30 October 2014

Excerpt Thursday: HAND OF FIRE by Judith Starkston

This week, we're pleased to welcome author and Unusual Historicals contributor JUDITH STARKSTON with her newest novel, HAND OF FIRE. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Hand of Fire. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

**An Excerpt from Hand of Fire**

That’s what it’s come to, Briseis thought, women defending the palace with cooking pots. She reached up to the burning places on her cheek and chest where Mynes’s whip had struck her.
She sent Eurome to warn Maira and prepare Hatepa, though they would keep what was happening from the queen for now. Then Briseis started up the ladder to a defense tower.
A tremendous crack rang out and the ground shook beneath her. It felt like a lightning strike, dangerously close, but the sky was clear blue. What had happened? She climbed to the top and looked toward the Great Gate of Lyrnessos. Where the wooden beams and stone supports should have been, a cloud of dust and debris arose.
What force could have pulled down the massive gate in so little time? The men, few as they were, could harry the attackers from above the gate, inflicting enemy losses so great most leaders would choose to withdraw.
She saw a huge warrior standing on the rubble, his sword held high, the morning light reflecting fiery gold off his full-length shield. She knew then. Nothing stood between Achilles and her city.
She raced down the ladder.
As she reached the ground she yelled to the servants hurrying to their posts. “The Great Gate is down. We must gather everyone and escape from the city and head to the sheep camps. No point defending the palace. Achilles knocked down the city gate as if it were a pile of kindling.”
Servants ran to call the others from the walls. Briseis hurried inside to get Eurome, Maira and Hatepa. She tried to appear calm. The less frantic Hatepa became, the faster they could escape.
Briseis pushed aside the door curtain. “Lady Hatepa, your son has asked you to come with me quickly outside the city.”
The queen fidgeted in her chair. “Mynes? Outside the city? What are you saying? What is that noise I heard? What is that cut on your face?”
“Your son commanded me to take you to safety.” They pulled the queen to her feet, ignoring her protests. Eurome handed Briseis her healing satchel.
Hatepa began to cough. “I must sit down. Why are you dragging me around?” She batted at Maira and Eurome.
Eurome looked the queen in the eye. “Queen Hatepa, unless you wish to be skewered by a Greek spear, you’d better walk. There are no servants left in the palace. Come with us or stay alone to greet the Greeks.”
Hatepa’s eyes bulged wider than usual. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish stranded on the shore. For a moment Briseis wondered if she was unable to breathe, but then she squawked, “How dare you—”
“Eurome is right, Queen Hatepa,” Briseis interrupted. “We wish no disrespect, but you can come now or be left behind. We cannot endanger others to suit you.” Hatepa stopped resisting.
Outside in the main courtyard, the remainder of the household staff had gathered, men and women with some children. Such a large group would have trouble getting through streets jammed with fleeing townspeople. She could hear screams rising from the lower city. They had to get out. Greek warriors could be climbing the hill toward the palace right now. Everyone looked at her.
“We must leave the city. Go from the back of the palace away from the fighting that is centered on the Great Gate. We’ll escape the other way, out the Stag Gate.”
She hoped that by starting their journey on the steep backside of the palace hill, well above the packed neighborhoods, they could avoid both Greeks and crowds. By the time they dropped into the populated area, they would be near the Stag Gate.
The menservants had knives, clubs and other weapons snatched from the work sheds or kitchens, but she said a prayer that enough of the guard had survived to keep the Greeks busy so that her household and the townspeople could escape without a fight. The shrieks from the battle kept increasing. Had the fighting spread this far? As they unbarred the gate, Briseis held her breath.
The street lay empty. They hurried along the road that hugged the back of the palace. The children held tight to their mothers and moved silently with the adults. All went well until they reached a side road with houses and shops on either side.
Other fleeing people crowded in so that she lost sight of the servants at the front of her group. Family groups trying to stay together got pushed to the sides by faster moving men. Briseis glanced behind and saw Hatepa stumbling forward, her eyes wide with terror.
Maira walked next to the queen, holding her arm, but Briseis couldn’t find Eurome. She tried to go back to look for her, but the flow of the crowd made it impossible, and in the confusion her old nurse could have passed her. Briseis pressed on, fighting back tears.
Other paths and alleys led to the gate, but she stayed on the main road, hoping her household and Eurome had also. The crowd pushed her faster, and she could no longer see Maira. A few of her servants ran near her. Two of the men, armed with a club and a butchering knife, stayed on either side of her. How had they clung to her when she had lost both Eurome and Maira?
Suddenly she heard screams. The crowd in front turned back, driven by something. The serving man with the knife took her arm. “Down this alley.”
She ran up several stone steps and into a narrow passage between the buildings. Some of her serving women ran after her in single file, the men behind them. She heard a man bellow in agony and looked back. The man with the club was on the ground. Close behind she saw the horsehair plume of a Greek helmet.

