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Snippet – The Land of Always Summer (Mystic Albion/The Stranded II)

30 May

An Earth-born girl in a magic world, a Magic-born girl looking for evil magicians on Earth … what could go wrong?

Prologue: England, 1605

Cecil, Lord Burghley, sensed the messenger coming before the mounted rider galloped up to the gates, showed his credentials to the guards and was shown straight into the mansion. The gossamer-thin wards protecting the estate were nowhere near as powerful as they had been during the reign of King John, the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII and Mary Tudor, but there was still enough magic left to alert him to newcomers. It was a far cry from the days in which estate was practically invisible, magic making it difficult for the monarch to take notice of its existence, but it was still something. And yet, he could feel them weakening with every passing day. It would not be long before the magic was truly gone.

His heart churned as the messenger was escorted along the corridor to his study. The days in which magicians had been powerful and influential were gone. Magic was flowing out of the world, the brief flowering under Elizabeth Tudor proven to be nothing more than a false dawn. Elizabeth had had court magicians and alchemists and others but her successor – James VI and I – loathed and feared magic with all the hatred of a man confronted with something he didn’t understand. The burners – the witch-hunters – were already on the prowl. Cecil knew himself to be relatively safe, as long as his family served the crown. Others were not so fortunate. Those who had dawdled too long before stepping through the gates were doomed now, as the burners did their grisly work. Wise women, cunning men, and ladies who happened to be merely inconvenient, when large estates were at stake, were being denounced and murdered. It did not matter that most of the victims knew nothing of magic. King James had commanded that witches be wiped out, and his henchmen intended to oblige.

And in trying to destroy the fake magicians, Cecil reflected grimly, he may destroy us as well.

He cursed under his breath. King James was a religious fanatic. His loathing of magic was so profound that Cecil feared what the king would do, if he found out there were practising magicians within the English aristocracy. The alliance between aristocrats and the folk magicians, the hidden communities of common-born magicians, had been born of desperation. If they hadn’t had everything at stake, Cecil knew the alliance would never have been made. It had once suited his people to pretend the other group didn’t exist. Now, they had to work together or die together.

The doors opened. The messenger was a young man, too young to understand the gravity of the message he bore. Like Cecil himself, he had grown up in the secret world of aristocrats who dabbled in magic, a world it suited many people to pretend didn’t exist, a world threatened by the decline in magic and the king’s determination to destroy it. And yet he had no idea what would be lost, when the magic went away for good. Cecil wondered, despite himself, if the young messenger was not one of the lucky ones. He would never feel the lack of magic in his veins. He would never grow old as a cripple, all too aware of what he had lost.

“My Lord,” the messenger said. Cecil knew what the messenger was going to say before he said it. He had been an aristocrat long enough to recognise the expression of a man who feared his master was going to blame the messenger for the message. “I come from Gatehouse.”

From York, Cecil mentally translated. The first and last of the gates lay there. And if you have come so quickly …

The messenger visibly swallowed. “My Lord, the gate has closed.”

Cecil said nothing for a long cold moment. In truth, he had feared that he might have left it too late for far too long. There had been seven gates in total and four of them had closed the moment Elizabeth Tudor breathed her last. Two more had closed the following year, leaving only one gate between the mundane world and the realm of magic Anne Boleyn had found for her people. Cecil could have crossed the gate at any time, but he had thought it more important to organise the exodus before the burners could discover and destroy the gate. In truth, he admitted in the privacy of his own mind, he hadn’t wanted to give up the power and prestige that came with being one England’s foremost men. His ancestors had not climbed their way to the top, simply to have their achievement casually discarded by their descendent.

I would have had to start again, he thought. The English aristocracy, magic or not, was nothing special on the far side of the gate. They would be equal to commoners, forced to rise and fall based on merit rather than blood. Their vast estates simply did not exist in the other world. The power and prestige they had used to compensate for the decline in magic would be gone. And what would I have become, if I had been forced to rebuild the family from scratch?

It was a terrifying thought. Merrie England was a precisely ordered society. A man was born into his place and would stay in his place, unless he was very lucky or unlucky, until the day he died. Very few rose above their birth and fewer still made it stick. It was the way of things. A farmer was born to be a farmer, a blacksmith was born to be a blacksmith … there was something fundamentally wrong with trying to change the place God had given you, when you had been born into this sinful world. Had not Cecil’s own family defeated the upstart Earl of Essex, when he had sought to rise above his station? Had not …?

The messenger shifted uncomfortably. “My Lord?”

Cecil frowned, realising he had let the silence go on too long.

“That is tragic news,” he said. It was, he conceded. The commoners trapped on the near side of the gate would never see their families again. No one was quite sure what manner of being Anne Boleyn had summoned, or what she had done to bargain with it, but they had been cautioned it could not be repeated. Go to the kitchens. Tell the cooks I said to feed you. I’ll send when I need you.

The messenger bowed, then retreated.

Cecil stared down at his desk. It really was tragic news … and yet, it was also an opportunity. The common folk were doomed, either through the lack of magic or the king’s forces hunting them down, but the aristocrats could go on. They knew how to hide themselves in the warp and weft of society, to use what little magic remained to keep the king and everyone else from noticing what they really were. It was one thing to accuse a random woman from a nameless village of being a witch, quite another to aim such a charge at a powerful nobleman and expect it to stick. And besides, if the fortune-tellers were correct, the kingdom was on the verge of a major upheaval. Who knew what he could do, if he took advantage of the crisis to blend his people even further into the government?

But it would mean betraying the common folk, Cecil thought. It would mean …

The plan took form in his mind. The betrayal cost him a pang, but it would be a small price to pay for the survival of his people. The common folk could die. There would be no place for them in the new world order. And he knew where many of the remaining common-born magicians were, here and now. If he betrayed them to the burners, if he convinced the burners that they had burnt them all …

Quite calmly, he summoned the messenger and issued his orders. One door had closed; another, one he had never considered, had opened. It would come with a price, but it was a price he was prepared to pay. And he would do anything to ensure the survival of his family.

The old world was dead. The new world was about to be born.

And all it would cost him was a simple, bloody, betrayal.

Prologue II: Mystic Albion, Now

It was rare for the six princesses of Mystic Albion and the Merlin, Headmaster of Gatehouse, to meet in person. Both law and custom were clear that they had to remain in their domains as long as they were in power, save for the equinox celebrations, unless the matter was truly urgent. But what, the Merlin asked himself, could possibly be more important than the first contact between Mystic Albion and OldeWorld in centuries? They had thought – they had known – that the gates were gone. In hindsight, perhaps they should have wondered if the gates were merely closed.

No one could have expected a trio of students to accidentally open one of the gates and fall through, he told himself. Hiram of Hardwick – Brains, to his friends – was an up and coming genius, and Richard of Eddisford and Helen of Burghley were no slouches either, but it seemed improbable that they could have accidentally jumped to OldeWorld. If he hadn’t known it had happened, he wouldn’t have believed it himself. And no one could have expected them to make it home either.

It was fascinating, and terrifying. The Merlin never given much thought to developments in OldeWorld after the gates had closed. There was no way to know what had happened since 1605, and no way to return to OldeWorld. They had thought it impossible. And yet, it was now clear they had been wrong. Three students had fallen into OldeWorld; two had returned, bringing with them a native magician from OldeWorld and news of other magicians – unfriendly magicians – on the far side. The Merlin wasn’t sure what to make of their detailed descriptions of OldeWorld’s technological and sociological development, and some of their stories were just unbelievable, but it hardly mattered. What mattered was the simple fact that contact between the two worlds was now proven to be more than just a dream.

“There has been no major public reaction,” the Princess of Londinium said. “But that will change.”

The Merlin could not disagree. The incident at Gatehouse – in hindsight, the side-effect of the gate being triggered briefly – could not have been covered up, even if he had wished to try. Too many students had seen or felt the earthquake that had threatened the entire school, if only for a few short moments. Too many adults had heard from their children about the disaster, then followed it up with the staff. News had spread across the entire country before the staff had even begun to work out what had happened. They hadn’t even grasped the full truth before the portal had reopened, briefly, to allow two of the three missing students to return. And now it was only a matter of time until panic set in.

“They may see this as a chance to open relationships with our cousins on the far side,” the Princess of Salisbury said. She was the oldest of the princesses, yet perhaps the most optimistic. “Their technology” – she struggled over the strange foreign word – “has apparently developed in directions we did not anticipate.”

“How could we?” The Merlin had read papers speculating on how OldeWorld would develop without magic. They had assumed, perhaps optimistically, that King James and his successors would rule over a stagnant world. Without magic, there were limits – they had thought – to how far the world could go. “We did not anticipate that they would have an … industrial revolution.”

He cursed under his breath. The students had brought back a great deal of information, but it was very limited. There were vast gaps in their knowledge, questions that remained unanswered … and probably would remain so unless they reopened the portal. The Merlin was not sure that was a good idea. He wanted to know what had happened, in the centuries since the last gate had closed, but he was also afraid of what contact would mean for his society. The students had seen enough of OldeWorld to know that it was both terrifyingly advanced and frighteningly degenerate. He had heard plenty of exaggerated stories from his students, but these stories had the ring of truth that so many others lacked.

The Princess of Edinburgh tapped the table. “I suppose there is no reason to make a quick decision,” she said. “They can’t get to us.”

“Our students were able to open a portal,” the Merlin reminded her. “The magicians on the far side might be able to do the same.”

“And they are not friendly,” the Princess of Canterbury said. “They were intent on preserving the magic for themselves.”

“Their very limited magic,” the Princess of Edinburgh said. “They lack the power to open a portal to our world.”

“They may find a way to do it,” the Merlin said. It was a basic rule of magic that you could do almost anything if you had enough power. OldeWorld might be lacking in raw power, but if there had been no magic on the far side of the gate his students would never have been able to make it home. “Our students might have accidentally showed them the way.”

“Careless,” the Princess of Canterbury said. “They should have anticipated the possibility.”

The Merlin shook his head. “I went through all the research notes, after the first earthquake,”  he said. “The equations check out. There was no reason to think, even with the advantage of hindsight, that mapping out the magical topography would accidentally reopen the closed gate. There are no grounds to punish them.”

“What’s done is done,” the Princess of Salisbury said. “We just have to deal with the consequences.”

“There is another problem,” the Merlin said. “Helen of Burghley.”

“She made her choice,” the Princess of Canterbury said. “If she chose to stay in OldeWorld …”

“Her parents do not agree,” the Princess of Londinium said.  “They want her home.”

“And do they want us to reopen the gate, just to get her home?” The Princess of Canterbury spoke quietly, but firmly. “Even if we did, how could we be sure of finding her?”

“We couldn’t,” the Merlin said, flatly. “The gates open to the corresponding location in OldeWorld. There would be no way to be sure of anything, from her location to what else might be waiting for us on the far side.”

“Her family is bringing intense pressure to bear on me,” the Princess of Londinium said. “They may be able to have the issue debated in council.”

The Merlin sighed. The princesses had considerable power to act without reference to their councils, but that power had limits. If Helen’s family made a fuss, and demanded their daughter’s immediate return, it would be difficult to keep them from putting the matter before the City Council and demanding results. It was hard enough keeping them from demanding punishment for the two students who had made it home. They were arguing that Helen had been uninvolved in the project, and from what Richard and Brains had said, that was true.

It may be unfair for her to suffer because of their project, he thought. But the world is not fair.

“Then I suggest we play a waiting game,” the Princess of Canterbury said. “There is no immediate danger. We can continue to research the gates and figure out how to reopen them at will, preferably somewhere nicely isolated from the rest of the world. At that point, we can determine how best to proceed. It’s possible that this was just a freak accident.”

“It’s also possible that is merely the precursor of something much worse,” the Princess of Salisbury said. “We just don’t know.”

“And Helen?” The Princess of Londinium looked unimpressed. “What do we do about her?”

“She will have to survive on her own, for the moment,” the Princess of Canterbury said. “There is nothing we can do to help her until we know how to reopen the gate safely.”

The Merlin winced. It was hard enough moving from one community to another. It would be much harder to move from Mystic Albion to OldeWorld, where there was no magic and the rules were so different that it would be easy to wind up in very bad trouble indeed. Helen was far from stupid, but she had had no experience moving between communities until she wound up in OldeWorld. Could she blend in? Or would she be exposed very quickly? There was no way to know.

“It seems we have consensus,” the Princess of Londinium said. “We will play a waiting game.”

“And study our new student,” the Princess of Caernarfon said. “We will learn a great deal from watching how she adapts to our world.”

 The Merlin nodded. “I have already started her on magic lessons,” he said. “She has a great deal to learn too. As do we all.”

On that note, the meeting ended.

Chapter One: Mystic Albion, Now

Janet sucked in her breath.

The air seemed to sparkle with magic. Her fingers tingled with raw power as the magic hummed through the air. She had never felt so alive, so happy, to be anywhere near a school in her entire life, but then she had never been a particularly apt student. Now … her fingers twitched, her tongue twisting oddly as she spoke the magic words. She didn’t know what they meant, which she had been cautioned would be a major problem until she learnt to speak the language like a native, but it didn’t matter. She could still work magic.

Her fingers twisted as she shaped the spell. The power built and built until it felt as if she was holding a small thunderstorm in her hand. Light flared as the spell tightened, a twisting ball of magic taking shape and form in front of her. Sweat prickled down her back as she finished the spell, twisting reality right in front of her. It felt like a dream, like a wonderland she couldn’t quite believe existed. She had pinched herself so often, in the first few days, that her power arm was bruised and sore, yet she hadn’t woken up. She still wondered, at times, if she wasn’t in a coma, dreaming of wonders while her body was trapped in a hospital bed, but it was growing harder and harder to worry. The new world around her was just too bright. It had to be real.

The magic flared one final time, then died away. Janet found herself staring at an image of herself, a perfect three-dimensional reflection. She shook her head in disbelief. The girl in front of her was a strange mixture of familiar and very alien. She had always had long brown hair, which she had a habit of chewing when she was nervous, and a slightly dumpy frame, but she had never dared wear wizarding robes in her entire life. She had simply never had the confidence to do anything of the sort. Now … there was a hint of confidence in her eyes that startled her, every time she saw it. It came, she supposed, with having actual power of her own for the first time in her life. If the girls who had picked on her at school saw her now …

I could turn them into frogs, she thought. She had been cautioned that using spells with bad intentions could backfire – seriously – but part of her couldn’t help thinking how wonderful it would be to turn her former tormentors into small hopping things. Or slugs. It would be a vast improvement. I could make them leave me alone.

The magic flickered. Janet felt a flash of panic and reached out with her mind, solidifying the image. It turned slowly, displaying her back and rear before the eyes came around to face her again. The face was subtly different. Janet frowned as she studied the image. She had always been a plain girl, and not the sort of plain girl who would turn into a supermodel if she were given a makeover, but now the image looked prettier, in a manner she could not quite describe. She was striking, without ever seeming to change. It took her a moment to realise the spots she’d hated so much were gone.

She blinked as she heard the sound of someone clearing her throat. “You are using too much of your inherent power to fill in the gaps,” Madame Justinian said. “And the image is no longer a reflection of yourself.”

