Secret History Thriller, Historical Fantasy, Supernatural Thriller, Speculative Fiction.
Date Published: 28/01/2019
It is 1761. Prussia is at war with Russia and Austria.
As the Russian army occupies East Prussia, King Frederick the Great and his men fight hard to win back their homeland.
In Ludwigshain, a Junker estate in East Prussia, Countess Marion von Adler celebrates an exceptional harvest. But it is requisitioned by Russian troops. When Marion tries to stop them, a Russian captain strikes her. His lieutenant, Ian Fermor, defends Marion’s honour and is stabbed for his insubordination. Abandoned by the Russians, Fermor becomes a divisive figure on the estate.
Close to death, Fermor dreams of the Adler, a numinous eagle entity, whose territory extends across the lands of Northern Europe and which is mysteriously connected to the Enlightenment. What happens next will change of the course of human history…
This is an excerpt from The Coronation by Justin Newland.
It’s the closing scene of Chapter 1.
It’s from the point of view of Marion Grafin (or Countess) von Adler and takes place in her home in Schloss (or Castle) Ludwigshain.
They were about to set off on the annual end-of-harvest tour of the estate borders. It had been a tradition since her husband’s family had acquired Ludwigshain nearly a century before. The ceremony was akin to an eagle flying the boundaries of its territory, except that Marion marked hers with grace and by sprinkling a handful of wheat at regular intervals.
She and Sisi sat in the little pony trap next to Grenda, the coachman, who wore a feather in his peaked cap. Alongside her, Hans and Christoph rode their mares, whose tails casually flicked away marauding summer flies. Grenda tapped lightly on the reins and steered them along the eastern lake shore, where butterflies danced on the water’s glassy surface. They headed along the sand ridge overlooking the quiet course of the River Pregel in the valley. Below them, the green water meadows and golden yellow fields basked in the ebullient rays of the summer sun. The panoramic view, the sultry day, the bright light, and the trundle of the cart had a timeless quality.
Christoph rode up to the trap. He had something on his mind. “How is the Graf, Your Excellency?”
“From his last correspondence,” she replied, “he is in good health.”
“Praise the Lord. Did he say if we are winning the war?”
“He did, and yes, of course we are,” she replied with a forced smile.
Two years previously the Russian Army had occupied Königsberg – the capital of Ostpreussen – barely four hours’ ride away. Since then, the tide of the war had turned against King Frederick. She needed to keep up their morale so she wasn’t going to tell that to her estate workers. Nor that the King’s army was smaller than both the individual armies of their Austrian and Russian enemies.
“It’s only a question of time,” she added with deliberate ambiguity.
“That’s good,” Christoph said.
He rode in silence, distractedly flicking his mare’s whip. He kept glancing towards her, as if he wanted to say something else and turned away at the last moment.
“What’s the matter? Is it the harvest?” she asked.
“No, Your Excellency,” he replied. “We’ll bring it in. And it’s a good one, no doubt about it. No, it’s the maintenance – mending broken fences, clearing the streams, pollarding the trees. It’s a huge job and we’re short-handed. I wish more men would return.”
Her dogs ran alongside her until they spotted a squirrel and chased it across the meadow, before returning to the fold with tongues hanging out of their mouths.
Soon they could hear the plaintive cries of the peafowls in the nearby pheasantry.
By the time they’d reached Löwenhagen, the next village, the sun had climbed high in the sky. Sisi took off her wreath and waved her fan to cool her face. In this heat, even a small breeze was a welcome reprieve. They trundled passed the Municipal House, where a life-size statue of King Frederick I, the present king’s father, seated on his stallion, dominated the village square. In every house, the doors and windows were flung open. Other than a few dogs and a stray pheasant or two, the village was deserted. Everyone was in the fields. At the other end of the village, they came across the church and the fishing lake.
Along the bumpy path to the next hamlet with its Lutheran chapel, they passed by the fields, where the workers waved cheery greetings. They veered off the main track towards Barthen from where they could see the two strands of the River Pregel – the Neuer and the Alter – sluggish in the summer heat.
Passing by the rickety barn, the old cattle shed with a gaping hole in the roof, and the water meadows, they encountered a large herd of sheep. Squatting in the shade of a tree like a Chinese sage and wielding a shepherd’s crook was…
“Caspar!” Sisi blurted out. “I’m so pleased to see you.”
The young man dithered, frozen by the sudden attention. Marion was frightened by what she saw in him, or rather what was absent in him. Caspar had been conscripted at the raw age of sixteen. That was two years ago. Now his face looked as dry and crumpled as a discarded cleaning rag. He wore leggings and a simple peasant’s smock that was too big for him.
Sisi jumped down from the trap and went to greet him.
Caspar hobbled towards her, leaning on his crook, saying, “Boris, heel.” And a large, boisterous, black and tan dog bounded after him.
“What are you doing here?” Marion asked Caspar. “I thought you were at the front.”
“He was shot in the leg,” Sisi explained. “He received an honourable discharge.”
Friends since childhood, Caspar and Sisi had played, rode, and made mischief together with the other rapscallions on the estate. Caspar’s family was far from the aristocratic rank of the von Adlers, meaning anything more than cordial friendship was socially unacceptable.
“How long…?” Marion asked.
“I-I come back to Barthen two day ago.” He spoke like he had a potato in each cheek.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked her daughter.
“Oh, Mother,” Sisi replied, waving her hands in the air, “you’ve been so busy with the harvest, I’ve barely seen you.”
“I still need to know who is on my estate,” Marion said firmly.
