Leather-Soled Shoes – a fantasy short story

Image by insidehenderson from Pixabay

I tucked my feet under the chair, hiding them from the other interviewees. I’d tried so hard to be ready, spending my savings on the best suit I could afford, catching the bus instead of walking so that I wouldn’t arrive sweaty, but my shoes gave me away. Everyone else’s had leather soles. Mine were rubber-soled, ordinary shoes from an ordinary shoe shop.

The others chatted quietly, talking about rugby games and regattas. I kept my gaze downcast, the better to avoid embarrassing myself, a northern lad whose sports knowledge was limited to the Premier League and darts tournaments. I smoothed down my jacket and tried to calm my heartbeat by pressing my fingers together and casting a spell.

Arnby’s Enhancer was the first spell I had ever mastered, letting me overhear teachers’ conversations and playground gossip. The sensation of casting it soothed me. I heard the rising rumble of cars in the street and a louder version of the rugby chatter, but didn’t try to dig any deeper. I wasn’t trying to listen in on the interview room. I was going to get my placement by merit.

“Kieron Brown?” a voice called from the doorway.

I jolted to my feet. Thanks to Arnby, I caught the stifled snigger of one of the other interviewees. I flushed as I followed a secretary into the interview room, then the door closed behind me and silence fell.

“Mister Brown, please take a seat.”

There were three people on the interview panel: a tall man, a bearded man, and a man in a corduroy suit. Like the other interviewees, they were all white and all wore leather-soled shoes. None of them introduced themselves, leaving me with the certainty that I should know who they were.

I swallowed, which did nothing for the dryness of my throat, and took a seat.

“So, you want to manage a ley line nexus,” Tall said. “Good for you.”

“And you have impressive qualifications.” Corduroy tapped a copy of my CV. “Let’s test your knowledge.”

He started asking theoretical questions, and I clenched up inside, waiting for the difficult ones to come. With each passing answer, and each tick Corduroy made in his notebook, I relaxed a little. I even started to smile.

“That’s all very well,” Beard said, shooting Corduroy a pointed look. “But experience is as important as learning.”

Here came the tension again, a tangled knot in my guts. I half lifted my hand, about to rub the back of my neck, but forced the hand back to my knee. Don’t fidget. Keep smiling. Answer clearly. Always present your best self.

“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work,” I said. “Helping children with magical potential, restoring ritual sites.”

“Splendid work,” Tall said, beaming at me.

“But it is limited,” Beard said. “Almost nothing outside of Yorkshire, no international experience, no full-time internships. Depth and variety are crucial in shaping your magical channels.”

His eyes glittered as he examined the magic in me. I felt a tingle from my fingertips to my toes, knew how much power and instinct I held, and knew what a blunt tool it was.

I took a deep breath. Was I really allowed to say what I was about to say?

“I couldn’t afford to travel.”

Tall cleared his throat. Corduroy stared down at his notes. Beard kept his gaze fixed on me.

“There are bursaries,” he said, “for this very reason.”

What could I tell him? That the application process was complex to the point of incomprehension. That there were seven bursaries and three hundred applicants. That they only covered travel expenses, and I had to work to feed myself. I couldn’t spend a month interning in London.

These men had made that system, and they held my future in their hands.

“I didn’t know about the bursaries,” I said.

“Then maybe you should have done your research.”

Tall tapped his papers on the desk and flashed a sidelong look at Beard, who sank back frowning in his seat.

“As you know, ley lines are a valuable national resource,” Tall said with a smile. “One needing a safe, stable pair of hands. What do you think you bring to that?”

I started talking about my studies, about my volunteer work, about commitment to part-time jobs. Tall smiled and nodded, but I could see that he had heard it all before, and Corduroy was focused on his notes.

“Your background check,” he interjected, “reveals a chaotic upbringing. Repeated house moves, one brother in social care, a sister in jail, a caution from the police…”

I felt like a ley line had torn loose somewhere in the room, flinging me into turmoil. I had been caught with a spliff once when I was sixteen, and sworn off it ever since. Did they really think that no one else in their interview room had ever smoked weed? The guy before me had boasted about snorting cocaine at Ascot.

“I’ve worked hard for this.” The clenching of my fist on the chair arm drew an alarmed look from Corduroy. “I’ve spent years studying, practising, gathering experience, obsessing over the chance to do this work. If that’s not safe and stable enough for you, then what is?”

