Monday, 7 July 2014

Guest Post: Honing mankind’s killer instincts

It's an absolute pleasure to welcome the lovely Anna Belfrage to the Rogues' Nest. She'll be discussing something appropriately bloody below as she continues on her blog tour… Also, isn't that a damned lovely book cover?

Honing mankind’s killer instincts
    -By Anne Belfrage

Sadly, over the centuries mankind has invested a sizeable chunk of its intellectual efforts to developing better methods with which to kill each other. The Stone Age rock became a primitive spear, became a flint tipped arrow, became a metal knife, became a sword, became various swords, became crossbow quarrels, became cannon and muskets.

Great military leaders have always clapped their hands in glee as yet another generation of weapons have seen the light of the day, and for the generals who were active in the 17th century, there was a lot of hand-clapping. The 17th century is when the arquebus is replaced by increasingly improved muskets, the matchlock becoming a flintlock or a wheel-lock. It is the century when European cavalry augmented their sword with a pistol or two, and with the Thirty Years’ War, musket-armed infantry became standard.

New times require new strategies. One of the more innovative generals when it came to military tactics was Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and it was him who implemented the new cavalry formations that would make the Swedish army renowned and feared throughout Europe. Gustavus Adolphus’ cavalry rode knee to knee in a slight wedge formation, pistols at the ready. They thundered towards the enemy at a controlled gallop. Upon command, the first pistol was discharged, then the second. By then, the cavalry was almost upon the enemy. Swords were drawn and the wall of horses and blades crashed into the opponents, many of whom had already been incapacitated by the pistol shots. 

When the cavalry made contact with the enemy, the formation was eventually broken and it was very much every man for himself. The momentum of the attackers generally helped carry the day, even if at times things were very confusing. Smoke from discharged guns made it difficult to see, frightened and riderless horses came charging over the field, wounded men shrieked in agony, but the Swedish cavalry ploughed on, delivering death right, left and centre. Gustavus Adolphus’ contemporaries were more than a little impressed by his methods, let me tell you.

Sweden at the time had a population of about 1 million. The king’s army screamed for recruits, but there were simply not enough Swedish men to man the army, and so the king invited other nationalities to join (sounds much politer than “recruited mercenaries”, doesn’t it?). Many of those who fought for Gustavus Adolphus were Scots. Many were rewarded with lands and titles in Sweden. Some rose to be field marshals, like Alexander Leslie. All of them saw the Swedish king’s strategies first hand, and when unrest exploded in Scotland in the late 1630’s, these Scottish veterans returned home, bringing with them what they’d learnt. 

Alexander Leslie and David Leslie were both members of Clan Leslie (even if Alexander was born on the wrong side of the blanket). They had both served with distinction under the Swedish king and were firmly committed to the Covenanter cause. With their extensive experience, they led the National Covenanter Army to a series of victories, culminating for Alexander with the victory at Newburn, and for David at Philiphaugh, when he defeated James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose. 

On the other side of the border, Oliver Cromwell studied the National Covenanter Army with avid interest. Some years later, his New Model Army would crush all resistance – using strategies copy-catted from the Leslies and ultimately the Swedish king. I am not entirely sure Gustavus Adolphus would approve; after all, his tactics led to the defeat and subsequent execution of a crowned monarch. 

My hero in The Graham Saga, Matthew Graham spent most of his youth as a soldier in the New Model Army. It left him with honed battle skills and a general disillusion with mankind, having witnessed more than his share of unnecessary cruelties. But knowing how to handle a sword comes quite handy given the very exciting lives Matthew and his time travelling wife, Alex, lead – as is demonstrated by the below excerpt from the recently released sixth book in the series, Revenge and Retribution. I hope you enjoy it!

