Men of War – a flash historical story

The Surrender of the Prince Royal by Willem van de Velde the Younger

“Master van de Velde!” I exclaimed as the artist walked up the gangplank. “How good to see you. Out sketching ships again?”

“Oh yes!” Willem van de Velde said, setting down a bag of paper and pencils. He pulled out a pouch of coins and passed it to me. “I wish to set out immediately. Will this suffice?”

I opened the bag, peered at its mix of gold and silver, and felt its weight.

“It certainly will,” I said, then raised my voice to reach the crew. “Boys, get ready to cast off!”

The younger Willem van de Velde appeared behind his father, just before the gangplank was stowed away. Then we unfurled the single sail of my little galliot and headed out, threading our way through the maze of merchantmen that crowded the docks of the Hague, their timbers creaking and rigging whistling in the wind.

“Where to today?” I asked.

“West,” van de Velde said, a strange twinkle in his eyes. “Towards England.”

“Isn’t that where the fleet went?” I asked, breaking into a sweat despite the wind. “To fight the English?”

“That’s why we’re going there,” van de Velde the Younger said. “To turn war into art, retrieve beauty from horror, and capture a moment of great patriotic pride.”

“Which men will pay dearly to hang on their walls,” his father said.

“We usually avoid battles.” I twisted my cap nervously in my hands. “On account of all the killing and sinking. I think you’d better find another ship.”

“Really?” van de Velde the elder said, tossing me another bag of coins.

“Patriotic pride, you say?” With that weight in my hand, ambition overcame fear. “Then it’s our duty as Dutchmen to help you.”


By the time we got near the battle, my ambition was sinking beneath the weight of my nerves.

The sea was thick with ships, great men-of-war with full sails and bristling gun decks. They edged towards each other in long columns, smoke billowing around them, cannons roaring. The smallest could have contained my poor boat a dozen times over.

“Surely this is near enough,” I said, watching war unfold before me.

The mainmast of the nearest ship shook, then toppled slowly over, hitting the deck with a crash. The screams of mangled sailors were far too loud across the open water.

“We must get closer,” van de Velde the elder said. He sketched as he spoke, leaning on a board that rested on the rail, pencil flying back and forth across the page.

“But the danger!”

“They’ll be shooting at each other, not us,” the younger said, adding a dab of watercolour to his own work. “We need to get in with the fleet, before and behind the ships, to see the timbers splinter and flames roar, to capture the giddy heart of battle.”

“I’m not sure that my heart can take-”

Another bag of coins landed at my feet.

“Well, when you put it like that.” I raised my voice. “Boys, we’re getting in close!”


Months later, I sat in a dockside tavern, sipping at a cup of warm ale. This stuff didn’t taste as good as it used to, but then, nothing did. The days seemed greyer, the songs less lively. Perhaps if I had been sleeping better, that might have changed, but I woke in the night dreaming of the cannons’ roar and the van de Veldes’ sketches.

An old shipmate came to sit with me.

“Did you hear?” he said. “There’s been more trouble at sea. Fleet’s heading out to give the English a bloody nose.”

My heart raced. I smelled gun smoke and heard the crack of shattering timbers.

“Excuse me,” I said, downing my beer and abandoning my seat. “I have business to attend.”

I ran down to the docks. Sure enough, there were the van de Veldes, bags in hand, eyeing up fast vessels.

“Excuse me, sirs,” I said, rushing up to them.

“Captain!” van de Velde the Elder said. “I thought that you were, in your words, done with our madness.”

There was a strange twinkle in his eyes again. I recognised it now, having seen it in my own reflection. He too heard the battle rage around him and felt his heart hammer at the thrill of it.

“I was over hasty,” I said, leading them towards my galliot. “In these troubled times, an honest sailor cannot afford to turn down business.”

“I understand,” van de Velde the Elder said, nodding solemnly. He handed me a bag of coins. “Here. I wish to sail west.”

* * *


This is one of those stories where the real history was so wild that I didn’t need to make it up. Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger were 17th century Dutch artists who specialised in nautical scenes. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, they would sail with the fleet to make sketches of the battles, getting right in amid the action. These sketches became the basis for grand, dramatic paintings that celebrated the achievements of the Dutch fleet. They later emigrated to England, where they were employed by King Charles II.