Beard leaned forward, his eyes narrowed, and opened his mouth to speak, but Tall laid a hand on his arm, silencing him.

“Thank you, Mister Brown,” Tall said, his smile strained. “We’ll be in contact in due course.”

“Thank you,” I said stiffly.

I got up from my seat and followed the secretary to the door. As it opened, Tall leaned toward Beard, and thanks to Arnby’s Enhancer, I heard his whisper.

“We have to show willing, remember.”

Beard snorted. “He didn’t even go to a proper school.”

I walked out of the office, my chest tight, all energy gone. Another interviewee passed me on his way in. He wore leather-soled shoes.

***

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.’

Fish Supper – a fantasy short story

Image by katermikesch from Pixabay

The Reverend Hastings straightened his collar and pressed his hands together in a posture of prayer, fingers rising like a steeple above his supper plate. It was Friday, and so of course Mrs Abernathy, the housekeeper, had served him fish, in accordance with his own instructions and the traditional tenets by which a good Christian lived.

Mrs Abernathy had precise opinions on how fish should be served, opinions which the Reverend Hastings dared not defy, and as a result he found his dinner staring up at him, a beady eye glistening in the face of a whole cooked herring. He found the sight distasteful, but understood that this was fish as Christ himself would have seen it, shining in the nets on the shores of Galilee, and so he accepted it as one more providential source of inspiration for the prayers which would one day bring him a miracle.

The gleaming eye swivelled, the pit of its pupil staring straight at him.

The Reverend Hastings leapt back and his seat thudded to the floor. He pressed his hands to his chest and felt the racing of his heart as the fish twitched, then wriggled, then arched its back and leapt up to balance on its tail. Both eyes gazed down a pointed silver face towards him.

The Reverend Hastings’ alarm turned to exaltation as he realised what was taking place. He had always known that his faith, though less ardently expressed than that of the fiery modern evangelicals, was a tower of secret strength inside him. Now the Lord had recognised that faith.

“My miracle,” he whispered, sinking to his knees.

“Your miracle?” the fish asked. “Which of us has come back from the dead?”

“A talking fish! Truly, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. What message do you have for me?”

“What do you think I am, the postman?” The herring flexed its fins. “My message is for my own people.”

“Oh no.” The Reverend Hastings pushed himself back to his feet, from which to look down upon this obstinate son of the sea. “This is my miracle. It will prove to all the parish that I am worthy of their attention. It will be my loaves and fishes moment.”

“Loaves and fishes, eh?” The herring bobbed its head. “Let me try something.”

It spread its fins and made a melodious gurgling sound, like a mermaid’s song emerging from the depths of the ocean. The Reverend Hastings tingled from his smallest toe to the tips of his ears. Suddenly, another man appeared beside him, and another, and another, popping into existence one at a time until a score of them stood in a circle around the dining table. Every one looked exactly like him.

“How…?” twenty clergymen chorused, then clamped their hands to their mouths in alarm. “Why?” they murmured in unison, the words filtered through trembling fingers.

“Because I have a message for all herring kind,” the herring said, its voice somehow noble despite the flapping of its diminutive jaw. “And I’ve got to get their attention somehow – herring are very hard to please.”

The Reverends stared at each other with wide eyes. A talking fish no longer seemed so extraordinary.

“How do I know that I am the real me?” the Reverends Hastings asked, their voices wavering. “Which of us has been offering up prayers all these years? Which of us…” They swallowed, struggling to sustain themselves in the face of the next thought. “Which of us has our soul?”

“All of you, I suppose. Or none of you perhaps. It’s much the same thing.”

The Reverends shuddered. “Which is the real me? Which of us is this moment for?”

“Oh, I see.” The herring’s tone was rich with slowly dawning realisation. “You’re trying to draw a distinction that doesn’t exist. You are all just as much the Reverend Hastings as each other.”

“But then what makes me unique?” the Reverends asked, their limbs hanging as heavy as lead, their vision blurring with unshed tears.

“Maybe I have a message for you after all,” the herring said, hopping to the edge of its plate and from there down onto the floor. “Simply to live is a miracle in itself, and one does not have to stand out from the crowd to be amazing.” It patted one of the Reverends on the shin. “Just ask all those fishes Jesus was so fond of.”