It was nearly noon before they stopped for a break – by then Alex had been fidgeting for some time. She more or less fell off the horse and made for the closest screen of shrubs. She hiked up her skirts and crouched. Cocking her head to where her men were busy lighting a fire in the glade, she grinned when Daniel loudly complained about the state of his buttocks, tore off some moss to wipe herself with, and rose.
“Mrs Graham, what an unexpected surprise.”
The voice froze Alex to the spot but, with an effort, she turned, only to find herself a scant yard or so from Philip Burley: still with that messy dark hair that fell forward over his face in an endearing manner that contrasted entirely with his ice-cold eyes, still with a certain flair to him, albeit that he was dishevelled and dirty. Alex opened her mouth to yell, but all that came out was a squeak.
“Down to witness the demise of my dear brother?” Philip continued, his voice far too low to carry to her companions. Low, but laden with rage.
“Good riddance,” Alex managed to say. She whirled, screaming like a train whistle.
Things happened so fast Alex’s vision blurred. The ground came rushing towards her, her face was pressed into the mulch by Philip’s tackle. She heard Matthew roar, set her hands to the ground and heaved. Up. Philip grabbed at her skirts, Alex kicked like a mule, and here came Matthew, bounding towards them. Philip scrambled to his feet, and Alex crawled away on hands and knees.
In Matthew’s hand flashed a sword. Philip levelled a pistol but had no opportunity to fire it before Matthew brought his blade down, sending the gun to twirl through the air and land in a distant bush.
Men: from all over, men swarmed, and there was Walter Burley fighting his way towards Matthew with an intent look on his face. He was brought up short by Dandelion: over a hundred pounds of enraged dog throwing himself at Walter. A howl, a long howl that ended in a whine. Walter brandished his bloodied knife and cheered, a sound cut abruptly short when Thomas Leslie charged him. A hand grabbed at Alex, she tore herself free and backed away, looking for some kind of weapon, anything to defend herself with. And there was Matthew – everywhere was Matthew: kicking her assailant to the ground, fending off Philip’s sword, swinging round to punch Walter, grinding an elbow into yet another man, and all the while he was yelling out commands to his sons and Thomas.
Like a deadly whirlwind was Matthew Graham, and beware anyone coming between him and the man he was screaming at, spittle flying in the air as he advanced, step by step, towards Philip, a Philip who seemed surprisingly taken aback, retreating towards the woods. Matthew lunged, Philip fell back, using a stout branch to defend himself. Again, and Philip took yet another step backwards. Alex intercepted a swift glance between the Burley brothers, and she didn’t like the smirk on Philip’s face. Matthew charged, Philip turned and fled with a triumphant Matthew at his heels.
“No,” Alex croaked.
A dull crack and Matthew staggered, a giant of a man appearing from where he’d been hiding, brandishing a cudgel. Walter Burley whooped, doing a few dance steps.
Alex didn’t stop to think. She launched herself at him, toppling him to the ground and landing knees first on his chest. There was a whoosh when the air was expelled from his body, and then he went limp. She picked up Walter’s pistol from where he’d dropped it and turned to find her husband locked in a fight with two men while Thomas, his man and her sons were kept at bay by seven.
Philip Burley yelled when Matthew succeeded in sinking his dirk into his right arm. For an instant, it seemed as if Matthew was about to tear himself free from the unknown huge man, but there was Philip, whacking Matthew over the head again. Matthew’s knees buckled under him, and Alex fired into the air.
“I’ll cut his throat!” she screamed, holding Walter’s lolling head by his hair. “I’ll do it now!” Her hand was shaking so badly, at first she couldn’t get to her knife through the side slit of her skirt, but then her fingers closed on the familiar handle, and she pulled it free.
“Let him go!” Philip Burley glared at her. “Let go of him, you fool of a woman, or I’ll gut your husband like a pig.”
Matthew tottered, blood running in miniature rivulets over the left side of his face.
“An impasse, it would seem,” Alex said, struggling to keep her voice steady. “You let my husband go, and I’ll let your brother live. For now.” She increased the pressure of her blade on Walter’s skin, making him gargle.
Philip sneered and glanced down at his bleeding arm. “You stand no chance, Mrs Graham. We are ten to your six.”
“Seven,” someone said. A shot rang out, and the large man helping Philip to hold Matthew dropped like a stone to the ground, shot through his back. “And now you are but nine.”
Burley’s men shifted, trying to find the sharpshooter. Thomas’ hand flew out, and one of the men fell to his knees, gripping at the hilt of a knife that stuck out from his thigh. A collective muttering ran through the six men left standing, their eyes sliding towards the relative safety of the woods.
Alex’s hand was slick on the handle of her knife and to compensate she tightened her hold on Walter’s hair, pulling so hard the man squealed.
Philip scowled: at Matthew, at Alex, and at the woods. With a swift movement, he levelled a pistol at Matthew’s head.
“If any more of my men are hurt, I’ll kill him,” he shouted, scanning the surrounding trees. He jerked his head in the direction of the forest, and his men helped their wounded comrade to stand, closing ranks around him. Ian and Daniel closed in on Philip who was dragging Matthew with him as a shield.
“My brother,” he said to Alex. “Release my brother, and I’ll release your husband.”
Ian raised his musket and aimed it at Walter.
“Do as he says, Mama. And if Da isn’t released before the count of three then Walter Burley is no more.”
Walter’s breath came in loud hisses, his pulse leaping erratically against her hand. At less than ten feet, Ian would never miss.
Daniel aimed his weapon at Philip. “Nor is Philip Burley,” he vowed, but the barrel trembled a bit too much.
Alex let go of Walter’s hair and stepped back, watching as he lurched to his feet. At least one broken rib, and if she was lucky, maybe two or three. Walter Burley wheezed, wrapping his arms around his midriff.
He lifted strange light eyes to Alex. “You’ll pay,” he spat through colourless lips.
“You can always try, and next time I’ll squash your balls instead.” It took a superhuman effort to retain eye contact with those eerie grey eyes, but she did, stiffening her spine with resolve.
“One,” Ian counted, “two...” Matthew was pushed to land at Daniel’s feet, and Ian swung the muzzle of his musket towards Philip and the band of renegades. “Three,” he said and fired, as did Daniel.

All of Anna’s books are available on Amazon US and Amazon UK

For more information about Anna Belfrage and her books, visit her website!

For a somewhat more visual presentation of The Graham Saga, why not watch the book trailer?