In the depths of winter, a miner struggles with his brother’s return from war.
- Tag Archives historical fiction
When a 9th century woman’s husband is killed her mind turns to vengeance, but the authorities have other ideas…
My latest book, All the Beautiful Sunsets, is out today. Collecting 52 flash stories I published on the blog this year, it covers a wide range of settings, from ancient history to the far future.
A fairy noble hunting for spies. A soldier digging for his life beneath a battlefield. A man learning the cost of renting out his brain. Meet all these characters and more in fifty-two short stories set in worlds beyond our own.
“Master van de Velde!” I exclaimed as the artist walked up the gangplank. “How good to see you. Out sketching ships again?”
“Oh yes!” Willem van de Velde said, setting down a bag of paper and pencils. He pulled out a pouch of coins and passed it to me. “I wish to set out immediately. Will this suffice?”
I opened the bag, peered at its mix of gold and silver, and felt its weight.
“It certainly will,” I said, then raised my voice to reach the crew. “Boys, get ready to cast off!”
The younger Willem van de Velde appeared behind his father, just before the gangplank was stowed away. Then we unfurled the single sail of my little galliot and headed out, threading our way through the maze of merchantmen that crowded the docks of the Hague, their timbers creaking and rigging whistling in the wind.
“Where to today?” I asked.
“West,” van de Velde said, a strange twinkle in his eyes. “Towards England.”
“Isn’t that where the fleet went?” I asked, breaking into a sweat despite the wind. “To fight the English?”
“That’s why we’re going there,” van de Velde the Younger said. “To turn war into art, retrieve beauty from horror, and capture a moment of great patriotic pride.”
“Which men will pay dearly to hang on their walls,” his father said.
“We usually avoid battles.” I twisted my cap nervously in my hands. “On account of all the killing and sinking. I think you’d better find another ship.”
“Really?” van de Velde the elder said, tossing me another bag of coins.
“Patriotic pride, you say?” With that weight in my hand, ambition overcame fear. “Then it’s our duty as Dutchmen to help you.”
By the time we got near the battle, my ambition was sinking beneath the weight of my nerves.
The sea was thick with ships, great men-of-war with full sails and bristling gun decks. They edged towards each other in long columns, smoke billowing around them, cannons roaring. The smallest could have contained my poor boat a dozen times over.
“Surely this is near enough,” I said, watching war unfold before me.
The mainmast of the nearest ship shook, then toppled slowly over, hitting the deck with a crash. The screams of mangled sailors were far too loud across the open water.
“We must get closer,” van de Velde the elder said. He sketched as he spoke, leaning on a board that rested on the rail, pencil flying back and forth across the page.
“But the danger!”
“They’ll be shooting at each other, not us,” the younger said, adding a dab of watercolour to his own work. “We need to get in with the fleet, before and behind the ships, to see the timbers splinter and flames roar, to capture the giddy heart of battle.”
“I’m not sure that my heart can take-”
Another bag of coins landed at my feet.
“Well, when you put it like that.” I raised my voice. “Boys, we’re getting in close!”
Months later, I sat in a dockside tavern, sipping at a cup of warm ale. This stuff didn’t taste as good as it used to, but then, nothing did. The days seemed greyer, the songs less lively. Perhaps if I had been sleeping better, that might have changed, but I woke in the night dreaming of the cannons’ roar and the van de Veldes’ sketches.
An old shipmate came to sit with me.
“Did you hear?” he said. “There’s been more trouble at sea. Fleet’s heading out to give the English a bloody nose.”
My heart raced. I smelled gun smoke and heard the crack of shattering timbers.
“Excuse me,” I said, downing my beer and abandoning my seat. “I have business to attend.”
I ran down to the docks. Sure enough, there were the van de Veldes, bags in hand, eyeing up fast vessels.
“Excuse me, sirs,” I said, rushing up to them.
“Captain!” van de Velde the Elder said. “I thought that you were, in your words, done with our madness.”
There was a strange twinkle in his eyes again. I recognised it now, having seen it in my own reflection. He too heard the battle rage around him and felt his heart hammer at the thrill of it.
“I was over hasty,” I said, leading them towards my galliot. “In these troubled times, an honest sailor cannot afford to turn down business.”
