

The storylines then converge again, with the Tsar located … just in time.  The Bolsheviks have finally decided to kill the Tsar and his family and have dispatched a force to carry it out.  The rescue party lands – I don’t know how plausible it is for the Germans to send a troop-carrying airship so far into Russia, but it is pretty cool as well as AH-themed – attacks the Bolsheviks and tries to rescue the Tsar, with mixed results.  The Tsar and his son, the haemophilic, are both killed in the attack, with the crown descending on the senior survivor – Grand Duchess Tatiana.  At that point, the story ends … leaving plenty of room for a sequel.

The book works as well as it does, partly, because it doesn’t gloss over issues that need to be mentioned.  The Germans are not rescuing the Tsar out of the goodness of their hearts and that’s fairly clear, even from the start.  The Bolsheviks may be monsters who will get more monstrous as history rolls on, but the Russian aristocracy brought most of their troubles on themselves.  This is pointed out fairly bluntly by one of the ‘friendlier’ guards, who argues that Russian mistreatment of the Jews explains why so many Jews joined the Bolsheviks:

“Come now,” Nicholas said, taking Chekov’s queen with his own. “You mustn’t think I hate all Jews, there are many who contribute to Russia, but clearly there are a larger proportion of malcontents amongst them than in the Christian, or Mohammedan populations. Surely, you’ve noticed the raw number of Jews among the Bolsheviks!”

“I think perhaps you’re confusing cause and effect, Citizen Romanov,” Chekov said as he removed Nicholas’s queen from the board with his own rook. “For generations Jews have been brutalized and murdered and you and your ancestors have done little but scapegoat them, eat away at their rights and reduce the sentences of the bastards who prey upon them, then you have the audacity to wonder why revolution might appeal to some of them.”

This problem is also noted by a communist subversive, a former Russian POW who finds himself attached to the rescue force and enduring sermons on religion (which Marx called the opiate of the masses):

“And as long as we’re on the subject, could there be any better proof that this Christ was a charlatan than that he forgave a tax collector? I don’t bloody think so …”

These are issues that will hopefully be explored in future books, as they plagued the Russia of OTL and will need to be solved by the new Tsarina (assuming she survives the inevitable civil war.)  Indeed, it is difficult to see why anyone would support Nicolas making a bid to retake the throne and his death at the end of the novel makes sense, from a practical point of view.  (King John was a monster, during the Magna Carta War, but his son Henry III was blameless and that worked in his favour.)

The book has too large a cast of characters for any of them to get much screentime, certainly as much as they deserve, but they play their roles fairly well.  (Mostly – I was expecting the communist subversive mentioned above to do more, particularly when the Tsar is finally close to being rescued.)  In some places, the characters are tissue-thin; in others, there is a surprising depth to them.  Stockholm syndrome runs both ways.  Prisoners can get very close to their captors and convince them, in some ways, that they deserve to live.  The book also touches on the greater matters, from the reason Russia came to terms in 1917 to the decision to finally execute the Royal Family and crack down on the peasants.  It makes sense from their point of view, although much seems monstrous or irrational from ours. 

Quite how things will develop from the endpoint is hard to say.  Tatiana might well be a better rally point than anything the whites had in OTL, but – as a daughter of the Tsar – she would certainly find it hard to appeal to Russians who were heartily sick of the aristocracy (with reason); indeed, she’d be expected to uphold the aristocracy, which would be an absolute gift to her enemies.  It might be possible, of course, to push reform with so much of the aristocracy dead or in exile, but it would be tricky.  And we know, even if she doesn’t, that Imperial Germany is not going to see 1919.  Will she get help from the British and French, more enthusiastic than OTL?  Or will she be sidelined as part of a family that brought much of its troubles on itself?

Kratman is known for having firm political opinions which colour his writing, for better or worse, but they are largely absent here.  What little there is fits in well – the book points out, for example, that the Jews are often a boon to their host countries, but hated and resented despite it.  (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came out of Imperial Russia.)  It also points out that the monarchy is bad, but so are the Bolsheviks and many of the more reasonable people would be minded to be reasonable if a reasonable alternative existed. 

The book’s greatest weakness, however, is that it spends too much time on recruiting, training and preparing the rescue force.  While this is interesting in and of itself, it comes across as padding in places and really should have been reduced (giving room for more action and adventure – for example, the Tsar is rescued, but the Bolsheviks give chase and have to be fought).

Overall, though, The Romanov Rescue works very well.  It may never be seen as a classic of the AH scene, but it is both a good action-adventure and a poke into less-explored regions of alternate history.  I give it eight out of ten.

Read a Free Sample, then purchase here.

Snippet – The Prince’s Alliance (The Empire’s Corps)

21 Apr

Prologue I

From: An Unbiased History of the Imperial Royal Family.  Professor Leo Caesius.  Avalon.  206PE.

Prince Roland did not have an easy life.

He was raised a spoilt brat, to use his own words, and was incredibly lucky to survive the series of disasters that culminated in Earthfall.  His escape – with the aid of Specialist Belinda Lawson, a Terran Marine Pathfinder – lead him straight to the Terran Marine Corps, an act that put a political hot potato in their collective lap.  Legally, Roland was the Heir to the Imperial Throne; practically, his family had surrendered most of its authority well before his birth and, even if they had continued to rule effectively until Earthfall, the Empire was effectively gone.  The various successor states believed Roland to be dead and even if they had thought otherwise, the warlords and planetary governments would not have handed power to a young boy they believed to have nothing, save for a name.

The Marine Corps chose to accept Roland’s request for basic training, while waiting to see how the situation would develop.  It was quite possible, as was explained to me later, that Roland would either play a role in rebuilding the galaxy, or be simply encouraged to shuffle off the galactic stage, or vanish into the military and, as far as anyone outside the Corps knew, remain legally dead.  This would serve multiple purposes.  It would make a man of Roland, ensuring he didn’t fall back into the bad habits of his youth, and it would give him a solid grounding in practical military tactics and strategy, which he would need if he were to return to the public eye.  However, as Roland neared the end of his time in Boot Camp, it was difficult to determine if he should be permitted to continue his training, at the replacement Slaughterhouse, or sidelined into a more political role.

It was decided, eventually, to send Prince Roland – now Roland Windsor – to New Doncaster, as part of a military training and assistance scheme.  It was not believed he would face any major problems.  He would be under the quiet mentorship of a team of experienced soldiers and under the direct command of Marine Captain Michael Allen, who had orders to override Roland if it seemed he was overstepping his authority or making serious mistakes.  It should have been a decent training ground for a prospective soldier, a chance to make mistakes and learn from them without having them blow up in his face.

This turned out to be misguidedly optimistic.

New Doncaster’s civil unrest turned rapidly to outright civil war.  The rebels, all too aware of the danger posed by the development of a proper army, struck first – and hard. Captain Michael Allen and his men were blown up in a terrorist strike carried out by a deep-cover infiltrator, while large bodies of rebel troops were landed on Kingston – the capital island – and marched towards Kingstown.  Roland led his men in a defence of the capital, eventually defeating the rebel offensive … only to discover that, while they’d been battling for the major islands, the rebels had overrun the rest of the contested zones.  The war was very far from over.

Roland was appointed, somewhat to his surprise, as commander-in-chief of the government’s forces.  (It is unclear if he realised how much political manoeuvring went on behind the scenes, or if some of his backers only backed him because they thought he could take the blame if the war was lost.)  He rose to the challenge, building an army by reaching out to dissatisfied communities and offering major political concessions in exchange for loyalty, something that gave him the numbers to take the war to the rebels.  It did not, however, win him any friends among the government, some of whom suspected Roland was intent on either reshaping their society or taking power for himself.  They saw his steps to rationalise the military as directly threatening, and started planning their counteroffensive.  They soon had their chance.  The fighting rapidly grew worse, with early victories giving way to a long and slow grinding conflict.  Roland knew he had to act fast.

