Crone’s Curse – a historical flash fiction

It was a nondescript hut amid some nondescript fields somewhere outside a nondescript town on the edge of Hampshire. There was no mark worth speaking of here, no-one Alice could trick with a sob story or a play on their greed. But if what she’d heard was true, then there was something even better – an accomplice for her greatest con yet.

A woman answered the door. She was stooped and dishevelled, with a jutting chin and sagging eyelids. A black cat rubbed around her ankles. The whole scene could have come straight from one of the witch hunters’ pamphlets.

Alice almost squealed in delight. This was too perfect.

“Judith of Mowbray?” she asked.

“Aye, that’s me.” Judith looked Alice up and down. “I don’t meet many ladies in fancy dresses with fancy ruffs.”

“I think we can help each other. May I come in?”

Judith led Alice into her house and closed the door behind them. The door didn’t quite fit right in its frame, the hinges sagging and the wood warped. It went perfectly with the battered chairs, odd herbs, and cauldron bubbling over the fire.

“They say you’re a witch,” Alice said. “I work the same trade.”

“Aye, I’m one of the guilty.” Judith stirred the pot, then settled into a seat. Her cat leapt into her lap. “Thought I were just making salves for aching joints, but these last years, they’ve opened my eyes to the truth.”

It was a good act, one of the best Alice had seen. That bit about being persuaded made it feel more real.

“You’ve been here for years, right?” she asked. “Since good Queen Elizabeth was still young?”

“I was only a girl then. Thought I were talking to myself, not to devils. But then Adam the carter broke my heart, and I muttered ill wishes against him. Just a month later he broke his leg, the first curse of many.”

“That’s what I need, someone well-established. I have this whole act where I use my powers to find hidden treasure, then promise them more in return for a room and some pay. I set them doing a day-long ceremony to the faeries, then clear the place out and head off while they’re distracted.”

“You’re a con woman?” Judith gaped at her.

“Of course. Don’t pretend that’s not what this is all about. Convincing people you can curse them, then getting paid to curse their enemies.”

“I’m no trickster. I’m a real witch.”

“Witches aren’t real. I should know, I’ve met enough of them.”

“I am! I cursed poor Adam without even meaning it. Same with Mistress Emily, and the alderman’s cows, and a dozen others. Its why no man ever settled with me. It’s why I’ve only my familiar for comfort.” She stroked the black cat behind his ears and he purred happily. “I’m cursed, and when they arrive this noon, I’ll burn for it.”

Alice couldn’t have made a living if she had space in her heart for pity. But looking at this poor woman, dragged down by misplaced guilt and anxious neighbours, something sad and sympathetic stirred inside her.

She knelt beside Judith, took her hand, and spoke softly.

“People have accidents. Milk goes sour. Any time you get angry at someone, something bad will happen to them in the next month, because something bad happens to everyone every month. It might be a broken leg or a bruised toe, but it’s not your fault.”

“Then why am I alone?” Judith wailed. “Why’d it come to be just me and black-furred Jack?”

Heavy footfalls approached the hut. Judith had said they were coming for her at noon. The smart thing would be to leave now and claim no knowledge of the woman or her works.

For once in her life, Alice didn’t choose the smart thing.

“You’re not alone,” she whispered. “Quick, tell me three things about the man who leads this mob.”

As soon as the answer was out, she got up, flung open the door, and stepped outside.

“Alderman Henry,” she boomed. “You come seeking witches? You have found one.”

The crowd was twenty strong, most of them men. They stopped, uncertain, at the sight of a strange woman in rich clothes.

“You want to burn with her?” A large man stepped forward, better dressed than the rest.

“I want to offer you our services,” Alice said, holding out her hands. “Magic can bring curses, but it can bring blessings. I sense things about you. A sickly wife, old debts unpaid, a storm-blasted tree beside your house.”

The crowd murmured to each other excitedly, as if this was the most shocking thing they’d ever heard. It must be witchcraft. After all, that was what they’d come for.

“Want us to burn you too?” the alderman asked.

“Or take my blessings. There is a treasure close to you, one that could cure your wife.” It would be easy to hide a silver crucifix in a storm-blasted tree stump, then guide this man to find it. Judith could help, providing a distraction and authenticity. “Give me three days with my powers and I can heal your Kathryn. Then we can talk of where other treasure might be found.”

