The Dancing Plague – a flash historical story

“This is nonsense.” Lukas glared at the people dancing uncontrollably in the street. “They’ve not caught some curse or disease, they’re just after attention.”

One of the dancers came closer. His tunic was dark with sweat and his shoes worn through until his feet bled. The expression on his face would have been one of horror if not for the placid, distant staring of his eyes.

“Dozens of people dancing like this for weeks,” Heinrich said, backing away from the man. “Some collapsing and dying. Surely this is a sign from God?”

“You’re just encouraging them,” Lukas said. “When will you all accept that this is nonsense, so that it can end?”

He turned on his heel and strode away.

All through the summer of 1518, Strasbourg’s streets had been blighted by the dancing plague, people breaking into wild fits of movement in which they paused only for sleep, apparently unable to control themselves. He had said from the start that it was nonsense, yet the so-called victims had been encouraged, even put on display in hopes of ending the curse. All that had done was encourage more. It was a disruption to good business and good order.

He reached his home and went inside. The wool trade had been good to Lukas, and he had a large house with two floors and three rooms on each. A bedroom for him and Bertha, another for the children, and a counting room, as well as the kitchen and space for a servant. Quieter than when he’d shared a place with his old master, but a far better reflection of his worth.

He stopped just inside the house and stared, his whole body tense.

Bertha stood in the middle of the room, dancing uncontrollably.

Lukas pulled himself together. His brow furrowed and he let out a derisive snort.

“Stop this at once,” he said.

Bertha kept on dancing.

“I said stop.” He grabbed her arms and turned her to face him. The beauty of her face had become twisted by that distant, horrified expression he had seen on others. Her legs kept twitching even as he lifted her up.

“Stop it!”

He put her down. She danced around him and out the door, her green woolen dress swirling around her.

“You’re better than this,” he cried out as he ran after her. Neighbours looked up as they passed, some with sympathy, others with smug satisfaction.

“You’re a smart woman. You don’t need to do this.”

He grabbed her hand and tried to drag her back, but Bertha resisted with surprising strength. Lukas felt like a great weight was pressing down on him inside. He had promised Bertha long ago that he would never raise his hand to her or the children, never force her to anything. But if she kept on dancing then others would see, and then they would never listen to him.

If he had made the others seen sense earlier then this would be over. Bertha would be fine. But he had failed to get through to them, and now the dancing plague had his love.

Bertha danced out into the square, where so many of the other dancers were. The city’s great and good were watching them, stroking their beards and talking quietly among themselves.

“Look at what you’ve done!” Lukas shouted at them. “You let this thing fester and now it has taken my wife.”

“This isn’t our doing,” a minister said. “This is a disease, God’s message to us that we must deal with the sins of our town.”

“This is just desperate people looking for attention!”

“Is Bertha desperate?” Heinrich asked. “Doesn’t she get your attention?”

Lukas opened his mouth to snap something back, then shut it. Hadn’t he given Bertha what she wanted? Hadn’t he been attentive when his work allowed?

No, this was something else. Some dark influence that had seized her, just as it had seized these other people.

Which left a question to which he had no answer.

“How can we help them?”

“We want to take them to the shrine of St Vitus,” the minister said. “This is the sort of ailment in whose face the saint excels. The problem is getting our dancers there.”

“I have wagons,” Lukas said. “If you want them.”

Heinrich gave him a curious look, which after a moment morphed into a smile.

“Thank you, Lukas,” he said. “That would be very helpful. Can you bring them to the square tomorrow?”

Lukas nodded. Then he drew away from the others and went to stand watching the dancers, watching his Berth as she moved without reason or rest. He watched them all as they suffered this terrible blight and he prayed that they would feel better soon.

***

The dancing plague of Strasbourg was a real event, one of at least twenty recorded incidents of mass dancing manias in mid to late Medieval Europe. No-one knows for sure what caused them, but if you want an entertaining and accessible account of the issue, as well as a theory about the cause of the dancing, then check out John Waller’s A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, which inspired me to write this story.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

The Church Builder’s Hands – a flash historical story

The hammer fell from John’s hand and clattered on the floor. Around him, the tapping of chisels stopped as the younger masons turned to see what had happened. The flash of his angry gaze was enough to send them all back to their work. Nobody wanted to risk the wrath of the master.

