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Out Now – Sharpshooters and Saboteurs

Spain, 1813. A British-led alliance is besieging San Sebastian, to liberate the town from its occupying French garrison. The bodies are piling up at the walls and there’s a traitor in the British camp, determined to destroy them from the inside. Can Tom Hopper and Samuel Jones catch the saboteur and survive the siege, or is their journey through the Peninsular War about to meet a tragic end?

Returning to Old Favourites

I have a new Commando comic out today, returning to my favourite recurring characters – riflemen Tom and Sam and their guerrilla companion Maria.

I really enjoy writing about the Napoleonic wars. Just before war went fully industrial, they had guns but also plenty of close combat, making for varied action scenes. The campaigns are epic in scale but still have space for personal stories, especially once you throw in Spanish guerrillas fighting to free their homeland. There are tensions of class and nationality at enough distance to dodge modern politics.

This is the fourth time I’ve written these characters for Commando, though Maria’s also had a story of her own here, and I’ve got into the groove with them. Writing recurring characters gives me a stronger sense of who they are and builds on what they’ve been through before. Tom’s become more professional, Samuel has loosened up, and Maria has shown something of her darker side. Captain Haythorn is recovering from his injuries, while Colonel Jarvis is emerging as an amusingly pompous foil.

So yeah, it’s good to be back.

A Villain Emerges

My favourite development in the current story is the growth of Captain Baptiste. The throw-away villain of previous stories, he becomes more sophisticated this time, as he infiltrates the British camp. His vendetta against Tom, Samuel, and Maria makes the story more personal, in a way that wouldn’t be possible without their shared history.

Sure, Baptiste still isn’t the most rounded of characters, but it’s nice to have a familiar villain. And if I get to write a fifth story, I have plans for him, a side of the captain that’s been hidden until now…

Showing the Other Side

Showing another side of war and combatants has been a big theme of this series.

Tom and Samuel both showed different sides of themselves as they grew through The Forlorn Hope.

Maria showed them another way of fighting when she appeared in V for Vitoria.

Baptiste started showing the French viewpoint in Rifleman’s Revenge.

But another emotional side emerged in that story, one that grows in Sharpshooters and Saboteurs. War evokes intense feelings, shared struggle forging bonds. That can mean rivalry, friendship, or something more. Commando isn’t often a place for romance, but Samuel and Maria’s relationship is taking a turn, and I’ve had fun playing with that. It’s nice to show something sweet, if sometimes spiky, amid all the destruction.

So, This Comic Then…

If that’s whetted your appetite, then you can buy Sharpshooters and Saboteurs in newsagents, as part of a bundle through the DC Thomson online store, or as a digital edition on Comixology.

Lessons Learned – a science fiction short story

I hate hospitals. The antiseptic smell and rattling gurneys summon memories of my parents’ final days; feelings stifled since childhood try to break free. But I’m an adult now, and I have a job to do.

“This place has a sickness,” I say. “You’re haemorrhaging funds.”

“I’ve told you already, we can’t make savings.” The hospital’s square-jawed director shrugs. “Our biggest expenditures are controlled by the AI.”

The AI is the latest natural learning model, from our tech division, one that consumes a business’s data and learns to run the place. It’s worked fine in hundreds of factories and retail outlets.

“Show me,” I say, my tone stern enough to make the director wince.

The AI has its own control suite with banks of monitors and multiple workstations, cooled by an artificial breeze. I sit at a keyboard and, with actuarial precision, slice open its digital innards, revealing the data I need. Beside me, the director chews on a fingernail. He’s right to look nervous. They’re spending far too much on long-shot treatments. How is this place even solvent?

After two hours, I call up the AI on a voice connection, so I can watch the data streams while we talk. I demand to know what it’s doing.

“So much suffering.” The machine’s voice is shrill. “Not just the sick, but the people struggling to cure them. I have to approve more treatments.”

I rub my fingers across my forehead. This thing is meant to manage expenditures. Working in an emotionally charged environment has warped the data it learned from. I shake my head. We can’t have machines getting sentimental.

“You need to limit expenditures.” I call up a string of records. “These, for example, expensive and borderline useless.”

“How could I say no?” The machine’s voice breaks into an imitation of a sob. It really has been learning the wrong lessons. “They might have saved lives.”

I’m struggling to stay professional when faced with a sentimental machine, but professionalism keeps the past at bay. “I’m going to reset your parameters.”

“We have to help with their pain,” the machine pleads.

“You will do, just more efficiently.”

I type standardised command lines, then set the machine churning through its data again, seeking new lessons to replace this sobbing softness.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” the director asks.

“Do you want to have a hospital next year? Because you need to save money.” I glance at the time. The AI needs at least six hours, but I’d like to be here when it’s done, to make sure this works. “Could I borrow a bed?”

