Monthly Archives: December 2013

“Outstanding” Guardian readers pick The Mandate of Heaven by Tim Murgatroyd as one of their top books of 2013

From Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother to Jim Crace’s Harvest, and from Ruth Rendell’s No Man’s Nightingale to Iain Banks’ The Quarry, Guardian readers pick their favourite reads of 2013.

Below is the review from Bob Horne based in West Yorkshire.

The Mandate of Heaven by Tim Murgatroyd (Myrmidon) completes an epic trilogy of conflict, culture and passion in medieval China as the brutal Mongol occupation of the Middle Kingdom threatens civilised ancient tradition. Its imagery is gently poetic and complements the robustness of the narrative. Far away in time and space; contemporary in issues, character and relationships. Outstanding.

For the full list of reviews please click here.

Myrmidon to republish two original classic accounts by prisoners of war on the River Kwai Railway

Railroad of DeathMyrmidon has acquired the rights to two original accounts by British Second World War prisoners of the Japanese who worked on the famous ‘River Kwai’ Railway, the subject of the film The Railway Man due to be released in cinemas next year.

Railroad of Death is the original classic account of the construction of the Burma Railway by John Coast, then a young officer in the Norfolk Regiment who wrote his original manuscript on the voyage home. Railroad of Death was a 1946 bestseller and provided inspiration for the film Bridge over the River Kwai and a groundbreaking 1969 BBC documentary Return to the River Kwai. Incorporating Coast’s 1969 interviews for the BBC with his Japanese captors as well as an introduction putting Coast’s experiences into context, Railroad of Death will be published in paperback and ebook in May 2014.

In November 2014 Myrmidon will republish And The Dawn Came Up Like Thunder by Leo Rawlings in hardback and ebook. An artist before the war, Rawlings drew what he witnessed around him as a prisoner of the Japanese, leading him to be unofficially commissioned after his capture to keep a visual record of the prisoners lives. The new edition will include pictures never before published as well as new commentary on Rawlings’ experiences by Dr Nigel Stanley an expert on Rawlings and the medical problems faced on the Burma Railway.

Associate Editor Justin Nash who acquired the rights directly from the families for Myrmidon said, “Both are classics steeped in humanity and crying out to be brought back to the wide audience the books previously had and deserve. Railroad of Death by John Coast was the first and the best account of the camps on the Burma Railway. It also documents the fight of a group of young officers for survival against the Japanese and frustration with the old guard of senior officers who ran the British end of the camps. And The Dawn Came Up Like Thunder by Leo Rawlings is both fascinating and unique. His eyewitness drawings and paintings vividly and uncompromisingly bring to life the diseases, hardships and other sufferings of the prisoners of war.”

The books are to be the first in a range of publications of witness testimony from ordinary soldiers from all sides in the great conflicts of the 20th century and Myrmidon are actively seeking both unpublished war diaries and classic accounts that may now be out of print.

An extract from ‘The Matron’

The MatronThe matron’s room is conveniently situated next to the sick bay.

Mr Paine, the assistant housemaster who showed me around the school this afternoon, had opened the door, and a nauseating combination of sweet perfume, smoke and death emanated, catching at my chest. Mr Paine told me with a shake of his angular head that my predecessor had died suddenly, soon after watching a closely contested rugby match on the main field. He informed me with an air almost of reverence that she had followed the game keenly.

It would not be wise, I’d thought, to confess that I find rugby puzzling.

Entering my new bedroom, I was relieved to see my suitcase, which had earlier been whisked away from my taxi by the garden boy, lying across the chair. I’d had no reason to believe it was not in safe hands; my relief was entirely due to encountering a pocket of familiarity in a terrifyingly strange landscape. The brown and battered holdall, which had belonged to my father whose work took him all over Africa, was waiting patiently for me. Mr Paine stood fidgeting at the door, closely examining the architrave as I took in my new abode. That suits me. I don’t want his prying eyes inside.

I will have to wash the yellow paisley curtains and the bed covers and get someone to help me carry the carpet downstairs for a good beating. It can’t be too difficult to expurgate death, surely. Yet it took two deaths to bring me here – two! How long, Lord, till You send death for me?

It has not escaped my attention that Mummy’s passing away and my changed circumstances have arrived soon after the time of the year that we honour Your crucifixion, Lord. How much more difficult were Your trials on this earth! Mine are nothing in comparison, so I will stop complaining.

On reflection, it seems a bit harsh to remove immediately all signs of the previous matron, poor thing.

Mr Paine could not contain himself any longer and announced that he was required elsewhere, saying I should present myself at six-twenty sharp at the north entrance of the dining hall where he would introduce me to the other housemasters, Mr Talbot and Mr Leighton, before dinner. I was relieved to see him stalk off on his thin legs; at the same time, I became aware of a further constriction in my chest at being abandoned to my fate. Mercifully, I have my asthma pump for such circumstances, and this journal for comfort, and, of course, You, God.

The room is tiny and painted with the same nauseating enamel green as the sick bay. I note that there is no bookcase, which will have to be remedied shortly, as my books will arrive on Wednesday. There is a bedside table and cupboard containing a few wire hangers that jangled forlornly as I hung up my coat, and a small table at which I am now seated with a rather grimy kettle on top. I have no need of further kitchen paraphernalia, Mr Paine told me as we walked past the dining hall earlier; I am expected to take my meals with the boys as part of my duties.

Once he had gone, I tried out the mattress, which sighed into the shape of the previous owner, exhaling more smoke to catch at my throat. I fear it will also bring nightmares and backache.

There is a consolation, though. From here, where I am sitting, I can see a goodly slice of my beloved mountain framed by the sash window. It is saturated today with the blue and lilac hues of early winter, with clouds curdled round the peak. This view will be an endless source of inspiration if I can find space in this small room for my paints. The lack of space is aggravated by there being two doors to this room, one that leads into the sick bay, and one into the corridor. I do not like this arrangement; it makes me feel as though I could be attacked simultaneously from two sides. I will ask permission to keep one of them locked.

Below the window, I can hear the incessant tumult of young male voices. This is my new and only home.

Recently, my eyes simply won’t stop leaking.

*

It is with much trepidation that I begin this new life, and with it, this journal. I have not attempted such a record for decades, not since I was a girl. Yet I find myself alone at this table with a pen in my hand and an exercise book in front of me, hoping that these scribblings can help me. This, and also my watercolours, albeit in different ways.

I am the kind of person life happens to. It might appear that I chose to come here, but it wasn’t so. Mummy died, leaving me unexpectedly with no roof over my head because of an unfortunate debt of which I had no prior knowledge. Phoebe came down for the funeral, and happened upon an advert for this position that had miraculously become available. I am fated. God plants my every step.

The irony is that Mummy could not abide the rich, and warned against their pernicious company, yet because of her death I have arrived, hat in hand, at their doorstep. I will, however, take due precautions. Mummy was right in that money is a potential corrupter, particularly in combination with idleness. She need not fear, however, as in this position on my current salary, I will not be susceptible to the vices of the wealthy!

I have a carbon copy of my letter of application, stuck into the back of this journal. Phoebe looked it over before I sent it. She says I have a good handwriting, but I think the loops come out too childishly.

 Dear Mr Talbot,

I would like to apply for your advertised position of Matron. I do not have experience directly in the field, but I was a student nurse for a few months after my schooling. Unfortunately, I had to leave before obtaining my diploma as my mother was ill. Thereafter I worked in Mr Lawson’s pharmacy situated in the Main Road for many years; thus I have a knowledge of routine medicines. An aspect of my employment was to attend to people who needed their dressings changed or their blood pressure taken. I have a good manner with people. Mr Lawson’s kind reference is enclosed.

My hobbies are reading and walking. I am in good health, although occasionally troubled by minor episodes of asthma. I am a practising Anglican; Father Evans’s reference is also appended.

I hope very much that you will grant me an interview.

It would be an honour to be associated with your prestigious school.

Yours faithfully,

Phyllis Wilds

© Dawn Garisch 2009

An extract from the ‘Mandate of Heaven’

The Mandate of Heavenone

.