The alderman hesitated. She could see him wavering, tugged one way by pain and greed, the other way by cynicism and anger. His eyes narrowed and Alice feared she had finally overstepped.

Then the door behind her creaked and Judith appeared. A wicked smile crept up the Alderman’s face and Alice knew what he was thinking. Profit from his witches, then burn them. Best of both ways.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll give you your three days.”

Alice took Judith’s hand.

“Come, sister,” she said. “Our powers are needed.”

“But the burning…” Judith looked bewildered.

“No burning, Judith,” the alderman said slyly. “You’re going to do some good.”

Judith’s face brightened.

“Really?” she whispered.

“Really,” Alice replied.

They were going to teach these men a lesson, then be gone before the kindling came out. What more good could a woman possibly do?

With the mob flanking them like an honour guard, Alice and Judith headed across the nondescript fields towards town.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Last Night Under Moonlight – a flash steampunk story

Tasta practically spun the screwdriver as she rushed to unfasten the hatch. Within moments, it fell with a clang onto the gantry, revealing the mechanisms within.

This was one of the last of the great springs still moving. The rest had wound down, their mechanisms too clogged with dirt and old oil to keep going without constant maintenance, the city’s inhabitants too taken with other cares to keep their home alive. They had socialised and celebrated, chased money or art or fame, while their world fell into neglect. Even now, on what the experts had calculated to be Wonburg’s final night, most of them were holding a party in the upper tiers.

Those who hadn’t fled already, terrified at what the city would be like when its mechanism fell still. There would be no transport, no heating, no cold storage, no factories to make clothes or boots, no hospital machines. Wonburg was dying and Tasta’s peers were drinking their cares away.

But she wouldn’t give in. She climbed through the hatch, pulled a cloth from her tool belt and wiped dirt from the spring, dirt that should never have been allowed to accrue. Then she took a crank handle, slid it into a slot in the wall, and started to turn it.

“Tasta?” Fnell’s voice came softly through the open hatch. “Are you in there?”

“Someone has to be,” Tasta snapped.

Fnell stepped through the hatch, wearing an evening gown of blue silk and her finest gold jewellery, the pieces Tasta had given her on their wedding day. She smiled sadly as she looked at Tasta.

“Won’t you come out and join us?” Fnell asked. “It’s a lovely night.”

“It’s the only night left, and I can’t waste it.”

The crank wasn’t working. The gears hadn’t been properly maintained and now they clicked across each other instead of meshing and turning. There was no time for finesse, so Tasta pulled out a crowbar and started prying open the wall.

“It’s too late for this,” Fnell said, laying a hand on Tasta’s shoulder. “It was too late before we were even born.”

“We can’t be sure. A city has never unwound before.”

“And with luck it never will again. We’ll take to the carts and find others, to warn them about what happened here. But first, let’s celebrate what we had.”

Tasta flung the crowbar down, then the chunk of panel she had ripped free. The gears lay exposed.

“How can you celebrate a disaster?” she asked, leaning in close to see the gears. “How can you dance and drink now?”

“We’re not celebrating a disaster.” Fnell wrapped her arms around herself. “We’re celebrating the life we had, the life we’re losing.”

Tasta sighed. The gears were too far gone. She would need to find replacements, but where from?

“I have to go find parts,” she said, pulling out one of the worn gears. “It’s our only hope.”

As she slid past Fnell, her wife grabbed her by the arm.

“Please, Tasta, let this go. Come and make a memory with me. Don’t let this be how Wonburg ends for us.”

“I can’t.” Tasta refused to meet her gaze. “I have to keep trying, don’t you understand?”

She squirmed free and out the hatch, but a sob caught her in her tracks.

“Don’t you understand?” Fnell asked, tears running down her cheeks. “You can’t save the city, but there’s something here you can still save.”

Tasta looked down at the gear in her hand. It had been worn away by the centuries, like so many others she’d seen. Perhaps there had been spare parts to replace it once, but not anymore.

It was over.

She dropped the gear. Tears ran from her own eyes as she turned to hug Fnell.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just…”

“I understand.”

They clung to each other for a long time, while the spring wound down behind them, its curved steel unfolding into entropy. Then Fnell took Tasta’s hand and led her up to the roof of the city.

