Tuesday 17 December 2019

Honoria’s Battle by Alison Morton - A Story Inspired By A Song

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Handel 1733
A story about Alison Morton's Roma Nova Series

Midnight, 12 September 1683, Vienna
‘How many dead, senior centurion?’ she asked.
‘Eighteen, domina. Plus the tribune, plus wounded.
Honoria Mitela didn’t flinch. She knew better not to show it in front of the troops – she was their prefect, commander of this detachment – but an iron fist clamped her heart. Almost twenty daughters and sons of Roma Nova who would never see home again.
The damp air swirled round them. Not the storms of the journey here, or honest rain, but a miasmic clinging damp that spread the smell of dead warriors’ blood and rotting horseflesh. She pulled her cloak tighter.
‘Detail the rest of the company find the bodies,’ she ordered. ‘All of them.’
The senior centurion glanced at her. He looked bone tired. His leather cuirass was spattered in blood and part of his chain shirt had ripped, but he drew himself up, saluted and strode down the hill, barking orders.

The previous day, 11 September 1683, Kahlenburg Heights, Vienna
Ottoman sappers blasted through Vienna’s outer fortifications on the south of the city three days ago,’ the Polish king said, looking at Honoria and pointing to the plan on his campaign table. ‘Count von Starhemberg, the Vienna garrison commander, shouted over the walls at Kara Mustafa Pasha that they’d fight to the last drop of blood. Poor souls, they’re starving and racked by plague but desperate to avoid being butchered as captives or enslaved.’
‘Then it will be Roma Nova’s honour to drive back the enemy sappers and destroy them,’ Honoria had replied.
‘But, Excellenz, you cannot send women to confront the janissaries guarding the sappers.’ The Polish king, sturdy and imposing in his luxurious blue robes, stared at her. She was dressed more simply with tunic and light cuirass over a chain mail shirt, long boots over breeches, a maroon cloak and the legionary’s scarf at her neck. Around her waist, a belt held her gladius and pugio dagger. She crossed her arms.
‘My soldiers are legionaries first and women and men afterwards. Be assured, John Sobieski, you will not find them lacking.’ She relaxed her frown. ‘And Romans have much experience in siege warfare and mine science.’
‘Not that it helped your cousins in Byzantium,’ one of the Imperial Austrians muttered and sniggered. Honoria turned her stare on him.
‘That, Herr Graf, was betrayal by a religious. I will not bore you with my opinion upon that subject.’
The Austrian looked away, his cheeks tinged pink. Honoria turned back to Sobieski.
‘Are we agreed? My tribune Tellus will lead them. I will retain a small Praetorian detail with me.’
‘We will be in your debt, of course,’ the Polish king said. But he didn’t sound convinced. Nevertheless, Honoria nodded to Tribune Tellus and they left the command tent together.
They walked back to the Roma Nova camp in the light of the bonfires flaring over the heights. Honoria drew Tellus to one side.
‘Don’t explain anything about any of your engineering methods to the Christians. Try to hide any complex mechanics or materials, otherwise you risk being called an alchemist at best or a wizard at worst. Then they’ll try to burn you alive as a demonic blasphemer.’
He turned pale and looked as if he were about to vomit up his food.
‘Caution the troops to be careful. Perform your task then withdraw. The Christians will be too thankful to remember much.’
After their departure, she brought her hand up to shade her eyes as she observed the Turkish encampment. A dim haze of smoke rose from the constant artillery barrage, exploding mines, and campfires as the siege below continued.
She couldn’t help speculating whether her earlier, more subtle play was also performing.