Putting together a strike force, and carefully misleading his superiors (and rebel spies) about where the offensive was targeted, Roland led a strike aimed directly at capturing or killing the rebel leadership and destroying their command and control network.  It would, he reasoned, buy time to build up his forces and establish political settlements that would slowly being the simmering conflict to an end.  He was not to know his enemies were already putting their own plans into action, launching a coup to seize control of the government for themselves even as the war seemed almost won …

… And, in doing so, guaranteed that the war would continue indefinitely.

Prologue II

(Former) Porter Plantation, Baraka Island, New Doncaster

“I suppose the real question,” Steve said, “is if we should do anything.”

Sarah Wilde kept her thoughts to herself, silently gauging the mood of the rebel leadership as they listened to Steve.  It had been sheer dumb luck she’d survived long enough to regain her freedom and forge a brief, although limited, alliance with General Roland Windsor.  The outsider general had come very close to killing or capturing her when his men had landed on the island – she was still awed he’d led the mission in person – and, if his own people hadn’t turned on him, he might have won the war overnight.  Sure, there would still have been a lot of rebel forces out there, but with the command and control network shattered beyond repair the government would have been able to deal with them one by one.  And Sarah herself would be dead.

Steve pressed the issue.  “The government stabbed its own troops in the back, but it’s not like those troops loved us,” he said.  “They’re townies.  They should have been with us from the start.  Instead, they traded their services for a handful of baubles and got fucked.  Why should we do anything?”

“A valid question,” Colonel Lopez said.  He’d sailed from his home base to attend the conference, despite the risk.  A single bunker-buster missile could obliterate two-thirds of the rebel leadership … if the government had the nerve to take the shot.  It was galling, in a way, that the mansion’s greatest protection was the government’s reluctance to piss off the plantation’s former owners by blowing the property to hell.  “Why should we do anything?”

Sarah sighed inwardly, gathering her thoughts as all eyes turned to her.  It had taken every last scrap of political capital she had to convince the leadership to go along with the truce, even though they’d had little choice.  The government would have been delighted if General Windsor had been forced to continue the war against the rebels, despite being stabbed in the back.  And he’d have had no other option, if the rebels had tried to force him to surrender unconditionally.  Sarah might have done it anyway, if she’d calculated the rebels would win without major losses.  She doubted it.  Too many townies believed they’d be lucky to survive if they fell into rebel hands.

“Right now, our enemies have split into two factions,” she said, slowly.  “The townies – and General Roland – are prepared to be reasonable …”

“Because they don’t have a choice,” Steve injected.  “They’ve been bent over and …”

“Quite.”  Sarah kept her face expressionless with an effort.  Steve was a brave man, and no one doubted it, but he had no head for politics.  “They tried to stay out of the fighting.  They only agreed to join the government because the government agreed to address their legitimate concerns, to cancel debt and restore political rights in exchange for service.  I think we can reasonably say those promises have been broken.  The townies have been betrayed by the aristocratic factions, by men who want to return to the days of yore.  We have an opportunity, a very brief opportunity, to reach out to the townies ourselves.”

Lopez leaned forward.  “But we could also let the aristos and the townies fight it out, then deal with whoever comes out ahead.”

“We can’t,” Sarah said, quickly.  Too many leaders already agreed with him.  “General Windsor does not have the shipping, after the betrayal, to get his armies to Kingston.  The government effectively controls the seas.  Without our help, and our own naval forces” – a grandiose term for converted freighters, sailing ships and motor torpedo boats – “he will effectively remain stranded until he runs out of supplies and his troops start to starve.  At that point, he will either have to surrender or start pillaging the islands for food.”

She paused.  “And in the meantime, the aristos will be building their own forces and readying themselves for the final conflict with us.”

“So he can surrender to us,” Steve said.  “Why should we even think of entertaining an alliance?”

“Because the townies were trapped between the aristos and our demands for a complete reworking of society,” Sarah said.  “The townies were – are – frightened of losing what little they had, either legally stolen by the aristos or simply repossessed after we won the war and took over.  It made them vulnerable, when the government pretended to take their concerns seriously.  We can at least try to recognise their concerns.”

“And we don’t have to keep our promises,” Lopez pointed out.

“That would set a terrible precedent,” Sarah countered.  “If the aristos had kept their promises, when this world was settled, the current crisis might never have arisen.”

She forced herself to wait and listen as the rebel leadership argued the question, hashing out the same arguments and counterarguments time and time again.  It wasn’t easy to refrain from speaking, to let them argue themselves, but she had no choice.  Her leadership position was nowhere near as solid as she might have wished, even before she’d been briefly captured by General Roland and his men.  The rebel leaders were both proud and practical men, reluctant to give up their power and fearful of the consequences if they did.  Sarah didn’t really blame them.  The rebels had always been a decentralised structure.  They didn’t dare risk the destruction of one cell leading rapidly to the destruction of the rest.

And yet, that limited our ability to take the offensive, she thought.  They’d worked hard to mount the offensive that had kicked off the real fighting and still lost.  It had taken months to get organised on Winchester and if the government had struck sooner … she shook her head grimly.  We have a chance, now, to win the war.  But only if we act fast.

“It’s time to vote,” Sarah said, finally.  “Do we ally with the townies, and General Windsor, or do we stand aside and hope for the best?”

She let the words hang in the air.  Time wasn’t on their side.  She was fairly sure the rebels had rounded up all the spies and informers on the island, but she didn’t dare assume they’d got them all.  The databases they’d captured could easily have a few names excised from it.  The aristos had been fucking careless to leave such priceless intelligence lying around … not, she supposed, that they’d ever believed they’d lose control of the island.  Idiots.  It wasn’t as if they couldn’t have encrypted the databases, or rigged the datacores to self-destruct.  The carelessness was enough to make her wonder if they were being misled.

“It’s risky,” Lopez said.  “What if they turn on us afterwards?”

“Then we’ll be in a position to fuck them,” Steve said.

“Charming,” Sarah said, curtly.  “Yes, there’s risk.  There’s always risk.  Anything we do, even nothing, has risk.  But this is our one chance to forge an alliance that might actually win the war.  We cannot let this opportunity pass us by.”

She waited, silently tallying the votes.  It really wouldn’t be easy.  There’d been no time for debates over the post-war world, when victory seemed as far away as the end of the universe itself.  Now … if they won, they’d finally be in a position to make their dreams come true.  Sarah suspected she’d be fired, as soon as the war was over.  And then … she sighed inwardly, wondering how long it would be before the rebels started fighting each other over the future.  They were capitalists and communists, socialists and fascists, legalists and anarchists and theocrats and hundreds of other political aspects, some so different from the others they were completely incompatible.  What would happen, she asked herself grimly, after they won the war?

But we have to win first, she thought.  Or else the entire debate will be worse than useless.

“We will ally with General Windsor,” she said, when the voting was finished.  Some of the leaders were more enthusiastic than others, the latter probably planning fallback positions just in case things went to hell, but they’d go along with her for the moment.  “And while we will hope for the best, we will prepare for the worst.”

“Yeah,” Steve said.  “If they betray us, we’ll make them pay.

Chapter One

Lighthouse #472, New Doncaster

Rachel is going to kill me, Roland thought.  I didn’t have to lead the mission myself.