Janet jumped, and tried to hide it. She had almost forgotten Madame Justinian was there, sitting on the other side of the table and watching her through calm blue eyes. The elderly woman spoke calmly, yet there was something her voice that made it difficult not to take her seriously. Perhaps it was magic. Janet had seen the older woman cast spells that were so far beyond her that she feared she might never catch up, perhaps even far beyond Richard and his peers. She doubted Madame Justinian would ever have any difficulty keeping control of a class. She had enough raw power to intimidate even the rowdiest students from York.

“I lost control,” Janet confessed. “And then I tried to fill in the gaps.”

“That’s what went wrong,” Madame Justinian said. There was no condemnation in her tone, but Janet couldn’t help flinching. Her teachers back home had rarely given her any personal attention and they had never been particular patient with any of their students. Janet was all too aware that Madame Justinian had taken time out of her busy schedule to mentor her. “You are trying to do too much, too quickly.”

Janet nodded, chewing on a strand of her hair. There were three types of magicians: Heads, Hearts, and magicians who combined the two. A Head would put his spell together piece by piece, as if it were a complex mathematical equation; a Heart could make things happen simply by wishing them to be so. They had their strengths and weaknesses, she had been told; magicians who combined the two could use one set of attributes to make up for the weaknesses of the other. Magicians like her …

It’s like learning maths, she told herself. You have to show your working as well as coming up with the right answer.

She stared down at her hands. She had put the spell together carefully, but it had started to fall apart and she had tried, unintentionally, to patch together the holes. It wouldn’t last long, she had been cautioned, once she took her mind off it. Heart magic was powerful, but rarely lasted; Head magic was weaker, yet tend to linger far longer than its counterpart. It was funny, she reflected sourly, how she had so much power and yet no real awareness of how to use it. Proof, perhaps, that it was not all just a figment of her imagination. If it had all been a dream, she wouldn’t have had to work to get control of her powers. She would have had to do nothing more than snap her fingers to make things happen.

“I don’t understand what went wrong,” she said. “Why …?”

She ground her teeth. It was galling to admit that she was no more than a newcomer, despite being sixteen years old. She hadn’t been so ignorant since she had gone to school for the first time, and even then she had been able to talk! Here … she felt a flicker of sympathy, suddenly, for the students who had immigrated to Britain and found themselves dumped into a school system that was profoundly unsuited even to native-born students. Even when they spoke the same language, they lacked any understanding of how society really worked. The youngest student at Gatehouse knew so much more than her that she sometimes feared she would never close the gap.

“You have been studying the language for a week, more or less,” Madame Justinian said. “I expect it will take you several months, at the very least, to achieve enough fluency to patch up the holes in your spellwork.”

“Several months,” Janet repeated, as the last of the magic faded away. She wasn’t sure she could do it in several years. She had never tried to master any language, and the handful of French lessons she had had at school had left her profoundly unequipped to speak the language to a native, and she was starting to suspect she had no talent for languages. It didn’t help that there were enough differences between English on Earth and English on Mystic Albion for her to fear that she was missing something every time she spoke to someone new. “How long do I have?”

“You have promise,” Madame Justinian said. “And you have time.”

Janet felt a rush of affection. The teachers back home had been little more than timeservers. They had done the bare minimum and little more. She supposed she couldn’t really blame them – they had no authority to punish students for everything from not doing their homework to bullying other children and making it impossible for them to learn anything – but it was still frustrating, in hindsight, to realise how far she could have gone if she had had a little support. Perhaps she should have been one of the rowdy kids. It was astonishing just how much care and attention were lavished on them.

She sobered. She had no idea what would become of her when she graduated … if she ever did. Gatehouse had taken her in, when Richard and Brains had brought her to their world, but it was clear the school didn’t quite know what to make of her. She had imagined it would be like Hogwarts, with students studying magic and preparing themselves for their future careers, yet … it was nothing like that. It was … different. What sort of career could she have in a world of magic? Harry Potter had been eleven when he had gone to Hogwarts and his peers had been as ignorant as himself. She was sixteen, nearly seventeen, and her peers were so far ahead of her …

If Steve was here, she thought, he’d be an archmagus within a week.

She felt an odd little pang of homesickness. She had grown up on an estate, and she had hated every last bit of it, but she had loved – loved – her mother and brother. The thought of never seeing them again was terrifying … she wondered, not for the first time, just what Steve and Helen were doing on Earth. And their mother … Janet hoped Steve had told her that Janet had decided to travel to another world … Janet felt a surge of guilt. The opportunity had been one she could not let slip by, yet she had left their mother without even taking the time to say goodbye. There had been no time, but she still felt guilty. And who knew what was happening on the far side of the gate?

“You are doing fine, for someone who did not believe magic was real for years,” Madame Justinian said. “It is not wise to judge your development against the development of someone who grew up in this world and spent years studying magic and magical languages before coming to school. You will have enough time to learn to master your powers.”

Janet blushed. She had been praised by her mother, but her teachers had rarely had anything to say to her, good or bad. She had been one of those girls who passed unnoticed, neither pretty enough to draw the eye of men old enough to know better nor rowdy enough to draw attention from older female teachers. She had never have the nerve to act out, or to experiment with boys, or anything. There had seemed no point in working hard. She had been sure she would never get out of the estate. And now she was in a whole new world.

“Thank you,” she stammered.

“It is no more than the truth,” Madame Justinian said. She stood, brushing down her dark green robes. “We’ll meet again tomorrow morning.”

Janet nodded and watched as her teacher left the chamber. It was funny; she was sensitive to magic, yet she needed to train herself to understand what she was sensing. Richard had taught her a few lessons, showing her how to feel out her own body and magic so she could sense someone casting spells on her, but he had barely scratched the surface. There was so much to learn and so little time. Janet wanted to know everything, from the basics to the magics so advanced that very few magicians studied them, yet she felt as if she were getting nowhere.

She leaned back in her chair, centring herself. Her body felt … different … these days, a strange sensation that she couldn’t quite put into words. It felt as if she had grown a new organ, one that was part of her and yet new and alien. She hadn’t felt so strange since she had gone through puberty, when her body had changed rapidly despite her fear and trepidation of the future, but then she had known what was going on. Her mother had had no trouble explaining what was happening – and what was going to happen. Here … she was unique. There was no one else in Mystic Albion who didn’t at least know about magic. The vast majority of the population could perform a few simple spells.

Janet let out a breath, then forced herself to stand. The chamber would be needed by someone else soon enough. She allowed her eyes to wander along the bookshelves, crammed with books written in languages she could neither read nor speak, then shook her head as she headed for the door. She had never considered, back when she had been writing bad fan fiction, that there would be a language gap when Hermione Sue went to Hogwarts. A upper-middle-class girl growing up in 1990s England would not speak Latin and might not have any real understanding of French or German or any other language with ancient roots. She would have to learn before she could start reading ancient tomes.

The door opened. She walked through and made her way down a long staircase to the lower halls. Gatehouse was an immensely big castle, bigger than anything she had seen on Earth, and it somehow managed to be bigger on the inside. She had been told the building helped people get to where they wanted to be, but she had yet to figure out how to convince the building to help her. The passageways seem to shift, completely at random, so frequently that there was no point in trying to memorise the interior layout. It was disorientating. Some parts of the building were very much like the castles she had seen, others were more like schoolrooms or even nursery playrooms. It had amused her to discover that some of the more advanced classes were held in the latter, the students trusted enough to be allowed to sit in the circle or study on their own. Janet found it hard to understand, but it clearly produce results. The students were more well-rounded than anyone she had met on Earth.

It helps that the staff can expel troublemakers, she thought. There weren’t many rules in Gatehouse, or so she had been told, but the few that existed were enforced. If someone goes too far, they get the boot.

A bell rang as she made her way into the hall. Students, released from class, flowed past her, laughing and chattering as they hurried to the dining halls or the door or even the great outdoors. Janet stared from face-to-face, drinking in the sheer … happiness of students studying what they wanted to study. There was so much joy in the air. She had to bite her lip to keep the envy from showing on her face. The girls and boys surrounding her were practically glowing with life, compared to the students she recalled on Earth. There was no strict dress code, no pressure for anyone to conform. There were students wearing robes, or trousers, or outfits that wouldn’t have been out of place in a carnival. Some were showing bare flesh, others were buttoned up from head to toe; he smiled, despite herself, as she saw a girl wearing a dress made out of living flowers. Older Students – adults dropping in for further education or a handful of lectures – seemed a little more restrained, rather than trying to regain their long-gone childhood. It was an improvement on the older students she’d seen going to the local university. They had always struck her as creepy.

Her skin prickled. Students were looking at her. It was an uncomfortable sensation. She had never wanted to be the centre of attention, but she was the one and only student from Earth – OldeWorld – at Gatehouse. Richard and Brains were notorious enough, from what she’d heard, and many students were avoiding them, yet her …? No one seemed quite sure what to make of their mysterious transfer student. Janet wondered if they were laughing at her, or pitying her. The kind of casual cruelty that had been so common in her old school was missing here – and she certainly didn’t miss it – but she didn’t want them looking down on her either. She wanted to have a fair chance to prove herself.

The crowd faded away as she kept walking. Most of the students would be heading outside, she guessed, or going to the dining hall for lunch. It was difficult to wrap her head around a school dining hall that actually served decent food, even though she has been at Gatehouse for a week. The catering at her old school had been done by a company that also catered to jails, which explained a great deal about the quality of the food. Gatehouse’s cooks didn’t have much imagination, from what she had seen, but they cooked very good food. She had often found herself going back for seconds, something that had never happened back home.

She smiled, despite everything, as she reached the dorms and private bedrooms. The air was heavy with magic, protective spells buzzing around the doors as she walked past. Janet felt her legs twitch, unpleasantly, as she passed too close to a handful of doors, the spells trying to convince her to walk faster. The students valued their privacy. Janet understood, all too well. She had had little back home.

This is your home now, she told herself, as she knocked on Richard’s door. And you don’t know if you will ever see Earth again.

Richard opened the door. “Come in,” he said. “How were lessons?”

“I make progress,” Janet said, giving him a tight hug before drawing back and carefully stepping into the chamber. She had to be careful where she put her feet. The room Richard shared with Brains was as messy as always, the desks piled high with papers and magical components scattered over the floor. She had wondered, the first time she’d seen it, how they could bear to live in such a mess. “But I have an awful lot to learn.”


29 May

Hi, everyone

Good news first – The Demon’s Design has completed its final set of edits and should be up for purchase soon. The Firelighters is currently being edited and hopefully be available for purchase in a week or two. A Hope in Hell has been finished and is currently with the editor. It was the first novel I wrote more or less completely with Dragon dictation software so I am dreading the editor’s first sweep. I corrected a lot of mistakes as I went along, but some will have slipped through the net.

In related news, you can purchase audio versions of All for All, The Conjuring Man and Gennady’s Tale.

The frustrating thing is that I started The Land of Always Summer today and Dragon, for want of a better word, suddenly turned into a nightmare. I started training it up on purely textual essays and then moved on to writing short stories, snippets, and lately a full novel. It did very well until this morning, whereupon it seemed to have crashed all the way back to the start and worse. It is missing words, refusing to recognise commands – the “quote that” command is replaced by orders to cut or print, for example – and it has generally slowed down so much that I found my writing speed reduced sharply. Worse, the cursor seems to be jumping around at random to the point that I sometimes find I have overwritten earlier texts or inserted words where they don’t belong.

There was always an issue with correcting words, but now the programme seems to have completely degenerated. It has slowed to the point of near-uselessness.

Does anyone know what is wrong with the system and how I can fix it?

<bangs head off wall repeatedly>

The current schedule looks something like this:

June – The Land of Always Summer

July – Judgement Day (Ark Royal)

Sept – The Apprentice Mistress (Schooled in Magic)

I also have to write The First Witch’s Tale, which is a story about the first woman to practice magic in Whitehall School, and a short novella aimed at young teenagers about two young boys who purchase a starship and with their older sister into tow, out to have adventures amongst the stars. The provisional title is “Boy’s own starship”, but I don’t know if I will be allowed to keep it.

As always, if you have any feelings about what should come first please feel free to reply to this post.


Snippet – A Hope in Hell (Heirs of Cataclysm III – Finale)

8 May


“This is a complete waste of time for you,” John said. “I don’t know why you’re even bothering to come.”

Katrina Amador, his girlfriend of the last two years, shrugged. “Father insists I should at least see what they offer me, as a magician as well as a aristocrat,” she said. She brushed down her long red hair as the door opened, releasing the last student who’d gone for mandatory career counselling. The girl did not look best pleased. “I don’t just want to be a brood cow, you know?”

John nodded curtly. Katrina had a family that would take care of her, as long as she toed the line and did she was told. He had never been able to decide if she was lucky or cursed. On one hand, she had almost everything she wanted; on the other, he had very little independence or even freedom of mind. It still surprised him that her family hadn’t objected to their relationship. She might be quality, her family renowned for its bloodline even though pre-Cataclysm were at best unreliable and at worst completely faked, but he was a commoner, born of commoners, who had nothing in the family tree worth mentioning. If he hadn’t had powerful magic, she would never have shown any interest in him and her family would have had a collective heart attack at the very thought.

The door opened. “Katrina,” a voice said. “Come inside, if you please.”

And if she doesn’t please, John thought, what difference will it make?

Katrina shot him a mischievous look, then stepped past him and into the office. The door closed with an audible thud. John felt a twinge of embarrassment mixed with sympathy for the teacher on the far side. He had nothing to offer Katrina and they both knew it. The interview was a formality and he was surprised the Academy had even bothered to suggest she attended. It wasn’t out of any sort of egalitarianism, he was sure. On paper, all magicians were equal; in practice, everyone knew that magicians from the aristocratic bloodlines had advantages over those born to less privileged parents. And yet, Katrina was a very good student. The Academy might think it worth the time to convince her to do something else with her life than bending the knee to her parents and older brothers. Who knew?

He leaned against the wall and forced himself to wait. It was hard not to feel he was in trouble, not when students were rarely summoned to the inner offices unless they were about to be punished for something. He had been in enough trouble to know such a visit was always to be dreaded. His heart started to race as he counted seconds, wondering what had happened to the other students. Katrina and he were hardly the only ones in need of career counselling. A third of the student population might come from aristocratic stock, but the remainder were commoners. They needed careers when they graduated.

A flicker of excitement ran through him. Two more years, and then he would be a qualified sorcerer. Two more years, and then he could set out to explore the Free States or marry Katrina or both, living the life he’d dreamed of when he’d been a small boy growing up in a village so tiny, so utterly unremarkable, it didn’t even have a name. His family had tried to stay in touch, over the years, but no one had any real expectations he would go home. He wants to be more than a farmer, or shopkeeper, or a blacksmith … his father had taught him the basics, expecting his son would follow his footsteps, yet John wants to be something more. To be trapped in a small village, spending his life as a blacksmith, was a fate worse than death. The respect such a position brought – a seat on the village council, a guaranteed marriage – wasn’t worth the cost. It would be a life sentence. It was the last thing he wanted.

The door opened. Katrina stepped out, trying and failing to hide her grin.

“It was a fine waste of good time,” she said, once she had closed the door. “But at least the biscuits are good.”

