Maps of Broken Places – a flash fantasy story

My map was a chronicle of broken things. Dead trees. Fallen fences. Collapsed cliffs and the dead end paths that trailed away from them like tattered bandages. I didn’t need to record the things that had stayed the same, only those that had changed. Only those ruptured by time and careless hands.

Careless hearts too, to pull a kissing gate off its hinges and ditch it in a field.

Mud squelched beneath my boots as I approached the fallen gate. The wind blew a fractured song through the trees, brown leaves rattling for a moment before they were torn away. A one-legged gull watch me from a fence post with hungry eyes.

As I touched the gate, a memory flashed through me. Euan and I had come this way on one of our first dates. We’d stopped at this kissing gate to make sure it lived up to its name. A happy memory once, but now I viewed it through the cracked lens of resentment. I’d left the divorce papers on the kitchen table this morning, freshly torn from the envelope and waiting to be signed. I was working to escape those memories, not sink into them.

With a grunt, I hefted the gate and carried it back to where it belonged. I couldn’t fix the broken hinges today, but I could put it out of the way.

As I leaned the gate against its post, more images flashed into my mind. Memories, but not my own. A small boy walking through that gate with his aunt, basking in the wonders of nature. The same boy but older, swinging on the gate, laughing at the joy of movement and the clatter of wood as the gate hit the post. And now as a teenager with the taste of cheap cider in his mouth, egged on by his friends as he tore the gate from its hinges.

The gate was mourning, for itself and for that boy.

I let it go and took a step back, blinking. The images had seemed so real.

The gull landed on top of the gate and stared at me once more. As our eyes met, I felt another jolt, another rush of memories. The gull as a young bird, learning to find food in what people threw away. Older now, its leg tangled in fishing wire on a river bank, the pain and the blood as it tried to tear free and instead ripped its own flesh. Lying feverish with pain in a treetop, staring at the swollen wound where its leg had been. Learning to balance again, to live without.

I stumbled back, heart pounding in fear. Was I losing my mind?

My boot landed in a fox hole. I stumbled, slid on mud, and fell.

More images. Fences built and broken. Trees grown and felled. The cliff collapsing, inch by torturous inch, into a slowly rising sea.

In this place of memories, the land and everything in it shared my grief. We were sundered from our old selves by sorrow, but bound together in bereavement. I didn’t just cry for me, I cried for every thing on my map, every loss I had touched today.

I thought of that kiss and all the sorrow that followed.

Then the memory shifted. I felt it as the gate, a moment of love that had made this place feel special. For the land, it wasn’t tarnished by tears, but could still be a perfect moment.

Perhaps it could stay perfect for me too. Yes, it was part of my relationship with Euan, but it wasn’t the part I regretted.

Clouds parted, the honey gold of sunlight breaking through grey. I pulled myself up out of the mud and laid a hand on the kissing gate. I thought of all the other times I’d walked this way, alone or in company, in this same glorious sunshine, in the howling power of a gale, in crisp white snow that lay like peace across the land.

And I imagined tomorrow, when I would come back with tools and new hinges.

My map had gotten smeared with mud when I fell. I wiped off the worst of it, pulled a pencil from my pocket, and drew a circle around the x that marked the broken gate. I circled other things too, ones I could mend, places I could put back in order instead of chronicling their collapse.

The gull spread its wings. It was remembering a chip shop down the coast, from whose bins it had eaten the finest fish of its life. It would return there tonight and feast again.

And I would go home to sign the papers and move on with my life. Not everything could be fixed, some grief had to be borne, but we could still live anew, the land and I.

My map was a list of things to be mended.

***

This one’s for Gwyn of the Crudely Drawn Swords podcast. A tweet about his work inspired me to write about the mapping of broken things.

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.’

FantasyCon 2019

I’ve had a week to catch up on sleep, so it must be time to talk about FantasyCon.

The first thing to say is that I had a great time. I always do at cons. The people are lovely, the panels provide entertainment, and it’s great to browse the books of the indie presses that don’t make it into mainstream stores.

The highlights for me this year were about fun rather than learning new things. Breaking The Glass Slipper live and the Dungeons and Disorderly panel were both very entertaining, playing around with familiar characters and tropes. BTGS had panellists explain how their chosen sf+f character would deal with a difficult scenario, with the audience voting on their favourites. D&D was a ridiculous, improvised 45-minute roleplay game featuring the underdork, conspiring cows, and seven kobolds disguised as a dragon.

