War is Hell – a fantasy short story

Image from Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R05148 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The world was an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that Hans Feist shook all the way to his bones. The ground beneath him lurched; the air stank of smoke and blood; everywhere he looked, when he dared to peer from his tiny shelter in the trench wall, he saw earth and sky combine as fountains of dirt spewed from craters gouged out of the hellscape that had been the Somme.

So this was war. Not grand charges, noble duels, or banners flying over a victory parade, but being shelled to death, hungry and haunted, his trousers soaked with mud and piss. He clutched the tiny wooden crucifix his mother had given him and prayed for salvation.

He didn’t even know who was still alive. His brain was so shaken that he couldn’t remember the names of men he had arrived with, never mind the replacements who had come since. He couldn’t remember how long he had been here, just that it was too long.

An officer walked down the trench toward Hans. The man must be insane, to walk so openly through this storm of shells. Hans clenched with dread as he anticipated the moment when that pristine uniform and waxed moustache would be reduced to a cloud of blood. But the man kept coming, somehow untouched, and a worse fear gripped Hans. Was the officer going to order him up to his post, ready to defend the line?

The officer crouched in the mud, which barely touched his polished riding boots, and peered into Han’s tiny shelter.

“Didn’t make it into the tunnels, eh?” the officer said.

Hans shook his head. He probably should have tried. He would have been safer down there than in this muddy hole, but he couldn’t face the moments of exposure it would take to reach the steps. Fear was more powerful than reason.

“I can get you out of here,” the officer said. “For a price.”

Hans had heard about officers like this, ones who would offer a transfer to somewhere safer in return for sating their own needs. He wanted to think that there were lines he wouldn’t cross, but this shaking world made that untrue.

“What do you want?” he asked.

There was an explosion behind the officer. It should have torn him apart, but instead he was framed by the blast, silhouetted against the pale burst of smoke and debris. In that moment, spikes of windblown hair became horns and fire flickered from him.

“Your soul,” he said.

Hans squeezed the crucifix so hard that his hand ached. Now that he saw what the officer was, he could not unsee it. The pointed teeth, the snake-like eyes. The man drew a cigarette, lit it with fire from the tip of his finger, and offered the packet to Hans.

“Well?” the officer said.

Hans screwed his eyes tight shut. He should be better than this. His soul was at stake, something infinitely more valuable than this weak and trembling body. But he had lived in mud and blood and the roar of the guns for so long that he couldn’t remember what it felt like not to be afraid.

He opened his eyes. “Yes.”

As he took the officer’s hand, a sense of peace came over Hans. Was this part of the deal, or was it the certainty that came with knowing that, whatever happened from now on, his future had been decided?

The officer pulled Hans to his feet, then led him away, walking through the maze of twisting trenches. They didn’t see another soul, but the shells kept shaking the ground, filling the air with noise and debris. With each step, Hans left a little of his fear behind, shedding a weight that had held him down for so very long. He strode purposefully through the mud, toward a light beyond the clouds of smoke.

He was almost free.

The officer turned to look at Hans and mouthed a single word: “Now.”

There was a crash and a force like a hundred hammer blows flung Hans off his feet, slamming him into the trench wall. He slumped to the ground, half his body blazing with pain. With one working eye, he stared down at the blood and guts sliding from his torn tunic. All the fear flooded back, redoubled by his inner scream of pain.

The officer stood over him and chuckled.

“You said you’d save me,” Hans said. “We had a deal.”

“And I fulfilled it, many years ago.” The officer crouched to look Hans in the eye, and his smile was terrible to see. “Now we are into the payment, and we both know what your idea of Hell would be.”

Through the pain and the fear and the death of hope, Hans felt himself slip toward darkness. Tears ran down his cheeks.

“Why?” he whimpered.

“Because I can.”

The world faded away…

Hans Feist woke to an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that it shook him to his bones. He didn’t know who was still alive, couldn’t remember how long he had been here, but he knew that it was too long.

***

This isn’t the only war story I have out this week. Horror of Hurtgen, my latest issue of Commando, is out on Comixology, in newsagents, and as part of a bundle through DC Thomson’s online store. Set in the late stages of World War Two, it follows an American soldier caught up in the horrifying fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. Fighting through a fever to prove himself, he finds himself facing real monsters alongside the Nazis. Are his visions real, and what will they mean when his squad finally reaches the enemy lines?