John Sobieski
Two months before, July 1683, Roma Nova Praetorian compound
A knock at her door.
‘Come,’ she had said as she sanded her letter and sealed it. She looked up to see Tellus, the young ingeniarius tribune who had joined them only three months ago. The XX Victis legion reported they had endured enough of his inventions and ‘controlled’ experiments that went awry, but Honoria welcomed such an addition to her intelligencer group. Now, he stood nervously in front of her.
‘I wasn’t sure whether to bring this to you, prefect…’
‘Well, you did, so what is it, young man?’
He shuffled his feet.
‘One of the patrols was called in by Antonia – the daughter of the woman who runs the mansio on Via Nova. I was, er, fixing something for her.’ He flushed. Honoria smiled. ‘Anyway,’ Tellus continued, ‘she said a man, a foreigner, was asking too many questions about too many things.’
‘Be specific.’
‘My apologies, domina. About our military, our horses, how we guarded our frontiers.’
‘Where is this man now?”
‘Chained up in the castle dungeon.’
‘Where he should be.’
‘But the strange thing was that he knew your name, domina.’
‘Then it seems I should be the one to question him.’

Italy, Perugia, Fortress, Vault, Dungeon

Honoria handed her horse over and made her way down the stone steps to the castle dungeons. The candle flame in her lamp flickered as she entered the questioning room. The man hung attached to a chain suspended from a high beam. His feet just touched the beaten earth. Even in the half-light of the torches on the walls she could see his face was bruised, an eye almost closed. A guard punched him in the back. The man grunted but merely looked ahead. As the punishment officer raised his whip, Honoria stepped in.
‘Enough, optio, you may withdraw.’
He hesitated.
‘Hard nut, this one, prefect. Can’t even get his name out of him.’
‘Did it occur to you to simply ask?’
‘Course,’ the optio retorted. ‘But all he said was your name and nothin’ else.’
‘Cut him down,’ Honoria snapped. ‘Bring another lamp and some water.’
As he gulped his beaker of water, Honoria examined the prisoner. He was well-made, muscular, his dark hair not quite black. She estimated him to be in his thirties as was she. When he looked up, his eyes were blue-grey like the northern sea at the end of the amber route. She blinked. The light flickered on his skin. Her heart pulsed harder than usual. Then she saw it on the inside of his upper arm – a stylised T.
‘Now why is a Tatar spying in Roma Nova?’ she asked in her best Ottoman Turkish.
He stared at her but said nothing. He kept his gaze fixed on her face.
‘Please do not pretend you do not understand me,’ she continued. The lamps flickered, casting shadows on the man’s angular face. Still he said nothing. Honoria bent closer. ‘Since a large number of Tatars under Khan Giray have arrived east of Vienna to reinforce the Ottoman siege, I assume you are here to assess our strength.’ The skin tightened around his eyes. ‘We have our informers, too.’ She stood up straight and took a deep breath. ‘Your life is forfeit,’ she said. He blinked. ‘But if you tell me what I want to know, it is in my gift to spare you.’
‘You are truly Mitela? The chief intelligencer?’ His voice was hard, but she heard the fear in it.
‘I am.’ She touched the myrtle leaf badge of her family which pinned her cloak. She could hardly take her next breath.
He brought his manacled hands up to his face and gave a deep sigh.
‘His name is Aydar, legate, and he is a bastard son of Khan Giray.’
Honoria stood stiffly in front of the senior legate in the praetorium at the centre of the camp compound.
‘And?’ The legate leant back in her chair. She frowned at Honoria. ‘Then execute him.’
‘If it pleases you, domina,’ Honoria continued, ‘I think we may use this to our advantage.’ The legate raised one eyebrow. ‘You remember the last dispatch letter from Sobieski asking for our aid in Vienna?’
‘Of course, but the damned imperial council is still trying to convince the imperatrix that the Ottomans wouldn’t dare attack us.’ She snorted. ‘We lie on the edge of their territory, only fifteen miles away, for the gods’ sake!’ The legate’s face threatened to take on the red of her cloak.
‘Just so, domina,’ Honoria replied. ‘In my humble estimation, although the mountains have protected us in past ages we stand in peril of destruction if the Ottomans succeed in taking Vienna. We must stand with the Poles and Austrians.’
‘I fully agree with you, Mitela. Try getting your mother to convince the rest of the council to sanction our expedition.’
‘Be assured, legate, Countess Mitela is bringing all her eloquence to the matter of persuading her peers.’ Honoria closed her lips tight. Her mother was fighting the rest of the council’s over-caution tooth and nail. ‘Nonetheless,’ Honoria continued, ‘my scouts report conflict between Tatar and Ottoman. The former owe allegiance to the latter and must perforce march with them. This Aydar was sent to Roma Nova under duress. He is hardly recognised in his family as his mother was “harvested from the steppes” as they euphemistically call their slave-raiding. So he has little love for his father and clan, especially as they branded him when he ran away at eight.’
‘Then why in Hades did they risk sending him?’
‘Because he can pass as a European. And they still hold his mother. He saw it as a way to escape and seek help. Somehow, he knew I led the intelligencer group.’
‘Hm. But how does this help us?’
‘Sobieski says the southern walls are in peril. We cannot offer thousands of troops without our council’s approval, but we can provide engineering skills discreetly. I volunteer to lead such a vexillatio. I think we can also attack their minds, their fears.’
‘How? No, first, tell me how you gained this Tatar spy’s confidence.’
‘I offered him his life.’
‘And how do you know he won’t turn his coat again?’
‘I assured him of lifelong sanctuary, and for his mother. I also promised I would hunt him down personally to the end of days if he betrayed us.’
But Honoria had not told the legate the whole truth. She had Aydar escorted under guard to the Domus Mitelarum. He might be more forthcoming in a softer atmosphere of a home than in the castle dungeon. And he was now their ally.
Honoria, you are deceiving yourself.
It was for a much stronger reason than mere statecraft.
At the end of July, Aydar set out from her courtyard with two pack-horses, their saddlebags full of Tellus’s latest ‘inventions’. Aydar had twisted in the saddle with the assurance of a horseman almost born in the saddle. His sea-grey eyes didn’t leave Honoria’s face until the porter closed the gate behind him.

