The Christmas War – a flash steampunk story

cropped-Mud-and-Brass-blog-header.jpgThe milkmaid awoke to the scrunch of wrapping paper. Her clockwork heart ticked into movement and she felt delight as her world was revealed to her. The candles flickering on the tree. Bunting hanging around the wood-panelled walls of the parlour. A girl looking down, blonde ringlets falling around a lively face.

With a click of gears, the milkmaid raised her arms in greeting.

“Urgh,” the girl said. “A milkmaid in a frilly pink dress. Why do you always get me such girly toys?”

“Elizabeth dear, you are a girl,” a matronly voice responded from a seat near the fireplace.

“Robert isn’t a soldier but you got him soldiers,” Elizabeth said, pouting.

“Very funny, dear,” a deep, booming voice replied from another large leather chair. “Now say thank you. Many girls would love to get such a toy for Christmas.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, without the least sign of meaning it.

Confused and distressed at her new owner’s behaviour, the milkmaid looked around for some sign of the love that all toys craved. Instead, she found herself carried to a quiet corner of the room, hidden away behind an over-stuffed sofa. Elizabeth pulled a tiny screwdriver from somewhere in her skirt and turned the milkmaid over. As the girl opened up her back, the milkmaid’s world faded away.


The milkmaid awoke once more to find herself facing a row of tin soldiers beneath the Christmas tree. Each one was painted with a smart red jacket and had a clockwork key protruding from his back.

Looking at them stirred an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling in the milkmaid. Instinctively, she strode towards them.

“That’s it,” Elizabeth said behind her, voice quiet yet excited. “Let’s show them what girls can do.”

To her great shock, the milkmaid found herself doing just that. As the first soldier turned to salute her, she grabbed him by the arm and flung him to the ground. She hit the next one with her crook, spinning his head around so that it faced backwards and he toppled over.

The sadness of seeing him like that distracted her. She almost didn’t notice the next soldier swing his copper cutlass. It hissed past as she ducked just in time.

Everything was so bafflingly backwards that if she could have cried she would have done. Instead she lashed out at the soldier, slamming him against the base of the tree.

She stomped forwards, intent on dealing with the remaining tin men so that she could rest and be content.

There were two left.

A rifleman raised his gun and pulled the trigger, but there was nothing to fire. She swung at him with her crook, but he blocked it, then slammed the butt of his gun into her side. There was a clang and she felt something buckle. Her left arm went stiff, the joints refusing to move.

Skirts swinging, she kicked the soldier hard. He staggered back, knocked his head against a low branch, and fell to the ground in a shower of pine needles. Loose gears clicked uselessly as he lay twitching on the ground.

All that remained was the drummer boy. He was handsome and smartly dressed, but armed only with his drumsticks.

The milkmaid knocked him to the ground and dragged him across the floor. At the hearth, she lifted him up, straining her injured arm, and prepared to throw him into the flames.

A sad beauty crossed the drummer boy’s face as he gave his drum one final tap of salute.

“Hey, who broke my soldiers?” a voice cried out from near the tree.

Hesitating, the milkmaid looked at the smooth paint of the drummer boy’s face and the elegance of his uniform. He tapped another rhythm for her, slow, sweet, and mournful.

Still fighting the urge to destroy, the milkmaid put the drummer boy down away from the fire. Trembling at the conflict inside her, she reached out and, instead of attacking him, gave him a hug.

This. This was what she had wanted.

The drummer boy hugged her back.


Full of food and holiday spirits, Elizabeth and Robert sat by the fire amid a pile of broken toy soldiers. Each of them held a screwdriver and a tiny spanner as she showed him what to do. Not just how to fix the clockwork men, but how to change their gears to make them do new and interesting things.

“This is brilliant!” Robert exclaimed. “Thank you for teaching me.”

“Sorry for breaking your soldiers,” Elizabeth said with something approaching genuine conviction.

“That’s OK,” her brother said. “Now they look like they’ve been in a real war.”

At the edge of the firelight, their two least damaged toys, the milkmaid and the drummer boy, lay together holding hands.

* * *


Merry Christmas everyone! Try not break each other’s toys.

Requiem for a Clockwork King – a flash steampunk story

Mud and Brass site iconWhat do I know of Captain Stanzara Belamarix?