A band was playing melancholy songs in the moonlight. The city’s remaining inhabitants waltzed or drank champaign or just sat and talked in hushed tones. There was sadness, even tears, but not despair, not that dark pit Tasta had feared she might fall into if she ever stopped.

Fnell led Tasta onto the dance floor. Everybody else was in evening dress, but they didn’t seem to mind her overalls. Friends and neighbours smiled, happy to see her sharing the end with them.

Tasta could barely feel the trembling of the city’s mechanisms through her feet. Once as constant as her own heartbeat, it was faltering, almost gone.

But the city wasn’t a body, was it? It was a thing once made, so long ago that no-one remembered how. Could they make it again? Could they build something new from whatever remained? She imagined gears repositioned, walls rearranged, springs set aside in place of some new motive source. Perhaps, just perhaps…

“What if we don’t go with the carts?” she asked, looking up into Fnell’s beautiful blue eyes. “What if we stay and try to start over again?”

“In a dead city?”

“We’ll be alive. Isn’t that what counts?”

The moonlight shone gently down on Fnell’s smile.

“Yes,” she whispered.

They kissed, and for one last night the band played on.

***

A story about finding hope in a world falling apart? Can’t think why I’d write that right now.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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

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

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

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

No More Milk – a flash science fiction story

After the funeral, we went next door to the pizza place fuelled by the crematorium fires, in accordance with Uncle Frank’s will.

“If anybody’s getting their dinner cooked by my burning body, I want it to be you,” the will had said. That was Frank – at sea in a world he didn’t recognise, clinging to some scrap of control as if it could keep him afloat. The cancer had won in the end, but he sent us to claim a final victory over his broken body.

We snacked on fried crickets and chatted idly while we waited for our meals. When the food arrived we toasted Frank and joked about him joining us for one last supper. But once the waiters had moved on, there was no avoiding the real conversation anymore.

“One of you should take over the farm,” Mum said. “It’s what Frank would have wanted.”

Kath and I looked at each other. We’d both known this day was coming since we were kids and Frank had taught us to set up milking equipment. He and Mum had persisted through our teenage rebellions and the decline in dairy sales, keeping the herd alongside oat fields and a silo converted for breeding edible beetles. When Kath came home from agricultural college, the only courses they asked about were animal husbandry. When I insisted on studying tourism instead they almost screamed the place down.

“We’ve talked about this,” Kath said and I saw Mum tense. “We’re both willing to take over, but we’d be running things our way.”

A slice of pizza trembled in Mum’s hand. I wondered if she’d noticed that this place didn’t use real cheese anymore. I couldn’t tell the difference, and I figured she would have complained if she’d known. But then, Mum was good at ignoring what she didn’t like.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“If I take over, I’m going to run down the herd,” Kath said. “There’s no market for dairy anymore, not with cheaper alternatives that don’t cost the planet. And we’ve not sold a beef cow in a decade.”

“Those ridiculous cloners,” Mum said. “It’s nothing like the real thing, but who can compete with their prices?”

I kept my mouth shut about how those prices happened, and about the likely origin of the ham on her pizza.

“I’d concentrate on the beetles instead,” Kath pressed on. “Lower costs, lower emissions, and there’s a huge market for them these days.”

“No.” Mum shook her head. “You’re not turning the whole place over to those ghastly, rattling silos. Frank would turn in his grave.”

“Frank just cooked our dinner,” I snapped.

“Simon!”

“Sorry, sorry, that was completely out of line.”

“It’s good that someone here can admit when they’re wrong.” She shot Kath a sharp glare, then looked back at me. “How would you keep the place going?”

“Petting zoo,” I said. “We’d keep a few of the cows for that, and bring in some more exciting animals. Sheep, llamas, maybe some of those prehistoric sloths they’ve started cloning. Those things are adorably fluffy and they can’t run away from over-affectionate toddlers.”

“And the milk?”

“No more milk. It’s just not worth it.”

Now she was glaring at me too.

“If neither of you will keep up with tradition then we may as well sell the place.”

She sat back, arms folded, and waited for us to respond. By the smug look on her face, she thought she’d played a trump card.

I took a bite of pizza, forcing myself to pause and think my words through. Her tone had made me tense up, but I couldn’t let her get to me. I had to deal with this calmly or we’d end up not speaking for six months again.