Learn more about author Judith Starkston
Twitter: @JudithStarkston
Facebook: JudithStarkston
Google+: +JudithStarkston

Current Book List
Hand of Fire, (Fireship Press, 2014)
SoWest: Desert Justice, story entitled “Season for Death” (Desert Sleuths Sisters in Crime Anthology)

29 October 2014

The Battlefield and Beyond: The Destruction of the Irminsul

The Franks and Continental Saxons had been battling each other for a long, long time, but the war of 772 was different. It was a fight both for territory and for souls.

It was also Charlemagne’s first war in Saxony. He was merely King Charles then and relatively new to the throne. He and his brother, Carloman, each inherited half the kingdom four years earlier, when his dying father split the realm. After Carloman’s death in December 771, Charles seized his late brother’s lands, assuming sole rule of Francia.

When he decided to invade Saxony, Charles was no stranger to war. He was age 24 and had ruled some Frankish territory for less than a year.

The reason for the attack on Eresburg is open to speculation. Perhaps, the Saxons had stopped paying yearly tribute won from the previous war 14 years ago, while Pepin and then Charles were distracted with the wars in Aquitaine. Charles might have thought to let such insolence go unanswered would weaken him. Perhaps, Charles was trying to protect Church interests in pagan lands, or he saw the Saxons as a threat with the fortress of Eresburg so close to the Frankish border.

The Frankish annals don’t give us a play by play of the battles, and the Continental Saxons didn’t have a written language as we know it. However, Charles’s army marched to Eresburg after an assembly at Worms and captured a hilltop fortress in a strategic location. Then the Frankish king ordered the destruction of the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxon peoples.

We don’t know the Irminsul’s location, what it was made of, and even if there was only one. But one thing is certain: Charles was trying to prove something, just as Saints Boniface and Willibrord did decades ago when they violated pagan sites. The message to the pagans: Our God is stronger than those devils you worship.

The Royal Frankish Annals report that the Christians got divine assistance in demolishing the pillar. Because of a drought, the army did not have enough water to stay an extra day or two and complete their work. Suddenly around noon, a stream appeared and the men could finish the destruction and take the shrine’s gold and silver.

With that part of the mission accomplished, Charles’s army advanced to the Weser River, where they parleyed with the Saxons and got 12 hostages, sons from important families and a medieval form of insurance. If the vanquished behaved themselves, the hostages were guests. If they reneged on their promises, the hostages could be killed or sold into slavery.

But maybe Charles wanted another type of insurance, one with higher stakes than the hostages’ lives. When two parties made an agreement, they swore oaths and invoked the divine, but to Charles, only one deity was valid. So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a Saxon leader was baptized and then made his vow, putting his soul on the line.

Threats to body and soul did not keep the peace. The 772 war was only the beginning of what would be a decades-long, bitter struggle with burned churches, forced conversions, mass murder, mass executions, deportation, and other brutality on both sides.


Carolingian Chronicles, which includes the Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by
Bernard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers

Charlemagne: Translated Sources, P.D. King

Charlemagne, Roger Collins

Kim Rendfeld learned about the destruction of the Irminsul while researching her first novel, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press). That historic event so intrigued her, she had to write a second book from the Saxon perspective, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), in which a mother will go to great lengths to protect her children. To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

26 October 2014

Author Interview: Alison Morton on SUCCESSIO

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Alison Morton with the third in her Roma Nova series, SUCCESSIO. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Successio. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Roma Nova – the last remnant of the Roman Empire that has survived into the 21st century – is at peace. Carina Mitela, the heir of a leading family, but choosing the life of an officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, is not so sure.

She senses danger crawling towards her when she encounters a strangely self-possessed member of the unit hosting their exchange exercise in Britain. When a blackmailing letter arrives from a woman claiming to be her husband Conrad’s lost daughter and Conrad tries to shut Carina out, she knows the threat is real.

Trying to resolve a young man’s indiscretion twenty-five years before turns into a nightmare that not only threatens to destroy all the Mitelae but also attacks the core of the imperial family itself. With her enemy holding a gun to the head of the heir to the imperial throne, Carina has to make the hardest decision of her life…

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning…  Roma Nova is a fascinating world” - Simon Scarrow

**Q&A with Alison Morton**

Welcome back, Alison. Now, you’re here to tell us about your latest alternate history thriller, SUCCESSIO. We saw the blurb and an exciting extract on Thursday, but today I’d like to dig a little deeper into the background…

Looking at the alternate history theme, could a Roman province have survived from AD 395 into the 21st century? And with a feminist take?

In the chaos of the Roman Empire crumbling into city-states and small kingdoms, men in the tiny pagan colony of Roma Nova fought to defend it while women took over the social, political and economic roles based on family structures.

But hard times followed the foundation in 395 AD; this was the time of the first ‘Great Migrations’ in Europe which lasted until approximately 800 AD. Eventually, daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons. Fighting danger side by side with brothers and fathers over the generations reinforced women’s status. And keeping to their traditional gods, they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So I don’t think it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries.

What are the thriller elements in SUCCESSIO?