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Painting Doom – a flash fantasy story

Thomas drew his brush across the wall, leaving a curve of thick red paint. He filled out the space beneath the curve, then added the white points of teeth and the black barbs of a pitchfork. Another demon emerged on the wall, ushering the pale images of sinners into the flames.

Thomas shook his head. Doomsday paintings were so much of his work. Every noble wanted one in their house. But just painting them filled him with dread, driven by the certainty that he would be judged and found wanting.

He mixed more paint on his palette and turned back to the wall. The paint had clearly run, as the new demon’s fork was pointing at a different sinner, and another of the beasts had approached the flames on pigment wings.

Disconcerted, Thomas took a step back. The composition would still work if he added another demon between these two. He brought his reddened brush to the wall.

The demon with the pitchfork tipped its head back.

Thomas screamed and dropped the palette. Precious paint-spattered the flagstones.

The demon grinned. Its companion flexed its wings and started pulling away from the wall, struggling against a sticky mass of paint.

“It’s a dream,” Thomas exclaimed.

He raised a trembling hand and slapped himself across the face. He did it again, but still, reality didn’t return.

“No dream,” the demons hissed as one. “You have given us life.”

“Then I can take it away!”

Thomas grabbed another brush and smeared streaks of white across both fiends, slapping it on over and over. At last, he stood, panting and staring at a pale blank space.

“Not so easy,” the demon voices croaked.

Red hands appeared, then heads, then torsos. The demons emerged like swimmers from a lake.

“We are still here, whatever you paint over us,” they said. “You made us real.”

Thomas gaped in horror. How had he done this?

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he could do it. He picked up the black brush and painted a cage over the demons. Bars, floor, roof, hinged and locked door. Red wings batted against the sides in frustration.

“Ha! Thomas said. “Got you.”

“Perhaps,” the wingless demon said, grinning. “Or perhaps…”

It thrust its pitchfork between the floor and bottom of the door. There was a grinding noise as the prongs slid through the slim space. Then it flexed its muscles and heaved. Levered by the pitchfork, the door lifted off its hinges and fell to the floor.

The demons stepped out.

“It’s not fair,” Thomas wailed. “Why couldn’t this have happened when I was painting a landscape or a tavern sign?”

“Where is the power in those things?” the demons said. “Only we would do.”

“What do you want from me?”

The demons grinned.

“Just keep painting,” they said. “Let the fires roar and our kindred emerge to judge the world.”

Thomas trembled in terror. But then he realised, he didn’t have to face them. He turned to run.

With a wet flapping sound, the winged beast burst off the wall, swept around, and hovered in front of him, teeth bared, claws gleaming.

“Really?” it said, cackling. “You think you can flee us?”

“No,” Thomas whispered.

Brush in hand, he turned back to the wall. At least while he did as they asked, they would not drag him down to Hell. And he could paint demons for a very long time.

* * *


People in Medieval England were very aware that, according to their Christian faith, they would soon face Doomsday. When fear of Hell is a big part of your moral motivation, life can get pretty terrifying. Especially given the tendency of clergy and nobles to commission paintings of that coming day.

Thanks to Laura for sending me the postcard that inspired this story. If you enjoyed it, then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get a flash story to your inbox every Friday, as well as news about my book and comic releases.

The Spaniards’ Table – a historical flash story

Uchu trudged into the square outside the temple. He couldn’t bring himself to look up, to see the bare stones that had once gleamed with intricately crafted gold. His grandfather had made many of those panels. He had repaired and improved upon them, adding his own artistic flourish to an already impressive work. And now…

Now he wasn’t even receiving commissions from noblemen. What use was a goldsmith when any gold would be snatched away? Who needed art when the empire was falling into ruin?

The Spaniards had set up a table in front of the temple stood. A queue of local people trudged past. From what Uchu had heard, anybody who wasn’t a simple peasant was being summoned, so that the conquerors could decide what to do with them. At least he knew that they liked gold. Maybe he wouldn’t just be left to rot.

