A Matter of Life – a historical short story

By RIA Novosti archive, image #5634 / David Trahtenberg / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15579762

Stepan had survived. His street had survived. The bombs had stopped falling, the guns were a distant echo, the Germans had been driven back from Leningrad. There was food to be had again, not as much as before the war, but enough. Hitler’s thugs had come for Stepan and his city, but while the city wore its scars in shattered streets and empty apartments, he remained untouched.

He stepped out of his house and walked straight-backed toward the factory, as he had done throughout the siege, unflinching in the face of hunger and the mechanical screams of war. Eight hundred and seventy-two days, marked off in tiny chalk marks on his apartment wall. Today, he hadn’t had to open the drawer holding the chalk.

Like Stepan, his street had survived the siege untouched, but the moment he stepped past its end, he saw buildings scarred by bombs and shells, others entirely gone, gaps in streets like missing teeth in a boxer’s bloodied grin. He hurried past those buildings. Life was normal again, and he wouldn’t let the ruins steal that from him.

He paused at a junction, letting a convoy of tanks and bread trucks pass. The junction had been bombed early in the siege, its rubble only cleared away now to provide a way through. Something white peered at him out of that rubble. A human thigh bone.

Stepan frowned. No one needed to see a thing like that, especially now that the siege was over. Someone should take it to the graveyard for burial. But no one else was going near the bone, and Stepan needed to get to the factory. He had made it to work every day of the siege, he certainly wasn’t going to be late now. Perhaps he could hide the bone, so that stray dogs wouldn’t find it, and take it to the graveyard later.

He picked the bone up. It was rougher than he had expected, its surface repeatedly scarred by a blade. This person hadn’t just been killed, they had been butchered. Stepan had heard of such things, of course. There was even a rumour around the factory that Pavel, who had stopped turning up on day three hundred and five, had been arrested for corpse-eating. But none of it was real. It was the stuff of whispered conversations and fever dreams.

Trembling as if he himself had a fever, Stepan flung the bone away across the rubble. Someone else could find it and take it to the graveyard. The siege was over, he had survived, he wouldn’t face its filth any more.

The convoy was gone. He walked across the street, feeling the weight of the rubble and its hidden bones behind him every step. He moved faster, rushing along a street that was less scarred, one where he could look down and not see the past glaring at him from shattered windows and fallen roofs.

There were more bones in the gutter. He looked away before he could see what they were, human or animal, blank or bearing butchers’ scars. Then his boot hit a broken flagstone. He tripped, stumbled, sprawled in the gutter, bones inches from his face. He rolled over and scrambled back across the pavement until his back pressed against a wall. He closed his eyes tight shut and sat taking deep breaths, trying to slow his racing heart. It was over. He was alive. The city was safe.

He pressed his hands against his belly. His thumbs brushed his ribs. Once, he had been round, so round that his sister had called him a ball. Now he could feel his rib bones through his skin, just like he felt the hunger, a gnawing pain for eight hundred and seventy-two days.

He had to get up and go to the factory. He had held himself together all through the siege, while others had broken down, become criminals or cannibals, wept or screamed or retreated into silence. If he could stand strong through that, there was no excuse for breaking now, when it was over, when the guns were silent and the food was coming, when he didn’t need to watch in case some desperate soul tried to steal his ration card.

A hand settled on his shoulder. He forced himself to open his eyes, focused on the old lady looking down at him instead of the broken buildings beyond her.

“It’s over,” he croaked, willing the words to be true. But they weren’t. Not for him, and not for the city. The bombs had stopped falling, but their echoes remained.

Stepan stopped trying to take deep breaths. He stopped trying to stay calm. He stopped fighting back the images of pale bones and broken windows. After eight hundred and seventy-three days, he finally let himself cry.

***

Today’s story was written to go with a new comic I’ve got out this week. Survive Leningrad! from Commando Comics is about a military doctor trying to save lives during one of the most brutal sieges in history, and about the shotgun-wielding granny who helps him out. You can find it in newsagents, through Comixology, and as part of a bundle of comics through the DC Thomson store. If you enjoy war stories with an unusual focus then this one’s for you.

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.

***

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.

Waters of Life and Death – a science fiction short story

Birds flying in front of a storm.
Image by jplenio from Pixabay

Jay emerged from the elevator carrying a tray of vials, each one holding a newly spliced genetic treatment. They rattled against each other as he walked to the football-sized eggs at the edge of the pool, themselves the products of endless modifications.

Crystal was in the pool up to her waist, her legs hidden by lilies, goosepimples rising on her bare arms.

“Thought you were smart,” Jay said.

“Of course I am. How do you think I got from the mani-pedi counter to the postdoctoral program?”

“Then why are you in the water? You know that could get you fired, or worse.”

He nodded down the pool, to where the latest creatures were swimming. One was crocodile-like, but with wings sprouting from its back. The other was a wobbling blob whose shape was slowly shifting, its body unable to settle, skin churning and shedding scales. It had rows of vicious teeth and might have made a deadly predator if its own body wasn’t killing it.

“These creatures are meant to be how we survive,” Crystal said, “whether they become our next sources of food or the plough horses of a flooded world. I want to be part of that transformation.”

Jay fixed a needle onto one of the vials, then plunged it into an egg. He repeated the procedure along the row.