My panel seemed to go fine, though it’s hard to judge when you’re on the inside. I certainly got more insight into how franchise writing works, and now have some thoughts on what I can do to hunt out more work. But for me this was mostly a relaxing con, with a lot of bar chat.

Inevitably, I bought a couple of books. Luna Press are doing great work and I’ve already enjoyed dipping into their latest essay collection, as well as Gareth Powell’s new writing guide.

Going to Glasgow, or more accurately the edge of Glasgow, seemed to reduce the number of attendees, which was a shame. FantasyCon is a great event even when, like this year, it has a few organisational problems, and it should go as far north as Scotland once in a while. Multiple conventions close together also seem to have cannibalised membership, and hopefully con runners will consider that next year.

It’s a shame more people didn’t make it, but then that’s always going to be true. If you live in Britain and you enjoy fantasy then this is one of the most rewarding events of the year, especially for writers. I’m really glad I went.

Omens of the End Times – a flash fantasy story

Shooting stars blazed across the sky, bright wounds in the skin of dusk.

“Another omen!” Ostelia shouted, glaring angrily at her fellow senators. “The city will fall.”

His body quivering with rage, Asmir hitched up his toga, rose from his seat, and pointed past her through the pillars of the temple porch.

“The city will not fall because of this,” he said. “It will fall from our neglect. The great lake has not dried up through the will of the gods but through our inaction.”

A rumble rose out of the east. A great foaming wall of water came rushing across the lake bed toward the city.

“Another sign!” Ostelia exclaimed. “The end is upon us!”

“The dams have broken.” Asmir swung around and grabbed a servant. “Quick, ring the bells, get people to high ground.”

The water surged across the dried out lake bed and crashed against the houses beyond. Buildings at the foot of the temple hill were smashed aside. Timbers and bodies spun in the current as the waters rose. One by one, the temple steps vanished beneath the flood.

“The end is upon us,” Ostelia declared.

Half the senators cried out in agreement. They followed her as she strode solemnly out of the temple, onto the steps, and down towards the waters.

“Get back here, you fools,” Asmir shouted. “We’ll need everyone we can get to rebuild after this.”

He ran after them, sandals flapping against stone, and tried to haul them back. A brawl broke out as half the senate tried to keep the other half from drowning itself.

Ostelia reached the water’s edge. It was still rising, but slower than before. She raised her hands and stepped in. The edge of her toga darkened and clung to her shins.

“Take me, oh divinities. Carry me into the purer world that follows.”

Asmir was about to grab hold of her when something caught his eye. A wicker basket bobbed across the water to them, carrying with it a baby’s frightened cries.

Thoughts of Asmir’s fellow senators fled his mind. He tore off his toga and dived into the swirling waters. Currents snatched at him, trying to drag his body this way and that, but this was one thing at which he excelled. Though he was spun around and almost sucked under, he kept his course, until at last he laid a hand on the basket.

There was a hiss. A cat popped its head up over the edge and glared at Asmir. It dug its claws into his fingers, causing a fierce flash of pain. Tail stiff and back arched, it stood protectively over a tightly swaddled infant.

“I’m here to help,” Asmir said, but the cat just raised its claws again.

No time to appease the savage beast – Asmir would have to take whatever punishment it gave him. As blood welled from his fingers, he turned the basket and pushed it ahead of him towards the shore.

The waters tugged at him again as he neared the temple steps. He was so close, but a current clutched him and he could feel himself being drawn away.

Then a hand reached through the last grey light of dusk. Ostelia was in the water, and other senators behind her, a chain of them clinging to each other back to dry land. Asmir grasped Ostelia with one hand and the basket with another. Battling the force of the flood, the senators dragged him to shore.

At last, Asmir sat sodden on the hillside, lit by torches the servants had brought out, the torn up timbers of the city being swept away in front of him. The cat leaned its head out of the basket and licked his fingers, cleaning the wounds it had caused. The baby gurgled, smiled, and raised a tiny pink hand.

Ostelia leaned in, her toga dripping, and the baby grabbed at her dangling hair.

“It is an omen,” she whispered. “A sign that life will go on.”

Anger flared in Asmir. Ostelia had almost died of omens, almost taken half the city’s leaders with her. Now she was twisting this so she didn’t have to see her own madness.

The baby laughed and something shifted inside Asmir. He might not believe in omens, but he believed in people.

“It is a sign,” he said. “A sign of hope. A sign that we can rebuild together.”

Ostelia laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled.

“Together,” she said.

***

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.’

Exterminator – a flash horror story

Joel walked into the kitchen. The linoleum was cold beneath his feet and the room smelt faintly of refuse, a reminder to take the bins out tomorrow. He should do the washing up too, but not at three in the morning.

