No Kings – a historical short story

Image by TINTYPEPHOTOS from Pixabay

Robert shifted his musket to the other shoulder, so he could use his free hand to pluck blackberries from the hedgerows. Marching across the midlands wasn’t how he was used to spending the autumn, but it wasn’t all bad. He was doing his duty to God and to England, and there were berries in the bushes like there were back home.

Sergeant Dean was talking as they marched. Robert liked listening. Dean made sense of the war, even when they weren’t winning. He made things feel right.

“Long have we accepted the weight of injustice,” Dean declaimed in his piercing preacher’s voice. “Unjust taxes. An unanswerable ruler. The voice of parliament crushed.”

Robert nodded and popped a blackberry into his mouth. The taste was acid yet sweet, the perfect sign of the changing seasons.

He had signed up to fight because of those injustices. He wanted a fairer world, and the Roundheads had offered to make it happen. No arbitrary taxes or corruption bringing the country down. Men like Dean had made it so clear.

“God made men equal, and they should be equal again,” Dean continued. “And for that to happen, there can be no kings.”

No kings. Robert popped another berry in his mouth as he pondered that one. He had been told that they were fighting to make the king follow the rules, but what Dean said made sense. How could there be justice while one man ruled the rest?

*

Robert stood at the edge of the crowd, a dozen plump raspberries in his hand. He had found them on an abandoned farm next to yesterday’s battlefield, where they had been clearing away Royalist bodies. It was sad that people had to die to get justice, but he didn’t know those men, and the berries took an edge off that distant, abstract sadness.

In the middle of the crowd, Sergeant Dean was arguing with Captain Wragg. Wragg wore the smart red jacket of the New Model Army, like the rest of the men. But Wragg’s jacket didn’t fit as well as Dean’s, and he glared uncomfortably at the angry men around him.

“We cannot simply do away with monarchy,” Wragg said, waving a fistful of crumpled pamphlets. “It is a God-given institution. A righteous monarch gives the country-”

“There is nothing righteous in monarchy,” Dean bellowed. “Just an excuse to raise some above others. When Adam delved and Eve span-”

“Don’t give me that! Poetry is no response to holy scripture, which says-”

Now they were both shouting over each other. Robert wished that they wouldn’t. He liked Wragg almost as much as he liked Dean. They both said things that made him feel smart and helped him understand how he was doing right. He wanted them to get on. He wanted to hear what they both said.

He popped a raspberry into his mouth and frowned. It tasted salty and bitter, not sweet like it should.

The crowd grew louder as men at the front pushed and shoved each other. Robert dropped his berries and turned away. The arguments made him feel sad. He should go and find some new berries.

*

Someone was shaking Robert’s shoulder. He opened his eyes and saw Sergeant Dean standing over him, holding a lantern.

“Come on,” Dean whispered. “It’s time.”

Robert shook off his blanket and joined a crowd of grim-faced, silent men following Dean through the camp.

“Where are we going?” Robert whispered.

“To set things right,” Dean replied.

That sounded like a good thing, but a shudder ran down Robert’s spine. Was it just the cold of night, or was it Dean’s voice that gave him a chill?

“Now!” Dean shouted.

The crowd surged forward, descending on a group of dwindling campfires. The men sleeping there cast off their blankets and stumbled to their feet, looking around in confusion. They were too late. The crowd had grabbed half a dozen of them, including Captain Wragg. They punched and kicked them, driving them towards the edge of the camp.

“We should do something!” Robert said, staring in horror as the Captain was kicked through the embers of a fire pit, dragged himself to his feet, and was struck down again.

“We are,” Dean replied in that piercing, righteous voice. “These men want kings to stay above us. They’re poisoning the minds of the soldiers they lead. Can we accept that?”

“No,” Robert said, shaking his head. “No kings.”

But while Dean’s words usually made the world clearer, tonight it seemed more confusing than ever before.

*

Robert didn’t know where they were marching. Sergeant Dean wasn’t a sergeant any more, and he didn’t have time to explain the war to Robert, who got the impression that this was a good thing, though he didn’t know why. Instead, he marched with unfamiliar men, his footsteps out of time with theirs.

A blackberry bush caught his eye. Winter had almost fallen and there were few berries left, but these stood out against the leaves, swollen purple clusters promising that wonderful mix of acid and sweetness. No one stopped Robert as he stepped off the dirt road.

He smiled as he tasted the first of the blackberries. It reminded him of home, of bringing in the harvest with his father and brothers, of sitting in comfort by the fire. He missed the clarity of knowing that the world was right.