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

The Demon Behind the Throne – a fantasy short story

Picture of a demon.
Image by Carabo Spain from Pixabay

As he entered the throne room, Temujin forced himself not to stare at the demon. It was eight feet tall and glowed like fire beneath chains forged from holy steel. Qadan the Terrible had conquered it, as he had conquered every kingdom of the steppes.

Temujin bowed before Qadan and held out a long roll of hide filled with neatly scribed figures.

“My lord, an accounting of this year’s tribute from the provinces,” he said. “A measure of your power.”

“Ha!” Qadan said. “This is the real measure of my power.”

He clicked his fingers, the demon’s eyes glowed, and the accounts burst into flames. Temujin dropped them and leapt back, his heart racing. It didn’t matter how many times his master showed off like this, to courtiers or family members, servants or ambassadors, it still had the power to shock. This was how he held his throne.

“I’m bored,” Qadan said as the accounts crumbled into ash. “Let’s go hunt.”

He strode out of the room, courtiers hurrying after him. A servant scurried in, swept up the ashes, then hurried away.

Temujin stood alone facing the demon. He wiped his hands on his robes, then clutched them together to hide his trembling.

“You should fear me, little man.” The demon’s voice was the rumbling of war drums across the steppes, the crash of city walls falling. “If I were free of these chains, I would crush you like a tick, blood bursting between my fingers.”

“Would you?” Temujin asked. “Or would you have better things to do?”

“Ha! You’re right. You are not important enough. I would lay waste to this empire, make a ruin of everything your warlord has built, show the world how weak he is.”

Temujin drew a key from the sleeve of his robes. It had taken him years to learn where the key was kept, years of working his way up the imperial bureaucracy, of suffering Qadan’s taunts and threats, of hiding everything he thought and felt. Years in which the ghosts of his family faded while their bodies rotted in a province the warlord didn’t remember conquering. Temujin had thought that his fear would fade in that time, seeing the demon every day, but instead it had grown, a cold and spiky presence in his guts.

Some things were more powerful than fear.

Temujin slid the key into the lock that bound the demon’s chains. There was a click, too quiet, without the drama the moment deserved. Then the lock fell open and the chains crashed to the floor.

The fire of the demon blazed and Temujin staggered back. The demon howled with laughter, then sprang into the air. It burst through the ceiling, splintering rafters and scattering tiles, then flew away, raining fire on the city as it went.

There was a rush of footsteps. Qadan burst in, a hunting bow across his back, followed by a herd of courtiers. He stared at the empty chains and his face went blank. He clicked his fingers and nothing happened.

“My lord, the demon broke free,” Temujin said, fighting back a grin of triumph. “It has sworn to tear your empire down.”

“All is lost!” wailed one courtier.

“Ruin and destruction!” shrieked another.

“The horror!” howled a third.

“No,” Qadan said, grim faced. “Gather your weapons. Gather your soldiers. Gather your priests. I will not let my empire go down without a fight.”

The courtiers rushed away, leaving Temujin and Qadan.

“We grow weak in times of rest,” Qadan said. “Our enemies stop fearing us.”

“As you say, my lord.” It was all Temujin could do not to spit out smug words. Revenge was his. Now he just had to get out alive.

“That’s why it’s good to have a threat at the ready.” Qadan prodded the fallen chains with his foot. “Defeating it will reforge our weakened metal.” His grim expression slipped into a predator’s grin. “I have been looking forward to this.”

“But…” Temujin stared, mouth open. He took a shaking breath. “Surely you never meant to…”

“Your robes are burned, Temujin. You must have been very close to the demon.”

Temujin’s blood froze. He could hear his family ghosts calling him to join them.

“Always have a threat ready, Temujin. It keeps you from complacency.” Qadan turned away. “Prepare fresh accounts for my return. I’m going war.”

***

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***

Silver and Gold

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?

Silver and Gold is available as an ebook from Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

Confusion Cake – a fantasy short story

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Dawn was bursting over the rooftops when I reached the bakery, to find Aisha up to her elbows in flour. Behind her, the fire in the oven built to a golden glow, the previous night’s lucky bun turning to ash in the flames, binding one day’s baking to the next.