The door opened again before John could say a word. “John, come.”

I guess I don’t get the polite invite, John thought. He was used to it – Katrina was an aristocrat; she was favoured even by staff members who disliked her or aristocrats in general – but it never ceased to grate. He’ll be telling me I’m fit only to hew wood and draw water.

“Good luck,” Katrina said. “I’ll see you in the bedroom.”

John winked, then stepped inside the office and closed the door behind him. The chamber was surprisingly large and comfortable, something that probably shouldn’t have surprised him. The staff in charge of career counselling, and arranging work experience sessions, needed to put students at their ease so they would talk freely. There was no desk for the teacher to hide behind, just a pair of comfortable armchairs and a small coffee table. A plate of biscuits sat on the table. The counsellor himself – a middle-aged man John didn’t recognise – nodded politely to him, then indicated the armchairs. John sat, then accepted a cup of tea and a plate. Katrina was right, he decided. The biscuits really were very good.

“I am Professor Staunton,” the counsellor said. He sat and looked John up and down in a manner John sounds rather disquieting, as if he’d did just found John dead drunk and face down in a ditch. John stared back at him evenly. The teachers were not supposed to look down on common-born students – they were all supposed to be equals in magic – that he’d met far too many teachers who thought he couldn’t count past ten without taking off his socks – or his trousers. “I must say your academic record is very good.”

“Thank you, sir, John said. He knew, without false modesty, that he had done very well. His first years had been hampered by a lack of basic skills – he had barely known how to read and write – but once he had caught up he had never fallen behind again. “I think …”

“I have no hesitation in recommending that that you take up an apprenticeship in the capital, perhaps as an infuser or a potions brewer,” Professor Staunton said, speaking over John. “Your raw talent qualifies you for many jobs, but you require focus. A proper apprenticeship would provide the grounding you need for a successful career.”

John stared at him, feeling as though he had been punched in the stomach. “But … I want to travel!”

Professor Staunton studied him for a long moment. “My task is to steer you into a career path that benefits both yourself and society at large,” he said. “I believe that travelling would benefit neither yourself nor society. You have considerable talent and potential, but …”

“I do not want an apprenticeship,” John said. It was hard to keep the shock out of his voice. “I want to be something more.”

“Many students want to something more, but they have to be realistic about what they can achieve,” Professor Staunton said. There was an edge to his tone that suggested he was irritated. John ignored it. He’d had five years of Professor Gallant and, compared to the sharp-tongued enchanter, Professor Staunton was an amateur. “You have considerable talent, like I said, but talent alone does not guarantee you a position.”

His tone became almost bored, as if he were reciting statistical data. “You have no family and connections worth the mention. Your … girlfriend may be unable or unwilling to do anything for you after you both graduate. You have no other connections, nor have you been particularly interested in taking up roles serving either individual aristocrats or monarchs or the states as a whole. An apprenticeship is your best hope of a successful career. You could go far.”

“But not far enough,” John muttered.

“No?” Professor Staunton made a show of looking at the clock, then shrugged. “What do you want to be, when you grow up?”

John gritted his teeth at the professor’s mocking condescension. “I want to travel. I want to be a wandering sorcerer. I want to go from place to place, exploring the world and helping people and …”

“And stepping outside the borders of society,” Professor Staunton interrupted. “The days of the wandering sorcerers are long gone. It is illegal, now, to practice magic without a licence. Independent sorcerers can be incredibly dangerous, as you should know from your lessons. Their magic, their styles cast without proper supervision, can and often does lead to tragedy. You must know this. It was drilled into your head – it certainly should have been – during your first lessons, when you came to this school. Or were you skiving those classes?”

John flushed. The lessons had been mandatory and Professor Staunton knew it. There was no shortage of horror stories about bereaved parents who tried to bring their dead children back to life, or untrained magicians who lashed out at bullies and round up slaughtering entire villages, or warriors who summon powerful elementals to fight wars and then could not dismiss them, or even spoilt little aristocratic girls who played with forces they didn’t understand and discovered, too late, that they had bit off far more than they could chew. He had heard stories as a child, warnings passed down from the nightmarish days just after the Cataclysm, about the ground melting and men becoming monsters and everything just breaking down … he knew, after five years of education, that most stories shared by the common folk were nothing more than wild fantasies. But that didn’t mean magic couldn’t be very dangerous.

“I am a trained sorcerer,” he said. It wasn’t entirely true – he had yet to pass the fifth-year exams, let alone the seventh year exams – but he knew far more about magic and its dangers than an undiscovered magician in the middle of nowhere. I know the risks …”

“They all say that.” Professor Staunton actually managed to sound regretful. “Every single independent magician claims he can handle it, until he discovers – too late – that he’s wrong. He does something, or let himself be talked into something, and all of a sudden he’s unleashed a disaster … if he’s lucky, he’s the first and only victim. But they are rarely that lucky.”

He sighed. “It is better for you to graduate and serve the community than risk destroying it.”

John met his eyes. “It isn’t about serving the community, isn’t it? It’s about control.”

Professor Staunton looked back at him evenly. “What do you mean?”

“You drill the rules into us every single day,” John said. Anger bubbled up within him, overriding his common sense. “You expect us to follow in the footsteps of everyone who has gone before, not experiment with our magic to see what we can do and make new discoveries of our own. You chart our career paths and hand out jobs to force us to stay in line, rather than be something new. Why should we allow ourselves to be regimented?”

“Because independent magic is dangerous,” Professor Staunton snapped. “And because experimenting can easily get someone killed.”

“If it is that dangerous,” John demanded, “why are the Grey Men allowed to experiment?”

Professor Staunton’s face darkened. “Young man, you are treading on some very dangerous ground.”

“Because you don’t want to discuss it?” John knew he was about to get into real trouble but he found it hard to care. “Or because your boss doesn’t want us asking questions?”

He forced himself to keep his eyes on the professor. It had always frustrated him, after he had mastered the basics of magic, that students were discouraged from doing any private research. He had dozens of ideas for exploring his own potential, and that of others, but his teachers had flatly forbidden him to carry out unsupervised experiments, and even punished him for daring to ask why. He didn’t want to limit himself to a single magical career. He wanted to be a roving sorcerer, even if it meant being a jack of all trades rather than a master of one. He’d grown up in a small village. He knew his hometown, and villages like it, didn’t need specialists. They needed someone who knew the basics of everything.

Professor Staunton visibly composed himself. “The rules exist to prevent disaster,” he said. His voice was so flat John knew he was angry. “If you flout them, you will get precisely what you deserve. Unfortunately, so will anyone else who has the misfortune to be close to you when you do it.

He took a breath, then waved his hand to summon a small folder. “Your summer will be spent doing work experience in a nearby town,” he said. “You will get to spend some time doing the job for which you are suited, ideally suited, and hopefully it will show you that following a career path laid down by your elders does not have to be boring. You may, of course, refuse to do this experience, but that will limit your ability to find a job – any job – once you graduate. If you don’t get a job, you will not be allowed to practice magic.”

John gritted his teeth. “Sir …”

“You are a common-born student,” Professor Staunton snapped. “You have nothing, save for your magic. Perhaps your girlfriend will marry you and raise you to the peerage through a venereal transmission of power, perhaps she will dump you and marry someone more suited to her station. I advise you to be aware of your position, and not do anything that would jeopardise it – or your life. We have no tolerance for rogue magicians because the risk of disaster is too high to be borne.”

“Sir …” John felt his fists clench. It was hard to unclench them. “I want to be …”

“If you are so selfish that you want to indulge yourself, rather than serve the community, then it would be best for you to remember the dangers – both go yourself and to others,” Professor Staunton said. His voice made it very clear the interview was over. He pushed the folder into John’s hand. “I suggest that you read the papers, decide what to do, and then make your choice. If you make the wrong choice …”

He shrugged, then waved a hand at the door. “Dismissed.”

John stood, fighting to control his anger and bitter resentment. It had been years since he had taught his well-born peers to respect him, to understand he was a powerful magician who could not be trifled with even if he happened to come from a nameless village. Now … he scowled at the papers as he left the office, all too aware the walls were closing in. He wanted to be something special, to become one of the most famous magicians in the world. But the world didn’t seem inclined to give him a chance.

He closed the door behind him, then sighed. Professor Staunton was a condescending asshole, a well-born man who had never known a day of hunger and deprivation in his entire life. The system worked for him, but John wanted to be something more. And if that meant taking a risk …

I will make something of myself, he told himself as he made his way back to the dorms.  And it doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say.

In hindsight, he would come to realise that Professor Staunton hadn’t been entirely wrong. But that would be a year later, and far too late.

Chapter One

The air was hot, humid, and deceptive.

John felt his head ache as the small party galloped over the dunes and made their way down to New Hope. They had broken contact with the bounty hunters – he didn’t want to think about who else was chasing them – weeks ago, but the wildlands were incredibly dangerous even when there were no humans trying to kill them. They had avoided patches of wild magic, fought their way out of traps set by creatures warped and twisted to the point they had developed a certain intelligence of their own, and evaded two elementals that had come very close to capturing them. He saw things at the corner of his eye, never quite there when he turned to look at them properly. The ground below the horse’s hooves shifted constantly, veering between sand and ash and earth to the remains of cities destroyed by the storms that had backed over the world. He thought he could feel unseen eyes watching them, but when he turned to look he saw nothing. His senses were useless. There was so much tainted magic in the air that there was no way to pick out anything from the blur.

Scout shifted against him, her arms tightening around his waist. She was half-asleep. John didn’t blame her. Scout was a weirdling, a child of the badlands, but even she found it difficult to endure the desolation. He felt a rush of affection as she tightened her grip. They’d been lovers for the last two years and …

He gritted his teeth as he felt a sudden surge of guilt. It had been nearly three years since he had carried out the experiment that had nearly killed Katrina Amador, his girlfriend, and been expelled from the College of Wizards, affectionately known as Greyshade School. He had tried, since his exile into the badlands, to make contact with her and offer what little he could in hopes of setting things right, but there had been no response. He had feared her family was intercepting his letters and burning them, yet the truth had been far worse. She had abandoned her family and entered Headmaster Greyshade’s service …

His head swam. The desert was getting to him. It was hard to think clearly, let alone put together a coherent outline of anything. He had burnt Katrina – body, magic and soul – and what little had survived had been worthless, at least to her family. He didn’t know precisely what happened – he had been sent into exile the very day of the accident – but he could guess. Greyshade, the ruthless old manipulator, had offered to restore some of her powers, in exchange for her service. John couldn’t even blame her for taking the deal. He had hurt her so badly, crippled her, that the best she could hope for from anyone else – even her family – was being exiled to the family’s country estate and left to rot.

He must have had something like this in mind from the start, John thought. He had never really liked the headmaster, although he had never been able to put his feelings into words. Greyshade was the most powerful man in the world, the effective master of thousands of sorcerers, magicians, and apprentices. He controlled, directly or indirectly, lives, cities, and even entire kingdoms. Did he know there would come a time when he would have to track us down?

His heart sank. It had been Greyshade who had sent in into exile – and Greyshade who had pointed him to Captain Joyce and her adventurers. It had been Greyshade who had hired them for a handful of missions, all of which – John was sure – were completely off the books. And it had been Greyshade who had sent them to steal an ancient plague box, a deadly weapon from the days before the Cataclysm, before the entire world had been devastated. John hadn’t questioned their orders, at least until they’d discovered a colossal bounty had been placed on their heads and an entire army of bounty hunters was after them. And then … they’d discovered the plague box was nothing of the sort.

John ground his teeth in bitter frustration. Greyshade hadn’t wanted the box stolen to protect the world, but to protect his monopoly on magical motivators. And he had sent Katrina to kill them.

She came very close to killing all of us, he thought. And next time she might finish the job.

He cursed under his breath. He had used a makeshift motivator to trigger a magic storm that should have killed her, that had come very close to killing them both. It was impossible to be certain, but he was positive she was still alive. He wasn’t sure how he felt about her survival. He blamed himself – and rightly – for what had happened to her, but she had tried to kill him and tortured Scout and Greyshade alone knew what else. If it had been just him, he thought he might have walked up to her and invited her to do whatever she wanted … and yet, the stakes were just too high. Greyshade had to be stopped.

So all we have to do is defeat a man who has thousands of sorcerers, soldiers and monarchs under his command, John told himself. Good thing we like a challenge, isn’t it?

He raised his eyes as Joyce, the lead horsewoman, pulled her horse to a stop. The rest of the team cantered up to join her. John hoped she knew where they were going. They’d gone into the badlands before, several times, but they’d never travelled so far from the borderlands. There was no hope, now, of turning around and getting back to the more settled lands before they ran out of food and water. John had picked up a few survival tricks over the last two years, but he knew his limits. Scout was the only one amongst them who might survive long enough to get to safety, if there was any to be had. The bounties on their heads were still waiting to be collected.

“We should be there within the hour,” Joyce said. She was a past master at navigating the badlands, but even she was being pushed to the limits. There was so much tainted magic in the air that normal navigational methods were dangerously unreliable. “Try not to scare them.”

“Perhaps I could sing a song,” Bard said. His voice was raspy and weak. John couldn’t help thinking that it would be a long time before Bard managed to sing anything more than a few lines. “Perhaps a rousing chorus of …”

“And then they drive us out of town,” Sergeant Ted growled. He and Bard normally bantered, exchanging insults as casually as lovers exchanged endearments, but his tiredness gave his words a sharp edge. “The moment they hear you try to sing, they’ll start throwing things.”

“I’ll have you know that King Atherton thought my singing was wonderful,” Bard said. “He loved me!”

“Yeah,” Ted agreed. “How could he possibly hope to find a more economical method of torturing prisoners? Five minutes of you murdering The Ballard of Peeping Tom and the poor bastards will be confessing to everything, even crimes they could not possibly have committed.”

“Ah, you love me really,” Bard said. “Boss Harris said he’d never get another singer like me.”

“No,” Ted said. “He said he never wanted another singer like you.”

John tried not to roll his eyes. Bard was a very enthusiastic singer, but not a particularly good one. He was fond of insisting that he had moved from court to court, singing for monarchs and their courtiers, yet it was hard to believe he’d been allowed to stay at court after he had opened his mouth and sung. Ted said Bard had moved from place to place because he’d been kicked out repeatedly. John would have thought Ted was right, if he hadn’t known Bard was both a skilled fixer and a terrifyingly capable swordsman. Joyce hadn’t hired him for his singing. Bard was easy to underestimate until it was too late.

He looked from one to the other, shaking his head. Ted was a short stocky man who looked – always – as though he just walked away from a battlefield. Bard was a handsome taller man who normally had his blond hair, moustache and goatee perfectly tailored, but now he looked as though he had been through the wars. His tailored outfit – he liked to dress like a cross between a dandy and a travelling minstrel – was practically in rags, even though it had been designed to allow him to move freely. John suspected he didn’t look any better. Two weeks hard riding, without washing or even a change of clothes, had taken its toll. Scout was the only one of them who didn’t look any different and even she was clearly tired.

Joyce glared them both into silence. “As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, try not to scare them,” she said. “New Hope is the only settlement for dozens of miles and there is literally nowhere else we can go if they don’t want us.”