John stepped away from the half-carved gargoyle and walked out from under the awning, rubbing at his hand as he went. Father Cuthbert, whose church this would be, stood outside watching him.

“Master mason, how goes the work?” Cuthbert asked.

“Fine, fine.” John tried to ignore the pain in his fingers, but it grew harder with each passing month.

“I hear that you’re having a little trouble with the carving.”

John scowled. Who had told the meddling priest?

“No problem,” he said. “Just need to rest a minute.”

“I hear you rest a lot recently.”

“Need a new hammer. Better grip.”

“Hm.” Cuthbert gestured towards the half-built church. The labourers had stripped off their tunics and were working bare-chested in the summer sunshine. “It’s a fine thing that you’re part of here.”

“It is indeed.” John smiled. “This is the twelfth church I’ve been part of. Every year of my adult life, dedicated to the glory of God.”

“And what will you do when you can’t carve any more?”

John clenched his fist, bringing back the pain. Without a tool between them, there was no hiding that his fingers wouldn’t close as they should.

“There is no life for me without carving.”

“That is a shame. I had hoped that God might still have use for you, but God demands our best, and, well…”

Cuthbert looked pointedly at John’s hand.

John swallowed, fighting back a growing dread. He had been a mason since Master Thomas first took him in. All he had ever known was carving.

Well, that and overseeing the others.

A bright thought burst through the clouds in his mind, like the sun shining down on the church.

“I know how the parts fit together,” he said. “Perhaps I could supervise construction. Just while I rest my hand.”

Cuthbert’s mouth rose in a lopsided smile.

“That is a fine idea,” he said. “Just while you rest your hand. Perhaps you could start by finding someone to finish that gargoyle?”

“Of course, Father Cuthbert.”

John walked back under the awning and looked around. A journeyman carver caught his eye.

“You, come over here. There’s work to be finished.”

As the tapping of chisels resumed, John stepped back outside into the sunshine. He unclenched his hand and let the pain fade away.

* * *

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Painting Doom – a flash fantasy story

Thomas drew his brush across the wall, leaving a curve of thick red paint. He filled out the space beneath the curve, then added the white points of teeth and the black barbs of a pitchfork. Another demon emerged on the wall, ushering the pale images of sinners into the flames.

Thomas shook his head. Doomsday paintings were so much of his work. Every noble wanted one in their house. But just painting them filled him with dread, driven by the certainty that he would be judged and found wanting.

He mixed more paint on his palette and turned back to the wall. The paint had clearly run, as the new demon’s fork was pointing at a different sinner, and another of the beasts had approached the flames on pigment wings.

Disconcerted, Thomas took a step back. The composition would still work if he added another demon between these two. He brought his reddened brush to the wall.

The demon with the pitchfork tipped its head back.

Thomas screamed and dropped the palette. Precious paint-spattered the flagstones.

The demon grinned. Its companion flexed its wings and started pulling away from the wall, struggling against a sticky mass of paint.

“It’s a dream,” Thomas exclaimed.

He raised a trembling hand and slapped himself across the face. He did it again, but still, reality didn’t return.

“No dream,” the demons hissed as one. “You have given us life.”

“Then I can take it away!”

Thomas grabbed another brush and smeared streaks of white across both fiends, slapping it on over and over. At last, he stood, panting and staring at a pale blank space.

“Not so easy,” the demon voices croaked.

Red hands appeared, then heads, then torsos. The demons emerged like swimmers from a lake.

“We are still here, whatever you paint over us,” they said. “You made us real.”

Thomas gaped in horror. How had he done this?

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he could do it. He picked up the black brush and painted a cage over the demons. Bars, floor, roof, hinged and locked door. Red wings batted against the sides in frustration.

“Ha! Thomas said. “Got you.”

“Perhaps,” the wingless demon said, grinning. “Or perhaps…”

It thrust its pitchfork between the floor and bottom of the door. There was a grinding noise as the prongs slid through the slim space. Then it flexed its muscles and heaved. Levered by the pitchfork, the door lifted off its hinges and fell to the floor.

The demons stepped out.