He bumped into a chair, cursed, and walked back to the doorway. He flipped a switch and the light buzzed into brightness, the bare bulb casting a stark light and sickly shadows.

For a moment, he heard chittering, but then it vanished. Work was getting to him, imagining bugs where there weren’t any.

Joel walked over to the sink, rinsed the sticky dregs of beer from the bottom of a glass, and filled it with water. He reached inside his boxers and scratched his arse while he drank.

Through a gap in the curtains he could see his van with its company logo of a crushed beetle. His neighbours hated that van, but that didn’t stop them hiring him to deal with their infestations, from ants to woodworm to rats. Hypocrites, the lot of them.

There was the chittering again, and a single tap. Joel turned around to see a beetle lying on its back on his kitchen table.

He grabbed a pan off the stove and slammed it down, crushing the insect. He grinned as he did it, then grinned even wider as he pulled the pan away and saw the results. The biggest beetle he’d ever seen, and he’d crushed it.

Sometimes he dreamed of doing that to his neighbours too. Maybe one day. For now, he’d made do with laying down poisoned treats for number fifteen’s cat. He’d got some dark looks after that fleabag died, but no-one could prove anything, so fuck them.

The chittering came again. Two more beetles landed on the table, even larger than the last one. These ones scurried away fast and the pan hit the table with an angry but ineffective clang.

The bugs landed on the linoleum. There was a tickling as one ran across Joel’s foot and up his leg.

“Get off me, you bastard.” Joel swatted at the creature, but it scurried around the back and up his thigh. “Get the fuck off!”

He reached around and grabbed the bug. Pincers dug into the flesh at the top of his leg. There was a flash of pain as he wrenched the thing off and flung it away. Blood dribbled, hot and sticky, down the back of his thigh.

More skittering. The tap of bugs landing on the table. Beetles, maggots, cockroaches, worms. Joel’s eyes widened as he looked up. Shadows were moving inside the light bulb, turning into the outlines of creatures that emerged at the top, becoming real as they slipped between socket and glass.

Joel stumbled back across the kitchen, tripped over a chair and landed with a thud. His head hit a cupboard door and black dots danced across his vision. When he blinked them away, they were replaced by giant flies buzzing around him, beetles climbing up his body, maggots wriggling beneath, the touch of their bodies making Joel’s skin writhe in disgust.

“Get away from me!”

He grabbed the counter and hauled himself to his feet. Bugs fell away, pattering onto the floor, but more clung to him, digging their pincers into his flesh, crawling through his hair and towards his face.

The light. They were coming from the light. Turn it off and this nightmare would be over.

But as he reached for the switch more crawled out of it, cascading down the wall and across the floor.

“Help!” Joel screamed. “Someone help me!”

If his neighbours heard then none responded. Instead, a beetle seized its chance to climb into his open mouth.

Joel froze in horror as the thing wriggled across his tongue and brushed against the inside of his cheeks. Then it was at the back of his throat and it was too late to scream.

With a wild, flailing movement Joel slapped the light switch. Something crunched beneath his hand, spattering him with its insides, but he still hit the switch.

The light went out.

The chittering continued.

Joel sank choking to the ground. Bugs crawled across him as the world faded to black.

***

This story was inspired by an art exhibit at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, where bugs were emerging from light fittings. I’ve never seen contemporary art so clearly ready to inspire horror.

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.’

The Awkward Love Lives of Gargoyles – a flash fantasy story

By the time the sun set, Darbelfang had spent the whole day building up his courage. Unable to move while humans roamed the world below, unable to even talk with his fellow gargoyles, he had spent hours working out what to say and to do. He knew he wasn’t worthy, but he was as ready as he would ever be.

“‘Ood ‘uck,” Ordrasy said, grinning around the pipe that protruded from his mouth.

“‘Anks.”

Darbelfang hauled himself from his place above the church window and up the roof. Where the nave met the tower, he squeezed through a pointed window, his sandstone scraping against the frame, and lowered himself to the narrow ledge below.

There he saw her, carved from the purest marble, feathered wings sprouting from her back.

Mefolina.

He forced himself to stop staring and approach before his courage evaporated. As he got near, there was a low grinding noise and she turned to smile at him.

“Darbelfang,” she said through lips that had never been disfigured by a drainage spout. “It’s nice to see you.”

“‘Ou ‘oo,” Darbelfang said.

She was looking straight at him! He wanted to stare into those exquisitely carved eyes, but he was too nervous and had to look away.