“They must want us,” John said. It was hard to keep the desperation out of his voice. Scout tightened her grip slightly. “They want – they need – more motivators.”

He glowered at the box – the wretched box that had nearly gotten them killed several times – on Joyce’s back. The knowledge within would change the world, if they got a chance to spread it from one end of the Free States to the other. The motivators alone would make one hell of a difference. He knew the New Hope community wanted them – they’d gone to some trouble to buy up every motivator they could find – but would they take the risk of harbouring some of the most wanted fugitives in the world? They wanted their independence from the monarchs, yet …

There’s nowhere else to go, he reminded himself. This is one last throw of the die.

“We’ll see,” Joyce said. “We should have plenty of time to convince them before any hunters track us down.”

“Don’t count on it,” Ted said. “We think we broke contact, and we certainly broke the link leading them to us, but a skilled tracker could have followed us while remaining out of sight.”

“I doubt it,” John said. He might be the least experienced of the team but he’d picked up a few things over the last three years. “They’d have to be on horseback to follow us and we would have seen something … wouldn’t we?”

“Perhaps,” Ted said. “Or they might be using charmed beasts to follow us while the hunter himself stays well back, out of sight.”

“Greyshade certainly has magicians who could do it for him,” Bard agreed. “The bastard has virtually unlimited resources.”

John couldn’t disagree. Joyce had worked for Greyshade – and, by extension, so had the rest of the team. There was no reason to think they were the only team of adventurers – or bounty hunters – under his control. He had the resources to quietly patronise hundreds of teams without making his involvement obvious, as well as the connections to help people and – in doing so – make them indebted to him. If things had been different, if they had never discovered their patron had been lying to them, they might have been on the other side. John didn’t like the headmaster, but he was – had been – in the man’s debt. And a man always repaid his debts if he wanted to call himself a man.

“Or a weirdling,” Scout said. “There are others out there who are far less human than me.”

“You are human,” John said. He had punched a man who mocked Scout to her face for being a weirdling. The man had been bullying a dragon – even in broad daylight, Scout could make herself practically invisible; John had seen her walk up behind someone and slit his throat – but he hadn’t wanted to let her think he didn’t care enough to defend her. “And anyone who thinks otherwise is a complete idiot.”

Joyce looked east, then shrugged. John followed her gaze. The landscape was a rolling nightmare of desert sands, the air a shimmering haze and the sky bright blue and clear of anything that might be following them. He had been cautioned visibility was lower that it seemed; the combination of heat and haze distorted one’s eyesight and generated mirages that could be utterly convincing, at least until one tried to touch them. An entire army could be lurking just out of sight, watching them from a safe distance. Cold logic suggested otherwise – it had been hard enough to keep the five of them in hardtack and water over the last few weeks – but logic was powerless against emotion.

And it doesn’t help that the most powerful man the world is after us, John thought. He has enough magic to smooth the logistics problems and send an army after us.

Ted’s thoughts were clearly moving in the same direction. “Given time, he can get his forces after us,” he said. “New Hope came out this far because they thought they couldn’t be followed in a hurry. They had nothing to make the effort worthwhile. But that will change” – he pointed to the box – “when their enemies realise what we’ve brought them.”

“If they’re not tracking us,” Bard said, “they’ll have to work out where we are going.”

Scout leaned forward. “Where else?”

John hated to admit it, but she had a point. There was no way they could dicker with Greyshade and offer to hand over the box, in exchange for the bounties being lifted. Greyshade could not be trusted and even if Joyce felt otherwise and Greyshade kept his word, some of the hunters wouldn’t get the message until it was far too late. They could go to one of the monarchs, the ones who chafed under Greyshade’s tutelage, and offer to sell the box or even simply give it to them, but Greyshade had too many clients – including a number who were completely off the books – for any of the monarchs to be sure Greyshade wouldn’t find out until it was too late. What else was there? Destroy the box, change the names, and hope the best? John doubted they would ever be safe again. The bounties were just too high.

New Hope is our only hope, he thought. The settlement had openly declared itself to be a whole new kind of society, in stark contrast to the hierarchical Free States or the rough and ready settlements along the borderline. There was no one else might have the nerve to stand up to Greyshade and the monarchs, no one who was far away enough to be reasonably sure of having time to prepare before the enemy armies arrived. And if we can work that out, so can they.

“They couldn’t take it for granted,” Bard said. “I might like to think I’m a very big man indeed, particularly my enormous …”

“I think we need to have his head inspected,” Ted said, deadpan. He sounded more like his old self. “He’s having delusions of adequacy again.”

Bard made a rude gesture. “We are five very small people,” he said. “We are tiny. The region they have to search, if they want to find us, is immense. Even if they work out just how far we could have travelled from the last encounter, they are still going to have to search a vast area. They may think they know where we are going – they may, yes – but they could not be sure. I don’t care how big their armies are. They’re not going to be devoting an entire army to New Hope unless they have some reason to be that’s where we are going.”

“They do,” John said quietly. “Where else could we use the box?”

“He’s right,” Joyce said. “Greyshade isn’t going to lose sleep over the prospect of us hiding the box somewhere, then splitting up, creating new lives and vanishing into the borderlands. He is going to worry about us using the box, for which we need a base of operations that won’t report back to him the moment they see us. New Hope is the only place that fits the bill.”

“Unless we try to set up a settlement of our own,” Bard pointed out. “Or we go to one of the hidden settlements in the borderlands.”

Joyce shook her head. John nodded in agreement. There were hundreds – perhaps thousands – of hidden settlements along the borderlands, from towns set up by bandits and refugees to settlements run by weirdlings who couldn’t or wouldn’t pass for human or fit into human society. Most of them, he suspected, were already known to Greyshade and the Grey Men, even if they were officially off the maps. The remainder were just too small and underdeveloped – or hostile – to be helpful. The team might be able to hide in one of those towns, particularly if they split up, but they would never be able to up watching over their shoulders for possible enemies. And it would take time, time they didn’t have, to set up a town of their own.

“It’s too late to change our minds now,” Joyce said. “Remember what I said. Don’t scare them. Don’t act like bandits. We get to the settlement line, hail them, and asked to speak to the town council. As long as we behave ourselves, they should remember the code.”

John nodded. The code of the borderlands was very clear. If someone needed help, and you could help without compromising your own safety, you helped. Only the very worst bandits ignored the code and they were considered outlaws, to be killed on sight. New Hope should give them a hearing. It was all they could ask for.

Joyce sprung her horse around and dug in her spurs. “Let’s go!”


4 May

Hi, everyone

It’s been a … difficult … few weeks for various reasons, and my schedule has slipped a little.

I’ve just finished the first draft of The Firelighters, which is a “A Learning Experience” novel between A Learning Experience and Hard Lessons.  It was interesting to try to write what is effectively a prequel that covers an era I declined to touch earlier, although I cheated a little by using an all-new cast rather than any of the characters I have used before. The manuscript is with the editors now and will hopefully be up for purchase soon.

The Demon’s Design (Schooled in Magic 25) has just had the first set of edits returned to me, so I guess I know what I’m doing tomorrow. I’m not complaining <grin>.

My current plan is to write Book 3 of Heirs of CataclysmA Hope in Hell – starting next week, followed by the follow-up to The Stranded – The Land of Always Summer

We have enough submissions, we believe, to go ahead with Fantastic Schools Tutors, but we still require more submissions for the sports-themed collection and the next general collection. As always, if you are interested in submitting, check out the rules on my site and then send an enquiry to the editors.

As always, if you have the time to leave a review or a rating on any of my work, please do so.


SIM Appendix: Demons

4 May

How does this sound?

Appendix: Demons

Of all the branches of magic, demonology is the least well understood. The practice of summoning and binding demons was not only banned hundreds of years ago, after Lord Whitehall laid the foundations of modern magic, but much of the relevant knowledge was systematically destroyed or locked away. Very few magicians are even aware that demons exist, let alone how to summon demons and bend them to their will; the few that do generally believe that demons can only be used to foretell the future and little else. The handful of modern magicians who know otherwise keep it to themselves. The days of the DemonMasters are long gone.

No one knows what demons actually look like, or where they came from; nor has anyone managed to get more than a faint glimpse of their society. The demons exist outside the boundaries of time and space, living ‘above’ the known multiverse; they appear to consider themselves a higher form of life. This extradimensional nature allows them to see the majority of time and space, and parse out chains of events that most humans would have trouble realising are connected in any way. From a human point of view, they are effectively capable of seeing the future, although the mere act of looking into the future binds that future in place. This makes their precognition a very two-edged sword, not least because the demons will rarely present the whole truth and will often mislead the DemonMaster without openly lying.

The Demons appear to have a somewhat hierarchical society (although the early DemonMasters might have been mistaken, as they were familiar with similar societies) that mimics human feudalism. The greater demons have hundreds of lesser demons in their thrall and, when a DemonMaster successfully binds a greater demon to his service, he can call on the lesser demons as well. Beyond that, nothing is known of their internal politics. Some DemonMasters believed that the greater demons meddle in human affairs as part of their own power games, others believed the demons regarded the human realm as a distraction – or even a prison – and have as little to do with it as possible. The only thing that can be said for certain is that demons loathe and bitterly resent imprudent humans summoning them to do their bidding, and can be relied upon use any loopholes in the summoning to make the human pay for their crimes.

It is difficult, although not impossible, to summon a demon without knowing the demon’s name or aspect (the area of reality, such as fire, for which the demon has a particular affinity). The early DemonMasters effectually went fishing for demons who could be bound to their service, logged their names in bloodstained tomes, and used them as keys to locate other – perhaps greater – demons. Once summoned, a demon must be bound to the summoner (an act that normally requires some form of sacrifice, often the summoner’s blood or magic) and then bent to the summoner’s will; once the demon’s services are no longer required, the demon must be dismissed carefully to prevent it from breaking free and extracting vengeance before it falls back into the demonic realm. The slightest mistake in a summoning ceremony and result in utter disaster. Given the demonic tendency to mislead human magicians, even a successful ceremony can end very badly.

In theory, demons are practically omnipotent within the human realm, to the point they could act like the genies of myth, granting wishes without apparent limit. In practice, there is always a trade – magic and/or life force – that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to force a demon to do too much. The more the summoner requests from a demon, the greater the risk of accidentally creating a loophole the demon can exploit to break free and/or possess the summoner. The DemonMasters had no shortage of cautionary tales, back in the pre-Whitehall days, about magicians who asked demons for two separate spells, only to discover – too late – that the spells interacted in a manner designed to weaken the magician’s protections and render him vulnerable. Even when DemonMasters were very careful, excessive use of demon-provided spells tended to damage their minds.

A basic summoning might involve calling a demon for a prediction of the future, a piece of knowledge, or a simple once-off task. These appear simple, on the surface, but demonic mischief can make them very dangerous. Demons have been known to make predictions that are decidedly ambiguous, or display visions of the future deprived of context. One notorious demon informed his summoner, a magician-king whose name was lost long ago, that if he went to war a mighty empire would fall. He went to war and it was his empire that fell. Another told a young aristocrat that no man could kill him. He wound up being unnerved by a female magician who pointed out she was no man, then got killed by his nephew who was (at the time) still a boy. Demons might be bound to tell the truth, but they rarely tell all of it.

A more complex summoning might involve binding a greater demon permanently (at least for the lifetime of the DemonMaster) within the summoner’s wards, allowing the DemonMaster to command and control the greater demon’s servants. These relationships may appear to be master and servant, but as time goes by the DemonMaster’s control will inevitably start to slip and, if the demon is not dismissed in time, the DemonMaster will wind up possessed instead. This never lasts very long – no human body can endure the strains of possession for more than a few days at most – but the demon can do a great deal of damage before the host body gives out and dies. Demons have no qualms about torturing or killing anyone within reach (they take particular delight in violating humanity’s taboos) and, as they cannot be maddened by necromancy, can prolong their rampages by sacrificing humans in the necromantic rite. Given they also have far greater understanding of magic than any human magician, they frequently perform acts believed to be impossible.

There appear to be few limits to what a DemonMaster can do with a greater demon’s subordinate demons. Some have been tied to a specific location or object and used as guard dogs, effectively binding them in the human realm permanently until they are released. It is known for such objects (and their demonic protectors) to be discovered many years after the DemonMaster’s death, almost always to the grave misfortune of the discoverers. Others have been wrapped up within the DemonMaster’s wards and use to strengthen his defences; still others have been sent out on murderous assignations, although such missions can be costly for the original DemonMaster and, if the target has demonic protections of his own, end very badly. The two demons may destroy each other or break each other’s bindings (leaving them free to seek revenge) – or simply cancel each other out.

Despite their power, demons do have some weaknesses. Their ability to act freely within the human realm is entirely dependent on their summoner’s foolishness, and inability to understand the long-term consequences of becoming too dependent on demons. They are also bound to absolute truth – as noted above, demons can mislead but never lie – and they have to make a good-faith attempt to keep at least the verbal side of the bargain. Their ability to see the future is significantly reduced when they are bound to a specific space and time, when they are bound within wards or possessing a hapless human, and effectually useless in locations where time and space are one, such as a nexus point. This may be why they were unable to prevent Lord Whitehall from developing modern magic and effectively rendering the DemonMasters extinct.

Or, as the more paranoid magicians noted years ago, it might be all part of the plan.

Queenmaker 16-17

3 May

Chapter Sixteen

The march was as rough as I’d expected.

It wasn’t just that we needed to march fast, but that we had to take Captain Alonzo’s men with us.  Some were in great shape, some really should have been left behind … would have been, if I could guarantee their safety.  There was no way I could.  The mine had been wrecked beyond easy repair, then abandoned save for a skeleton guard.  If an enemy patrol realised what we’d done and moved in to take the post, they’d take it. A handful of men had objected, but I’d overruled them.  Either we won the war, and retook the mine afterwards, or we lost.  If that happened … I hoped the warlord had problems fixing the mines.  We’d done enough damage to make certain the mine wouldn’t be back in production for months, if not years.

I smirked at the thought as we avoided the enemy troop – on their way to kick us out of the mining complex – and continued on our way to Houdon.  The enemy didn’t seem to realise what we’d done, somewhat to my relief.  No tactician worthy of the title could fail to grasp the simple fact we couldn’t keep the mine, not unless we wanted to be pinned down by some very motivated enemy troops, and the enemy CO might have figured I had something else in mind.  A pawn-queen swap … but which prize was the pawn and which the queen?  I knew which one I counted the greater prize, yet I had no idea what my enemy was thinking.  He might have worked out what I was doing and moved to counter my plan.

The scout galloped up to me.  “Sir, I counted at least a thousand infantry marching to the mine,” he said.  “They didn’t have a strong cavalry screen.”

“Good,” I said.  “Go get yourself something to eat, then rejoin the march.”

The scout nodded and hurried off.   I watched him go, hoping to hell the scout had counted the enemy forces accurately.  The old scouts, the ones I’d retrained ruthlessly, had been prone to guessing, providing estimates that were either ridiculously tiny or massively exaggerated to the point of absurdity.  A thousand men sounded reasonable, if one wanted to retake the mine as quickly as possible.  The missing cavalry was odd – cavalry had no business trying to hold down a city – but there might be a good explanation.  The warlord had good reason to want to sweep the countryside, if only to keep the peasants on their knees.  A major revolt in his rear would blow all his plans to hell.

