The re-write of my new WWI alternate reality novel is progressing. I’ve gotten three new books now for research and am drawing as much as possible from real world history to build the dual fantasy/technology world of 1915 in the book. Here is the first draft of the prologue for those who might be interested, drawing directly from the original event that flashed the world into the Great War, the assassination of Arch-duke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.
The crowds were boisterous and loud, surging around Gavrilo as he fingered the pistol in his pocket, thrusting his elbows out to his sides like the wings of a bird to keep from being jostled. His mouth was dry and he wanted to check the clock tower again, find out the time, but didn’t want to lose his spot on the corner, staring south across the Lateiner Bridge.
The other three who were with him were gone, and he assumed he was the last of the Black Hand members who remained. They had fallen away into the crowds when the cars had passed, disappearing like smoke on the wind. He lingered though the others clearly had no doubt the mission had failed. For all their troubles and preparations, the result was a few wounded people, a damaged car, and Čabrinović taken prisoner, plucked by the police from the river when the fool jumped in to drown himself. But the river ran too shallow to give him his death. He tried the cyanide pill next, but it only upset his stomach, and he vomited most of it back out, leaving too little in his belly to finish the job. The police dragged him soaking wet from the cold river and throwing up on himself, punching and kicking him as they carried him away. Even now they might be working on him, beating him, trying to draw out the names of his co-conspirators. Gavrilo would never get another chance at this. The others ran, but he stayed.
A few blocks to the west along Appel Quay the car still smoked, wreaths of white tendrils drifting lazily up, the vehicle pulled to the side from the small crater left when Čabrinović had made his attempt. The plan had been so simple, so foolproof, but the man was a peasant, uneducated and coarse, and he could not follow simple directions. The timer was set incorrectly – the simpleton was illiterate and could not read the instructions they had given him, nor remember the training – and the bomb bounced off the second car and exploded under the third. Instead of killing those that they loathed and despised, he had wounded innocent men and women. They were security officers, policeman and some people watching from the crowd, some of them good Christians no doubt. Arch-duke Ferdinand and his witch of a wife had passed by safely, his car accelerating as it rushed along Appel and swept past Gavrilo and the remaining conspirators.
Gavrilo’s palm sweated around the handle of the pistol in his pocket, trickling down the metal of the FN 1910. It felt awkward in his hands, even after the months of training. But all the training never taught him to fire at real people, and all the training didn’t change that he spent most of his life in labor or studies, not military work, nor the work of an assassin. He would be like Bogdan Žerajić, a patriot who took his own life rather than be captured when his assassination attempt went awry. Žerajić, too, saw that this was evil, realized there were those who wanted magic to rule Austria, to spread the power of the Prince of lies across all of Europe. It had been no fault of his own, thought Gavrilo, giving his personal hero more credit than he could give to Čabrinović, though their results were not disimilar. He was following his conscience, his desire for freedom from tyranny, to destroy evil. He could not have known his gun was faulty and he would miss, but he took his own life rather than be captive, rather than let the devil beat his body and break his will. That is a martyr; that is the measure of a true man.
Gavrilo thought their plan allowed for no such errors. Seven of them would wait in the crowd. The guns were tested thoroughly. The bullets were specially made and dipped in the blood of the holy of holies so that they could not be charmed or spelled by evil witchcraft. Timers were attached to grenades to ensure that they would explode when expected.
But the first man did not fire or throw his bomb, and he let the Duke and Duchess pass without revealing any plot. Gavrilo did not know why Mehmedbašić had failed to take action nor where he was, but he assumed that the young man like so many lacked the courage to follow his convictions and could no longer be counted upon. Then the attempt by Čabrinović laid waste to the rest of their plans, the remaining five unable to get a clean shot, their bombs useless because the speed of the vehicles made timing their explosions too difficult. They failed, and it was sobering to realize how good men and a good plan was no indicator of success. Was not God on their side? Did he not watch over them?