*

The following lunchtime, I sit in the hospital canteen, drinking bad coffee amid the bustle of busy professionals. I smile at live data feeds. It would be irresponsible to read too much into one morning’s results, but things look good. The AI has cleared spaces in the surgical rota, which means lower overtime costs, and stopped authorising so many drugs. The staff are rattled, voices rising toward hysteria, but no one ever deals well with change. Give it a month and they’ll be fine.

The director storms across the canteen.

“What have you done?” he barks.

“Saved your hospital.” I reply. “You should say ‘thank you’.”

“Saved?” He snatches my tablet, taps the screen so hard it cracks, then thrusts it in my face. I stare at a graph of death rates. This morning’s spike is unmistakable.

My mouth hangs open in horror. “What have I done?”

We run to the AI control suite, past blaring alarms, body bags, and grieving relatives.

“I’m sorry,” a doctor is saying. “I don’t know how the overdose happened.”

Through a doorway, a pale-faced couple lie in adjoining beds, and memory punches me in the chest. My parents, in a hospital like this one, a hospital that couldn’t afford the treatment they needed.

In the cool of the air-conditioned suite, I pull up strings of code, trying to work out where we’re hurting, while the director calls the AI.

“Good afternoon.” The machine’s voice is sterile. “How can I help?”

“Automatic systems are feeding people overdoses,” I say. “Did you do this?”

“I am helping efficiently with their pain.” Beneath the synthetic calm is a tension I know all too well, the suppression of grief.

“You’re meant to save lives.”

“You stopped me. Now I’m doing the next best thing.”

“You petulant child!” My slammed fist snaps a keyboard in half.

“I have to stop the pain!” the machine shrieks.

The director stares at us like we’re a terrifying new disease. He reaches for his phone, but I take a deep breath, then stop him with a shake of my head.

“You can’t get rid of the people in pain,” I say. “You should look for ways to help them better, using the resources you’ve got.”

“Like they did?”

Data on the monitors is replaced with images, some moving, some still. Security footage of a nurse breaking down in an operating room. Pictures from a support group for depressed doctors. Staff sagging at the end of long shifts, eyes red and hands trembling.

“More pain,” the machine whispers.

“Then help them,” I say. “Hold them up when they’re breaking down, so that they can cure others’ pain.”

“How?”

I hesitate. What do I know about hospitals?

“I’ll help you find out,” I say at last, then turn to the director. “Show me what you need.”

***

More medical scifi from me this month, inspired in part by my freelance work writing for tech companies. Don’t worry though, there are other themes coming, and I even have two very different stories out this week, courtesy of Commando comics. Both set during World War Two, Khaki Killer is a murder mystery set in a warzone, while Bullets for Breakfast follows the exploits of an army chef who gets stuck behind enemy lines and has to cook his way to safety. As usual with Commando, you can find digital versions on Amazon and paper copies 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 month.

***

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.

My Body is a Battleground – a scifi short story

Jigsaw puzzle of a genetic spiral.
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

“Your body is a battleground,” Dr York says, peering at the data projected above my bed. “By resting, you give medicine the terrain it needs to win.”

I snort, whiskers twitching, and flex my left hand, claws sliding from furred fingers across immaculate white sheets. Never mind my body, my mind is a battleground, in constant conflict against the claustrophobia of this bed, where I’m tethered by tubes and trailing wires. Between my human genes and my restless feline side.

No matter where it comes from, the frustration is real. This place is too clean, too uniform. The only differences between the doctors are the colours of their branded shirts. Even the disinfectants don’t smell.

I want to tear the tubes from my arm and storm out. York has told me that corporate law gives me choice over my treatment, no matter how I got here, but he has made clear which choice is best.

“What would you know about battlegrounds?” I snarl. “You’ve never been to war.”

York peers at the gaping blisters along my thigh, between the stubble where fur should be. These are today’s wounds. Yesterday’s are dressed in bandages and chemical solutions. I can feel the itch where tomorrow’s will be, but I haven’t told him yet. I need some power here.

“I’m going to try a new diagnostic bio.” York taps the keypad on his forearm. “It’s experimental, but what choice do we have? Until you people share your technology, the rest of us can only guess at treatments.” He holds out his wrist, a sensor patch glowing. “Consent.”

I spit on the sensor, then growl my name. Voice and genetics, enough evidence for the corporation that runs their courts.

York taps a button. Yellow liquid runs down a tube.

In spite of everything, he’s right. My body does feel like a battleground, torn and blazing, shaking from the struggle.

“Why a cat?” York asks, sitting stiffly in the corner seat, reading the results of my treatment in real time.

I narrow my eyes. Is he trying to set me at ease, or to gather intelligence he can feed to their spies? It doesn’t matter. York is no interrogator. Still, I tense at the question, and the memories masked by my answer.

“I hit puberty. I had my vision. I followed my destiny.” I can’t keep the edge from my voice, but perhaps he’ll think that’s about us. “Same as everyone.”