It seemed a shame to let those berries go to waste, so he ate them all. When he turned around, the rest of the army had finished marching past. He could see the red coats of the last soldiers disappearing up the road.

Marching with those men before, he had been sure that he was doing something good, and that made him as happy as when he was at home. But now, looking at them made his guts squirm and his brow furrow. He didn’t want kings, but he didn’t want the army any more.

One last berry caught his eye. He plucked it off the bush, then turned and walked off across the fields, heading for home.

***

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***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Blood Red Tie – a fantasy short story

Image by mohamed
Hassan from Pixabay

I sit across the desk from Justin, hoping that he can’t sense the racing of my pulse.

He’s thin as a new grown willow, pale faced and straight lipped. His suit would be ordinary if it weren’t so well fitted, a softer and more presentable skin than the one beneath. His red tie is the only spot of colour. Red for passion. Red for roses. Red for a drop of blood.

His arms hang limp, fingers twitching in expectation. There’s something he wants to grasp, whether to rend or to embrace. The two are much the same with him. He cannot love without destroying, cannot destroy without holding that moment dear.

Not like me. I have to make a choice.

“I have a task for you,” he rasps. Does he sound inhuman, or am I just giving in to suspicion? “A place I need you to go.”

We’re well past the point where I could refuse. He’s owned me since he bought up my broken business.

The wooden stake up my sleeve, that’s all mine.

“What is it?” I ask, trying to sound friendly.

“I need you to carry a message.”

“Can’t it go by email?”

“No.”

His lip twitches and a drop of blood oozes from the corner. That’s when I’m certain that the desiccated corpses in the news are real.

“This is personal,” he says, holding up an envelope. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not.”  I force a smile, keep eye contact, and let the stake slide down my sleeve. “Happy to help.”

I walk around the desk and lean over. As one of my hands closes on the envelope, the other slams the stake into his chest.

The movement is easy as falling off a cliff. His suits tears, the red tie crumples, and the stake goes straight through into the chair behind. I had braced myself for the spatter and stink of blood, but I wasn’t ready for this.

His skin ripples and falls away.

A tingle runs up my arm, hundreds of tiny lips chewing on flesh. I jerk back and black dots tumble from my sleeve. Ticks. Hundreds of them. They run across my chest, probing, biting, feasting, a thousand pricks of pain.

I stagger back and fling off my jacket. So many bites now that it feels like I’m burning.

I stumble over a chair and fall to the floor. Buttons fly as I rip my shirt open. I see the ticks crawling past my waist and up my neck, covering every inch of skin.

There’s a mass of tiny black bodies where Justin’s face had been. They drip from a mimicry of lips, cascading over my face. I open my mouth to scream, but the ticks tumble in and I choke.

He crouches beside me and lays a hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t believe the stories,” he says.

My throat is swollen shut, my body parched. I want to struggle, but a terrible lethargy has seized me. All that’s left is the pain of my skin.

The last thing I see is Justin’s blood red tie.

***

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***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Face of 1000 Heroes – a Commando Comic

Cover image by Neil Roberts

In the year 2104, regular military forces are obsolete. Instead, Iron Wind Corporation has created an enhanced army of super soldiers known as N-Unit. Engineered to be faster, stronger and braver than normal fighters, N-Unit is a clone army. Together they are unstoppable — that is, until one member goes rogue…

I’ve been writing comic scripts for Commando for a couple of years now. In that time, I’ve told a lot of stories that I’m proud of, from the intense urban warfare of Rats in the Rubble to the epic story of 1066. But this month sees the story I’m most excited about – a sci-fi adventure called Face of 1000 Heroes.

How the Story Came About

This story started at a comics convention.

I love history, and I’ve got the degrees to prove it, but as a fiction writer, my abiding passion is science fiction and fantasy. So when Commando publisher DC Thomson put out a collection of their old Starblazer comics last year, I was excited to see whether there might be more in the works.

Not long after, I met Gordon from Commando‘s editorial team at the Thought Bubble comics festival. Thought Bubble is always an amazing place to be, browsing the incredible range of comics being put out by British creators. It was fantastic to see Commando flying the flag for historical action alongside the superheroes and whimsical humour that make up so much of the comics scene. Naturally, I mentioned how excited I was by the Starblazer release, and asked whether it might mean more sci-fi from DC Thomson.

Following that conversation, Kate McAuliffe, the fantastic editor I work with on Commando projects, invited me to pitch a couple of sci-fi stories to her. While there’s no more Starblazer in sight yet, she accepted one of those pitches as a Commando comic, with a few changes to better fit the Commando theme.

