• On Butterfly Wings – a flash fantasy story

    None stood brighter in all the Court of Arcadia than Lady Elithia. None stronger. None more elegant. None wiser in the ways of war. The beasts of the forest, awed by her prowess, bore her banners before her when she entered the mortal realm. Butterflies darted between the warp and weft of reality just to bring her morsels of fruit.

    And so it was that a butterfly with gold and ebony wings landed before her on the council table laid down a grape.

    “You are a fine creature,” she said, running a finger down its back. “More beautiful than those that normally tend upon me. Has nature adapted to pay fitting tribute?”

    She split the grape in two, placed one part before the butterfly, and relished the taste of the rest on her tongue.

    “The Dark Court knew we were coming,” Lord Asahar said, standing tall in his umber robes as he glared down the table. “How do they keep doing this?”

    “There must be a spy,” The Frozen One turned their ice blue gaze upon Elithia. “Your mortal soldiers drink until their tongues loosen. My bones tell me that one of them let slip.”

    “Then your bones are as hollow as your head,” Elithia replied, still stroking the butterfly. “I am too wise to give our game away. My mortals learn our intent only when the time comes to charge. Your weather sprites, though, are fickle and wind-blown, easily swayed. Clearly one has turned traitor.”

    “My children would not dare!” Ice crackled across the table from The Frozen One’s fingers. Elithia laid her hand down to stop it before it reached the butterfly.

    “Your children run wild every winter. They cannot be trusted.”

    “How dare you, you pompous banshee.”

    “Cold-hearted cur.”

    “Pale pariah.”

    “Enough!” Asahar’s fist shook the table. “The weather sprites were locked away when the Dark Court countered our summer campaign. It must be another.”

    “One of your scribes?” Elithia asked.

    “Not this time.” Asahar shook his head. “I have… taken measures.”

    “A lord or lady turned traitor?”

    “Too much to lose.”

    “One of Elithia’s armourer lovers?” The Frozen One asked. “Perhaps you whisper secret somethings in their ears.”

    “Do not take me for such a fool.”

    “You give the impression of it well enough.”

    Elithia rose, the butterfly perched on one hand, her sword in the other.

    “I have time for more than one war,” she growled, as The Frozen One drew their ice-rimmed bow.

    “I said enough!” This time, the table buckled beneath Asahar’s fist. “Sit down, both of you. All our fates are at stake here.”

    Grudgingly, Elithia did as she was told. She sank her sword into its scabbard and cupped the butterfly in her palm, stroking its wings to sooth herself.

    “At least you understand me,” she whispered.

    It flicked its wings, about to take to the air, to return to its blander cousins in the mortal world.

    Elithia’s heart sank as realisation dawned.

    “Perhaps you understand me too well,” she said, fingers closing like a cage around the butterfly.

    It flapped and butted against her hand, desperate to escape, but her grip only tightened, squeezing until, with a flash of darkness, the creature transformed. Elithia was left clutching the arm of a dirty, jut-chinned boggart.

    “Ha!” The Frozen One pointed. “The spy was in your camp! I would never be so stupid.”

    “There is wisdom in learning from our mistakes,” Asahar said, and with a flick of his hands ropes appeared to bind the creature.

    “Then maybe Elithia really might wind up the wisest of us all,” The Frozen One said.

    Elithia picked up the leftover piece of grape, placed it in her mouth, and relished the flavour on her tongue. None stood stronger than her still, none more elegant. That would be enough.

    * * *

     

    As often happens, this story was inspired by something on Twitter – in this case, Emma Cunliffe’s photo of a butterfly in her office. What can I say, we writers are parasites who will feed off any spare thoughts you leave lying around.

    If you enjoyed this story, you might like to sign up to my mailing list, to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Remembrance

    In all of human history, there have been few events as monstrously destructive as the First World War.

    For four blood-soaked years, the most powerful nations in Europe tore at each other tooth and nail, dragging other countries and colonies into their terrible fight. From the forests of Russia to the lowlands of Belgium, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the South Pacific Ocean, millions of men and women died. For the first time, war was fought on an industrial scale. The results were horrifying.