“Good morning, Gwen,” Aisha said brightly. “Could you make the calm and apple tarts?”

I didn’t mind that Aisha set me straight to work. That was what we did to keep her bakery going, to make sure that I could work with her every day.

I mixed the pastry, cut it into rounds, filled them with apples and soft, dark sugar. As I sprinkled on the cinnamon, I remembered a summer afternoon, the two of us sipping tea in the sunshine. My calm flowed into those little pastry cases, to be baked in with the other flavours.

By the time I put the tarts in the oven, Aisha had made a dozen other treats, delicate pastries full of melancholy or wistfulness, eclairs of joy, churros sprinkled with sugar and acceptance. There was a reason why her name was the one above the door.

Together, we worked on the bread, a simple staple without the flourish of spices or emotions. As I pounded the dough, I pretended I was fighting an ogre, and Aisha laughed at my dumb monster sounds. Our fingers touched as I passed her the finished loaves, and for a second my heart beat as loud as the ogre’s roar.

The first customers came around seven. Aisha served them with that same smile she gave us all. She sold them joy and whimsy, inspiration and exaltation, all wrapped in perfect pastry.

An old lady beamed as she tasted one of the tarts.

“This is very good, my dear.”

“That’s Gwen’s work,” Aisha said, turning her bright smile on me, and I felt so tall my head could have scraped the ceiling.

“Haven’t you trained her well,” the old lady said.

As she left, I jealously eyed the box of cakes in her bag.

Not long before midday, there was a lull in business. Having put fresh loaves in the oven, I crept up behind Aisha, pressed a hand against her back, and reached around her for an éclair.

“No!” She laughed as she slapped away my hand. “They’re for the customers.”

“I just want to try one.”

“I’ve made you something special,” she said. “Just like always.”

I pouted. “What if I don’t want special?”

She brushed a floured hand against my blushing cheek. “You deserve it.”

Then a builder came in looking for his lunch, and we were back to work.

For most of the day, the coffee pot was just a coffee pot, a source of tarry black caffeine, but in the middle of the afternoon a woman came in who needed something more.

“I’m not sure,” she said with a frail and quivering brightness, looking across the pastries rather than at Aisha. “I just wanted something to… to…”

She bit her lip and blinked hard.

“There’s a table by the window,” Aisha said. “Gwen will bring you a coffee.”

This was something she had taught me early on. Not every moment was one for excitement, contentment, or ambition. Not every day was bright. As I poured the coffee, I thought about walking away from the bakery night after night, leaving Aisha behind, and the melancholy flowed from me into the cup. I set it down in front of the woman and she smiled at me with forced brightness.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

She took a sip of the coffee, and then she broke. Tears streamed down her face as she slumped over the cup, giving in to the sorrow she so badly needed to release.

“Why doesn’t he want me?”

I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and held her until she was still. I understood her sadness all too well, and the need for human contact to carry her though. Aisha silently brought a churro to the table, and when the woman’s sobs subsided, she found acceptance in that warm, sugary stick.

“Thank you,” Aisha said, once the woman was gone. “Here, I made you something.”

Late afternoon light glistened off the glaze of a complex knot of pastry, with a spoonful of tapenade at its centre and a sprinkling of chilli. The things she made me were always like this: unique, spectacular, and with none of the sweetness she offered even casual customers. I tried to look excited, for Aisha’s sake, and failed. I wanted sweetness and comfort from her, not the bite of bitter and savoury spices.

In spite of everything, I held out hope. Pastry crumbled against my lips, and the earthiness of olives gave way to the sharpness of chilli. Through it all ran a sliver of grief, the memory of a beloved grandmother’s funeral. It was my turn to cry.

“That’s amazing,” I said, and Aisha smiled.

But it wasn’t what I wanted from her, to be the subject for her experiments, an outlet for loss, curiosity, bewilderment, whatever she was playing with today.

She brushed a crumb from my lips. I drew back, almost colliding with the wall. I couldn’t take this any more.

The shop was empty, the counters clear of bread, pastries, and pies. All that remained was Aisha’s good luck bun, her personal superstition, baked each day before I arrived and thrown into the fire the next morning. There were no cakes filled with joy or contentment for me.