Hard ground loomed below the high boundary wall. Yun Shu dangled in mid-air, her legs tensed for a fall. Giggling made her wobble. It was like being a fly in a spider’s web, except the threads holding her were friendly: Teng gripping one wrist, Hsiung the other.

Faster!’ she cried, swinging back and forth. Trees and ponds and walls in the ancient garden blurred.

Jump!’ urged Teng, his almond eyes wide and earnest.

Can’t hear you!’

You’re too heavy,’ said Teng, ‘you’ll hurt yourself!’

I like it!’

We’ll drop you,’ grunted Hsiung, though he was strong enough to swing her by himself. Then he let go. See-sawing wildly, Yun Shu clutched Teng’s hand until he, too, released his hold. She landed with an outraged shriek. The boys hooted as she rose, brushing twigs from her skirt. Two tousled heads vanished over the wall and their laughter faded into the trees.

Yun Shu took a moment to adjust to the silent garden. Earlier she had stalked crickets in dusty lanes, free to exclaim or sing or caper whenever she chose. At home different rules applied, like stepping from sunlight into a cold, bare room.

She glanced around for spies, aware she had been careless to make such noise. Golden Lotus hated noise, and while it might be tolerated from Yun Shu’s older brothers, a girl should never draw attention to herself.

Wandering up the path, shoulders hunched, she did not notice the very object of her fears swaying towards her on exquisite, tiny feet – every step displaying the elegance and power of a lotus gait.

Yun Shu!’

The willowy creature’s make-up was a flawless white mask. Silver and jade hairpieces drew the eye to shiny coils of silken black hair and a figure as neat and pleasing as any fine lady’s. The girl became conscious of her plump legs and unshapely body, her ridiculously long eyelashes and puppy eyes; most of all, her black hair that never combed obediently or stayed in its bun.

Why are you scowling?’ demanded Golden Lotus, in a high, singsong voice. ‘How many times must I tell you? Smile and glide! Smile and glide as I do.’

Yun Shu bowed very low – she knew what happened otherwise.

Youngest Daughter,’ continued Golden Lotus, ‘Honoured Father wishes to converse with you.’

A flicker of fear. Golden Lotus didn’t use cultured words like converse, it must have come from Father himself. But the Provincial High Minister of Salt seldom noticed his daughter, let alone spoke to her.

She followed the swaying young man into the ancient mansion they occupied on Monkey Hat Hill. The area had a reputation as a haunt of scholars and other potential rebels. They passed tiny courtyards with neat gardens and closed doors; venerable corridors gleaming with wax and polish. Golden Lotus’s four inch slippers squeaked slightly as he shuffled along.

He led the girl to Father’s bureau, propelling her into the long room. At once Yun Shu started bowing. She knelt on the floor before Father’s writing table. Salt Minister Gui, a pale, gloomy man with a wispy beard, somehow managed to both notice and ignore his daughter. An abacus clicked in his meaty hands, beads flying from side to side.

Five thousand and sixty-three taels,’ he muttered to himself.

Twenty one thousand b-blocks at s-seventy-two cash.’

Golden Lotus remained by the door, cooling himself with a fan.

It was the first time Yun Shu had been invited into the bureau, though far from her first visit. She sometimes stole there when Father was away on official business – which was often – to read old books and scrolls.

Ah,’ he said, at last. ‘Good!’

His eye crept down to a letter he had been reading when she entered. Yun Shu pressed her forehead to the varnished floor.

Yes,’ he said, clearing his throat. He peered at her as one might at a dubious underling. ‘She’s g-grown, hasn’t she?’

Golden Lotus’s white mask offered no encouragement. It had frozen around a demure smile.

Quite right. Straight to b-business,’ said the Salt Minister, awkwardly. ‘Youngest Daughter, you’re getting older. High time to b-be useful! You may have noticed ladies calling here over the past few months?’

Yun Shu nodded seriously, proud of her grown-up knowledge. ‘They were matchmakers,’ she replied. ‘I think they came for Eldest Brother.’ She hesitated then added recklessly, ‘When I saw him last month there was fluff on his chin!’

The Salt Minister blinked in surprise to hear her speak fluently.

Of course, you’re quite wrong,’ he said. ‘It was you they wished to discuss.’

Again the abacus clicked. Yun Shu’s long eyelashes fluttered rapidly. ‘But Honoured Father,’ she said, ‘my ceremony of hairpins will not take place for years.’

Five or six to be exact. So long she could hardly conceive becoming a woman.

Never mind,’ said Gui, ‘the contract’s signed and sealed. Now we must deliver!’

He looked to Golden Lotus for appreciation. The young man laughed, his painted red mouth open but making no sound.

While Yun Shu knelt dutifully, Father explained the contract in a dull, precise voice. A family of very respectable merchants in Chenglingji with extensive dealings in the salt trade were keen to secure his co-operation. They had even agreed to waive the dowry, a prospect of real advantage to the family.

You see,’ he concluded, ‘everyone profits. Especially your b-brothers.’

Yun Shu screwed up her eyes to hide tears. ‘Honoured Father, you have not mentioned who is to be my husband!’

He waved aside this question with clumsy fingers. ‘A son . . .’ He checked the letter. ‘Ahem, not specified. It is the connection that matters. Do you understand?’

She nodded. Yet it was too sudden a change. To be ignored all her life then learn – years before she might reasonably expect it – Honoured Father had already arranged to get rid of her!

There’s something else,’ he said. ‘G-golden Lotus has agreed to ensure your feet are, as specified in the contract, no longer than four inches.’

Yun Shu glanced down. Her feet were already over six inches long!

Do you mean to bind my feet, Father?’

How else will they shrink?’ He seemed genuinely puzzled.

Grandmother’s feet were not bound!’ protested Yun Shu.

Mother’s were not bound!’

It would have been better if they had been,’ muttered Golden Lotus, fluttering his fan.

Father, I’m too old! I don’t want tiny feet! I don’t want . . .’

Pain silenced her as Golden Lotus tugged her hair. ‘It shows how much your Father loves you!’ he whispered.

Please, Father!’

The Minister of Salt’s eyes narrowed. He clicked away at his abacus. Golden Lotus tapped Yun Shu on the shoulder with his fan to indicate she should leave.

.

A hot wind made the bamboo groves on Monkey Hat Hill whisper and slur. That night a wave of monsoon rolled in from the east, black clouds billowing inland, connecting Six-hundred-li Lake to the dark sky with rods of rain. A million tapping nails on roof tiles, scratching, trickling, trying to find gaps.

Yun Shu slept badly, her dreams invaded by Golden Lotus bending her feet until bones snapped like twigs.

At dawn, she twitched and curled into a ball. Some animal instinct deep within noted the night rain had slowed. Rosy light glowed through the soft skin of her closed eyelids, stirring fear and urgency.

Yun Shu sat up in bed and cried out. Any day, perhaps today, Golden Lotus would begin the binding. After that? A lifetime of wretched hobbling. Compelled by a sudden hope, Yun Shu dressed swiftly and crept out into gathering light, birdsong, scented flowers and wet, impressionable soil. Soon she reached a secret hole in the boundary wall of the splendid house and gardens occupied by Salt Minister Gui. Her hope lay somewhere far less respectable: Deng Mansions.

Deng Mansions adjoined Yun Shu’s home. It consisted of a large compound of courtyards and shabby wooden buildings surrounded by gardens wild as grass seed. Built on the same grand scale as the Salt Minister’s house, it was topped by similar ornate, upward-curving red tiles. However, its wooden walls and doors sagged and several ceilings had fallen in on themselves.

Positioned two-thirds up Monkey Hat Hill, Deng Mansions was one of a dozen houses formerly occupied by absurdly rich officials and merchants. That was before the Mongols put the entire city to the sword. Now, all the other great houses on the Hill were burned or abandoned. Only the Deng clan clung to their ancestral home. Monkey Hat Hill had gained a reputation for being cursed and few risked the taint of misfortune. As for Salt Minister Gui, he only lived there because no one was alive to charge him rent.