“Don’t come crying to me when one of them turns out to be half wolf, half cow, and ready to eat your leg.”

An egg shook, then started to crack.

“That was quick,” Crystal said.

“Too quick. Usually a sign that it’s going wrong.”

Jay stepped back, but Crystal moved closer, the water swirling around her, and ran a hand across the shaking shell.

“There, there,” she said. “It’ll be alright.”

“Since when did you become so maternal?”

“We’ve been birthing new life here every day for three years. Hasn’t that changed you?”

He shook his head. “I’m here for the science.”

A chunk of shell fell away and a beak poked out, dripping with amniotic fluid. A bird’s eye peered at them, but the shell held strong as claws pressed at the gap.

“Looks like another dud,” Jay said. “If it’s not strong enough to escape the shell, it’s got no chance of surviving that.”

He pointed into the distance, where a storm was raging over the flooded remains of London, lightning flashing down the gleaming glass of abandoned office towers.

“That’s not true,” Crystal said, slipping a hand inside the shell, where the creature rubbed its slippery head against her skin. “Some infants need help to survive. Look at human babies.”

Jay snorted. “Humans are the ones who made this mess, I don’t think we’re a good example.”

“Those were the old humans. We’re the new ones.”

“Enough with the hippy bullshit, Crystal. Our world’s dying. Get out of the water and help me make something that might live.”

Crystal pulled on the edges of the broken shell and the calcified layer cracked open. The bird-thing slid out, its undulating body covered in tiny feathers. The feathers changed as it darted through the water, colours shifting to match whatever lay around it. It swam around Crystal like a dog running around its owner, eager for attention, rubbing its head against her. She ran a hand down its back, between the feathers, skin against bumpy skin. Jay shuddered at the sight.

Crystal’s skin changed, slowly at first, its colour shifting to match the creature. After a moment, bulges appeared, and tiny feathers pushed out through expanding pores.

“Crystal?” Jay swallowed, took a step back, almost tripped over the tray of vials. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. “What have you done?”

“What do you think?” She smiled into the creature’s eyes, then pressed her face against its cheek. The creature made a chittering noise. Others swam from their end of the pool, fins and wings flapping, and Crystal moved away from the edge, so they could swim around her. Jay finally saw the fish’s tail where her legs had been.

“You could have died,” he croaked. “The serums aren’t made for humans.”

“And humans aren’t made for this world,” Crystal said, “but here we are. I had to take a chance. It was that or be left behind.” She looked back at him. The storm was coming closer, lightning crashing across isolated hills rising from a flooded land. “Take a chance. Join us.”

Crystal stroked the blob beast. Her flesh rippled between the scattered feathers and when she smiled it was with a jaw full of pointed teeth.

“I can’t,” he whispered. “I’m scared.”

More eggs cracked open. Strange creatures crawled and slithered across broken shells, down to the pool where Crystal waited. Beneath the storm, a tidal wave was rushing in, tall enough that it would soon engulf them.

“Oh, Jay,” Crystal said, shaking her head. “I thought that you were smart.”

***

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.

Last Ember of Life – a fantasy short story

Glowing embers of a fire
Image by diddi4 from Pixabay

I watched the hearth fire fade, the glowing soul of the coals burning down, crumbling into weightless heaps of black and white. This would be the last time. I would keep no final ember alive, cradled in ash through the night to light the next morning’s fire. What was the point, when only I remained? The storm could have me.

The remnants of a log collapsed into dark dust, its sparks fading as they were caught by the wind blowing down the chimney stack. One ember remained, the moment of choice between life and death, holding open the doorway between this world and the next. As was their right, the ghosts of my hearth stepped through to witness its warmth. My parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents, generations before them. My wife, cradling our only child, who never made it past the birthing bed. They watched, expectant, waiting for me to scoop ash around that coal, so that it would burn, slow and steady, through the night.

I gazed at them, then shook my head. The kindling that waited by the hearth would never touch that coal. It would blaze strong and burn out. When my family left, I would soon follow.

The shutters shook and a slither of icy wind forced its way under the door.

Of all the family who had lived around this hearth, only Uncle Olaf was absent. On the night he died, we had carried fire from the hearth out into the night to tend to a sickly sheep. Unseen by any of us, Olaf’s spirit had followed that flame, and become lost when we extinguished it. A year of mourning was not enough to light his way home.

The spirits watched me. I had thought that I wanted to be with them one last time, but that feeling of finality made their presence unbearable. I lurched from my seat, flung the door open and strode into the night. The storm wind blew in behind me, scattering ash before it slammed the door shut.

Icy raindrops soaked my tunic and clawed at my exposed cheeks. The cold wind dragged the heat from my body as mercilessly as from the embers in the hearth.

I gripped the gate of the sheep pen. I should give my flock a chance. I lifted the latch and left the gate hanging open, but none of the sheep moved. They huddled together, companions warming each other in the face of a cold world. I envied them.

The house stood bleak against the hillside, only the faintest glow showing through the shutters. Once that faded, I would go back in. I would die where I had lived, like the rest of my family.

A voice emerged from the storm’s howl, like a lamb’s first bleat almost lost in its mothers birthing cries. A figure stumbled up the valley, torn cloak flapping, clutching a tree branch as a staff, one twisted leg trailing behind. I ran to them and saw a woman’s face, dripping wet despite her hood.