Aisha closed the door, telling the world that we were done for the day. She turned back to me with the same soft smile she offered everyone, and it was too much. I couldn’t be just an employee to her.

“I—” The words caught in my throat. “I can’t work here anymore.”

Aisha stiffened. For a long moment she stared at me.

“I see,” she said. “Please bank the fire and lock the door before you go. You can leave the keys beneath the loose slab in the alley.”

The keys slipped from her hand and clattered on the counter. She strode out into the street.

I stared after her, feeling angry and confused. After all these months, no goodbye, no thank you for my work. It made me glad I was leaving. I deserved better.

My gaze fell on the good luck bun. Apparently, I didn’t matter, but making that bun did. She could make time for that but not to say goodbye.

I snatched up the bun and sank my teeth into it. Didn’t I deserve some good luck?

A warm feeling rushed over me. My stomach fluttered, like it had the first time I had met Aisha. I tingled from head to toe at that memory. Except that it wasn’t my memory, it was hers, and that fluttering feeling was still there.

The strange pastries I had been trying turned from experiments to a revelation, Aisha showing me her secret self. Her disappointment when I frowned at them hadn’t come from a baker showing off her skills but from a woman opening her heart only to be rebuffed. I felt the fear of rejection, baked into a bun with that love day after day, locked down in the only way she knew how, making it possible for her to work alongside me.

I dropped the remains of the bun and rushed out the door, keys and fire forgotten. The slapping of my shoes against cobbles echoed around the street, a fanfare announcing my approach. Aisha turned to look at me in confusion a moment before I swept her up in my arms.

Perhaps tomorrow we could make confusion cake together. We had been living with its ingredients long enough.

***

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Devouring God – a fantasy short story

Image by sipa from Pixabay

Our local guides cried out in alarm as they walked into the clearing.

“What have you done?” Bor exclaimed.

“It’s a campfire,” I explained. “We use it to—”

“Not that!” Bor snatched up the python skin, all thirty blood-slicked feet of it, and held it out, his hands trembling. “This!”

“Quite a beast, isn’t it?” I patted my belly. “We caught it by surprise at it slithered into the clearing. It’s fed us well, and with enough left over for several days.”

“You monsters!” Bor drew his shortsword, firelight burnishing the bronze blood red, and shouted at the top of his voice. “The travellers have killed God!”

I grabbed my bow, and my companions followed, snatching up a sword, an axe, a crossbow. But locals were pouring out of the forest, and though their furs were ragged and their weapons simple, they outnumbered us ten to one.

“There’s been a misunderstanding.” I lowered my weapon and raised my hands. “You said that this clearing would provide for us, and when the snake appeared…”

“He has provided for his people for a hundred generations.” Bor’s face was pale. “Since the day he ate his brother, took his power, and became God.”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t understand.”

“There must be justice.”

“Of course.” I knelt and opened my saddlebags, glad that we had brought plenty of gold and other trade goods. The risk of being robbed was nothing next to the risk of being unprepared. I held out a handful of coins. “A hundred, perhaps? Two hundred?”

“You think you can buy justice?”

At a nod from Bor, two of his people pinned my arms behind my back. Around the clearing, my companions were held tight where they stood, their weapons flung out of reach.

“There must be blood.” The tip of Bor’s sword touched my throat, gentle as a traitor’s kiss, while he readied himself to strike.

“Please, it was an accident!” I tried to keep my voice steady, but it was hard to die with dignity when I so desperately wanted to live. My stomach was tying itself in a knot. “Where’s the justice in killing me for that?”

“Where is the justice in letting a deicide live?”

My guts squirmed, and I struggled not to shit myself. Fear was making an infant out of me.

Then the snake skin moved, scales rippling as it slid away from the fire. Bor sank to his knees as the hollowed out beast raised its head, empty eye holes staring from the space where a skull had been.

“You killed me,” said a voice that rattled like dead leaves in the winter wind. “But I killed my brother when the world was young and took his power for myself. I am a killer of gods, and I will easily kill you.”

“Yes, my lord!” Bor cried out, and his people cheered with him. “Punish the transgressor!”