I know that she was the most stunning jewel at my father’s funeral. I know, I know, I should have been more concerned with stateliness and solemnity. But when one is the heir to the Clockwork King, one becomes blasé about these things. After all, it was the old man’s seventh funeral. Come the end, they would unhook his brain from all those wires and gears, install him in a new body, and the two of us would be back to bickering over foreign policy and my lifestyle. Even the imitation of grief felt tasteless.

And really, did you expect any better of me? I know my father never did.

So anyway, Stanzara – sorry, we’re being formal aren’t we? I should use her title.

Captain Belamarix was quite the finest figure in that cathedral. She wore the full dress uniform of the Royal Philosophical Corps. Those tight trousers, that leather jacket, and under her arm the brass helmet that protects philosophical officers in the void between worlds. Knowing that this was a woman who strode between realities added a frisson to seducing her. There’s something about a woman who could snap your reality in half, don’t you think?

You don’t? Well, never mind.

Something rattled in her helmet as she bowed, but I didn’t pay it much mind. I had some recollection of loose gadgets from my season with the Philosophy Corps. I didn’t want her thinking about fixing her equipment when she could be thinking about fixing me, if you know what I mean.

We set to talking, but nothing I said penetrated her cool professionalism. In retrospect, that was when I should have become suspicious. After all, I was the crown prince and, well, look at me. Women seldom say no, but her whole demeanour was screaming it.

Looking back, I blame myself for not seeing that something was amiss. Especially as that rattling sounded again. Something about it was uncomfortably familiar.

But I was a man on a mission, and that mission was Captain Stanzara Belamarix. As her eyes kept shifting to the royal coffin, I saw a way to chip away at that frosty disposition. So I stepped across the purple ropes keeping most mourners from the coffin, taking her with me.

I can see why you might blame me, but there’s really no reason to shout about it. How could I have known?

Well, yes, I had spent time with the Philosophical Corps. I had a passing knowledge of their equipment and methods. But that was months ago. Years, even. And how could I have known that anyone there was scheming against His Majesty? They’re meant to be loyal to the last officer!

Besides, I had other frustrations to deal with. I had hoped that the sight of father lying there, the cage around his brain opened for the mourners to see, would move her to tears, allowing me to step in and comfort her. An arm around the shoulder and a soft friendly voice can take a chap a long way.

But no. She didn’t even step close to me for comfort. Instead she grew distant, one hand clutching the helmet in front of her, the other fidgeting with something inside.

I was starting to think that I had wasted my time, that I should get back to my mother’s weeping chambermaids or the poker game in the archbishop’s antechamber.

Then I heard that clicking again. Louder, faster, more intense.

Here was my last shot.

“I say.” I leaned in close and conspiratorial. “Do you hear that? What could it be?”

Captain Belamarix turned to me, eyes wide, and for a moment I thought I had her. At last, some strand of emotion on which I could work. I pictured what lay beneath that leather jacket, thought about those eyes going wide in a very different way.
If it’s true that you can be damned for arousal in church, then I was doomed in that very second.

My father, alas, was doomed regardless. For that was the moment when the ticking became an irregular rattle and then a sound I can only describe as a long, wet crunch.

An assassin’s spider, one of those ghastly clockwork contrivances with the blades and claws, was twisting and turning inside my father’s bronze head cage. A brave guard snatched it out and flung it against the wall, losing three of his fingers to the brute. But it was too late.

What had been my father’s brain was now little more than puree.

Captain Belamarix turned away, but as she did so something in her hand caught the light. A winding key, such as might be used to prepare an assassin’s spider. Weighed down with guilt and horror, I called the guards. She was seized and, well, you know the rest.

Now excuse me. I know that your enquiry must be completed, but I’m sure you understand that I too am busy. I have a kingdom to rule now, and everyone says that I am woefully ill-prepared.

Merciful? Well, I suppose I have been so far. Even after what she did, I still had a fondness for Captain Belamarix. After all, we had known each other since those days I spent in the corps. The thought of her facing death was just too much, whatever the law says. Exile was what I could bear. If I had known that her ship would face such a horrible accident, then I would have ensured that we questioned her first, to find out if anyone else was behind the plot. But then, if I had known she would die then I would not have chosen exile, would I?

Now excuse me. My heart is heavy, but a monarch’s work is never done. My council meets on the hour. Some policy changes are long overdue.