“Please, help,” she said.

I slid an arm under her shoulder and led her toward the house.

“What happened?”

“My horse slipped on the riverbank, crushed my leg and carried us both in. I barely made it out, and now…” Her words faltered, snagged on gasping breaths and chattering teeth.

I flung the door open and led her to my seat by the hearth. I had never seen anyone so in need of warmth and light, but all was darkness.

I grabbed a stick and stirred the dust of the fire. One small ember remained, hidden under the ashes. I placed straw around it, then slender sticks, and blew softly. For a moment, I thought that I was too late, but then a finger of flame rose from the straw, and the hearth fire was reborn.

For a moment, the ghosts of my hearth stood illuminated. The fire was growing, the door closing, and they faded from my world. The last I saw of them was my wife’s smile.

“Here.” I handed my guest a blanket. “Get out of your wet clothes. I’ll go fetch wood.”

Outside my house, the storm raged. Inside, the hearth fire blazed.

***

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.

Layover on the Way to the Stars – a science fiction short story

Stars floating in space.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Hi mum, it’s Angie. I’m recording this one later than usual, hoping I can get it into a civilian data beam back to Earth. I meant to record it at the jump gate terminal outside of Centauri, but I got distracted, and you’ll never guess who by – cousin Dioni!

I should probably tell you about the terminal first. This place is amazing. There are shuttles heading to every system you’ve ever heard of, and a bunch you haven’t. The terminal has all these different habitat zones for different species, but they’re separated by glass, so that you can see each other. There are even speakers with translation systems in the glass. I had a long chat over coffee with a guy who has tentacles for a head. I say over coffee, he was inhaling purple stimulant smoke while I had coffee. He was as fascinated to hear about Earth as I was about his home world. It was intense!

But I know you, and I know you’re going to care more about Dioni than some alien, even if she did have fifty-seven eyes. The alien had the eyes, that is. The only new body mod Dioni’s got is a recording tattoo, and she said not to tell Aunt Stella, because of her Views, so forget I told you that.

Anyway, Dioni’s running one of the restaurants in the human zone here, one of those Metaphor Burger franchises. You know the ones, where the ingredients are meant to symbolise a philosophical concept or a work of art. OK, maybe you don’t know, but it’s a whole thing. Dioni says she stopped here to do a few shifts and earn more money on her way to that colony in the Regamium system she was going to join. Only it turned out that the franchise holder was leaving, and Dioni had an opportunity to take his place. The old manager showed her this data about the insane profits you can make selling burgers to travellers, and she figured, why not give it a go. She used her travel money to buy him out, figuring she could triple her money in six months, then head on to the colony like Aunt Stella wanted her to.

Ooh, and just as Dioni was telling me this, a guy with three heads came in, and then an actor out of… You know what, you won’t know the show, and it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that Dioni has these amazing customers with stories from all over the galaxy. My mind was blown.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, well it turns out that it’s not so easy to leave this franchise Dioni’s bought into. She hadn’t paid attention to how much of a cut the company takes when she signed the contract, so she hasn’t earned what she expected, even though the place is buzzing. And there’s another big fee when you leave, which is half repayable if you leave everything in good condition, but you’ve got to have the money in the first place, and most of what Dioni earns goes on rent and visits to the alien habitats, so she can’t afford it. The whole past three years, she’s been stuck here, telling Aunt Stella that she got to Regamium so that Aunt Stella wouldn’t worry. Isn’t that wild?

Um, you’d better not tell Aunt Stella that part either. Or any of this, now I think about it. Please. But you can tell her that I saw a genuine Centauri fishman, because he stopped by right then to invite Dioni to a party.

Anyway, Dioni talked about how she couldn’t leave, and she wasn’t getting to Regamium any time soon, and it was all so sad. But then I thought, mum’s always telling me how I should help people in need, why don’t I help Dioni? She was so excited to leave Earth and go to Regamium, she should get to do that. So I offered to lend her some of the money you gave me. I hope that’s all right. I figured you’d approve, seeing as how she’s family.

Dioni couldn’t answer at first. She spotted this customer down the bar who she’d forgotten, and then she had to take a call, and sort something out with one of her staff. I wasn’t going to get an answer before my shuttle, but I said hey, I’ll delay, rebooking doesn’t cost too much. And then Dioni stopped what she was doing, and she said she didn’t want the money. Can you believe that? She said it was really kind, but she got herself into this mess, she had to get herself out. She’s so much more responsible than she used to be.

Then a ship from the Far Stars came in, and all these pioneers arrived on their month off, and they all knew Dioni. I sat and listened to their stories for hours, and Dioni listened too while she worked, and it was amazing, the places they’d been and the things they’d seen. Then I had to get my shuttle, because sure I’d delayed it, but that job’s still waiting for me on Signus.

It’s sad that Dioni never got to Regamium. If Aunt Stella ever finds out, she’ll be really disappointed. So maybe don’t tell her any of this. Can you do that?

Hm. Maybe I just won’t send this. Not for a while, at least. Not until Dioni gets to Regamium.

I tell you what, though, she’s great at putting on a brave face for the customers, even though she’s stuck there. I’ve never seen anyone smile so much.

***

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.