    This war wasn’t fought for a noble cause. Yes, there were aggressors and there were victims. But every nation involved was fighting for self-interest. Nationalism had its grip on Europe. Making your own country stronger was viewed as the highest good, even if other people died horribly in the process. Both sides accused each other of atrocities. Both did terrible things. Among the most terrible was the feeding of a generation of young men into the meat grinder.

    When we talk about the Second World War, there’s a sense of right and wrong. The Allies killed thousands of innocent civilians in their bombing raids, but the actions of the German and Japanese regimes were so much worse that the end result looks like a victory for good. A century on, the same can’t be said for the First World War. Like almost every war, it wasn’t about good versus evil. It was just national elite versus national elite, spilling the blood of their countrymen for their own power.

    Of course, there were moments of heroism in that war. Acts of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice that are rightly praised. But don’t let that praise spill over in your mind into seeing the war itself as a noble thing. Europe watered the fields of Flanders with the blood of its young men, and the world was the worse off for it.

    One hundred years ago yesterday, the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. It’s vital that we remember. This is what the tribalism of nation versus nation gets us. This is what happens when we let ourselves see others as worse because of where they live, the language they speak, or who governs them. This is why we should always challenge those in authority, however uncomfortable that becomes.

    Remember the courage. Remember the determination. But most of all, remember the futility of a generation lost.


  • Special Delivery – a flash science fiction story

    “You can’t do this!” I screamed at the phone screen. “We need those meds!”

    “I’m sorry, Ms. Mendoza, but we don’t deliver to your region any more.” The man from Aldercon kept his face neutral, but I could hear the disdain in his voice. It wasn’t the region that was the problem.

    “This is prejudice,” I said, lowering my tone to an angry growl. “You’re refusing to sell to spacers.”

    “It’s just business,” he said. “The electric storms around the mountains have worsened, so our drones can’t get through. If you lived somewhere else then-”

    “We can’t afford to live somewhere else!”

    “Then Aldercon can’t deliver to you.”

    “Please. No-one else makes these meds.”

    “Rightly so. The governor gave us the exclusive contract.”

    I took a deep breath.

    “I read the contract. It says that you have to deliver everywhere in the colony.”

    “Everywhere we safely can. And that does not include storm-struck mountains. Good day, Ms. Mendoza.”

    The screen went blank. For a long time I just sat staring at it. Finally, I found the will to force myself up from my chair, out of my room, and down the clear plastic tunnel to the communal dining hall. Through the walls, I could see dust swirling and lightning flashing as the storms bounced ceaselessly between the mountains. Maybe one day we would understand what caused them, but only if we lived long enough to finish the work.

    With every step, I felt an ache deep in the muscles of my legs. That pain was reflected in the faces of my neighbours as I joined them in the hall. After generations living in space, our people’s bodies weren’t used to being planetside. But our old home was gone and this colony was our only hope.

    I didn’t have to speak. They could see from my face how the call had gone.

    “Sorry, Nita,” Jacko said, reaching out to squeeze my hand. “And thank you for trying.”

    In a corner of the room, a child started crying. Her mother joined in with a low, broken sob.

    “Fuck trying,” I said. “You’re a chemist, right? Could we make this stuff ourselves, with what we have out here?”

    “Maybe,” Jacko said, tilting his head to one side. “If we can find the right elements in the soil. But we’d have to be real lucky.”

    “Good enough,” I said. “Let’s get to work.”

    It took a month to get things set up. By then, several of the kids were bedridden, their bodies unable to cope. I’d taken to using a walking stick to make trips around the habitat bearable. But we had what we needed.

    I was careful about how I phrased the sales page. Nothing directly saying that we’d replicated Aldercon’s Groundease pills, just talk of medicine to make a spacer’s life on the ground bearable. I offered to sell it to people in the mountains at cost and to others at half the price of Groundease. The page said that sales would start in two weeks, once the first batch was ready.