And so a story was born…

Why Clones?

Face of 1000 Heroes follows a group of identical cloned mercenaries. I could give a load of highbrow reasons why I wanted to write about clones, from questions of consciousness and free choice through to a fascination with what makes an individual. But if I’m honest, the real reason is two pieces of sci-fi I loved as a teenager – Star Wars and Space Above and Beyond.

I grew up before Star Wars really got into clones. The prequel movies weren’t out yet, so the clone wars were this vague concept mentioned briefly in passing. Even when clones started to appear in stories like the Dark Empire comics, they weren’t well fleshed out. But that idea of wars between clones lurked in the back of my mind, a concept tugging at my curiosity down the years.

Then there was Space Above and Beyond, the shortlived TV show about US marines fighting a war against alien invaders. When it was bad, SAaB was pretty ropey, but when it was good, it was spectacular, and there was nothing like it on TV. One of its characters had been grown in a vat, part of a group known as In Vitroes or tanks, a non-identical clone underclass. Originally grown for war, the tanks were social outcasts, used by the show to explore issues of prejudice and segregation. A rich and fascinating history was hinted at during the show’s all too short run, before some nameless TV executive killed the series I loved.

When I sat down to think of a sci-fi war story, my mind went back to those two stories. If I was going to write about the future of warfare, then I was going to write about clones.

Rebellion, the Most British of Virtues

As a student of history, I’ve often found rebellions exciting. From the Spartacus revolt in ancient Rome, through the American Revolution, to the resistance fighters against Nazi occupation, military history is rammed full of rebel heroes.

And despite our outward image of conformity, the British have a long, proud tradition of rebellion. Boudicca’s revolt of 60AD turned Roman Britain upside down. The Civil Wars saw dozens of dissident groups reshape politics and religion, from the Roundhead armies to the radical agricultural protest of the Diggers. The 19th-century Chartists and 20th-century suffragettes helped bring on a real democracy.

Even within apparently conformist war stories, the heroes are often the rebels, the people who buck against corrupt authority and don’t play by the rules. It’s why Richard Sharpe has become such a popular figure in fiction.

There is nothing more British than rebellion, so if I was going to write a British sci-fi war comic, I was going to get some rebellion in.

The Long History of Mercenaries

The fact that the clones in this story are mercenaries also has its roots in history. Though we’re now used to thinking of armies as belonging to nations, armies have often worked differently. Late medieval Italy was reshaped by the condottieri captains, while the British East India Company ruled a whole country through private armies.

The past 20 years have seen private military firms gain influence and attention again, thanks to the use of companies such as Academi (formerly Blackwater) in the Middle East. Mercenaries, who not long ago seemed like figures from the past, increasingly look like the future of military action. That made them a natural choice for my story, helping to distinguish the military culture of my clones from the modern military while giving them someone to rebel against – the ruthless company they were bred to serve.

Why The Title?

The title of this story is an inversion of one of the most famous works on storytelling, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book explores fundamental patterns in myths and storytelling. Released in the 1940s, it was hugely influential over the following decades, not least on a certain young director named George Lucas.

Now its influence is on the decline. Writers from different backgrounds have shown that many of Campbell’s generalisations don’t hold true. He’d found one pattern of myth-making, but it wasn’t as universal as he claimed. Many modern storytellers work hard to drag us away from Campbell’s monolithic form.

In some ways, the clones of Face of 1000 Heroes represent the opposite of Campbell’s work – not the idea that a single pattern can repeat with a thousand different faces, but that a thousand different people could each have the same face and still each have their own unique story. It’s a rebel’s approach to the theme.

Go Buy It!

So there you go – the origins and influences of a single sci-fi comic. If you’d like to see more sci-fi from Commando, or more British sci-fi comics in general, then please go out and buy this one. Experiments like this help publishers to understand what their audience wants, and the more people buy Face of 1000 Heroes, the more likely it is that Commando will publish more sci-fi. Hell, if enough of you buy it, then one day I might get to write the other story I pitched, the one with a carnival planet, a talking cat, and a space station that folds up in your pocket. Dream big, right?

And to all of you who’ve already picked up a copy of the comic, thank you very much, and happy reading!

Like Snowflakes – a science fiction short story

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Snow was falling as I stepped off the platform and into the retirement town. This was it for the rest of my life, contained in one spot by the company that made me. At least the place looked pretty.

