Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: Dark God Descending

Title: Dark God Descending

Author: Tony-Paul de Vissage

Publisher: Sam’s Dot Publishing


Dark God Descending is a classic scenario of the conflict when an old world meets the new, offering readers a fresh spin on the vampire mythos that author De Vissage brings vividly to life. It is evident the author spent many long hours researching ancient Mayan history, and it shows, as I could clearly picture the sights, sounds and scents of the hidden city of Nikte-Uaxac.

Semris is of a race of demons and is the divine emperor of Nikte-Uaxac, but his crown does not rest easily on his brow, as he is filled with a deep-rooted restlessness, especially when his twin brother falls in love with a mortal woman, something previously considered impossible. When Semris is kidnapped by a less-than-ethical scientist, he embarks on a misadventure that will change his outlook on eternity forever.

When archaeology student Tuck follows Dr Westcott into the wildest jungles of Central America, he becomes an unwitting accomplice in an act of kidnapping. He redeems himself by realising that the “giant bat” they captured is in fact a person, and their bond of friendship transcends the barriers of human versus non-human.

Deviously conniving Dr Westcott will stop at nothing to gain power, wealth and recognition and, although his actions cause great pain for those he harms, he inadvertently also brings about great change, but I’m not going to give away any spoilers in this review save to say, read it for yourself if the overarching theme presses the right buttons.

Dark God Descending reads like a classic Indiana Jones adventure with a dark and bloody spin, and I had no real idea how the story was going resolve. Semris’s naïveté experiencing 21st-century culture was touching, and I enjoyed watching the unfolding relationships between the various characters. Although the ending is bitter-sweet, suitable justice is meted out.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Short story: Cassandra's Cargo by DJ Cockburn

George Harding lay in his hammock and closed his eyes. He knew that the gloomy room he found himself in was a delusion of the malaria that chilled his blood, but it felt so real he could smell the bodies pressed against his.

Boots echoed on stone and stopped beside him. Rough hands pulled manacles off his ankles and hauled him to his feet. His legs quivered as though unused to carrying him, which was a familiar sensation because George Harding's flaccid muscles often protested at his weight. He looked down to see not the pale paunch that he was accustomed to, but the contours of a muscular African half his age. His head recoiled upward. The rows of prone Africans that he had been pulled out of stretched into the gloom. The sight drove out all thought of a comfortable hammock because he simply couldn't imagine the terror screaming through him.

He wrenched an arm free and drove his elbow into a face, his fist into another, and the hands holding him slackened just enough. Shouts chased him into the gloom, but he was already at a wall at the end of the rows of bodies. A ladder gave him the choice of up or down. He climbed up for no reason that he could name.

Another wall in front of him. He turned and ran between more rows of chained men. A man in trousers swung a staff at him. It was aimed at his face and the joy of ducking under it and hurling the man to the floor was as real as the terror that flung him at the next ladder. There was light shining above it. The light of the sun. The light of hope that caressed his shoulders as he climbed and dazzled his eyes so that he did not see what hit his head and dashed him back to the floor below.

He had no doubt that the boots thudding around him were real, and so was the burning pain they crunched into him. He wrapped his arms around his head, not to protect himself so much as to hide from the nightmare that consumed him. The kicks stopped and it took him a moment to recall the shout that had stopped them. His arms were wrenched away from his head, and he found himself looking upon the most blessed sight he could have dreamed.

A white man.

A white man, who had the authority to give orders. An angelic sight from his tattered shoes to his yellow teeth. The appraising look in the man's eyes belonged less to an angel than to a farmer sizing up cattle at a market. The angel barked an order in a language that George Harding felt he should understand but didn't. Iron fingers prized his mouth open and the angel rolled back his lips and nodded approvingly.

No rescue would come from this man. Manacles clamped George Harding's ankles again, and he was bundled down several ladders to be dragged back into the light. He was not even surprised to find himself shoved into a line of similarly manacled and naked Africans, shuffling out of the fort toward the masts of a ship. Knowing there would be no rescue did not stop him shouting "I am George Harding" over and over again, but his mouth would not form the words so nobody listened.

* * * *


George Harding heard his own voice with relief. There were no manacles, no ships, and his hand was still white and plump when he managed to focus his eyes on it. He was still George Harding, His Britannic Majesty's agent in Bathurst. Still trying not to die of malaria before somebody in Whitehall remembered to give him a pension. His worst tribulation was not that he had been sold into slavery, but the salty taste that told him his throbbing gums were bleeding again. He tried not to think about how much he had paid that surgeon for his new set of teeth, and concentrated on thinking about what he would do to the man with his own tooth extractors when he next saw London. They hurt more than the rotten set they replaced.