Ahead of him, a local official reached the front of the queue. As the Spaniards asked him questions, he began raising his voice, indignantly pointing out what a powerful and influential man he was, how smart he was, how helpful he could be if they would just-

The Spaniard’s fist knocked the man from his feet. Before the official could get up, the Spaniard leapt over the table and started kicking him. By the time the Spaniard grew bored and returned to his seat, the man’s face was a bloody ruin, his teeth decorating the flagstones.

Terror knotted Uchu’s insides. He wasn’t tough. He couldn’t take such a beating. What if they didn’t like what he had to say? What if they didn’t want anyone else touching gold? What if he just said something wrong by accident?

He forced himself to look up as he reached the table. Two Spaniards sat there, chests wrapped in gleaming metal. A youth stood beside them, acting as translator.

“They ask who you are,” the translator said.

“I am Uchu the goldsmith,” Uchu said.

He saw the disdain in the Spaniards’ eyes as the youth translated his words.

“Please,” Uchu said, sinking to his knees. “I can be useful. I can make ornaments for you, as I do for our lords and priests. Jewellery, statues, decorations like we had on the temple…”

He gestured toward the bare stones behind them.

One of the Spaniards rose to his feet and strode around the table. He was saying something. He grinned, but it was a fierce smile, not a warm one. There was a spot of blood on his cheek.

“He does not like our statues,” the translator said. “He says he should kill you for making images of false gods.”

The Spaniard drew his sword.

Uchu sank to his knees. A damp patch spread across the front of his tunic. The Spaniard laughed and raised his blade.

“Please,” Uchu said, hands clasped together. “I will make whatever you want. I could make a statue of your god.”

The Spaniard’s expression only worsened.

“Or of your wife,” Uchu said.

The Spaniard’s face creased deeper into bitterness.

“Or of you!” It was a wild idea, a ludicrous idea. Gold was sacred, it was a gift. What sort of man would want it turned into a statue of himself?

Uchu bowed his head, tears streaming from his eyes, and waited for the worst.

The Spaniard said something. His voice had changed.

“He says yes,” the translator said. “He will bring gold and you will do this. But if you take any of his gold-”

“Of course not!” Uchu exclaimed. “Whatever you want!”

Relief turned back to fear as he stared up at the Spaniard. All he had ever wanted was to honour the gods with his art, to capture what was noble in the world. But there was nothing noble here. Nothing divine or uplifting to portray. And if he failed, it could only mean a terrible end.

His breath became swift and shallow. He was sure that the Spaniard could see through his deceit. These men had strange powers. They could kill a man just by pointing a stick. They rode thunderstorms made flesh. They could destroy a man by thinking. Uchu shook as he had never shaken before.

And then he imagined capturing this feeling in gold. The awful sensation of doom that had settled over him and his city. The monstrous angularity of this man’s face. The horrors of defeat and of loss.

He would make something new. Something that reflected what they had been through. Something he could make in gold for the Spaniard but that he could also carve from wood for his people. A reminder of who they were. A remnant of divine art in the darkness.

As Uchu rose, the Spaniard laughed and pointed at the stain on his crotch. He didn’t care. A vision was unfolding in his mind. Shapes it had never occurred to him to make before. Designs out of nightmares, but that filled him with a passion he had thought lost.

Uchu bowed, then turned and walked away, his heart hammering with excitement.

The next man stepped up to the table.

* * *



Coming soon from Peachill Publishing…

Inca: The Golden Sun


A desperate Spaniard has escaped a life of miserable poverty and fled to the wild unknown. They called it The New World. It was hot, and it was hostile. After watching his countryman seize Mexico and Panama, however, Francisco Pizarro knew if he could just find another empire to conquer, it would mean riches, power, and fame. And it would all be his, so long as it didn’t kill him and his 200 men first.

* * *

The moment the Emperor expired, war erupted for the throne atop the Inca Empire. By killing his brother, the great warrior Atahualpa didn’t just claim the throne, he earned it. He was the God King, a direct descendant of the Sun God Inti. Nothing would stop him or his empire of 10 million souls from leaving their mark in this world, for themselves becoming the greatest the Gods have ever seen.