There came a swelling sound to his east, the crowd growing louder in that direction and his heart began to beat more quickly. He was near to the corner, but was too short to see past the throngs of onlookers, too small and weak to shoulder them aside and get a good view of what was happening. He worried again that the automobiles would go another direction, would head north this time instead of back to the west along Appel, back past his location. Their itinerary was etched into his memory and when he closed his eyes he could see the map, the knife points indicating where they would stop and at approximately what time. But the failed bomb had upset all the plans, and he felt the creep of doubt, wondering if they would re-route their path, head north from the Hall where the Duke was speaking, avoid Appel altogether. They would leave him standing there in a crowd of people too wrapped up in their own love of tyrants to understand what was happening to them, unwilling to cast down the marble statues built to idolize these men and their women. He would fail just as Čabrinović had failed, and without the chance to show his defiance as Žerajić had done by taking his own life after a brief moment of cursing these people.
But the noise grew closer and closer, people waving their flags, whether their Serbian flags or the Austrian ones to show their love and support of the Duke. Gavrilo wanted to spit on those people in particular, the ones who waved the flag of a foreigner as though he ruled their country, as though he mattered, was important to them. He wanted to grab them by their balls and shout at them, they are our murderers, they have stolen our lands and our people, they enslave us with magic, and you let them steal your hearts like a wounded dog that licks its master’s boot heel.
He tightened his grip on the pistol and counted to steady his emotions, tried to slow his breathing. He took long, deep breaths as he had been taught until his heart slowed in his chest, the beating of it no longer drowning out the crowds around him. The crowds flowed and moved and for a brief instance he saw what he needed to see. He saw the cars coming down Appel Quay, back towards him, towards the corner where he stood waiting.
He glanced west again and now the smoking ruin of a failure was a reason to be optimistic, a reason for excitement to swell in his breast. Čabrinović had not failed, he had created a blockage in the roadway, he had set the means for their success. The car and the crater meant that the Duke and his two remaining cars must slow, or perhaps even turn at some point. Perhaps here, where he stood, waiting with the patience of generations of men and women who waited for the end of oppression and fear. He would strike the blow for them.
Onward they came, but now his thoughts went dark again. They would be moving too fast, the crowds were too thick, and he began to think he would not have the chance he sought. More and more people were surrounding him, crushing him into himself like a piece of paper crumpling into a tiny ball. He would not be able to push past them all and take a clean shot as they rushed by.
He could hear the motors now over the roar of the crowd, the cheers of the fools who thought being ruled by these creatures was better than freedom. But he was hemmed in, sewn into the seething mass of humanity like a button on a shirt, and pulled tight to bind the halves together. When he tried to draw the gun he was bumped and almost dropped it, and could only hold it impotently at his side as the cars rounded the corner in front of him, turning north, passing so close he could see the thick walrus moustache of the Duke and see the sparkling blue of the eyes of the Duchess as she waved back at the people who cheered.
I have failed. I have failed my people, failed my cause, I am nothing. He stared down at the cobbled street beneath his feet, feeling the heavy weight of his weapon in his right hand. Please God, please do not let me feel this way. Please guide me and let me serve your need; please let my people be free.
God answers all prayers in his time. God works miracles, breathes life into the dead, and permits justice against those who are evil. God works in mysterious ways. The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, Gavrilo prayed. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
The cars stopped.
Voices spoke, and he heard them as clearly as if the crowd had been silenced. Go back, they said. We will visit the hospital, they said. The duchess wishes to lay her hands upon the sick and give them her benediction, they said.
They inched back now; the people moving out of the way as the cars crept slowly into a line with his position. The pressure on him eased as the crowd stepped back onto the curb to avoid the automobiles, make room for the Duke and Duchess to turn around. He stood alone in front of an ocean of humanity, the figure who strode out to part the seas and lead them to freedom. God stood to his left, and he felt the weight of justice in his right hand.