    Within two hours, the call came through. It was the same Aldercon executive I’d argued with before.

    “You’re breaking the law,” he said. “Infringing upon our exclusive contract.”

    “I’m just trying to help people,” I said.

    “We’ve obtained a cease and desist order.” That was fast. But then, big companies usually had judges in their pockets.

    “I’m not doing anything illegal.”

    “Like hell you aren’t!”

    “I used to be a lawyer,” I said. “On this colony, a cease and desist order has to be delivered in a physical, printed form. So until I see that-”

    “You’ll see it alright.”

    “Packages can get lost so easily…”

    “Ha! Try pretending you don’t see the order when it’s delivered by a dozen drones, all with cameras. And if you don’t follow it, we’ll sue you for whatever crap you space-head losers-”

    I killed the call. The blank screen that followed was the most satisfying thing I’d ever seen.

    When I called him back the next day, he looked as smug as only a corporate executive could.

    “I got your cease and desist orders,” I said. “All dozen of them, ordering us to stop making your drugs.”

    “And?”

    “And we can’t stop because we’ve never made them. Do you know how lucky we’d have had to be to find the ingredients?”
    I heard knocking on a door. He looked up, irritated, towards someone beyond the camera.

    “Who the hell are you?” he snapped.

    “Probably an officer of the court,” I said. “Come to collect footage from a dozen drones, all proving that you can safely deliver through the electric storms.”

    To his credit, he held back whatever insult he wanted to throw at me. He forced a smile and I smiled smugly back at him.

    “The contract,” he said. “Of course. No need to go to court, Ms. Mendoza. Let me arrange a delivery for you now.”

    * * *

     

    This story was inspired by some interesting coverage of the intersection between commerce and politics – see this article on Amazon deliveries and this Twitter thread. I’m sure there’s something deeper to be written on the subject, but I only had a thousand words, so deeper can wait.

    If you enjoyed this story, you might like to sign up to my mailing list, to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Guy Fawkes Night, history, and memory

    Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!

    – English 19th century folk verse

    Yes, it’s the fifth of November, the weirdest day in the British calendar! Tonight, we celebrate the thwarting of a terrorist plot over four hundred years ago. An attempt to blow up Parliament and the King is ritually condemned using explosives, bonfires, and outdoor drinking.

    This is Britain. Any celebration involves some sort of drinking.

    I love bonfire night. Living in Leeds, I get to go to one of the most spectacular displays in the country, thanks to the massive effort at Roundhay Park. There’ll be a bonfire the size of an Aztec temple and a fireworks display that would knock your socks off. Thousands of people from across West Yorkshire come to see it, so the air is full of gasps and cheers. I can smell the smoke and hear the inane chatter of the local radio hosts already.

    Even if I wasn’t going to a great display, I’d love bonfire night. The spectacle, the shared ritual, getting back into the warm afterwards, it’s great fun.

    But is it actually much good for remembering the past?

    I mean sure, we all know the name of Guy Fawkes and the first few lines of that poem. School kids get taught the story long before they learn about bigger, more recent events. So in that sense, it’s emblazoned across our minds like the memory of a bad breakup.

    But if remembering the past is about avoiding its mistakes, then we really aren’t remembering the gunpowder plot very well. It was a product of a time of deep division, of polarised religious and political views. A time when minorities were oppressed and scapegoated. All of which sounds a bit too familiar.

    The fact that we bang on about Guy Fawkes even reinforces a bad lesson. We ignore the fact that he represented a larger group and a deeper division. He is the scapegoat, ritually thrown on the fire every year.

    As a historian, it pains me. Even I can’t remember the other conspirators without looking on Wikipedia. We’re remembering the faintest surface details and using them to celebrate someone’s messy demise. That’s kind of ugly and definitely missing the point.

    I still love bonfire night. Nothing in the world is perfect, but some things are too awesome to miss out on. But as an act of remembering, it leaves a lot to be desired.