“They took the bait,” Horst said, quietly.

“They had no choice,” I said.  The warlord would murder the idiot who left the mine in my hands, even though – objectively speaking – there was no point in hurrying. We’d already stolen everything that could be stolen, then wrecked everything that could be wrecked.  “It’s time to move.”

We marched on, pushing our men to the limit as night started to settle over the land, and only slowing as Houdon itself came into view.  The city was darker than Damansara, few lights visible in the gathering darkness.  I wouldn’t have known it was a city if the wind hadn’t shifted, blowing the stench into my face.  Houdon smelt worse than Damansara … I guessed the warlord hadn’t allowed the city fathers to start cleaning the streets, pushing basic sanitation and everything else that might save the city from becoming a cesspit.  Or the city fathers simply didn’t care.  Either was possible.

“Get the men into their outfits,” I ordered, quietly.  “It’s time.”

Horst nodded.  “You too, sir,” he said.  “If you’re really bent on coming …”

I shot him a sharp look – I was damned if I was going to send men to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself – and pulled the cloak over my head.  The lead horses were already clad in stolen caparisons … horse clothes, I translated mentally.  The warlord had gone to some trouble to outfit his cavalry properly, giving them decent uniforms as well as light armour that might – might – save their lives if they ran into something they couldn’t outrun.  I felt an odd twinge of discomfort as we changed, then unfurled a stolen banner.  The enemy wouldn’t see a threat, when we approached.  They’d see a cavalry unit wearing their master’s livery.

They’ll realise what we did, I told myself, as my eyes swept up and down the mounted infantry.  They didn’t look right, to the experienced eye, but I was counting on the gloom to cover any mistakes.  Their weapons were hardly typical … I snapped orders at a couple of men, telling them to sling their rifles.  The enemy might notice if the troop looked like they were riding to war.  But even when they know what we did, they’ll have problems dealing with it.

I grinned.  I’d given strict orders that security precautions were to be followed to the letter and made it clear – though a series of unannounced drills – that anyone who followed them would be backed to the hilt.  An aristocratic commander would throw a fit, and order a guard whipped, if that guard dared to demand his papers; I’d proven, several times, that I’d promote any guard who stood his ground, no matter who tried to bully his way through the checkpoint.  The warlords couldn’t do the same, not unless they wished to undermine their prestige.  And that would send morale straight into the crapper.

“We’re heading home for the night, at least until the shit hits the fan,” I reminded them.  It was unlikely, to say the least, that any of the guards would recognise the cavalrymen, but there was no point in taking chances.  “Remember, as far as they’re concerned, we’re friendly.  Don’t give them any reason to think otherwise until it is too late.”

I glanced at Captain Alonzo.  “Ready?”

“Yes, My Lord.”

“Forward,” I snapped.

The mounted infantry flowed forward, down the road.  We made no attempt to hide our approach.  It was vitally important the enemy believed us to be friendly and that meant we had to act as if we had nothing to fear, even though we did.  I frowned as I studied the city’s defences, cursing the warlord under my breath.  The walls would have been practically invulnerable, once upon a time, but now they were useless.  Worse than useless.  Their mere presence would make the city fathers feel safe, until the enemy brought up massed cannons and battered the walls into powder.  And then they would sack the city.

I glanced at our banners, rippling in the wind, then back at the gatehouse.  It was a small castle in its own right, solid enough to give cannonballs trouble and carefully designed to ensure that any conventional assault would be incredibly costly.  My blood ran cold as a spotted the murder holes, designed to let archers rain death on an advancing enemy, and half-concealed slits intended to release boiling oil, if the attackers got close enough to actually try to scale the walls.  The city had never been completely invulnerable, but taking it would have been incredibly costly.  But now … a modern army could take the city effortlessly.

The gates opened as we approached.  We didn’t slow, even though we were cantering into a killing zone, a trap designed to pin us down until we were wiped out.  We’d gone through a handful of contingency plans, if the enemy played it smart and let us inside the killing zone before opening fire, but escape was going to be difficult, if not impossible.  If we were caught …

We galloped through the inner gates and into the courtyard.  The guards were already pulling open the gates leading into the city itself, without even bothering to check our identities.  I suspected they didn’t want to piss off the warlord’s cavalry.  They were almost always aristos – or at least wealthy enough to keep up with the blue-bloods – and could cause real trouble for a hapless guardsman.  Or worse … Cuthbert would have marched his front-line troops to Damansara, leaving reserve formations to keep Houdon under control.  The few deployable forces the enemy CO had under his command were on their way to recapture the mine.

I glanced around rapidly, then put the whistle to my lips and blew.  The men reacted splendidly, leaping off their horses and rushing to overwhelm the defenders before they could react.  They gaped in shock, rather than trying to raise the alarm … they barely had a moment to grab for their weapons before they were shot or knocked down or otherwise put out of commission.  My men darted past them, heading up and into the gatehouse itself.  The enemy couldn’t be allowed any time to think, not when they still had cards to play.  If they dropped the portcullis and locked it in place, they might trap us within the gatehouse.  It was what I would have done, if I’d been in their shoes.  The operation could still fail spectacularly …

Someone shouted outside.  I heard trumpets blaring and cursed under my breath as I pulled the makeshift firework from my belt, placed it on the ground and lit the fuse.  Someone had reacted quickly, inside the city itself.  The trumpets would bring the enemy’s entire force down on our heads quickly, if I gave them the chance.  The firework whooshed into the air and exploded, a flash that could be seen for miles around.  The remainder of my force, lurking outside the city, would throw caution to the winds and gallop to the gates.  And once they arrived …

“Sir,” a scout snapped.  “The gatehouse is in our hands!”

“Lock the gates open,” I ordered.  I had no intention of losing, but cutting my line of retreat was asking for trouble.  The rest of the gatehouses would be a great deal harder to capture, if we couldn’t force a surrender.  “Order the first and second units into the city; the third and fourth are to hold the gatehouse against all comers.”

The scout nodded and hurried off.  I ran to the inner walls myself and scrambled up to peer over the city, ignoring the handful of bodies on the battlements.  Houdon looked very much like Damansara – buildings packed too close together, slums and makeshift shelters clearly visible in the alleyways – but it was weirdly quiet, as if the people were too scared to go out after dark.  The enemy had probably enforced a curfew … I gritted my teeth as I stared towards the palace, taken over by the enemy and turned into a centre of operations.  My men were well-trained, but if the enemy had time to deploy …

Captain Alonzo joined me.  “If I go into the city now …”

“Go,” I said.  The shooting and trumpets would have been audible all over the city.  The population would know liberation was at hand … would they rise?  Or had they been so badly treated they were too scared to revolt?  “Hurry.”

I dropped back to the ground and snapped orders as my men flowed into the city, engaging and destroying an enemy patrol that either hadn’t known what was happening – unlikely – or hadn’t realised it was already too late to reinforce the gatehouse garrison.  Horst sent scouts further into the city as we secured the nearest district, telling the inhabitants to keep their heads down and out of the fight.  There would be too much confusion, in the darkness, to ensure the civilians attacked only the enemy.  I wanted them to rise in enemy-controlled territory, but not in mine.  They might accidentally defeat their own liberators.

The scout returned.  “Sir, enemy units are forming up near the palace.”

“Good,” I said.  I hadn’t wanted a long-drawn out siege.  The enemy might not know it – we were certainly doing everything in our power to hide it – but they had superior numbers.  They still held the other gatehouses … not that it mattered.  I didn’t have any reinforcements on the way.  If the enemy realised they still had the edge, they’d throw everything they had at me.  “Prepare to engage.”

“Yes, sir.”

I waited, my men rushing past to secure their positions.  We didn’t know enough about the enemy CO to guess what he’d do, if he thought the city was on the verge of falling into my hands.  The laws of war were clear – the city should surrender, once the enemy troops were over the walls and inside the city itself – but would he follow the rules?  I’d made it clear to my troops that raping, looting and killing would not be tolerated and, ironically, it might have come back to bite me.  If I couldn’t threaten to storm the city, my legal right if the city refused to surrender, the enemy CO might feel he could get away with defying me.  It wasn’t his city.  The nasty part of my mind noted that would probably make it easier for him to decide to destroy it. 

And if they draw us into an urban fight, we’re fucked, I thought.  Unless the enemy CO was a complete halfwit, he’d already dispatched messengers to the warlord himself.  The bastard would dispatch troops and force-march them back to Houdon, trying to catch me between two fires.  I doubted they could manage the coordination they’d need to make it work, but it wouldn’t matter.  If I took heavy causalities, there was no way I could put the second half of the plan into action.  We need to act fast

“Hold the line,” I ordered.  My mortar teams were opening fire, lobbing shells into enemy positions.  Their accuracy was shit – we didn’t have anything like the kind of weapons the insurgents had used in Iraq – but they’d be playing merry hell with enemy morale.  “Let them come to us, so we can break them.”

I left Horst with the main force and stepped into an apartment block, hurrying up the stairs and out onto the rooftop.  The palace was brightly lit – I could see men running around like headless chickens, their officers and sergeants trying to get them into formation – and an enemy force was already on its way, pushing through the streets as if the devil himself was after them.  I felt a stab of sympathy, even though the men were on the other side.  Their CO was a cold-blooded monster, sending them to charge our positions and soak up our bullets.  It might work too.  We didn’t have any supplies on the way, just what we’d brought with us.  If we ran out of ammunition …

The enemy force seemed to stall.  I stared, unable to see what was happening.  A mutiny?  Or … my eyes narrowed as I spotted dark figures on the rooftops, throwing slates and stones on the enemy forces.  A dull roar echoed over the city as more people charged onto the  streets, laying down their lives just for a chance to get at the enemy soldiers.  The city was rising … I hoped, prayed, most of the rebels would live to see the dawn.  The enemy soldiers weren’t very well trained and most of them wouldn’t have any qualms about hurting, or killing, civilians.  All hell was about to break loose.

My lips twisted as the enemy force shattered.  It had been caught by surprise, assembled at tearing speed and marched into battle against a force that had already, as far as they knew, broken into the city itself.  And now … I gritted my teeth as I saw men running in all directions, some tearing at their armour as they tried to flee.  I doubted many would make it.  The locals knew their city like the back of their hand, knew their fellows … it was unlikely any soldier or mercenary would manage to go to ground long enough to escape the city before it was too late.  The latter were in real trouble.  The citizens would slaughter them like bugs. 

I hurried back downstairs and took command, directing my troops to secure the palace and enemy warehouses before someone bright spark had the idea of setting fire to them.  Reports were incredibly confused; one scout insisted the gatehouse garrisons were trying to surrender, another reported the garrisons had abandoned their posts and were fleeing into the countryside.  I suspected the latter was more likely to be accurate.  The citizens were in no mood to take prisoners.

“Sir,” Horst said.  He was grinning from ear to ear.  “You have a visitor.”

I looked up, then smiled as a middle-aged man in a fancy uniform – I couldn’t help thinking he looked like a military officer from a particularly unstable country – was shoved into my presence.  He looked incredibly shaken.  His escort – ten men in light armour – had already been disarmed.  The man stared at me, his mouth working soundlessly. I resisted the urge to say something cutting.  I’d seen too many enemy commanders who’d sent their men to their deaths, then tried to surrender.

“I …”  The man stopped and started again.   “My Lord, I …”

“No terms.”  I cut him off without a second thought.  “Unconditional surrender.”

He stared at me in shock.  I stared back, coldly.  I had no intention of treating him as a guest, rather than a prisoner; I certainly had no intention of ransoming him or anything else that would set him above the common herd.  The aristos regarded war as a sport because they rarely suffered the consequences – if they were captured, they were ransomed; if they were injured, they were healed – and if that didn’t change …

He swallowed.  “My Lord, I …”

“Tell your men to surrender, or I’ll hand you over to the cityfolk,” I said, bluntly.  I had no idea if he could surrender his men – I doubted he’d had any control even before he’d run to my troops – but it was worth a try.  “What do you choose?”

He bowed his head.  I grinned.  The city was mine.

Chapter Seventeen

“It is good that war is so terrible,” I muttered.  “Or else we might get too fond of it.”

I scowled, inwardly.  General Lee had been a traitor – he’d fought for a bad cause, although I gave him credit for accepting the cause was lost and surrendering to the inevitable – but he’d known how to turn a phrase.  Lee had seen the devastation of the first total war.  He’d marched beside his men, starved with them … if the warlord and his aristocratic officers had felt the pain of war, the suffering inflicted on the common folk, they might have thought better of starting a fight.  But then, it was rare for them to suffer.  I intended to make sure that changed.

My mood darkened as I surveyed the inner city.  The uprising had turned into a bloody rebellion, with enemy officers and collaborators dragged out of their hidey-holes and savagely torn to pieces by the crowd.  Their womenfolk had suffered worse.  They’d been beaten bloody, then bent over and raped repeatedly until I’d managed to get my men into position to stop it.  Stores had been looted, drunken rioters had tried to set fire to hundreds of buildings … I suspected, although I had no way to prove it, that a number of personal scores had been settled in the chaos.  Morning had brought a certain degree of calm , but I could feel the tension in the air.  The city was still angry.  It still wanted revenge.

I scowled as I watched the enemy prisoners, shackled together, picking up bodies and piling them up in the streets.  Other teams were already outside the city, digging a mass grave for the bodies that couldn’t or wouldn’t be identified.  The looters had been through the bodies already – they’d stolen everything the poor bastards had been carrying, when they’d been killed – and I feared most of them would never be identified, let alone returned to their families for burial.  I doubted the warlord would care.  If he’d given a damn about his men, he wouldn’t have put them in such a trap.

We won, I thought, darkly.  The Battle of Houdon would go down in history as a great victory.  A small force had invaded the city, sparked an uprising and defeated an enemy garrison that had enjoyed, at least on paper, superior numbers.  So why does it feel like a defeat?

“My Lord,” Captain Alonzo said, hurrying over to join me.  He was the closest thing to a leader the city had, after half the city fathers had been murdered by the occupation force and the other half executed for collaborating with the enemy.  I privately suspected he’d make himself into a dictator, if he didn’t set up a new council, but it didn’t matter.  “I want Lord Sourpuss.”

“Lord Sothern,” I corrected.  I supposed the enemy CO did look a bit of a sourpuss – he’d started complaining the moment I’d put him in a cell, purely for his own safety, and as far as I knew he’d kept complaining – but insulting one’s enemy after he’d been imprisoned was just immature.  “Why do you want him?”

“He ruled this city from when it was occupied until now,” Alonzo pointed out, sharply.  “He led the troops and mercenaries that raped the city … that stole and raped and murdered their way across the city!  He needs to pay!”

I couldn’t disagree.  It had only been a few hours, but I’d already seen plenty of evidence of how the occupying force had mistreated the civilians.  Men killed for daring to protect their pretty daughters, the daughters flinching away from all men … if they’d been lucky enough to be allowed to go home, older women forced to cook and clean for the troops, merchants robbed and beaten when they’d complained … the list went on and on, a liturgy of horror that would have broken the city completely, if we hadn’t attacked and liberated the people.  I had no qualms about handing Lord Sothern over to face justice, but …

On one hand, we need to make it clear atrocities will not go unpunished, I thought.  On the other, we don’t want to discourage later surrenders.