He swung himself out of his hammock and yelped at a stab of protest from his ankles. It was only gout, not manacles. Stupid thought. He pulled off his clammy shirt and flung it on the floor for the houseboy to pick up. He opened the drinks cabinet and found a bottle of brandy and a glass. The malaria surprised him with a last tremor, splashing the brandy over the papers strewn across his desk. "Bugger."

He opened another bottle and measured out fifty drops of laudanum. His head stopped spinning, and he could even read the label on the bottle. He could also see how little was left in it, and he formed an almost coherent prayer that the mail packet would arrive soon. The replenishment of laudanum would more than make up for the lack of mail.

He drank brandy from the bottle and grimaced when it was so hot it almost burned his tongue, but it was worth it for the calm that it brought. He'd feel up to looking at some paperwork in a minute.

"Please Massa!" Harding turned round to see the middle-aged houseboy in the doorway. Harding grunted.

"Boat come, Massa."

"Boat? What boat? Packet's not due for another week and the buggers are always late."

The boy's forehead furrowed. "Boat come, Massa."

Why couldn't someone teach these buggers to speak the King's English? Then again, Harding was uncertain that King George himself could understand him through these teeth, whichever King George it was that wore the silk stockings at the moment. He elbowed past the houseboy and stepped outside. The sun flayed at his bare back, and added its share of discomfort to the steam bath of Bathurst in October. The tangle of mangrove surrounded what his documents of appointment called his 'residence' and the garrison officers called 'Harding's Hovel', except where the liquid mud of the River Gambia provided the anchorage that got the navy excited about the place. Then they needed a battery and a dockyard and a poor bloody acting-governor to make sure the Union Jack went up and down the pole every day. Too much to expect the Navy to think about the miasma that would rise up from the swamp and give the poor bloody acting-governor three bouts of malaria for every hoist of the flag.

"Typical bloody Navy," he muttered to himself, as he waddled to the edge of the river.

The boy was wrong. There was not a boat coming in, but two ships. The first was a three-master with the narrow sails of a merchantman. He saw the name Cassandra embossed on her stern as she hove to. The second was coming round Banjul Point, and the rake of her two masts identified her as a man-of-war long before Harding made out the White Ensign. The merchantman was wearing the same ensign, which Harding could not understand until he realized that the smell assailing his nostrils was far more acrid than the usual stink of the swamp. There was only one sort of ship that smelled like that and only one reason why it would be coming into a British port with a Royal Navy flag at her mast. Some busybody had caught a slaver, which would mean that the smell was only the first sighting of a fleet of vexations bearing down on him.

A third vessel appeared from behind the merchantman, under every sail that her single mast could carry. She flew the Fleur-de-Lys of France, which told Harding that his papers would be waiting a little longer. "Bugger."

He trudged back to the residence to throw some water over himself and find a shirt. Wouldn't do to meet whoever was in that cutter without one, even if it was probably some frog pirate.

Armand de Valois's neat frock coat and powdered queue would not have looked out of place in the Tuileries, and Harding wondered how he could look so well groomed when he must have been at sea for weeks in that little cutter. Harding had met de Valois a few times and knew that he made his first fortune from his privateers, which he'd converted into slavers when Bonaparte's exile brought peace. He decided he had been right to expect a frog pirate.

Harding was pleased with his own appearance as he pushed himself to his feet against his desk. He hoped that his uncombed hair and bloodshot eyes would pierce the dapper Frenchman's veneer, but de Valois's smile lost none of its charm as he wrung Harding's hand. "Ah, Governor 'Arding, it is an honor to meet you again."

"Your servant," grunted Harding. He was not a governor because Bathurst was not a colony in its own right, but de Valois could call him one if he pleased. He made the title sound so apt that Harding even forgot to be irritated by the consonant de Valois's accent deducted from his name.

Harding waved a hand at a chair. De Valois settled into the sagging wickerwork as though it was an emperor's throne.

Diplomatic etiquette dictated that Harding, as the host, should open the conversation. Bugger diplomatic etiquette. He glowered at de Valois, who smiled politely back. Harding allowed his eyelids to droop, as though he were falling asleep. De Valois raised his chin with an expression of sudden interest. "Forgive me, Governor 'Arding, but I cannot help but observe your very fine teeth. Surely those dentures must be ivory?"