He gritted his teeth.  He’d never been prone to sea-sickness – his genetic enhancements were top of the range – and he’d done a lot of water training during Boot Camp even before he’d been assigned to New Doncaster, but the boat was being thrown around so badly he was starting to think he was going to be sick anyway.  The storm was mild, by the standards of New Doncaster, but the combination of wind, waves and twilight was getting to him.  He knew himself to be a brave man and yet, he was starting to think he’d made a mistake.

The boat shifted again as a giant wave lifted them up before dropping them back down again.  Roland swallowed hard.  Night was falling rapidly, the weird eye-aching twilight so complete that the rocky island ahead was almost completely invisible.  There was supposed to be a lighthouse on top, as well as a radar station and landing pad, but the light had been turned off long ago.  Roland understood the logic – the lighthouse was positioned along a major shipping route, now used by rebel ships as well as government vessels – yet it still chilled him to the bone.  The risk of running aground, miles from help, was just too high.  He doubted anyone would survive if they fell into the churning waters, tides and currents threatening to throw them against the rocks if they didn’t drown first.  On paper, the mission had seemed perfectly reasonable.  In practice …

Rachel really is going to kill me, Roland reflected, as the boat crashed into another wave, drenching him in cold water.  If I survive long enough to get back to base, she’s going to kick my ass.

He forced himself to stay calm as the boat continued to inch towards the rocky island, the helmsman carefully picking his way through the rocks and shoals.  The fishermen swore blind that the best pickings were always close to the lighthouse, sheltering amongst the underground pools and overhangs that provided a degree of protection from the storm outside.  Roland had believed them – the fishermen were the best sailors on the planet – and yet, it was hard to believe they were going to make it through.  The wind grew louder as they inched closer, the rock funnelling the cold air into his face.  He shivered, despite himself.  New Doncaster was hot, almost unbearably so.  Here, though, it was cold.

The fisherman glanced at him.  “Nearly there,” he whispered.  He was shouting, but his words were snatched away by the wind.  “Are you ready?”

Roland glanced at the rest of the team, who nodded.  The rebels had raised their own marine division, something that had struck him as funny until he remembered most of the wretched planet was covered with water.  They might have lacked the training Roland – and full-fledged Terran Marines – took for granted, but they were tough and experienced fighters who knew how to get the best from their weapons and equipment.  Roland hoped he’d have a chance to recruit them for the corps, when they finally got back in touch with Safehouse.  It still worried him the detachment had heard nothing from his superiors.  Captain Allen’s death – and that of his entire company – seemed to have passed unnoticed.

The Commandant has too many other things to worry about, Roland reminded himself, curtly.  New Doncaster was important to the New Doncastrians, but the planet was a very small and largely unimportant world in the grand scheme of things.  Whatever happens here is unlikely to affect the galaxy at large …

He swallowed, hard.  Earth was gone.  It was a disaster so immense he couldn’t even begin to wrap his head around it.  Eighty billion people dead … he couldn’t grasp the sheer scale of the loss.  They were just numbers.  He tried to think of the people he’d known, back when he’d been the Childe Roland, but few of them had made any great impression on him.  It was difficult not to feel ashamed of the royal brat he’d been, only a couple of years ago.  He’d had servants, a lot of servants, and he didn’t even remember their names!

And you have no time to worry about it now, he told himself.  You can fret about it later.

“Take us in,” he ordered.

The rocky overhang grew in front of him until it cast a long shadow over the boat.  Roland snapped his night-vision goggles into place, cursing under his breath as he saw waves crashing against the rock.  The island was deceptively large and yet, it felt almost painfully small.  He wondered, as he studied the rock to pick out handholds, just how the government had built the lighthouse in the first place.  His mind tossed the question around and around, then dismissed it as the boat bumped against the rock.  Up close, the island seemed impossibly huge.  It was difficult to believe it wasn’t that tall, not compared to the mountains he’d climbed during basic.  But then, it was all just a matter of perception.

Mount Easy is huge, but it is a very simple climb, so easy even a complete notice can walk to the top, his instructor had said.  Mount Doom is half the height of Mount Easy, yet it is so treacherous that even experienced climbers can get into trouble very easily and have to be rescued.

Roland took one last look at the boat, then clambered onto the rock and started to climb.  The fishermen had sworn blind it was easy to find handholds – they’d clambered up to catch seabirds, they’d assured him – but it felt slippery and unpleasant to the touch.  He forced himself to keep going, keeping his eye on the prize and careful not to look down.  The rest of the team followed, their grunting hidden behind the howling wind and outraged seabirds.  Roland cursed under his breath.  They should have expected the birds.  He hoped the enemy guards weren’t paying close attention.

There’s always something that goes wrong, something unexpected, he recalled.  The trick is to pick up after the unexpected hits you and keep going.

He inched upwards, step by step.  It felt as if he was constantly on the verge of losing his grip and falling to his death.  He had no illusions about his chances, if he fell to the rocks below.  Even if he survived the fall and landing, the waves would sweep him off and dash him against the rocks before he could recover or be rescued.  The fishermen had told him they did it all the time … he kicked himself, mentally, for not asking how many of them died in the attempt.  New Doncaster wasn’t Earth, where the middle and upper classes lived – had lived –in blissful safety, wrapped in bubbles of cotton wool.  The locals risked their lives every time they went on the waters and some of them never returned.  Their bodies were never found.

The top caught him by surprise.  He almost lost his grip and fell as he scrambled onto the rocks and caught his breath.  His heart was pounding like a drum, beating so loudly he was sure it could be heard over the gathering storm.  Lightning flashed in the distance as the rest of the team joined him, their faces grimly relieved.  It had been a nasty climb … Roland promised himself, grimly, that next time he’d listen to his instructors.  Taking the lighthouse intact was a worthwhile goal, but not at the cost of a dozen lives.

He forced himself to stand and check his weapons, then inch forward until the lighthouse came into view.  It was crude, like something out of the dark ages, but he had to admit that building the station on the rocky outcrop was a remarkable feat.  The station was bigger than he’d expected, a pair of small barracks flanking a radar station, a helicopter pad and the lighthouse itself.  His eyes swept the complex, looking for guards.  There were none.  Roland didn’t really blame them.  The odds of anyone trying to climb up the rocky walls were very low.  It was far more likely their enemies would either carry out an airborne assault or slam a missile into the station from a safe distance.  The lighthouse wouldn’t survive, but the government would know something had happened.  Roland hoped, as the team prepped for the assault, they could take the station without sounding an alarm.  It would make the war a great deal easier if the station fed the enemy comforting lies, rather than being replaced by airborne or ground-based sensor stations.

His eyes sought out the lighthouse high overhead as they inched closer.  No one was visible on the balcony, unsurprisingly.  The winds were just too high.  Anyone who stepped outside ran the risk of being blown away, of being sent falling to their deaths.  The lower buildings were in a hollow and yet, the shape of the surrounding rocks would make life dangerous for anyone who tried to go out for a walk.  Roland wondered, idly, just how well the government paid the lighthouse keepers.  He hoped they paid well.  The risk of cabin fever would be just too high for minimum wage.

They always were cheapskates, he reminded himself.  Underpaying the lighthouse keepers would be hardly out of character for them.

The wind howled louder as they reached the door.  The walls looked as if they belonged to a bunker or a pillbox, so solid he wondered if they were expecting attackers after all, before deciding it was intended to keep the lighthouse keepers safe.  He glanced at his team, then drew the multitool from his belt and pressed it against the lock.  There was a long pause – his heart skipped a beat, knowing the clock had started to tick down to zero – before the door unlocked.  He pushed it open, motioning for his team to sneak inside.  If there was an alarm on the door …

A gust of heat struck him as they piled through the outer chamber.  It was a bare room, save for a pair of heavy coats hanging from the walls.  It looked like an airlock … Roland heard someone moving in the next room and motioned for the team to push through the door.  A young man stood on the far side, gaping at them.  Roland zapped him with a jangler before he could get over his shock, wincing in sympathy as the man collapsed to the ground.  The poor bastard was going to be sore for hours … Roland shook his head.  There’d been no choice.  They dared not let anyone have a chance to sound the alarm.