Carina, the heroine, is an officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, so we know she’s a tough cookie.   But she is faced with blackmail, her marriage is under extreme stress and a manipulative and skilled antagonist is bent on a relentlessly murderous course of revenge to destroy Roma Novans, their beliefs and values.

Only Carina, caught between heartbreak of her personal life and sworn service to the imperium, and nearly broken physically and mentally, can hunt this killer down.

What so you think makes a good story for a reader?

As a reader, I like a cracking story with an emotional grip and characters who resonate with me. Plots should have plenty of twists and turns. I like an unusual setting, whether in time, place or both. But that’s just me…

Characters in all stories must live naturally and plausibly in their own world; reviewers have been kind enough to say that Roma Nova is real to them. Some want to book a long holiday and one wanted to emigrate to Roma Nova permanently!

A good twist or electrifying denouement is rewarding for a reader who has been kept on the hop all the way through. Writers who take the dare of high concept stories must deliver and, to me as a writer, this is a powerful motivator to work hard to produce a truly entertaining result.

Does your tough heroine, Carina, have any doubts and weaknesses?

She does indeed! She worries that her husband, Conrad, hasn’t recovered from his accident, she almost gives into fear when everything is falling apart and her temper, ah, her temper! 

The biggest challenge in depicting tough heroines is plausibility. You can’t jump from a passive, protected flower to super-heroine, even if she passes through a formative traumatic event. Writers need to give hints about latent characteristics such as resilience, integrity and physical strength as well as a strong will and a passion to drive through what she believes in.

The second challenge is not falling into the trap of making a strong character have moments of unbelievable weakness. Self-doubt, a temper, love for movies, a penchant for egg and bacon rolls or brandy help to round a character out, but writers must not over-compensate for the toughness. A military type will drink and swear – it’s the pressure of the job – but she will have the normal emotions of any other woman, although expressed differently. However, she would probably not wear pink off-duty, nor go soft-eyed over fluffy bunny rabbits.

What are the larger issues behind SUCCESSIO?

There are two: firstly, the conflict of privileging the state over personal wishes and feelings, and secondly, the impact of childhood abuse on later life.

Individual ‘noble’ motivation resonates with even the most cynical reader, but in the Roma Novan society it’s expected as a matter of course. This harks back to collective survival as well as core Roman values. My heroine knows and accepts those in her head, but they cause her inner heartache. And the losses and gains are more complex and multi-layered than they appear.

A darker theme, woven into the story, is the impact childhood bullying and abuse have on an adult and how much they drive that adult to misjudgement and inner self-destruction which brings danger to all the others in that person’s environment.

And next?

I’m going back to the 1960s and 70s and writing the story of Aurelia Mitela. Does the steadfast and calm Aurelia hide a secret? And what was her part in the rebellion that nearly ripped Roma Nova apart?

Thank you for joining me today, dear readers,  and warm thanks to Unusual Historicals for inviting me.

Buying links:

SUCCESSIO is available through your local bookshop or from Amazon and other online retailers here: http://alison-morton.com/successio/where-to-buy-successio/

Social media:

You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here on her blog at www.alison-morton.com

24 October 2014

The Battlefield: The Monmouth Rebellion 1685

The rebellion grew out of the Exclusion Crisis of the late 1670s, when Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury instigated a Protestant movement to remove the Roman Catholic James, Duke of York, from succeeding his brother Charles II to the throne. Shaftesbury, along with Lord William Russell, Lord Essex and Sir Algernon Sydney, spent three years trying to push the bill through Parliament, but King Charles, sticking to the 'Divine Right of Kings' principle, refused to allow his brother to be disinherited.

James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, the eldest of Charles II’s illegitimate sons, was the figurehead for this movement. Born in Rotterdam on 9th April 1649 to Lucy Walter, James arrived among controversy, in that his mother was believed to have been the mistress of Colonel Robert Sidney when she met Charles, so his parenthood was in question from the start. These rumours were believed to have been started by the Prince’s brother, James Duke of York, who feared Charles II might make James his heir as he had no legitimate children.

James Crofts
The young James' mother took him to London where she was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. After questioning, allegedly by Cromwell himself, she was released and went to Flanders. This adventure apparently appalled Charles, who when James was eight, employed an agent to kidnap him. He was taken to Paris by Lord William Crofts, given his surname and lived at the Dowager Queen Henrietta Maria’s court, finally being brought to England when his father was restored to the throne at the age of fourteen. He never saw his mother again.

Charles II created him Duke of Monmouth, Earl of Doncaster, Baron Scott of Tynedale and appointed him a Knight of the Garter. Still only fourteen, James was married to the heiress Anne Scott, 4th Countess of Buccleuch. He took her name, and the couple were made Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, Earl and Countess of Dalkeith, and Lord and Lady Scott of Whitchester and Eskdale.

At sixteen, Monmouth served under his uncle the Duke of York in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and over the next fifteen years he distinguished himself as a brave and compassionate soldier – something which must have stuck in the craw of Uncle James of York.