Dawn, 12 September Kahlenberg Heights, Vienna
Now, in the sharp chill of a late summer morning, Honoria led her remaining contingent of Roma Novan Praetorians in a sacrifice to Mars. Their camp was shielded by a stand of trees from the nearest Christian troops who might have taken exception to their ‘paganism’. Once she had given the troops the god’s blessing, they quietly gathered their arms – spatha, arm shield and lances – and in silence prepared their screw-barrelled pistols, three for each of them.
Riding from the southwest through dense woods and fending off a Turkish scouting party, they found Sobieski on the Michelerberg hill.
Salve,’ Sobieski greeted her, insisting on speaking Latin instead of Germanic. He pointed down to the plain. ‘The whoreson Ottomans continue in their efforts to force their way into the city. They should concentrate on fighting us!’
Honoria gave permission for her small band to charge with the hussars in harrying actions, battering the Ottoman lines and pushing forward. By the end of the afternoon, they had hemmed in the enemy from three sides. And the embattled city of Vienna lay plainly before them.
‘Now we take them,’ Sobieski shouted, his hand waving his marshal’s baton high above his head. Honoria tightened her helmet, grasped her lance and whispered a quick prayer to Mars.
With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj” the whole Polish line rode down upon the Turks. Armed with kopia lances, sabres, pistols and battle hammers, and mounted on a powerful chargers, the hussars thundered down the hill. Encased in glittering steel that covered head to thighs, with their tiger and leopard pelts fluttering in the wind and wings of eagle feathers affixed to their backs, the leading units fell on the Ottomans like an unearthly force of avenging Furies.