The writhing in my gut spread through my body. Muscles trembled and skin crawled. My bones cracked and twisted. I cried out in pain. My punishment had come.

“What is this?” the God asked.

My clothes fell away, no longer fitting me. My arms slid from my captors’ grasp, then dissolved into the sides of my chest. Scales burst through my skin as realisation burst through my mind.

“I ate you,” I hissed, forked tongue flickering. “As you ate your brother. I am the God of this place now.”

I shot across the clearing and grasped the old God, wrapping him in my coils. He cried out in anger, but it was too late. I tightened my grip, exhilarating in the movement of muscles I had never known. My opponent crumpled. At last, I flung his empty skin into the campfire and watched as it withered in the flames.

The locals were on their knees, chanting my praises. My travelling companions, freed of their grasp, snatched up weapons and saddlebags, ready to make an escape.

“Can you ride like that?” One of them asked, looking up at me in admiration. “Or do you want to stick around for a bit, see what we can get out of this?”

I slithered across the clearing and wrapped my coils around him.

“I am God,” I said. “What do you have to offer me, little man?”

***

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.

***

Silver and Gold

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?

Silver and Gold is available as an ebook from Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

Christmas Lights – a fantasy short story

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Nigel hated being lumbered with the Christmas shift. Sure, there was extra pay, but it meant missing out on a trip to his parents’ place, to get stuffed full of turkey, spuds, and sprouts. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was a doctor or a copper, someone who really mattered. But no one was going to break into an office block on Christmas day, regardless of the lone security guard. The whole business was a waste.

He sighed and contemplated the limp, prepackaged turkey sandwich sitting next to the surveillance monitors. As attempts at festive spirit went, all it was doing was to remind him of what he was missing. Not that he could have escaped that feeling, with the Christmas tree across the lobby lit up like the headlights of a hundred cars. Nigel would have switched it off, but he had special instructions to keep it on. Seasonal spirit was apparently part of the building’s brand.

A flash of green made him look up from his monitors. The lights on the tree turned to red, then back to green, before settling on white again. Nigel blinked. Those lights had been white for the past four weeks. He hadn’t even known that they could change colour.

The lights flickered. Nigel sighed, took a box of fuses and spare bulbs out of his desk, and got up from his seat. He might not like the tree, but he’d get in trouble if it went out. His footsteps echoed around the empty lobby as he approached the problem.

The flashing stopped as he got close. Probably one of the bulbs was loose, but which one? It would take forever to go through them all. He peered at the nearest one, which was stark white. He fiddled with it, testing in case anything was loose, but it seemed perfectly secure. The next one, also white, was the same, and the one after that. None of the bulbs near him showed any colour. How had they managed to change before?

The light started flickering again. The effect was erratic, a mix of long and short flashes. Staring at them close up made him feel dizzy. Maybe he could get away with unplugging the lights for a bit, as long as it was to fix the problem.

Nigel pulled the plug out of the wall. The lights kept flashing. For a moment they turned red, then green, then back to white again. Nigel stared in confusion at the plug in his hand. Was there a battery pack he was missing? No, it couldn’t have fitted in the plug, and there was nowhere else for it to go.

Intrigued, Nigel put the plug down and took a few steps back. Watching the lights of the tree blink on and off reminded him of happy days when he was in the Scouts, decoding Morse code messages sent by flashing torches. He’d loved the neat little puzzle of it, noting down the dots and dashes, then translating them into letters. In fact, now that he paid attention, the flickering looked more and more like Morse. There were four dots for an “H”, a dot and a dash for “A”, dot-dash-dash-dot for “P”…

He hurried back to his desk, grabbed a notebook and pencil, and watched the tree. There was a brief blaze of green and red, then the flashes started again. Nigel noted them down, delighted to find that he still remembered all the codes:

“HAPPY CHRISTMAS FROM SANTA AND THE FESTIVE ELVES.”

Nigel laughed. He had no idea who had done it, or how, but that was a lovely little thing to hide away in the wiring of the lights.

“Happy Christmas to you too,” he called out, but it didn’t seem quite enough, so he took a deep breath and started into a chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. His voice echoed around the lobby until it sounded like a whole choir was singing, like Christmas eve in church, a time full of joy and anticipation.