Lord Shaftesbury urged King Charles II to recognise his son by the legitimisation of his marriage to Lucy Walters. The king refused, declaring before his council that had never been married to anyone except his queen, Catherine of Braganza. Monmouth always claimed his parents were married, a claim made by his mother, but which was never proved. A legend circulated of a ‘black box’ in which the marriage papers of Charles and Lucy Walters were hidden but these were never produced as evidence. Monmouth later confessed that his father had told him in private that he would have no legal right to the throne.

Monmouth was a popular Protestant figure, especially in the south west, and his army days had stood him in good stead for mixing with common people, a quality the aristocracy disapproved of.  He was implicated in the Popish Plot in 1679 and the Rye House Plot in 1683 to kill both the King and his brother. Although Monmouth was not involved, and was pardoned, he was banished from court and took refuge in the Netherlands early in 1684.

Despite their differences, James loved his father and apparently fell into an hysterical rage when he was told of Charles II's death in February 1685, even blaming his Uncle James of having poisoned him.

Shaftesbury was dead, but others, like Lord Ford Grey of Warke, and Archibald Campbell Earl of Argyll encouraged Monmouth to invade England and demand James II protect the English religion.

Argyll went to Scotland to raise a force there, while Monmouth, with eighty-two supporters, and men including Nathaniel Wade and Fletcher of Saltoun, sailed from Holland with three small ships, Anna, Sophia and David, four light field guns and 1500 muskets. They landed near  Lyme Regis on 11th June and quickly gathered another three hundred men.

However, Uncle James was on high alert for his errant nephew and all the ports were being watched. King James sent the Huguenot Louis Duras, earl Feversham and John Churchill, (later 1st Duke of Marlborough) to the west with his army.

Meanwhile in Lyme, recruits arrived in hundreds until Monmouth's army numbered a thousand foot and a hundred and fifty horse, mostly nonconformist, artisans and farm workers including, a young Daniel Foe, who later changed his name to Defoe.

Their Cavalry, composed of animals normally pulling ploughs, and poorly equipped men with outdated guns and farmyard tools; hence this was known as the pitchfork rebellion. Monmouth managed to gather 1500 troops, and although they were given limited training, they were hardly battle ready.

Ford Lord Grey
Monmouth declared himself the rightful king in Taunton Marketplace, as well as at Axminster, Chard and Ilminster, also accusing James II of poisoning his father. However his early triumphs were short-lived when most of the local landed gentry and the Anglican clergy proved unwilling to support Monmouth, though around a thousand cloth workers and peasants joined his growing army.

The warm summer weather had turned to heavy, relentless rain, and in need of men, money and horses, Monmouth created regiments armed with scythe blades mounted onto eight foot poles, while hatchets, pitchforks and clubs were pressed into service. He retreated to Bridgwater while the King's forces under Louis Duras, 2nd Earl of Feversham, and Colonel Kirke, had reached Somerset and were closing in.

Argyll, who had reached Campbeltown, failed to raise an army and was captured at Inchinnan on his way to Glasgow. By the 1st July he had already been executed in Edinburgh. Expected rebellions in Cheshire and East Anglia also failed to materialise, after which the morale of Monmouth's forces started to collapse and at least half his troops deserted and returned to their homes, while a reinforced Royal army cut off his route into both Exeter and Cornwall.

Monmouth climbed the tiny spiral staircase of the tower of St Mary’s Church, Bridgwater, where he surveyed the landscape of Sedgemoor where Feversham’s troops were encamped. The telescope he used is reputedly kept in the Blake Museum, Bridgwater. At midnight, Monmouth and his army set off through dark streets and onto the moor, with each man sworn to silence at the risk of being stabbed by the man beside him.

The two armies met on Sedgemoor in the early hours, but after getting lost between the ditches, Monmouth's makeshift force could not compete with the regular army, and was driven back, where the royal troops hunted them through the streets of Bridgwater.

Monmouth fled the battlefield in the company of Lord Grey and headed for Poole, and a ship to the continent. On reaching an Inn at Woodyates they split up, leaving their horses they proceeded across country singly and in disguise. Monmouth was discovered dressed as a shepherd and shivering in a ditch, under a hedge at Horton, Hampshire. He might have got away with it except that in his pocket he was carrying his ‘George’ the badge of the Order of the Garter.
Monmouth in Taunton from Micah Clarke

He was taken to London where he begged his uncle for mercy, and offered to convert to Catholicism, but James had always been jealous of his handsome nephew’s popularity and wanted his revenge.

Monmouth’s estranged wife, Anna was allowed to visit him, after having assured King James II she had had nothing to do with the rising, was allowed to continue her life. Bishops Turner of Ely and Ken of Bath and Wells withheld the eucharist as Monmouth refused to acknowledge that the rebellion or his relationship with Lady Wentworth had been sinful.

Monmouth mounted the scaffold on Tower Hill on 15th July 1685, where he tipped the headsman with the words, “Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.” This plea apparently destroyed Jack Ketch’s composure. The official Tower of London fact sheet says it took five blows to sever Monmouth’s head, though Charles Spencer, in his book Blenheim, claims it was seven. The mob were enraged and threatened to lynch Jack Ketch, who had to be removed under guard.