Last time Harding had seen de Valois, he had still had the rotten remains of the teeth nature gave him, which had not been very pleasant for either him or anyone facing him. Now he had a set that would be as fine as any in London society, if only they had not cost so much that he had been forced to accept a posting nobody else would take to pay them off.

"Not ivory," he said. "Genuine Waterloo teeth."

"Excuse me?"

"Waterloo. The battle. When we sent the crapauds packing." Harding could not resist trying to provoke the Frenchman, but de Valois just nodded with the perfect blend of interest and deference. The man was insufferable.

"I needed new teeth but I didn't want them from some bugger who'd been scraped out of the gutter when he'd died of the French disease. These came from a soldier killed at Waterloo. Proper English teeth, these."

De Valois nodded again. The man was impervious to insult. Whatever he wanted, he wanted it badly.

"I 'ear Waterloo teeth are the talk of London. I congratulate you on acquiring a set," said de Valois. Harding noted de Valois had not known what Waterloo teeth were when he thought describing them would appeal to Harding's self-importance. He grunted to avoid having to say anything polite.

"Governor 'Arding, may I come straight to the point?" said de Valois, now that he had prevaricated for five minutes. Harding grunted again.

"I fear there has been a grave misunderstanding, and I came here aboard my own yacht to rectify it. I am afraid that it may even threaten the peace that your nation and the United States of America have enjoyed these three years."

Harding raised his eyebrows. "The United States?"

A crash shook the bungalow and Harding nearly fell out of his chair. His skull had barely stopped ringing when it echoed with a second crash, and he recognized it as the man-of-war announcing her arrival with a salute. Couldn't the bloody Navy do anything quietly?

The two men regarded each other as the cannonade rolled over Bathurst, de Valois with his polite smile and Harding wincing as the explosions rattled his teeth.

"As I was saying," said de Valois after the last sledge-hammer blow to Harding's mind, "a grave incident has occurred. The captain of that man-of-war has, with intentions that were no doubt excellent, unlawfully seized a merchant ship of the United States."

"You mean that slaver?"

"It is true that the ship was carrying a cargo that your government would not approve of…"


"But as I said, there has been a terrible misunderstanding. Governor 'Arding, we are men of the world and I need not tell you how the best of reasons may seduce a young man into error. The captain of that man-of-war would no doubt have distinguished himself at Trafalgar, but several days ago, his zeal led him to seize that ship in the belief that she was a Frenchman, when in fact she wears the flag of the United States."

De Valois was talking fast and no wonder, thought Harding. The salute announced that the man-of-war had dropped her anchor and her captain was probably stepping into a boat at this very moment. "I presume we're talking about one of your own slavers?"

De Valois gave a look of such mortification that Harding would have had to stifle a laugh if his teeth had not hurt so much. "No, of course not. My ships are registered in France and so the Royal Navy would have every right to seize them if they found slaves aboard, which of course they would not."

"Because France signed the Treaty of Vienna after we got Boney where he couldn't do any more damage."

Harding could not resist the opportunity to rub salt into a wound that must still be fresh.

De Valois showed no sign of bleeding. "Indeed. I was pursuing my entirely legitimate trading interests when I became aware of your countryman's mistake. Naturally, I came here as fast as I could because it is the plain duty of men of good sense, such as ourselves, to avert the consequences of such a misunderstanding. It does, after all, amount to an act of war against the United States and I am sure we can agree that neither of us wants to see the Royal Navy lose any more frigates. "

Harding hid his satisfaction. He must have nettled the frog if he felt the need to mention the poor performance of the Royal Navy against the Americans. De Valois could not know how much Harding detested the Royal Navy. "Your point, Monsieur?"

"I have no doubt that your good sense will prevail when the captain presents his log book, which will presumably say that the ship was wearing a French flag when she was sighted. I assure you that he will be mistaken, which I will prove in time. It is easy to make a mistake when it is dawn and you are looking through a telescope..." de Valois spread his hands in a disgustingly Gallic expression of helplessness.

Tongue enough for two sets of teeth, thought Harding. He scratched his crotch. "What's your proof?"

"You 'ave my word that I will provide it in time. The problem is that we do not have time. The cargo of the ship that has been seized is, shall we say, perishable? It will lose much of its value while we send for the documentation. I entreat you to take my word and release that ship immediately."