A woman stood by an all terrain car in the parking lot. She pulled the scarf down from across her mouth, revealing my face but with a scar running down her left cheek. ZK-class clones were bred as specialists, scattered around the world in mountain rescue teams, and I’d only encountered two others in my career. Even knowing it was coming, the experience was uncanny.

“I’m ZK-334,” she said. “You can call me Nora. And you must be 418.”

I didn’t shake the hand she offered, instead fiddling with the strap of my bag. It was too weird seeing my own face on a stranger.

“Everyone finds it unsettling at first,” Nora said. “You’ll get used to it.”

As she drove me into town, Nora talked about the people and possibilities the settlement held. All I could do was stare through the windows of the shops and restaurants we passed, seeing hundreds of faces like my own. I pulled my jacket tight and settled my hand on my belly, trying to calm its quivering. There’s nothing wrong, I told myself. This is just what you expected. But I couldn’t help scrutinising those faces, wishing there was someone different from me.

*

Nora laughed when I opened the door, revealing my outfit of tartan trousers and a bright pink hoodie. My distress must have shown, because she stifled her grin and offered a sympathetic smile.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Everyone goes through something like this when they arrive. It’s part of adjusting.”

I should have invited her in, but my home was the only place where that face was confined to the mirror. Even dressed the way I was, I didn’t feel like my own person in the rest of the settlement: no clothes could make me unique when everyone else had my eyes. Still, I clung to those clothes like they were a safety line and I was hanging over a crevasse.

“You don’t dress like this,” I said, twisting my neon watch.

“When I first got here, I wore outrageous Hawaiian shirts for a month. It gave me something to do while I got settled.”

“It’s been a month. I don’t feel settled.”

“It was easier for me.” She ran a finger down her scar. “I’d had this for a decade, and no-one without it looks quite like me.”

I nodded. That scar was part of why I could stand to see her.

“You pick a name yet?” she asked.

I shook my head. I had always been ZK-418. I got the principle of picking a name to mark the end of my service period, but no name would have sounded like me.

“Why don’t you come out for coffee,” she said. “Meet some people. It gets easier once you find out more about them.”

“No.” Just the thought of being around them made me feel faint. “Thank you.”

I stepped back and shut the door.

*

I looked in the bathroom mirror. There it was, the same face I saw everywhere. The same face as everyone I knew. Maybe if I had spent my life surrounded by it, like the military clones did, then I could have lived in this place, but to suddenly be robbed of my individuality, to dissolve into an identical multitude, was like falling from a mountain side, feeling solid support fall away as I hurtled powerless through the void.

I couldn’t even stand to see myself any more. I slammed my fist into the mirror and it shattered, slivers of glass ringing out as they landed in the sink. My knuckles stung and blood dripped down my middle finger.

A blood spot on glass stared up at me like a single, unblinking eye. Hypnotised by its gaze, I finally saw the answer. Nora had found a way to make it all bearable, and so could I.

I picked up a shard the length of my hand and raised it to my face. A scar like Nora’s wouldn’t do: this had to make me unique. The thought of doing it made me feel cold as ice, but it had to be done.

The doorbell rang. I turned, too numb to think beyond automatic reactions, and went to answer.

Nora’s smile lasted all of a second before she saw the look on my face and the glass in my hand.

“Oh, honey!” She looked at me with such sympathy that I could have cried. “That’s not the answer.”

Gently, she took hold of my hand and pried the glass from between my fingers.

“This is why you need to meet people,” she said, laying her hands on my shoulders. “It’s not what’s on the outside that makes us unique. It’s the people inside, and once you meet them, you’ll see more than just your own face looking back. This,” she tapped her scar, “it was a lifeline while I settled in, but it’s not what’s kept me sane.”

“I can’t,” I whispered. “Can’t go out. Can’t face them. I…”

“Then let me come in. I’ll tell you how my accident changed me, all the things I’ve done since that you haven’t. And if that’s okay, tomorrow I’ll bring Judy, the lady with all the piercings, so she can tell you how she went from mountaineer to DJ. How does that sound?”

It sounded terrifying. But so did the clink of shattered mirror falling into the sink, a reminder of the bloody alternative.
I stepped back from the doorway and let Nora in.

***

I have a Commando comic out this week, Face of a Thousand Heroes. Unusually for Commando, it’s a science fiction story instead of a historical one, a tale about cloned soldiers fighting in a future conflict. I wrote this story to show another side of that comic’s world. If you’re interested in reading more, you can find Commando on Comixology or in newsagents.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Waystones in the Smog – a steampunk short story

The smog around the Salt Bay spoil heaps was the thinnest I had ever encountered. From the bridge of the airship, we could see nearly two hundred yards before grey air gave way to impenetrable gloom. It was almost enough to make me believe in the clear skies from folk tales.