The Autumn Assizes of 1685 began at Winchester, led by Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys, a man suffering from painful kidney stones, which is often blamed for his viscous temper and the way he publicly harangued those on trial. The octogenarian Dame Alice Lyle was condemned to death for helping two rebels hide in her barn, though this could have been further retribution for the fact her husband, John Lisle signed Charles I’s death warrant.

At Dorchester between 300 and 350 rebels were accused. A few were acquitted, others fined or flogged, but the majority were publicly hanged, disemboweled and then quartered, their body parts dipped in pitch and salt, then sent to villages to be displayed on poles. Some had their sentences commuted to transportation, each man being worth about £12 to the crown, all of whom spent at least ten years in slavery in the West Indies.

Many rebels were whipped through all the towns in Dorset and the relatives of the schoolgirls, the Maids of Taunton who had presented Monmouth with a banner, were ransomed to their parents, the youngest being only ten.
Monmouth Grovels Before King James II
Around 200 people were sentenced to death and about 800 transported on The Happy Return, and the Betty, which sailed out of Poole to the West Indies. Jefferys also extorted money from many of the accused for their freedom. Lord Grey of Warke paid thirty thousand pounds for his pardon, and was seen dancing at a court ball by the autumn.

Most of those who survived their slavery received a free pardon in 1691.

Footnote: In 2012, a DNA test conducted on Monmouth's descendant Richard Montagu Douglas Scott, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch, showed that he shared the same Y-chromosome (inherited from father-to-son) as a distant Stewart cousin, providing strong evidence that Charles II was Monmouth's biological father.

More Information about James Scott and Sedgemoor 


23 October 2014

Excerpt Thursday: SUCCESSIO by Alison Morton

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Alison Morton with the third in her Roma Nova series, SUCCESSIO. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Successio. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.
Roma Nova – the last remnant of the Roman Empire that has survived into the 21st century – is at peace. Carina Mitela, the heir of a leading family, but choosing the life of an officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, is not so sure.

She senses danger crawling towards her when she encounters a strangely self-possessed member of the unit hosting their exchange exercise in Britain. When a blackmailing letter arrives from a woman claiming to be her husband Conrad’s lost daughter and Conrad tries to shut Carina out, she knows the threat is real.

Trying to resolve a young man’s indiscretion twenty-five years before turns into a nightmare that not only threatens to destroy all the Mitelae but also attacks the core of the imperial family itself. With her enemy holding a gun to the head of the heir to the imperial throne, Carina has to make the hardest decision of her life…

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning…  Roma Nova is a fascinating world” - Simon Scarrow

**An Excerpt from SUCCESSIO**
It was far too quiet. Only an occasional owl call, the odd flutter of feathers and pitter-patter of a small night creature. Sure, the training area was literally kilometres from anywhere, somewhere called Norfolk, but a hundred people couldn’t stay that quiet, not even – arguably – the best special forces in the world. Beside me, the two centurions, Livius and Paula Servla, were motionless; I couldn’t even hear them breathe. I peered through the face veil hanging from my helmet. My eyesight was still good at thirty-nine, but I didn’t see a thing in the dawn light. I relaxed; we had a full five minutes before we needed to move.
I’d been crazy to agree to take part in this exercise; I’d sat at a desk for too long. Commanding Operations did not mean taking part in every exercise. It’d been my vanity that made me put myself down for the ultimate – training with the British special forces. No, against them. Even more insane. I was no slouch and worked hard to keep my fitness up, but I really should have left it to the super-fit like Paula and Livius and, of course, Flavius. But a small country like ours didn’t refuse such invitations twice and the competition to be picked for this exercise had been near lethal.
Each year we invited a small number of allied countries’ special troops to Roma Nova to take part in our annual fitness-for-purpose exercise; thanks to our legate’s connections, there’d always been some British. Very effective and highly competent, they were reserved at first, like they’d swallowed some kind of ‘how to behave abroad’ manual, but by the end of the week, they’d usually relaxed. But this was a first for us to have an exclusive exercise with them, and on their ground.
The first night we’d arrived, we’d had all the ‘swords and sandals’ cracks in the bar from those who’d never met us. Sandwiched between New Austria and Italy, people thought Roma Nova was a cross between the Sound of Music and Gladiator with a dash of Ruritania thrown in. But when their commander welcomed us formally the next morning, he told the assembled host troops about our sixteen-hundred-year traditions and that the Praetorian Guard Special Forces were just as fearsome as they’d heard. And that Roma Nova had survived, clawing its way through the centuries, was in no small part down to the Praetorians. The British grunts tried not to appear impressed, but I saw a little more respect in their eyes after that.
 Livius lifted his index finger a few millimetres from his rifle and glanced over at me. I gave a hint of a nod. Ahead of Paula and me by a body length, he started crawling forward. Using our elbows, we pulled ourselves behind and a little to each side of him across the forest floor covered in pine-needles. Three others, Allia, Gorlius and Pelo, followed in the same arrow formation. Reaching the crest of the washed-out shallow valley, we spread out behind it and froze.
After five minutes watching and listening, I nodded and Livius took Allia and Pelo into the trees behind us and set off for the other side of the depression. Raising my hand a couple of centimetres from the sandy ground, I signalled Paula to maintain position here. I grabbed my assault rifle and in a crouching run made my way to the dip twenty metres away at the entrance. I glanced up to see Gorlius scrambling up into one of the trees behind Paula to act as lookout. As he drew one of the new individual cam nets over himself, he disappeared. I pointed my pocket scope up at him. Even his heat signature was pretty near neutral. Expensive but impressive. Now we waited out ten minutes to let the wildlife settle back down.
‘Contact.’ That one word hissed in my earpiece told me Gorlius had spotted them. We’d tabbed to this location by forced march – an old Roman tradition – so we could surprise them. And there they were, walking single file, sweeping their route with their eyes and weapons, watchful, but not wary. Too professional to make any unnecessary noise, they were nevertheless a little over-relaxed.
Their commander sent two ahead to check. Now they concentrated, their weapons raised and arms and legs tensed. Just before they reached the edge of the depression, one turned back to the commander and shook his head.
Livius dropped the two of them in rapid succession. Allia and Pelo launched at the main group from the far point and downed another three between them. Paula slammed the radio operator to earth, pinioning his flailing arms and legs. Gorlius fell on two others. I tripped the last one as he tried to escape and jammed my weapon in his throat as he attempted to struggle up. I didn’t need to look at my watch to know we’d done it in under two minutes. Hm, slowing up.