“I ‘as ‘ondering,” he began. “’At is ‘o ‘ay-”

“I can’t understand you,” Mefolina said, looking at him quizzically. “Maybe this would be easier if…”

“Oh, ‘es!” Darbelfang retracted his pipe. For the first time in days, his own lips met. “What I meant to say was, I think you’re really pretty and really smart, and I know I’m just an ugly brute with frogs legs and donkey ears, but-”

“I don’t think you’re ugly. The ears are sweet.”

Now he’d said something wrong! This was all going horribly. Darbelfang ran a hand across the course stone of his head and took a deep breath. Better to get it all over with now, to be shot down in one single, hideous go.

“I know you’re probably busy, and you won’t have the time, but I just thought maybe we could…”

“Could what?”

It was one thing to say this to an imaginary Mefolina, but saying it out loud, to the real her, and to face her response, it was all too much.

“Never mind.” He turned on the narrow ledge, ready to leave. “I’ll just go.”

A hand took hold of his, its surface as smooth and pale and beautiful as bone. Darbelfang quivered.

“I’m not good enough for you,” he muttered.

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

She pulled him closer, smiling and unfurling her wings. Her face was inches from his. He leaned in closer, her lips parted, and-

“Ouch!”

“’Orry, ‘orry!” Darbelfang retracted his pipe. “It comes out when I’m excited.”

Mefolina laughed, then covered her mouth.

“I didn’t mean to-”

Darbelfang leaned in again. But his clumsy frog legs lost their grip on the ledge. He tottered and started to fall.

Mefolina shot out a hand, grabbed him by the ears, and hauled him back to safety.

Sitting on the ledge, Darblfang stared disconsolately at the ground below. He’d dreamed of this moment as he slept through the long days of summer, but now it had come he had ruined it.

“I should go. I’m making a terrible mess of this.”

“Please don’t.” Mefolina bit her lip. “You’re funny and you’re smart and you’re one of the few gargoyles with the courage to come talk to me here. The problem isn’t you, it’s this stupid ledge.”

Darbelfang took a deep breath. He could barely bring himself to believe what she was saying, but…

“Maybe we could go up onto the roof?” he asked, daring to look at those finely carved eyes again. “We could catch pigeons and watch the moon rise.”

“I’d love that. Why don’t you lead the way?”

Darbelfang grinned and the pipe shot from his mouth once more. It was going to be a magical night.

***

This story started out as a silly comment on Twitter, about writing awkward urban fantasy romance. Once again, I will take inspiration from anywhere.

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.’

Gremlin in the Gears – a flash fantasy story

“Get your bally plane into the fight, Houghton!”

A Spitfire in flight

Squadron Leader Royce’s voice rattled from the radio of Arthur Houghton’s Spitfire. The air ahead was full of planes, twisting and tumbling through the late summer sky. The squadron were fighting for their lives and Houghton was stuck, his plane refusing to accelerate to full speed or to make more than the slowest of climbs.

“I’m trying, sir,” Houghton replied over the roar of the engine. “I swear, there are gremlins in my gears.”

“Stop blaming your machine and get stuck in.”

Houghton gritted his teeth as he wrestled with the trembling controls. Why was it always his plane that failed? No wonder the others whispered about cowardice just on the edge of his hearing.

He tilted his head and peered out of the cockpit. A green head with bulbous eyes stared back at him. Something was peeling back the housing of his engine, something with jagged teeth, an oil-stained arm, and a fistful of frayed wires.

“It can’t be.” Houghton stared wide-eyed at the creature. “It’s a gremlin. An honest to goodness gremlin.”

“I swear to God, Houghton, I’m going to have you on a charge,” Royce snarled.

Houghton yanked the stick, turning the Spitfire into a sudden roll. The gremlin swung loose, hung for a moment by one hand, and then vanished from view.

Grinning, Houghton straightened out and accelerated towards the fight.

“I’m on my way, sir.”

A Messerschmitt 109 loomed in the sky ahead of him. He pressed the trigger on his guns and bullets tore through the air, missing the enemy by inches. The 109 started to turn. Houghton followed, lining up his guns, almost ready…

A green face plastered itself across his view. He yelled in alarm as the gremlin gnashed its teeth.

Then the creature turned and ran down the front of the engine. Somehow, the speed of the plane and turbulence of the air didn’t shake it off. It bent open the engine housing and thrust a hand inside.

The engine sputtered and failed. Houghton found himself drifting into a terrifying glide with no power and little control. He hammered at the started, but got only the most fleeting of growls.