“I understand,” van de Velde the Elder said, nodding solemnly. He handed me a bag of coins. “Here. I wish to sail west.”
* * *
This is one of those stories where the real history was so wild that I didn’t need to make it up. Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger were 17th century Dutch artists who specialised in nautical scenes. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, they would sail with the fleet to make sketches of the battles, getting right in amid the action. These sketches became the basis for grand, dramatic paintings that celebrated the achievements of the Dutch fleet. They later emigrated to England, where they were employed by King Charles II.
If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And you can read more historical fiction and alternate history in my collection From a Foreign Shore, only 99c in all e-book formats.
I have a new comic out today!
Harriet’s War is part of Commando‘s Armistice celebration, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War. The story of an ambulance driver on the Western Front, it’s a story I was really excited to write, not least because it covers the under-represented role of women in the war.
You can get Harriet’s War from newsagents in the UK and in digital form around the world via Comixology. If you want to read more about it, check out my post from Monday. And if you enjoy it, please let me know – it’s always nice to hear when people like your work.
Cover image © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd 2018
This week, I have a new comic out from Commando – Harriet’s War.
Harriet’s War is part of a series from Commando marking the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Called The Weekes’ War, the series follows several members of a single family, all serving in British forces.
As I’ve written about before, World War One is an important part of history. It was a war of unprecedented destruction in which people were reduced to cogs in industrial-scale killing machines. Because of the way soldiers were recruited, entire communities sometimes lost a generation of young men. Seeing how the war could touch the many members of a single family is particularly fitting, as well as a smart way to show different sides of the war.
Showing different sides is why I’m particularly proud to have written Harriet’s War. It’s only right and proper that we talk about the millions of young men who fought and died in the Allied armies, but it’s also important to remember other people and places, and that’s what Harriet’s War does.
The central characters, Harriet and Vera, are both women. Though very few women fought in the war, many were involved in it. Filling roles such as factory workers and nurses, they did hard, sometimes dangerous work. Though it was driven by men, this wasn’t just a men’s war.
This story focuses on medicine in a time of war. Harriet and Vera are an ambulance crew, risking death in no man’s land to save injured soldiers. We don’t often see the work of medical staff in war, but from frontline combat medics to the surgeons rebuilding broken bodies, theirs is tough, vital, life-saving, heart-breaking work. Without them, countless more lives would be lost, and it’s good to see them get the recognition they deserve.
Once Harriet gets out between the trenches, the story shows yet another side of the war – the experience of the Germans. In Britain, we mostly focus on the Allied experience, whether intentionally or by default. But a generation of German youths went through the same hardship the Allies did, the same losses, the same horrors. By the late war, they were battered, demoralised, struggling to survive. When Harriet encounters a German unit, the story takes a dramatic turn, one that reveals the humanity of the other side.
Of course, there are still many other sides to the war, ones that aren’t included here. From the struggle on the Eastern Front to the fighting in Africa to the war at sea, they are too easily forgotten when discussing the war. We can’t deal with them all at once, but we can at least make a start. If there’s a part of the war you think is under-represented, leave a comment about it and I’ll try to write about it in the future.
Art for this issue is by an artist who’s new to Commando – Khato of Creaciones Editoriales. As I write this, I haven’t yet seen the finished issue, but based on the pages you can see here I think it’s going to be great, full of vivid action and character. I love the collaborative element of comics, the way an artist gives the story life in ways the writer never even imagined. This is no exception.
On a personal note, this issue features a small tribute to my Great Aunt Vera, who died earlier this year. Vera was born during the war and lost her father to the fighting in the trenches. She went on to become an extraordinary person in her own right, lively, outspoken, and insightful until the end. Harriet’s friend and colleague is named after her.
Harriet’s War will be out in newsagents and on Comixology this Thursday, the 29th. Other issues of The Weekes’ War are already out there for you to buy. I hope that you enjoy this journey into some of the less remembered parts of the First World War.
All art © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd 2018
I woke with a start, sitting bolt upright on my lumpy, flea-ridden mattress. My head hit the bunk above me and I stifled a curse. In the surrounding darkness, the men of my company filling our dugout with the rumbling chorus of their snores.
I’d had the nightmare again. The one where the British stormed our trenches and I was taken captive. Mocked, beaten, scorned, an embarrassment to my family. Girls I had known back home pointing and laughing at me through the bars of a cage.