“It’s not fair,” Thomas wailed. “Why couldn’t this have happened when I was painting a landscape or a tavern sign?”

“Where is the power in those things?” the demons said. “Only we would do.”

“What do you want from me?”

The demons grinned.

“Just keep painting,” they said. “Let the fires roar and our kindred emerge to judge the world.”

Thomas trembled in terror. But then he realised, he didn’t have to face them. He turned to run.

With a wet flapping sound, the winged beast burst off the wall, swept around, and hovered in front of him, teeth bared, claws gleaming.

“Really?” it said, cackling. “You think you can flee us?”

“No,” Thomas whispered.

Brush in hand, he turned back to the wall. At least while he did as they asked, they would not drag him down to Hell. And he could paint demons for a very long time.

* * *

 

People in Medieval England were very aware that, according to their Christian faith, they would soon face Doomsday. When fear of Hell is a big part of your moral motivation, life can get pretty terrifying. Especially given the tendency of clergy and nobles to commission paintings of that coming day.

Thanks to Laura for sending me the postcard that inspired this story. If you enjoyed it, then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get a flash story to your inbox every Friday, as well as news about my book and comic releases.

Riding to Glory – a flash historical story

Sir William stood in the middle of the tent while his squire Oliver buckled on his armour. As each piece closed around him, he felt a little more secure, a little more at home in himself. He had worn the armour so often over the years, it was like a part of him now. His life at court was comfortable, jousting for the king far safer and more rewarding than fighting on the borders. But donning his metal shell reminded him of the rough camaraderie of the marching camp.

Last night had been a fine night. He had been toasted by the King, shared whispered words with the lady Rosamund, been honoured to converse on the nature of war with Archbishop Francis. It left him in a fine mood, ready to take on all challengers in the tilting yard.

The steward John appeared in the entrance to the tent.

“You, boy,” he said, pointing at Oliver. “Get out.”

Oliver glanced briefly at his master, but they both knew that he would have to obey the King’s steward. William gave him the nod and out he scurried.

“How can I help you, master John?” William asked, flexing his arm to test the positioning of the plates.

“You ride against Burgundy’s champion in the first bout,” John said, striding back and forth across the width of the tent. “The King seeks an alliance with that lord. It would be best if the Burgundians were to feel good today.”

“We all want to feel good,” William said, smiling.

“Have you taken too many knocks to the head?” John glared at him. “Must I explain the situation to you?”

William sagged as the implication caught up with him.

“The King orders me to lose?” he asked.

“The King would never order such a thing. Let us just say that your loss would be most convenient, for you as well as His Majesty.”

The steward strode out, leaving William alone. He sat with his back against the tent’s central pole, feeling deflated. All the cheering and the toasts last night had come because he was a winner. Was he about to lose all that?

But he had a duty to the King, and the King rewarded those who served him well. William pulled himself back to his feet. There was pride to be taken in doing his duty, just as much as in winning.

Lady Rosamund’s maid Isabelle appeared in the doorway. She held out a silk scarf, and when William took it the air was filled with Rosamund’s scent. His heart beat faster.

“My lady asks that you wear her favour when you ride today,” Isabelle said, eyes demurely lowered. “Win in her name and all that your heart desires can be yours.”

She bobbed a curtsy and backed out.

William lifted the silk to his face and took another deep breath. All that his heart desired, and all he had to do was win. A thrill of anticipation ran through him at the thought of Rosamund’s smile, of her voice, of her golden curls cascading down her shoulders.

Except that he had to lose. The King had not ordered it, so technically William would not be disobeying him if he won. But duty was important, however it was phrased.

He sank back to the ground with a groan, clutching the silk and struggling with the choice that faced him.

A third figure appeared in the doorway. William was surprised to see Archbishop Francis smiling down at him.

“Your grace!” William leapt to his feet, a loose vambrace clanging against his arm. “Thank goodness you are here. I need spiritual guidance.”

“Is it about the joust?” the Archbishop asked.

“Yes!” William exclaimed. “Please, let’s talk.”

He pulled a pair of stools from the back of the tent.

“I am glad to see that my words sank in,” the Archbishop said, accepting a seat. “The violence of this spectacle needs to be curbed. Good Christians should not be spilling each other’s blood for entertainment.”