"Your word?" Harding didn't try to keep the amusement out of his voice.

"The word of a Frenchman. Naturally, I appreciate that there are certain expenses involved. There are five hundred gold guineas aboard my yacht, and I will gladly place them at your disposal to avert the crisis."

Harding's eyes snapped open. He could pay off his teeth and return to London with five hundred guineas, and the hell with the service. It was not difficult to guess what had happened. De Valois had been using the cutter to make arrangements before he committed the larger merchantman to an anchorage that would leave it trapped by a navy patrol, and he could not be arrested because his yacht carried no slaves. The captain of the slaver had thrown all evidence of French registration over the side before she was taken and de Valois was willing to spend some of his capital to preserve his cargo and his ship.

Harding assumed a contemplative frown. Who really cared where the slaver was registered? Ten years ago, Harding's duty would have been to welcome a slaver as an honored guest and assist him with his legal trade, and damned if he'd see five hundred gold guineas for his trouble. Unfortunate for the slaves of course, but then nobody ever asked Harding if he'd wanted to go to Bathurst.

But he'd never breached his trust before. The odd grease for certain administrative wheels was one thing, but to pretend a French ship was American was something else. Then again, how much was a flag worth in the balance with five hundred gold guineas? He winced as his teeth started throbbing again. "I'll think about it."

He stood up to end the interview, and de Valois stood with him and extended his hand. Etiquette demanded that Harding should offer de Valois a room in the residence, but de Valois said that he would be aboard his cutter before Harding got the chance to pointedly withhold an invitation. He saw de Valois to the door and watched him stroll back to the wharf, as though he were ambling down the Champs Elysée instead of through the ankle-deep mud of Bathurst.

A flock of brown birds burred over his head and landed in a tree. Ha-ha-ha-ha, they babbled. A bomb of fury exploded in Harding's breast. They were laughing at him!

He dashed back to his desk and pulled a pistol out of a drawer. Tears of rage blurred his sight and his shaking hands scattered more powder over his desk than he got into the pan, but eventually he got it loaded and dashed outside. He pointed it at the tree, but the birds had gone.

The pistol sank back to his side, and he waited for his breathing to slow down and his jaw to stop quivering. A chill marched up his spine. Surely he couldn't be about to have another bout of fever so soon after the last one? "Bugger."

* * * *

George Harding was running. He didn't know where he was or where he was going, but the barking dogs behind him left him in no doubt of what he was running from. Branches whipped out of the night and slashed across his body. There was no help for it except keep running on his shredded feet, turning every aching breath of fetid air into a few more paces between him and the plantation.


The question stirred a dispassionate part of his mind. Fever had brought strange visions before, especially since he had discovered how quickly laudanum helped him to recover from them, but they had never been more than disconnected impressions. Now he knew that he was in Jamaica, running from a sugar plantation, far more clearly than he knew that he was shivering in a hammock in Bathurst. He even knew he had had hit a slave-driver, and would be flogged to death if he stopped running.

His legs plunged into warm mud, and he got a mouthful of foul water from a creek he had not seen. He could not see the other side, so he had no chance of swimming to it before the dogs led their handlers to the bank.

There was a light on the water. He blinked mud out of his eyes. It was a fishing lantern in a boat, no more than a stone's throw away. He threw himself forward and swam. He expected the boatman to row away from a fugitive, but the man just watched him approach. He placed his hand on the gunwale, and hands of the same dark shade hauled him over it, pushed him down in the bow and motioned him to silence. He struggled to stifle the breaths tearing at his chest. The sounds of the dogs were no longer muffled by undergrowth, so they had found the place where he fell into the water. He had only seen one boat, so there was only one place where he could be. He closed his eyes and commended his soul to Allah to do with it as He would.

Where had that idea come from? The dispassionate part of George Harding's mind reasserted itself. He was a Presbyterian, damn it! Even if he'd almost forgotten what churches look like from the inside, he didn't go around commending his soul to Allah. He still cowered in the boat when he heard a slave-catcher's voice calling to the boatman.

"I no see 'um, Massa," said the boatman.

Harding had never been to the West Indies, let alone run away from a plantation. All he really knew, as he lay there biting his fist to keep from gagging on the salt clinging to the back of his mouth, was that he wanted the slave-driver to believe the boatman more than he had ever wanted anything in his life.