* * *

INCA: THE GOLDEN SUN is the riveting story of two men on a violent collision course. From the ancient cauldron of jealousy, greed, and fury erupted a war that changed the fate of mankind.

Welcome to The New World.

Take what’s yours before it takes you.


Order it now on Amazon.

The Tightrope Walker – a flash fantasy story

I sat at my window. The warm light of sunrise spread through the sky, its rich orange shining all the bolder against the grey sea below. The beach was deserted. I wondered what it would be like to walk there, to feel the sand between my toes, the damp beneath my feet.

But walking on the beach meant leaving the flat, and even through a sleepless night like this one, I could barely will myself to get up out of my chair. My sketchpad lay idle in my lap, paints and canvass gathering dust in the corner. As long as I did nothing I felt nothing. It was when I stirred that the dread came.

A movement caught my eye. At first, I thought that it was an early morning runner, made pale by some trick of the light. But he was not on the road or the beach. He stood with arms held wide, balancing on the wire along which lights were strung above the promenade. With smooth, careful movements he walked along his unusual tightrope.

The walker did not look real. His face and clothes were all white as paper. His features seemed draw on in crude ink. Yet he was the most real thing that I had ever seen.

By the time he descended from the wire and disappeared, I was smiling like I hadn’t in months. I opened my sketchbook, sharpened a pencil, and set to work.


Every morning, the tightrope walker was there, stirring me back to life.

The first time I painted all day before collapsing exhausted. After a week, I managed only the mornings. Soon I was down to an hour each day. As the vivid memory of the tightrope walker faded, so did my passion for life and for art.

I knew the power of art. If I could capture the essence of that fleeting moment then its inspiration could carry me through the day. And so I sat one morning, pencil in hand, watching the tightrope walker begin his journey above the lights.

A few swift strokes caught the outlines of sea and sky, lamps and pier. Then I set to work on the man himself. His arms, his body, his head, those legs which flowed with sure and artful movement along the wire.

He seemed more ephemeral than usual, like a ghost in the dawn. I hurried to draw him while I still could, but with each stroke of my pencil he faded further from the world. I cast aside my sketchbook and pencil, but it was too late.

The tightrope walker was gone.

Tears streamed down my face. Once I was empty, the numbness returned.


I hoped rather than believed that the tightrope walker would return the next day. Of course he did not. I had destroyed my own muse.

I looked at the empty wire, wondering what it had been like to be him. What it had felt like to have that wire beneath his feet.

If this was all I had, then I had to know.

Barefoot, feeling each sensation beneath me, I opened the door and stepped out for the first time in months. I felt the wooden boards of the hallway, the rough edges of the steps, the uneven tarmac of the much-repaired pavement outside my block of flats. I felt cold metal against the insides of my feet as I hauled myself up a lamppost, balanced precariously on the back of the streetlight, and prepared to set foot on the wire.

Then I saw a figure in a window, sketchbook in hand, staring numbly out at the world.

I placed my foot on the wire and started to walk.

* * *


This story was inspired by a picture I created in an art class. I didn’t make it with a story in mind, but whatever I was doing, it tapped into something. Sometimes you really can be your own inspiration.

As for the rest, I’ve suffered from depression. No, strike that, I do suffer from depression, but I’m much better at managing it now. I know that feeling of dread at facing the world. It can be crippling and there aren’t any quick fixes, but moving past it really can be about finding your own best self.

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Learning to Illustrate

I’ve started taking a short illustration course. Hopefully, this will eventually result in pictures of scenes from some of my stories. For now, it’s led to this – a picture of myself, created in the style of Eric Carle, creator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar…


It turns out that even simple looking images can be complicated to create. But they’re also a lot of fun.

Is Art Removal or Addition?

Behold my wisdom, dudes.
Behold my wisdom, dudes.

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

– Michelangelo


I tend to think of writing, or any other art, as about addition – the accumulation of ideas and pieces into something grander than the sum of their parts.

But is it really that way around?

Michelangelo suggested that the statue lies ready in the stone, and all the sculptor does is remove what’s in the way. It’s a view of art that fits sculpture well, but can be applied metaphorically elsewhere – the idea of cutting away options until what remains is the best you can find. Connected to this, Anne Bogart’s conception of theatre as violence, discussed in this Idea Channel video, treats creativity as the removal of options, the reduction of an endless sea of possibilities down to just one in each moment.