“I…” William frowned. This sounded familiar. Had the Archbishop said something like it last night, when William was over-excited and full of wine?

“All that the church asks is for a few good knights to ride out into the lists and then refuse to fight.” The Archbishop leaned forward eagerly. “I assure you, God will approve of your abstinence from the struggle. Your renunciation of this so-called sport will be heard all the way to the gates of Heaven.”

He laid a hand on William’s shoulder.

“God bless you, my son,” he said. “You do his work. Now I must go convince the others.”

He rose and walked out.

William sat, head in his gauntleted hands, staring at the floor. His armour felt like a great weight dragging him into the dirt.

Oliver reappeared in the entrance to the tent.

“Should I finish buckling you up, master?” he asked.

A deep sigh escaped Sir William. His King wanted him to lose. His love wanted him to win. His God wanted him to protest. What had happened to the simple joy of jousting?

“Pack our bags,” he said. “I’m going back to war.”

* * *

 

Living in Leeds, I can regularly visit the Royal Armouries Museum, one of the coolest places a military history fan could possibly find. They have regular reenactment events to entertain and inform visitors, and I recently got to see jousters practising for an international tournament. It was amazing to see the thundering reality of men and women in full plate armour galloping at each other on horseback, lances shattering at the impact. And of course, that’s what inspired this story.

If you enjoyed this story, please share it and consider signing up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free e-book as well as stories straight to your inbox every week.

Burning Lies – a historical flash story

Detail from A Bishop Saint and St. Lawrence (1404-1407) by Starnina, photo by Karen via Flickr Creative Commons
Detail from A Bishop Saint and St. Lawrence (1404-1407) by Starnina, photo by Karen via Flickr Creative Commons

The monastic robes weren’t mine any more than the book they concealed. Their owner had set them aside while he hoed the monastery’s garden in the summer heat, and it was from there that I had borrowed them.

That’s right, borrowed. I never intended to keep the robes – why would I?

Of course, I never intended to keep the book either, but that was still a theft. It was beautifully bound and illuminated, and I knew men who would pay well for it.

As I left the walled grounds, hood pulled up to hide my face, I grinned at my good fortune. Above, crows circled and cawed.

A mile down the road I stopped at a stream, the perfect spot to disrobe and cool off. I took a long drink, then sat with my feet in the water, washing away the dust and aches.

I had been apprenticed to a lawyer for several years before the incident with his daughter, and so I knew my letters. I opened up the book, leafed through to see the beautiful illuminations, and then turned to the inscription in the front. I laughed to find the usual sort of curse, written to deter thieves:

“May he who steals this book be haunted by the birds of the air, trampled by the beasts of the earth, and burnt in the flames of his own sin.”

I slammed the book shut and wrapped it up in the robes. The curse was nothing I hadn’t seen before, but with crows circling overhead, the first line made me uncomfortable.

A waggon rumbled down the road towards me. Not wanting to be seen with my spoils in hand, I set off across the fields, straight toward Leicester.

As I rounded a copse of trees, a bull raised its head. It was a vast brute with a face like a gargoyle. Snorting, it pawed the ground.

“I’ll be going.” I gestured back the way I had come, just in case the dumb animal could understand me. Better to take an unlikely chance than no chance at all.

The bull lowered its head and charged.

To my credit, I neither screamed nor dropped the book. Instead, I dashed toward the trees, hoping to find shelter. Just before I reached them the bull hit me, knocking me flying. It trampled on my hand, bones snapping agonisingly beneath its weight, and raced on after some other target.I waited on the sun-hardened ground until I was sure the bull was gone, then forced myself to my feet. Picking up the book with my good hand, I could not help but think of the curse. First haunted by birds, now trampled by a beast. Surely I wasn’t really cursed?

I waited on the sun-hardened ground until I was sure the bull was gone, then forced myself to my feet. Picking up the book with my good hand, I could not help but think of the curse. First haunted by birds, now trampled by a beast. Surely I wasn’t really cursed?

I weighed the value of the book against the risk of further mishaps. I was already in pain and it would cost me to have my hand set. But the price of the book would keep me comfortable for a month…

Sighing, I put the book down and struggled back into the robes. Better not to take an unlikely chance when it was a chance of being burned by my own lies.