Ten days later, 22 September 1683, Praetorian compound Roma Nova
‘Very good,’ the legate said, laying down her eyeglasses on her great desk.  
 ‘But you didn’t stay after Sobieski’s triumphal march into Vienna?’
‘No, domina. Our work was done.’ Honoria looked straight at the far wall.
‘Now tell me the true reason.’
‘It wasn’t the pillaging of the Ottomans’ treasures – that’s the natural outcome of war – but summary killing of every wounded or sick enemy soldier disgusted me. It wasn’t merciful dispatching of dying men – it was murder. Pure bloodlust. I know the Turks had slain many of their Christian captives and even carried some away with them in their retreat, so I suppose the Viennese wanted their revenge.’ Honoria ran her hand down her cheek. ‘I admire Sobieski as a general and was honoured to participate in the charge, but when he turned and said Veni, vidi, Deus vicit while drinking out of the Ottoman Mustafa’s looted cup moments afterwards, I knew it was time to depart.’
‘You’re becoming soft, Honoria.’ The legate’s voice was firm, but Honoria saw some sympathy in her eyes. ‘But your ruse to attack their minds, their morale. Did it work?’
‘It did,’ Honoria replied. ‘Although Sobieski’s reputation as hammer of the Tatars dispirited them generally, Aydar’s rumours of Roma Novan djinns as evidenced by Tellus’s chemical bombs would have done the rest. My scouts reported that the Tatar khan refused to pass through the Greek fire to attack the imperial relief force as it crossed the Danube and again when the imperials emerged from the Wienerwald.’
‘And your Tatar spy?  What has become of him?’
‘I have no report of him, domina,’ Honoria replied in a dull tone.
‘We must perforce make unusual alliances and personal sacrifices to protect Roma Nova, Mitela.’
‘Agreed, domina.‘ Honoria took a long breath to calm herself and recapture her soldier’s detachment. ‘I believe we will no longer see the Ottomans so far west or north again.  But I feel it will not be long before they completely break apart and their empire sinks, Jupiter willing.’
‘Go and rest. Go to your farm at Castra Lucilla and return when your heart and spirit are healed.’

Saturnalia, 17 December 1683
Honoria Mitela passed through the vestibule in Domus Mitelarum. The new house built round the original settlers’ villa still reeked of masons’ marble dust and plaster; not the smells of a usual Saturnalia. A servant took her cloak, helmet, gladius and belt and handed her a cup of wine. She dropped onto the silk cushions on the settle and stared into the fire.
‘If you please, domina.’
A young servant held out a silver tray with a grubby folded letter. It was bound with string and sealed with a red wax circle. Inside the seal was a stylised T. Honoria sat upright and unfolded the letter, almost tearing it in her haste.

Greeting, honoured and valorous lady.
   I am in the Free City of Trieste. My mother is sadly dead, a victim to Kara Mustafa Pasha’s revenge but he is to be executed in Belgrade by strangulation on the Christians’ holy day, the 25th day of December – an irony you will appreciate.
    Will you grant me safe conduct to come to Roma Nova?
          I anticipate our renewed encounter very soon.
                                                                                    Aydar the Tatar

© Alison Morton

Did you guess the tune title?
How many of you thought...
Vienna by Ultra Vox?
(Official You Tube Video)

but actually, Alison's inspiration was:

Handel's Sarabande

Alison's website https://alison-morton.com
Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform. Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain. Fascinated by the  mosaics at Ampurias in Spain and the engineering brilliance of the Pont du Gard in France, she was curious about the role of women in the complex, powerful and value-driven Roman civilisation. That started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women… Now, she lives in France with her husband and writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines:
Reviewed by Discovering Diamonds

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There will be another story inspired by a song tomorrow!

The Full List of Authors

2nd   M.J. Logue   First Love 
3rd   Richard Tearle Chips and Ice Cream
4th    Helen Hollick Promises, Promises
5th    Paul Marriner Memories
6th    Pam Webber One Door Closing
7th    Louise Adam Hurt Me Once
8th    Barbara Gaskell Denvil Sticks and Stones
9th    Judith Arnopp Secrets
10th  Erica Lainé  Silk Stockings
11th   Anna Belfrage Hold Me, Love Me, Leave Me? 
12th  Annie Whitehead Frozen
13th  Tony Riches Alas, My Love
14th  Clare Flynn, Zipless
15th  J.G. Harlond The Last Assignment
16th  Elizabeth St John Under The Clock
17th  Alison Morton Honoria’s Battle
18th  Jean Gill The Hunter
19th  Patricia Bracewell Daddy's Gift
20th Debbie Young It Doesn't Feel Like Christmas
21st   Ruth Downie  Doing It Properly
22nd Nicky Galliers What God Has Joined
23rd  Elizabeth Chadwick The Cloak
26th  Helen Hollick Ever After
27th   Barbara Gaskell Denvil Just The One... Or Maybe Two
28th   Deborah Swift Just Another Day
29th   Amy Maroney What The Plague Brings
30th   Cryssa Bazos River Mud