"Couldn't you have discovered me a little larger?"
“Couldn’t you have discovered me a little larger?”

Whatever the truth, this view of art as subtraction is a useful tool for me, because it makes me look at writing differently. It makes me consider all the possibilities and recognise how many I reject with each tap of the keys or stroke of the pen.

What do you think? Is art, and in particular writing, about adding elements, taking them away, or a mixture of the two? Does looking at it differently help you to create? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Being Both Deep and Dumb

Photo of Hepworth sculpture by Phill Lister via Flickr Creative Commons

When asked why she put holes through her sculptures, the artist Barbara Hepworth said, “so that I can see what’s on the other side.” I was told this by a tour guide who proceeded to read many deep and meaningful things into Hepworth’s words – ideas about transformation, about our relationship with art, about the materials Hepworth was working with. I’m not convinced Hepworth meant it in that way though. I suspect it was the deliberately dumb, flippant answer of an artist sick of answering the same question.

Of course, the two approaches aren’t incompatible. All those deep thoughts the tour guide had are totally valid ways of getting something out of Hepworth’s words. Something can be dumb and deep at the same time. As Jake Peralta said, stuff can do two things.

giphy Peralta

The Summer Tree and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Development as a Writer

I find it interesting to see how writers develop. I see it in my own writing every time I go back to edit an old story. And I saw it in spades reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree.

I came to Kay through his more recent work, which is some of the richest and most brilliant in modern fantasy. The Summer Tree is a good read, but lacks the overwhelming beauty of Lions of Al-Rassan or The Sarantine Mosaic. But it helps in understanding where those books come from.

 The Roots of the Tree

Most obvious is the Tolkien connection. Kay helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father Silmarillion, and boy does it show in The Summer Tree. There’s a world of culturally varied nations that will pull together in the face of external menace. There’s an epic mythology frequently alluded to. There’s a battle brewing between everyday good and epic evil. There are even ordinary people suddenly thrown into great destinies.

Christian Ethics, Pagan Trappings

Its underlying morality also shows Tolkien’s influence. I don’t know what Kay’s religious beliefs are, but Tolkien was a Christian, and his stories showed Christian morality beneath pagan trappings. The same can be seen here.

Throughout The Summer Tree, we see self-sacrifice. In some cases characters literally sacrifice their lives for others, but just as often they sacrifice their happiness or desires. Although the most prominent example of this, using the Summer Tree of the title, draws from northern European pagan mythology, the repeated theme is a very Christian one. Good comes not from people expressing their own interests and finding a way to further those together, but from subsuming themselves in service and sacrifice.

An Interest in Art

While the book shows Kay’s past, the shadow of Tolkien from which he would eventually emerge, it also shows his future, and in particular the importance of the arts in his books.

Art and its relationship to power is a repeated theme in Kay’s novels, including poetry in The Lions of Al-Rassan and mosaic in The Sarantine Mosaic. Like the Sarantine books The Fionavar Tapestry series wears that connection in its title.

But there are other links too. Music plays an important part in stirring emotions and signifying Paul’s past. Carefully crafted letters stir the heartstrings. Kevin solidifies friendships by playing guitar. Ivor’s tribe express themselves through dance.

Watching the Kay Tree Grow

The Summer Tree may not be as great a piece of writing as Kay’s more recent works. But seeing his development toward the writer he is today adds an extra pleasure to this already very good book.

Magic and art

Magic and art are a natural match in our minds. Art taps into the parts of ourselves we understand least – our emotions, our instincts, our subconscious. And magic, from card tricks at a kids’ birthday party to vast elemental spells in an epic fantasy, is all about the unexplained.

Casting of magic in stories often involves some form of art. It can be singing and chanting to cast a spell, dancing around a campfire to communicate with the spirits, drawing symbols or stitching together creepy voodoo dolls – if there’s an artform out there then there’s a form of magic to go with it.


Joss Whedon created one of my favourite examples, the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode ‘Once More, With Feeling’. For a single episode song and dance are both enforced by and and unleashed by the power of magic, as the cast show off their variable music talents. It’s an in character excuse for an out of character novelty, turning a popular fantasy show into a musical for one episode, and it’s great fun.