  • Fireworks and Foolishness – a flash steampunk story

    The smell of fallen leaves and bonfires filled Dirk Dynamo’s senses, as close to fresh country air as London ever got. Somewhere in the distance, the first fireworks were going off, but here in the heart of the city the crowds were just getting warmed off.

    He headed off the main thoroughfare and up a well-appointed residential street. Outside Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms’s apartment, something was looming, its bulky body, heavy wheels, and strange projections casting a monstrous shadow in the gaslight.

    “You’re here!” Blaze-Simms appeared, his top hat askew and a wrench in his hand. “Just in time to see my latest creation.”

    “What is it?” Dirk asked, peering dubiously up at rows of brass tubes.

    “An automated firework launcher, programmed using a miniature Babbage engine.”

    “Why the wheels?”

    “So that it can drive past crowds. This way, everyone can have a good view.”

    “Nice thought. Did you have to get a licence?”

    “A licence?”

    “For a truck full of explosives near Parliament.”

    “It’ll be fine.” Blaze-Simms pulled a lever. Steam burst forth and wheels began to turn. “What could possibly go wrong?”

    After years of working with Blaze-Simms, Dirk couldn’t pick a single answer. There were just too many options.

    With a whoosh, the first firework shot skyward, exploding in a dazzling burst of white light. A red one followed, then a blue, then a stream of smaller yellow rockets as the machine accelerated down the street.

    “It’s not meant to go that fast,” Blaze-Simms said. “Maybe we should stop it.”

    He looked expectantly at Dirk, who raised an eyebrow.

    “You can clean up your own mess this time.”

    “But I…”

    “Your machine, your mess.”

    “I suppose so.”

    Blaze-Simms dashed after the machine. It had reached the end of the street and headed out into the crowds. People jumped aside to avoid it, laughing and screaming as Catherine wheels spun on its sides.

    Dirk strolled along behind, keeping the machine in sight. He saw the moment Blaze-Simms leapt onto its back and started prying a hatch open. He saw the burst of steam that blew the inventor’s hat off. He heard his friend cry out in pain and fall back into the crowd.

    “Dammit.” Dirk started running.

    The machine was veering through an increasingly panicked crowd. Dirk had hoped that Blaze-Simms could learn from this one, but he couldn’t let that happen at other people’s expense.

    The sky blazed with artificial stars as the machine rolled at ever-increasing speed through the city. It hit a lamppost, spun around, smashed into the side of a Hackney carriage, and continued its rampage towards Westminster Bridge.

    Some people saw the machine in time to leap clear. Others, distracted by its fireworks, were almost crushed as it bore down on them.

    Dirk caught up just as it thundered onto the bridge. He leapt onto its back, clinging to the towering mass of gunpowder and brass as it headed towards the lights of Parliament.

    With a crash, the machine hit a chestnut seller’s cart. Hot nuts and blazing coals flew in every direction, some of them falling down the pipes at the front of the machine.

    A renewed volley of fireworks sprang into the sky. So many launched at once that the machine shook, almost flinging Dirk off. His shoulder blazed with pain as he was hurled to one side and then the other, but he clung on with all of his strength.

    Hauling himself up, he peered through an open hatch into a mass of gears and pistons. Acting on instinct, he reached inside, ready to yank something out or jam something in, anything to bring it to a halt. But a blast of steam forced him to pull his hand back, skin red raw.

    The pain was intense. He had to cool the hand down before it got any worse, but first he had to stop this machine.

    Over the side of the bridge, he saw an answer to both his problems. The problem was, it meant diverting a machine ten times his own weight.

    Clinging on with his good hand, he flung himself one way and then the other, putting his whole weight into it. His shoulder went from an ache to a raw blazing pain as he became a human pendulum, each swing bigger than the one before.

    At last, the machine started to sway with him. It tipped up onto just two wheels on one side and then the other. As Dirk flung himself back and to the left, the machine started to turn.

    They were nearly at the end of the bridge now. A dozen alarmed-looking policemen were rushing to get between the machine and Parliament, but Dirk couldn’t see any way they could stop this. The heart of democracy was about to face the explosive fate Guy Fawkes had once planned, this time at the hands of a well-intentioned eccentric.