I had told a lot of lies.

The journey back to the monastery was uneventful, and I tried to enjoy the sunshine despite my suffering. I was through the gates, across the grounds and into a corridor leading to the library before a voice halted me.

“Can I help you, brother?”

I turned to see an elderly man with thin white hair and an armful of parchments. He squinted at me in the lamp light coming from an alcove by my elbow.

“I don’t know you,” he said. “Are you a visitor?”

“Absolutely.” I smiled reassuringly. “I am Brother Harold, come from Salisbury to-”

I sniffed the air. Something was burning, but I couldn’t let that distract me.

“To visit your library,” I continued. “You see-”

This time I did scream, as I saw fire envelope my arm. The sleeve of the robe had somehow knocked the lamp, soaked up oil and burst into flames.

The flames of my lies!

Fire seared my flesh as I dropped the book and tore off the robe, flinging it down on the cold stone floor. In the flickering light, the old monk peered at what I had dropped. I snatched up the book and thrust it onto his heap of parchments.

“I’m so sorry,” I whimpered. “I sinned against your holy house, but I will repent.”

With my skin red raw and my hand broken, I truly meant it. But I could hardly wait around to face earthly justice as well as the divine. I turned and ran away from him, through a door and into a small chapel.

The altar caught my eye, with the figure of Jesus above it, ready to forgive my sins.

A pair of fine golden candlesticks sat beneath the cross. They could keep me in comfort for more than a month.

* * *

 

Book theft was a real issue in the Middle Ages, when books were rare and each one valuable. Many had curses inscribed in the front to deter theft, and to punish it if the curse worked. I leave it to you to imagine how effective they were.

If you enjoyed this story you might also like my collection of short historical stories, From a Foreign Shore, available now on Amazon Kindle.

By Starvation or by the Sword – a flash historical story

WallsDesperate hunger filled Marcel’s belly. It gnawed at the corners of his mind, dragging his attention away from the scribing tasks his master had given him. Being able to read, write and understand five languages, these were useful skills for a peacetime merchant’s apprentice. They were near useless in a town under siege, with no trade to be had and no food left to buy.

He set aside his quill. Master Pierre had fallen asleep again. The time had come to leave his work and go in search of food.

It was a quick walk from the marketplace to the walls. The streets were quiet, people staying indoors during the English bombardment. Most of the stones hit the town walls, but some fell inside, and flying splinters of broken building could be as deadly as a direct hit.

Reaching the walls, Marcel glanced up. His brother Jean was on guard, almost looking like a soldier in his chainmail. Marcel whistled and Jean winked down at him.

He slid into the narrow gap between a stinking tannery and the walls. There, hidden inside a heap of old masonry, was a narrow tunnel. The end outside town lay concealed behind a stand of blackberry bushes, known only to the two brothers.

Fast as an eel, Marcel slid through the gap and emerged into the bramble patch. The berries hadn’t ripened yet, and he would need to go further abroad to find food.

Keeping a wary eye on the distant English camp, Marcel scrambled low across a muddy field, scurried along behind a hedge, and emerged into a wood half a mile outside of town. Apples hung from the higher branches of the trees, untouched by the besiegers.

Marcel would go a long way for an apple. Without pause, he clambered up the nearest tree.

From among those high branches, he heard a voice below.

“Get down here, you little bastard.” The man spoke French, but with an ugly English accent. He had a bow pointed at Marcel, an arrow drawn on the taught string.

Trembling with fear, Marcel descended. His mind was full of the terrible things he had heard about the English. The towns they had burned, the people they had killed, the fact that they had tails hidden under their tunics like demons in disguise.

There were a dozen men in the woods, all armoured and armed with swords and bows. The leader grabbed Marcel by the throat and shoved him against a tree, bark clawing at his back.

“I saw you scurrying from beneath the walls.” He drew a knife and held it beneath Marcel’s nose. “You’ve got some secret way into town, don’t you?”

Marcel shook his head.

The soldier pressed the dagger against his cheek, drawing blood. “Tell me, you French prick, or I’ll have your eyes out.”

Marcel swallowed. He had no desire to betray the town, but what could he do? At least this way the siege would soon be over, and they could eat again.