Waystones rattled across the navigation boards, guiding our course into the depths of the detritus. Swooping in low, we passed houses built from warped wood and broken beams, smoke billowing from the stone-built smelters that turned scrap metal into ingots.

I set down beside a house matching the sketch I had been given. The place was solidly built, its walls sturdy at the base with a thinner wooden storey above, like the defenses of a marching camp. Behind it, scavenged timbers held up the entrance to a mine shaft leading into the side of a mountainous spoil heap. A man was emerging from the heap, carrying a crate which he set down before looking up at us.

Leaving the crew to secure the ship, I strode down the gangplank and across broken ground to the man at the mine entrance. He wore a frayed military jacket, the epaulets and embroidery torn away, and a deep frown. The years had crumpled and darkened his face, but it was still unmistakably the man whose engraving I had seen in old newspapers. Childish as it might sound, my pulse quickened in anticipation of our meeting.

I saluted.

“Admiral Albon, I—”

“Not admiral,” he snapped. “They took that from me along with my command.”

Good. There was the righteous fire that older men had told me about.

“That title could be yours again, if you’ll take the command with it.”

“I don’t know what your game is, Captain,” Albon said, squinting at my insignia. “But you’re deluding yourself. Pomeroy would never let me back, and besides, I have work to do here.”

He patted the crate. The spoil underneath shifted, the crate tipped like a deck on a windy day, and I heard the clatter of waystones. The ones in my ship had come from a place like this, components scavenged from inside the spoil heaps where the smog could not get to them. It was said that the oldest airships in the fleet had original waystones, carved from natural stone seams before the smog tainted them, but old airmen loved to tell tall tales.

“Lord High Admiral Pomeroy’s objections may not be the issue they once were,” I said. “He suffered some setbacks in the Western Reach, then tried to blame it on his officers.”

Albon snorted. “Some winds never change.”

“And others take a long time to come about. A number of senior officers now question the wisdom of letting the Lord High Admiral continue in post. His spiteful and erratic behaviour throws some of his past decisions into a new light.”

“Ha!” Albon picked up his crate and carried it towards the house. “You think if he hates me I must be one of you. Seems you’re all still as shallow as a summer soot drift.”

I clenched my jaw and hurried after him. This wasn’t how such conversations went in novels, with their clear curve towards justice. Where was the wronged exile seeking redemption?

“Admiral, if you—”

“Stop calling me that.” He slammed down the crate and held up a hand, its palm smooth with scar tissue. “I disgraced myself, got thousands of men killed because I didn’t follow orders. Ranks are for those who deserve them.”

“If Pomeroy had given you the backing you needed—”

“If night was bright then we wouldn’t need lanterns, but grey skies still turn black at dusk.” He took a deep breath, then gestured at the spoil heaps, this landscape built on generations of discarded waste. “I earned this, with or without Pomeroy’s help.”

“Please.” I held myself tall, my voice tight with tension. “We need you. You’re a symbol the opposition can rally behind.”

“I’m needed here.” He patted the top of his crate. “Digging out waystones so our boys and girls in uniform can find their way home. So no more are lost who needn’t be.”

My crew were gathering around us, caps in hand out of respect for the old man. Whatever I said to try to persuade him, it had to be good, because succeed or fail, it would be around the barracks the moment we got back. I needed time to muster an argument, so settled on mundanity while I rallied my thoughts.

“You know that we can cleanse the stones now?” I asked, pointing at the crate. “They found a way to draw out the smog and make fresh cut waystones usable. No need to go rummaging through the refuse.”

Albon shook his head. “So even this is a waste of my life. Doesn’t that just say it all.”

He sagged, as if all that had held him up was this sense of purpose, and I had chased it out of him. But pity only had a moment in my mind before I realised my chance.

“What was corrupt can be cleansed,” I said. “What was undeserving can be given value again.”

He looked at me, and there was a twinkle in his eye like the gleam of lamplight off a firing pin.

“You’re sharper than you look, Captain.” Slowly, he drew himself upright and brushed the ash and dust from the frayed shoulders of his jacket. He looked around at the gathered airmen, and they came to attention. “All right, it seems I’m not needed here. Let’s go see what needs fixing back home.”

Proudly, I followed him up the gangplank onto my ship.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Tinned Beef on Malta – a historical short story

By Royal Navy official photographer,
Russell, J E (Lt) – photograph A 11484 from
the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

“The food here is terrible,” Giuliano Fattorini said, scraping the last briny, flavourless scraps from a tin their captors had insisted on calling beef. “It is no way to treat an airman.”