Using its tail fins as tiny legs, the herring wobbled its way to the door. As it stepped out of the dining room, Mrs Abernathy walked in. She looked down at the passing fish, then around at the assembled Reverends, her expression shifting through curiosity to confusion to resignation in the space of seconds.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting the large teapot then?” she asked, picking a Reverend at random to address.

Nineteen Reverends Hastings nodded in unison. The twentieth was staring out the window, his attention caught by a beam of sunlight streaming through the garden. His thoughts filled with the wonder of God’s creation, like the thoughts of so many men before.

***

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 Mirror Hall – a fantasy short story

Picture by Simedblack via Pixabay

The mirror hall was my whole world, an endless shining vista in every direction, broken only by the image of myself staring back at me whichever way I looked. It wasn’t that I knew nothing about the world beyond the hall, but that I knew nothing of the concepts such a world could exist in – of before or after, of above or below. Only the hall, reflecting myself over and over again, familiar, comforting figures hanging against the blank space of perfect neutrality.

A flicker of colour danced in the air, a rainbow moment of wondrous colours. I gasped, tried to catch this brilliance in my hand, and instead found my palm pressed against the wall. The mirror there was trembling. Curious, I pressed my faced against it, felt the movement more clearly through the skin of my cheek, giggled at the tickling sensation.

Then I heard tapping, faint at first but growing sharper, its rhythm tied to the trembling of the glass. It had never occurred to me that there could be a sound outside myself, and I stepped back, unnerved, staring with a furrowed brow as the colours danced again in the mirror. They had seemed so enticing before, but now they felt ominous, a change to everything I knew.

The tapping turned to cracking as a dark line shot across the mirror, then others, splaying like the fingers of a grasping hand. I stumbled back, feet sliding across the smoothness of the floor.

A section of mirror fell out. It exploded as it hit the floor, sharp-edged pieces sliding in every direction. My scream echoed around the hall.

Someone stared at me through the gap. A face, but not like any face I knew. A face that wasn’t mine.

Lips parted and the unsettling image spoke.

“I knew there had to be someone else!”

Their voice was lower than mine, the sound of the words deep and discordant.

“Can I come in?”

They started pushing pieces from the cracked mirror, letting them shatter into flying fragments. One hit my hand, drawing a flash of pain and a shallow line of blood.

“Stop it!” I yelled, waving my arms. “You’re destroying the world!”

They stopped and stared at me with wide eyes.

“I just want-”

“No! Get back!”

I ran at them, arms outstretched. They stepped away, still staring at me as I reached the hole they had smashed into my bright and perfect world.

I looked through, and for the first time saw something beyond. A smaller hall, its mirrors grubby and dim, the gloom made more stark by the bright beam shining through the hole.

I stared aghast. The stranger had let this squalor into my world.

The light pouring through around me framed their face, adding shadows to their look of loss.

I glanced back into my world, this vast space of brightness and comfort, then at the stranger. Now that I saw what they were living with, how could I leave them there? My world might not be what I had thought it was, but that wouldn’t change just because I hid from this other hall. How much better could my world be with someone else to share it with, someone with thoughts, ideas, imaginings different from my own?

I grabbed the edge of the hole, broken glass digging into my skin, and pulled. A section of the mirror broke away. The other person joined me and together we tore away slivers of mirror until there was a gap big enough for them to step through. I held out my bloody hand and helped them through the hole.

Together, we stood in the middle of the hall of mirrors, looking at ourselves endlessly reflected in the bright light. Two of us, so different from each other. A whole new world.

A tapping sounded at the end of the hall, faint but unmistakable.

“Someone else,” my new friend said excitedly. “Let’s go let them in.”

I looked around, considering the vast mirrored walls and the number of halls that might lie beyond them, some perhaps even smaller and gloomier than the one I had seen. And then what? Could there be something beyond even mirrors? Something after the life I was used to? What would it mean to reach past everything I had ever seen and face the unknown?

“No, let’s not let them in,” I said. “Let’s tear this whole place down.”

***

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.’

Silver and Gold to be Published by Candlemark & Gleam

I’m delighted to announce that my fantasy novella Silver and Gold is going to be published as an ebook by Candlemark & Gleam later this year. It’s a tale of magic, friendship, and rebellion set in a world inspired by the Aztec and Mayan civilisations.