A Gentleman Never Surrenders – a historical short story

The Sopwith Camel biplane hit the ground with a thud and a screech of rending metal. The undercarriage tore off on the edge of a shell hole and the plane skidded on its belly, mangled propeller churning the mud. Aubrey clung on white knuckled, trying not to scream, because dammit, that wasn’t what a gentleman did.

After seconds that took years off Aubrey’s life, the plane slid to a halt. He looked around. Someone was moving half a mile away, near the German trenches, but were they moving toward him? He grabbed everything of use from the ruined plane—a pistol, a flare, a map, a compass, a bottle of water—and stuffed them inside his flying jacket, then leapt out. He sank ankle deep in the mud that was the defining feature of autumn 1917—muddy roads, muddy trenches, muddy airfields that complicated take-offs, landings, and maintenance.

The map and compass confirmed what he already feared, that he had landed well behind the German lines. Surrender might be the safest option, especially given the ache in his ankle, but a gentleman didn’t simply give up. Moving at a crouch, and wincing whenever that ankle found a bump, he headed west.

He’d only gone a few hundred yards when movement caught his eye. A German patrol appeared over the edge of a crater, two of them looking right at him. One raised a rifle while the other shouted in alarm.

Aubrey fired wildly with his pistol. The rifle cracked and pain ripped through his arm, but the Germans flung themselves down behind the crater’s edge. Fighting back pain, Aubrey fled across the battered landscape, firing over his shoulder until the hammer clicked on empty cartridges, then flung himself head first into a shell hole.

He slid down the crater until he hit a broken transport cart and the body of the horse that had pulled it. Waving away flies, he scrambled into the gap between the cart and the cadaver, even as German voices approached. There wasn’t space in the hiding place for his feet, so he forced them into the mud. Then he lay still, trying hard not to throw up despite the rotten stench.

Two German soldiers appeared at the edge of the crater. They looked down, rifles at the ready, and for a moment Aubrey felt like his heart had stopped, he was so certain they had seen him. Another German shouted nearby.

“Nein,” one of the soldiers said. “Niemand hier.”

Then they walked on, around the edge of the crater and away.

Aubrey waited until the voices and footsteps vanished, then waited fifteen minutes more. At last, he dragged himself out of his hiding place. The movement finally made the nausea too much, and he vomited. At least that stopped his stomach churning.

He swirled a little water from the bottle around his mouth, then spat it out, washing away the taste of bile. Then he peeled off his jacket and washed mud from the bullet hole in his arm. The bullet hadn’t hit the bone, which was a relief, but it hurt like Hell, and he had to use up the map and one shirt sleeve to stifle the bleeding. Shivering, he pulled his jacket back on, fastened it, and assessed his remaining provisions. One water bottle, empty. One pistol, likewise. One compass, broken sliding down the crater. One flare.

He needed to get back soon, to get that arm seen to. A few days out here and infection was sure to set in, not to mention hunger and thirst. It wasn’t like he could fight his way through the enemy lines, so he would try to sneak across after dark. If someone caught him, the flare would be his weapon of last recourse, but only if he was nearly through. Otherwise, it would draw every German for miles around onto him.

The one advantage of being shot down in November was that there wasn’t long to wait until dark. Three shivering hours later, the only lights were the stars and a few beams from lanterns around dugout doors.

Aubrey crept from his hole toward the German lines. As he got closer, he heard people moving. He flattened himself against the ground and wormed his way through the mud to the back of a German trench.

The place was crowded with soldiers, the trench lines full in every direction. Their buttons and bayonets were covered in boot black, so as not to catch the light. Their silence was grim as the grave.

If he waited for them to go, Aubrey could raid their dugouts for supplies, then make his way back to British lines through the chaos of battle. For a lone downed pilot, it was perhaps the best chance of getting home. But for the British soldiers in the opposing lines, it would be a terrible night.

A gentleman might not give in, but he didn’t leave other chaps in the lurch. Aubrey rolled onto his back, slid the flare from his jacket, and waited. As the Germans climbed out of their trenches and started their silent advance, he pulled the tab on the flare. It shot into the air, then exploded in a bright flash. There were cries of alarm from the Germans, and more from the west, where the British lines lay. Gunfire opened up and more flares were launched. Revealed by their phosphorous glare, the German advance collapsed into chaos.

Two soldiers scrambled out the back of the trench. Aubrey couldn’t see their faces or understand the words they said, but he could see their pistols, and he could hear the fury in their voices.

A gentleman didn’t just give up, but he was too cold and wet to give a damn about standards any more. Much as it galled him, he would have to sit out the next round of the war.

He raised his hands. “I surrender.”

***

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.

***

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.

The Ghost of a Guilty Hand – a fantasy short story

Sunan hefted a lump of stone from her barrow onto the steadily rising wall, then turned the stone until it fitted into place. She wanted to be able to say that this was half the struggle, finding pieces that held so snug together they needed no mortar, but almost all the struggle came in the building itself, pushing rocks around with one good hand and the stump of her other elbow.

As the rocks ground against each other, they released sparks of residual magic from the battle that had levelled the town. She remembered striding up the beach, a sword in one hand and a fireball flying from the other, certain that victory was worth more than its cost. She could almost see that lost hand, a ghostly after image.

A crunch drew her out of her reverie. Prasert had landed his boat and was ambling up the shingle.

“You’ll never finish it at this rate,” he said. “Not before the locusts arrive.”