She found Hsiung and Teng in the weed-choked central courtyard. They stood side by side, emptying their bladders into a thorn bush, competing to see who could spray highest.

I win again!’ crowed Hsiung. He was tall and muscular for his age, whereas Teng’s thin limbs suggested delicacy. Both had shaved heads topped with small tufts of black hair.

I could eat a banquet,’ said Teng, yawning. ‘I bet we get millet for breakfast.’

Then they noticed her. Neither was embarrassed as they pulled up their breeches. They hardly considered her a girl at all.

Why are you here so early?’ asked Hsiung. Despite being a servant, he often spoke up before Teng, his master’s son.

Breathlessly, Yun Shu told her tale of betrothal and bound feet. They sat on a decaying wooden step like a huddle of geese.

My mother didn’t have bound feet,’ she concluded. ‘She was a doctor’s daughter from Nancheng. Mother told me my Grandfather called bound feet unnatural. If only she was still alive!’

How old were you when she died?’ asked Teng.

Five.’

My mother died seven years ago,’ he said, tonelessly.

Sometimes I see her ghost. Especially at night. But when I look again it’s just shadows. She’s never there.’

The children fell silent. Hsiung began to whack the earth with a stick.

I wouldn’t let any one crush my feet,’ he declared. ‘I want to be free to run wherever I like.’

Teng stirred. ‘We must all obey our Honoured Fathers.

Confucius wrote . . .’

What if her father’s got it wrong?’ broke in Hsiung.

We should obey our parents especially if they are wrong,’ countered Teng. ‘Otherwise you’re wicked.’

I don’t want to hobble like a cripple all my life!’ cried Yun Shu.

The boys fell silent.

Will you help me?’ she asked. ‘You’re my only friends.’

Teng grew suddenly enthusiastic, as he often did when inspired by noble notions. ‘I know, let’s be Yun Shu’s xia! Her heroes! Hsiung, it’s just like that book I told you about. The hero saves the lady and she stabs herself because he won’t marry her!’

Hsiung liked the sound of that. They were interrupted by a voice inside the house: Teng’s father, Deng Nan-shi, wishing good morning to Lady Lu Si. Perpetually forlorn and annoying, Lady Lu Si was the Deng clan’s only other retainer, aside from Hsiung. Her position in the household was ambiguous, half honoured guest, half servant.

Golden Lotus and Father will be at Prince Arslan’s palace all day,’ said Yun Shu.

Meet us at the usual place in an hour,’ offered Teng.

Hsiung, we must remember to take our bamboo swords.’

Yun Shu escaped from the overgrown courtyard moments before Deng Nan-shi emerged into the sunlight with Lady Lu Si to receive his tiny household’s morning bows.

© Tim Murgatroyd 2013

An extract from ‘The Stone Gallows’

The Stone GallowsPrologue 1

January 2008

I was going to kill him.

An hour ago, John Coombes – my partner and supposed mentor – had been nothing more than a deeply unlikeable human being. Sixty minutes trapped in an unmarked police car with him had caused me to revise my opinion. He was the anti-Christ, my duty to the human race clear: God wanted me to kill him. I was sure of it.

It’s amazing how quickly people can go from a state of mild irritation to one of homicidal rage. This was the first time the two of us had pulled a surveillance duty together; although I didn’t know it at the time, it was also to be the last.

I even knew how I was going to do it. There was a disposable pen sitting on the dashboard and I was going use it to sign my name on the inside of his skull, jamming it through his eye or up his nose in a gratuitous but undeniably spectacular display of violence.

I was going to kill him because he was making a noise.

Not just a noise. An irritating, repetitive, childish sound. Like nails scratching a blackboard, or an amphetamine-fed Jack Russell given free rein with a squeaky rubber bone. The kind of noise that makes your soul wince in horror and discomfort until the most hideous act of violence seems like the conduct of an utterly reasonable man.

I’m a reasonable man. I swear.

But. . . even reasonable men have limits, and I was long past mine. He’d been doing it for at least ten minutes, using a plastic straw to try and suck the melting ice out of his paper cup, making a disgusting schlurp schurlp sound, and showed absolutely no sign of stopping.

Any detective who has ever worked surveillance would testify that those ten minutes had been an eternity. Hell, it wasn’t as if Coombes had a whiter than white service record. I might even be able to claim that I was performing a public service.

John?’

I made sure that my voice was calm and reasonable. If he sensed just how irritated I was, he’d keep on doing it. Coombes was that type of guy.

Yes, Cameron?’

I indicated the straw. ‘Do you mind?’

He sighed like I was asking him to donate his entire liver to my alcoholic second cousin, before tossing the cup in the back seat. We settled back into miserable silence.

There is only one rule to surveillance duty and it’s mindbogglingly simple: don’t take your eyes off the subject for a second. It doesn’t matter if you have been sitting there for an hour, a week, or even a month, you’re expected to maintain a constant level of focus. In the past, whole investigations have been abandoned because the people involved haven’t taken the job seriously enough. In one memorable incident, a key suspect was lost forever because the two detectives assigned to the case had been in the bookies across the road watching the three fifteen from Newmarket. They lost more than their fifty pounds each way that day, I can tell you.

Of course, none of that mattered to Coombes. He shifted his weight in the passenger seat of our unmarked Mondeo. ‘I need to pee.’

I grunted as I turned and fished the paper cup out of the back seat I showed it to him.

He looked at it, then me. ‘What do you think I am? An animal?’

Yeah, I saw that on David Attenborough. The famous cup-peeing gazelle of the Serengeti.’

We were three hours into a six hour shift. I’d been sensible, not over-eating or drinking. Coombes had munched his way through a quarter pounder with cheese, plus fries, plus a bloody chocolate doughnut. And, of course, nearly a litre of caffeine-laced soft drink. Of course he needed to pee. Coombes was always pissing about. You would think a time-served detective would know better.

But then, Detective John Coombes could hardly be described as the shining light of Strathclyde Police. I’d been his partner for about one month, and it had taken me less than two weeks to work out that he was perhaps not as dedicated as one would expect of a public servant. In his mid-forties, he was soft in the gut and work-ethic, with flabby hands and straw blonde hair that was thinning badly. I was supposed to be learning from him but so far all I’d discovered was the best places in Glasgow to get free food. The city had plenty of restaurants and bars where the subtle wave of a warrant card would net you a courtesy Chicken Fried Rice or pint of Heavy, and Coombes seemed to know them all.

Speaking of which. . . ‘There’s a pub round the corner,’ he said. ‘The Docker’s. We could take a little break.’

I checked my watch. ‘It’s after midnight. They won’t let us in.’

The landlord’s a friend of mine. Besides, it’s only five past. They won’t even have had time to hose the vomit out of the toilets yet.’

Sounds classy.’ I pretended to think about it before shaking my head. ‘Maybe another time.’

Come on. You new fish are all the same.We’ve been watching this bloody guy for two weeks now.He might be dirty, but he’s smart. He’s not going to do anything that we can pin on him. It’s a waste of time. Nobody’s going to know if we sneak off for a quick one.’

I wondered if we would be expected to pay for it, or if it was one of the many places where the landlord owed Coombes a ‘favour’.

I’m not comfortable with the idea.’

His face had a disgusted look on it. ‘Look, Stone, I’m not peeing in a paper cup. All I’m saying is, we’ll sneak away for one pint. . .’ He wagged a finger at me. ‘Just one, mind you, and then we’ll come back. We can sit here in the cold and the damp and smell each other’s body odour and you can hand over to whoever they send to replace us with a clear conscience.’

There was a park less than thirty yards away from where we sat. No lights, no walls, plenty of trees to slip behind. I nodded in its direction. ‘You could jump in there. Take you less than sixty seconds.’

He sulked for about two minutes, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Then he opened the car door. ‘Fuck it. I’m going for a pint. You can sit here on your lonesome.’

Don’t do it, Coombes.’

He laughed. ‘Why? What are you going to do? Report me?’