The 109 had completed its turn and was hurtling towards him. Bullets tore through Houghton’s wingtip, then crept closer as the pilot narrowed his aim.

The 109 was nearly on top of Houghton. The gremlin stood by the open engine panel, grinning as it stuffed something oil-covered into its mouth, then came running back along the plane to jump up and down on top of the cockpit, smearing Houghton’s view with its oily feet.

In desperation, he punched the instrument panel. Something shook loose and the engine gave a strained growl.

Seizing on that brief moment of power, Houghton flew up into the path of the 109. The German turned to avoid a collision. Houghton spun his plane and pushed the stick. For a moment, the underbelly of the enemy was inches from the top of his cockpit.

There was a thud, a shriek, and the two planes peeled away from each other. When Houghton looked back, he saw something green clinging to the front of the 109. Smoke was streaming from the 109’s engine.

He pressed his starter. The engine roared into life – not healthy, but working.

He reached for the radio, about to tell the others what he’d seen, to prove that he wasn’t a coward. Then he realised how it would sound.

“Sorry, Squadron Leader,” he said as he turned to join the dogfight. “Lost my nerve for a minute there, but I’m with you now.”

***

The myth of gremlins, malicious creatures that stop machines working, originated with the Royal Air Force in the 1920s and ’30s. By the Second World War, it had become common to blame unexplained mechanical failures on gremlins, a better way of venting frustrations than blaming colleagues in the heat of war. Roald Dahl popularised the idea beyond Britain, and so a legend was born.

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.’

A Shrine to Rot – a flash fantasy story

The land had grown hard and dry, nothing stirring but dust in the wind. The only place where nature held was in the waste heap outside the village, where beetles and worms ate what people could not. Oxen stood gaunt at idle ploughs while seeds lay lifeless in the soil.

And so Cobark gathered her people and led them into the desert, carrying all that they needed to start again – their clothes, their tools, their blankets, and the last of their food.

They walked north for five days, into an ever fresher wind. The air became cool and damp and their flagging spirits rose.

They reached the coast and looked out across a salt sea that shimmered with the sheen of black oil. Nothing could live here except the birds that fed on rotting fish, and the people could walk no further.

So Cobark led them east, across the desert once more. They walked for five days, their steps growing slower and more weary, until they reached a city from the days before the flattening.

In its ruins they found metal boxes with no opening, and when they broke into them some held precious food. But the first to eat from them became sick and twitched with a terrible fever. As they struggled to save him, monsters emerged from the city, some walking on two legs and some on four, all hungry for the people’s flesh. They fought them off and ran south, with the oxen in a long trail behind them.

After five days, with mountains rising to the east, they came to a canyon. It was as though a giant had taken an axe to the ground, leaving a deep gash where the earth had been. Desperate as they were, they could not cross it, nor could they climb the mountains.

And so, with a weary heart, Cobark pointed west. She let the others walk before her, for she was no leader any more. She had brought them forth and all they had found was misery, different places to die from hunger. She took the rear of the travelling column, and whenever someone fell she would lift them up and carry them until they had the strength to go on. When more fell than she could carry, she laid them on the backs of the oxen or made stretchers on which they could be dragged. Soon, half the people were taking the weight of the other half as they processed home to die.

In this way, it took them ten days to come back to the village. Most returned to their huts to wait for the end. But Cobark felt her failure. She did not deserve such comfort. So she walked out of the village and went to die by the waste heap, where she knew she belonged.

There she saw life. Seeds sprouting from the rotten pieces that people had thrown away. Cobark found hope, for herself and for her village.

She cracked open the hard soil and dug in the rotting waste. Within days the seeds, which had seemed set to lie dormant forever, began to sprout. The people rejoiced. Cobark returned smiling to her home.

And every year after, at the time of planting, they went to offer thanks at the shrine that was the waste heap.

***

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.’

Grave Wood – a flash fantasy story

Tohan crept into the grave wood, a basket of woven reeds strapped to his back, a thief in the most sacred of places. He hated coming here. Memories poured out of the shadows – images of Oela’s body, pale and wrapped in silk; of the mourners carrying her to her grave; of the goods laid with her and the dirt tumbling after, hiding her from him forever. He had shed tears enough to fill a lagoon. Yet here he was again, set on the most wretched of tasks.

Painted wooden grave statue

A figure loomed out of the trees, the first of the grave guardians. The statue’s wooden face had been worn smooth by the centuries, the features of the woman it protected obliterated by time. Only the eyes still had colour, a green that glowed in the darkness, a reminder that there was life after the body passed.