“What would you know?” Sunan heaved another stone one-handed onto the wall. Its course surface pressed uncomfortably against her stump as she pushed it into place.

“I know that, without a shelter, no one can stay here through swarm season, and without that time to finish, you can’t make anything that will last the winter winds.” He pointed to  rows of scattered rocks, the rubble of her previous efforts. “You know that too.”

He deposited a sack of supplies next to her tent: grain, dried cod, lime juice, other essentials. A pouch was waiting there for him, filled with currency of all shapes and sizes, the dwindling fortune of a former mercenary.

“Trade’s quiet at the moment,” he said. “I could help if you want, just for a few weeks, to get that first shelter built.”

“No.” Sunan heaved another block into place, her anger lending her strength. She felt a little of the old magic flow.

“It’s no sacrifice. Having a port here would be good for—”

“I said no!” She spun around, clutching a rock, and glared at him. “This is my penance, to rebuild what I broke. No one gets to bear it for me.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“Like demon fire you didn’t.” She slammed the rock into place, sparks flying as the stones cracked together. “I see you pitying the poor cripple, but I don’t need your charity. If I could kill for this place, then I can live for it.”

Muscles strained as she lifted another rock, and another, and another, smashing them into place in swift succession, barely looking at what she did. She would straighten them later. For now, she would show what she could do.

The magic flowed through her, a power flung about this place so wildly it would linger forever. Once, she would have bent it to her will. Now she endured it, like the sand between her toes and the course grass that scratched her skin.

“Sunan,” Prasert whispered. “Your hand.”

“Yes, my poor hand, it must be so worn from all this work. Gods forbid that I labour.”

“No, look, your other hand!”

“I don’t have another…” Sunan stopped and stared at the rock she was holding. Two hands gripped it, one calloused and sun-darkened, the other a ghostly haze of magic stretching from her stump.

She set the stone down and held the ghost hand up. The more she thought about it, the less it seemed like it was hers, and the harder it was to control. Still, she curled her fingers in, one at a time, each bending knuckle an effort of will.

“You’ve tamed the magic,” Prasert said.

“Yes…” Sunan stiffened as she stared at the hand, so familiar and yet so alien. “But it’s not mine.”

“It is now!” Prasert laughed. “And with two hands you can finish the shelter before swarm season. Isn’t that fantastic?”

“No! I have to do this through my own effort.”

She waved the hand away from her, trying to shake off the magic.

“You were a wizard. This is your effort.”

“No! This is cheating!”

“This is applying your gifts.”

“This isn’t… this isn’t… this isn’t how it’s meant to work.”

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Even as she said it, she knew how patronising she sounded, but she didn’t have the words she needed. There was a right way to do this, and a wrong way. The magic hand was wrong.

“Do you even want to finish?” Prasert asked.

“Of course.” She folded her arms. This was a ridiculous question.

“Do you? Because I think there are ways you could have finished by now, with better tools, or better plans, or just a little help. But maybe you want to labour here forever, punishing yourself in public view.”

“That’s absurd. And even if it was true, what business of yours would it be?”

“There was a port here once, well placed for traders and for locals. Since you helped destroy it, we’ve all gone without, and now the big bad mercenary is up here, saying hers is the only way to rebuild. Where do you think that leaves us?”

Every summer for ten years, he’d been bringing her supplies, but she’d never seen him like this; red-faced, brow crumpled, hands planted on his hips. He saw her looking at him, and he sagged as righteous indignation gave way to fear or guilt or something else she didn’t understand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll be back next month. Still time for more building before swarm season.”

He walked down the beach, shingle crunching beneath his feet, and climbed into his boat.

Sunan looked at her ghost had. She still had a wizard’s skills, even if they had been neglected. With focus, she could make this go away. Then she could return to the work as she had been doing, the work she deserved. Instead, she picked up a stone with both hands and placed it on the wall.

***

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.

Rare Books in Rough Hands – a historical short story

The hammering on the door repeated, followed by a furious voice.

“Open up, in the name of the holy inquisition!”

Diego Ortiz stumbled through the bookshop, pulling up his britches as he went. There was just enough light for him to see without a candle, but in his rush he collided with the corner of a table and came away with a throbbing shin.

“Open up, Señor Ortiz!” The hammering persisted.

“I’m trying, I’m trying!”

Diego yanked the bar back from the door and pulled it open. In the street stood three robed priests, like wise men come to visit the stable, and behind them three armed men, who looked a lot less wise. The sun had barely begun to creep above the rooftops of Seville, and only the earliest of roosters had yet saluted the dawn.

“You are Diego Ortiz, the bookseller?” one of the priests asked.

“I am.”

“Father Alvaro de Fuentes. I am here to search your stock for heretical texts.”

“Couldn’t you wait an hour? As you can see, I’m not even dressed yet, and there’s been no time for—”

“We will not give you time to to hide crimes.” Father de Fuentes pushed past Diego, and his companions followed him. “You may fetch a shirt, but one of the guards will go with you.”

“You think I’m hiding heresies under my tunic?”

“Protestants are wily, Señor Ortiz. As long as Calvin keeps churning out his blasphemous texts, we must remain vigilant.”

The priests started pulling books off the shelves, piling them up in the middle of the room. Diego blanched at the rough treatment of his precious stock, then scurried off to finish dressing, a guard tramping after him.