We secured and tagged them. While Livius and Pelo swept the back area for a possible second patrol, Paula scanned their radio with an electronic logger.
‘Can’t see any transmission within the past ten,’ she said, looking up. ‘But I think they check in every thirty.’ She spoke in fast street Latin in case any of these clever boys turned out to be linguists.
I turned to their officer, Lieutenant Wilson, from his jacket tab. ‘Now, Lieutenant, I hope we’re not going to go formal here. I just need you to confirm the time of your next radio check.’
‘Not a chance in hell.’ His eyes half closed and he snorted.
I sighed and signalled Allia forward. From her sleeve pocket she extracted a slim tin containing two syringes and an ampoule, knelt down by the officer, prepared a needle and waited for my confirmation.

Buying links:

SUCCESSIO is available through your local bookshop or from Amazon and other online retailers here: http://alison-morton.com/successio/where-to-buy-successio/

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You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here on her blog at www.alison-morton.com

20 October 2014

The Battlefield and Beyond: Noble hostages in the medieval English Court

Today, the word hostage is terrifying, implying the threat of imminent death if money is not paid or other demands met.  In the Fourteenth Century, however, being a hostage could be a much more pleasurable experience.
Battle of Poiters.  French knights left, English right.
In fact, if you were a knight or a noble in war at this time, the threat of death in battle was less than the threat of being taken captive.  After all, if you were dead, your enemy got nothing.  If you were alive, however, he might collect quite a tidy sum for your return.  In fact, the potential for such lucrative “spoils of war,” was a great incentive for a knight to join the call to battle.

Of course, there were chivalric rules about all this, but the result, particularly during the Hundred Years’ War, was that war became an elaborate economic game as well as a military one.  This reached its zenith in the Treaty of Bretigny between England and France.  When it was signed, in 1360, it seemed as if England had, indeed, won the war, which had not then gone on for a hundred years.  King Jean II of France was taken prisoner at the battle of Poitiers and the English were in a position to demand nearly any price for his return.  The final amount agreed on, three million gold ecrus, more than France’s total annual income, a ruinous figure which, eventually, contributed to the treaty’s failure.

King Jean II of France
But when he was held in England, King Jean did not languish in a drafty prison cell.  He was housed in the Savoy Palace, along with many other members of his entourage.  Certainly, not all prisoners were so well treated, but part of the code of chivalry was that knights should behave honorably to each other.  The captor should honor a man’s station and the captive should, on his honor, not try to escape.

The result, for a time, was that England was full of French nobles, feasting and partying as if they were guests at an elaborate house party.  (To be fully accurate, a hostage was to pay for his own room and board, but it’s hard to find detailed evidence of how this was accomplished.) 

Late in 1360, King Jean returned to France to personally work to raise the full amount of the ransom, which had been slow in coming.  In his absence, 40 nobles were sent in his place as surety for his return, but after a while, even the substitutes became restless.  In a great example of how this all played out, King Jean’s son, the Duke of Anjou, was allowed to cross the Channel to go to Calais, which was, technically, still English territory.  Even though he had cross the English Channel, he was bound by honor to remain an English prisoner.  However, the temptation of being so close to home, and his wife, proved too much, and the Duke went riding one day in 1363 and never returned.