“Yes, Captain.” Luca stood by the barred window, scowling out across the rooftops of Malta. He had worn that same expression for three days straight, ever since British sailors had fished them out of their ruined plane in the harbour. Though Fattorini admired the younger airman’s passion, his intensity was exhausting to be around.

Outside, bombs were falling, filling the air with the whistle of their descent and the roar of their detonation. That was another thing Fattorini disliked about being captive on the island. The Regia Aeronautica and their Luftwaffe comrades were doing a splendid job against the British, he had always said so, but that splendour was unsettling when experienced up close.

Luca’s eyes widened and he flung himself away from the window. Fattorini rolled out of his chair and covered his head just as a blast shook the building. With a groan of straining masonry, the outer wall collapsed, hitting the street with a crash.

Luca was back on his feet first, staring out through the swirling dust.

“Captain, this is our chance!”

Fattorini peered across his fallen chair. “Our chance?”

“To escape and return to the war. Come on!”

Luca lowered himself to the edge of the floorboards, then swung his legs out where the wall had been. He looked back expectantly at his captain.

The floorboards were rough beneath Fattorini’s fingers, the sounds of the falling bombs unbearably loud. Of course he wasn’t afraid, it was the shaking of the building that made him tremble.

“Is it safe?” he asked, crawling across the floor.

“Safe enough.”

Luca dropped onto the heap of rubble below. Fattorini followed. A brick slid from beneath his foot as he landed. His ankle turned, but not painfully, so there was no reason not to follow Luca as he scrambled down the heap.

Most people were indoors, hiding in shelters and cellars while planes battled overhead, the rattle of guns and roar of engines like thunder from a clear sky. The two men dashed down empty streets, Fattorini puffing and panting as he struggled to keep up with Luca.

At a junction, a soldier was crouching behind an overturned truck. When he saw them coming, he leapt to his feet and swung his rifle around.

“Halt!” he shouted in English. “Hands in the air!”

Fattorini did as he was told.

“What did he say?” Luca asked. He was ten feet ahead of Fattorini, and the soldier swung his rifle jerkily back and forth to cover them both. Fattorini hoped that the man’s trigger finger was steadier than the rest of his hand, or this could end very badly.

“He says hands up,” he translated. “Alas, it seems our escape is at an end. We will be forced back to a new cell, to live out the war on watery stew and bad coffee. Oh, for a—”

“What are you on about?” the soldier shouted over the sound of bombs. He advanced towards Fattorini, rifle still raised. Fattorini, stomach jumping, clamped his mouth shut.

A chunk of masonry hit the soldier in the head and he fell, his rifle under him.

“Yes!” Luca shouted. He had another brick in his hand, ready in case his first throw had missed. “Come on!”

They ran on through the streets, heading for the harbour. Fattorini sweated like a pig standing at the butcher’s block. Was it his imagination, or had the bombing grown even more intense?

They emerged at the water’s edge. There were boats in the harbour, some of them sinking or riddled with shrapnel, others bouncing on the waves. Half the buildings had their windows blown out or sections torn from their front facings.

“That one,” Luca said, pointing to the nearest boat. “If we get in while the British are busy, we can sail out before—”

There was a fountain of water as a bomb landed feet from the boat, then a muffled boom and a towering spray. The boat was flung onto its side, sat for a moment on the sudden swell, and then tipped over, landing upside down. Its exposed hull was riddled with holes.

Luca stared at the ruined boat as waves lapped against its sinking sides. He held himself with a different sort of intensity now, his mouth hanging open, eyes wide.

Fattorini laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

“Maybe we don’t escape today, my friend.”

“But freedom, and the war, and…”

The bombs were still falling. Fattorini steered Luca to the doorway of the most solid building he could see.

“I will be sorry to miss it too, but we can’t help if we are bombed or drowned, can we? We will just have to wait for another chance.”

They crouched in the doorway, heads down in case shrapnel flew their way. Fattorini thought again about his tin of watery beef stew, and about the shredded mess that was the underside of that boat. He felt suddenly giddy at the thought of returning to their prison room. Maybe he could grow to like English food after all.

