Just Like Fairy Tales – a steampunk short story

“This is crazy,” Dirk said, hacking away the brambles that trailed between the statues. Life-sized courtiers, servants, and guards stood stiff and silent, recreations of humanity with enamel skin over brass flesh. “Who builds a clockwork palace just to let it get overgrown?”

His words, accompanied by a steady ticking of gears, echoed back from the vaulted ceiling on which figures from ancient myth had been painted, their faces concealed by centuries of cobwebs. Dirk wanted to wipe those cobwebs away and see the long-lost art underneath, but not as much as he wanted to see these statues in action. A thrill ran through him at the prospect of wonders no-one else had witnessed.

“Becoming overgrown was the point,” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms said. “To embody the very essence of the fairy tale – a sleeping kingdom buried beneath the wild. Count Volkengrad meant to return after a decade and awake his porcelain princess with a kiss.”

With a click of gears, Blaze-Simms finished winding the mechanism inside a guard captain. He drew out the key, walked to the woodworm-riddled remnants of a bed, and knelt beside the figure who lay there, pale and dust-covered amid the rotten sheets. He brushed the dust from her neck, thrust the key into a hole by the collar bone, and started to wind.

“Then why’s she still here?” Dirk asked, dragging the last of the trailing plants away.

“Volkengrad caught a chill reenacting the emperor’s new clothes, came down with a fever and died. His descendants decided it was best to just fence off his fairy tale forest and pretend it never happened.”

Blaze-Simms withdrew the key from the automaton and stepped back.

“Now what?” Dirk asked, rubbing his hands together.

Blaze-Simms shrugged. “She should be waking up.”

“Don’t you need to kiss her?”

“I don’t see how saliva could help in any mechanical way.”

But the princess lay sleeping still, the intricate plates of her face inert.

Dirk leaned in and ran a hand across a cold cheek. She really was beautiful, the most perfect princess art could create.

“You do know that magic isn’t real, don’t you?” Blaze-Simms asked. “Kissing her won’t break some spell. One of the gears has probably just rusted in place.”

If Dirk knew one thing in life, it was that there were limits to scientific understanding. Maybe there was some kissing-based mechanism here and Blaze-Simms just didn’t know it. If that was what it took to wake the place up, then Dirk was willing to give it a go.

He ran a thumb across the princess’s cold lower lip. The metal gave way, there was a click, and she jerked upright.

Dirk leapt back, almost reaching for his pistol before his rational brain took hold.

“I say!” Blaze-Simms exclaimed. “Well done, old chap!”

Around them, whir of wound springs turned into a rattle of movement. Guards, servants, courtiers, every statue that Blaze-Simms had wound sprang into action, approaching the two adventurers with shuffling, mechanical steps. The statues opened their mouths and a terrible cacophony filled the palace.

“What is that?” Dirk asked, clamping his hands to his ears.

“I think they’re cheering!”

The princess approached Dirk, arms rigidly outstretched, lips parted, her once-beautiful face transformed into an uncanny imitation of human movement.

“No thanks,” he said. “You go find yourself a porcelain prince.”

But she kept moving, grabbing at Dirk’s arms with pinching metal fingers, trying to pull him close.

He backed away but she kept coming. The others were closing in too, surrounding him with a crowd of twitching metal limbs.

“Maybe this wasn’t the best idea,” Blaze-Simms said, glancing around.

“You think?”

“So now what?”

Dirk slammed into the nearest statue, a guard swinging an all too real halberd. The statue fell to the ground with a clang and he leapt over its prostrate form.

“Now we run!”

They dashed through the palace, followed by a cacophony of clattering and clanging. Dirk couldn’t tell if the statues were following, or if they had just fallen in a heap in the main chamber. He didn’t care, as long as he was clear of those strange and stumbling figures.

They emerged from the palace into the forest, where their horses stood tied to a tree. While Dirk looked back, watching for signs of pursuit, Blaze-Simms pulled out a notebook.

“What a marvellous place,” he said. “I wonder if I could replicate it.”

Dirk snatched the notebook and snapped it shut.

“Some things are best left to the imagination,” he said. “Just like fairy tales.”