I sighed, inwardly.  On paper, there was a clear procedure for surrendering a city to an invading force.  In practice … the enemy troops hadn’t had a chance to line up and march out of the city, nor had the enemy officers had a chance to convince their captors they were worth more alive or dead.  Lord Sothern had told me there’d been over fifty officers who might bring in a good ransom, if they were taken alive, but only two had been captured.  The remainder were either missing or dead.  One had been killed by his harem, who’d been very inventive.  I didn’t want to think about what they’d done to him.  It would make me limp forever.

Poor bitches, I thought, tiredly.  The girls hadn’t asked to become part of his harem … but their lives were still at risk.  They’d be lucky if they merely had their heads shaved.  But at least they got their revenge on their tormentors.

“We’ll hold a trial,” I said, finally.  “But we also need to prepare for the coming battle.”

Alonzo made a face.  “Are you sure Cuthbert is going to come here?”

“Yes,” I said.  “He has no choice.  And if we’re not ready for him …”

I paused, letting my words sink in.  Alonzo wasn’t a fool, but – like so many other cityfolk – his awareness of the greater world was very limited.  The occupation should have shaken him out of his complacency, but … I understood the urge to pretend everything was back to normal and there was no need to prepare for another fight.  I understood … but could not share.  We’d won a battle, not the war.

My thoughts darkened.  Cuthbert had turned Houdon into a giant supply depot.  The warehouses were crammed with everything his army needed to advance and fight, from guns and ammunition to food, drink, and medical supplies.  The buildings were tiny compared to some of the giant storage units I’d seen back home – the logistics bases in Kuwait had been staggeringly huge – but by local standards it was pretty impressive.  They’d brought along a shitload of luxury goods for the aristos – fine wine, finer food, the kind of bedding one would expect to find in a luxury hotel – yet they hadn’t skimped on anything else.  I had to give Cuthbert credit.  He’d done a bang-up job of preparing his logistics for the big push …

… And now it was mine, all mine.

I smiled as I contemplated his reaction.  Yesterday, he’d been patiently waiting for Damansara to starve to death – or surrender.  Today … he was now cut off from his supplies, his army suddenly threatened with starvation and collapse.  I doubted he’d be able to maintain discipline, once it dawned on his men that there’d be no more food on the way, and I doubted he’d be able to survive by pillaging the countryside.  I’d warned the locals to hide or destroy their food supplies, but even if they hadn’t there were limits to how much the army could take and use.  They’d starve to death, beaten without a fight.  Unless …

He has two choices, I reminded myself.  He can attack Damansara, which would be incredibly risky, or he can try to retake Houdon.

I knew what I’d do, if I was in his shoes.  If he tried and failed to take Damansara, he’d be fucked.  His lords would desert him.  It would all be over, bar the shouting.  A successful attack on the city would be a little less catastrophic, at least at first, but the city supplies wouldn’t last indefinitely.  I’d given orders to make sure all military supplies were destroyed before they could be captured.  He might win the battle and ravage the city, then lose the war anyway.  No, his only realistic choice was to lift the siege and head back to Houdon before I dug in and prepared to fight to the death.  He’d certainly left me enough supplies to keep up the fight for weeks.

Alonzo nodded, curtly.  “You’ll have my full support,” he said.  “But we do insist on putting Sourpuss on trial.”

“We start work first,” I said.  “We can hold the trial once the digging is underway.”

I had to give Alonzo credit too.  He was a great organiser.  He had entire battalions of young men and women marching out within the hour, digging trenches and piling up earthworks and siting defences and everything else we needed to do to make the city a far harder target for a modern army.  His guardsmen – or what was left of them – ran up and down, helping to keep the streets under control while my men assisted in training the newborn army.  A year ago, there would have been no way to prepare the city in time; now, it only took a few hours of training to teach someone how to load, fire and maintain a flintlock or rifle.  I wasn’t blind to the simple fact he was putting his loyalists in key positions, but I wasn’t too concerned.  There was no way he could switch sides, at least not in the short term, and in the long term … I smiled.  There were so many weapons on the streets now that any attempt to create a dictatorship would end badly.  I wondered if he’d realised it. 

Fallon joined me as I watched the proceedings.  “I just got a messenger from the city,” she said.  It took me a moment to realise she meant Damansara.  “The enemy army is preparing to withdraw.”

“Good,” I said.  I’d known Cuthbert had only one logical course of action, but he might not.  It was impossible to be sure what he knew – and what conclusions he might draw from what he knew.  He might think I’d raided Houdon and then abandoned it, rather than trying to turn the city into a fortress.  Did he know I’d hit the mine?  It was quite possible he didn’t.  His local CO might have forgotten to inform him while dispatching troops in hopes of recovering the mine before his boss found out.  “They’ll be here soon.”

Fallon gave me an odd look.  “How can you be sure?”

I winked as we walked back to the makeshift command post.  “The trick to winning a battle is to put your enemy in a place where they have to fight the battle you want to fight,” I said, recalling my early studies.  Rommel might have been a better tactician than Monty, but Monty had forced Rommel to fight a battle that played to the British army’s strengths and took ruthless advantage of the German army’s weaknesses.  “Cuthbert’s only good choice is to come here, right now, and dislodge me before I get too strong or his army comes apart.  And that is what he will do.”

I sounded more confident than I felt.  There was one other possibility.  Cuthbert could march his forces around Houdon and head back to his core lands, leaving us untouched.  It would be an admission of defeat, and it would give me all the time I needed organised and march after him, but it was possible.  I doubted it, though.  Cuthbert knew better than to let himself look weak.  If he did, his supporters would turn perception into reality.

The thought bothered me as the day turned to night and then to day again.  I’d half-hoped Alonzo would give up on the idea of putting Lord Sothern on trial, but … he insisted.  I wished the man had been killed during the fighting, if only to avoid a dilemma.  If Lord Sothern was hanged, his peers would refuse to surrender; if he wasn’t, our allies would be outraged – and rightly so – and there’d be nothing deterring the enemy aristos from carrying out more atrocities.  I didn’t blame Alonzo for insisting Lord Sothern be tried and punished.  But I had to admit it was going to cause problems …

I put the thought aside as we stepped into the makeshift courtroom.  Alonzo had organised the trial with his usual efficiency, bringing in witnesses to testify to Lord Sothern’s crimes and broadsheet reporters – just as scrummy as their counterparts back home, but in different ways – to make sure the trial was reported to the mob.  I’d arranged for Fallon to cast a truth spell – there were no magicians left in the city, we’d been told – and for my men to stand on guard, to deter both the mob and anyone who might try to save the prisoner.  It wasn’t a particularly fair trial – no one had volunteered to defend Lord Sothern – but it was better than the alternative.

Alonzo stood as Lord Sothern was marched into the courtroom – in chains – and pushed into a chair.  “Lord Sourpuss … Lord Sothern,” he said.  I tried to hide my irritation.  “You were the commanding officer of the garrison occupying the city.  You bear ultimate responsibility for the crimes of your men.  How do you plead?”

Lord Sothern looked as if he were on the verge of falling over, but his voice was steady enough.  “This trial is illegal, under the laws of war,” he said, flatly.  “I do not recognise the authority of this court.”

“This court has the authority to try you,” Alonzo said, equally flatly.  “You bear responsibility for the crimes your men committed.”

That was true enough, I reflected, as Alonzo recited a long list of crimes from the unpleasant to the horrific.  It was a point of local law that “I was only following orders” was a perfectly valid defence, if the orders came from one’s superior officer.  The excuse excused practically everything, as long as one could stretch the orders to cover whatever one had done.  I suspected it wasn’t going to work.  Someone with a legal bent had put together a counterargument that noted Queen Helen had flatly forbidden atrocities and, as the warlords claimed to be fighting in her name, the orders were technically illegal.  I had to admit it was a cunning argument, even though I thought it wouldn’t get very far.  The warlords would probably ignore it, rather than risk opening a debate into their authority. 

I forced myself to listen as the witnesses spoke, one by one, recounting stories of looting, rape and murder.  It went on and on, an endless series of crimes that could not be reasonably justified under any law, save the rule of force.  The city had surrendered without a fight and was due, according to the conventions, a degree of good treatment.  Lord Sothern and his men hadn’t bothered to come up with a legalistic argument to justify themselves.  They’d just done it.

Alonzo summed up the case.  “Your men abused the population of this city,” he said.  “Your claim you did not know about their crimes is flatly untrue: you not only knew, you benefited.  You had stolen goods piled up for shipment back to your estates, your guests were feasted on food and drink taken from the city’s merchants, your bed was warmed by maidens taken from their homes … you knew.  You encouraged it.”

He paused.  “Do you have anything you wish to say in your defence before we pass sentence?”

I studied Lord Sothern thoughtfully.  The man’s composure was almost completely gone.  He had nothing left, save the offer of a ransom … I wondered, sourly, if anyone would volunteer to pay.  I’d met some officers I wouldn’t have paid a cent to recover, if they’d fallen into enemy hands.  I’d have paid the enemy to keep them.

“My family is wealthy,” Lord Sothern stammered, finally.  “I … they … will pay for my safe return.”

Alonzo stood.  “Can your family bring the dead back to life?  Can your family restore the stolen maidenheads?  Can your family return the looted goods and rebuild the destroyed shops and careers and everything else?”

He didn’t wait for an answer.  “Take Sourpuss outside and hang him,” he snapped.  “And be glad we’re only hanging you.”

I sighed inwardly as Lord Sothern was dragged out of the courtroom.  Alonzo probably thought he was offering Lord Sothern mercy … the hell of it, I reflected sourly, was that Alonzo was probably right.  The punishment for treason was death by slow torture, prolonged by magical healing; the punishment for so many other crimes, I’d learnt in the last year, was truly excessive.  Alonzo was doing Lord Sothern a favour …

Not that it will do him any favours, I reflected.  The interrogation hadn’t revealed anything of particular value, saving the location of Lord Sothern’s collection of stolen goods.  Cuthbert had trusted Lord Sothern to rule the city, but not to know much – if anything – about his master’s future plans.  There’s no way Cuthbert will let this pass.

I stood and left the courtroom.  I had no intention of bearing witness to Lord Sothern’s death.  The lawyers would pretty the verdict up nicely, proving Lord Sothern deserved to die, but it wouldn’t matter.  Everything hinged on the coming battle.  The men cheering Lord Sothern’s death would cheer for Cuthbert, if the warlord retook the city.  Of course they would.  Anyone who didn’t show enough enthusiasm would be in deep – deep – shit. 

They’ll be in deep shit anyway, I noted.  If Houdon is taken a second time, she’ll be stormed.

“Sir,” Horst said, when I reached the command post.  “The pickets reported a brief sighting of enemy scouts, who took one look and ran.”

“They’re not going to charge the city walls on their own,” I said.  I had two cavalry troops covering the diggers.  If the enemy risked an attack, there’d be a very quick slaughter and then we’d resume the digging.  “They’ll fall back and wait for orders.”

Horst smirked.  “You think the warlord can get here in time to stop us?”

“Fuck, no,” I said, with a confidence I didn’t feel.  “I think we’ll have more than enough time to prepare a very hot welcome indeed.”

Book Review – The Myth of the Lost Cause

15 Apr

The Myth of the Lost Cause

– Edward H. Bonekemper

“I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines… and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and… arrogance.”

-Rhett Butler, Gone With The Wind

The Confederate States of America lost the American Civil War. This is inarguable. What is also inarguable, unfortunately, is that the CSA won the post-war propaganda battle. The truth behind the war’s origins, development and ultimate endgame was obscured behind a web of myth and legend, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes outright lies, that concealed the truth in a bid to make the losers look like moral victors. This is unsurprising – losers throughout history have compiled myths to explain their defeat and future resurrection – but what is surprising is just how thoroughly the myth of the lost cause took root. The North came to believe much of what it was being told, just as much as the South. It played a major role in America’s failure to come to terms with the legacy of racial oppression, and the subsequent failure to put the past firmly in the past. Indeed, the myth is so widespread that people who really should have known better – such as a number of history writers – came to believe it. It is only recently, relatively speaking, that the myth has been openly challenged outside academia.

The myth has a somewhat complex origin. First, the defeated leaders a chance to write their memoirs and shape the early discussion of the war between the states (and also cover up the fact they explicitly seceded to protect slavery). Second, the South was treated very poorly in the aftermath of the Civil War, and took comfort in a legend that insisted they had been treated unfairly. Third, as the war and its major players receded into history, it became easier to talk up the romantic ideal of the Civil War and obscure the utterly unromantic truth behind the myth. It is perhaps unsurprising, in this case, that the myth lingered as long as it did. In many places, it still holds strong.

Bonekemper, a noted historian of the American Civil War, has set out to write an assessment of the Lost Cause Myths and determine how much is rooted in truth.  He lists the core beliefs of the myth as:

1.​    Slavery was a benevolent institution for all involved but was dying by 1861. There was therefore no need to abolish slavery suddenly, especially by war.

2.​    States’ rights, not slavery, was the cause of secession and the establishment of the Confederacy and thus of the Civil War.

3.​    The Confederacy had no chance of winning the Civil War and did the best it could with the limited resources it had.

4.​    Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederates to a near-victory, was one of the greatest generals in history.

5.​    James Longstreet caused Lee to lose the Battle of Gettysburg and thus the Civil War.

6.​    Ulysses S. Grant was an incompetent “butcher” who won the war only by brute force and superior numbers.

7.​    The Union won the war by waging unprecedented and precedent-setting “total war.”

He shows, conclusively, that nearly all of these legends are nothing more than myths.

The Confederacy’s founding fathers, at least before they lost the war, made no bones about their desire to protect slavery. They believed that the North would eventually seek to limit slavery, if not abolish slavery completely, which would mean economic death for the South’s ruling class. Slavery was still a money-maker in those days and the idea that the federal government could have solved the problem by purchasing the slaves and freeing them (a concept put forward in hindsight by John Ross) is simply allohistorical. Indeed, the states that would eventually make up the CSA complained bitterly that the federal government was not doing enough to capture and return runaway slaves, or crack down on Northerners willing to assist the slaves and oppose anyone attempting to return the runaways to their masters. As the political situation broke down, the early founding fathers attempted to work with other states to form a united block and chose to work solely with slave owning states.  There was a strong correlation between the number of slaves in any given state and its willingness to secede.

The desire to preserve slavery was, in short, the driving force behind the early Civil War. This is testified in their own words, despite the best attempts to disavow their actions after the war. As Bonekemper notes:

Post-war backing and filling by Stephens and Davis attempted to cover their slavery tracks. Stephens got off to an early start in a summer 1865 journal entry claiming that his Cornerstone Speech had been misquoted by a Savannah reporter. The length and depth of such a “misquote” would have been astounding. Stephens failed to address similar “misquotes” by an Atlanta reporter of a contemporaneous speech in which he said Confederate Constitution framers “solemnly discarded the pestilent heresy of fancy politicians, that all men, of all races, were equal, and we had made African inequality and subordination, and the equality of white men, the chief corner stone of the Southern Republic.”