“Call the chopper,” he ordered, keeping his voice low.  “Tell them to come in when they’re up to it.”

He glanced around the chamber, shaking his head in wry amusement.  It was more like a genteel – if shabby – sitting room than a military base.  A pair of old-style computer consoles rested against the far wall, linked to a flatscreen through a mélange of wires and adaptors; one wall was covered with pin-ups, some so old he couldn’t help thinking the models they showed were dead and gone.  There were no windows … he put the thought aside as he led the way into the kitchen, spotting a man bent over the stove.  Roland zapped him in the back, then caught him before he could land on the heat.  Behind him, he heard a crash.  He swore and spun around, dropping the man to the floor.  A door slammed before the slammer could be zapped or shot down.

Shit.  Roland forced himself to run.  Surprise was gone.  The enemy might have been caught off guard, but … how quickly could they send a message?  Roland wanted to believe they were lazy, that they were so confident they couldn’t be caught by surprise that they hadn’t bothered to set up emergency procedures, yet he dared not assume it was true.  If he’d been in command, he’d have made sure everyone knew what to do if the shit hit the fan.  If he gets to the command centre before it’s too late …

He kicked down the door and ran through the corridor, quickly updating his mental map of the complex.  It was small and yet it felt surprisingly large.  A man stepped out of a side door and stared at him; Roland slammed his rifle into the man’s chest, sending him doubling over in shock, and hurried onwards.  Alarms howled, the deafening racket shaking the complex as he crashed into the next chamber.  A pair of technicians dived for cover.  Roland shouted at them to stay on the ground – the rest of the team would take care of them – and ran through the next door.  A flight of stairs led upwards, into the darkness.  Roland swore as he felt running footsteps, clattering down fragile metal stairs.  The runaway was fleeing to the lighthouse itself.  He was up to something.

Roland hesitated – there would be almost no room to hide in the lighthouse, no cover if the runaway had a gun – and then inched up the steps, moving as quickly and quietly as he could.  The alarms were still howling – he suspected the rest of the lighthouse keepers had awoken to discover it was already too late – but his footsteps shook the stairs.  He forced himself to keep going, wishing he’d thought to bring stun grenades despite the risk of damaging equipment they needed to take intact.  Right now, the mission was teetering on the brink of outright failure.

The world blazed blindingly bright as he reached the top, so bright he thought someone had called in a missiles strike after all, then plunged into a darkness so absolute he thought he’d gone blind.  The runaway had come up with a plan … Roland barely had a second to sense the incoming body before it crashed into him, sending them both slamming into the metal safety walls.  Roland felt a flash of panic as the walls seemed to shift under the impact, convinced at a very primal level they were about to plunge to their deaths, before catching himself and pushing back as hard as he could.  His vision was blurred, but … he blinked hard, thanking his ancestors for the enhancements spliced into his eyeballs.  He would have been blinded for good, without medical treatment unavailable on New Doncaster, if he hadn’t been enhanced.  As it was, his eyes hurt.

He growled, punching the runaway in the chest and bringing up his knee to strike the man in the groin.  The enemy soldier howled in pain; Roland drew back his fist and punched him out, knocking him to the ground.  Roland ducked down as the giant light hummed, then found the emergency switch and powered it down.  The lighthouse would remain dark until they’d finished searching it from top to bottom, then determining if the enemy crew had managed to get a warning off before it was too late.

His earpiece buzzed.  “Sir, the storm is picking up,” the operator said.  “The helicopter cannot reach you until tomorrow morning.”

Roland nodded, picking up the unconscious man and carting him back down the rickety stairs.  It was unfortunate, but hardly surprising.  He’d devised his plans on the assumption the helicopter wouldn’t be able to reach them at all.  The rest of the station crew were lying on the floor in the sitting room, their hands duct-taped behind their backs.  Roland frowned as he counted the prisoners.  The lighthouse had clearly been reinforced at some point … if reinforced was the correct word.  He handed his prisoner over to the team, then glanced at his second.  The man’s face was very grim.

“They shipped a top-of-the-line radar and sensor kit into the lighthouse at some point,” he said.  “It’s light-years ahead of anyone they showed us.”

“Joy,” Roland said, sarcastically.  Radar had never been particularly reliable on New Doncaster – the planet’s atmosphere was a boon to smugglers and rebels and a curse to everyone else – but a modern sensor platform might be able to see through the storms as if they simply didn’t exist.  Might.  “Where did they get it?”

“Unknown,” his second said.  “The spaceport?”

Roland shrugged, putting the issue aside for later consideration.  The sensor platform was in their hands now.  The lighthouse had been neutralised, ensuring the rebels could start opening up the sea channels again.  Even if the enemy knew what had happened – and he hoped they didn’t – they’d have problems doing something about it.  The lighthouse would be blown to pieces if they tried to take it back.

His body ached, but he forced himself to walk through the rest of the complex anyway.  The barracks were surprisingly comfortable, the beds larger than anything he’d seen during his own training.  There were more pin-ups, more computer games and VR headsets … he rolled his eyes as he spotted a pair of virtual experience discs, each one so pornographic he’d been told that bringing one to boot camp was guaranteed expulsion.  Someone had either gone a little overboard, when they tried to make the lighthouse keepers comfortable, or they’d turned a blind eye to what the keepers had brought with them.  Probably the latter.  Roland had been taught there were times when an officer should look the other way and times when the rules should be enforced to the letter.  The lighthouse keepers weren’t brewing alcohol …

He returned to the command post, where he was hailed by one of his team.  “Sir, I think we have a problem.  The lighthouse network sent us a request for an authorisation code.  We don’t have it.”

Roland cursed.  The prisoners presumably knew the code … he wasn’t above ordering a field interrogation, if necessary, but even waking the poor bastards up would take time, time they didn’t have.  And that meant …

“We’ll assume the worst,” he said.  It would have been nice to turn the lighthouse into a lie factory, confusing the enemy commanders until it was too late for them to react, but he hadn’t counted on it.  “Signal base.  Inform them we have secured the lighthouse and we’ll be moving again as soon as the storm allows.”

“Aye, sir.”

Draft Afterword (Infused Man)

20 Apr

This is a draft, so comments and suggestions are more than welcome.


“This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition, his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him, nobody quotes him, nobody seeks his advice after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing, to be nothing. A man like this needs to be recognized, to be listened to, to be quoted just once. This is very important. It would be so hard for him to recede into the background …”

-Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men

“Why isn’t my life like a situation comedy? Why don’t I have a bunch of friends with nothing better to do but drop by and instigate wacky adventures? Why aren’t my conversations peppered with spontaneous witticisms? Why don’t my friends demonstrate heartfelt concern for my well being when I have problems?”

-Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes

After reading The Cunning Man, a couple of readers asked why it took so long for Adam (and Taffy) to realise Arnold was the traitor in their ranks. It’s a fair question.  In hindsight, there’s a great deal about Arnold’s actions that doesn’t quite make sense if you assume he’s one of the good guys.  He pushes constantly for action, insisting to all and sundry that the magicians are responsible for everything and therefore the mundanes have to strike first, constantly pouring oil on the fire.  And, to add insult to injury, how could Taffy’s former life catch up with her unless she’d been betrayed by someone who knew it would have an effect on her?  It could not be explained by random chance, or simple bad luck.