She looked at him. Her eyes were so blue it was like looking into the lake near the home where he grew up, the way the sunlight would sparkle on its surface when the sun of summer lent its warmth to the air and he would go down to its shores to dangle his feet in the water, or swim if it were hot. She met his gaze and she smiled at him, as though he were another sycophant, a lackey, a well-wisher who bowed and scrapped to her banal desires, her wicked ways. The devil played behind those irises, the great deceiver who convinced so many that she was good, that the Duke was a fine and honorable man and never mind the stolen lands, the people living under the magic web she cast upon them, she who had been taught in the evil land of England where they worshipped a goddess instead of God, and who had returned, no longer a pretty girl with bows in her hair, but a witch with fire behind her eyes. He could see the dark depths in her as surely as he could see the darkness in the blue of the lake where the deeper water lay, where you would swim out over your head and drown. His arm felt frozen at his side.
She looked at him, and she knew him, and she took the hand of her husband, her consort, the lover of demons, the sinner who married evil and let her rule above God’s wishes. She was Eve who lay with serpents, and he Adam the betrayer who put woman before God. She knew what Gavrilo wanted to do, but she did not stop him, only nodded at him as though she could see into the recesses of his heart, the places only God knew, and the things that he knew God would forgive him for. As if she were at peace with God’s judgement, his great plan. She made no other move, did not raise her hands in terror or to ensorcell him. She only smiled at him, gently, like a mother to her child.
He knew now she would allow this, and he felt her eyes were acknowledging him, giving him her blessing to carry out the plan. But Gavrilo knew it was God’s wish, not hers. It made him angry that she thought it was her permission that must be obtained. The icy chill that bound him in place lifted and he found he could move again. God rushed through him and he lifted his chin with defiant joy, feeling the heat flush his face as he stepped towards the car.
He lifted the pistol and shot her once at less than six feet. The bullet, made from blessed metals and dipped in the blood that Christ himself spilt upon the cross to prevent her magic from working, took her in the neck and she fell back into her seat, blood gushing from her wound, her pale gown growing crimson around the collar, the stain seeping lower across her breast, her eyes blankly staring at the sky.
The Duke clutched her and spoke to her, and Gavrilo could see tears come from the old man’s eyes that spilled down his plump cheeks, running into that ridiculous moustache. Tears for a temptress; tears for a succubus. He shot the sinner as well, once only, the bullet impacting him in the stomach before Gavrilo was grabbed by hands that stripped his weapon away from his fingers, twisting and nearly breaking the one wrapped around the trigger, and bore him to the ground. Members of the crowd punched and kicked him though he could not feel their blows. He waited for them to lift him up and hang him from a noose as Christ had hung from the cross, lynch their liberator. The people always killed those who came to free them.
God was with me, God heard me, he thought as they beat him. The witch is dead, the sorceress killed, and now perhaps we may take back the land that had been stolen. Now we can have the war that was needed for freedom to take hold.
He was smiling when the police waded through the crowd, bludgeoning those who would not move, and dragged him unconscious to a waiting car where they drove his bloody body to the police station for interrogation.
The telegraphs flared, sending pulses along hundreds of kilometers of wire, reports picked up by paper after paper, typed up by journalists and corrected by editors, slapped into the metal squares of the press and the machines turned on, or cranked by hand. At the borders, the news was handed over written on paper in ink, and Senders cast it along to the green countries where telegraphs did not run. By morning the news reached all of Europe, and by the next evening the rest of the world knew as well.
Assassination. Archduke Franz and his wife Sophie dead.
The steel nations mourned his loss, the death of a great man, one of the few that Europe had seen in recent years. Politicians wrung their hands and wondered what might happen on the continent. There would be reprisals, recriminations, calls for justice. The drum beats of war would sound and it would take all the diplomacy that could be mustered to stop it from happening. The veil would be closed, no doors left open for even the meager commerce and exchanging of diplomats that occurred between the magic realms and the Christian ones.
Only those in the green lands understood that her loss was the greater. In her blood flowed ten thousand generations of sorceresses, the blood of the ancient goddess herself. She was the last of her line save but for her daughter, too young to take the vows herself and with no power of her own. When Sophie died, the power flared for one brief moment like a nova in a starry night sky and then fled, ebbed from the world like a lake sucked away by a whirlpool.
When she died, the veil fell from the North Sea to the Mediterranean and all the borders were flung open.