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

You can read the full announcement for the book on the publisher’s website, and I’ll share more details here when I have them.

Omens in Blood and Bone – a fantasy short story

Hesper stood in black robes behind a battered travelling table, a map of the battlefield rolled out in front of her. She cast the bones over the map again and again, and every time the omens came up the same.

Of course they did. There was no cheating the future.

The screams and clashing of blades was growing closer.

The tent flap was flung open and General Soraya stormed in, her face smeared with soot, blood dripping dark as tar from her sword. Her armour gleaming red and gold in the candlelight.

“I should cut you down where I stand,” Soraya roared, pointing at Hesper with her blade. “What use is a military astrologer who can’t tell me how to win?”

Hesper took a step back, hands raised. “I did what you told me to. I cast the bones, read the omens, guided you based on what I saw.”

“You told me that our cavalry’s best chance was on the right flank.”

“And that was true. They would have been killed in half the time if you’d put them on the left.”

“You told me to advance, and we walked straight into a hail of arrows!” Soraya slammed her gauntleted fist against the table, making marble counters jump.

“If you had held back, they would have had longer to shoot at you.”

“I pay you to look into the future.” Soraya advanced. Hesper backed away, keeping the table between her and the furious commander. “To tell me how I can win my battles. To ensure victory.”

“And that worked, as long as the other side didn’t have an astrologer of their own.”

“What?”

Hesper held up the bones.

“With two of us, the outcome became inevitable. Each predicted what the other would advise, how the future would play out, until we reached the optimum battle. They had an unbeatable approach, and all I could do was save us from utter disaster.”

“If I’d known you were leading me to disaster, I would have had your head days ago.” Soraya brought her blade down, smashing the table to pieces.

“That’s why I didn’t tell you. I foresaw how you would respond.”

“Yet here you are.” Soraya stepped over the splintered planks, her face twisted with fury. “And here you will pay the price of failure.”

Hesper shrugged. “If I’d been on the battlefield, you would have killed me there and then. If I’d run, you would have pursued and caught me later. But if I waited here, and if we paused to have this conversation…”

The tent flap burst open and half a dozen soldiers strode in, their armour painted blue and silver.

“General Soraya.” Their leader pointed his sword at the general, and triumph gleamed in green eyes. “We have you. Surrender or die.”

“Death before dishonour!” Soraya swung her sword. There was a clang of steel on steel, then the soldiers moved in to surround her.

Hesper stepped back. In the entrance to the tent, a man stood wearing black robes like her own. He nodded to her, one professional greeting another, while between them the soldiers fought to the death. Hesper nodded back.

She cast her bones across the shattered remains of the table. The omens looked good, all things considered. A good astrologer couldn’t always save their employer, but they could save themself.

***

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.’

Immortal – a fantasy short story

I dragged myself through the last tangle of thorns, leaving scarlet trails across my hands and face, and emerged into a clearing. In the centre was a pool of deep water reflecting the clear blue of the sky. A woman sat beside it in flowing robes, and as she turned to look at me I instinctively straightened my tailcoat.

Portrait of a Girl’s Head by
Sir George Clausen

“My lady.” I doffed my hat. “I have journeyed around the world to find you.”

“I know.”

Her sigh was the fluttering of butterfly wings.

“I am Sir Gideon Whiting,” I continued, “scholar, adventurer, knight of the realm. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

“I’ve heard of everyone, Sir Gideon. It happens when you have eternity to fill.”

“So it’s true!” I sank to my knees beside her.

“I know everything, yes. Every detail of your story, from the abandoned child in the industrial slum to the trek through deserts and jungles that brought you here. I know your true mother’s name, your deepest regret, the thrill and the shame of your first kiss.”

I was astounded, yet also disconcerted. She matched my vision of an immortal, full of beauty and grace, but where was the power and pride of an omniscient immortal?

“So you see it all?” I asked, feeling a little embarrassed as the implication sank in.

“History is a circle, Sir Gideon. I am fated to survive each turn of that circle and be there for the start of the next. I know about you because you have told me it all before.”

“Amazing,” I whispered.  “The things you must have seen.”

“Yes, I have seen and heard and tasted every detail of this world, done it so many times that I know it all. I am utterly, unbearably bored.”