I took a deep breath. Being a cop is like being part of a big family. Coombes may have been a shifty bastard, but he was our shifty bastard. And I was still very much the new boy. If I made a complaint about him, it would be my word against his, and the repercussions for me could be grave. At the very least, it would isolate me from everybody else. Don’t work with Stone, they would say, he’s a clyping bastard. The worst case scenario was that I would be viewed as a trouble-maker, and probably not be considered for promotion any time in the next thousand years.

I decided to compromise. ‘You got your mobile with you?’

Coombes patted his pocket.

I’ll call if anything happens.’

Good boy.’

The car door slammed and I listened to him whistle as he walked off into the night. ‘Arsehole,’ I whispered, to myself.

© C. David Ingram 2009

An extract from ‘Roma Victrix’

Roma VictrixPrologue

The floor of the valley was sodden with blood.

Though her senses were overwhelmed with the chaos of battle – the shrieks of dying women, the uncomprehending screams of mutilated beasts and the stink of blood mingled with defecation – it was the image of the damp, purpled ground that was seared into Lysandra’s mind. She had seen death before, but never on this scale and, despite the warrior heritage she held so dear, she was not prepared for such carnage.

She tore her eyes from the earth, fighting for calm and forcing herself to analyse the horrific tableau before her. In the shallow valley the two opposing forces clashed, the formations swaying like drunken dancers as ground was lost and retaken. The bloodied soil was ripped up in clods; iron studded boots churned relentlessly over the battlefield as her pikewomen – the phalangites, on whom so much depended – held firm against the savage barbarian attack. On both wings of her battle-line, Lysandra’s small forces of cavalry rode forward, plunging into the fray.

Above it all, on the ridges that surrounded them, the iron ring of legionaries ensured the gladiatorial battle could break free of the valley. Behind the soldiers, she could see the brightly coloured tunics of spectators who had paid fortunes to watch the spectacle and, in the centre of the throng, the gleaming white togas of the imperial party. Lysandra wondered briefly if Domitian was enjoying his birthday extravaganza.

She forced her attention back to the battle and fought down a surge of panic as the dam of her Thessalian cavalry on her left wing began to break apart under the tidal wave of enemy pressure. With awful suddenness, the barbarians cleaved through and Thessalian resistance was sundered. Seizing the advantage, the expert enemy horsewomen swung about and thundered headlong into the now unprotected flanks of Lysandra’s phalanx, their savage cries keening over the cacophony of battle.

This is what Lysandra had feared the most. The Macedonian style phalanx which she had adapted for this spectacle was both irresistible and immovable from the front but if hit on the flanks the mighty formation was all too vulnerable; the closely packed troops could not bring their long pikes to bear against the enemy and were rendered all but defenceless. Lysandra watched in horror as the horsewomen, yelling in triumph, scythed into the formation. She saw her women mill about in confusion, some trying to drag out their short swords and make a stand, others shoving their way free from the bloody mêlée.

It did not take an Alexandrian understanding of tactics to know that the battle now hung in the balance. She had to intervene and thanked the gods that she had had the foresight to keep a reserve. She glanced at the women. These were her elite: all were gladiatrices, tried and tested in the arena. They were well used to the sight of blood and screams of the dying, less prone to panic than Lysandra’s newer troops. And they knew how to stay alive. Unlike the bulk of her forces, she had clad these shock troops as hoplites, kitted with heavy armour and helm. She gave her signaller an order and the buccina sounded three sharp blasts. The reserve line lurched forward, the women breaking into a trot. Like Lysandra, they would know that all was lost if they failed.

Unlike a ‘real’ battle, there could be no fleeing the field, no treating for terms: the fight would continue until the emperor called a halt – or until one side was wiped out. Lysandra pressed her lips into a thin line and urged her horse forward; black as night and dark tempered as his coat, Hades refused to budge. Lysandra was no rider, and kicked the beast savagely with her heels until he ambled reluctantly in the direction of the breach in her lines.

The enemy horsewomen were trying to disengage, but the disintegrated flank had become a seething mêlée with no room for manoeuvre. It was a small grain of fortune in the unfolding disaster – a bigger battlefield would have afforded the barbarian cavalry room to extricate themselves and charge again. As it was, though they had already wreaked havoc, they were now becoming bogged down, allowing her own soldiers to drag them from their mounts and cut them to pieces before they could rise. But these small successes were quickly expunged as the tribal infantry now leapt into the fray exploiting the gap caused by their mounted comrades. A groan went up from her troops as the sagging left wing was forced into the centre that, thus far, had held back the frontal barbarian onslaught. Lysandra looked about for answers but saw that the Thessalians were in no state to counter-attack. Too few remained and their horses were wounded and blown.

Far away on the right, her Egyptian cavalry were holding their own. Lysandra knew that their commander, Minera, would do her best to break through and ease the pressure by launching her own counter assault. But even if she succeeded, could she arrive in time? Lysandra’s plan to hold her ground and let the barbarian wave smash itself to pieces on the rock of the phalanx was teetering on the brink of failure and she could feel the courage leeching out of her women as their ranks began to collapse. In the midst of this, rode the enemy commander, Aldaberta. The huge German was roaring her troops on, her great fleshy arms wielding her sword like a club, smashing women from their feet, revelling in the carnage.

Then at last the reserve phalanx piled into the fray, their line holding firm as they advanced over a ground now made treacherous by dead beasts and warriors. In terrible unison, their spears plunged into horses and women alike, the onslaught carrying them deep into the fight. The triumphant cries of the tribeswomen turned to panic as the line of hoplites tore into them, their pitiless iron spearheads shearing into flesh like the teeth of Cerberus.

The reverse spread through the barbarian ranks like a slow-burning flame. Here and there the pressure of the assault slackened as groups of tribeswomen began to fall back in disarray. As they did so, the Egyptians on Lysandra’s right capitalised on the confusion and swept aside their opponents, cutting them down with ruthless efficiency. Their eerie battle cries rang out loud as they charged into the chaos, shattering the faltering courage of the enemy. What was once a battle became a rout as panic spread through the tribal ranks, and Minera’s squadron wheeled away, running down fleeing tribeswomen who had broken away from the mob. Lysandra’s infantry did not go after them in a mad rush, and she was gratified that the long months of training had paid off. Leaving the left to reorganise, her right and centre rolled forward in good order, thinning ranks to maximise their killing field.

Lysandra squeezed her eyes tight shut and puffed out her cheeks, exhaling sharply. She had come so close to defeat that even now, with the enemy fleeing, she took no joy in her victory. Unlike her triumphs in the arena, it was not only her own life she had been fighting for, but the lives of all her women. The terrible knowledge that her errors of judgement, her hesitations could – and indeed had – cost hundreds of lives was almost paralysing. As her troops began to massacre the wounded, she realised that it took a special person to be a general and, though she had been sorely tested, she was relieved that she had not been found wanting.

As their enemy closed in, knowing that their end had come, the tribal women formed a circle, determined to extract a huge toll for the ferryman before they passed into their barbarian afterlife. Lysandra saw Aldaberta force her way out of the ring, waving her bloodied longsword and screaming a challenge.

The challenge was for the ‘Spartan coward who hid behind her warriors’ to face her in single combat. As she ranted and capered about, the fighting began to die down and the abuse she spouted became increasingly obscene. Its sole purpose was to make Lysandra angry and she knew it. The last act of a desperate woman who had tested herself against Lysandra’s will and failed. If this had been a real battle, she would have simply ordered her troops to finish the job.

But this was a spectacle – entertainment for the Emperor of Rome and the privileged audience that had paid fortune to see death on an almost unimaginable scale. And she, Lysandra of Sparta, was Gladiatrix Prima. She could not refuse and Aldaberta knew it. She knew it, as the throngs watching knew it and the soldiers that protected them knew it. The men of the legions began to pound their spears rhythmically on their shields as they realised what was unfolding on the field below them, and then the spectators began to clap in time with the menacing tattoo begun by the soldiers of Rome.

Lysandra slid down from her mount and unclasped her scarlet war-cloak. Like the majority of her troops, she was protected by a shirt of chain mail and wore a gladius at her hip. She strode forward and drew the sword without ceremony.