***

I have a new Commando comic out today. Flight to Freedom is a story of aerial combat and daring escape in the Mediterranean theatre of World War Two, featuring Capitano Fattorini and Luca in very different circumstances. You can buy it at newsagents or in digital form via Amazon Kindle or Comixology.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Out Today – Flight to Freedom

How do you escape from an Italian Opera singer in a seaplane, when you’ve got no weapons, no aircraft of your own, and your only help is from a six-foot-six Soviet who makes up for his lack of English language with his fists?! Issue 5369 of Commando has the answer, in my latest comic story, Flight to Freedom. It’s a tale of daring adventure set during the Second World War, and is out now through UK newsagents and Comixology.

Leather-Soled Shoes – a fantasy short story

Image by insidehenderson from Pixabay

I tucked my feet under the chair, hiding them from the other interviewees. I’d tried so hard to be ready, spending my savings on the best suit I could afford, catching the bus instead of walking so that I wouldn’t arrive sweaty, but my shoes gave me away. Everyone else’s had leather soles. Mine were rubber-soled, ordinary shoes from an ordinary shoe shop.

The others chatted quietly, talking about rugby games and regattas. I kept my gaze downcast, the better to avoid embarrassing myself, a northern lad whose sports knowledge was limited to the Premier League and darts tournaments. I smoothed down my jacket and tried to calm my heartbeat by pressing my fingers together and casting a spell.

Arnby’s Enhancer was the first spell I had ever mastered, letting me overhear teachers’ conversations and playground gossip. The sensation of casting it soothed me. I heard the rising rumble of cars in the street and a louder version of the rugby chatter, but didn’t try to dig any deeper. I wasn’t trying to listen in on the interview room. I was going to get my placement by merit.

“Kieron Brown?” a voice called from the doorway.

I jolted to my feet. Thanks to Arnby, I caught the stifled snigger of one of the other interviewees. I flushed as I followed a secretary into the interview room, then the door closed behind me and silence fell.

“Mister Brown, please take a seat.”

There were three people on the interview panel: a tall man, a bearded man, and a man in a corduroy suit. Like the other interviewees, they were all white and all wore leather-soled shoes. None of them introduced themselves, leaving me with the certainty that I should know who they were.

I swallowed, which did nothing for the dryness of my throat, and took a seat.

“So, you want to manage a ley line nexus,” Tall said. “Good for you.”

“And you have impressive qualifications.” Corduroy tapped a copy of my CV. “Let’s test your knowledge.”

He started asking theoretical questions, and I clenched up inside, waiting for the difficult ones to come. With each passing answer, and each tick Corduroy made in his notebook, I relaxed a little. I even started to smile.

“That’s all very well,” Beard said, shooting Corduroy a pointed look. “But experience is as important as learning.”

Here came the tension again, a tangled knot in my guts. I half lifted my hand, about to rub the back of my neck, but forced the hand back to my knee. Don’t fidget. Keep smiling. Answer clearly. Always present your best self.

“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work,” I said. “Helping children with magical potential, restoring ritual sites.”

“Splendid work,” Tall said, beaming at me.

“But it is limited,” Beard said. “Almost nothing outside of Yorkshire, no international experience, no full-time internships. Depth and variety are crucial in shaping your magical channels.”

His eyes glittered as he examined the magic in me. I felt a tingle from my fingertips to my toes, knew how much power and instinct I held, and knew what a blunt tool it was.

I took a deep breath. Was I really allowed to say what I was about to say?

“I couldn’t afford to travel.”

Tall cleared his throat. Corduroy stared down at his notes. Beard kept his gaze fixed on me.

“There are bursaries,” he said, “for this very reason.”

What could I tell him? That the application process was complex to the point of incomprehension. That there were seven bursaries and three hundred applicants. That they only covered travel expenses, and I had to work to feed myself. I couldn’t spend a month interning in London.

These men had made that system, and they held my future in their hands.

“I didn’t know about the bursaries,” I said.

“Then maybe you should have done your research.”

Tall tapped his papers on the desk and flashed a sidelong look at Beard, who sank back frowning in his seat.

“As you know, ley lines are a valuable national resource,” Tall said with a smile. “One needing a safe, stable pair of hands. What do you think you bring to that?”

I started talking about my studies, about my volunteer work, about commitment to part-time jobs. Tall smiled and nodded, but I could see that he had heard it all before, and Corduroy was focused on his notes.

“Your background check,” he interjected, “reveals a chaotic upbringing. Repeated house moves, one brother in social care, a sister in jail, a caution from the police…”

I felt like a ley line had torn loose somewhere in the room, flinging me into turmoil. I had been caught with a spliff once when I was sixteen, and sworn off it ever since. Did they really think that no one else in their interview room had ever smoked weed? The guy before me had boasted about snorting cocaine at Ascot.