He was not alone. Jefferson Davis did the same kind of revision in his memoirs, insisting the Confederacy was about constitutional government, supremacy of law, and the natural rights of man.

The Confederate desire to preserve slavery was so extreme they actually sabotaged their own war effort. They refuse to make slavery-related concessions that might have convinced Britain and France to intervene. Worse, the idea of using black soldiers were so unthinkable to their leadership that they refuse to even consider it until it was far too late. Slaves were property, not fighting men. Making them fighting men would turn the Confederacy upside down, with serious effects on the Confederacy’s social structure. The officer who suggested recruiting black soldiers found his career had hit a dead end, while General Lee’s conversion to the idea of recruiting blacks came far too late.  Indeed, what steps they took in that direction were, at best, half-hearted and clearly designed to put the slaves back in their place after the war was over. Put bluntly, the myth that black soldiers fought for the Confederacy, again, is nothing more than a fable.

The idea that slavery was somehow good for the slaves, and their masters, is heavily debunked. The slaves lived in conditions of unimaginable suffering. Their masters lived in fear of a slave revolt, all the while treating the slaves in a manner that made revolution inevitable. They worked hard to paper over the cracks in their society through creating and myth of southern womanhood – a myth that concealed sexual abuse of female slaves and subsequent illiterate children – and told themselves they needed to defend white women against revolting slaves. The suggestion that women would be raped, or forced to marry blacks, was raised every time anyone suggested liberating the slaves. It is no surprise that so many slaves fled the plantations, or joined the North, or found other ways to strike back at their masters. There was no such thing as a ‘good’ master.

The book then assesses the claim the south could not have won the war. Bonekemper believes it was at least possible for the CSA to make its independence stick, but it would require the South to stay on the defensive and force the North to come to them, hopefully racking up enough casualties to ensure Lincoln lost the election of 1864. Instead, the South risked everything on an invasion of the North, which met its end at Gettysburg. The South simply did not have the resources to fight an offensive war and the decision to do so was a dreadful mistake.

Bonekemper moves on to examine the myth of Robert E. Lee, who has acquired the veneer of honourable general fighting for a dishonourable cause (a veneer held by, among others, Erwin Rommel) and a military reputation that is at stark variance with the facts. While some early writers criticised Lee, later hagiographers turned him into the man who could do no wrong. Bonekemper rather snidely notes that his later biographers turned him into a mixture of King Arthur and Jesus, to the point that a woman even bought her baby to be blessed by the dying general. This makes little sense when viewed objectively, as the CSA lost the war; subjectively, this helped to push the myth of the South being crushed by overwhelmingly superior force.

Lee was not, however, a great strategist. He went on the offensive, first covertly in his Antietam campaign and overtly in his Gettysburg campaign, ruining what little strategic planning the Confederacy actually did (Davies preferred a defensive approach to the war) and making mistakes that cost the Confederacy manpower it could not replace. He was also intensely fixated on Virginia, his home state, and never fully realise the importance of other states in the war. His assessment of how to fight the war, during his time as Davis’s primary military adviser, was therefore fundamentally flawed. He accidentally gave Grant a victory over Bragg that helped shorten the war.

Nor was he a particularly great general. He had a very small command staff that was largely incapable of rising to the challenges it faced. He was lucky, during his early victories, to face Northern generals who were equally incapable; the peninsula campaign would have gone the other way, perhaps, if Lee had faced Grant or Sherman instead of McClellan. He was also lucky that Davies was firmly on his side, allowing Longstreet to take the blame for losing the Battle of Gettysburg, and were no consequences for failing to send Longstreet and his men to reinforce Bragg. 

Longstreet’s willingness to argue with Lee, and his later decision to join the Republican Party, made him an easy scapegoat. He was demonised even as Lee was canonised, to the point that Bonekemper notes that Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants should really have been called Lee’s Scapegoats.  It is notable that most of the Confederate officers who condemned Longstreet were not known for being competent.

Bonekemper’s assessment is curt:

Robert E. Lee, therefore, bore a great deal of responsibility for a demoralizing triple disaster in the summer of 1863—Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Tullahoma. Confederate morale and prospects fell to a new low from which they never recovered. Longstreet had advised defensive tactics for the campaign and was against attacking on the last two days of the battle. He was not present on the first day, and his men fought bravely on the last two days. That evidence seems to indicate that Longstreet was unfairly made a scapegoat for Gettysburg in order to remove blame from Lee, who protected his own reputation by suppressing Pickett’s battle report.”

Bonekemper moves on to compare and contrast Grant to Lee as commanding officers. Grant was not, in the Southern sense, a gentleman. This might well have been a major advantage: Grant was modest, disinclined to meddle in politics, capable of assessing the battlefield, making best use of his staff, issuing lucid orders to his subordinates, making best use of superior resources and, most importantly of all, never giving up. Grant avoided many of the mistakes Lee made during the early years of the war, and learnt from his own mistakes.  Bonekemper argues that the claim Grant was a butcher does not hold water. His losses were surprisingly low.

Linked to this, Bonekemper debunks the claim the North won by waging a total war. It cannot be denied that brutality was part and parcel of war, and always will be, nor can it be denied that the South was forced to resort to scavenging during the invasion of the North and what few payments were made were made in worthless Southern currency. It is unlikely they would have been honoured even if the South had won the war. Regardless, the South was far more brutal than the North and, linked to its determination to preserve slavery at all costs, murdered surrendering black soldiers and refused to trade black soldiers for white prisoners even though this harmed the South star more than the North. The North could replace its losses. The South could not.

The North’s invasion of the South did immense damage, both directly and indirectly (particularly in liberating slaves who did not, obviously, want to stay with their masters). There are, however, few reports of rapes or civilian killings.  As Bonekemper notes:

A recent study by Lisa Frank of the relationship between [Sherman’s] soldiers and Southern women excoriates the soldiers for entering bedrooms and parlours, as well as seizing personal treasures and letters, in an effort to humiliate and demoralize elite white women along their route. There is no mention of rape or murder.”

It is possible, given the mores of that time, that a number of atrocities went unreported.  But it is quite likely that the original myth-makers behind the Lost Cause would have found them and put them to use.

The book concludes with a grim note:

The Myth of the Lost Cause may have been the most successful propaganda campaign in American history. For almost 150 years it has shaped our view of the causation and fighting of the Civil War. As discussed in detail in prior chapters, the Myth was just that—a false concoction intended to justify the Civil War and the South’s expending so much energy and blood in defense of slavery.”

This assessment is almost certainly correct. One may argue that slavery was economically important, if not vital, to the South, and attempts to defend it were therefore justified. This ignores the cold fact that the plantation system was based on human slavery, and the idea that it should be permitted to exist is a crime against humanity. One might also argue that slavery was declining, and would eventually vanish without a war, but if that was true why would the South expend so much blood and treasure to keep the peculiar institution? Indeed, while the Civil War has often been called a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” it is notable that soldier slaveowners had higher casualties and lower desertion rates, a fact that suggests a degree of investment in maintaining slavery. The South had good reason to believe the slavery boom would continue, and acted accordingly. It might have been wrong – the Boil Weevil was already advancing towards the American South and would, historically, have devastated the plantations in the 1920s – but it had no way to know it at the time.

Slavery also served a secondary purpose:

In addition to the economic value of slavery, there was the social value to consider. The institution was based on white supremacy and provided the elite planter class with a means of mollifying the large majority of whites who were not slave-owners. In addition to aspiring to become slave-owners, these other whites could at least endure their low economic and social status by embracing their superiority to blacks in Southern society.”

It is true that there were other motives behind succession than slavery. But the words of the Confederate founding fathers provide the best evidence that maintaining slavery loomed large in their minds:

They railed against “Black Republicans,” the supposedly abolitionist Lincoln, the failure to enforce the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause and federal fugitive slave acts, the threat to the South’s multi-billion-dollar investment in slaves, abolitionism, racial equality, and the threat blacks posed to Southern womanhood. These documents make it clear that slavery was not only the primary cause of secession but virtually the only cause.”

As noted above, they were so determined to maintain slavery that it may well have cost them the war.

Bonekemper ends his book with a simple conclusion:

The Myth of the Lost Cause, then, is a tangle of falsehoods. It should no longer play a significant role in the historiography and Americans’ understanding of the Civil War.”

The book does not assess the modern day belief in the Lost Cause and its challengers. Nor does it assess the complicated political and social questions behind the desire to knock down and destroy Confederate monuments, or reappraisals of American history. This is both unfortunate and probably wise. The efforts of the original myth-makers took root in the former CSA, which was looking for something to explain their defeat as well as justify their actions, and spread widely. Indeed, as successive generations pass, it seems more and more unfair that, on one hand, there is no major reassessment of history and, on the other, that people who never owned slaves (and in many cases do not have slaveholders in the family tree) should be penalised for the crimes of their (supposed) ancestors. We have reached a point where both sides feel victimised, which is not conductive to putting the past in the past where it belongs.

In conclusion, Bonekemper’s assessment of the myth is nicely detailed and backed up by textual evidence. It does not provide a history of the South, or the myth itself, but takes it apart piece by piece. It avoids many of the mistakes of earlier historians, some of whom contributed to the myth themselves (deliberately or otherwise), and is a fitting introduction to the first social issue that could not be compromised because both sides had different principles and different understandings of how the world worked, and therefore had to fight it out.  And it is also a warning of what happens when you do.

Book Review: Operation C3: Hitler’s Plan to Invade Malta 1942

10 Apr

Book Review: Operation C3: Hitler’s Plan to Invade Malta 1942

-John Burtt

Throughout the history of the Second World War, there have been numerous military operations that were planned but never carried out for one reason or another. The German invasion of England in 1940 is one such operation, and the chances for success or crushing failure have been discussed endlessly since the war, as is the planned 1943 Allied invasion of Europe. A lesser-known operation that never got out of the planning stage was Operation C3, the 1942 German-Italian plan to invade Malta. Until recently, however, there has not been any serious academic look at the plan, the forces devoted to invading and defending the island, and its chances for success. John Burtt has set out to change that with a book examining the historical background, discussing the forces involved during the critical years of 1942, and then providing a military history of an invasion that never actually took place.

The first chapters of the book set the scene by examining the complicated relationship between Mussolini’s Italy, Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Great Britain. Italy had entered the First World War on the Allied side, but was severely disenchanted by what it saw as a lack of booty in exchange for its efforts. Mussolini took advantage of both political weakness and economic downturns by launching a coup, taking control of the country and setting her on the path to reclaim what he saw as a lost military heritage. Mussolini was not up to the task, however, and Italy’s early steps towards military supremacy could easily have ended very badly if Britain and France have shown more resolve. The idea of keeping Mussolini and Hitler apart was understandable, but wrong-headed. Hitler could, at least in theory, offer Mussolini more in return for his support. He had cause to regret it.

It also discusses the political background on Malta itself. The island was not as loyal to Britain as post-war stories suggest, with clashes over religion and social ties to Italy, or at least to the Vatican, raising the spectre of a fifth column that might rise against the governor if the Italians invaded. There were, however, good reasons for any dissident locals to sit on their hands, as while they might have ties to Italy they had relatively few to Mussolini and his fascist regime.

The next set of chapters outline the Mediterranean War between 1940, when Italy entered the war without any real planning or preparations, and 1942, when the fate of the Mediterranean theatre seemed to hang in the balance. The Italians did better, Burtt argues, than many of their detractors insist, but the lack of planning severely hampered their efforts. Indeed, the author states that a surprise descent on Malta in 1940 would almost certainly have been successful, as the island was almost undefended at the time, yet the Italians did not seem to realise the opportunity existed until it was far too late. The early aerial attacks on Malta were largely unsuccessful, which properly helped keep the island loyal, but later attacks – spearheaded by German aircraft – were far more destructive. It was incredibly difficult for Britain to keep the islands supplied with food, weapons, and everything else it needed and the island came very close to starvation more than once. Indeed, there were strong suggestions that the pressure on the Royal Navy was too high to be born, and if the island was invaded it would be very difficult to interdict enemy troop convoys with forces based at each end of the Mediterranean (Gibraltar and Alexandria). Fortunately, in the original timeline, the Royal Navy was able to keep the islands supplied with just enough to keep them from having to surrender.

The book then goes on to discuss the forces assigned to invading and defending the island. On paper, the Germans and Italians could have landed enough troops to win even if they took very heavy losses. They might even have been able to land a soldier for every able-bodied man of military age on the island. The British forces were reasonably well-equipped for their mission, but overall planning for defence was severely hampered by command failures, which made training and joint exercises incredibly difficult. There was also the severe weakness that it was unlikely additional supplies could be rushed to the island if the invasion began, ensuring that once the defenders ran out of war stocks they would have to surrender. Worse, it would take several days for naval units to reach the island and block the troop transports, which would be extremely costly even under the best case scenario. The British commanders had no illusions about what would happen if the invaders got a solid foothold and could bring in reinforcements. The island almost certainly be lost.

In practice, it isn’t clear how easily the invasion plan could have been carried out. The German ability to land paratroopers had taken a severe beating during the invasion of Crete and, even the best case scenario, there would be a considerable gap between the landing of the paratroopers and their seaborne reinforcements. (Ours, at best.) The Italian Navy have done a great deal of self-improvement work, after several painful early lessons, but they would find it very difficult to land troops on Malta – the terrain alone would prove a serious obstacle, as one Italian spy found to his cost (he had to be rescued by British troops) – let alone keep them supplied. On the plus side, the British had very limited supplies and would almost certainly lose control of the air very quickly, while the Royal Navy ships rushing to the island would be following a very predictable path, bringing them into range of Italian submarines and aircraft.

The book then moves on to outlining a hypothetical four-day invasion of Malta, ending with the conclusion that the Germans and Italians would probably have won the day. It seems to me that the outline is a little optimistic – in that, it has much in common with Kenneth Macksey’s campaign history of a successful Sealion in 1980 (Invasion; a condensed version is included in The Hitler Options (1995)) – and gives the Germans and Italians credit they probably do not deserve, but is always more interesting to explore a campaign that might change the course of the war than a brief, vicious, yet ultimately unsuccessful invasion. That said, Malta’s supplies really were very low and a high-intensity engagement would drain them very quickly. It is possible the Germans might win by simply outlasting the defenders.

If the Germans and Italians had conquered Malta, what would happen next? Burtt argues the effects would be less dramatic than most people think. The United States had entered the conflict and American resources meant that the British could not be driven out of the war. Rommel might have more supplies, in a world where the Germans and Italians controlled Malta, but there is no way he could been given enough to tip the balance. However, with the Mediterranean theatre looking significantly less favourable to the Allies, it is quite likely that the Americans would have refused to commit to either Operation Torch or the invasion of Italy. Instead, they might have demanded an invasion of France in 1943.