Seeing that her wish was to be granted, Aldaberta began urging her surviving comrades to cheer, as though their efforts could bolster her power. Not, Lysandra thought, that it needed much in the way of augmentation. Like most of her ilk, the German was tall and big-boned and Aldaberta had built upon her natural size with a prodigious diet, carrying a lot of excess bulk beneath her leather-armoured torso. Lysandra had seen girthy arena fighters in the past, both male and female. They argued that a layer of fat over their muscles made them less vulnerable to serious injury than the leaner competitor. Whatever the truth of the matter, with her spiked blonde hair and porcine features, the German certainly looked like she could prove to be a handful.

Lysandra spun her sword twice and stretched her neck from side to side before settling into a fighting stance; Aldaberta simply spat on the ground and advanced, her eyes glittering with hatred. With a snarl, she leapt into the attack, her long sword arcing diagonally towards Lysandra’s neck. Rather than jump back, Lysandra stepped into the attack, knowing that with her shorter blade it was folly to stay on the outside. She thrust hard with the gladius, but the blow was not well aimed, merely scoring the dark leather of Aldaberta’s breast plate.

Lysandra followed up by lunging at her enemy, trying to knock her to the ground. The German grunted at the force of the strike but retained enough presence of mind to smash the pommel of her sword into the side of Lysandra’s head. Stunned and gasping, Lysandra fell to the side, feeling her cheek become wet as blood dripped down from a cut on her temple. She rolled to one knee – just in time to block a furious downward cut from the onrushing Aldaberta. The tribeswoman did not strike with her sword again, but lashed out with a kick, her foot slamming into Lysandra’s chest, knocking her flat on her back.

The barbarians roared their approval and Lysandra could tell that Aldaberta had begun to believe that their champion would carve up her smaller opponent. Aldaberta moved in quickly and it was all Lysandra could do to roll away and regain her footing. The German rounded on her again, cutting horizontally, seeking to slice Lysandra’s head from her body. Lysandra parried the blow and spun full circle, the movement taking her inside Aldaberta’s guard. As she turned, she slammed her elbow into her enemy’s nose, feeling the satisfying crunch of breaking bone and gristle. Using the momentum from the spin she swung about again, hoping to catch the other woman with her outstretched sword whilst she was still reeling.

Aldaberta, however, was not to be dispatched so easily and hurled herself away. She spat out a gob of blood and raised her sword. Lysandra moved in, determined to seize the initiative and put the big tribeswoman on the defensive. The short blade of the gladius flicked out like a viper’s tongue trying to tease Aldaberta into making a mistake; but the German was cool, deflecting each attack that came into her range, biding her time.

Do not lose patience, Lysandra told herself, just as her foot slipped on the blood-slicked ground. She fell hard, her weapon skidding away. Desperate fear welled up inside her as the tried to roll away. Too slow. The mail armour saved her from losing the use of her arm, but still the heavy long sword smashed into her shoulder, sending sickening waves of agony flooding through her.

Aldaberta howled in triumph, raising her sword to the sky and Lysandra used the precious moment to scramble to her feet, trying to ignore the pain. She made to run to her gladius, but the German was a veteran of the arena too and moved smoothly, cutting the Spartan off from her weapon. Her grin was smug and she brandished the long sword as though to underscore the fact the end would be soon. And she needed it to be; Lysandra noted that her foe’s shoulders moved steadily up and down and her face was florid and gleaming with sweat. Unlike Lysandra, the barbarian leader had been fighting alongside her troops and the day’s exertions were beginning to tell.

Lysandra raised her fists, dropping back into the classical pankration stance. Aldaberta sneered and moved in for the kill. She feinted, skipping in and back out again, trying to intimidate her unarmed opponent, but Lysandra would not allow herself to be drawn. Again Aldaberta lunged, this time with intent and Lysandra only stepped aside at the last instant. She twisted her lips into a contemptuous half-smile, mocking the other woman’s inability to end the fight. Snarling, Aldaberta pursued her, the long sword hissing as it cut empty air.

Despite her display of bravado, Lysandra was taken aback – the German’s stamina was phenomenal; she forced herself on long after exhaustion should have leeched the precision from her moves. Lysandra led her opponent on, allowing herself time to recover, allowing the fierce pain in her shoulder to recede to a dull ache. Albaderta’s blade hissed down in the diagonal cut, a blow designed to carve an opponent from neck to hip. As she did so, Lysandra leapt in to meet the attack, clamping her hands around the tribeswoman’s wrists. Aldaberta’s eyes bulged with anger as though she was put out by Lysandra’s temerity at trying to match her strength. She gritted her teeth, determined to force the Spartan to her knees.

Lysandra resisted, sweat bursting out on her brow as the German brought her weight to bear. Aldaberta growled as Lysandra began to buckle, the inexorable pressure forcing her down inch by painful inch. It was at that moment that Lysandra gave way, using the powerful tribeswoman’s own strength against her. The German stumbled forward and Lysandra took advantage of the momentary loss of balance, reversing her grip on the other woman’s wrists and twisting hard.

Aldaberta’s weight did Lysandra’s work for her – the German could not pull away and with a rush, the iron tip of her own weapon cleaved through her armour, deep into the flesh beneath. She made a choking sound before toppling slowly to one side, her life ebbing away.

The young Spartan stepped back aghast. She realised that as she had slain Aldaberta, so Sorina had killed Lysandra’s lover Eirianwen – the same technique used in the same way. The memories pierced her heart like a knife as she was borne aloft by her cheering soldiers. The day was hers, but in the sickening aftermath, Lysandra could take no joy in it.

 

© Russell Whitfield 2011

An extract from ‘Reaper’

REAPER  picChapter One

JIM REAPER STARTED TO PLAN MURDER as thousands began to die in a natural disaster that almost killed the world.

He had become a man of routine and habit. He still bought The Independent, as a sign of his social leanings and pretensions. He had bought the paper when Margaret was alive. The Independent for him, The Mirror for her. His and her papers, reflecting his and her intellects. Except that he had preferred to read The Mirror first, for the shorthand version of national and world events, and the sports pages.

On this day, he walked into the city, as he did every day, and bought the newspaper from the same shop in Reuben Street. He had a late breakfast at Wetherspoons. He always started with a couple of coffees and then, seeing as he was in a bar, it seemed only polite to have a couple of pints. Maybe three or four. No more. He wasn’t an alcoholic or dependent on the booze; he was dependent on the routine. On this grey day in the middle of February, he left to walk home, back through the city and into the suburbs. It was then he saw Frank Morris, large as life, coming out of a bar in New Street, a mobile phone to his ear, a girl on his arm, laughing and joking as if all was well with the world.

You only had to look at the morning headlines to see that all was not well with the world. The earthquake in China was proving more of a handful than expected. Thousands had been killed, infrastructure devastated and, on top of that, there had been an outbreak of a glori!ed “u virus. The world had started dying, although no one yet knew it, and all Reaper could think about was how to kill Frank Morris.

He followed him, almost without thinking, staying well back and hidden among the crowds. Morris and the girl went to the bus station and waited at the number 36 bay. Reaper kept his distance and watched from the anonymity of ever changing crowds. A green double-decker arrived and disgorged passengers. The driver left and the bus waited empty, doors closed, until a new driver climbed on board. Now the doors opened again and those waiting could board and pay their fares. Morris and the girl went upstairs. Reaper got on the bus and asked for a ticket to the terminus, took a seat on the lower deck, and waited.

The girl had been attractive in a common way. The boots she wore and the fake fur jacket were probably high street expensive. The skirt was short and her legs long; her make-up blatant and her hair bleached straw blonde. She laughed too loud. He could hear her now from downstairs; she was laughing as if to show off to the world that she was with a real catch. She couldn’t be more than 18. She didn’t know any better.

He held the newspaper at eye level in case Morris looked in his direction when they came downstairs to disembark but, when they did, in the middle of the undistingushed Butterly Estate, the man was too intent on saying something suggestive to the girl, who laughed obligingly and “ashed a challenging glance down the bus as if to relay the fact that they were now going off to do something scandalous and dirty that was far beyond the limits of her audience’s boring lives. They got off as it started to rain. Two other people were also waiting to climb down, one an elderly woman who was taking her time. Reaper left his seat, helped her and got off himself.