    He swung with all his remaining might. The machine lifted up on one wheel and pivoted around. It clanged back down at ninety degrees to its previous course, hit the side of the bridge with an almighty clang, and tumbled over, taking Dirk with it.

    As they plunged through the air, Dirk kicked off from the machine. There was a huge splash, then a smaller one as he hit the Thames. The water was filthy, but the cold on his hand came as a sweet relief.

    He surfaced to see a crowd looking down at him, pointing, gasping, and cheering. Beyond them, Parliament stood proud against the night sky, lit up by fireworks.

    Dirk turned onto his back and watched the fireworks as he drifted towards the bank. He had to admit, they were spectacular.

    On the bridge, a figure in a top hat stood awkwardly, waiting to face the consequences of his latest endeavour. Maybe this time he’d remember how these things could go wrong.

    Dirk wasn’t holding his breath.

    * * *

     

    For more of Dirk and Blaze-Simms’s adventures, check out The Epiphany Club, a story of action, adventure, and intrigue set against the dark underbelly of Victorian society, released on the 1st of December. And if you’d like more short stories like this one then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases.


  • Fantasycon 2018

    Writing can be a pretty lonely business, so when there’s an opportunity to meet up with likeminded people, I’ll leap on it. And last weekend was one of the best of those meetups – Fantasycon.

    Fantasycon 2018 took place in Chester. As always, it was run by a team of hardworking and helpful volunteers – if any of you are reading this, thank you so much! And as always, it was full of cool fantasy fans and writers from across the UK and beyond.

    I love Fantasycon. I know enough people in the community now I can always find someone to chat with. It’s great catching up with people in the bar, where I spend most of the weekend. And that leads to meeting even more great people to chat with next year.

    Spending a weekend with people who share your passions is great. You know that you can always find things to talk about. If the person you’re talking with doesn’t share your enthusiasm for a particular book or movie then they’ll at least understand it. It’s an emotionally uplifting experience, as well as one that fills me with good ideas about what and how to write.

    Of course, there’s also the convention programming, a range of panels, talks, and readings. I can’t summarise everything I saw this year, but here’s what I attended:

    • Blogging in Genre Fiction – Kit Power, Alisdair Stuart, Micah Yongo, and Kate Coe talked with passion about how they blog. Turns out it’s mostly about that passion. And now I have a bunch more blogs to follow.
    • The Elderly Guard – Charlotte Bond, R B Watkinson, David Stokes, Dion Winton-Polak, and Mark Latham discussed older characters in fantasy. My main takeaway – in an apocalypse, older people have lots of useful skills, so keep them around.
    • Fairy Tales and Folk Horror – Charlotte Bond, Tom Johnstone, Teika Bellamy, and Susan Boulton talking traditional stories. Tom pointed out how dark the end of Beauty and the Beast is, with Belle marrying the man who held her prisoner, and how this could be read as about falling in love in an arranged marriage. *shudder*
    • Breaking the Glass Slipper live – One of my favourite podcasts, this time discussing mysteries in genre fiction. Excellent guest work by Claire North and RJ Barker. Look out for that in their podcast feed.
    • From Colonisation to Decolonisation – Nick Wood, Naomi Foyle, Stewart Hotston, and Allanah Hunt talking about colonial and decolonising sf+f. A difficult and important topic, it’s really good to see the fantasy community engage with this, and I’m very happy to just shut up and listen to those with direct experience.

    Then there were the panels I took part in:

    • Putting the “Punk” in Fiction, with Lee Harrison, Ren Warom, and Kit Power. As somebody said, adding “punk” to a genre is really just a way of trying to say “look, it’s cool!”, but we still had a great debate about subgenres and making fiction more punk.
    • From Fanon to Canon, moderated by Cheryl Morgan, with Allanah Hunt, Chris Jarvis, and Kate Coe. I wasn’t sure I had anything to say on this, as I don’t write fan fiction, but it turned into a fascinating debate about working with existing stories and the connections between power and culture.
    • Renaissance Fantasy, with Anne Lyle, Jeanette Ng, and Den Patrick. We talked about what good and bad things fantasy writers take from the European Renaissance, what we’re missing out on, and a little bit about other renaissances.