***

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***

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

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

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

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

Three Little Pigs – a fairy tale retold

The wolf prowled into town on paws as soft as mist and as deadly as winter. Her every breath made the leaves trembled in the trees.

Close up of a wolf's face

Three pigs fled before her. The first, skinny and clad in rags, ran into a house of straw. The second, in his simple, sturdy tunic and tool belt, ran into a house of wood. The third, decked out in a bowler hat and waistcoat, ran into a house of bricks.

The wolf grinned, drool dripping between saw-blade teeth. She would eat well today.

She stopped at the first house.

“You think this can protect you?” she called out with a sneer.

“It’s all I have,” the first pig replied, his voice high with fear. “But there’s no meat on me. Am I even worth eating?”

He wasn’t worth answering. The wolf took a deep breath, her lungs swelling with all the power of the east wind, pursed her lips, and blew.

The house exploded beneath the force of the gale, straw bursting apart and billowing through the air.

The pig cowered in the ruins, frozen by fear. The wolf snapped her jaws shut around his throat and tasted hot, delicious flesh. She gave in to her hunger, rending, tearing, chewing, until all that remained was bones and blood-spattered chaff.

She brushed a straw from her nose and frowned. The pig had been right – he wasn’t nearly enough to sate her appetite.

She stalked over to the house of wood. It was carefully constructed, timbers linked with dovetail joints and wooden pins, an apple carved into the frame above the front door. The windows were shuttered and bolted.

“You think this can protect you?” the wolf called out as she admired the handiwork.

“I built it with all my skill,” the second pig replied, his words sharply edged, the voice of a creature failing to hide his fear. “I have faith that it will stand.”

“Let’s put that faith to the test.”

The wolf stepped back and took a deep breath. The wind was a great power within her, a living, surging, seething thing. Then she blew.

The house shook. Shutters rattled in their frames. Joints creaked under the strain. The wolf kept blowing determinedly, her breath the full force of the elements.

“I told you,” the pig shouted over the howling wind. “I said that it-”

With a splintering crash, the front door flew in, wrenching away half the doorframe. Timbers around it buckled and broke. Splinters whirled. Walls fell. The roof went tumbling across the street.

The pig tried to run but the wolf was faster. Paws pinned him in the mud. She smelled the blood seeping from a hundred splinter wounds.

“I don’t want to die,” the pig whimpered.

“And I don’t want to be hungry,” the wolf said, a moment before she sank her teeth in.

When she was done, she wiped the blood from her muzzle with the back of her paw. That had been good. The carpenter had more flesh on him. But still she hungered for something more.

She approached the brick house, standing tall amid the scattered straw and pulverised planks. The third pig looked down at her from a crenellated turret on the northeast corner.

“You think this can protect you?” the wolf asked, licking her lips.

“I bloody well hope so” the pig replied. “I spent half my fortune on it.”

The wolf took a deep breath, her chest expanding, her body flooding with the wind’s power. Then she blew.

The wolf’s breath battered at the brickwork, blowing dust from the mortar and whistling through the roof tiles.

The house stood firm.

The wolf frowned, took another deep breath, and blew gain.

The wind was a vast force pounding at the house. The turret trembled and the pig clung on with gritted teeth. A chimney pot shattered in the street.

But still the house stood.

The wolf growled in frustration. This wasn’t how it was meant to work. She blew, houses fell, pigs got eaten. That was the way of the world.

She took another breath, the deepest she had ever known, sucking in air until she felt she would explode. And then she blew.

The tower wavered. The pig crouched in terror behind the battlements. The front door rattled in its frame like the battering of hail on a frozen pond. The wolf blew and blew until there was nothing left in her and she lay panting in the dirt.

Still the house stood.

The pig peered down from his tower, drew out a cigar and lit it with a gold-plated lighter. He grinned and blew a smoke ring.

The wolf forced herself up onto her paws. Her head hung in shame and her belly rumbled.

“You win,” she growled. “I’ll go.”

“Why the rush?” the pig said. “I know a way you can stay here and still be well fed.”

“Stop taunting me,” the wolf snapped. “We both know you’re not coming out to be eaten.”