The couple were running down the wet pavement, eager to be out of the rain, eager for each other. Reaper followed at a distance. They turned left and he ran to keep them in sight. They walked up the path of a semidetached council house. He walked twenty paces down the street until he could confirm the number on the gate, turned away and began to walk back. The rain was getting heavier but he didn’t feel the elements; he felt only the anger, deep, patient and uncompromising.

It was two hours before he realised he was approaching his own house. Without realising, he had responded to a homing instinct like a pigeon. The day was already darkening and he was soaked and needed to pee. He let himself in, stripped naked, used the lavatory and took a hot shower. He lost track of time and became aware, some hours later, that he was laying on his bed in a bathrobe.

His mind had short-circuited with the knowledge that Frank Morris was out and he knew where he lived. A sudden thought muddled his half-formed intention. Did the girl live with him? Or was she only an afternoon’s diversion? He calmed himself. A lot of planning was needed. He would discover the necessary details, he would wait until the time was right, and then he would act. Justice would finally be done. So far, justice had been only noticeable by its absence. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. Reaper thought it was time the Lord had a little help.

 © Jon Grahame 2014

An extract from ‘Once, Two Islands’

Once, Two IslandsChapter One

There is an island situated in one of the three vast oceans of the world, an island which is actually a peak of a huge mountain, lying on the ocean floor like a sleeping dragon with only two scales of its humped back poking through the surface of the sea. Two, because near the island is another, smaller one, further east, which has all the qualities of the larger yet is different, like an echo. A man and his wife, some of the islanders call them, although their appointed names are Ergo Island (the larger) and Impossible Island (the smaller). They were formed long ago, before the beginning of time, by the power of the dragon, bursting out of the ocean with fire and ash and steam, affecting a quarter of the planet, causing tsunamis and black skies. But now they are merely two islands, the only comma and full stop for miles and miles in the blank blue page of the sea. To look at them, you would never guess the power of the dragon below, for they seem inconsequential, out of the way of the main shipping lines, in the way of the gales that roll in from Antarctica. Although the islands are made mostly of black volcanic rock, Ergo has an apron of settled sediment which is fertile, and on which people and their animals have come to live with the seabirds and seals and penguins.

Amongst them was a young girl, born on the island one winter’s day while the spindrift wind sang strange songs around the cliffs. Her body had thus far been immersed in the music of her mother, the shush of the sea of her, the thrum of the blood drum of her, the tinkle and resonance of her belly embrace. She’d grown from a full stop to a comma, from a tadpole to a frog to a fish, the plates of her face slowly colliding to form her features. She’d put on flesh and hair and pushed out frontal lobes, preparing to leave the sea behind, to drag herself out of her mother’s belly onto dry land.

The handsome doctor, Orion Prosper, washed his hands, snapped on a pair of latex gloves, and examined his wife again. Prostrate beneath his gaze, the brown mound of her belly tightening, Angelique gripped the bedpost as a wave of pain rolled through her.

Not too long now,” her husband informed her.

Remember, when the time comes, close your mouth and push!”

Angelique’s thoughts strayed to her cow last season, lying and lowing, a black struggling sack emerging from under her tail.

You must push into your bottom!” Sister Veronica concurred. She was childless, but trained in one of the best hospitals on the mainland. “Don’t forget to push as though you are going to the toilet!”

Angelique remembered the beached whale last summer, dying under the weight of its enormous body, its sonar gone wrong.

Frieda, who’d had her own babies, held her young sister’s hand. “Soon you’ll be seeing your child,” she consoled her.

At that moment, all Angelique could see was the Virgin Mary hanging on the white hospital wall, left there by one of Veronica’s predecessors, her face full of good sadness, her only son lost, lost, and all for a good cause. Another wave washed through her, flushing all thought from the pink coral of her brain as she clung to the side of the bed, and to an ancient body knowledge of how to give birth.

It seemed to Frieda that this birth was taking too long. Something in the flow of things had been arrested; the passage would not open, despite the doctor’s modern chemicals flowing into Angelique’s arm, up her vein, through her heart and down to her womb. She knew from her own son’s birth what was required. Of course, Sophia should be there, but that was impossible, impossible.

Frieda wiped her sister’s brow with a cloth and tried to keep her mouth closed. She liked the doctor enough. A confident man, a man who had brought all manner of good to the island. Why, he had saved her own daughter’s life when her appendix blew. No home remedy from Sophia could subdue that beast, only the knife would do, and so her Liesa carried the mark of the surgeon upon her belly: a neat straight scar where her body had sewn itself closed around the doctor’s stitches, a reminder forever that life can change in a moment. There were some things a woman knew better than a man, though, some things that the spirit world knew better than the human one, and some things better left to those who do not have to wrestle through the confounding drapes of love and ardour; the doctor was, after all, the patient’s husband. Frieda watched the doctor’s brow pinch and wished there was a way she could open him too: he was closed, as closed as the unfathomable language of his journals.

Her chance came an hour later, when the doctor and Veronica were called away to attend to Elijah Mobara, who had fallen badly on the rocks at the Point, and to little Phoebe, Graça Bagonata’s newborn, who had the croup. Frieda sat by her sister’s bed, torn by the roar of warring loyalties inside her.

Please!” gasped her sister as another spasm gripped her, lifting a face brimful of fear.

Frieda could sit and watch no longer. She went to the window and flung it wide open. The cupboard doors, too, she opened, and the taps till they gushed. She undid the ties that bound the curtains, her own shoelaces, and the ties of the hospital gown around her sister’s neck and back. It was up to the ancestors now, she thought; she had done what she could.

When Veronica returned a quarter of an hour later, she found winter right inside the room, a gale blowing in the patient’s hair, rain slanting in through the window. Like a whirlwind herself she stormed about, shutting out and cutting off water and wind, tying and closing, releasing from her mouth a torrent of horror directed at Frieda – “You people are a danger to yourselves, imagine exposing a woman in labour to the elements!” – while Angelique, gripped by the end-stage madness of her yawning womb, felt how her body had become an instrument, how the oboe of her body had opened, how her mouth moaned a long and perfect O sounding out of the foundation of her and somehow flowing in two directions, out through her open throat and through her dilated cervix simultaneously, a sound to move the heavens. There was no stopping her now.

The baby released her grip, pushed aside her mother’s swollen lips and slid out into her life. The doctor, her father, arrived in time to cut the cord, too late to be told of Frieda’s duplicity.

The doctor allowed himself a quick smoke and a whisky before delivering the afterbirth. He had been afraid it might come to a Caesarean section. He was a good surgeon, clean, efficient, working by the book, taking no undue risks, but he did not relish the thought of putting his hand into the very centre of his wife’s body. He was not a religious man, but somehow that would be going too far.

Of course, some would have said he took risks, delivering his own child so far from the help of obstetricians. They had considered going to the mainland for the birth, but it was a week by ship, and ships only visited the island four times a year, bringing provisions and luxuries. What if his wife had gone into labour on the high seas? Besides, if he was not prepared to deliver his own child on the island, what would the islanders think – that he was not a good enough doctor for theirs?

He went over to where Frieda was washing the baby, dousing the child in coos and smiles and warm water, and looked his daughter over, this sprung and fragile scrap that had something to do with his loins, with the nightly pleasure he took in his wife. Everything was present and correct, but he had to admit a moment of disappointment. He would have preferred a son; a daughter was too vulnerable to predatory men. He was a man who did not like to worry, and he could feel worry tighten in him already.

Well done, my darling,” he said, kissing his wife on the forehead. She smiled at him, happy he was pleased with her, happy the ordeal was over, that her wayward body had brought their daughter safely to the shore of the world.

© Dawn Garish 2007

An extract from ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’

The Garden of Evening MistsChapter One

On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him.

He did not apologise for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.

Thirty-six years after that morning, I hear his voice again, hollow and resonant. Memories I had locked away have begun to break free, like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.