    Going to a convention always means finding more books I’d like to read, so the lure of the dealers’ room is impossible to resist. This time I was relatively restrained, only buying two non-fiction collections from Luna Press, one on gender and sexuality in sf+f, the other on African sf+f. I’ve already read the first one, which was full of insightful and fascinating articles. Having started the other this morning, it promises to be the same. Luna Press are doing some great work right now, putting out both innovative fiction and valuable commentary, and I’m pleased to have these on my shelves.

    Fantasycon is a great event. If you’re a fan of fantasy or horror fiction and you live in the UK then I heartily recommend it. Next year we’re off to Glasgow – maybe I’ll see you there?


  • Gonzalo Marched Away – a flash historical story

    I was nine years old when the Spaniards were billeted on us. My father and both my brothers had died of a fever the previous winter and all that remained of our family was me, little Maaritje, and my mother. I helped mother around the farm, but Maaritje could barely walk, never mind plant beans or milk the goats. We had enough food to live off, but only just.

    The Spaniards arrived in uniform, carrying their muskets and their swords. Both were mud-spattered and wary-looking. The officer accompanying them knew some Dutch and my mother spoke a little Spanish from when she had lived near the docks in Amsterdam. It was enough for explanations.

    These two men – broad Barros and lean-faced Gonzalo – would be staying with us for the winter, until their company was gathered again. We had to provide them with beds, firewood, candles, and a roof above their heads. There was talk about the officer sending food or the money to pay for it, but even I could tell from his tone that it would never come. Within an hour, he had ridden off, leaving his men with us.

    Barros and Gonzalo took mother’s bed, leaving her to sleep on a pile of straw beside Maaritje’s cot. They took most of the food at meal times, though Gonzalo was more sparing, his eyes flitting uncomfortably across what Maaritje and I ate.

    We were hungry all the time. Maaritje wailed into the night despite mother’s soothings. My ribs showed more clearly than ever beneath my shirt.

    After a few weeks, mother began setting some of the food aside when she cooked. Barros and Gonzalo seldom left the house, so she had to do it furtively, sliding scraps of meat and crusts of bread into the folds of her apron. In the dead of night, while the soldiers slept, she fed me and Maaritje these secret feasts, and we were a little less hungry.

    Neither man knew any Dutch, but mother talked to them in Spanish, and as the weeks went by she was able to talk more. Barros started lurking around her while she cleaned and cooked, a hungry look in his eyes. Now she was hiding food within inches of him.

    It couldn’t last.

    I was out in the yard, my breath frosting as I fed the pigs, when I heard a shout from the house. I ran inside, slamming the door back against the wall in my haste.

    Barros and my mother were by the fire, where our dinner was cooking. He had hold of her arm. They were talking over each other in Spanish, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. Gonzalo sat on the edge of the bed, a knife and a stick in his hands. Maaritje sat sobbing in a corner.

    As I came in, Barros tugged at a pocket on my mother’s apron. The stitching gave way. Half an apple and a chunk of bread fell out.

    My mother froze. Barros pointed accusingly at the food. Then he slapped my mother.

    She staggered back, holding her face. Barros advanced on her, grabbed her by both arms, and pressed her up against the wall.

    I ran over and tried to pull Barros off my mother. He hit me with the back of his fist. Lights flashed across my eyes and I fell to the ground, the taste of blood in my mouth.

    Mother struggled harder, her voice rising in panic. Barros tore at her dress. Maaritje screamed.

    Gonzalo rose. He strode across the room in three steps. Barros turned to him with a wicked but welcoming grin.

    Then came a moment I could never have imagined, as Gonzalo punched Barros in the nose. There was a crunch, a spray of blood, and Barros fell. His head hit the wall with a sound like a hammer hitting wood. Then he slid to the ground and lay very still.