Sailing to SarantiumGuy Gavriel Kay often explores art and power, and though magic often plays a low key part in his works, it still fuses with art in Sailing to Sarantium. Sculptures of birds are brought to life, art capturing the human spirit in a way that becomes unsettling as the truth behind it is revealed.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionCombining art and magic is something I’ve tried to do myself in some of the stories in By Sword, Stave or Stylus. The emotional core of ‘Live by the Sword’ is about how the gladiator characters use art as an escape from the terrible brutality of their lives, and about magic making this literal. ‘The Essence of a Man’ fuses oil painting with alchemy, combining two arts that created high excitement during the European Renaissance. ‘The Magpie Dance’ is about dance as magic, while ‘One Minute of Beauty’ is about a very conscious attempt to squeeze the art and magic from life, the artist in his and her modern form.

I love to see magic and art combined in stories, one becoming an outlet for the other. So what other great examples are there? What other books, shows or films have combined magic and art in interesting ways? What have I missed?

Art and power in the Sarantine Mosaic

Art and artisanship are recurring themes in Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, but they play a particularly prominent part in The Sarantine Mosaic. The name of this pair of books is a sign in itself, pointing to the centrality of the mosaicist Crispin’s art both as a plot element and as a symbol of the themes explored in the book.

Sailing to Sarantium


A few months back I asked Kay via Twitter about his interest in art as a theme, and he said that he is particularly interested in the relationship of art and power. And it’s this relationship that The Sarantine Mosaic explores, and through which it can help us to consider art’s role within society.

Art influences power

The Sarantine Mosaic explores art and culture in its broadest sense. There is the artistry of Crispin, creating his great mosaic; the new masterpiece of architecture he is decorating; the dancers who perform for racing fans and charioteers; the charioteers themselves, experts in the hazardous art of racing; the bureaucrat recording a history of the empire.

In all of this, art is a tool used to influence the balance of power. The new shrine is intended to secure the emperor’s position and contain religious disputes. The empress, herself once a dancer, uses her skills as a performer to influence the people around her. The chariot races are both the opiate of the masses, giving them a distraction from concerns about politics, and the trigger for violent upheavals.

More intimately, art is shown to inspire and influence great men and women, to shape the way that they look at and direct the world.

Power influences art

The relationship also works the other way around. Power has a great hold over art, over what is made and what endures. Crispin gets to make his mosaic because someone in power wants him to. Dominant religious doctrine limits what can be portrayed in art, though the artists find ways to subvert this. Dancers, writers, mosaicists, charioteers, all rely to some extent on patronage, and so are influenced by the powerful in what they portray.

This also affects the tools available to them. Crispin is able to create his greatest work in Sarantium precisely because that city is so powerful, its rulers having the wealth and influence to provide him with the finest materials available for his craft. Just as art can make people of power catch their breath, so too can the powerful provide artists with sublime moments.

But at its most brutal power is a restrictive force. It prevents and destroys certain types of art. It binds and restricts. It can chain the artist as readily as it can liberate her.

Art reflects power back

This is not to say that the ultimate message of these books is one of the tragedy of art and power. Art is shown as a mirror in which the powerful are shown themselves; as a window which reveals them to the world; as a microscope that brings scrutiny to certain aspects of their behaviour; as a medium in which the powerful and their achievements can be made to endure.

Our own awareness

It’s important to take these lessons on board, not just as abstractions from a fantasy story but as real issues for us in the modern world.

The relationship between power and art is a complex one, mediated and disguised by the influence of money. But for all the democratising influence of the internet age, it is still people in power – the wealthy, the influential, the publicly seen – who decide what art achieves prominence, what is widely read and enjoyed. The Sarantine Mosaic reminds us we have the power to influence them back, to shape the way they view the world, to duck around the limits they place on us and provide subversive commentary as we reflect power itself.

I’m not going to say that we have a duty. We all have choices to make, and I can’t impose obligations on anyone even if I wanted to. But art in all its forms provides us with opportunity, and it would be a shame not to seize it.