It is beyond the scope of this book to speculate on how that might have gone, but I will. On one hand, the German defences in France were very weak and the German air force would have taken significant losses in the Mediterranean even if it had finally emerged victorious. On the other hand, the Americans were much less prepared for modern warfare (as proven in the Battle of Kasserine Pass), and is possible that the invasion would have stalemated or produced a bloody defeat. Hitler would have seen this as a good thing. Stalin would have been furious. But, regardless of how the war developed in 1944-1945, the atomic bomb was on the way. The war might have been ended by the Americans dropping atomic bombs on Berlin, after which – hopefully – Hitler would have been overthrown and the Germans doing their best to surrender.

If the invasion had failed, what then? Burtt does not speculate. It is possible to argue there would be no major changes. Historically, Malta was never invaded. However, a failed invasion would certainly have cost the Germans and Italians dearly even if they inflicted crushing losses on the defenders (which represented a tiny fraction of British forces), and those losses would be heavily concentrated in aircraft, ships, and highly trained pilots and paratroopers. It is possible, to borrow a concept from Dale Cozort’s Operation Torch Delayed, that the aircraft losses would be heavy enough to convince Hitler to allow his forces to retreat from Stalingrad before it was too late to get them out without horrific losses, if it was clearly impossible to supply them from the air. It is also possible that dissent within the Italian government would become more open, if the invasion failed on the scale that could not be easily concealed. Mussolini might be removed from power much earlier.

It is always fascinating when a military historian commits himself to outlining a campaign that never took place in the real world. A good historian is very aware of the true strength and weaknesses of the forces involved, something most amateur alternate historians lack. He goes into the matter with a depth few can match. This book is a very good outline of the background, the political and military situation in 1942, and how a hypothetical campaign might have played itself out. It does not explore the possible outcomes for the war in great detail, if invasion had taken place, but that would be beyond the scope of the book.

If you enjoy setting the background, and then following an outline of a campaign that is realistic as possible even though it never happened, you might enjoy this book.

Book Review: Serpent Sword

10 Apr

Serpent Sword: A Steampunk Military Fantasy (Battle for the Wastelands Book 2)

by Matthew W. Quinn

(Disclaimer: I received a copy in exchange for a honest review)

Regular readers will recall that, back in 2020, I published a review of Matthew W. Quinn’s Battle for the Wastelands, a story that managed to combine a number of genres from post-apocalypse nightmares to steampunk and even mild fantasy. The book had two threads running through it: the battle against the warlord Grendel and his allies, and Grendel’s own attempts to turn a patchwork state into something more permanent. Serpent Sword is the sequel, in which the inconclusive skirmishing of the previous book is replaced by something more serious as Grendel himself takes the field against his enemies.

On one hand, the action is straight military fantasy very reminiscent of the Wild West. The combat very much fits that time period, although the use of zeppelins gives it more of a steampunk air. On the other, the book delves deeper into the politics of holding together a state that is very fragile and quite likely to come apart if the warlord dies or suffers a devastating defeat. Grendel has forged alliances with many lesser warlords who are often hindrances as much as they are helps – and who will turn on him in a moment if they see weakness. This problem is made worse by Grendel’s harem of women and his brood of children, all of whom – technically – may be able to take his place when he dies, pushed forward by their mothers who assume they and their children will be murdered by the designated successor if their child doesn’t become the next warlord. Indeed, some of his wives have no loyalty to him and are even actively working against him.

Grendel is very aware of this problem, unlike many fictional or indeed historical warlords. He is doing what he can to keep the peace within his empire, balancing the power blocks while naming one of his children the primary heir. This threatens to bite him, later in the story, when he finds himself in deep trouble, the kind of trouble that might trigger a succession crisis even if he is actually dead. He is forced to give orders to prevent such a crisis, yet they are orders that may hamper his state if he is killed or captured. If this reminds you of Game of Thrones, that is probably no bad thing, but Quinn is generally better at explaining the point of view of people who are unpleasant by our standards, but shaped by their own experiences and options.

The characters introduced in the last book continue to grow and develop, from Grendel’s son – now a lead of men in his own right – to the leader of the resistance, a soldier fighting the oncoming hordes, and one of Grendel’s more unwilling wives, who finds herself a pawn in his games. Quinn shows their options, some of the reasoning behind their decisions, and the high cost of war – and servitude – on the fighters and non-combatants alike. It also showcases the importance of logistics, and how one set of agreements can preclude others; Grendel, having made an alliance with cannibal fanatics, finds he is unable to discard them because it would worry the rest of his allies, who will start wondering – reasonably – when they are going to be sold out too.

The book’s greatest weakness, stemming from the fact it is book two in a trilogy (Quinn promises more if they sell well), is that relatively little of great consequence happens, save for the events right at the end. It sets a great deal of groundwork for the third book, rather than being a story in its own right as well as advancing the overall arc.

Other than that, which is a fairly minor quibble, Serpent Sword advances the plot nicely and is a reasonably satisfactory read in its own right. There is, as might be expected of a military fiction book, a “certain amount of violence” not all of which is in our good cause; the sex scenes are not particularly graphic (indeed, it is made fairly clear that one scene is not consensual in any real sense of the word, even though there is no overt violence.)

You can download the book from Amazon.

Background Info – Planet Belos

1 Apr

I wrote this with Dragon, so please excuse any mistakes.

Appendix: Belos

The planet Belos was extremely unfortunate in that it both possessed three gravity points and the native intelligent race (the Belosi), being barely more advanced than Earth’s Middle Ages, was utterly unable to defend itself when the planet was discovered. The Tichck discoverers, in line with Galactic protocols of the time, declared a protectorate over the planet and promised they would work to uplift the natives until they could stand on their own two feet. Unfortunately, in line with Galactic history, the protectorate is run solely for the benefit of the so-called protectors and the interests of the natives are never take into account. The galaxy simply doesn’t care.

The planet is unusual in that it has one large continent rather than several smaller continents broken up by vast oceans. The natives had no trouble spreading out to occupy most of the continent by the time the Galactics arrived, something that may account for their slow technological development. (The protectors insist the Belosi are inherently dull-witted and need protection for their own good, but when their studies are checked by Repeatable academics and adjusted for circumstance they appear to be as intelligent and capable as the galactic average.) Almost nothing is known about the world as it was before the galaxy intruded and what little there remains is generally assumed to be propaganda rather than genuine historical records. The local culture was effectively destroyed very quickly, and wherever social structures existed prior to the invasion were either repurposed or simply eradicated. There are tales passed down by a handful of Belosi lorekeepers, but it is impossible to tell if they are genuine or nothing more than make-believe whispers of a vanished world. A number are, in fact, designed to tell the Belosi that they must obey their masters, suggesting a more recent origin. The only disproof of this is a simple fact that their masters don’t care. They see no reason to treat the Belosi as anything other than helpless slaves.

On paper, the planet is ruled for the benefit of its natives and power will be transferred to them when they are capable of handling it. In practice, the planet is ruled by a corporate power structure, almost completely dominated by the Tichck (see below), and the Board of Directors has near-absolute power. There is almost no democracy, let alone political representation, for anyone, unless they own shares in the planetary consortium. It is theoretically possible for anyone to buy and vote shares, and a considerable number of Tichck own shares, but in practice there are very few individuals with the wealth it would require to buy enough shares to have any major influence on policy.

The Board of Directors appoints the city mayors and ruling councils, the senior security and military officers and nearly every other major position on the planet. These offices are expected to select their own subordinates for family connections and competence, the latter coming a very distant second. The formal chain of command is actually very simple. The informal chain, a patron-client system open only to the Tichck, is far more confusing. It is often very difficult to determine how much formal or informal authority any given officer possesses, at least not without being able to trace the informal chain of command. This system, naturally, is a breeding ground for vast corruption. It is not an exaggeration to say the planet is amongst the most corrupt in the known universe. Nearly every smuggling organisation or underground criminal association has at least a small presence on Belos.

There are three major megacities on the planet’s surface, housing everything from the planets governing elite to corporate headquarters, surface industrial facilities, and everything else a modern planet requires. The megacities are brutally stratified, with the ruling and visiting population rarely having to encounter their servants on anything other than their own terms. The servants themselves live in slums, barracks, and warrens, where they are kept isolated when they not on duty. They are permanently indebted to their masters and, no matter how much they work, it is rare for any of them to gain their freedom. Any trouble causing is met with heavy punishment, no matter how minor the offence. It is not uncommon for a personal servant to be whipped to death and then replaced very quickly.

There is a very small population of free Belosi, but they are too tiny to gain any real traction. Even they are subject to laws that ensure they remain, at best, third-class citizens. They have very few protections from security harassment, or the punishment meted out to actual slaves. Most keep their heads down and try not to be noticed.

Outside the cities, the planet is a wasteland. Large tracks of land surface have been devoted to plantation slavery, with the slaves raising bioengineered crops that are a vital part of the galactic economy. Other sections are devoted to mining, corporate experimentation, and raising troops, the latter mercenaries bred and trained for service off-world. The Belosi are treated like cattle, born and bred for service in an increasingly poisonous environment. There is no technological reason the system cannot be made a great deal kinder, and less environmentally damaging, but the ruling powers simply do not care.  They are aware that the Belosi are becoming increasingly unhealthy, on a planet that is effectively being reformed, yet this has not forced any change of plan. Their intention is to ship in labourers from other worlds, rather than make their endeavours more environmental friendly or even genetically engineer the Belosi for the new environment.

The plantations are heavily policed. All Belosi are supposed to be noted and logged in the security records and any Belosi found anywhere outside their assigned area is arrested, detained, and either shipped to a penal camp or simply executed. Despite this, there is an underground of rebels devoted to learning as much as possible about their masters and finding a way to escape their control, with camps in the rougher parts of the planet and cells in both plantations and cities. The ruling class are aware there is a rebel movement, but they are largely unconcerned. The Belosi simply do not have the weapons they need to liberate themselves, or the contacts with the rest of galaxy they need to purchase weapons and supplies. Indeed, despite years of contact and enslavement, the Belosi understanding of the outside galaxy is very limited.

There are two major other alien populations on the planet itself.  The Tichck are a hyper-capitalist race, the logical end results of unfettered capitalism. Their ruling class is known for making robber barons look sweet and kindly, ruthlessly exploiting everyone beneath them in search of a quick buck. They do not, oddly, regard anyone who inherited his wealth with great respect, expecting the son of a tycoon to display the same ruthlessness as his father. The lesser classes are often indebted to their superiors and have to work hard to keep from being exploited; indeed, one of their few good points is that they are completely non-sexist, but only because a lack of overt sexism gives them more people to exploit. Their society is surprisingly flexible as well as solid and it is possible, at least in theory, to rise to the top from nothing. This rarely works in practice and it doesn’t work at all if one is not a Tichck. Their system does not allow aliens (non-Tichck ) to rise above a certain level.

The Tichck speak Galactic One, as might be expected of a race that has been spacefaring for so long, but they follow rules of etiquette that are surprising even to the rest of the Galactics. A superior is expected to condescend to an inferior and an interior is expected to praise his superior to a level that most humans would regard as utterly excessive. Their formal speech is very flowery and they have a tendency to dance around for hours, establishing the pecking order, before they get down to business. The best way to deal with them, unless one happens to be from a major interstellar power, is to genuflect and grovel. There are few upsides to this. Unlike human despots, the Tichck are rarely distracted by flattery, no matter how excessive. They regard it as their due. When talking to races that are not so impressed by their high opinion of themselves, the Tichck normally send representatives rather than come in person. It is rare for them to bend this policy and it is almost always a very bad sign.

The Tichck have, as one might expect, a bad reputation amongst the other Galactics. They are hated and feared, both for their ruthlessness and for their willingness to bend the word of a contract as far as it would go without actually breaking it. They are, amongst other things, the galaxy’s foremost loan sharks; they have few qualms about offering loans to primitive races, isolated colonies, and unsteady corporations, then ruthlessly moving in to collect the collateral if the debts are not repaid. They have, in fact, developed a willingness to sell anything to anyone, provided the money is proffered upfront. Their only major saving grace, as far as the rest of the galaxy is concerned, is that the Tichck will always honour the word of a contract, once signed. That does not keep them, of course, from looking for loopholes. Any Galactic dealing with the Tichck is strongly advised to have every last section of the contract carefully checked and analysed before signing on the dotted line.

The other major race is a sizeable population of Subdo, representatives of a race that was discovered when they were too technologically advanced to be easily crushed, but too primitive to avoid subordination. The Subdo are the galaxy’s foremost administrators as well as corporate mid-ranking personnel, as well as serving as slave masters and security troops. The Tichck use Subdo to run the plantations and keep the Belosi in line. They accomplish this task with gusto. They have a racial inferiority complex that makes them grovel to members of any superior race and, at the same time, humiliate and crush their inferiors. Unlike the Belosi, the Subdo are advanced enough to appreciate the immense gap between themselves and the major Galactics.  They do not take it well.

It is often said that the Subdo are the most bureaucratic race in the known galaxy. This may be true. It is true that they are often amongst the most obstructionist of races, insisting that paperwork be filled out properly before they can even consider doing anything to assist the petitioner. They have been known to slow-walk bureaucratic procedures when they don’t consider them to be in their interests, or even to conceal embarrassing or inconvenient pieces of paperwork within the files. It is speculated that this is a form of passive-aggressive resistance to their masters, although it is unclear if the Tichck – with their penchant for flowery speech – have ever noticed. They are capable, however, of acting with extraordinarily speed when they believe it necessary. They’re also well-known for bearing grudges well past the point of rationality.

There are enclaves of numerous other races, mainly corporate representatives and staffers, but few of them are particularly important. They are closely monitored, and they live in the awareness that their long-stay visas can be confiscated at any moment followed by summery deportation.

Beyond the planet’s atmosphere, the system is heavily settled. The Tichck encouraged the development of industrial nodes, asteroid habitats, shipyards and anything else required to build and develop a modern economy. The gravity points ensure a constant stream of starships pass through, all of which are induced to spend their wages in the system. Galactic hotels, entertainment complexes, and anything else a spacer might require are easily found, and the Tichck can be relied upon to look the other way if our visitor wants something that would be frowned upon, if not considered outright illegal, on their homeworlds. They generally turn a blind eye to such things unless they cause local disturbance. A spacer who gets drunk or drugged and winds up in trouble will generally be deported, unless they does something that requires payment. If they or their employers are unwilling or unable to pay, they will be involuntary indebted and put to work to pay off the debt. The Tichck generally don’t push these debts too far, for fear of outside reaction but they do insist that the debt paid before the criminal is allowed to leave the system.

The planet’s future appears to be bleak. The Belosi are finding the environmental damage increasingly difficult to tolerate. It appears likely that their population will start to decline sharply in no less than five hundred years, unless action is taken now.  There are almost no Belosi outside their homeworld, and certainly no breeding population, raising the spectre of the species becoming entirely extinct.  The Tichck plans to bring in other races to do the grunt labour may work on paper, but almost anyone else would be far more aware of how badly they are being treated and how unlikely it is that they will be able to work themselves free of debt.  The Tichck will be required to expand their security arrangements massively, if they wish to stave off a major revolt, but this will make their system even more inefficient and sent profits plunging downwards. The gravity points cannot be moved, yet there is little else the world offers that cannot be found elsewhere.

Outside intervention may be the only hope the Belosi have of survival, but there are few races willing to take on the Tichck.  Their fate appears certain.