“That’s fine,” I said at last. “People will always pay good money for land. Without the farm, Kath can take up that research post she wanted and I can move to-”

“How can you say that? How can you let go of the farm? And with Frank only just gone, as well.”

“Don’t start on the emotional blackmail. The world has changed. Diets have changed. The farm has to change.”

“And abandon everything Frank held dear?”

“I’m warning you, Mum, pull that card one more time and I’m leaving.”

I pushed my plate away. I’d had enough. Enough of the pizza, enough of the conversation, enough of the damn family farm.

Kath took Mum’s hand. An untapped well of tears threatened to burst from all of us, a pool of emotion built up through decades of struggling for change and fighting to resist it. The unspoken assumptions, abandoned dreams, and bittersweet memories.

“This is how we preserve Frank’s legacy,” Kath said. “By making it fit for the modern world. We’re on your side, but we have to do this our way.”

Mum sniffed and rubbed at her eyes.

“Can we keep the old milking shed?” she asked quietly. “It’s such a lovely building.”

“Of course. It’ll make a great farm shop and cafe.”

A slightly nervous waiter came over, holding out a set of dessert menus.

“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.

“Why not.” Mum blinked back her tears and managed a smile. “I keep hearing about your rice milk desserts. It’s time I tried one of them.”

***

There’s a lot to be explored about the future of food. What we eat is going to have to change to look after the planet, but that change is painful. It goes against our habits, our expectations, and many people’s livelihoods. I wanted to explore that a little. I daresay I’ll be back to it again later.

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.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Rise – a flash alternate history story

Leningrad, 1982.

Just not the one you know.

Nastasia stood in the shadows of dirt-smeared street lamps, clutching a roll of posters in her hand. She could feel the edge of each one beneath her fingers, an edge that could as easily slice her skin as crumple beneath it.

It was a midsummer night, yet Nastasia felt an icy hand gripping her chest, freezing her to the spot where the comforting shadows would give way and expose her to the light.

“Come on,” Kirill hissed, gesturing down the street with a broad paint brush. In his other hand he held a bucket of paste, flour and water and a little cheap glue. Good enough for propaganda. Good enough when it was all they had.

Nastasia took a deep breath and forced herself to take a step forward. She had chosen this. While the Red Army marched west against the capitalists, people were struggling and starving back home. It wasn’t right and Nastasia had been brought up to do what was right.

She had also been brought up hearing stories of the gulags and KGB cells, stories whispered behind closed doors, warnings to act and dress like everyone else, to keep her head down or face the most terrible punishments.

She hadn’t had the courage to join when the protests started. But then she’d seen the march in the print district and felt her heart lift, only for it to be trampled with the protesters the army beat and dragged away. That was when she had known that she had to do something, or live the rest of her life in shame.

One arduous step after the other, she walked over to Kirill. With trembling hands she peeled a poster from the roll and held it out while he applied the paste. Then they spread it across the wall and flattened it, the paste dripping in pail globs around the edges.

She stood back and smiled at her work.

“POWER TO THE UNIONS!” it read above a picture of a raised fist. “LET THE TRUE SOVIET RISE!”

The cold hand loosened around her heart and she shifted a little lighter on her feet.

“Let’s do another,” she said, laying a hand on Kirill’s shoulder.

“Where?”

“Over there.”

They stuck a poster to the leg of a bridge, another to the wall of a shop. The wet brushed slapped against paper, paste dripped, and words of defiance claimed the streets for their own.

Then a brute voice sounded behind them.

“Who’s that? What are you doing?”

Nastasia turned, heart hammering. The posters tumbled from her hands and unravelled across the road toward the approaching policemen.

Her pulse raced. For a moment she stood frozen again.

The stories returned unbidden to her mind. Stories of cells. Stories of gulags. Stories of torture and death. Stories of the police and the KGB. So many stories.

Then she was running, and Kirill beside her. Running like a hunted beast. Running because her life depended on it.

They raced along side streets and alleyways, through pools of pale electric light and stretches of shadow. The policemen ran after them, their boots hammering the ground, their shouts the barking of a hunter’s hounds.

Nastasia wanted to wail and to scream. Tears slid down her cheeks at the thought of what must come. She felt every cobble beneath her feet, saw every passing scrap of litter, the city flooding her senses, revealing itself to her one last time.