By the time he returned, the shelves were virtually empty, the books a tumbled heap. One of the priests was tapping at the backs of shelves, testing for hiding places, while the other two examined the books.

“Is there anything you want to tell us?” Father de Fuentes asked, waving a volume of Tacitus.

“You shouldn’t find anything amiss,” Diego said. “And if you do, I can hardly be blamed. We haven’t seen an updated banned books index in years. If you would just—”

“Protestantism is heresy, your thin claim to technical ignorance no excuse. So I say again, do you have anything you want to tell us?”

Diego clasped his hands tightly together and tried not to let his fear show. This moment could see his business ruined, or worse. Admission in advance might show cooperation, but there were no guarantees.

“No, Father,” he said. “There is nothing here that should trouble you.”

“Should is a weak word for a weak man. Let us see what other weaknesses this place holds.”

De Fuentes read the spine of the book in his hand, snorted, and set it aside, the beginnings of a second heap. Together, he and his brothers began checking the titles, while Diego watched them nervously and the guards watched Diego. Every so often, one of the priests would hold out a book for the others to check, or they would compare a title with one on a list. Twice, Diego had to explain the difference between a book in his possession and one with a similar title by a wildly different author.

“Is there something in particular you’re looking for?” he asked, trying to calm himself by treating them like just one more group  of customers.

“Certainly not.” De Fuentes tossed a Catalan romance onto the checked pile, and Diego winced as the book landed open, pages buckling, its corner scratching the cover of a poetry collection.

“Could you please take a little more care with my books?”

De Fentes scowled at him. “Souls are at stake. I would expect a good Catholic to value that above mere material goods. Unless, of course, there’s something you’re not telling us…”

“No, no, you carry on. I’ll just…” Diego wiped his palms on his tunic, leaving a sweaty smear. “I’ll just wait.”

At last, the priests finished checking all the books. De Fuentes put his list away and waved to the guards.

“We’re done here.”

“You’re not going to put them back?” Diego asked, pointing at the books.

De Fuentes glared. “Be grateful that you still have them all. This has gone very differently for others.”

Diego waited until the priests and their guards were gone, then sank to the floor next to his poor, abused books. He slumped, then laughed shakily. Rummaging around in the bottom of the heap, he pulled out a volume labelled as Tacitus’s Histories, then flicked through until he found a second title page. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, the title proclaimed. Diego turned the page and started to read. If it was worth all this, then it must really be worth reading.

***

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.

***

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.

How We Fly – a steampunk short story

Image by b0red from Pixabay

Professor Halleux watched the airship lift away from the docks and into a clear blue sky. Another vessel completed, another crew and their passengers launched into the wide yonder. Twenty years as master of her own air yard, and there was still satisfaction to be had from a finished project.

Time to take stock, to pull out the well worn blueprints and to prepare for the next order. With all the final checks and then the bustle of the launch, it was days since she’d been inside the workshop. It would be a relief to put her feet up and spend some time with her old tools.

She walked into the workshop and stopped, unsettled. The regular tool racks and shelves of components had been pushed back against the walls, as had some of the workbenches. In the empty space stood three figures.

“Ingrid?” Professor Halleux shouted. “What is this?”

Halleux’s apprentice scuttled out of a back room, carrying a set of aviator’s goggles.

“Professor, perfect timing!” Ingrid pulled the goggles over the head of one of the figures. “I’ve just finished preparing.”

As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, Halleux now realized that the figures were dummies, all dressed in leather overalls and strapped into mechanical contraptions.

“I should not have to repeat myself,” she said. “What is this?”

“I’ve been working on some alternative flight options we can offer to customers,” Ingrid said. “This one is a glider, allowing free flight from a starting point aboard an airship or other transport vessel.”

She pulled a cord and canvas wings unfolded with a clack.

“Did you waste good balloon canvas on this?” Halleux asked.

“No, Professor. It’s offcuts.”

“Well, it’s not the sort of thing our customers are after.”

“Then how about this?” Ingrid stepped to the next dummy, which already had thinly curved metal wings extended. She pressed a button and flames roared from a funnel just above waist height. “Jet propulsion. It only carries fuel for short flights, but you can take off from the ground!”

“Our customers are not looking to sprout wings. Please put things back in order, I want to sit down and start planning for the meeting with Von Chauffen.”

“Just one more.” Ingrid’s voice tightened. “Please?”

“Quickly.”

Ingrid grinned and reached up to spin the propeller blades that sat on the helmet of the final dummy, stretching out two feet to either side.

“I really stretched myself on this one, thinking beyond conventional approaches to flight. A horizontal propeller that lifts the wearer into the air. It’s not as fast as the jet, but you can hover in place, if you want to.”

“Extraordinary,” Halleux said.

“Thank you, professor.”

“Extraordinary that after all this time you have not learnt what it is our customers want. That you would waste time and resources on these ridiculous, impractical machines.”

“Surely we have to try new things?”

“No we do not. We have machines that work, that solve the problem of flight, that carry people around the world. If that’s not good enough for you, then you are in the wrong profession.”

Ingrid’s lip trembled, but she stood firm.

“You used to be an inventor, an innovator, a champion of progress.”

Halleux stared at the girl. How dare she talk like this when Halleux had taken her under her wing, taught her the secrets of the trade, trained her in everything that was needed to take to the skies?