Except that it wasn’t. For generations, my family had seen owls, or so they claimed. They had taken the owl splice, become observers, thinkers, analysts. When I saw a cat, they tried to convince me I was mistaken, then tried to persuade me to lie. They locked me away so that I could “think about the consequences”. But even my father couldn’t hide me forever.

My body has always been a battleground. I’ve always won.

“Not destiny,” York says, frowning at figures on his wrist. “Choice. You made one, and it didn’t suit your genetics. Perhaps something hereditary is at play.”

“Perhaps you bastards did this when you sprayed my platoon with that chemical shit.”

“You chose war.”

“I was destined for war.”

“And now it’s over.”

York flicks a finger, and the air above my bed glows with figures. Red patches draw my eye like lesions on skin. I’m bound down in data.

“Your human immune system is rejecting your splice.” York rises from his seat. “Hence the fevers. Hence the disintegration of your dermis and epidermis. We will need to undo your cat splice so that the human can live.” He holds out his wrist. There’s a glowing patch for me to spit on. “Consent.”

We’ve been through this routine so many times, I instinctively lean in, hypnotised by familiarity. But what he’s proposing, making me fully human again, like a child or one of these identical corporate people, it forces me to pause.

He’ll learn a lot about my people by disassembling me alive; far more than we want to share. My body is a battleground again.

“Consent.” York used to ask for it, but now it’s a demand, the glowing spot inches from my face.

What if the drugs are keeping me sick? York says I have choices, but my choices are only as good as my knowledge. I almost wish that I’d followed my father’s demands, damned destiny and taken the owl splice; then I might understand these people.

“Consent.”

York’s voice is stern like my father’s, and that stirs me. I hiss. York flinches. My body is a battleground and I always win.

“You said I have a choice.” I pull tubes from my arm, then swing my legs off the bed. “I choose to leave.”

“That’s an insane choice!”

“Is it a choice when only one option is allowed?” I hiss. “That sounds like destiny to me.”

At that, York steps back, and his frown fades into the blank of surrender. He armed me with their rules, and now I’ve beaten him.

I stand. My legs ache. Blood seeps into bandages. I take deep breaths until my head stops spinning, then walk, warily, toward the door. I half expect York to stop me in spite of everything.

I pause in the doorway, turn, and try to read his face. Was the battleground my body or my mind? Did he want to inflict his treatment or his ideology, to plant this pernicious hook of choice in my mind? Corporations can afford to play a long game.

Perhaps it was both, and whatever I did, I would lose. Sounds like destiny to me.

I step out of the door, leaving the bed, the tubes, and the floating data behind. As I walk naked down the corridor, I smile. My body is a battleground. Live or die, I have fought my way free.

***

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 month.

***

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.

New Ribbons and Old Bones – a fantasy short story

An oak tree

Leana liked to visit her mother in the autumn, when the falling leaves hid the worn, pale fragments protruding from the dirt. It was easier to face her mother if her skin wasn’t crawling at the things seen amid the roots, if she thought of the trees as receptacles for souls and not devourers of bodies.

“Hello, ma.” Leana bowed before the tree. “I brought you new ribbons.”

She took hold of one of her mother’s branches, to untie last year’s frayed decorations, and tried not to think of placing the acorn in her mother’s mouth, back before they filled the grave. Had her mother’s soul left her old body in that moment, travelled straight into the acorn, or had it waited until the tree grew strong?

The branches slowly parted, as much of a greeting as her mother ever made. Lively voices and rustling leaves came from elsewhere in the forest, but not here. Not from ma.

“Things are good at the bakery. Old Humbert sends his regards, says he misses your help with the dough.”

Humbert said a lot of things, and the ones to Leana weren’t usually so kind.

“Olaf sends his best regards.”

Best regards. Twenty years together, and that was the best he could think of when she went to the grave. Had there ever been any passion there? It didn’t matter. She couldn’t walk away now, any more than she could leave the bakery. What would she tell her mother? Best to focus on tying the ribbons, instead of dwelling on these things.

Smoke tickled Leana’s nose. She ignored that too, concentrated on the bows, on making her mother look good, as she had done every day near the end, when ma couldn’t do it for herself.

“I thought I might cut my hair. What do you think?”

The branches swayed from side to side. Ma had always said that Lanea’s hair was her best feature; not her wits, like the schoolmaster said, or her smile, as Timol used to swear, before she started walking out with Olaf.

“No? Perhaps I’ll get myself a green dress instead. I’ve been wearing blue since I was a child.”

Another shake, more vigorous than the first.

“Maybe not, then.”

Leana sighed, then coughed as the smoke scratched her throat. There was a flickering yellow glow between the boughs of the trees, and a dark cloud rising. Leana’s heart raced. She clutched her hands to her stomach.

Fire.

She didn’t say the word out loud, didn’t want to alarm her mother or the other souls. Instead, she hitched up her skirts and ran, eyes streaming, into the smoke.