The boatman said "I no see 'um, Massa" again. This time, the only answer was splashing and curses. There was a gentle creaking and rocking. Whether or not George Harding had been to the West Indies, he had no qualms in silently giving thanks to Allah when he realized the boatman was rowing away while the slave catchers searched the bank. He even savored the pain of his scratches, because noticing them meant that he was no longer running for his life.

The rowing stopped. The change of motion reminded him of the thanks he owed the boatman. He opened his eyes just in time to see an oar slashing toward him. A flash of light, then darkness.

Darkness was an improvement on dogs. Hopefully, it meant that he was coming out of the fever. He could not endure many more dreams like this. He would have to increase the dose of laudanum.

A sensation of cold seized him as though in a claw, and he writhed in a pool of water on a dirt floor. His head felt as if there was an axe in it, and a scythe-fingered demon wrung out his guts until he vomited.

"Ah Christ!"

He looked up to see a man wearing the red coat of the men who carried long guns, and the three stripes on the sleeve belonged to someone who shouted a lot rather than someone who was usually shouted at. The empty bucket in the man's fist told him where the water had come from.

"You'll clean that up if I have to make you lick it up," said the man in a language that George Harding recognized as English. It sounded strange, as though it was a language that he had recently learned.

"Now get up off that floor, Lord Sambo! You ain't the colonel's daughter so you ain't gonna lie there all day."

He could not find a grain of strength in his body, but he still got to his feet when the red man started toward him. Somehow, he had learned what happened when he did not do what men who spoke English told him to.

"That's better. Now come 'ere." The red man waved at a window. More red men stood in lines, with straight backs and their hands straight down by their sides. They stared at a man tied to a wooden triangle while another man whipped him. George Harding had seen many floggings, but his astonishment almost overcame his nausea when he saw that what was left of the skin of the flogged man was white.

"See that, Lord Sambo?" barked the red man into his ear. "Now I don't give five minutes with a poxed sailor's whore what you done. The army paid good money for you, so you do what I tell you and no one will want to know. But you give me any trouble, an' you know how you'll end up, an' I promise you you'll give your black arse to get back wherever you run away from. Now fall in, Private Sambo!"

* * * *

Harding was unsure whether his teeth or his ankles hurt more when he lurched out of the hammock. A hundred drops of laudanum helped, and so did what was left of the brandy. He fingered another bottle, thinking that he should delay opening it in case he ran out before the mail packet arrived, but he knew it would be empty by dawn tomorrow.

"Please Massa?"

Harding didn't take his eyes off the bottle. "Yes boy?"

"Blue-blue man come, Massa."

"Blue-blue man? What the devil d'you mean...oh!" A man in the blue coat of a naval officer was standing behind the houseboy. The officer's fingers drummed on the hilt of his sword. He looked every inch the sort of fighting captain that England had been so besotted with since Nelson toadied his way into that tomb in St. Paul's. Harding disliked him on sight.

"Come in." Harding sank into the chair behind his desk without offering to shake hands.

The officer stepped into the room and removed his hat. "Matthew Cooper, Master and Commander of His Britannic Majesty's brig-sloop Electra, at your service sir."

Not only was he bloody navy, he was a bloody Yorkshireman. Harding raised an eyebrow. "George Harding at yours."

The houseboy scurried in to retrieve the latest shirt that Harding had thrown on the floor. If a succession of dandies insisted on inflicting themselves on him, he could at least make them feel overdressed.

Harding made no move to invite Cooper to sit down, hoping to force him into the gaffe of sitting uninvited. Cooper seemed happy for his broad shoulders to loom over Harding. Harding wanted to pretend to fall asleep, but he could not stop himself looking up at eyes that should have belonged to a leopard deciding whether a mouse was worth the effort of pouncing on.

"Been waiting long?" Harding could play the game no longer.

"About half an hour." Cooper's tone added that it had been half an hour too long.

"Touch of fever." Harding heard the conciliation in his own voice and disliked Cooper even more.

Cooper glanced at the brandy-stained papers and spilt powder on Harding's desk. "I see."

"Won't you sit down, Commander?" A commander carried the courtesy title of captain, and Harding smiled inwardly when Cooper's eyes narrowed with irritation.

"I prefer to stand, sir. May I come straight to the point?"

Harding waved a hand expansively.

"Five days ago, we found that abomination slipping out of the Akokra River." Cooper jerked his head at the wall that hid the Cassandra. "We chased her for three days and it's taken two to get here. The poor souls aboard are starving and some of them already have fever. I request permission to land them immediately, and send them proper food and a surgeon."