“I am an inventor. I defied gravity itself, and I won. You have barely even mastered the reinforcement of gas bags.”

“Who needs reinforced gas bags when you have wings?”

“Don’t take pride in ignorance. Now tidy this nonsense away. Any components that can’t be returned to supplies will come out of your wages.”

With a sigh, Ingrid started unstrapping the glider’s pack.

Halleux still wanted to sit down and put her feet up, but with all the furniture rearranged she couldn’t even see her chair. Instead, she stood staring at the dummy with the propeller on its head. A long neglected impulse stirred her hand, and she pushed the propeller blade, watched it turn and listened to the click of its mechanism. Ridiculous, and yet…

She unstrapped the helmet, flipped open a panel on the side, and peered at the mechanisms. Intriguing. Not how she would have made it, but a good start. With a more refined drive mechanism, better control could be gained, and then there was the question of how fuel was fed to the motor. She patted her pocket and realised that there was no magnifying glass there. Sometime in the past decade, she had stopped carrying it.

The feeling that had hold of her was familiar, even though she hadn’t known it in years. She strode over to the middle dummy and peered at the jet engine. Perhaps these things could be combined. That was often where the best advances came from.

“Professor Halleux?” Ingrid said quietly from the back of the room. “I’ve, um, I’ve cleared the way to your chair.”

“Not now, girl.” Halleux shook her head. “Come here and tell me, what is the fuel mix? And have you considered a second jet funnel?”

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, 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 Carnival Comes to Carnage – a fantasy short story

Image by Merio from Pixabay

Dormud woke in the shattered stump of a guard tower that had been his home ever since The Fall. Creaks, thuds, and groans filled the air. Probably Levlin trying to rebuild the central spire again, as if that could bring the magi back, or Tolbar trying to make a lumber mill out of broken siege machines. Any minute now, Tolbar would start singing, and then any chance of sleep would vanish. Idiots, the lot of them.

Dormud dragged himself out of his pile of straw, kicked a rat away, and plucked a handful of fungus off the damp granite wall. At least he’d never go hungry as long as he stayed here in Carnage, as long as he didn’t mind the boils and the stomach cramps that came with living off the waste from a spell war.

Through the rusted bars of his window, people were gathering in the street. Not just his neighbours, but strangers in bright tunics, unloading poles and canvas from wagons. More idiots.

Chewing on his rubbery, bitter breakfast, Dormud stomped out into the town’s central crater. He’d heard whispers of the carnival, but never seen it before, and never wanted to. All these tents with their fluttering pennants, the barkers calling people to celebrate the wonders of the world, it was a cloth woven from lies. That woman in the pointed hat making puppets dance for the children, she would walk away with trinkets tossed to her by grateful parents, but what good would that do anyone? When the excitement wore off, they’d still be living in ruins, and they’d be poorer too.

Stones clattered from beneath his feet as he stomped along the slope and into one of the tents. A dozen of his neighbours sat on rugs amid a choking cloud of incense, while a string quartet played lively tunes. Everyone was smiling: the musicians, the audience, the man holding the tent flap back for Dormud. Fools the lot of them.

He stepped inside so he could see better. The music made him think of the time before The Fall, when he worked with others in the tower, serving the magi with their glittering robes and their grand visions for tomorrow. If his heart beat faster, it wasn’t because of the music, just the incense in his throat. That was why his eyes watered, why he struggled to walk away.

As he emerged, dazed and drifting, an hour later, he nodded to the man holding the tent flap. Maybe it wasn’t so bad for the inhabitants of Carnage to take a moment’s joy. It might not make the wasteland better, but it wouldn’t make it any worse.

Levlin smiled as she walked past Dormud. “Enjoying yourself?”

“No.”

He stomped off up the crater. Others might need the bright costumes and the music, but he didn’t. He had accepted the world as it was.

Four carnies stood along the edge of the crater, one at each compass point, arms outstretched, the wind whipping at ribbons that hung from their arms. It must be a strange wind, because all four sets of ribbons were flowing toward the crater.

Dormud squinted. He’d picked up a few tricks from the magi, a certain sensitivity. He saw the magic rising from the tents, faint but glittering ribbons that vanished into the carnies at the compass points. The power and potential of the townspeople being drained away.

The music, the incense, the smiles, it had all been a trick. For a moment, he’d let himself believe, but the world wouldn’t let him have that moment.

Dormud strode around the rim and grabbed a carny. Ribbons fell limp as he lifted her by her tunic.

“I knew this was a lie,” Dormud growled. “Leeches, the lot of you.”

“We give them joy,” the carny said in a trembling voice. “It’s a fair trade.”

“It’s not a trade, it’s a theft.” Dormud flung her into the nearest tent, which collapsed in a heap of broken poles and tangled ropes. “Leeches! Vultures! Get out or I’ll break your bones!”

He strode down the crater, casting aside carnies and tearing down tents, bellowing in fury as he went. Sad and confused, the people of Carnage watched as the carnies loaded their wagons and hurried out of town.

Dormud stood in the middle of the crater, his neighbours staring at him.

“Why, Dormud?” Levlin asked.

“Because they deserved it.”

What more needed to be said? These people believed him or they didn’t. Either way, they would go back to their lives of denial, the sort of idiots that carnies could dupe because a tune or a play had made them feel better for an hour. People who would give up their power, their potential, for a day’s relief.