* * *


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Not All Hands Tell the Time – a flash story

Picture by martinak15 via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by martinak15 via Flickr Creative Commons

The heart is a hard book to read, even to a woman as learned as myself. But in retrospect, I suspect that I loved Silvio di Forenti from the moment I saw him, cool and serious, standing in the doorway of my drawing room. I have met many wild animals in my travels, and intensity has come to mean more to me than all the pleasantries in the world.

His bow was stiff yet perfectly appropriate, as if he measured out manners by the ounce. It was hardly a surprise from a master of his craft.

Outside the window a carriage rolled past, and the city hall clock chimed in chorus with the one on my mantelpiece.

“Professor Liveci.” Without pausing for small talk, Master Forenti crossed the room and knelt beside my chair. His gaze focused on the stump of my wrist. “The wound has been well stitched. That will help.”

“My manservant’s surgical skills are excellent.” I nodded to where Antonio stood discretely in his usual corner, and he blushed slightly. He reddened further as Forenti, without so much as asking permission, took hold of the stump. My breath caught in my throat, both at the transgression and at the thrill of his delicate fingers on my skin.

“That makes sense for an explorer.” He opened his bag and took out two carefully jointed metal hands. The ends of their clockwork innards caught the light as he compared their width to that of my arm. “Would you prefer brass or steel?”

“I…” All I had thought about was the need for a new hand, and that I was one of the lucky few who could afford one. Now I felt like a fool – for once I had not done my research. “Whichever you think will look best.”

He ran a finger along my forearm and stared at the colour of my skin. I had only felt so intensely scrutinised once before, facing a mountain lion during the mapping of Gawatob.

My heart raced.

“Brass.” He nodded. “It will bring out your warmth.”

Rising, he placed the gleaming hands back in his bag.

“I will need a month for the main mechanism.” He glanced at Antonio. “Your man can assist with the attachment, or I can bring a surgeon.”

“I would prefer Antonio.” I hesitated as Forenti headed for the door. “Master Silvio, would you care to stay for supper?”

Now he hesitated, back still to me, before shaking his head.

“I understand the compulsion to offer me such politeness,” he said. “But there is no need.”

With that he was gone.


To my surprise and delight, Silvio di Forenti called upon me twice more during the making of the hand, to check the sizing of parts and discuss finishes for the metal. My joy in these visits was alloyed by the stiff formality of his demeanour, which spoke of no interest in me as a woman, and by the knowledge that all this would end once I had my hand.

So I determined to make one last push at conversation, that I might find an excuse to meet again.

Despite an alchemist’s draft and several good measures of brandy, the operation itself was agonising. I spent the following week sleepless, feverish and in pain, while my body adjusted to its new part. By the time Forenti returned to check on his work, I was just about lucid, and had begun to move my mechanical fingers.

“I feel that I should be striking the hours.” With slow, careful movements I brought the thumb and index finger together. It was a strange experience to see them touch but feel nothing.

“Why?” He tightened one of the joints with a tiny clamp.

“Because I have clearly become a clock,” I replied. “I have a mechanical hand, and it is driven by gears.”

“Not all hands tell the time.” He rose and packed away his tools. “I am done. I should go.”

“There is no need to rush.” Flushed with embarrassment at my failed humour, I was still determined to buy a little more time. “Perhaps you would care for a drink?”

“There really is no need for pleasantries,” he said. “I have already taken up far more of your time than I would for most. An indulgence for which I apologise.”

He half turned away, then stopped, staring at the clock on the mantelpiece. Suddenly he laughed, a sound I had never heard before.

“Hand has two meanings.” He turned to face me again. “I am sorry, I am not good with jokes. It is one reason so many find me disagreeable, but I would never wish to be disagreeable to you.”

“I am not good with pleasantries.” I smiled. “But I would like the chance to be pleasant to you. So please, will you join me for a drink?”

“If you mean it, then nothing would please me more.” He set his bag down and took a chair next to mine. “Tell me, what sort of beast took your hand?”

“A manticore,” I said. “Let me tell you the tale…”

The door creaked discretely shut as Antonio, always wise to my needs, went to take his time finding the sherry.

* * *


This week I was going to write a steampunk story, to mark the release of Aristocracts and Artillery, the third book in my Epiphany Club series. I’m really excited to have this book out – based on feedback from my beta readers, each of these books is better than the last – and I hope you’ll all give it a look. If you haven’t started on the series yet, book one is free on Amazon and Smashwords, and book two is only 99c from all the same places.