Tohan sidestepped around the guardian’s field of vision. With a creak of old wood, its head turned and he held his breath, then realised that he was standing on the grave it guarded. Another step and the movement stopped.

Tohan exhaled and walked on.

Deeper into the grave wood, his way became crowded with guardians. The oldest of the statues had been carved from living wood and the bodies they represented laid amid the roots. More recent guardians were carved in the town and brought here, to take a place wherever one could be found, to take up their eternal vigil.

He tried to tread a line between the graves, but they were packed tight together and his feet were those of a potter, not a dancer. Several times he stumbled, trod on sacred dirt, and saw the statues turn to face him. Every time, his heart raced and he quickened his step, afraid that if he stayed long enough at one grave then its guardian would turn on him.

At last he reached the place he sought. The grave was new, the paint on the guard clean and bold. Yellow skin, green eyes, black hair. Traces of gold embedded as jewellery around the neck.

There was a treasure buried here, its value beyond counting.

He knelt and drew a trowel from the basket on his back. With trembling hands, he dug into the loose dirt.

There was a creak.

The statue bowed its head to look down at Tohan.

He dug faster, using his hand as well as the trowel, casting aside great clods of earth. His chest felt tight, his muscles tense as bowstrings.

“Come on, come on…” he muttered as the dirt flew.

Another creak. The guard’s arms swung around.

If he wanted to stay free then he should back away now, abandon his prize and the statue guarding it. But he couldn’t. Not now. Not ever.

He scrabbled frantically in the dirt. A nail tore loose but he barely noticed the pain.

The guardian leaned closer. Cold yellow hands gripped Tohan’s shoulders.

“Robber,” a rumbling voice intoned. “Despoiler.”

“Please,” Tohan mumbled, thrusting his hands deeper, feeling desperately for the thing he sought. “Please, I need this.”

He felt damp silk and the cold, unyielding flesh of the fresh corpse. His fingers brushed a leather cord.

“Criminal,” the guard intoned as it tightened its grip and pulled.

The magic of the grave wood was far stronger than Tohan. He was dragged up. He tightened his fingers around the cord, which resisted for a moment and then came.

“Robber!” the guard said, louder this time. Soon, people from the town would hear. They would find him, judge him, know his weakness.

Tears ran through the mud dappling Tohan’s cheeks.

He held up the cord and saw the pendant hanging there, a clay model of a boat, its blue enamel chipped. The first gift he had made for Oela, one she had worn every day since, right into the grave.

“Please,” Tohan whimpered. “I need something of hers. Some token to remember her by. Something to tell me that I’m not alone.”

He looked up into that face, carved with Oela’s long nose, her narrow brow, her broad smile. In place of her eyes, those shining green points, strange and yet familiar. His tears ran until they fell onto the wooden arms that gripped him so tight.

“Alone,” the statue said, its voice soft.

It lowered Tohan to the ground and let go. Painted hands shovelled dirt back into the grave, but made no attempt to take the pendant.

“Thank you,” Tohan whispered.

He stumbled back a step, one hand rubbing at his eyes, the other clutching his precious treasure. Then he turned and walked away through the grave wood.

The guards watched him every step of the way.

***

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.’

Inside the Alchemists’ Sewers – a flash fantasy story

A sewer of rough medieval stonework

Greb stood, pick in hand, grinning at the white, glistening barrier that blocked the tunnel.

“Look at that fat, Jonesy,” she said. “We’re going to be rich.”

“We’ll make a shilling apiece,” I said, wading through sewage to find a safe nook for my lantern. “Same as every tunnel we clear.”

“This is different.” Greb spoke in an awed whisper. “We’re near the alchemists’ district.” She ran a finger through the fat, then held it up near the lantern. Blue and red flecks gleamed. “Grimble dust. Frankincense. Maybe a little demon horn. I tell you, if we hit a rich seam then we’re set for life.”

I smiled and shook my head as I started shovelling. In Greb’s mind, every blockage was going to be the one. If the sewer was clogged with grease from the restaurants near the jewellers’ district then we’d find gold shavings and lost opals in there. Beneath the abattoirs we’d dig out priceless layers of unicorn fat. For all her dreams, we were still clearing sewers for the guilds at a shilling a time.

“We’re nearer the bath houses than the alchemists,” I said, filling the cart with shovelfuls of wobbling white mess. Two minutes in and the shovel was already slipping against my greasy gloves. It was going to be a long day.

I was on cart duty that morning. Greb thought I should enjoy these trips to the surface, the chance for a breath of fresh air. She was wrong. As long as I was down in the sewers I could get used to the stink, almost forget about it. Going to the surface meant starting afresh, being assaulted again and again by the stench of rot and sewage. Cart duty left my stomach heaving for hours.