The explanation is quite simple.  Adam, like almost every other young man, wants to be part of a group, one that suits him.  This is a deep and primal desire, one that is very difficult to ignore or put aside.  Adam spent most of his life unable to bond with other young men.  He had no interest in becoming a dockyard worker, a craftsman apprentice, a railway engineer or indeed anything else mundane, while magicians rejected him because he had no magic.  He was seen as a faker, a poser, and the magicians his own age treated him with a degree of – at best – quiet contempt.  They didn’t not welcome him.  They certainly didn’t warm up to him.  He was never considered one of them.

This made him dangerously vulnerable when he went to Heart’s Eye.  He would have found it hard to bond with Lilith even if she had been a lot more welcoming to him, because he grew up in a city where male-female friendships were extremely rare.  Jasper was thoroughly unpleasant to him right from the start, while The Gorgon was his superior as well as a demihuman.  Adam was feeling alone and isolated when Arnold introduced himself and they had enough in common, at least on the surface, for them to start to bond.  Adam did not have the insight to realise, as the reader does in hindsight, that this was completely one-sided.  He saw Arnold as a friend, to the point he refused to consider there was any malice in his actions until, it was far too late.  An enemy can be the evilest evil-doer who ever lived.  A friend is merely misguided.

It helped, of course, that Arnold appeared to Adam’s prejudices, none of which were unfounded.  He’d spent most of his childhood hoping to become a magician, only to be rejected by haughty magicians who’d won the genetic lottery.  He had been bullied for daring to seek a magical apprenticeship, for daring to enter the magical quarter; he’d been hexed and jinxed, even cursed, for daring to exist.  And it wasn’t that different at Heart’s Eye, where both Jasper and Lilith hexed Adam from time to time.  Arnold was pushing at an open door when he realised Adam could be extremely useful.  Adam had good reason to dislike magicians, and to assume a magician was behind the attacks on mundanes, and it blinded him to the real threat.

This is a common problem in modern-day society, although the results are rarely quite so dramatic (at least from an outsider’s point of view).  We all want to be part of a gang of friends who are equals and yet, at the same time, we also want to stand in the spotlight and be hailed as a hero.  We want to be on the winning team, or even on a team, and we also want to be the one who scores the winning goal, however defined.  I don’t care who wins the World Cup, but I care a great deal who wins the Hugo or Dragon Awards.

And this can turn poisonous.

The desire to be part of a group is one that is easy to exploit, when the group is unbalanced, and leads to toxic friendships.  Someone desperate for companionship will often overlook their friend’s darker aspects, which leads to a dangerously unbalanced relationship.  (Example: Amphibia’s Anne and Sasha.)  Someone desperate for attention and status can wind up as a de facto servant, accomplice and court jester, a person who’s position is never secure and can be destroyed at any moment.  (Example: Harry Potter’s Peter Pettigrew.)  Someone desperate for protection can wind up treading a very dark path, which will end badly even if they eventually come to realise they’ve made a deadly mistake.  (Example: Harry Potter’s Severus Snape.)  And when it dawns on the ‘friend’ that they have been exploited, they can react very badly.

A toxic friendship can lead to some very bad habits.  A person who sees the toxic behaviour as normal will run straight into a brick wall, when they encounter someone with a steadier moral compass and a healthier idea of friendship.  Sometimes they’ll heal, sometimes they won’t.  A person who is aware their position is constantly insecure will start shopping around for other prospects, particularly if they have been forced to swallow their pride time and time again.  (There’s only so many times you can swallow your pride before you start to choke on it.)  They won’t just be looking for a stronger protector, they’ll be looking for a way to pay their old abusers back in full.  And a person who has a moment of clarity, and realises he has gone down a very dark path, may find it impossible to break free.  It isn’t easy to admit one’s mistakes without earning the enmity of your former friends, while still remaining unaccepted by saner people. 

This is often exploited by extremist groups and cults.  They start small, luring prospective marks into their clutches step by step.  They work to isolate the mark – if the mark is not already isolated – and reshape their view of reality.  They’ll make the mark more and more complicit in their bad habits, which will make it harder for the mark to go back to their old life when they realise the truth.  And then it will be too late.   

But why does this even happen?

There’s been a lot of talk about inclusion over the past decade.  Most of the chatter is focused around diversity, about ensuring that everyone feels included regardless of their race, gender, sexual preferences, whatever.  This tends to cause more problems than it solves.  On one hand, people join groups because they are interested in the group’s subject (football, for example, or computer games) and pointless charter about something irrelevant to the group’s reason for existence suggests, very strongly, that the person doing the chattering doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  On the other hand, the more you try to force inclusion, the more the in-group will push back.  It takes time to be accepted and the more you force your way in and demand acceptance, the longer it will be before anyone treats you as a real friend.

The sad truth is, people develop – emotionally as well as intellectually – at different rates and it can be difficult, if not impossible, to catch up with your peers.  Someone who is at the bottom of the pecking order may never catch up, something that will grate on them until they either give up or let their pain – and yes, it is pain – drive them into doing something stupid, dangerous and murderous.  It is not easy to reach out to these people because they have been bullied so often they see a helping hand as just another slap, a friendly face as nothing more than the smile on the face of the tiger. 

This leads to all sorts of problems, made worse by a lack of shared understanding and goodwill.  For example, there was a lot of chatter a few years ago in geekdom about ‘fake geek girls,’ very little of which was actually helpful and none of which made life easier for anyone.  Indeed, even discussing the issue from an dispassionate point of view isn’t easy.  On one hand, we have male geeks who have been constantly shamed and humiliated for their geekiness and insist on vetting girls – through trivia questions – to make sure they’re real geeks before letting them enter the club; on the other, we have female geeks who are understandably offended by being asked to prove themselves and regard it as nothing more than sexist gatekeeping.  And everything gets out of hand from there.

But to go back to the topic at hand, is there anything we can do about how the desire for friendship can be weaponised?

It isn’t easy.  The urge to interfere is overwhelmingly powerful.  Parents can screw up their children’s lives by trying to ensure they’re included, or by being ultra-permissive in hopes of ensuring their children are surrounded by lots of friends.  (The first fails because no one wants to be forced to play with someone, the second because the friends are just taking advantage.)  Schools make things worse, by pairing up incompatible kids or tolerating bullying or even trying to mandate friendships in ways that make friendships impossible. 

If it was up to me, I’d do three things:

First, I’d let friendships develop as naturally as possible.  Children, as they grow into teenagers, will start to gravitate towards others who share their interests.  I’d do my best to encourage this by letting them form their own clubs, in hopes of attracting others, rather than trying to dictate to them.

Second, I’d work hard to encourage fair play and equality in the truest possible sense – the rules will be clearly defined and clearly applied to everyone.  My aim is not to be ‘one of the boys,’ something that will inevitable ruin my efforts, but to be an impartial judge.

Third, I’d try to ensure that everyone got a chance to shine.  They don’t share the same interests, and expecting them to be good at everything is pointless, but I’d ensure – for example – that a chess club victory is given the same applause and reward as a football club victory. 

Will any of this work?  I don’t know, but the truth is we have an ever-expanding population of angry people who feel disconnected from society and disrespected, their concerns dismissed as laughable (at best), by the few who take a moment to notice them.  This is a recipe for trouble.  It is time we took action before it is too late.

And now you’ve read this far, I have a request to make.

It’s growing harder to make a living through self-published writing these days.  If you liked this book, please leave a review where you found it, share the link, let your friends know (etc, etc).  Every little helps (particularly reviews).

Thank you.

Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2022

Movie Review: Sonic The Hedgehog 2

18 Apr

Movie Review: Sonic The Hedgehog 2

I was not expecting to like Sonic the Hedgehog when my sons insisted on watching it (again and again and again).  I grew up playing the early Sonic games and reading Sonic the Comic, and I admit to a great deal of affection for them, but the later games and takes on the character did not impress me.  Worse, Hollywood has a long history of taking franchises and screwing them up because the writers don’t understand why they became popular in the first place.  The live-action Transformers movies are perfect examples of this process – the giant robots, rather than the human tagalongs, are the stars and having any major human characters is a bad idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog, of course, has always had one major human character – Dr. Robotnik – and a handful of others, but I feared disaster when I heard the story was going to be set on Earth and involve several major human characters.  This was not a good move on their part, I thought, but it worked better than expected.  Not ideally – if it was up to me, I would have taken the original story and put that on the big screen instead – but it wasn’t a complete disaster.  Indeed, the movie did so well that they green-lit a sequel.  My sons and I went to watch it last week.

A year or so after the events of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic is living with Tom and his wife in Green Hills, unaware that Dr Robotnik has formed an alliance with Knuckles to find the long-gone Master Emerald and take revenge on Sonic.  (Robotnik, true to his game persona, intends to betray Knuckles as soon as they find the emerald.)  Sonic is saved by Tails and the duo set off to find the emerald themselves, only to find themselves hunted by human authorities and captured, too late to stop Robotnik from using the emerald to turn himself into a near-god.  Knuckles and Sonic save each other’s lives and team up to stop Robotnik before all is lost …

The story works better, if you ask me, than the first movie because all the pieces are firmly in place.  The majority of the action flows smoothly, as one would expect from a Sonic-themed movie, although there is a nasty bit of padding in the middle that would have been better off removed.  The characters have also shown a degree of growth, even Robotnik; he admits, after spending months on his own, that he misses at least some human company.  There’s also the more clear homage to the games, including Robotnik’s giant robot – a cross between the Death Egg Boss of Sonic 2 and the Titanium Monarch of Sonic Mania and the chaos emeralds themselves.  And the friendship between the three aliens – Sonic. Tails and Knuckles – is very much the heart of the story.  Knuckles even starts his change of heart after watching Sonic risk his life to save Tails.

Special mention is due to Jim Carrey, who brings Robotnik to life in a manner that is both hammy and evil.  This version of Robotnik is a fascinating character, a mad genius who is crazy-prepared for almost anything.  (Having used the Master Emerald to create and power his giant robot, he makes sure to add an emergency power system for when the emerald is stolen away from him.)  His relationship with Agent Stone is a little more developed in this movie (as Robotnik has clearly learnt he needs Stone (or someone)) and his enmity with Sonic is front and centre.  Carrey may lack the girth of the video game Robotnik, but he is otherwise pretty much perfect for the role.  It is also fair to mention that Idris Elba, who I thought was an odd choice to voice Knuckles, does a very good job. 

The movie does suffer from one major side trip that really should have been eliminated (or at least cut down to a handful of seconds).  Tom and Maddie Wachowski (Sonic’s adoptive parents) take a trip to attend Rachel’s (Maddie’s sister) wedding, where they meet the bridegroom for the first time.  I had bad vibes the moment I saw Randall and I knew there was something wrong with him, but for the entire wedding to be nothing more than a trap for Sonic …  It’s great to see Maddie and Rachel team up to save Sonic, and Rachel teaching Randall a lesson is comedy gold (if you like that sort of thing, which I don’t) but it feels like something out of a very different movie.  It shouldn’t have been included in this one.

Overall, however, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 works very well.  The storyline moves along well, the humour is generally very good (although some elements are a little cringe), the actors (both live action and voice) do their parts very well and overall, the movie is well worth a watch.  The handful of weaknesses do not detract from the rest of the movie …

… And my sons loved it.  What more can I say?


9 Apr

Hi, everyone

This is just a short update.  Sorry.

I finished the first draft of The Infused Man last week and it is currently with the editor, who will hopefully get back to me as soon as possible.  I’ve been taking it easy since then, writing the short Frieda’s Tale novella at the rate of one chapter a day (snippet) with a plan to start The Prince’s Alliance once my children go back to school in a couple of weeks.  Endeavour is coming, but my editor has been unwell and so it has been delayed. 

I published Her Majesty’s Warlord through Henchmen Press and it has done alright so far (could always do with more sales and reviews <grin>).  The Cunning Man audio is currently up for pre-order, so purchase through the link here

Not much else to report, really.  I hope you’re all well.

Until next time


Book Review: The Spanish Civil War At Sea

7 Apr

Michael Alpert

One does not normally think of the Spanish Civil War as a naval war.  It was the fighting on land that determined the winner, with much of the naval fighting serving as little more than a sideshow at best.  The only real time the navies might have made a significant impact on the tactical level was during the early weeks and months of the war, when Franco and the Nationalists were shipping troops from North Africa to the mainland.  This part of the war has been treated, by and large, as a sideshow.  It is very rarely mentioned as a crucial part of the war.

The Spanish Civil War At Sea covers three different aspects of the naval war.  First, there is the fragmentation of the Spanish Navy in the wake of the attempted coup of 1936 and both sides trying to repair the damage while fighting the war.  Second, there is coverage of the naval fighting and encounters – such as they were – during the bitter years of 1936 to 1939, when the war ended with a Nationalist victory.  Third, and perhaps most interestingly in our current times, there is an overview of foreign involvement in the naval aspects of the conflict, from diplomatic issues and quibbling over the legalities of which side could declare a blockade to brief and sometimes violent clashes between Spanish and foreign warships. 

The Spanish Navy was sharply divided even before the fighting, with officers largely supporting the Nationalists and most enlisted men supporting the Republicans (basic training was apparently very poor).  The early days of the war were marked, therefore, by horrendous confusion that made it hard for anyone to take control.  Some officers tried to lie to their men, with varying levels of success; others were overthrown in mutinies, which sometimes ended badly.  The chaos continued even after the battle lines were clearly drawn, with both sides having very real problems recognising their fleets, appointing new commanding officers (at this, the Nationalists had an advantage) and prosecuting the war.  The chance to impede shipping from Africa, for better or worse, was lost before anyone realised it had existed. 

The shortage of officers made it harder for the Republicans to sort out a valid strategic direction for their navy, let alone send it into battle.  They did not follow a unified plan, which played a role in their defeat.  At the same time, the Nationalists had trouble crewing the ships that had fallen into their hands (although they looked and acted more like a navy, which worked in their favour when dealing with foreign officers.)  Both sides had very real problems dealing with everything from supplies to foreign interference and neither one could use the navy to land a killing blow.

The book is far more detailed on the subject of outside involvement.  Germany and Italy sent direct support to the Nationalists, while the Soviets backed the Republicans.  Both sides worked hard to get supplies to their people while denying them to their enemies.  Other powers, Britain and France in particular, did their best to stay out of the fighting, a difficult task with three unfriendly powers involved.  Spain became a poisonous issue for both, raising problems they didn’t want to solve.  For example, if a ship was registered in Britain but wasn’t truly British, should the Royal Navy try to protect it?  Indeed, there was a split in both Britain and France, as people tried to take sides.

This led to a problem all too familiar nowadays.  If outsiders back the wrong side, i.e. the one that loses the war, the victors will be none too happy about it.  The risk of Franco turning completely to Germany was not to be overlooked, nor was the risk of Spain becoming a communist state in the wake of a Republican victory.  In the end, the outsiders were luckier than they deserved.  Franco won the war, but he didn’t join the Germans in 1940.