And then those heavy footfalls faltered. Snapping and snarling gave way to wheezing, which faded as they left the policemen behind.

Still she ran, muscles aching, legs stretching for every inch of distance she could gain.

At last, Kirill sagged into the mouth of an alleyway. Nastasia flopped to the ground beside him and filled her burning lungs with deep, soothing breaths.

A dizzying wave swept through her, left her shaking and hysterical. Not tears now but laughter. The sensation that had seemed like dread was transformed, becoming the thrill of survival. She gloried at her triumph in the chase.

“Guess that’s it,” Kirill said, his voice caught between disappointment and relief. “We should get off the streets.”

“No,” Nastasia said. This feeling was a revelation and she could not turn away from its light. “More posters, more paste. We still have half the night.”

“But the police…”

“We’ve outrun them once, we can do it again.” Just saying it made her grin, though she trembled as she pushed herself to her feet. She raised her fist. “Let the true soviet rise.”

Leningrad, 1982.

Just not the one you know.

Not anymore.

***

This story is set in the same divergent history as my new novel, co-authored with Russell Phillips…

The Bear’s Claws: A Novel of World War III

It’s 1982 but not as we know it. The Cold War has lost its chill and World War III has arrived, threatening to send the whole planet into meltdown.

Vladislav Rakovich is a young, idealistic communist. He dreams of being an officer, leading his soldiers on a mission to free the world from capitalism. But as the Soviet armies roll west, he gains his first bitter taste of command and reality hits. Can he stay focused on his aim in the face of undisciplined troops, a corrupt superior officer, and NATO’s military might? As conflict rages around him, Rakovich finds that his biggest battle comes from within as his faith in the communist cause is shaken by the horror of war.

Back home in Leningrad, Rakovichs beloved sister Anna has other things to worry about. Drawn into a world of trade unions and protests, Anna finds herself driven by a new purpose, although her beliefs introduce her to a dangerous world where dissent can lead to disappearance or even death. Will this war birth the second revolution the nation is crying out for? Or will the people be trampled underfoot by the establishment once more?

The Bear’s Claws is a compelling and powerful story of how family, courage, and conviction can survive in a world torn apart by war.

The Bear’s Claws is available at all good e-book stores and as a print book via Amazon.

Exterminator – a flash horror story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get away from me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The light went out.

The chittering continued.

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

***

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

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

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

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

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

From reader reviews:

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

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

Of Slugs and Science – a flash steampunk story

Dirk Dynamo stood on the roof of the Epiphany Club, a gentle summer breeze bringing him the smoke of Manchester’s cotton mills and the noise of its crowds. Below, the city was a sprawling mass of factories and tenements, a coal-smeared wonder of the Victorian age. Fortunately, he wasn’t up here for the view.

“It predicts storms,” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms explained, patting a strange creation of brass boxes, oiled gears, and slender jars. “The slugs in the jars become agitated as the atmospheric pressure changes. They move up, trigger the levers, and so set off strings of gears. When enough gears fall into place, the alarm sounds.”

“And this works?” Dirk asked, trying to hide his incredulity. Blaze-Simms had a brilliant mind, but sometimes his imagination got away from him.

“Absolutely. I have seen a near-perfect correlation between agitation in the slugs and the arrival of storms over the city.”

“Then why are the slugs moving now?” Dirk pointed at one of the jars. “Sky’s clear today.”

“Perhaps an unexpected squall. I have noticed storms coming in faster of late.”

Dirk crouched to get a closer look at one of the slugs. It was wriggling hard up that jar. If a slug could get angry, this one was pissed as hell, and he would have been too if someone had trapped him in a jar.

“When you say ‘of late’, do you mean since you built this machine?”

“I suppose so. That is when I started paying attention.”

Dirk looked up. Out of nowhere, small grey clouds were forming above their heads. He figured he should be grateful – rain would help clear the air. But still…

“You sure you’ve understood this right?” he asked. “That the storm’s making the slugs angry, not the other way around?”

“They’re not angry, old chap. They don’t have the capacity for it. They’re just agitated.”

“Agitated. Huh.”

Clouds were moving in fast. A fat drop of rain hit Dirk’s face. The bell at the top of the machine started ringing as more slugs slid up their jars.