As they turned their backs on him, Dormud heard a fragment of music, the carnies playing as they rode down the road. He remembered the world as it had been before, a bittersweet memory of shining towers, fine food, and lofty dreams.

“Levlin,” he called out.

She turned, slow as the closing of a dungeon door. “Yes, Dormud?”

“You still trying to rebuilding the spire?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll come help. And Tolbar?”

Tolbar looked at him, uncertain. “Yes, Dormud?”

“I’ll help you with your mill later if you sing for us now.”

“Sing for you?”

More people turned and looked at him in confusion, but Dormud had said all he meant to for the day. He lifted a block of stone from the crater’s edge.

The Fall was over. It was time to rise again.

***

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.

Olga Goncharova Gives Up Her Gun – a historical short story

Olga opened the door just enough to glare out at her visitor. Let the journalist stand around in the stairwell, with its mould and peeling paint. Olga’s apartment was a place for good Communists, not modern girls in jeans who refused to take no for an answer.

“Good morning, Miss Goncharova,” the journalist said, smiling at Olga over her notepad. “I was hoping that you might have time to talk, if I came in person.”

“Why would I talk to you?” Olga’s scowl tugged at the scars on her cheek.

“Because I want to write about your experience in the war, about what happened to your village, about how you saved all those people. Surely that’s a story you’d like to tell?”

Olga snorted. “I didn’t save anyone. Go away.”

“Please, Miss Goncharova. The stories of so many women were swept away by the party, I want to—”

“I have nothing to say to you.”

A door opened across the hallway, one of Olga’s neighbours peering out, spying on her like they all did. And this stupid girl, still standing with her pencil in her hand and a face full of eagerness.

“In, in.” Olga ushered the journalist into her apartment, then slammed the door. They couldn’t report what they didn’t hear. “I have nothing to tell you, but I won’t have you causing a scene.”

“I’m sorry.” The girl wasn’t. She walked around the apartment with a look of open curiosity, like she was searching for hidden truths. “But what you did was extraordinary.”

“I told you, I did nothing.”

“That’s not what the other survivors say.”

Olga gritted her teeth. Nearly forty years since the Germans invaded her old home, and now the memory of them invaded the new one.

“Read the history. It was Captain Oblonsky and Private Kuzentsov who saved the people of my village.”

“I’ve read the damn history, with all its party lies.” The journalist glared at the portrait of Lenin on the wall.  “They don’t want to admit the difference that women made. They let you struggle and suffer and bleed, and then they closed you back up in kitchens and bedrooms, to play the mother and the servant. You deserve better. We deserve better.”

“We?” Olga folded her arms. “You know nothing.”

“That’s why I’m here. So that everyone can learn about your war.”

“My war?”

The clock ticked on the mantle. Outside, a lone car drove past the bread line below the tower block. The journalist stood expectantly, pencil at the ready, watching Olga.

“My war was seeing my home burned down. It was four years of living in swamps and forests, choosing which of the children we could feed today. It was eating rats and drinking water that was as likely to kill you as quench your thirst. It was sitting for hours amid the roots at the edge of a river, holding my frozen body still, because I could not let a German patrol hear me. It was watching my friend miscarry in a ditch.

“And then, at the end, a man from the ministry who came to me, and he was so polite, and he said ‘Miss Goncharova, it is time to give up your gun, to give up the battles you have won and the men you have killed and the glories you have earned, because families make our country stronger, and a woman’s place in the family is not to fight.’”

“Did you have that family? Did you see the strong country you paid for in blood and silence?”

Slowly, Olga ran her finger down her scarred cheek.

“Leave my home.”

“Please, Miss Goncharova, this is your chance to—“

“Leave! Now!”

At last, the girl listened. She scurried to the door like a rat with a cat on its tail.

“You have my number, if you ever—”

“Out.”

The door closed behind the journalist. Olga looked up at the picture of Lenin. Underneath it sat another picture, cut from a newspaper, showing the school they had built on the site of her old home. She had not gone back for the grand opening, too afraid of the ghosts waiting there, but the photograph, with its proud building and smiling children, reminded her that it had been worthwhile.

That all of it had been worthwhile.

She pressed a hand to her belly. So much lost. Then she stood, walked into the next room, and pulled an old wooden trunk from under her bed. The lid creaked back, revealing a rifle, Karabiner 98K, German made, taken off the body of a man who had tried to kill her. The wooden stock was worn smooth by years of use. The barrel gleamed.

“‘Miss Goncharova’,” she said to herself, “‘it is time to give up your gun.’”

She slammed the trunk shut, then stalked to the window and peered down into the street below. The journalist was emerging from the bottom of the tower block, stuffing her notebook into her satchel.

“You!” Olga shouted. “Come back up here. I have stories to tell.”

***

I have a new Commando comic out this week, set during the German invasion of Russia in World War Two. Like the real war, it features women achieving remarkable things in the defense of their homeland. This story is about what happens later, about the fate of one of those woman.

The Soviet government really did try to hide the role of women in the war, to support a return to what they considered normality. I’ve talked before about Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War, in which she brought those stories back into view. If you haven’t read it, then please do. It’s a remarkable piece of history writing.

And if you want to learn more about Olga’s story, check out We Are the Winter, out now from Commando.

***

***

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.