“Perhaps there’s something I can do to entertain you?” I asked. “A joke, a story, a song…”

“We’ve tried that before. Trust me, you get boring pretty quickly.”

“Oh.” I slumped. “So what do you want from me? Can I help you to end this cycle?”

The thought was a terrible one, but sometimes terrible acts were needed, and my revolver sat ready at my hip.

“You think I haven’t tried? After a while, even blowing your own brains out gets boring.”

“Then what’s the point?” I asked, staring at my fat, useless hands. “What’s the point if I can’t change anything?”

“Go back and enjoy your life, Sir Gideon. Be grateful that it’s the only one you have.”

***

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.’

How I Found My Homeland – a fantasy short story

I woke up soaked on an unfamiliar beach, the remains of the lifeboat scattered like a shattered shell around me. Lifting my face from the sand, I was amazed to see an otter and a stork sitting a few feet away, staring at me.

“Oh good, you’re alive,” the otter said.

“We didn’t know how to tell,” the stork explained. “You being such a strange creature.”

Talking animals. Clearly, I was either asleep or deluded. I slapped myself across the face, hoping it would snap me back to reality.

“I don’t think he’s well,” the stork muttered out of the corner of his beak.

I slapped myself again.

“Is that working for you?” the stork asked.

“No.”

“I’ll help.” The otter scurried over and started slapping me back and forth. “Is that working?”

“Ow ow ow stop!”

“Alright, but it was your idea.”

I got to my feet and looked around. The beach was a glorious ribbon of gold backed by gently rolling dunes. Across an inlet, verdant woodland grew above rugged cliffs. A lighthouse stood proud in front of the trees.

I had no idea where I was, but the sky was blue and clear with just a few fluffy white clouds.

“You look confused,” the stork said. “We should get you to someone who can help.”

I followed them along the beach. The way I saw it, there were two options. Either I was imagining them talking, in which case following did no harms, or my scrambled brain was seeing people as animals, in which case they really could help. Either way, this was the best option.

We approached a small town spread across the sides of the inlet and up the river beyond. Cobbled streets were lined with houses that ranged from the tiny to the towering. Quays stretched across the inlet, sheltering a host of sailing boats. The streets bustled with life, from scurrying mice to a giraffe clopping down towards the shore, and birds circled above, gossipping and singing to each other.

My guides led me to a harbour master’s office, where a grisly bear sat hunched behind a desk, a quill pen pinched between her claws.

“What have you two found?” she asked, staring at me.

“I think he’s some kind of ape,” the otter said.

“Or she is,” the stork added. “Can’t tell with that strange fur all over it.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand.

The bear stretched out a paw and I took it, expecting to feel the reassuring touch of human fingers beneath my delusion. Instead I felt fur, as real as the floorboards beneath my feet or the sand that had found its way into my underwear.

Perhaps I was still asleep. I pinched myself on the back of the hand but failed to wake up. The bear imitated the gesture, pinching her own furred flesh.

“You have very strange greetings,” she said, “wherever you come from.”

Somehow, that made it all seem more real.

“I come from Brighton,” I said. “The ship I was travelling on was wrecked and now I’m hoping someone can transport me home.”

“I see. Where is this Brighton?”

“South of London.”

“And this London is…”

“London. The capital of England.”

The bear tilted her head on one side.

“And where is this England?”

I gaped at her.

“You run this harbour, and you don’t know-”

“North, east, south, west?”

“I… I don’t know.”

I stood aghast. If this wasn’t England – a point I wasn’t yet ready to concede – its inhabitants must at least know which way home lay.

“Then I’m afraid we can’t take you.”

So that was how it went. They’d trapped me here somehow. Well, I wasn’t going to stand for it.

“I’ll take myself!” I stormed out the door and strode down to the harbour. Animals turned to watch me – dogs, cats, sheep, a family of voles – but I ignored them. They weren’t real, and that meant they weren’t worth my time.

At the end of the quay, I leapt onto the nearest boat.

“Here, what are you doing?” a salamander said, sitting up in a deck chair at the front of the vessel.

“I’m sailing for England,” I declared, grabbing hold of a rope.

“Not on my boat, you’re not!”

“Just try to stop me!” I said, glaring down at him. No figment of my imagination was keeping me from home.