“You ever consider that the slugs might be making the storms?” Dirk asked. “That this might be what happens if enough of them get mad in the same place at once?”

“Don’t be absurd. They couldn’t possibly-”

A roar of thunder interrupted Blaze-Simms. Lightning flashed down to strike the roof of the town hall.

“Most folks would say that weather-predicting slugs were absurd. How about a storm coming in this fast?”

Rain fell, pattering down at first, then thundering across the rooftops, while arcs of lightning flashed between the clouds.

“The very idea! It goes against all of science.”

“All the science you know. But what if you’ve found something new?” Dirk pushed back his rain-sodden hair. He could already feel a chill sinking into his flesh. He wanted to get into the warm and dry, but the idea had hold of him and he couldn’t let it go.

Blaze-Simms’ eyes widened. An expression of frustration tilted up into a smile.

“Well, perhaps,” he said. “But how could we possibly know? What experiment would let us reveal-”

Dirk yanked one of the jars out of the machine and dropped its slug onto the rooftop. Then he reached for another jar.

“We let them out and the storm stops, that’s your correlation. You can work out how they do it later.”

Blaze-Simms joined him, excitedly dismantling his own machine, releasing its slimy prisoners as fast as he could. He grinned as the rain soaked them to the bone and washed away the smoke clouds shrouding the city.

“This could have countless uses,” he said. “Watering fields, refreshing the air, refilling reservoirs…”

Dirk dropped the last slug and looked up. Was it his imagination or were the clouds parting?

“One thing at a time, Tim,” he said. “First, let’s see if this works. After all, it rains a lot in Manchester.”

***

Unlike Blaze-Simms’ storm predictor, George Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator was a real Victorian invention that used slugs to predict oncoming storms. A creation of the Victorian era’s wild and sometimes inspired inventiveness, it never took off, though you can still see an example of it on display at Whitby Museum.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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

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

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

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

The Executioner’s Art – a historical flash fiction

Heinrich walked into the tavern, ordered food and drink, and took a table. The place hadn’t changed since the last time he was in this town – 1599 maybe, or had it been 1600? Long enough for the walls to gain more stains, the tables more scars. He hoped that at least the rushes on the floor had been replaced, though by their filthy state he wouldn’t swear on it.

“You here for the execution?” said a man at the next table.

Heinrich nodded and smiled. It was good to see that people had come to witness his handiwork.

“Us too,” the man said, gesturing to his companions. “They say this one was a unadulterated bastard, robbed and murdered a dozen honest citizens out in the woods.”

“So I heard,” Heinrich said. He’d heard far more than that from the judge of the blood court. But telling them what he knew would mean telling them how he knew it, and it had been a long time since he’d had pleasant company. So he nodded and sipped at his drink as the others talked.

“Course, that killer’s not the only bastard involved, is he?” one of the men said.

“That’s right,” another said. “That’s executions for you – one evil bastard finishing off another. Difference is, one does it for the law.”

Heinrich gritted his teeth.

“Must take a real evil disposition, to lop heads off for a living,” the first man said.

Heinrich didn’t mind that thought so much. He’d had it himself, from time to time, though he knew that he’d had little choice as an executioner’s son – like most, he’d had to take the job he could. No, what bothered him was what they always disregarded, those who talked in low tones about his work.

“It must take skill,” he said. “To chop a head clean off in a single stroke.”

The first man snorted. “Just like chopping wood, isn’t it?”

“Wood is nothing like flesh.”

“Butchery, then,” said the second. “Just cutting up meat.”

“Does meat move as you prepare to butcher it? Does it beg you for mercy or recite the Lord’s Prayer?”

“Well then, what is it like?” one of them snapped. “Or are you the sort just tells others why they’re wrong?”

“It is like nothing else on earth. The poise and balance needed to swing the sword just right, to sever the head of a standing man in a single stroke. To take account of his height, his build, his twitching, the expectations of the crowd. To make a spectacle that will bring swift, merciful death yet deter others from a criminal path. It is a fine art.”

The moment he saw their reactions, Heinrich regretted his words. They were evaluating him now, looking for something they’d missed. The first man narrowed his eyes.

“How would you know all that?” he asked.

Too late to hide it, even for one evening of friendly company.

“How do you think?”