Harding hid a smile. Cooper had handed him the perfect excuse to refuse. Best not to say so straight away, especially when he could irritate the man. "You've unchained the poor souls of course?"

Cooper looked satisfyingly uncomfortable. "Well no, of course not..."

Harding raised his eyebrows. "Why on earth not? What the devil do you mean by keeping your poor souls in chains?"

Cooper's knuckles were white as he crumpled his hat. "I couldn't. There are scores of them and they don't know the difference between us and the slavers. They'd tear us apart..."

"How can I explain to them that you rescued them by keeping them in chains?" Now would be a good time to get up and stroll to the window, but Harding was afraid he would pass out if he tried. Not that it really mattered because the anguish in Cooper's eyes showed Harding that he had won the point. Five hundred guineas, he thought.

"I can't land them if they've got fever. Half the garrison is sick as it is, without a new contagion in the middle of Bathurst."

Cooper looked as though he'd been struck. "Sir, five hundred souls are in your hands. I demand that you write an order to land them immediately!"

Harding sighed and folded his hands across his stomach, trying to assume the image of the wisdom of age faced with impetuous youth. He hoped Cooper did not notice the empty bottle rolling on the floor. He stared at the epaulette on Cooper's shoulder, where the veneer of gold had worn off to expose the lead beneath and reveal that Cooper was not a wealthy man. "You fellows get prize money for taking blackbirders, don't you? Quite a lot for a beauty like that, I'd say."

"Prize money be damned!"

Harding cringed back.

"You may throw my share of the prize money into the sea for all I care," barked Cooper, "but I'll not see those poor wretches suffer more than they already have for want of a few strokes of your pen!"

Harding found his voice. "You an abolitionist, Commander?"

Cooper stepped back, pitifully easy to confuse. "Proud to be. What's that got to do with it?"

"You may see it as your duty to chase slavers, but I'd like to remind you that you're a King's officer." The force he put into those last words recoiled into his molars, and he closed his eyes while the pain receded. "While you wear that uniform, you'll remember your oath to the King, which unless I'm very much mistaken, does not include decimating any of his outposts by filling them full of fever."

Cooper turned a delightful shade of red. He looked ready to tear his hat in half. Harding pushed on relentlessly. "Whatever your politics, Commander, no man can serve two masters. Good day to you."

Harding fidgeted with some papers on his desk, trying to get rid of Cooper before he calmed down enough to form an argument. Cooper turned on his heel and walked out. Pity the next defaulter on his ship.

Harding leaned back. Five hundred gold guineas, and a cottage in...Devon? Dorset? Maybe not a cottage, he would be able to afford an inn, which would provide him with as much brandy as he could drink. He took a deep breath, and nearly retched at the smell from the slaver.

Chained to the floor, rolling in excrement, nothing to look forward to but the lash.

Five hundred gold guineas, he told himself firmly. Perhaps his teeth wouldn't ache like this in England. Perhaps that familiar chill wouldn't march up and down his spine. "Oh Christ, not again."

* * * *

Running again. Running faster than his ruined body ever could. Faster than this dream self had run before, because he was on an open field. Nothing to bar his way but a haze of powder smoke that stung his throat. Not looking back because he did not need to see Napoleon's cavalry behind him when the ground quaked and thundered with their hooves. No need to see the forest of lances when his back tingled as though they were already stabbing through his red coat. No desire to look back when the smear of scarlet ahead was made of men in the coats that had once meant imprisonment, but today meant the only hope he had.

The redcoats were in a line two deep, the front row on one knee. Their muskets pointed straight at him. He knew that the muskets were aimed at the cavalry behind him, just as the cavalry's lances were pointed at the infantry in front, but none of that would matter if the cavalry caught him or the muskets fired before he reached that red line of hope.

Close now. So close he could see the grime on the coats and the gritted teeth behind the muskets. Hear the fear in a sergeant's shout. "Wait! Waaaaiiiiit!"

Close enough to meet the eyes of a mounted officer behind the muskets of hope, see the decision in them when the officer saw the color of his face, see his sword drop. See hope vanish behind stabbing flames and more smoke.

George Harding told himself, yet again, that he had not left his hammock, but damn it he felt lead slam into him. He saw iron-shod hooves hammer into the grass around his fragile head. He heard the screams of men and horses and musket balls blend into a diabolic crescendo. He even found himself retreating into memories that weren't his, of the scorching heat of the island where he first put on a red coat; of the endless days of sweating with the Brown Bess muskets that tore the air above him. He remembered the day when the sergeant finally nodded his approval. "Not bad, Private Sambo. We'll make a major of you yet."