The lights stopped flashing. Nigel plugged them back in, just to be on the safe side, and enjoyed the warming glow.

Back at his desk, he unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. Turkey and stuffing, just like Christmas was meant to be. He smiled. His parents would be sitting down to Christmas dinner right now, and it was nice to think that, in a way, he was eating with them.

Meanwhile, amid the snows of the North Pole, a little man with pointy ears switched off the security monitor he’d used to watch Nigel, smiling as he did so at the thought of a job well done.

***

Merry Christmas eveybody!

If you’ve enjoyed this story, then you can read more like it in my new collection. One Cog Dreaming collects all 52 of this year’s flash stories in one place for easy reading. There’s a shipwrecked sailor in a land of talking animals, a steampunk rebel in a city with only one rhythm, a spaceship hurtling towards disaster, and much more. The e-book comes out on 1 January, and you can pre-order it now.

Emperor Sun’s Blessing – a fantasy short story

It was good that winter never came anymore, that the sun blazed down on the terraced fields while the streams dried to a trickle of mud. The priest, visiting from the great city in the north, made this clear to Eztli and the other villagers, while he waited for their annual tax of sweet potatoes and cocoa beans.

“Emperor Sun has saved us from the bitter cold,” the priest said, stroking his gold medallion. “His bright light ensures a bountiful harvest. We will thrive thanks to his blessing.”

As the priest led his laden pack llamas away, Eztli looked around the village where she had lived for most of her life. She saw the smiles of her friends and family, the freshly thatched roofs of their huts, the stacks of potatoes, maze, and beans filling the storehouse. Then she saw the dried up fields. Could one year’s blessing be another’s curse?

No winter meant no rising of the streams. It meant no spring rains. No elders died from the cold and no frosts threatened early crops, but green shoots withered in cracked and dusty fields. Instead of huddling in her home for warmth, Eztli tramped back and forth beneath the relentless sun, carrying skins full of water to keep her seedlings alive.

When the priest came again, he looked at their empty storehouses with disappointment, and muttered about the bountiful harvests of the lowland villages, about how the highlanders were clearly wasting Emperor Sun’s blessing. But there were no exceptions to taxes, even if it meant harvesting half-grown crops.

Eztli had travelled the Empire when she was young, and she had seen how others farmed.

“We could dig channels,” she said, once the priest and his llamas were gone. “Divert water from the river.”

Hunger had weakened the bodies of the villagers, but not their determination. With picks and spades, they gouged a straight line through the hard earth. At last, water flowed, the soil darkened, and stunted shoots reached for the sun once more. The villagers sang a song of praise for Eztli, and she smiled as she dreamed of the harvest to come.

But no winter meant no snow on the mountains and no melt water in the spring. The river level sank, and though the villagers dug their channel deeper, it was never deep enough to keep the water flowing. By the time the priest returned, the fields were parched once more.

The villagers’ ribs showed through their skin as they loaded their taxes onto the llamas’ backs. Some muttered about not paying, but the priest had brought guards, men and women wearing feathers and carrying clubs edged with sharp stone. Words of resistance died beneath their merciless gaze.

Eztli had travelled the Empire when she was young, and she had seen what others did to earn the blessings of Emperor Sun.

“We could draw lots,” she said, “and offer one of us as a sacrifice. Then maybe Emperor Sun will bless us with rain.”

No one looked each other in the eye as they drew pebbles from a jar. It was one thing to offer a sacrifice to ward off starvation, another to face the stomach-lurching reality of sending a lifelong neighbour to die. When a young man drew the black stone, his whole body seemed to slump, but he followed the priest and the soldiers away, while Eztli and the villagers wept for sorrow and for gratitude.

Still no winter came. Still the river ran dry. Still crops faltered and bellies ached. Still the time approached for the priest’s return.

The villagers stood before the storehouse, staring at its emptiness with dry and bloodshot eyes.

“We must tell the priest that we cannot pay,” someone said.

Eztli had travelled the Empire when she was young, and she had seen what happened to those who did not pay their taxes. The memory of their blood on the temple steps was like a knife slicing through her heart.