“True,” the third pig said. “But you see those windmills I had built on the hill? They could feed quite a community. Lots of hard workers for my new factory. Lots of succulent little piggies for you. Offer them bread and jobs and not too much death and they’ll come from miles around. All I need to make those mills work is a little gust of wind…”

***

This story started out with a simple writing exercise and ended up going all Animal Farm. Who would have thought it from an old lefty like me?

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

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

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

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

From reader reviews:

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

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

Beauty Amid Brambles – a #FlashFriday story

rosesEvery day for a month, as she walked through the palace gardens, Lady Elana looked up at the high balcony where Prince Novak sat, his handsome face as pale and sorrowful as old bones. She had read the books of poetry he wrote before his mother’s death, and so knew that there was joy and beauty in him, such joy and beauty that it had captured her own heart. But she had come to court too late to meet the man with whose words she had fallen in love. Now he sat alone behind locked doors and his father’s guards, slumped in sorrow.

Elana was determined to change that.

It took her weeks to identify the brief moment each day when the guards did not watch the wall below the balcony. She waited another month for the perfect blue rose to emerge in the garden, just as it had in Novak’s poetry. At last her moment came.

She plucked the rose, grasped it between her teeth and scrambled up the ivy. Stone scraped her knuckles red raw, and thorns drew blood from her lips, but at last she reached the top and held out the flower to Prince Novak.

“I found beauty amid brambles.” She recited the first line of her favourite verse, and the smallest of smiles flickered at his mouth.

“What is this?” The King was furious as he stomped out onto the balcony. “I keep my son here to protect him from harlots like you, preying upon his weakness as you scrabble to become queen. I will have none of it!”

“Please.” Elana trembled as she bowed low before the King. “Please, I just want to make him happy. The flower made him smile. Surely that is worth something?”

The King looked at his son, and for a moment his expression softened.

It was only a moment.

“Any courtly lady can make a young man smile,” he growled. “It is what you are trained for. Make me smile, and then I will let you see him again.”

#

Every day for a month, Elena was allowed into the King’s presence and given one chance to make him smile. At first she sang songs and told jokes, but his expression remained stern. Then she tried stories of glory and heroism, which she had been told he loved in his youth, but still no smile. She brought bouquets of flowers, fine artworks, beautiful and exotic birds, but not a hint of happiness touched the King’s lips.

Determined to succeed, Elena learnt new skills. Every month for a year she would dedicate herself to a new entertainment, perfecting some display before bringing it before the King. She became an acrobat, an illusionist, a high wire ballerina. Courtiers were dazzled by the spectacle of her displays, but the King continued to glare.

At last came the day when Elena could do nothing more. Every muscle ached from endless training. All her money was gone, spent on experts and tutors. So many crafts filled her mind, ideas and information cramming up against each other, that she could barely sleep at night from keeping them all in.

She bowed low before the King, her last threadbare gown sweeping the floor.

“I have failed, your majesty,” she said. “I am penniless, and must now leave court. But if my example inspires another, and one day they make Novak happy, then every moment of this has been worthwhile.”

With all the dignity she could muster, she turned to walk away.

“Wait.” The King’s voice was soft.

Elena turned to see a tear rolling from the corner of his eye.

“It amazes me,” he said. “That you could care for my son so much that after all this you are happy just knowing that he is too.”

He waved to one of his guards.

“Take her to Prince Novak.” At last a smile appeared on the King’s face.

#

Every day for a month, Elena visited Prince Novak on his balcony. They read stories, admired the garden, and wrote poetry together. Slowly but surely, the Prince’s smile returned. It became fixed forever when, the very next year, they were wed.

* * *

After enjoying my fantasy story ‘The Wizard’s Tower’, Joanna challenged me to write a story in which a female suitor must prove her worthiness for a sheltered man, the reversal of the usual roles. This is the result. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to receive a story each week directly to your inbox then please sign up for my mailing list.

As an added bonus, fellow writer Steve Cook has recorded an audio version of one of my previous stories, steampunk adventure ‘A Flash of Power’. He’s done a great job, full of sound effects and enthusiasm, and you can listen to that here.