    For a long moment, we all stared at the body. Gonzalo seemed the most stunned of all, unable to comprehend what he’d just done.

    I remembered the officer who had brought these men. He was coming back when the army mustered. What would happen if he found this?

    I staggered to my feet, took hold of Barros’s boots, and dragged him towards the door. He was twice my size, but I was fuelled by a terrible determination. I had to protect my mother and Maaritje.

    After a moment, Gonzalo was with me, lifting his dead companion by the shoulders. Together, we carried him out into the biting winter wind.

    I led us towards the trees where we had buried father, Jan, and Lieven. But Gonzalo stopped and pointed at the pigs. He said something in Spanish, but all I could do was stare in confusion and fear. Didn’t he understand that we had to hide this body? Had the shock of killing his friend addled his mind?

    He pulled a knife from his belt and my terror deepened. I was sure that he was going to kill us all, and so cover his tracks.

    But it wasn’t me he cut.

    The pigs ate well that week. Afterwards, we took the broken bones and flung them in the river. Then we settled down to living through the winter, a little less hungry with only four mouths to feed.

    In the spring, the officer came. Whatever Gonzalo and mother told him about Barros, he didn’t seem surprised. He just rolled his eyes, muttered something, and set off down the road, his horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the dirt.

    Gonzalo laid his musket against his shoulder. With his spare hand, he held something out to Maaritje – a toy pig whittled from a lump of wood. She smiled in glee and he smiled back. Mother nodded her approval. I just felt sick.

    Then Gonzalo marched away.

    * * *

     

    Billeting soldiers on civilians was a feature of life in Europe for centuries. It seldom went well for the civilians. They were seldom compensated properly, if at all, for their losses. Many suffered cruelty and even murder at the hands of their enforced guests. In regions where the billeted forces were hostile to the locals, things could get very ugly.

    I wanted to show some of that in this story, but still find some ray of hope, some glimmer of justice amid it all. If this one seemed a little too dark, just remember, the truth was worse.

    If you enjoyed this story you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases.


  • Coming Soon – The Epiphany Club

    If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you’re probably familiar with the Epiphany Club. They’re a band of Victorian steampunk adventurers I invented for a short story, reflecting my interest in Victorian history, strange machines, and old-fashioned adventure stories. In the decade since, I’ve written five novellas exploring their adventures. And now, at last, those novellas are collected in one place.

    The Epiphany Club isn’t just my biggest self-publishing project yet – it’s also the first time that I’ve dared go into print. Previously, my books have been purely digital, but now, for the first time, you can also get a physical version. A preview is currently sitting on my desk and I have to say that it looks pretty awesome. I’m very proud of this project.

    So what’s it all about? Well…

    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.

    But Dirk and his colleagues aren’t the only ones following the trail. Faced with strange machines, deadly assassins, and shocking betrayal, can they survive the perils confronting them? And what will they find when they finally reach their destination?

    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.

    You can pre-order the e-book now, and if this is a story that appeals to you then please do pre-order. If you want to read a sample before you buy, the first novella is free from all good e-book retailers. Sadly Amazon won’t do pre-orders for the paperback, but I’ll provide details when it’s available.

    Welcome to a world of curiosity and adventure. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed the writing.


  • Stone Doesn’t Bend – a flash fantasy story

    Hogar the Destroyer smiled a vicious, broken-toothed grin and twirled his war hammer. The weapon hit one of his goblins, spattering the creature across the dry dirt of the plains. Hogar didn’t care. He had thousands more where that one came from, trolls too, even ogres from their caves high in the Black Mountains. All marching to the beat of his war drums, heading for the walls of Tancaster.

    Hogar was a grand yet simple villain, with ambitions to match. All he wanted was to do wrong by the people of the river lands, and all that stood in his way were the free cities – Tancaster, Allerday, and Nell. True, their fortifications were vast and ancient, but Hogar had never met a wall he couldn’t smash.

    “Open fire!” he bellowed, waving his war hammer in the air.