But despite that excitement, I didn’t manage to come up with a steampunk story. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I suffer from depression, and this week I’ve suffered from the worst patch in a year or two. Writing anything was hard, so rather than fight to write something that fitted my plans, I wrote something that caught my imagination. Thanks to that decision, I’ve written some fresh fiction for the first time in over a week. I guess there’s a lesson in there about writing what you love, but my main take away is a huge sense of relief that my brain is recovering, if only a little at a time.

As always, I hope you enjoyed this week’s story, and if you’d like to have these sent direct to your inbox each Friday, as well as a free copy of Riding the Mainspring, please consider signing up for my mailing list.

Friday flash fiction – Tick-Tock

I can hear the clocks all around me filling the shop with the tick-tock of gears, the swish of pendulums, the chimes on the hour or the half or the quarter. One of them lies half-assembled in front of me, a collection of parts taken from the boxes that old Mistress Venables kept so meticulously labelled, laid out as she taught me.

My face flushes at the thought of her. Her hand clipping me around the back of the head. The rebukes scattered among the lessons like numbers across a clock face. The sound of her screaming at me that she would find a new apprentice, that the shop would never be mine.

The feel of my hands around her throat, squeezing tighter and tighter and-

Damn it, the cam wheel won’t turn. I pull it out, glare at it, try to work out what’s gone wrong. But all I can think of is the ticking.

11271766325_25c24f49fc_zIt must be a faulty wheel. I curse Venables for leaving me such rubbish, fling it away into a corner and take another from the box. I peer through my magnifying glasses, place the cam wheel with needle-sharp tweezers, lining up its two sets of teeth with the others around it. I smile at my handiwork, wind the spring and release it. Gears grind instead of flowing then fly from their places, flung about the room by the flailing spring. I curse and hurl the lot away from me, its case shattering against the wall, pieces tinkling into the darkness beyond the lamplight.

I breath deeply, trying to calm myself despite the ticking of the clocks growing ever closer around me. How did Venables find this racket soothing? How did I? How does anyone?

I reach for the boxes again. There’s her tiny, meticulous penmanship on the labels. ‘Locking wheel’. ‘Third wheel’. ‘Rack hook’.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? These are her parts, her clocks. They’re out for revenge, trying to stop me working. Even dead she can’t leave me in peace. Every clock in this room, every clock in the shop, they’re full of her parts.

I’ll throw the old parts out in the morning. They’ll be costly to replace, but what price sanity?

Still, this clock is due tomorrow, and I want to be paid. I curse myself for wasting the first frame, turn to fetch another from the shelf.

The clocks are closer. They loom over me out of the shadows, louder and louder. Never quiet. Never still. Their endless tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

Her parts. Her clocks. I see what they’re doing, stopping me working, ruining my reputation, ruining me.

I won’t have it.

I reach down into my toolbox, never taking my eyes off the clocks. I don’t dare. My hand closes around a hammer.

Then fast as a second hand I’m up, sweeping the clocks from the shelves, smashing in their stupid faces just like I did hers. I grab and throw and swing and hit, the workshop a whirl of flying gears and crumpled cogs. I realise that I’m laughing, drowning out the sound of the ticking, and I go with the noise, relish it along with the shattering sounds.

The clocks are all smashed, scattered across the floor. I stop, bent double to catch my breath, my broken laughter turning into a hoarse wheeze.


I look over my shoulder but there are no clocks left.


This time from the other direction.

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

It won’t stop.

I back up against the workbench, pull my legs up beneath me as I curl up on top, as far from the ticking shadows as I can get.

But the sound won’t stop. It’s coming at me from every direction. Louder and louder, like an itch in my brain that won’t ever end. Not as long as I can hear.

With trembling fingers I reach for the one tool left out on the workbench. The noise is overwhelming, a cacophony of ticking filling my workshop, my ears, my mind. Only one way to stop this.

I jam the needle point of the tweezers down into my ear.

Soon the ticking will stop.



For more Friday flash fiction check out Lisa Walker England’s blog or the #FlashFriday tag. For more mechanical stories from me check out Riding the Mainspring, available for the Kindle through Amazon and on other formats via Smashwords.

Picture by William Warby via Flickr creative commons