Sisi ignored her, turned to Caspar and in a voice as soft as rose petals, asked, “How are you? How is your leg?”
“I been better,” he mumbled, tapping his leg with his crook. “And Papa is poorly.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Sisi answered.
Caspar switched his balance from leg to leg. Uncomfortable in the full glare of the von Adler family, the boy had left his confidence on the battlefield and wasn’t going to get it back soon. At least Boris showed him plenty of affection, jumping up at him and licking his hand.
Caspar plucked a strand of grass and began chewing on one end of it. He stared up at the cloudless sky, a look in his brown eyes as empty as that of his cows. Out of the blue, the dog barked at a rabbit and Caspar jumped out of his skin. In a flash, his voice and demeanour changed, as if a cloud had passed across the face of the sun.
“Line up and do your duty!” he snarled, his strident voice reminiscent of a drill sergeant. “The Russians must not pass. We’re gonna defeat them.”
The poor boy was transported to the battlefield and was shouting commands to imaginary comrades.
“Caspar, there’s no danger here. We’re friends,” Sisi comforted him.
“Ah,” he replied and plucked another straw.
“Caspar’s got his family,” Hans said, apparently trying to offer her some reassurance.
“Oh, yes, his mother’s dead and that leaves him and his father,” Sisi observed pointedly.
“I don’t care, it’s an honour to serve your country,” Hans said. “I’m ready and willing. I’d wear the Prussian blue any day.”
“Be careful what you wish for, little brother,” Sisi replied. “Besides, you’re too young. You have to be sixteen to wear the uniform.”
“Children, don’t squabble. Besides, there’s nothing we can do,” Marion said.
“But there is, Mother,” Sisi insisted. Marion raised an eyebrow – her daughter rarely answered her back. “We’ve more rooms in the Schloss than acorns on an oak tree. Caspar and his father can move in there with the staff. We can feed him and get them both well again.”
Marion asked, “Is that what Caspar wants?”
Caspar looked at the ground for what seemed like an age and then shook his head. “No, Ex-cellency. Papa’s ill. He don’t wanna move. Caspar stay in Barthen with Papa.”
“That’s settled then,” Marion said. Now Caspar was back, she would have to keep a wary eye on him and Sisi, in case their relationship became inappropriate.
Sisi got back in the trap and they moved on. With each field they passed, the workers serenaded the harvest queen with cheers and hurrahs.
Grenda encouraged the mares down the slope and along the wide river bed, mostly dried out by the summer’s heat. Their spirits were lifted by the river’s cool, refreshing waters and Grenda’s whistling of his favourite tune. They followed the flow of the river until they reached a small inlet and anchorage for rowing boats to cross the river. From there, they headed up the valley slope towards the village of Steinbeck. Hans reached the top of the ridge first where he brought his mare to a halt. Bathed in bright sunlight, the boy shared his father’s blue eyes, high forehead and fiery looks. He pointed at a cloud of dust in the distance.
A column of horses was galloping towards them along the ridge road, in pairs, flags flying in the breeze.
“They ours?” Sisi asked, more in hope than expectation.
“Nah!” Hans snarled. “See the blue and white stripes? They’re Russians!”
Marion swallowed hard. He was right; Imperial Russian cavalry – on the road from Königsberg.
“What are they doing here?” Hans asked.
“I don’t know.” Her voice was hoarse.
The lead rider was wielding his sword above his head. Grenda seemed dumbstruck by the riders. The trap had ground to a halt in the middle of the path – their path. Their commander led the charge and had no intention of halting the column.
Marion shouted, “Grenda, they’re not going to stop. Move us. Quick!”
At the last moment, he hauled on the reins and the trap slid out of the way onto the verge. The column raced by like a whirlwind, stirring up dust in their faces, the horses’ hooves pounding the dry earth and thundering in their ears.
“Hussars. Imperial Hussars,” Hans declared. “Fifty of them, I’d say.”
She didn’t know about that, but she did know they were arrogant and they’d left an acerbic taste in her mouth.
“Christoph, let me have your ride,” she said, then coughed, her throat hoarse from the dust cloud.
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Christoph replied.
“Hans, come with me,” she said and mounted the mare astride.
“Where are they going?” Hans asked anxiously as they set off.
“That’s what I want to find out,” she said. Deep down, she feared she knew exactly where they were headed – and why.
About the Author
Justin Newland is an author of historical fantasy and secret history thrillers – that’s history with a supernatural twist. His historical novels feature known events and real people from the past, which are re-told and examined through the lens of the supernatural.
His novels speculate on the human condition and explore the fundamental questions of our existence. As a species, as Homo sapiens sapiens – that’s man the twice-wise – how are we doing so far? Where is mankind’s spiritual home? What does it look or feel like? Would we recognise it if we saw it?
Undeterred by the award of a Doctorate in Mathematics from Imperial College, London, he found his way to the creative keyboard and conceived his debut novel, The Genes of Isis (Matador, 2018), an epic fantasy set under Ancient Egyptian skies.
Next came the supernatural thriller, The Old Dragon’s Head (Matador, 2018), set in Ming Dynasty China.
His third novel, The Coronation (Matador, 2019), speculates on the genesis of the most important event of the modern world – the Industrial Revolution.
His fourth, The Abdication (Matador, 2021), is a supernatural thriller in which a young woman confronts her faith in a higher purpose and what it means to abdicate that faith.
His stories add a touch of the supernatural to history and deal with the themes of war, religion, evolution and the human’s place in the universe.
He was born three days before the end of 1953 and lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England.
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