    Along the ridge line, there came creaks and thuds as a score of catapults flung rocks through the air. One landed amid the horde advancing on the city, but most reached their mark, crashing against the walls.

    “Again!” Hogar roared.

    Soon this land would be his.

    *

    “It’s this stone, oh mighty one,” said the goblin prostrating herself at Hogar’s feet, her words almost lost in the dirt. “Our catapults can’t smash it.”

    “Why not?” Hogar growled, shoving her over with an armoured foot.

    “It bends at the impact,” she said, trembling as she stared up at him. “So it doesn’t break.”

    “Lies! Stone doesn’t bend!”

    “On my life, I swear it’s true!”

    Hogar sneered. A goblin’s life wasn’t worth much, but it was the only thing they valued.

    “Then use something else instead,” he said. “Advance the battering rams.”

    “But the enemy have hot oil and rocks. They’ll kill us before we even-”

    “I could kill you now.” Hogar bent over, his rancid breath washing across the goblin.

    “To the battering rams!” she cried, leaping to her feet and scurrying away.

    *

    “What do you mean, it isn’t working?” Hogar asked, turning the war hammer over in his hands, the shadow of its head shifting across the goblin’s back. “It’s a battering ram. You swing it and it hits things. What’s to not work?”

    “It’s this stone again,” the goblin said. “It’s some strange sort of sandstone. It bends beneath the blows but doesn’t break.”
    “STONE DOESN’T BEND!” Hogar roared.

    All around, the sounds of war fell silent. Archers hesitated, their bows half drawn. Catapults stood still. Assault parties stopped sharpening their weapons and looked at their master.

    “Of course, you’re right, oh magnificent one,” the goblin said. “But this stone, it’s wrong.”

    “Enough excuses.” Hogar kicked the goblin aside. “I will deal with this myself. Ogres, with me!”

    He raised his hammer and charged at the walls. Around him came the thunder of heavy footfalls as the ogres ran, swinging clubs the size of trees.

    Arrows rained down from the battlements above, bouncing off Hogar’s armour and becoming lost in the depths of the trolls’ flesh. As they reached the walls, rocks crashed down around them.

    Hogar swung his war hammer in a huge arc and smashed it into the wall.

    The stone bent. Not a lot, yet far more than stone should.

    Hogar swung the hammer again. Again, instead of the familiar clang of metal against stone and the cracking of rock, there was a disappointing thud as the wall gave way an inch, absorbing the blow, and then sprang back.

    “Stone! Doesn’t! Bend!” Hogar yelled, hammering at it.

    The ogres joined in, pounding with clubs and gnarled fists, while rocks, arrows, and boiling oil fell all around them.

    Still the wall held.

    In a fury, Hogar pounded at the wall, his hammer swinging over and over, but the stone wasn’t even chipped. Red-faced with fury and exertion, he kept going until his muscles filled with pain.

    The rain of missiles ended. In their place came the laughter of the defenders.

    Hogar screamed and flung his war hammer down on the ground. He stormed away, leaving the ogres scratching their heads.

    “Withdraw!” he shouted to his troops. “We’ll go conquer Allerday instead.”

    *

    Hogar stared at the wide moat around the walls of Allerday. All along it, his assault rafts were going up in flames.

    “It’s not fair,” he grumbled. “Water doesn’t burn.”

    * * *

     

    This story was inspired by real bending rock, from the collection of Leeds Museums. I may have taken huge liberties with how it works, but that’s fantasy fiction for you.

    Iif you enjoyed this story, you might like to sign up to my mailing list, to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Fantasycon Schedule

    We’re only days away from Fantasycon, the British Fantasy Society’s annual convention. This year, I’ve got a relatively busy schedule, with three panels, two of which I’m moderating:

    • Saturday, 10pm – Putting the “Punk” in Fiction
    • Sunday, 10.30am – From Fanon to Canon
    • Sunday, 12.30pm – Renaissance Fantasy

    If you’re not already booked and you fancy a weekend of friendly geekery in Chester, you can find details of the convention here. And if you’re already going, then I’ll see you there!