This horrible breach of honor did not go unnoticed.  King Edward III of England wrote King Jean, shaming him with his son's blot on the royal name, and as a result, King Jean returned to England in January of 1364 and once again put himself in Edward’s hands as a hostage.
Savoy Palace on the Thames, the hostage king's home in London.
There are other, less flattering reasons given by history of why the French king might have returned to captivity, but suffice it to say he was given a royal welcome, once again housed in the Savoy Palace, and though he was ostensibly still working to moderate the ruinous terms of the Treaty, he apparently had a glorious time while doing it. 

Right up until he became ill and died less than three months later.

King Jean's funeral.
The cause of death was natural and the king of England mourned his royal brother with all due ceremony, giving him a funeral truly fit for a king before returning the body to France for another funeral and burial.

Well might Edward have mourned, for when he lost possession of the French king, he lost the leverage he needed to collect the remaining ransom.  Faced with the requirements of honor versus handing over good French coin to the English, the new French king let payments slide and eventually declared the treaty void in 1369.

By 1367, the last hostage in England had been released and by that time, as the French historian Edouard Perroy writes in his book, THE HUNDRED YEARS WAR, “There remained in London as hostages only the small fry of petty barons and burgesses.  Individual measures of clemency set some free, and others married and settled permanently in England…”

Married?  Mas oui!  Including a French count, Enguerrand, Lord de Coucy, who married King Edward’s daughter Isabella.  And that was what sparked the idea for WHISPERS AT COURT, my next Royal Wedding story, scheduled for release in 2015.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, BLYTHE GIFFORD started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published ten romances set in England and on the Scottish Borders, most using real historical events as inspiration.  SECRETS AT COURT, a Royal Wedding story, was a March 2014 release from the Harlequin Historical line.  For more information, visit www.blythegifford.com 

Photo credits:  Author photo Jennifer Girard

"JeanIIdFrance" by Anonymous (Paris) Formerly attributed to Girard d'Orléans. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JeanIIdFrance.jpg#mediaviewer/File:JeanIIdFrance.jpg
"The funeral procession of Jean II" by Virgil Master (illuminator) - Jean Froissart, Chroniques (Vol. I). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_funeral_procession_of_Jean_II.jpg#mediaviewer/File:The_funeral_procession_of_Jean_II.jpg

19 October 2014

Author Interview: Rebecca Hazell on CONSOLAMENTUM

 This week, we're pleased to welcome author REBECCA HAZELL with the third in her The Tiger and the Dove series, CONSOLAMENTUM. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of the novel in Kindle format. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

In the finale of Sofia's memoir, Consolamentum, both dramatic and poignant, her dreams of home are shattered when her own family betrays her. Raising her child on her own, mourning the loss of her beloved knight, and building a trading empire, she seeks safe haven for her child and herself. Her quest takes her from Antioch to Constantinople to Venice. A surprise reunion in Venice leads her to France where she runs afoul of the newly established Holy Inquisition, possibly the greatest challenge she has yet faced. Can a woman so marked by oppression, betrayal, and danger ever find her safe haven, much less genuine happiness?
**Q&A with Rebecca Hazell**
Welcome. Can you tell us a bit about your historical trilogy? I understand that the title for the series is The Tiger and the Dove, so maybe you could start there.