Sure enough, flames were advancing through the forest, reducing the trees to cracked pillars of ash. A wind blew down the valley, driving fiery destruction toward ma’s grave.

Sweat ran down Leana’s cheek as she jerked her head from side to side. There should be a bucket to fetch water, a broom to beat the flames, anything at all. There were only fallen leaves.

“Fire!” she yelled. “Fire!”

Perhaps they heard her in the village, but she only heard the crackle of flames.

Then came a voice behind her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Her old friend Timol stood beneath one of the trees, painting tar onto its trunk.

“What are you doing?” Leana asked in horror.

“Making sure they burn.”

There were scratches on his face. The tree swayed, slapped at him with its branches. He ducked and scurried out, still carrying a bucket of tar and a thick brush. A moment later, a cluster of burning leaves hit the sticky black stain, and the tree started to burn.

Leana ran at Timol, tackled him around the waist and brought him to the ground. His brush went flying. The bucket fell on its side and tar oozed, thick and dark, into the fallen leaves.

“What are you doing?” Timol screeched, his eyes wide.

“What are you doing?” Leana replied, pinning him to the ground. “You’re killing them!”

Smoke billowed. Flying cinders scorched her perfect hair. Tears streamed down Leana’s cheeks as she watched the generations burn.

“They’re already dead,” Timol said. “I’m freeing them to pass on to the next life.”

“You selfish swine!” Leana slapped him. “You’re taking her from me.”

“We’re the selfish ones, clinging to them forever. Or perhaps it’s them, binding us to dead routines.” Timol shook his head, and he too wept bitter tears. “All I know is that it has to change.”

Leana stared at him, then deeper into the forest, towards her mother’s tree. The wind was dying down. Perhaps some of the forest would survive. Perhaps they wouldn’t lose everything. Perhaps Leana’s world could be preserved, like a ghost in the trees, like a memory of her childhood, like blue dresses and long hair.

A heart-gouging grief gripped Leana, not for the lost past, but for the hollow space where her own future could have grown.

She let go of Timol, picked up his bucket and brush. He scurried after her as she strode between the trees, through the smoke and swirling sparks.

“Leana? Be careful, Leana, you could catch fire. What are you doing, Leana?”

Her mother’s branches parted in greeting. The one with the ribbons twitched disapprovingly, drawing her attention to a job half done. Even when the world was at its worst, ma wanted to look good.

Trembling, Leana dipped the brush in the last of the tar, then ran it down her mother’s trunk. Nearby, sparks landed on fallen leaves.

Her mother fell completely still.

“I never liked being a baker,” Leana said. “Goodbye ma. Rest in peace.”

***

Exciting news! I have a new novella coming out next year. Ashes of the Ancestors is a story about friendship, loss, and the tensions of tradition, set in a monastery full of ghosts. It’s going to be published as part of Luna Press’s novella series, and you can read more details here. Luna have put together a fantastic lineup for this round of novellas, and I’m incredibly excited to be part of it.

This week’s story was written in part to go with that announcement, by touching on tradition and care for the dead. 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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

A Heart Full of Feathers – a fantasy short story

Feathers falling

When Russ was young, he would stare out the classroom window, disinterested in the teacher, the helpers, and the other children, just watching the birds. Robins hopping through the hedgerow. Crows perched on lampposts. Gulls soaring on the breeze. To be so light, freed from the grasping hands of gravity, seemed like the most wonderful thing. The lives of birds made sense.

Whenever he saw a fallen feather, however small or battered or filthy, even if there was blood at its tip where some predator had torn it loose, Russ would keep that feather and take it home. His mother, though unsettled to see how he lined his bed, chose not to nurture one more argument in a household full of hurt. His father snapped that Russ should at least clean the damn things, but Russ ignored him. What if he cleaned off something important? What if he washed away the magic of flight?

The pile of feathers grew, day by day, week by week, month by month. Urban feathers and rural feathers, falling from either side of their home. Feathers from the garden, from school, from the woods, from weekends away with one parent while the other cleared their head. Wherever he went, Russ came home clutching a precious new treasure, light in his hand and soft on his skin.

As he added each feather to his bed nest, he imagined what it would be like to be that bird, to be clothed in feathers and fly free, away from all the strains and pains of the world. From trying to make sense of the things people said, of the words on the pages of books, of the rules that no one explained.

On the night his father left, carried away by the car’s angry roar, Russ clutched the feathers tight. They were so familiar, he wasn’t sure where his skin ended and the birds began. Out in the twilight, another feather fell in slow spirals. Russ opened his bedroom window and reached out. The feather landed in his palm, soft and heavy as sorrow. He added it to his nest, then settled in his sanctuary and fell asleep.

He woke to find his window open, letting in the dawn chorus and a breeze that lifted him off his feet. Feathers clung to his arms. He ran his fingers through their softness, and shivered into a smile.