Heinrich stood. The men flinched away as he stepped out from behind his table and headed for the tavern door. He didn’t need to look back to know that they were watching him, judging him, readying condemnations for the conversation that would follow.

But they would be there tomorrow to watch his art. And unlike him, they would cheer at the results.

***

This story was inspired by reading The Faithful Executioner, Joel F. Harrington’s biography of Frantz Schmidt, a real executioner from 16th century Nuremberg. It’s a fascinating and unsettling read about a grizzly profession, one that saw its members treated as pariahs by the very people who clamoured for their work.

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.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Why Aren’t the Stars Burning? – a flash scifi story

The sky beyond our starship was streaked with light. The bright beams of lasers, the blazing flowers of exploding warheads, the glowing wakes of crippled engines and flames tearing through ruined hulks.

My eyes watered from the acrid smoke. Breathing made my throat ache but it was better than the alternative, just like being on the bridge of the Remus was better than being anywhere else in the fleet. We sat at our stations, trembling hands working the controls that still functioned, caught in one last moment of defiance. If we could smell the burning systems from here then we would all burn soon.

“Fire everything you have!” Admiral Salter yelled. “Every beam and torpedo, every bullet and bomb. Make the bastards bleed!”

“We’re doing it, Admiral,” I replied, wiping the sweat from my brow.

“Then why aren’t the stars burning?”

I swallowed and forced myself to face him.

“The stars still blaze, Admiral. Their light is hidden by the battle.”

“Why don’t they blaze brighter, Tollard?” He glared at the red console above my station. “Why aren’t they bursting apart to swallow up this wretched mess? Why aren’t we going down by the light of the Never Bombs?”

I shrank from the intensity of his stare.

“What good will killing the system do?” I asked.

“It will teach others to fear the wrath of the Republic. You think we built this weapon to sit on it? Launch the bombs!”

Gripping the back of my seat, I stood to face him. A fearful, lizard part of my brain betrayed me, one hand reaching for the controls. Obedience had a power beyond thought, but I forced my hand back and forced myself to stand firm. My fingers gripped my sidearm tight, the bite of cold metal reassuring me of my body’s obedience.

The priests said that I was damned if I disobeyed a superior, but I was damned if I was killing planets of minions. Better to ride the wave to Hell alone than to be flung down by furious ghosts.

 “The war is lost,” I said. “Never Bombs won’t stop that.”

Across from me, Gonda looked up from the shield controls, wide-eyed with shock at what was playing out. Her fingers darted across her console, redirecting the last dregs of energy, keeping our defences from collapse. I wasn’t going to waste these last minutes she had bought us.

“Do as you’re told, Tollard.”

The Admiral drew his sidearm and pointed it at me. Despite everything, the blackness of its barrel filled me with dread. When all you have is moments, they become more precious.

“No.”

“Then stand aside and I’ll do it.”

I drew my own sidearm.

“I won’t let you.”

I heard a thud and felt pain rip through my shoulder a moment before my own finger tightened. My shot hit the floor and I fell, blood streaming across the deck.

I forced my shaking hand up, trying to aim for the admiral, but it was too late. In three swift strides he had reached my station. His foot clamped down on my forearm and he reached for the Never Bomb controls.

“If the Republic burns, then we’ll burn the sinners away too,” he said.

He flipped switches and twisted dials. A countdown began, sixty second to give a commander thought before unleashing total destruction.

Tears streamed down my face, drawn by more than the smoke. There was only one way out of this.

Every millimetre of movement filled with pain, I raised my wrist and pointed my sidearm. I squeezed the trigger. There was a thud and Gonda sprawled across the shield controls. A second shot smashed those controls apart.

Alarms howled. The ship shook as shields collapsed and enemy fire hit.

Bright light blazed across the viewscreen.

“The stars are burning,” Admiral Salter said with a wide grin, oblivious to the clock running down behind him. Thirty seconds until the failsafe passed and he could launch the bombs.

Long enough for us to die.

Another flash and the screen went dead. A bulkhead gave way and smoke billowed onto the bridge.

“The stars are burning,” Salter repeated like a priest reading from the Great Verse.

I sank limp onto the deck. In the final moments, stars blazed across my vision, but the universe around me was safely dark.