Thanks for hosting me. Yes, The Tiger and the Dove was taken from something Genghis (Chinggis) Khan once said: “In war be like a tiger; in peace be like a dove.” My novels are set in a war-torn era, where the tiger was more likely to dominate than the dove. But I then contrasted that predatory mindset with the dove’s, because there were always people who were not buying into the tiger approach and who kept civilization going. Without them, the tigers would have torn each other and everyone else apart! In addition, I wanted to show how people could also be peaceful, not just passive, but at home in their own skins, to so speak; or who couldn’t find peace and were therefore tragic figures.
Tell us about the three novels.
The first, The Grip of God, is set during the Mongol invasions of medieval Rus’, where my heroine Sofia is from, and then of Europe. Sofia grows from a spoiled, petted princess into someone both tough and tender, who survives the worst and yet maintains her good heart. She has to be tough, as she’s enslaved and then carried along with the Mongol invasion. There are also lots of plot twists and sub-stories that give the reader a sense of that complex and rather terrifying time; and there is also a difficult romance.
In the second novel, Solomon’s Bride, Sofia has escaped into Iran, where she encounters many of the same problems she’d thought to leave behind. She again must survive difficulties: virtual imprisonment in Alamut, capital of the dreaded Assassins, and another virtual imprisonment in a Crusader castle. Again, there are many subplots, and the reader learns not only her story but also that of others who have also lost so much to war and have had to rebuild their lives. And she falls deeply in love, a love that seems doomed by the crusade of Louis IX.
The third novel, Consolamentum, takes Sofia farther west, first to Antioch and Constantinople, then to Venice, southern France, and Paris. She was quite the traveler, but her adventures resemble those of the Polo brothers, whom I include in the story as her friends. It’s amazing to think that they, like many others, thought nothing of crossing a vast continent not once but twice!
The question that always haunts Sofia is how to find and be able to rest in love. To do so, she must withstand many trials of faith, partly faith in herself and partly faith in love itself. I don’t want to say more and spoil the plot.
It sounds like a serious trilogy.
Yes, it is. But I believe it is entertaining, too, or so independent reviewers have said. I believe I struck a balance between realism and romance. And I have something universal to say, I believe. We all yearn for love; no one wants to be caught up in war. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Sofia has a vision of what she wants and isn’t shy of using her feminine qualities as strengths; unlike Scarlett, she’s not totally selfish and unscrupulous!
What did you enjoy most and least about writing this series of novels?
I loved creating a character who is age appropriate at each stage of her life, who can be petty at one moment and totally generous at another, just like us. It was like witnessing one of my own children unfold into someone unexpected and three-dimensional. In fact, I tried to treat all my characters that way, so that no one was totally ‘the bad guy’, no matter how cruel or deluded they were. All are complex, all have reasons for being who they are.
What I least enjoyed was realizing how truly brutal many people were in that long ago era. Sometime I feel, given our current news, that we haven’t moved much beyond that stage, and then I look around at the amazing way we do cooperate to create a more or less inclusive and functioning society, and I thank my lucky stars that we don’t have Mongols and Assassins and Crusaders and Inquisitors lurking around every corner. Though I suppose that could happen …
Thank you for visiting. Would you like to end our interview with an excerpt from Consolamentum?
Yes, thank you, and yes. Here it is:
“That child you carry is a bastard!  And worse, its father is a known seducer and liar!  We have been at a loss over what to do ever since we found out, for surely you believed this Sir Joscelin’s falsehoods or you’d never have lain with him—I can only hope so, at least.  But you endangered my entire family’s reputation with your heedless conduct.  While you were so ill, your uncle Basil took steps to protect you, even established himself as your guardian. But we still have no idea how to untangle you from the web this man wove around you.”
By the time she had finished speaking, she had calmed down considerably, but her words were hammer blows on my heart.  I sat down on one of her chairs to gather my thoughts.  When I finally spoke, I could not hide the quaver in my voice.  “Where did you hear such things?”
“Basil has many connections in Antioch and beyond.  It took only a month to discover the truth from his agent in Cyprus.  He had to quell the terrible slanders he heard about you.  His man says you are the butt of jests in every tavern, but my husband would not believe his dear niece was anyone’s concubine—and that is the kindest word he heard used about you!  But the more Basil heard, the more alarmed he became.
“He first thought to take you to our country estate as soon as you were fit to travel.  But I urged him to wait, to put out more enquiries into your holdings and so forth, and to set about protecting you in case your seducer might have seized anything through some trick.”
“Good God, these slanders, I assure you, are utterly unjust.  Both of us behaved with the greatest restraint for over a year, always considering ourselves betrothed to each other.  But then he was forced to marry that terrible girl, which was a disaster for us all, even for her.  Their marriage was never consummated, and Sir Joscelin only awaits news of its annulment, and with the blessings of King Louis himself!  He has behaved with complete virtue toward me, and we are truly betrothed, which is as good and binding as marriage.  Indeed, we are married in the eyes of God if not the Church.
“And if he lied to me, why give me not one but two rings, one of the utmost value to him?  I am certain the evil rumors you heard about him merely stem from the death of his first wife, for which he utterly blames himself.  He has been paying for that tragic death ever since. He even went to the Holy Land hoping to die in battle, a death I am so glad our Merciful Lord refused him!”
Caterina looked at me as if I had grown another head.  “You are sadly mistaken, Sofia.  It was bad enough at first when I learned of your previous marriage.  No one who has been widowed should remarry—and you already told us you were widowed—but I thought this last marriage had already taken place and that there was no more to be said about it!” 

I paled, afraid of what would come next.  Why had I ever tried to cover my tracks by mentioning I was a widow?  I had not even told the exact truth about the so-called marriage, just that I’d been married to a merchant who had died on our journey west.  They’d have been far more horrified had they known I had wed not one but two Muslims, Selim and then his son Kerim after Selim was murdered.  Ironically, both marriages had been temporary and not true unions, at least from my point of view.  They simply took advantage of a custom among the Shi’a, first as a way for me to belong to Selim’s family and then to escape Alamut with Kerim.  Neither had been consummated, though a little guilt flitted through my heart.  Had Kerim not been murdered, too, I might have relented one day and lain with him. I had been celibate for so long and was so ruined already that the sin of it would not have stopped me.
About the author
Rebecca Hazell is an award winning artist, author, and educator. She has written, illustrated and published four non-fiction children’s books, created best-selling educational filmstrips, designed educational craft kits for children and even created award winning needlepoint canvases. She is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, and she holds an honours BA from the University of California at Santa Cruz in Russian and Chinese history.

Rebecca lived for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1988 she and her family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in 2006 she and her husband moved to Vancouver Island. They live near their two adult children in the beautiful Cowichan Valley.

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