“I’ve worked hard for this.” The clenching of my fist on the chair arm drew an alarmed look from Corduroy. “I’ve spent years studying, practising, gathering experience, obsessing over the chance to do this work. If that’s not safe and stable enough for you, then what is?”

Beard leaned forward, his eyes narrowed, and opened his mouth to speak, but Tall laid a hand on his arm, silencing him.

“Thank you, Mister Brown,” Tall said, his smile strained. “We’ll be in contact in due course.”

“Thank you,” I said stiffly.

I got up from my seat and followed the secretary to the door. As it opened, Tall leaned toward Beard, and thanks to Arnby’s Enhancer, I heard his whisper.

“We have to show willing, remember.”

Beard snorted. “He didn’t even go to a proper school.”

I walked out of the office, my chest tight, all energy gone. Another interviewee passed me on his way in. He wore leather-soled shoes.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Secret Beloved – a historical short story

Image by William Adams
from Pixabay

The crowd roared as two knights emerged onto the tilting field, their horses advancing with perfect control, their lances raised so that the blunted tips shone in the sunlight.

Beside me in the stands, the Lady Matorell let out an excited gasp. For a moment, I assumed that the Lord Matorell was taking the field, but then I remembered that he had been knocked out already, flung from his horse in one of the early matches. The lady’s attention had not been drawn by her husband, but by a handsome young knight with a halo of blond hair and a smile of unshakable confidence. A strip of cloth was tied around the armour of his upper left arm, its yellow and blue a match for my lady’s dress.

“How romantic,” she whispered. “Sir Arnau knows that he cannot have me, yet still he wears my colours.”

“Such chivalry,” I replied, smiling through my envy. This was romance like the storytellers proclaimed, the perfect and chaste love of a knight who knew that his desires could never even be spoken. I dreamed of any knight’s attention, while my mistress had it all: a rich and powerful husband to provide for her, and a storybook romance on the side.

“He barely even speaks to me,” she said. “The poor man must be afraid that his passion will overcome his senses.”

She let out a sigh that had nothing of sadness in it.

Sir Arnau donned his helmet, obscuring the features over which so many women had swooned, and lowered his lance. At the far end of the field, his opponent did the same.

I had imagined moments like this as I read to my mistress during long winter nights, but until this day I had never understood the reality of the joust. The thunder of hooves, the crash of blows, the thud of bodies on the ground. One knight had been carried off with his leg bent out of shape, another with blood streaming from his arm. It was thrilling and frightening all at once. My heart raced all the harder for these gallant men in their fine and gleaming armour. It made me feel my lovelessness more, and I slumped in my seat.

In the stands opposite, our host lowered his hand. The two knights set the spurs to their steeds, which sprang into action, galloping toward each other. For a moment, only hoof beats broke the silence. Then came the crack of lances, the cheers of the crowd, the fall, the thud.

Lady’ Matorell’s hand went to her mouth.

“Is he hurt?” she asked, eyes wide.

I saw Arnau’s horse ride on to the end of the lists, while his opponent cast aside a broken lance and raised his fists in triumph. But Arnaud himself was hidden by the spectators below us. I stared at them with my hands clutched to my chest, praying for his safety.

A knight rushed onto the field, followed by a pair of squires. It was Lord Matorell, dressed in the same blue and yellow as his wife, the colours of his house. My heart beat faster. Many stories saw spurned husbands confront their chivalrous rivals. Lady Matorell took my hand and gripped it tight.

Lord Matorell bent down. When he rose, he was supporting Arnau, the younger man leaning on his shoulder while he waved off the attention of the squires. As they hobbled from the field, the two men smiled at each other, laughing in spite of Arnau’s pain.

I had seen smiles like that between men before. I remembered my brother, before he removed himself from temptation by joining a monastery. There was more than one type of love a young knight would have to hold concealed, more than one person blue and yellow could stand for.

I looked at Lady Matorell, and just for a moment her expression narrowed into something bitter. Then Lord Matorell whispered in Arnau’s ear, and the two of them turned to wave at us.

“So noble!” Lady Matorell proclaimed, a little too loudly to go unheard. “The two of them together, despite their feelings for me.”

“A beautiful thing, my lady,” I said, matching her forced smile.

The envy in my heart wilted away. It was easy to be jealous of a real woman’s fortune, but not of a story, whoever had made it up.

***

This story was inspired by an article on clothing in Catalan medieval romances by Dr Ester Torredelforth, in Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini. If you enjoy analysis of sci-fi and fantasy then the whole collection is well worth a read.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’