The book does, however, suffer from a grave weakness.  Alpert very much supports the Republicans, to the point of constantly referring to the Nationalists as the Insurgents.  This is technically accurate, but not very helpful.  He also glosses over the problems caused by political commissioners and sailors councils, as well as the fact the Republicans were turning more and more authoritarian as the war turned against them.  (The reluctance to trust what few senior officers entered Republican service was probably common sense, based on how some of them turned their coats during the fighting.)

Overall, though, it is a good outline of the naval aspects of a conflict that not only served as a forerunner of World War Two, but also casts a long shadow to this day.

Frieda’s Tale – Snippet

6 Apr

This is the start of a short novella for Fantastic Schools Hols.

Chapter One

Frieda woke, alone.

The tent felt hot and uncomfortable, a faint light shimmering through the canvas reminding her it was shortly after dawn.  She sat upright, taking a deep shuddering breath as she gathered herself.  She’d slept in worse places – the floor of her family’s hovel, the dorms of Mountaintop – but there was something about the small tent that unsettled her.  It felt both solid and flimsy, mocking her as she tried to catch a good night’s sleep.  The wards crackled around her as she reached out with her fingertips, carefully dismantling the spells that had protected her during the night.  She’d never felt comfortable sleeping without them.  The tent was big enough for two, if they were close, but she’d flatly refused to share.  She couldn’t sleep properly if she wasn’t alone.

At least Hoban understood, she thought, brushing dark hair out of her eyes.  And Emily

The thought gnawed at her mind.  She liked Hoban, not least because he let her sleep in a single tent.  It was odd, she was sure, to his mind.  She’d have sex, but not sleep – literally sleep – with him.  Emily was about the only person Frieda had ever managed to sleep close to and even she had been difficult, in those early days.  And the less said about the dorms of Mountaintop and the rooms of Whitehall the better.  She just preferred to have space to herself when she was asleep and feeling vulnerable.  The wards just didn’t feel like enough.

She crawled out of the bedroll and reached for her clothes, pulling her trousers and shirt over her sleepwear.  It felt grimy, but compared to her childhood it was heaven.  She scowled to herself – if she’d realised where they were going, she might have had second thoughts about spending much of the summer with her boyfriend – and tied her hair back in a long ponytail before clambering out of the tent.  The campsite was remarkably active … she told herself she was being silly. Whitehall had spoilt her.  Her old family had risen when the sun rose and gone to bed when it fell behind the distant peaks.

The air tasted fresh and pure, the faint scent of wild magic brushing against her nostrils.  The campsite, nearly ten miles from the nearest major town, was surrounded by trees and – in the distance – mountains rising so high their peaks vanished in the clouds.  She shivered, despite herself, as she looked at the trees.  The clearing felt a little too clear for her peace of mind.  It was hard not to fear unseen eyes watching them from the shadows.  She’d grown up in the Cairngorms, before she’d been sold to Mountaintop, and she’d never quite managed to rid herself of the habits she’d learnt as a child.  Her tutors had called them superstitions.  She wanted to believe they’d been right.  And yet …

She took a long breath, her eyes peering into the pools of shadow, then forced herself to walk on stiff legs towards the fire.  Hoban was standing by the flames, brewing a pot of something the archaeologists – the diggers, they were nicknamed – considered stronger than kava.  He smiled as she appeared, then picked up a mug and poured for her.  Frieda took a moment to study him – he was tall and muscular, with hair cut close to his scalp and a nasty-looking set of scars that ran under his shirt – and then took the mug, sipping it gratefully.  It tasted foul, and set her teeth on edge, but it woke her up.  Hoban nodded politely to her – he was a man of few words – as the rest of the team appeared.  He handed round the drinks without a hint of hesitation, or suggestion someone else should do the work.  It was one of the things she liked about him.  The men in her childhood had always passed such jobs to the women.

Her heart twisted as she looked at the distant mountains.  She’d grown up only a few short miles from their destination, a nameless village – they were all nameless – hidden within the forests, their mere existences rarely acknowledged on any map.  She felt her hands begin to shake as she remembered her childhood, remembered how close she’d come to dying time and time again before a passing magician had purchased her as one might purchase a sow or a lamb.  No, he’d shown even less consideration for the young girl.  And yet, he’d probably saved her life.  The villages were permanently on the brink of starvation.  She’d known it was only a matter of time before she was cast out to die.

Or someone killed me in a drunken fury, she thought, numbly.  She’d thought she’d buried that part of her, but the memories had returned when she’d returned to the Cairngorms.  The scent in the air was a mocking reminder of a time when life was nasty, brutish and short.  It still was, for the hundreds of thousands of people within the region. Or I had an accident and they left me to die.

She carried her mug to the nearest stream and washed it quickly – no staff to do the washing, not here – and then made her way back to the tent.  The interior looked surprisingly inviting, despite the brew, but she forced herself to start dismantling the tent instead of trying to go back to sleep.  She couldn’t, even if she wanted to.  Hoban had told her she had to pull her weight as part of the team, to use her strong back and her magic to help them complete their mission.  Frieda didn’t mind.  Hoban, bless him, had been embarrassed when he’d told her.  He didn’t realise how hard she’d had to work as a young girl.  She’d been put to work from the moment she’d been able to walk.

A hand touched her shoulder.  She jumped and span around, a hex forming on her fingertips before she realised it was Hoban.  He raised his hands in surrender … Frieda flushed, embarrassed, as she banished the spell.  She was doing her best to overcome the scars of her childhood – Emily had called it a fight-or-flight reflex – but it wasn’t easy.  She’d spent too much of her life in a place where an unexpected touch meant a beating, or worse.  Hoban didn’t understand.  How could he?  The Great Families – and Hoban’s family was amongst the greatest, as they made sure to tell everyone who crossed their path – had their problems, but they didn’t treat their children as servants and slaves.  They had no comprehension of just how lucky they were.

“Sorry,” Hoban said.  He kept his distance, a sign of understanding.  Frieda loved him for that too.  He was a powerful sorcerer, used to taking what he wanted.  And yet, he was giving her space.  “Are you ready to go?”

“Just about,” Frieda said.  She leaned forward and gave him a quick hug, as far as she could go in public.  “You?”

“Ready.”  Hoban watched as she finished stowing the tent in her rucksack, then slung it over her shoulders.  “We’ll be on the way in a moment.”

Frieda nodded and followed him back to the campsite.  It was practically melting away in front of her as tents were dismantled, the fire stamped out and everything either buried or packed away for later.  The diggers showed a surprising amount of respect for the land, unlike most outsiders who visited the region, something that had puzzled Frieda until she’d realised they didn’t want to anger the Other Folk.  Or the Awful Folk.  Or … she frowned inwardly as the team formed up, ready to resume the climb.  There were all sorts of legends about things lurking in the shadows, ready to snare unwary passers-by.  The team couldn’t afford not to take them seriously.

And they’ll be here for quite some time, she thought.  She was going back to Whitehall at the end of the summer, to take her final year of schooling before she went on to an apprenticeship or … or what?  They don’t want to anger the local sprits.

“All ready?”  Hoban’s eyes swept the team.  “Let’s go.”

The team shambled forward in a rough parody of a route march.  Frieda had been shocked when she’d first seen it – Sergeant Miles would have castigated the lot of them – but the team wasn’t a military unit.  It didn’t need to maintain strict discipline, not when everyone knew and trusted everyone else.  Frieda flushed at the thought.  She was the only stranger on the team, a newcomer who’d only been allowed to join because she was dating the team leader.  It was galling … sure, Hoban had told her another magician was always welcome, but she had her doubts.  It had taken a while for the rest of the team to even speak to her.