***

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.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

The Awkward Love Lives of Gargoyles – a flash fantasy story

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

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

“‘Anks.”

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

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

Mefolina.

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

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

“‘Ou ‘oo,” Darbelfang said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could what?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

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

“Ouch!”

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

Mefolina laughed, then covered her mouth.

“I didn’t mean to-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

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

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

From reader reviews:

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

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

Billowing Breeze – a flash steampunk story

Earnest walked slowly down the line of racing wagons, notebook in hand. Every year, the machines at Cheltenham races became more impressive, these glorious assemblages of brass and chrome, steam pouring from their boilers as they were stoked for the race. He noted the use this year of higher chassis and reinforced front wheels, a shift he considered more a matter of aesthetics than function, as practical as the top hat fashion forced him to wear.

A steam engine

“Hey, aren’t you Earnest Fry?” A young woman in goggles and racing leathers peered out from one of the machines. “Are you going to include my Breeze in your race report?”

Earnest peered at the embossed plate on the hood, carrying the name “Billowing Breeze”. Not a machine he had heard much about, but Cheltenham had provided upsets in the past.

“That depends upon how she performs.”

“Want to find out first hand?” The driver grinned and gestured into the back of the Breeze.

Earnest stared at the trembling boiler, the explosive pressure of its steam barely contained. He swallowed and looked away.

“I don’t ride along. Terribly unprofessional.”

“To hell with professional – you can write about the races better if you know what they’re really like.”

“I don’t need writing lessons from a soot-stained mechanic.”

“You saying you can’t get any better?”

“A dozen awards say that I’m the best.”

“Not this year, though. This year Jardine got the prize.”

Earnest glared at her. He would not be so easily goaded.

“Riding with you would cloud my objectivity. I must give all the contestants fair and equal attention. Now good day.”

He walked stiffly on.

“There’s a simple solution,” the woman called after him. “If it’s really about fairness.”

Earnest gritted his teeth. He wanted nothing more than to get away, to find a nice cup of tea and write up his notes. But other drivers were watching now and he couldn’t have this impertinent grease monkey besmirch his reputation for balanced reportage.

He turned to face her.

“What solution could you possibly have that I have not considered?”

“Ride with all of us. Then there’s no bias.”

He imagined himself climbing into each machine in turn, sitting amid the intricate grandeur of their mechanisms, facing the terrible power of those boilers.

“I have reported on these races since before you were born.” He jabbed the air with his pencil. “My knowledge and objectivity are beyond reproach. I will not be taunted into some act of tomfoolery!”

“How you going to be objective when you’re so wound up?”

“I am not wound up.”

“Scared then.”

“I am not scared.”

“Prove it.” She gestured at the steps up to the cabin of her machine.

“Very well, I will.”

Earnest strode over, grabbed the handrail, and climbed up the steps. At the top, confronted with the heat of the firebox and the trembling of the boiler, he froze.

The driver held out her hand.

“Come on in,” she said gently. “The old girl won’t bite.”

Earnest wrenched his gaze away from the flames of the firebox. A small crowd had gathered below, chattering about the great journalist taking his first ride. There was an air of excitement. Dozens of faces looked up at him.

He took a deep breath and stepped into the cab.

“Off we go.” The driver kicked the firebox hatch shut, released the brake lever, and pulled back on the throttle.

The wagon shook and started rolling forward, building up speed. Earnest gripped the rail so hard his fingers hurt. He forced himself to keep his eyes open, to see and hear and feel every detail, despite the furious pounding of his heart.

As the vibrations of the engine shook him, an unfamiliar feeling swept through Earnest. The words that crowded his mind fell away, leaving only the sensations of this moment.

As they grew faster, the wind blasted his skin and whipped at his coat. His heart kept racing, but now its rhythm was in time with the engine. He tore off his top hat and waved it in the air.

“This is exhilarating!” he called out over the roar of the engine. “Invigorating! Astonishing!”

Spectators shot past to either side as Billowing Breeze rushed down the course. Some cheered and waved. Earnest waved back.

At the end they stopped. Earnest took hold of the driver’s hand and pumped it up and down.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

“You want another go?” she asked, a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh no. I have to be objective.” He pointed to where the other racing wagons stood, a glorious gathering of brass and chrome and pulsing power. “I have to take a ride in all of them.”

***

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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

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

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

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