“So you’re a sailor, then?” asked a familiar voice from the harbour side. The otter was peering down at me, and I could have sworn that he was smirking.

“No, a carpenter,” I admitted. “But this is my dream, and if I can work out how to talk with otters then I can work out how to sail a boat. I just have to… to…”

I looked at the rope in my hands. I didn’t even know if it was connected to anything, never mind what it did.

“Come see something,” the otter said.

With a sigh, I climbed out of the boat and followed him through town, across a bridge, up a trail, and into the lighthouse. We ascended its circling stairs and emerged onto a platform below the light.

Looking out, I saw green fields and wide forests in one direction, endless blue ocean in the other, and below it all the most idyllic little town I’d ever seen.

“I don’t know what it’s like in Brighton,” the otter said, “but around here, life’s peaceful and pleasant, there’s plenty to eat, and, well, it looks like this.” He gestured with his little paws. “Maybe just stay for a few days, while you work out how to get home.”

I looked. Given what my real life was like, a little more dreaming might not be so bad.

“Alright,” I said. “Just a few days, then I’ll leave.”

“Of course you will,” the otter said with a smile.

***

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.’

Dancing Back to Life – a flash fantasy story

Spring almost killed us. It came early, a welcome but unexpected guest who coaxed the crops into life a month before their time. But no sooner had it placed a foot across the threshold than spring withdrew, leaving us in the icy embrace of winter. Those first shoots of precious green faltered, their tentative life force fading. Even when spring returned in full enthusiasm, the plants lay limp and pale.

No sooner had the fear of starvation sunk in than old Mags offered an alternative.

“Nature has lost its rhythm,” she said. “We must give it ours.”

For two days, we set aside pitchforks and ploughs in favour of hammers and saws, building a dance floor out among the fields. We decorated it with dried flowers and bunting and set up a platform for the band. When it was done, every one of us put on our best clothes and gathered beneath a star-dappled sky.

“Remember,” Mags said as she led us onto the floor, “everything must be silent. No chatter, no singing, no music.” She looked pointedly at the band. “The rhythm is not for us, not until the magic is complete.”

While the band took their nervous place on the platform, the rest of us found partners and formed a silent circle. Mags nodded to the band.

They started uncertainly. The drummer twitched his sticks an inch above the skin. The lute player strummed thin air. The flautist set his mouth to the lip plate but kept breathing through his nose. They looked nervously at each other, struggling to find their place without sound, but slowly some spirit took hold. They started grinning and miming with greater confidence.

The band leader gave a nod.

As one, we surged forward into the circle, following the memories of music. The only sounds were the swish of cotton and the scrape of leather-soled shoes against the floor. We paced and twirled, spun our partners in our arms, swapped pairings and began again. Like the band, we started to feel the rhythm.

There was no break between the songs, no time to rest. For hours we danced, as the evening darkened into night and then lightened again. We danced until our feet were sore and our legs weary, until our stifled laughter no longer threatened to break free. We danced as we had never danced before – silent, desperate, pleading with the world to acknowledge us.

The fields around us began to rustle. Stalks shifted as if in the wind, and as dawn approached we could see that the crops were stiffening, their leaves darkening, buds bursting into life.

We looked expectantly to Mags for the signal that it was over, but she shook her head and stared pointedly across the land. By the first light of day, we saw that our magic had barely touched half the fields, that the rhythm of nature still lay broken.

We danced on, though our heels were blistered and our bodies trembling. The band kept up their silent music, though their faces were drawn and their movements limp.

Then Mags stumbled, an easy thing to do on rough boards and old legs. The rhythm faltered. Around us the plants slumped.

I saw what had to happen. I lunged across the circle, took Mags by the waist, and swung her around, skirts flying, a wild move from the old dances. I shot an urgent look at the dancer behind me, a silent and desperate plea.

Imitating my move, she pranced across the circle, slipped her arm around another dancer’s partner, and swept them off their feet. Others followed, one by one, racing across the floor to form new pairs in a wild and delirious dance, feet flying and bodies soaring as the drummer beat faster at the air.

A new rhythm had taken us, and it took the crops too. They surged into life, grew stronger and straighter, leaves turning bright green as the sun shone down. That rhythm rippled out across the fields, an emerald circle that grew with every passing moment until the whole world seemed full of life.

“Now,” Mags whispered. “We’re done.”