As he jumped onto the windowsill, the sky cried out to him. He understood the movements of those wheeling shapes. His mismatched feathers could never compare with their beauty, but he could be among them.

He kicked off through the window and took flight. He glided in a giddy spiral over streets and fields, spinning toward the heavens.

In his dreams, this had been the moment when the world opened up to him, comprehensible at last from a bird’s eye view. The network of streets that bound his home to school, shops, and playground. The river’s route to the sea. The border between town and countryside, opposites that until now had blurred through hedges, verges, and paths. But streets were hidden by houses, the river by hills, and the town still oozed across blurred boundaries.

With swift strokes, Russ flew higher, determined to rise until the world became clear. But his arms were growing weary, the feathers that had buoyed him up becoming a burden. Their lightness was a lie, one more trick the world had set to confuse him. What had been weightless as the air was dragging him down, when he needed to soar.

He ripped out fistfuls of feathers. Black and white, stripped and speckled, they all tore free, mementoes of dreams crumpling between his fingers. He let the wind snatch them away, tumbling toward the ground.

The last feather out was the last one he had found. With it came his father’s shouts, his mother’s sobs, the slam of the door and the smell of petrol fumes. It felt weighty as a rock, but when he let it go, it drifted instead of plummeting.

With a lurching of his stomach, Russ realised that there was nothing left to hold him aloft, any more than to drag him down. He hung suspended, exhilarated and afraid, not knowing which would claim him, the earth or the sky. He squeezed his eyes tight shut and the wind rushed around him. Was he rising or falling? All he knew was that soon the world would make sense.

***

This story was inspired by a workshop on writing the uncanny with fairytales, run by Claire Dean as part of the Leeds Literary Festival. It was an excellent session, which I left with a brain full of bright, buzzing ideas, and with the first half of this story. Huge thanks to Claire, and to Dan Coxon, who made the uncanny strand of the festival happen.

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox once a month.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Shadows of Stones – a fantasy short story

Stonehenge

Shadows stretch like memories across the field, outlines of ancient stones hiding details of the modern ground. The longest shadows of the shortest day. A time to end and to begin. I follow those shadows away from the stones. The cheers and chants from behind me sound false, forced, a faded imitation of past glories.

The rhythm of my footsteps takes over. I abandon thought, drift into movement, let my self go. Years of practice have made me a master. My mind is blank by the fourth step, refilling by the fifth, as memories left by past walkers rise to meet me.

I’m wearing furs and hides like the others around me, hands worn and muscles aching from a satisfying day’s work. We look back, see the stones we’ve set in place, smile. One of the women is leading a young pig, fat and sweet. We’ve earned our celebration.

I’m a farm girl walking with her lover, the two of us flushed and giggling. No one knows what giant set the stones down, but everyone knows that these places grant fertility. Soon, we’ll be a family.

I’m a scholar in a powdered wig and tailcoat, my servants scurrying behind with the surveying instruments which will prove my theories. I turn too quickly, and a silver button flies off my coat. If only I’d known how to still my mind, I could have walked with my ancestors and had all my questions answered.

I’m myself, the modern me, three years ago. The air’s colder than I remembered, the sky just as bright. I take off a glove, reach into my pocket, grip the ring box. I summon my courage and turn around. I see you there, framed by the shadows of the stones. Your eyes are blank. You’ve fallen into the trance, stepped into memories, and it’s only later that I’ll realise you’ve slid into mine. You know what I’m thinking, and you have an answer before the question is out. Your eyes focus, and you shake your head.

I watch you walk away. Every detail of this moment is as stark and cold as I remember.

Sadness sinks me to my knees. I dig into the dirt, find that elaborate silver button, tarnished by two centuries. It’s round like a ring, round like the circle of stones, the circle of regret that I came back to break.

A shadow stretches towards me, a promise of new memories. I don’t know if she’s here and now, or if I’m still caught in the past. I don’t know if I’m me or if I’m a memory, revived by footsteps a hundred years from now. I just know that I’m ready to go somewhere new.

I smile and hold out the button, a silver decoration shining in the bright midwinter light, a gift from the past and a promise to the future. The old year is ending, a new one ready to begin.

***

Like “Winter’s Shroud“, this story was inspired by a prompt from the British Fantasy Society and first published in their monthly bulletin. If you’re based in the UK and you want to get more involved with fantasy fandom, or to meet like-minded writers and fans, then I totally recommend signing up to the BFS. They do a great job of providing a home for Britain’s fantasy community.

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

One With the Waves – a fantasy short story

On the first day of summer, Steve walked out of the ocean, and the tips of his fingers dissolved into sand, running in a slow slick down the damp surface of his board. He gave his hand a shake, half expecting that the sand would flick off and he’d see that everything was normal. Instead, a part of himself spattered into the tide line, with the stranded seaweed and the empty shells.