She looked around the village, at the square where she had played as a child, the house her father had built for her when she came of age, the fields she had tended and the channels she had dug, all with these same people, her family and friends. She remembered all their work to preserve this place, and the life they had given on the whim of a single black stone. She was too sad to cry, so instead she spoke.

“I travelled the Empire when I was young,” she said. “I saw the jungle beyond its edge, where many fruits grow wild and wide leaves provide shelter from the sun. Come there with me.”

“What if the jungle is dying too?” someone asked.

Eztli shrugged. “Then we will know just how great Emperor Sun’s blessing is.”

***

This story is set in the same world as my new novella, Silver and Gold, which is out this week…

Silver and Gold

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?

Silver and Gold is available as an ebook from Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

Out Now – Silver and Gold

I have a new book out today, a novella about friendship, magic, and resistance, titled Silver and Gold.

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?

I’m proud of this book. It contains a lot of my favourite things: the complexities of rebellion; art as a source of power; religion as a social institution; unlikely friendships; and a hint of redemption. I enjoyed writing it, and I think you’ll enjoying reading it.

You can buy Silver and Gold at this link.

The Shadow of the Warlord’s Throne – a fantasy short story

Image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay

“So, we meet at last, Torbad the Invincible.”

The voice boomed across the throne room, so deep and menacing that it rattled the goblin skulls hanging from Torbad’s belt. It had taken him days to fight his way into the fortress of Angvald the Merciless, but it had been worth it. The place had everything he looked for in an evil overlord’s lair: a faceless figure perched on a throne carved from ancient granite; a towering bodyguard at the back of the dais; flickering firelight to add shadows and uncertainty. Who knew how many guards were waiting to leap out when Torbad attacked?

Slaying this sort of villain was the stuff of legends.

“I have crossed vast deserts and towering mountains to face you,” Torbad proclaimed, unslinging the war axe from his back. “Do you have any last words before your reign of terror ends?”

There was a whispering, and then the booming voice echoed through the room.

“Words are cheap, barbarian. Show me some action.”

Torbad frowned. That had been a good line, and he hoped that the bard he’d dragged along was paying attention, but something seemed out of place.

“Did that guy behind you do the talking?” he asked, peering over Angvald’s shoulder at the looming bodyguard.

There was whispering again.

“I speak for myself, intruder,” the voice boomed. “And I say it is time for you to die.”

“It is him.” Torbad pointed with his axe. “I can see his lips moving behind the helmet.”

Angvald rose from his throne, plate mail gleaming blood red in the light from the fire.

“Fine,” he snapped, his voice shrill. “I don’t have the booming overlord voice, so I get Bors to do it for me. But I can still kick your spleen out through your spine.”

“Wait wait wait,” Torbad said, narrowing his eyes as he peered at Angvald. “That armour, does it even fit you?”

“Of course it fits me! Now come forth and fight.”

“I know armour, and that’s clearly not your size. The helmet’s wobbling, and the fingers on your gauntlets don’t move.”

This was a disappointment. Maybe Angvald wasn’t the mighty warlord Torbad had hoped for, just another faded wannabe. The bard would have to make some careful choices when telling this tale.

“Fine!” Angvald shook his arms until the gauntlets and vambraces fell off, revealing pale, slender hands. He kicked away thickly soled boots, losing half a foot of height. Finally, he wrenched off his helmet, revealing the face of a teenage girl. “I built it big to look intimidating. You got a problem with that, mister stuffed loincloth?”

Torbad stared up at her. This story wouldn’t just take some careful telling, it would need a complete rewrite. It was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen.

He burst out laughing. The sound filled the throne room, echoing back from looming pillars and a high, domed ceiling. Here was Angvald the Merciless, up and coming warlord of the east, a name whispered in words of terror, nothing more than a little girl. Was this who the knights of Gellent had fled from at Crimson Moor? The tyrant who squeezed a king’s ransom from the Republic of Crows?

Maybe the bard should tell this tale straight after all. The lads at the Adventurers’ Arms would love it. Torbad laughed until his sides ached and he had to catch his breath.

“Something amusing you?” Angvald asked, sinking back into her seat, fingers drumming impatiently on the arm of the throne.

“Nothing, nothing,” Torbad said, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. “So, do you want to show me straight to the treasure vault, or do I need to spank you first?”