“This way,” he whispered.

The soldier kept a hand on Marcel’s shoulder and a knife at his back as they crept across the fields toward the tangled bramble patch. The soldiers whispered to each other on the way. They had changed to English, but Marcel understood the language all too well.

“Hal, get back to camp,” the leader hissed. “Once we’re inside we’ll storm the gate and get it open. I want the rest of the boys there before these frog wankers have a chance to fight back.”

“And then?” one of the men asked excitedly.

“Then take what we want and burn the place to the ground.” The leader shoved Marcel forward. “These people said no to King Harry. Lessons have to be learnt.”

Marcel’s stomach lurched. He wasn’t going to survive this, and neither was anyone else he knew. It crossed his mind to throw himself back onto the blade, guarding the tunnel’s secret with his death. But he hadn’t the courage for that.

Instead, as they crept closer to the walls, he began to cough loudly.

“Shut up.” The soldier hit him across the back of the head. As he fell in the mud, Marcel looked up and caught a glimpse of Jean’s face. For a moment his brother was there between the battlements, then he was gone.

Faking a limp, Marcel rose and walked as slowly as he dared toward the walls. Fear still shook him, but there was pride too. The defenders would have time before these men got through the hole. Maybe long enough to kill them as they emerged, one by one, from the tunnel. Surely long enough to stop them storming the gate.

As he pulled back the bushes and led them into the darkness beyond, the unexpected thrill of adventure ran through Marcel.

But his belly still rumbled.

 

* * *

If you liked this story then you might enjoy my collection of historical and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, only 99c on Amazon Kindle.

Out Now – A Sword in Alt Hist 8

Alt-Hist-Issue-8-eBookCover-200x300A young peasant girl dreams of fighting fantastic beasts with her trusty sword. But with the Hundred Years War in full and brutal swing, violence is far from glamorous, and ordinary people live in fear for their lives. What will she do when real enemies appear?

Find out in ‘A Sword’, my new story available in issue 8 of Alt Hist, the magazine of historical fiction and alternate history.

I’m always proud to have a story in Alt Hist. As someone who loves both real history and fantastical fiction, it fills a niche that’s close to my heart. It’s also clearly a labour of love for the editor, Mark Lord, and one I’m pleased to feature in. This issue is available now via Amazon and Smashwords.

Cousin Isaac is Missing – a #flashFriday story

Picture by Stephen Bowler via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Stephen Bowler via Flickr Creative Commons

I open the door and step out into a cold spring day, my cloak wrapped tight around me, flattening my woollen dress. Pulling up the hood, I cover my hair and cast my face into shadow, hoping that I will blend into the crowd. It is safer that way.

This close to the castle our streets are cobbled. Perhaps that is one of the things that people resent about us. Perhaps not. I am not sure I will ever understand the why of it, though I will always know that the resentment is there. Fear and suspicion are my constant companions, hanging at my shoulders day and night. More so now, since cousin Isaac is missing.

I have to go to the market. Not far, but far enough. Past the corner where they beat my father two summers back. Beneath the shadow of St Peter’s. I will be quick, buy the things I need and hurry back home. Tensions have been high. None of us linger in the streets.

My footsteps echo along Weavers Lane. As I emerge into the marketplace a gust of wind snatches back my hood, exposing me to the eyes of dozens of traders and shoppers, even a guard down from the castle in his chainmail and tabard. I feel like they are all staring, even after I pull the hood back up and lose myself among the stalls.

No-one has seen Isaac or his family in days. His house is two streets from mine, on the edge of the Jewish quarter.

“They say that a gentile has occupied the house already,” mother told me last night. She does not say who “they” are, but it sends a shiver down my spine. Was Isaac chased away, like when Sarah fled to Yarmouth and from there across the sea? Or are they dead, their bodies flung in a ditch or onto a fire, like those we lost in the riots?

I do not think we will ever know.

The fishmonger has always been good to me. He does not try to raise his prices, and he gives me my change. But he is fast about it today, and does not look me in the eye. I’m sad, but relieved. The sooner I am out of sight the better.