 Note: There is copyright legislation for song lyrics 
but no copyright in names, titles or ideas

StorySong graphic by @Avalongraphics 
additional images via Pixabay accreditation not required


  1. Epic short story and definitely 'to be continued...' Has all the hallmark Alison Morton qualities - feisty women soldiers & generals prepared to fight for their country; honour, compassion, adventure, political nous; and alternative history grounded in thorough historical research. New period & place for me - fascinating.

    1. Thank you, Jean. I love filling in the back history of Roma Nova! In the Mitela home in Roma Nova, there's a tapestry hung in the vestibule depicting Honoria in *that* charge at the Battle of Vienna.
      Both Aurelia and Carina have drawn inspiration and courage from it when facing their own nemesis, so one day I knew I had to write the story...

    2. Ha! I'm already thinking of expanding it into a novella. But I will have to do a LOT more background reading to the period. Still, what's winter for?

  2. The scope that you have created with Roma Nova is absolutely incredible! No, I didn't guess - nowhere near. But I was so enrapt in the story that I wouldn't have got it if you had written the title in every line! Fabulous, Alison!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Richard. I probably trample on several 'butterflies' in the strict althist sense, but I intend to do it in many more ways. ;-)

  3. Oh my goodness - talk about plunging your readers into a fictional world. Plop - straight in! I felt immediately like I was there, watching it all as it unfolded. Now, here's the spooky thing - I had the music going round my head as I read. I've been writing about dances and particularly love this piece as I used to play it on my cello. So it's been swirling around my brain for a while. Something must have been triggered for me to hear it again as I read! Wonderful story, thank you.

    1. Oops! My reply came out as a separate comment, Annie.

  4. Sarabande has always been a favourite of mine as it's solemn, very emotional, yet uplifting and pointing to better things through all the sacrifice. It was used in the films Barry Lyndon and Black Hawk Down both times at crisis points.
    But I think Sarabande suits the 17th century Honoria to a T.

  5. The best sort of story-telling: I was there! I didn't guess the music, but Sarabande was just right. By coincidence I have been reading about the siege of Vienna, and it seems perfectly plausible that Roma Nova was involved in the mayhem.

    1. Thank you, Jane. Delighted you enjoyed it! Even my background knowledge and the reading I did for this story have shown me what a complex situation it was, so plenty of room for a few Roma Novans. ;-)

  6. Definitely a sequel needed! I know nothing (or have forgotten everything!) about that period in European history but it struck me that, as pointed out above, you can take the Roma Novan idea to just about any period in world history and open up a string of new possibilities! Endless opportunity!

    1. Several ideas on the back boiler... I have to be careful not to trip over myself and not alter the history too much within the Roma Nova world otherwise the 'butterfly of doom' will flutter its wings.

  7. Most enjoyable. And i am now wondering if there is Tatar blood in Carina...
    Stopping the Ottoman expansion at Vienna likely saved Europe as we know it. Too bad the Catholic Church stopped all help to beseiged Constantinople in 1453...
    Nope. Dud not guess the song!

    1. Carina's genome (and Aurelia's for that matter )would be a very interesting one to analyse! ;-)
      Both the earlier Siege of Vienna and this Battle were crucial to Europe's survival.
      'Siege' by Jack Hight is a good histfic about Constantinople. Such a tragic stich-up.
      I thught I might bamboozle everybody with the song.

  8. For those who watch (the repeats of) 'Dave Gorman's Modern Life Is Goodish' will also recognise the music from his 'Found Poems'

  9. Well that was fascinating! What a fluid, rich story and perfect for Sarabande. You must expand!

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. I'm working on a longer version...


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