“What?” Angvald’s face turned cold and hard as a gargoyle.

“I just don’t know how this is meant to work. I don’t see many little girls dressing up as a warlord.”

“I am a warlord! Who do you think came up with the flanking manoeuvre at Crimson Moor, or forced the Republican troops into submission? Just because I have to put on this show for idiots like you, that doesn’t mean I can’t do my job.”

“Sure, of course.” Torbad chuckled. “Now seriously, show me the loot. I’m not meant to hit women, but that won’t stop me flinging you over my shoulder and—”

“How dare you!”

“Everyone knows that girls can’t be warlords.”

“Well it’s a good job everyone doesn’t include my mum, because she told me—”

“Enough!” Swinging his axe, Torbad strode towards the throne. “Let’s get this over with.”

Angveld’s hand shot down into the shadows beside her throne. There was a twang, a thud, and a shock of pain that brought Torbad to a halt. He stared, bewildered, as blood ran down his chest from the hole created by a crossed bolt.

“But…” He tasted iron on his breath.

Angveld picked up the other crossbow, the one to the left of the throne, took aim, and shot Torbad through the throat. He hit the ground with a satisfying thud. Behind him, the bard soiled his britches, then turned and ran screaming from the hall.

“Barbarians are such idiots,” Angveld said, setting the crossbow down with a sigh.

“Now, now,” Bors’ deep voice came booming from behind the throne. “I taught you better than to use cheap stereotypes.”

***

This story emerged from a silly conversation at my book club, so thanks to Jamie and Kieran for the inspiration. It was also influenced by a recent controversy of a recruitment poster apparently encouraging people to give up on their dreams. Sometimes a government department’s poor judgement becomes my writing fuel.

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.’

Blood Red Tie – a fantasy short story

Image by mohamed
Hassan from Pixabay

I sit across the desk from Justin, hoping that he can’t sense the racing of my pulse.

He’s thin as a new grown willow, pale faced and straight lipped. His suit would be ordinary if it weren’t so well fitted, a softer and more presentable skin than the one beneath. His red tie is the only spot of colour. Red for passion. Red for roses. Red for a drop of blood.

His arms hang limp, fingers twitching in expectation. There’s something he wants to grasp, whether to rend or to embrace. The two are much the same with him. He cannot love without destroying, cannot destroy without holding that moment dear.

Not like me. I have to make a choice.

“I have a task for you,” he rasps. Does he sound inhuman, or am I just giving in to suspicion? “A place I need you to go.”

We’re well past the point where I could refuse. He’s owned me since he bought up my broken business.

The wooden stake up my sleeve, that’s all mine.

“What is it?” I ask, trying to sound friendly.

“I need you to carry a message.”

“Can’t it go by email?”

“No.”

His lip twitches and a drop of blood oozes from the corner. That’s when I’m certain that the desiccated corpses in the news are real.

“This is personal,” he says, holding up an envelope. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not.”  I force a smile, keep eye contact, and let the stake slide down my sleeve. “Happy to help.”

I walk around the desk and lean over. As one of my hands closes on the envelope, the other slams the stake into his chest.

The movement is easy as falling off a cliff. His suits tears, the red tie crumples, and the stake goes straight through into the chair behind. I had braced myself for the spatter and stink of blood, but I wasn’t ready for this.

His skin ripples and falls away.

A tingle runs up my arm, hundreds of tiny lips chewing on flesh. I jerk back and black dots tumble from my sleeve. Ticks. Hundreds of them. They run across my chest, probing, biting, feasting, a thousand pricks of pain.

I stagger back and fling off my jacket. So many bites now that it feels like I’m burning.

I stumble over a chair and fall to the floor. Buttons fly as I rip my shirt open. I see the ticks crawling past my waist and up my neck, covering every inch of skin.

There’s a mass of tiny black bodies where Justin’s face had been. They drip from a mimicry of lips, cascading over my face. I open my mouth to scream, but the ticks tumble in and I choke.

He crouches beside me and lays a hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t believe the stories,” he says.

My throat is swollen shut, my body parched. I want to struggle, but a terrible lethargy has seized me. All that’s left is the pain of my skin.

The last thing I see is Justin’s blood red tie.

***

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.’

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.’