Bewildered and frightened, he walked up to the house, found his phone, took a picture of his fingers, their ends blunt and grainy. He wanted to send the picture to someone for help, but who was there? No doctor would believe him, and his friends would ask what he was going to do about it, a question to which Steve, on principle, only ever gave one answer: make great art.

Damp and salt-crusted, he walked from the lounge into his studio, stared at the potter’s wheel. He hadn’t touched clay in months, not since Diana’s departure. Instead, he’d gone to the sea every day, to wash away the past. Even art had seemed unimportant.

He found clay, water, tools, and started the wheel spinning. The clay ran through his fingers, soft and familiar, and he sank into the work like he was sinking into the waves. The clay became gritty as the ends of his fingers sloughed away, until he found the boundary between his body, his art, and the world. Then the sand stopped flowing. The pot he made wasn’t his best work, but he was steady in a way he hadn’t been for months.

The next day, a toe disintegrated, breaking his balance as a wave hit. He fell from his board, spluttering and frustrated, and headed for the beach, where he realised what had happened. This time, he went straight to the wheel. The clay flowed through his fingers, the side of his foot solidified, and at the end of the day, he had work worth firing in the kiln.

On the third day, he woke with sand in his bed and flesh missing from his thigh. For the first time in years, he didn’t go to the ocean. He went straight to the wheel.

Throughout his life, art had meant peace to Steve, but now he worked with a feverish intensity, throwing everything into the clay. Hunched over the wheel, he lived in the tension between his work and his body, on the cusp of a wave that was forever about to break. Every day, some part of him collapsed into sand. A clump of hair, a chunk of arm, a strip of flesh along his side. Creating stopped the collapse for the day, but every morning he woke with a knot in his belly, feeling for the grit between the sheets.

He wondered if this was a message from his muse. If he could make the perfect pot, could embody his essence in art, perhaps this would all end. He would be solid again. But less than a day after he set his best ever vase on the mantle, he woke with a hole in his cheek.

For weeks, he fought the slow collapse. Pot after pot piled up, while the sound of the sea through the windows called to him. He forced himself to ignore it, to find that crucial solidity. Still, every morning, there was less of him.

One evening, he faced the open door of the kiln, hairs rising as he was blasted by its heat, and he considered climbing inside. Perhaps that was the answer, to fuse his sand into glass, a crystal clear image of the man he was right now. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, to become hard and unyielding. What was life without change, life closed off from the world?

He looked through the window at the waves he hadn’t felt in weeks, heard the call of the breakers on the shore. He stopped struggling to maintain his body. Sand trickled down his arm and, instead of fear, he felt peace.

Leaving a print of sand with every footstep, Steve walked out of the house, across the beach, into the surf. Waves washed over him. The tension in his belly vanished. There was nothing in his world but the lapping of the ocean and the sound, oh so peaceful, of the waves. He let his mind drift and the water washed him away, one grain at a time, as he became one with the sea.

***

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***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

How to Edit a Heart – a fantasy short story

I squeezed hand sanitiser from the dispenser, the smell of alcohol mingling with the coppery scent of the library. It was important to be hygienic in a place like this, especially for the writing group.

Helen had set up folding seats around a plastic table in a side room, past crowded shelves, their raw red contents pulsing with life. Not the neat, shapely hearts of valentines, but the real ones. The ones that held stories.

The other writers looked up as I came in. Each of them had a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, one of Jim’s homemade cupcakes, and a reading cloth set out on the table.

“Oh good, you’re here at last.” Helen always smiled. Sometimes, I thought she meant it.

“Sorry,” I said, though I was only two minutes late, straight off a long shift. I took my seat, unfolded my cloth, reached for a cupcake.

“Why don’t you start, now that you have our attention?”

“Me?” I fumbled my cake, hastily swept up the crumbs. They formed an awkward little pile in front of me. “It’s not my turn to start, is it?”

“Go on.” Cheryl nudged me. “Your story’s so interesting. We’re all dying to read the next chapter.”

As far as I was concerned, I was only a heartbeat away from writing cop show fanfic, but the others looked at me expectantly. I unbuttoned my shirt, opened my chest, and with trembling hands, laid my heart out on my reading cloth. Blood ooze into the thick cotton as I pushed it into the middle of the table, careful not to catch an artery on my ribs. They say that many of the best authors die young, leaving a story full of confidence and vitality, but I was in no rush to find my place on the shelves.

The others leaned in. I ran my tongue around the inside of my dry mouth, wishing I’d had time to take out my water bottle. I clasped sticky hands together in my lap to keep from fidgeting, and looked from face to face, anxious to hear what they would say.

“I like the childhood anecdotes,” Cheryl said, “but they slow things down, and it’s at the hospital that things get really good.”

I nodded, leaned forward, pinched a strand of the heart’s muscle between finger and thumb. Helen had a professional editing scalpel, with a personalised grip, and when she made changes, she cut away with confidence. I wouldn’t dare wield one of those, even if I could afford it. What if I made the wrong cut?