As I returned from the fourth load, I found Greb leaning into a hole she’d dug down one side of fat-filled tunnel.

“You were right about the bath houses.” She turned to me, a grin on her face and blue-green grease full of tiny scales coating her hand. “Look, run-off from the mermaid pools. It’s the oil that protects their skin.”

“Lovely.” I started filling the barrow.

“Jonesy, you don’t understand.” There was a wild look in her eyes. “This stuff lets you breath underwater. It’s practically impossible to harvest, but if it’s been pooling down here then we can collect it. We’re rich, man! This time next week we’ll be sleeping in silk sheets and dining on unicorn steak.”

“Of course we will,” I said, wearily loading the cart.

Grabbing her spade, Greb hacked at the side of the fat plug, pushing herself into the gap she was making. Thick deposits wobbled to her right. For a moment, I thought I saw tiny bubbles escaping from the fat. I allowed myself to believe, just a little, in Greb’s wild hope.

“I can see more,” she said. “This is it!”

“Stop being an idiot, Greb,” I called out. “That whole section could-”

It was too late. A trembling layer of fat fell into Greb’s tunnel, and then another. The plug collapsed in on her narrow space, engulfing her.

My heart was in my throat as I rushed forward and dug desperately at the gleaming fat. I’d seen other tunnellers drown in the stuff, and I’d rather risk breaking Greb’s arm with my shovel than leave her to that fate.

There was no time to clear the whole deposit. I just dug another tunnel in towards Greb, praying to all the gods that it wouldn’t collapse too quickly. Fat trembled all around me, thick and glistening.

After a minute I saw a hand, fingers pushing towards me through a clear layer of coagulated grease. I thrust my hand in, closed it around her wrist and pulled, but she slipped from my grasp.

Unable to get a grip, I tore off my gloves and tried again, hoping that my fingers, not as infused with fat, might keep hold. I had to squeeze tight not to lose my grip on Greb, and she did the same, fingers digging painfully into my arm. I heaved and she wriggled towards me, the fat trembling at her desperate movements.

With a terrible squelching sound, the blockage fell in on me.

For a moment I was trapped in darkness beneath the thick goo. Then the whole mass shook. Chunks of fat were torn away all around me as the blockage broke, not in the controlled way we had planned, but suddenly, chaotically, swept away on a tide of long-contained sewage.

Still clinging to each other’s arms, Greb and I were buffeted by waves of filth. I would have thrown up, but that would have meant opening my mouth. My head hit the wall and it was all I could do not to yell in pain.

Deprived of air, my mind whirled. I fumbled around with one hand for my shovel, with no idea how I might use it, only that it was the tool I had.

Instead of the wooden handle I found a current of heavy grease running beneath the sewage. Tiny scales brushed my fingers.

Greb’s grip on me was loosening, her fingers going limp. But I remembered what she had told me about mermaid grease. I pictured those tiny bubbles escaping from the fat around it. In desperation, I closed my hand around a few of those oily scales and thrust them into my mouth.

There was a fizzing as the scales touched my tongue. Air expanded into my mouth. I drew an excited breath.

Sewage ran down my throat with the air. The taste of it, the stench of it, the greasy, lumpy texture of it mixed with the fizzing of the mermaid scales. Unable to stop myself, I vomited the whole mess back up. My throat burned as stomach acid streamed hot and acrid from my mouth.

My head was spinning. I could feel unconsciousness closing in. Dipping my hand into that low stream of fat, I dragged up another handful of scales.

This time I braced myself for what was to come. As I thrust the scales into my mouth, they started to fizz.

I opened my throat just a little. The taste of sewage was just as rank after vomit as it had been before. My stomach heaved, but I forced it to be still. I trickle of noxious air ran down my throat. My lungs inflated and my mind surged with life.

It was working!

Dragging Greb towards me, I found her face and thrust it into the mermaid grease. Her body felt corpse cold and dread gripped me in its icy fingers. But everything down there was cold. Perhaps there was a chance.

I prayed to the gods who had ignored me before.

It seemed that they accepted prayers when they weren’t for myself. Greb shuddered, heaved, and then sat up.

As the current of sewage kept flowing past us we sat in the dark, clinging to each other, breathing the tainted air that the mermaid scales were making in our mouths.

At last the currents began to settle. Still clutching each other’s hands, we fumbled through the darkness until we found a ladder. Slipping and sliding, we dragged ourselves up. An hour after the collapse we emerged, filthy, gasping for breath, and spitting mouthfuls of sewage.