He had laughed with the rest of his platoon at the twin absurdities of a Major Sambo, and any officer handling a musket. He drifted away into those memories while mosquitoes whined around his ears, and the future of a foreign continent was decided by in death piling up around him.

Fingers glided across his body. The shooting had stopped, leaving only groans that sounded as though they came from the ground itself. The weight of the purse of coins around his neck was missing. Hands were under his coat now, tugging at the juju belt he wore around his waist. A woman's voice grunted with bemusement when she pulled it free but the hands came back, into his mouth this time. Something pricked his gums. His eyes snapped open to see a woman's smooth face bathed in moonlight. Her hair brushed his cheeks with a silken caress. He was still trying to smile for her when her knife flashed out of his mouth and into his throat.

* * * *

George Harding rolled away from her and fell out of the hammock. He sat up cautiously. His head was clear and he felt no sign of fever. He had not felt this healthy since he arrived in Bathurst. He stood up without any complaint from his gout, and almost felt as though he could do without a drink. Almost.

A man was sitting behind his desk. He blinked and shook his head, but there was still a black man wearing a red coat in his chair. Harding was furious. Whatever reason he might have for being there, he had absolutely no business in Harding's chair. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

The man replied with a tight-lipped frown.

"Boy!" The soldier was wearing an infantryman's coat, although there were only artillerymen and engineers in Bathurst. Not that being a visitor gave him any more right to act as though he owned the place.

"Massa?" The houseboy appeared at the door.

"What's this damned impudence?" He waved a hand at his chair.

"Massa?" The boy looked confused.

Harding made a great effort to speak slowly. "What. Is. This. Man. Doing. In. My. Bloody. Chair. Damn your eyes!"

"What man, Massa?"

Harding's face burned and he felt as though an anchor chain was crushing his chest. He tried to remember if he'd left that pistol loaded. "This bastard! Here! You make game of me, boy, and by God I'll see your black arse flogged off!"

The boy looked at the chair, then back at Harding. His perplexity faded to an understanding that belied the only name that Harding had ever used for him. "I get Massa Chaplain, Massa."

The boy disappeared, leaving Harding's mouth working to form words that would not come.

"He can't see me, you know," said the soldier behind the desk.


"Your boy. He can't see me, so you might as well let him be."

Harding was as startled by the accent as the words. He'd never met an African who could speak more than a few words of pidgin, but this voice belonged on Wapping docks. "Just as well he's gone. You and me got things to talk about."

"What things? I don't know you."

"Not exactly, but we're close acquaintances. You got my word on that." The soldier rolled back his lips to reveal torn, toothless gums.

Harding's teeth unleashed a gale of pain that almost blinded him. "Oh my God!"

The soldier smiled and nodded. Harding sat down heavily. "It's not true. I'm imagining you. You're a fever dream. Just need a stiff drink."

Harding reached for his brandy. The soldier smiled again. "If you could see the state of your liver, you'd see fever's the least of your problems."

Harding's hand flew to his chest, where he thought his liver probably was. He could feel it swelling like a filling wineskin, shoving aside stomach, lungs, heart, anything in the way of its conquest. That was ridiculous, his chest had felt fine all day. It was the only thing that had. "A drink."

"Won't help. Nothing will."

Harding gave up trying to push himself upright. "Is that why you're here?"

The soldier stopped smiling. "Dunno why I'm here. I mean, I know you got my teeth, but I dunno much else."

"Oh God."

"Maybe. I know I weren't very good to Him. I'm sure He knows that slave drivers and sergeants don't let you stop what you're doing to pray, and He knows the army don't give you nothing to drink except rum, but perhaps that just means Muslims should avoid slavers and stay out of the army."

Harding felt a chasm open up inside him. He was used to thinking of death as an end to be delayed for as long as possible, but now the end had come and this man was saying that it wasn't even an end. Saliva ran down his chin, and his nose filled. "What will happen to me?"

The soldier stood and took Harding's hands. There was real compassion in his voice. "I don't know."

Vicars liked to preach about conscience. Perhaps that was what Harding needed now. He rifled through the broken bottles and lost paperwork of his soul, knowing he had hidden from his life's frustrations by bullying others and blinding himself with drunkenness. That gave him no claim to clemency, but there was nothing he could do about it now.