I set her feet down, but I didn’t stop dancing. I stamped my foot and twirled her about, laughing in joy. The lute-player strummed her strings, the drummer brought his sticks down, and suddenly the world was full of music.

We danced on, laughing and singing and celebrating, while around us life took hold.

***

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.’

When the Waters Ran Red – a flash fantasy story

Aunt Hella rushed up the road to our front step, where father and I were fixing fishing nets.

“Come quick, Tommar,” she said. “Something’s happened to Lestin.”

I leapt to my feet, hooked like a fish by the tone of dread with which she said mother’s name.

Father and Hella rushed down the street, clogs clattering against the cobbles, and I ran barefoot after them, over the bridge where the river ran red from the big city die works, through town and down to the quay.

Mother’s boat sat at anchor a dozen yards off shore. It shouldn’t have been. She had sailed out on the tide just after dawn, heading away from the murky waters by the river mouth, towards the distant waters where the big shoals of cod swam. We had seen her more when the waters were cleaner and her days shorter, but as father said, we all have to make sacrifices.

People were swimming in the water around the boat. One of them flipped over and I saw his tail rise from the waves.

Merfolk.

A mermaid was swimming towards the quay.

My heart beat so hard it hurt. The merfolk seldom came to shore, except when they rescued boats lost in storms or sailors fallen overboard. They preferred to live separate from us.

But this mermaid wore a look of anger, not pity.

“We have taken the people from your boat,” she said.

“Why?” my father asked, clutching the leather marriage band around his wrist.

“We will keep them until you make the water clean again. If it becomes any dirtier, we will start to kill them.”

“We’re not making the water dirty!”

“Yes you are.” The mermaid pointed towards the red running from the river mouth.

“That’s not us. That’s the dyers in the big city. Please, don’t hurt our families for this.”

“Humans did this. Humans must fix it.”

“But we’re innocent!”

“No.” The mermaid pointed angrily at him. “You accept this so that you can have your coloured cloth skins. You accept this so that the city will buy your fish. You are not innocent, and our children are sickening from this filth. If ours suffer because of humans, humans will suffer too.”

As she swam away I felt like a mouse caught in the claws of a hawk. They had my mother. They were going to kill her.

I ran to the edge of the quay and leapt off. My father shouted in alarm, but I was already in the water, the splash of my landing drawing the mermaid’s attention. She watched as I swam towards her with a child’s clumsy strokes, my simple smock clinging to my skin.

“Please!” I said, spluttering through the water as it rose over my mouth. “Let my mother go. We can’t fix this. She didn’t do this.”

“Neither did we.”

“Send a message to the people who did!”

“That’s what we’re doing.”

She turned and swam away, far faster than I could follow.

My father grabbed me from behind, hooked his arm around my chest, and dragged me kicking and weeping towards the shore.

That day, as I stood dripping on the docks amid the silence of a stunned community, I swore that I would get my mother back, no matter what it took.

For weeks my father watched warily, half expecting me to swim off out to sea on some fool rescue mission.

But I knew better. The merfolk were right. This wasn’t their fault. It had to be fixed on land.

I stopped skipping school to earn pennies sweeping up fish guts. I spent summer evenings with pen and paper, practising my words. I wrote letters to the dyers, then when they wouldn’t listen to the big city councillors. When a newspaper started, I wrote to them too.

A year passed. The water was no cleaner or more dirty. Once a month, grim-faced merfolk brought greetings from our kidnapped kin, a reminder of what was at stake. Our fishermen started takes weapons with them to sea.

I roamed the coast, rallying support in other towns and villages, people who understood the anguish of losing family to the sea and who saw the merfolk’s pain.

More years passed. We formed an association, wrote a petition, raised funds to pay for a lawyer. Still nothing changed.

And then, last week, the river ran black. The worst was happening.

We still had funds in our collection. I went to a friend who works at the quarry and bought all the blasting powder I could.

Perhaps the people at the die works are innocent. Perhaps they don’t understand what they’re doing to the sea, despite all the letters I’ve sent. Perhaps no-one has told them. Perhaps they don’t deserve what’s about to happen.

But my town is innocent. My mother is innocent. The merfolk were innocent until we poisoned their world.

It’s never enough to say that something has to change.

And so I say, I’m going to change it.

***

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.’

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.’