She felt sweat beading on her back as they left the clearing behind, making their way along a rocky – and muddy – path that was barely visible, even to her.  The wind blew hot and cold, the scent of wild magic pulsing around them … she gritted her teeth, understanding why so many outsiders were so ill at ease in the region.  The Cairngorms were beautiful, but so was a Death Viper.  A man who climbed the mountains might never come down again.  She glanced at Hoban, who winked at her.  She was mildly surprised the team wasn’t grumbling like martial magic students on a forced march.  But then, they’d all volunteered for the team,

The hours wore on.  Her arms and legs began to ache.  It felt as though they’d walked and walked and yet made no progress, as if they were walking in circles.  She told herself it wasn’t possible – Hoban and his team were skilled navigators, and someone would have spoken up if they’d thought they were going in the wrong direction – but it was hard to escape the sense they were lost.  The landscape didn’t seem to change at all.  It was nothing but endless trees and dark shadows.

Frieda ground her teeth.  She’d gotten soft.  She hadn’t felt so … unfit … when she’d been a child, when she’d gathered mushrooms and herbs for her family and … her heart twisted as she remembered finding a dead rabbit, only to have the carcass stolen from her by an older boy before she could get it home.  The bastard had smacked her down … hatred pulsed through her, numbed by the grim awareness life was a constant struggle for survival.  There were stories of villages that had resorted to cannibalism, when the snow came.  She wanted to tell herself they weren’t true, that no one would break the taboo on eating human flesh, but she’d never cared to lie to herself.  The villagers would do everything in their power to survive.

“Nearly there,” Hoban said, quietly.  “Are you looking forward to seeing your family again?”

Frieda had no answer.  She’d been fourteen when she’d been sold and yet … she barely remembered her parents.  She wasn’t even sure the people she remembered were her true parents.  Family relationships were a tangled tree in the Cairngorms, where it was rare for someone who’d lost their partner not to remarry as quickly as possible.  A father needed a wife to care for his brood, a mother needed a husband to bring home the bacon … not, she reflected, that there’d been much bacon.  For all she knew, her parents were dead.  She’d had no contact with them since she’d been sold.  She had to think to remember their names.

Hoban frowned.  “Frieda?”

“No,” she said, finally.  “I’m not looking forward to seeing them again.”

She put the thought aside as the road reached a peak, then fell down into a valley.  It felt wrong, in more ways than one.  The remnants of a village lay in front of them, blackened and burnt by … something.  She shivered as she remembered the stories the old women had told, while they’d been bossing the younger girls around.  The village had been caught in a firestorm and destroyed, the entire population burnt to ash and the earth beneath their feet cursed.  She’d been cautioned never to enter the valley, not for anything.  The one time she’d wandered too close, she’d found herself unable to cross the old boundaryline.  The village wasn’t a human place any longer.

And something happened to reveal an ancient structure below the village, she thought.  The stories hadn’t made much sense, but apparently that was fairly common.  A team of preliminary explorers had been dispatched at once, when word reached the White Council, while Hoban had been ordered to prepare a follow-up expedition.  They think it might predate recorded history.

The thought made her smile.  She’d never been that interested in history – she’d grown up in a world where nothing ever changed, where her family lived as their ancestors had done for thousands of years – but Emily loved it.  Frieda had heard her grumbling about how recorded history wasn’t as recorded as everyone claimed, about inconsistencies in the records and confused dating systems making it impossible to be sure what had happened a few hundred years ago.  Hoban agreed, from what he’d said.  He’d told her that digging up the past was the only way to find out what had happened for sure.  It was a dangerous task – old tombs tended to be cursed, old magical settlements tended to be infused with tainted magic – but he loved it.  And Frieda wanted to make Emily proud. 

Hoban tensed, one hand dropping to his sword.  “Hold,” he said, his voice quiet yet urgent.  “Where are they?”

Frieda nodded, reaching for her magic as the rest of the team spread out.  The ruined village was completely deserted.  There were no visible humans … her eyes narrowed as she realised she couldn’t hear birds, or small animals rustling through the undergrowth.  She took a breath and grimaced as she tasted the lingering scent of wet smoke and burnt human flesh.  The stench should have vanished long ago, along with the remains of the village.  The nearby villages should have salvaged what they could, before nature reoccupied the valley and erased all traces of human settlement.  Instead, it felt as if the village was suspended in a single moment of time.

“They should be here,” Garth said.  He was a dark-skinned man, with a bearing that suggested he’d been a solider or a mercenary before joining the diggers.  “They wouldn’t all have gone to the nearest village.”

“No,” Hoban agreed.  “They’d know better.”

Frieda nodded in agreement.  The nameless villages weren’t friendly to outsiders.  There’d been no inn in her village, when she’d been a child, and she doubted there was one there now.  There wasn’t even a proper pub.  She doubted the diggers had been able to buy alcohol or find any of the pleasures of Dragon’s Den, not here.  The villages were just too small and too tight-knit.  Outside money was no good in the mountains.

She kept the thought to herself as they searched the village with practiced ease.  The advance party had had tents – they wouldn’t have risked sleeping in the ruined buildings – but there was no sign of them.  There was no hint anyone had entered the village, save for a number of trees that had been knocked down by a landslide or chopped down by human hands.  Frieda sensed the wild magic growing stronger as she peered through the ruined trees.  There was something there, half-hidden below the earth.  It was so … alien … she had trouble looking at it.

“Interesting,” Hoban said.  “What is it?”

“Dangerous,” Esther said.  She was the only other woman on the team, with short red hair, green eyes and a prickly disposition that suggested she knew she’d paid her dues long ago.  “It isn’t a tomb, that’s for sure.”

Frieda swallowed as she tried to place the thing in proper context.  It had been buried until the landslide had revealed it … she thought, suddenly, of an iceberg, only the tip visible above the waves.  The thought chilled and excited her in equal measure.  What was it?  She felt her head start to pound as she looked closer, trying to make out details.  The … the thing was just too different.  Her eyes seemed to skip over it, as if her mind refused to accept its existence.  Every time she thought she knew what it looked like, she realised she was wrong.  The only thing she could say for sure was that there was a lot more under the ground.

“We need to do more digging,” Hoban said.  “Whatever it is, we need to know.  Quickly.”

“We need more manpower,” Garth said.  “You want to teleport home and ask for help?”

Hoban scowled.  “There’s too much wild magic in the air to teleport safely,” he said, after a moment.  “And it would take them some time to put together a second team.”

Frieda barely heard him.  She was torn, unsure what to do.  She wanted to make Emily and Hoban proud, by helping to dig up the … the whatever … and figuring out what it actually was, but – at the same time – her instincts were insisting they should bury the whatever and swear blind they’d never seen it.  It felt dangerous.  The currents of magic flowing around it were just too eerie.  And they really didn’t have the slightest idea what it actually was.

“Frieda and I will go to the nearest village and recruit help,” Hoban said.  “There should be enough young men to help us dig it up, if we pay through the nose.  If they refuse … we have authority to conscript labour.”

“Really?”  Esther scowled at him.  “Aren’t you the slightest bit concerned about what happened to the first team?  They should be here, waiting for us!”

“Yes,” Hoban said, sharply.  “But we also need to make a start on figuring out what we’ve found before someone else gets wind of it.”

Frieda shuddered.  He’d told her, bitterly, of tombs that had been looted decades – perhaps centuries – before the diggers had arrived, of priceless artefacts and records stolen or destroyed by people who didn’t have the slightest idea what they were doing.  She understood his thinking.  They needed to know what they were dealing with before other parties figured out what was going on and started to interfere …

… And yet, as they started to walk, she couldn’t help feeling they were making a terrible mistake.