Nothing? He looked up. The soldier helped Harding to stand. Harding took his seat behind his desk, and managed to keep his hand steady enough to write an order to land the Cassandra's slaves, and provide them with whatever food and physic they needed. He looked at the tear-stained paper in front of him and wondered whether it would count for anything in a few minutes time. Still, something in his chest felt a little lighter for writing it. He blew his nose and wrote another letter, commending Commander Cooper for his zeal and humanity for his representation on behalf of the souls he had liberated. That made him feel better too, though two pages of blotted ink were little enough to apologies for a life as miserable as his. He hoped the houseboy would spare him a kind thought when he and the chaplain found him.

The soldier took his hand. "Come on. There's something else we both need to do."

Harding stood unaided, and let the soldier lead him outside. They stood, side by side, with their backs to the setting sun. The soldier knelt and touched his head to the ground. Harding knelt beside him, and he knew he would not be getting up.

* * * *

Read more of DJ Cockburn's writing here:

Under the Hooked Cross, for sale at
Steel in the Morning, free at

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Today Toad welcomes fantasy author Greg Hamerton to her corner. If you enjoy epic fantasy, Greg is an author you need to keep an eye out for. His lively imagination and command of the English language provide passports to a world where almost anything is possible.

Tell us about your setting of your novels.

The Tale of the Lifesong is set in Oldenworld, a parallel world where magic has been coaxed out of the essence a little more than we have managed to achieve so far. In that way, it could be set in our future, or our forgotten past. The series is a meditation on magic, music and life. In the first tale, The Riddler’s Gift, we enter a sheltered realm in which the lead character, Tabitha Serannon, completes her apprenticeship and begins to sing the song that will echo through all worlds and all time. In the second tale, Second Sight, we learn how Oldenworld reached a pinnacle of order, but in so doing created the seeds of chaos among the dispossessed. A mighty sorcerer is intent on destroying every trace of civilisation. Although Tabitha is being groomed by the wizards, she sees beyond their order as her second sight develops. She gives voice to the beauty that can change the violence, chaos and ugliness in the world.

When did you know you had it in you to be a writer?

Many, many years ago, I wrote a letter to Richard Bach, praising his work but also insisting that his ideas seemed to come from my head. He wrote back, full of wise understanding, telling me that only I could write the stories I needed to write to my people and my time.

What’s the most difficult aspect of your craft?

Not owning that villa overlooking the sea with all those minions and endless celebrations in champagne-Jacuzzis. If I worked at any other profession for this long I’d have earned all that, by now. They tell us we get royalties, so if it’s any consolation to aspiring writers, it’s a noble profession. No really, I’m not that shallow, I’m happy with my cosy life. What’s really hard, with writing, is holding on to the singular vision of your story world, as the demands of the real world try to intrude. Hold on, I’ve got to go make a cup of coffee…


Who is the one author you keep returning to, and why?

Greg Hamerton. I know, I know, I’m not that vain, my point is that I’ve been doing this for more than ten years and have spent way more time reading my own writing, editing it, trying to improve it, than any time spent reading other authors. I don’t generally read any fantasy while I’m working on a novel, because I don’t want interference or distraction. But there are authors whose work I love, and Richard Bach is probably my strongest influence… he was the first one to change my world, and one day I aspire to writing something with as much power as Jonathan Livingstone Seagull in so few words.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing in fantasy writing at the moment?

Trends? I have no idea. A literary agent criticised me for this recently, but if I was a literary agent or big publisher I’d need to be obsessed by trends. As an author who takes a very long time to write long fantasy novels, the trends seem rather irrelevant because if I wrote to hit the current trend I would always miss the band wagon. All I can hope is that the trend is for my kind of writing when it is released. If anything, I’d say there seem to be many fantasy titles on the shelf right now that are 500 pages or more, part of a series, feature young lead characters, lots of action and would appeal to a broad audience including young adult. So my books fit right in. Lucky, that.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Are you mad? Because if you aren’t, you’ll study the writing profession before committing to it, and you’ll come to the conclusion that it is probably not a good career move, at least not until you’ve made pots of money elsewhere. But if you are mad, then you’ll stop reading articles “about writing” round about now, dive into the art headlong, write manuscripts, collect rejection letters, and eventually reach the nirvana of seeing your own book in print. Then you’ll find out: that is the first stage of being an author, and the real work has just begun. You have a career to build. Good luck!