Except that this is my city too. My family have lived here for generations. A stubborn anger grabs hold of me. Why should I skulk in shadows or hide in my home on a clear, bright day like this? I fling back my hood and, instead of walking home, head toward the hill on which the castle stands. I love the view from up there. It makes me proud to live in Norwich.

My city.

Almost immediately I feel eyes on me again and I regret revealing myself. But I have started walking up the hill now, and will not give up.

Glancing around, I see a young man following me. There is an intensity to his face that makes me walk faster, past the staring eyes and whispering voices.

Heart racing, I turn down a narrow, deserted street. The view can wait. I want to be home. But a waggon is blocking the far end of the road, and as I turn around to face the men following me – there are two of them now – a single thought fills my mind.

Cousin Isaac is missing.

I back away, find myself pressed against the waggon. Timber walls loom over me to left and right, and the men are nearly upon me. I close my eyes, fighting back tears.

“You’re Isaac the Jew’s cousin, aren’t you?” His voice is gruff.

I nod. There is no point denying it.

“We…” The man hesitates. “We were sorry to hear about Isaac. He was a good man. His wife and Tom here’s were friends. It’s a shame what happened, but…”

I open my eyes to see that he is shrugging. He looks away embarrassed.

“Good man,” his friend agrees.

They both turn and walk away.

The waggon at my back shifts. The driver is moving on, and I can leave this way. I take a deep breath and pull my hood forward, hiding my tears as well as my hair.

Cousin Isaac is dead. I, by God’s will, am still alive. And in some small way, this is still our city.

 

* * *

This story was inspired by a post on Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. The Middle Ages was a pretty awful time for everyone by modern standards, but particularly so for Europe’s Jewish population. I haven’t singled out Norwich because it was any worse or better than anywhere else, but because I grew up there, I know the city, and Beachcombing’s post made it a natural setting.

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Medieval mayhem

I love the Middle Ages, that period in European history when feudal lords spent centuries bullying each other in a battle for domination, and from which the first fragile seeds of our modern society emerged. I love it in the same way that I love villains and traitors – it’s a great subject for stories, but I’m bloody glad I wasn’t there. War, plague, famine and of course death – Europe got a huge dose of the four horsemen during that period, not to mention some pretty unsavoury religious and political practices.

Those of you who’ve read From a Foreign Shore or paid attention to my responses to the Writing Excuses exercises will have noticed that I channel this passion into a lot of my writing. It helps that I have an MA in medieval history and two years research experience, which between them save me a lot of research time. But that experience comes from the same source as my medieval writing, rather than inspiring it. My fascination for that era keeps drawing me back.

Happily, I have medieval stories coming up in the next two issues of Alt Hist, the magazine of historical fiction and alternate history, edited by Mark Lord.

Issue 7, available now via Amazon (the ebook edition isn’t up there yet, but I’m sure it will be soon), features my story ‘Cold Flesh’, a horror story set during the fallout from one of England’s many medieval rebellions. The rebels have been hanged, but will their memory let the victors move on?

Following on from that, I’ve just had a story accepted by Mark for issue 8. This one’s a straight up piece of historical fiction, giving a child’s perspective on the horrors the Hundred Years War inflicted on northern France. When writing historical and fantasy fiction, it’s all too easy to glorify war and focus on its more active  participants. But stepping back and remembering the victims isn’t just important, it’s a way of finding different sorts of stories, different perspectives on life.

So if you’re in the mood for something medieval, why not pick up a copy of Alt Hist or check out their website.

Medieval Alternate History

Medieval Europe is all the rage in the fantasy genre. Though settings inspired by different places and times are becoming more popular, the main flavour of heroic and epic fantasy is knights, kings and feudal oppression. Even when settings aren’t medieval European-looking, they still pick up that era’s traits by default.

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The doorstep evangelists got a real shock at Tod’s house

But in the other genre spinning unreal worlds from the real past, that of alternate history, medieval settings are fairly rare. The different way of combining the familiar and unfamiliar used in that genre leads to a lot of setting rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular the overwhelming volume of variant Second World Wars.

Redressing the balance, I wrote a piece for Alternate History Weekly Update looking at three possible alternate medieval pasts. So if this stuff interests you at all please check it out.

 

Photo by Ed Alkema via Flickr creative commons