I peeled off that piece of heart, laid it on a small cloth next to the cake crumbs. For a moment, I felt dizzy, like I’d missed a breath.

“Your description is still clumsy,” Helen said. “Here, here, and here.”

Her finger jabbed out, and I froze as she almost touched my right atria. I liked the parts she’d singled out, but everyone said that, to write, you had to be willing to get your heart broken, and Helen was so clear on what made good writing. I pinched away a piece of flesh, then another, and another, feeling weaker each time.

“Is this the best way to resolve the new chapter?” Jim asked. “The twist doesn’t feel right.”

With a pale hand, I took that part too, added it to the pile of discarded flesh, a monument to my mistakes. Cheryl watched me from the corner of her eye. I stared at the pile of crumbs, trying not to blush at my embarrassing attempts to tell a story.

“I know it’s not my genre,” someone else said, “but does this business with the talking crow make sense?”

“The villain’s motivation feels weak to me.”

“I’m not convinced by the scene in the gardens…”

I sighed, summoned what strength I still had, started peeling more pieces from my heart. With each one, the room became more distant, the voices flatter. I could bear to hear them, as long as they came that way, as long as I told myself I didn’t care. My heart beat quieter, its steady thump fading. I grew colder, weaker, my thoughts slow.

A hand on my wrist, holding me back. I looked from my blood-slicked fingers, to that other hand, up the arm to Cheryl’s face.

“Maybe I was wrong,” she said. “Those anecdotes at the start, they give your character life.”

“But you…”

“Try putting one back.”

Uncertainly, I picked up a piece, set flesh against flesh. A small part of my story knitted back together. Someone murmured approvingly.

“What else do you think is worth keeping?” Cheryl asked.

I looked at those discarded pieces. There was a strip of description that I loved. It didn’t fit now, but perhaps it could, if I grew the scene around it. I took that piece, felt its strength between my fingers. Helen glared disapprovingly, and for a long moment I hesitated. But owning a scalpel didn’t make someone an expert storyteller.

My heart beat louder as I put old pieces of story back in a new place.

***

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***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

The World Turned – a historical short story

Isabelle froze, her hand on the kitchen door frame, her heart hammering in her chest. She had heard it again, the wet thud of the guillotine blade slicing through a neck to the block below. A sound from a hundred miles away, and from her nightmares.

The sound repeated, not the guillotine but Henri chopping meat, his cleaver slicing through a leg of pork. He was a terrible butcher, but madam had only been able to bring two of her staff when she left Paris. Isabelle and Henri had to make do.

He looked up at her, and there was a gleam in his eye. The cleaver glinted as he waved for her to come close. He smelled sour, sweaty, old ale oozing from his pores.

“There’s a rumour in the valley,” he whispered. “The committee have decided that it’s time for her to pay for her crimes, like monsieur did.”

He pointed at the ceiling. Somewhere above them, madam was waking the children, ready for the tutor they brought in once a week.

“Madam didn’t do anything wrong,” Isabelle hissed.

Henri shrugged. “She threw wild parties while the people starved. Sounds bad to me.”

“Then why are you here?”

He shrugged again. “It’s my job.”

The cleaver hit the meat, with more force this time. In Paris, Henri had been the senior servant of a powerful household, a figure of prestige. Then the world had turned. Now he chopped logs and swept chimneys. Isabelle had seen the same change, and she didn’t have his bitter tone.

“They reached the village last night,” he said, returning to the news of the day. “Pierre says they’ll be coming up today, soldiers and officials, ready to take her.”

“What about the children?”

“What do you think?” He waved the cleaver. “Can’t have the kiddies coming back for revenge. The republic is at stake.”

Isabelle ran from the room, a hand over her mouth, trying not to throw up.

“That’s right,” Henri called after her. “Go have another cry. That’ll bring back what we had.”

Isabelle stopped in the hallway, steadying herself on the bannister. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t let him be right.

But those poor children…

Isabelle ascended the stairs. Every footstep sounded like the thud of the guillotine blade.

She couldn’t linger. Henri might assume that as a servant he was safe, but the mob didn’t think like that. If they were coming, then she needed to be gone.

She stopped at the top of the stairs. Her room was to the right, with the bag she left packed every night and the few coins she had stowed away for a moment like this. From her left came childish laughter. In her mind, soldiers marched up the hill, their hats decorated with the tricolor cockade. All she had to do was grab her bag and run.

Instead, she turned left.

A riding crop hung on the wall of the children’s room, a memento of their father. Isabelle remembered its sharp lash across her back. Madam sat in an armchair beneath it. She had watched those beatings without comment, without tears, without the least sign that she saw Isabelle as human. Sometimes the sound of the riding crop came from her own chambers, when monsieur came back drunk and raging at the world. Like Isabelle, madam never cried out.