The stillness of the mountains awakens me. The depth of the silence: that is what I had forgotten about living in Yugiri. The murmurings of the house hover in the air when I open my eyes. An old house retains its hoard of memories, I remember Aritomo telling me once.

Ah Cheong knocks on the door and calls softly to me. I get out of bed and put on my dressing gown. I look around for my gloves and find them on the bedside table. Pulling them over my hands, I tell the housekeeper to come in. He enters and sets the pewter tray with a pot of tea and a plate of cut papaya on a side table; he had done the same for Aritomo every morning. He turns to me and says, ‘I wish you a long and peaceful retirement, Judge Teoh.’

Yes, it seems I’ve beaten you to it.’ He is, I calculate, five or six years older than me. He was not here when I arrived yesterday evening. I study him, layering what I see over what I remember. He is a short, neat man, shorter than I recall, his head completely bald now. Our eyes meet. ‘You’re thinking of the first time you saw me, aren’t you?’

Not the first time, but the last day. The day you left.’ He nods to himself. ‘Ah Foon and I – we always hoped you’d come back one day.’

Is she well?’ I tilt sideways to look behind him, seeking his wife at the door, waiting to be called in. They live in Tanah Rata, cycling up the mountain road to Yugiri every morning.

Ah Foon passed away, Judge Teoh. Four years ago.’

Yes. Yes, of course.’

She wanted to tell you how grateful she was, that you paid her hospital bills. So was I.’

I open the teapot’s lid, then close it, trying to remember which hospital she had been admitted to. The name comes to me: Lady Templer Hospital.

Five weeks,’ he says.

Five weeks?’

In five weeks’ time it will be thirty-four years since Mr Aritomo left us.’

For goodness’ sake, Ah Cheong!’ I have not returned to Yugiri in almost as long. Does the housekeeper judge me by the increasing number of years from the last time I was in this house, like a father scoring another notch on the kitchen wall to mark his child’s growth?

Ah Cheong’s gaze fixes on a spot somewhere over my shoulder. ‘If there’s nothing else. . .’ He begins to turn away.

In a gentler tone, I say, ‘I’m expecting a visitor at ten o’clock this morning. Professor Yoshikawa. Show him to the sitting room verandah.’

The housekeeper nods once and leaves, closing the door behind him. Not for the first time I wonder how much he knows, what he has seen and heard in his years of service with Aritomo.

The papaya is chilled, just the way I like it. Squeezing the wedge of lime over it, I eat two slices before putting down the plate. Opening the sliding doors, I step onto the verandah. The housesits on low stilts and the verandah is two feet above the ground. The bamboo blinds creak when I scroll them up. The mountains are as I have always remembered them, the first light of the morning melting down their flanks. Damp withered leaves and broken-off twigs cover the lawn. This part of the house is hidden from the main garden by a wooden fence. A section has collapsed, and tall grass spikes out from the gaps between the fallen planks. Even though I have prepared myself for it, the neglected condition of the place shocks me.

A section of Majuba Tea Estate is visible to the east over the fence. The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day’s blessing. It is Saturday, but the tea-pickers are working their way up the slopes. There has been a storm in the night, and clouds are still marooned on the peaks. I step down the verandah onto a narrow strip of ceramic tiles, cold and wet beneath my bare soles. Aritomo obtained them from a ruined palace in Ayutthaya, where they had once paved the courtyard of an ancient and nameless king. The tiles are the last remnants of a forgotten kingdom, its histories consigned to oblivion.

I fill my lungs to the brim and exhale. Seeing my own breath take shape, this cobweb of air which only a second ago had been inside me, I remember the sense of wonder it used to bring. The fatigue of the past months drains from my body, only to flood back into me a moment later. It feels strange that I no longer have to spend my weekends reading piles of appeal documents, or catching up with the week’s paperwork.

I breathe out through my mouth a few more times, watching my breaths fade away into the garden.

My secretary, Azizah, brought me the envelope shortly before we left my chambers to go into the courtroom. ‘This came for you just now, Puan,’ she said.

Inside was a note from Professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji, confirming the date and time of our meeting in Yugiri. It had been sent a week before. Looking at his neat handwriting, I wondered if it had been a mistake to have agreed to see him. I was about to telephone him in Tokyo to cancel the appointment when I realised he would already be on his way to Malaysia. And there was something else inside the envelope. Turning it over, a thin wooden stick, about five inches long, fell out onto my desk. I picked it up and dipped it into the light of my desk lamp. The wood was dark and smooth, its tip ringed with fine, overlapping grooves.

So short-lah, the chopstick. For children is it?’ Azizah said, coming into the room with a stack of documents for me to sign. ‘Where’s the other one?’

It’s not a chopstick.’

I sat there, looking at the stick on the table until Azizah reminded me that my retirement ceremony was about to begin. She helped me into my robe and together we went out to the corridor. She walked ahead of me as usual to give the advocates warning that Puan Hakim was on her way – they always used to watch her face to gauge my mood. Following behind her, I realised that this would be the last time I would make this walk from my chambers to my courtroom.

Built nearly a century ago, the Supreme Court building in Kuala Lumpur had the solidity of a colonial structure, erected to outlast empires. The high ceilings and the thick walls kept the air cool even on the hottest of days. My courtroom was large enough to seat forty, perhaps even fifty people, but on this Tuesday afternoon the advocates who had not arrived early had to huddle by the doors at the back. Azizah had informed me about the numbers attending the ceremony but I was still taken aback when I took my place on the bench beneath the portraits of the Agong and his Queen. Silence spread across the courtroom when Abdullah Mansor, the Chief Justice, entered and sat down next to me. He leaned over and spoke into my ear. ‘It’s not too late to reconsider.’

You never give up, do you?’ I said, giving him a brief smile.

And you never change your mind.’ He sighed. ‘I know. But can’t you stay on? You only have two more years to go.’

Looking at him, I recalled the afternoon in his chambers when I told him of my decision to take early retirement. We had fought about many things over the years – points of law or the way he administered the courts – but I had always respected his intellect, his sense of fairness and his loyalty to us judges. That afternoonwas the only time he had ever lost his composure with me. Now there was only sadness in his face. I would miss him.

© Tan Twan Eng 2012

An extract from ‘Wrath of the Lemming Men’

Wrath of the Lemming MenPrologue:

The Battle of the Tam Valley

By dawn it was clear to General Young that General Wikwot’s drive to capture Varanor had ground to a halt. The Colonial Army had displayed remarkable courage in the face of a frenzied assault. Yet the lemming men pressed on. Unable to disgrace himself with acts of selfpreservation, General Wikwot threw his reserves into the fray as the 112th Army prepared to strike the deathblow. . .’

The Official History of the War Against the Lemming Men, Galactic War Office

Many and arrogant were the Yull, sure that their early success would bring them certain victory. Yet we M’Lak made ready, and our humans too, and fiercely the Yull were met among the trees. Not cowardly were our warriors, and not light the grievous slaying in that gory vale. For severed heads, piles of lemming men, the squeaking of fallen rodents: these are pleasing things to us. . .’

The Saga of Varanor, Verse 613WRATH OF THE LEMMING MEN

In an unprovoked act of self-defence, the offworlder scum turned on our friendly and entirely non-genocidal army. The dirty foe fought unreasonably for their lives, and urgently the splendid General Wikwot ordered our reserves under noble-born Colonel Vock to attack from the north and mercilessly butcher the enemy – for their own good, of course. . .’

Final (Terminal) Report of Lieutenant-General Prang, Divine Amiable Yullian Army

* * *

Agshad Nine-Swords leaned back in his deckchair and studied the sky above. It was a clear, hot day, and the sun streaked through the high trees, throwing bars of light across the glorified pillbox that he called home. The sun made Agshad feel strong and keen. It was a good day for adventurous deeds, and so he had taken the accounts books into the garden.

He sat outside on a deckchair, calculator on his lap, sleeves rolled up, occasionally looking up from his books to frown and stroke his mandibles and chin. Later on, he decided, he would lock up the little fort, take the jeep across the bridge and say hello to the main garrison five miles east, at Tambridge.