I collapsed onto the cobbles, glad just to be alive.

“Look,” Greb croaked.

The grin on her face was at odds with my weariness and misery. I pulled myself up just enough to see the contents of the bottle she had pulled from her tunic.

It was full of clear grease and tiny, bubbling scales.

“You did it!” I exclaimed, suddenly indifferent to the filth soaking my skin. “We’re rich!”

“We did it,” Gleb replied.

I lay back in a puddle of sewage, stared up at the stars, and laughed.


In fantasy worlds, like the real world, not every job is glamorous. Pity poor Hercules clearing dung from the stables, or the sewer cleaner in any place and time.

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.’




Treasure Hoard – a flash fantasy story

Dragon eye

The troll stumbled into the cave, his club trailing on the ground behind him. The light coming in through an opening high above twinkled golden and gleaming off heaps of treasure that made his eyes go wide. But they were nothing compared with the creature that lay across them. The dragon flexed her coiled crimson body and peered down.

“Do you know what I do to intruders?” she asked, fire flickering between her teeth.

“Just want rest,” the troll said. “Heroes come, kill other trolls. They come for you next.”

“Let them try,” the dragon said, flexing a claw the length of a sword blade. “I’ll tear them to ribbons then roast their remains.”

“Please I stay here?” the troll asked, unable to keep the desperation from his voice. “Until they gone.”

“Nobody stays here but me,” the dragon said, raising her head. “This is my private domain. You can go face the heroes or you can burn here.”

“Why?” the troll asked.

“Because this is my treasure and no-one else can have it.”

“Don’t want it.”

“But it’s treasure! Great beautiful heaps of treasure.”

The troll shrugged.

“You beautiful. Treasure OK.”

“You think I’m beautiful?” The dragon smiled. “No-one ever says that. Of course, there’s never anyone here to say it.” She lowered her head and peered more closely at the troll. “Alright, you can stay. Find somewhere safe behind me until the heroes are gone.”

The troll abandoned his club and scrambled up the treasure heap. Gold doubloons and emerald necklaces slid away beneath him. A silver dish clattered as it hit the floor. He slid back down on a cascade of coins. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get any higher, and the heroes might be here any moment.

The dragon pinned the troll between a pair of claws, lifted him up, and deposited him by her shoulder, at the pinnacle of the heap.

Together, they watched the entrance to the cave.

The dragon’s neck drooped and she turned to the troll, her eyes downcast.

“I’m not going to win, am I?” she asked. “I’ve heard the stories.”

“You strong,” the troll said. “You smart. You crush heroes.”

“It’s sweet of you to say so, but dragons are always strong and smart. That doesn’t mean we get to win.”

The troll stroked the dragon’s scaly side.

“I sad too,” he said. “Had tribe. Had cave. Had idol of demon we pray to. All gone now.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you for listen. Was lonely. Good to have friend again.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

The dragon trailed her claws through the treasure heap.

“Centuries of hoarding,” she said, “just so that we can die on it.”

“Better than die alone in dark.”

Voices emerged from the tunnel, the distinctive sounds of a knightly oath and a wizard chanting incantations.

“Time come.” The troll sighed, stood up, and picked up a golden candelabra which he hefted like a club. “You fight, I fight with you. Die together.”

The dragon stood, sending treasure tumbling down the side of the hoard. She narrowed her eyes and flames flickered between her teeth as she looked across her life’s work one last time, seeing the sunlight gleam across the gold.

The fire subsided as she looked up at the opening high in the cave.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” she said, “but if I leave it all behind and fly away, would you like to come with me?”

The troll nodded. “I like live.”

The dragon laughed.

“Your simplicity is quite soothing,” she said.

“No, your simplicity soothing!” the troll shouted.

“It’s a compliment.”

“Oh. Then yes. I soothing.”

The voices came closer. The light of a burning brand flickered in the tunnel.

“Climb on my back,” the dragon said.

“OK.”

The troll climbed up. The dragon flexed her body and leapt, soaring into the air with long, graceful movements of her wings. As they reached the opening, the troll looked back and saw five figures far below, peering up at them in confusion.

They flew out into daylight and glided along the mountain side. The world around them was lush and green, the air fresh and full of possibilities.

“Where to?” the dragon asked.

“East,” the troll said. “I know great cave. I bring thing for you to start new hoard.”

He waved the golden candelabra.

“For us to start a new hoard,” the dragon said.

***

Why shouldn’t the monsters get happy endings, that’s what I’d like to know.

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.’