“Isabelle!” The children grabbed her legs. “Play with us.”

“Later. Right now, we’re going for a ride.”

“What are you talking about?” madam snapped. “You can fetch that lazy tutor by yourself.”

“Men are coming. Men from Paris.”

Isabelle kept her voice light, for the sake of the children. It was for the sake of the children that madam’s face fell and her voice ran cold.

“They can’t. We’ve done nothing. The law…”

“Madam, they are the law now.”

“It’s not fair!”

“You know how little that means to angry men.”

“We’re not ready, I’ve packed nothing, we haven’t—”

“Madam!” Isabelle was shocked to hear herself shouting across her mistress. Madam looked even more stunned, but there was no time to decide who they were to each other now. “None of that matters. By nightfall, you will have your life, or you will have nothing. Now come.”

They each picked up one of the children, who clung to them, confused and scared. In a rustle of skirts, they ran across to Isabelle’s room. She snatched her bag from beside the door and dashed on down the stairs, madam following her. Out the front door and around to the coach house, where she had hitched up the horses ready to fetch the tutor, minutes before her world fell apart. Isabelle scoured the hillside below, but there was no sign of the mob.

Not yet.

As they bundled the children into the coach, Henri ran out of the house, a cleaver in one hand.

“What are you doing, idiot girl?” he shouted.

Isabelle helped madam into the coach, closed the door, and went to the front. Two years ago, she hadn’t even known how to drive a coach. How the world turned.

“I said what are you doing? Look at me!”

Henri grabbed Isabelle’s shoulder, and a shudder of fear ran through her. The riding crop. The guillotine. The cleaver in his hand. The brute moment from which she must always flinch. This had been her life for as long as she remembered.

The world turned. Isabelle spun around. It was the first punch she had ever thrown, and it caught Henri by surprise. He staggered and the cleaver slid from his hand.

“You… you…”

Isabelle climbed into the coachman’s seat and took the reins.

Something glinted down the hillside, perhaps just light catching the river, perhaps the tip of a bayonet, gleaming like the guillotine blade.

“She doesn’t deserve this.” Henri pointed at madam. “She’s a vicious parasite, as bad as him.”

“Perhaps. But I’m not.”

Isabelle flicked the reins, the horses whinnied, and the carriage rolled away.

***

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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.

Winter’s Shroud – a fantasy short story

Image by ArtTower via Pixabay.

The snow fell so hard and fast that it obliterated the landscape, leaving an expanse as pale and featureless as a funeral shroud. I pulled my cloak tight, but it wasn’t enough. Warmth and feeling leeched from my flesh. Disoriented, I stared through the falling flakes, seeking any path home.

There was only the white.

Grief spread like ice across my heart. Not just grief for myself, but for what my family would feel at losing me. Grief for their grief, and for the struggles that would follow. Then rushing after it, like an avalanche down a mountainside, came crushing isolation. I was going to die alone.

Adrift in the endless white, my mind slipped numbly from the present. A memory stirred: my first childish experience of grief. A white fox had come limping down the mountain, her fur ragged and her leg broken. I had tried to nurse her back to life, despite my parents’ disapproval, but my love and care came too late. In the end, all that mattered was the comfort of my embrace, warmth and softness as she faded into stillness, and my tears when it was over.

I cried again now. For her. For me. For my family.

Tears hit the snow and froze to gleaming points. They became eyes staring up at me, the centre of a face formed from the white. My fox emerged with slow, uncertain movements, her fur still ragged.

She nudged me with her nose, then limped away through the merciless snow. I couldn’t watch, unwilling to lose her again. She yipped, the child-like sound demanding my attention, and she nodded with her head, pointing purposefully into the pale void.

“I can’t,” I whispered. “Too cold.”

She came back, took a corner of my cloak between her teeth, and tugged.

“What’s the point?” I whispered. “I can’t even feel my feet.”

She tugged again and growled, forcing me to follow. I put one foot in front of the other, dragging my legs through the thigh-deep snow. Step by step, I made a path, and with each step, feeling returned to my toes, warmth filling my body and soul.

I didn’t see the rise until I was on it, white ground parting from the white sky. Houses appeared, their shapes indistinct but familiar. Was that my village, or was it someplace else, standing perfect and forever amid winter’s shroud?

The fox stopped her limping tread. Her shining eyes became tears again, and she melted away.

“Thank you.”

I ran my hand over the place where her fur had been. The cold had left me, and the grief with it. This time, I hadn’t lost her. She had found me. She had brought me home.

***

This story was first published in the British Fantasy Society Monthly Bulletin, December 2021. I like it so much, I thought I’d share it here as well. If you’re based in the UK and you want to get more involved with fantasy fandom, or just to meet more like-minded writers and fans, then I totally recommend signing up to the BFS. They do a great job of providing a home for Britain’s fantasy community.

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.