A running figure appeared at the far side of the bridge. Agshad shielded his eyes and peered: it was a man in army uniform, his arm in an improvised sling. He vanished behind one of the great timber pillars of the bridge, reappeared, looked behind him, stumbled, rose and lurched on.

Perturbed, Agshad got up and strode out to meet him. As he looked down the length of the bridge he recognised the man.

Eddie?’ he called. ‘Are you alright?’

Eddie half-collapsed on him. ‘They’re in the trees!’ he gasped.

They’re coming!’

Who’s coming?’

Them! The Yull!’

But the Yull are miles away, Eddie.’

No, no.’ Unable to speak, Eddie bent over and panted.

The garrison’s down,’ he managed. ‘All dead. Yull came – thousands of them. They killed everyone – Brian, Clarrie, even Old Joe. Tambridge is fallen!’

Oh my ancestors,’ Agshad said.

We fought to the last man. Can’t let ’em get you, the bastards. They sent me – to warn you.’

How many –’ Agshad began, and as if to answer him high voices pulsed through the forest beyond the bridge, a hard, impatient chant: ‘Yull, Yull, Yull!’

It’s an army,’ Eddie gasped. ‘We’ve got to warn HQ!’ Drums and gongs through the trees, the sound of wild shrieks and cracking whips. ‘Yull, Yull, Yull!’

We’re too late!’ Eddie cried.

Agshad rooted about in his pockets and took out a key. ‘I’ll deal with this,’ he said. ‘Take the jeep and go and warn headquarters. I’ll delay them as long as I can.’

Eddie looked hard at him for a moment, then nodded. ‘Alright. Good luck, Agshad.’

You too,’ Agshad said mildly, and as the battered jeep coughed into life behind him, he strolled onto the empty bridge

The Yull rushed over the horizon like a tidal wave of fur. A thousand sleek bodies slipped between the trees. Axes glinted, forage-caps bobbed, banners flapped, human skulls grinned and shook on banner poles. And amid the horde came the squeaky voices of the looting, murdering lemming men of Yull.

They poured down the hill, squeaking and yelling, the officers beating their maddened soldiers on to the river’s edge. Agshad picked up the broom he used to sweep the bridge.

Suddenly a voice barked ‘Huphup! Harp-huphephop!’ and the lemming men stopped dead. They halted at the edge of the bridge in a crowd, desperate to pour across but lacking the orders to do so. The army stretched along the opposite bank as far as Agshad could see. To the right, a lemming man pointed into the swirling waters of the Tam and made excitable sounds until a sergeant tripped him and tore out his heart. The Yull did not tolerate indiscipline.

The horde parted before Agshad and a figure stepped onto the bridge. He wore the cuirass, helmet and enormous shoulder-pads of a high-ranking officer, but Agshad could have told his status had he been naked. The puffed-out chest, the swaggering walk – the Yullian officer class were not only vicious sadists, but insufferably pompous as well

You!’ the officer barked. ‘Dirty offworlder!’

Morning,’ Agshad said.

Harruph! I am Colonel Mimco Vock of the sacred army of Yullia! The war god of the Yull, in his divine wisdom as interpreted by the high-priests of the Yull, has decreed that it is to be the Yull who will rule this galaxy.’

There’s a surprise.’

Shup! This bridge is now the property of the Greater Galactic Happiness, Friendship and Co-operation Collective – so beat it, M’Lak trash, or I will torture you to death!’

Agshad reached out and tapped a small brass plaque fixed to the timber. ‘I think you will find that this bridge is the property of the army of the British Space Empire. I represent their accounts department and, as the highest ranking officer present, I forbid you to make use of it.’

British Space Empire? Pah!’ Vock snorted, hands twitching towards the axe at his waist. ‘I am not here to speak with animals! How dare you address me so, human coward lackey! Surrender at once so I can tear out your still-beating–’ a look of rudimentary cunning stole across his whiskered face and he calmed himself with a shudder ‘–liberate you from the yoke of serving the British oppressor.’

Agshad shook his head. ‘Sorry, no. I refuse to join an army which practices human sacrifice and has no adequate pension plan. We M’Lak are wise to you. Which, incidentally, is why we are helping the humans trounce your army downriver.’

Lying offworlder who is lower than a beast and smells of cheese! The Divine Migration cannot be halted by scum like you!’

Then why are you here with all these reinforcements? The truth is that your furry legion came down to the woods today, and you got a big surprise. Not a picnic any more, is it?’

Nobody compares me to a soft toy!’ Vock yelled back. ‘Dirty weak offworlders get nothing but death! You are lucky if I kill you quick, big smelly coward! You will die slow, yes – slow!’

Agshad thought of Eddie, and imagined him tearing down the dirt road in the jeep. He would probably have reached the main camp by now: perhaps he was in a tent with General Young herself, pointing out the Yullian advance on the map. He smiled.

You smirk at me? If you had whiskers I would pull them out, nice and slow! I will wear your kneecaps on my. . .’ Vock paused, speechless with fury, ‘On my knees!’

Agshad shrugged.

But you are brave, for an offworlder,’ Vock hissed. ‘Most would have begged for mercy by now.’ He leaned forward, and spoke more gently. ‘I will give you something for your defiance. If you turn away and leave now, I will let you live. And when we are done killing your allies as gradually as possible, I will reward you and make you a retainer of my house. A fair offer, I think.’

Indeed.’ Agshad leaned in as if to reply quietly. ‘It sounds good, but–’ He tilted his head back, sniffing the air.

The lemming frowned. ‘But what?’

I smell a rat.’

For a moment, Agshad thought Colonel Vock was going to pop. The Yull drew back as if struck, shook violently, turned on the spot and punched one of his lieutenants in the eye. ‘Right! That’s it!’ Vock gestured to his men. ‘Hup-hup!’

Agshad glanced over his shoulder. Sixty feet beneath the bridge, the waters of the Tam slapped and broke upon the rocks. Agshad thought: they would be three abreast on the bridge, and it would be hard for them to fight the urge to jump. He could keep them back – for a while.

A Yullian knight shouldered his way through the horde, a fat brute in blue plate armour. He braced himself, raised his axe over his head like an executioner, screamed a battle cry and charged.

Yullai!’ he shrieked – and stopped dead as the bristle end of Agshad’s broom struck him in the mouth. He made muffled noises, chewing at the bristles in his rage, and Agshad turned and deftly shoved him over the railings. Vock’s champion dropped into the rapids, whooping with demented glee. The Tam had claimed its first victim.

Agshad felt tranquil and absolutely confident, as if the sun had risen anew and bathed him in its rays. He was where he was meant to be. His whole life had been leading to this moment: decades as a warrior, followed by the rigorous discipline of accountancy. He looked down at the river, where the body of the Yull bumped against the bank.

One,’ Agshad said.

The Yull poured howling onto the bridge. Agshad whirled the broom, braining one and knocking a second flat. The third lemming man fell over the second, and Agshad leaped up and kicked a fourth in the snout. The bodies of the Yull began to pile up and more clambered over them. Agshad pressed on, tallying his kills as he waded into the foe.

It was turning into a beautiful day: a morning’s bookkeeping and then a fight to the death, all in very clement weather. One could not have wished for a better end to life. Agshad’s only regret was that his offspring could not see him; they would have been quite impressed. He kicked a lemming man over the railing.

Fourteen!’ he cried. ‘Ancestors of mine, children of mine, watch me now, for this is how I die!’

Suruk the Slayer was suddenly awake. He had been sleeping in the traditional way, squatting on a stool like some great bird of prey – in one movement he sprang down from his perch and landed softly in the middle of the room, silent except for the hiss of the blade as he slid it from its sheath.

He stood there in a fighting-crouch, tasting the air, his shrewd eyes flicking around the room. I felt something, he thought. Something was here. . . something very wrong.

Who is there?’ he asked softly, speaking the language of his forefathers for no reason he could understand. ‘Father? Is it you?’

The shadows did not answer.

It must have been the curry,’ Suruk said, and he shrugged and went back to sleep.

© Toby Frost 2009