I swung my legs around to sit, hunched, on the side of my bed and laid a hand on my rifle. If the British came then I would not let them capture me, no matter what. Death before dishonour.
A stub of candle was stuck to a tin lid by my bed. I struck a match, lit the wick, and reached for my boots. If I couldn’t sleep then I might as well go up to the trenches and help keep watch.
Before I could get my boots on, the roar of an explosion filled the air, shaking the room. The sound of it drove the breath from my lungs. At the far end of the dugout, roof beams gave way and the earth fell in, burying men in their beds.
As the room kept shaking, men tumbled out of their beds, looking around in alarm. We were meant to be too deep for any shell to penetrate. We were meant to be safe.
Timbers groaned, creaked, cracked like God snapping his fingers. Dirt tumbled down the stairwell and into the room.
I rushed barefoot across the rough floor and peered up the stairs. They were filled with fallen soil and broken timbers.
Hans appeared beside me, dressed in only his underwear, a wild look on his face.
“We have to get out,” he said. “Before we’re trapped here forever.”
Some men came to us, while others dug frantically to rescue the buried men.
My skin crawled at a whole new imagined dread – the thought of being trapped not just in a cage but beneath the earth. My pulse quickened. Hans was right. We had to get out.
I grabbed a trenching tool and scrambled up the stairwell, the dirt cold and damp between my toes, until I couldn’t ascend any further. Then I started digging, hurling rocks and soil down behind me, opening a gap just wide enough for me to wriggle forward and keep digging.
Hans came up behind me and I could hear others behind him, shovelling the dirt back from one man to the next until it hit the floor of the dugout.
The ground shook again and I heard something fall. Dirt cascaded across my arms, almost trapping them.
“Faster!” someone yelled. “The whole place is going to collapse.”
I tore at the heaped earth with my digging tool, flinging dirt into the faces of the men behind me. My knuckles scraped against fallen boards and rocks. Dirt filled the grazes. Pain flashed and my heart raced.
My hands burst through a last layer of dirt and into air. I writhed out of the fallen earth and into a clear stretch of stairwell. Above me, I saw a rectangle of grey dawn sky.
I laughed, turned, and started digging again, trying to make a way through for the others.
There was a roar and I was flung from my feet. The walls came crashing down on top of me. I was swallowed into the darkness of the earth.
I couldn’t breath. Not just couldn’t reach the air but couldn’t move my lungs. I strained, trying to force air down, got only a mouthful of dirt. Panic gripped me and I would have sobbed in pity for myself if only I could have made a sound.
Desperately, I strained with my right arm, forcing fingers through the weight of dirt. They found the broken edge of a plank and I gripped it tight, trying to ignore the splinters piercing my palm as I heaved with all my strength. My body moved an inch, then another. I forced my other arm around, like swimming in slow motion, and took hold with that hand too.
My head was spinning, my chest burning. Muscles trembled as I pulled on the plank, dragging myself higher.
The dirt loosened. My chest heaved. I drew in air as well as dirt, but still it wasn’t enough. Muscles trembled as I tapped into the last of my strength.
Writhing and twisting, I worked my way up through the ground until my arm burst out into the open air. Moments later, I slithered snake-like from what had seemed to be my tomb and lay panting on the ground.
The world was filled with shouting, strange men using unfamiliar words. One appeared at the mouth of the stairwell, only a few feet away. He pointed his gun straight at me, a figure out of my nightmares, ready to drag me off into captivity.
I laughed and flung my hands up.
How sweet it was to breath again and to know that I might keep on breathing.
Better dishonour than death.
* * *
Harriet’s War, a comic I wrote set in the First World War, is out next week, so it seemed like a good time to return to that era.
I’ve written before about the attack on Messines Ridge, when the Allies triggered the largest non-nuclear explosion in military history. In To Win Just Once, I showed that action from the perspective of the New Zealand troops attacking the ridge. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the awful idea of what it would have been like to be on the other side, among the ten thousand Germans killed or buried alive in the explosion. This story is about that.
If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And watch out next week for more about Harriet’s War.
I was nine years old when the Spaniards were billeted on us. My father and both my brothers had died of a fever the previous winter and all that remained of our family was me, little Maaritje, and my mother. I helped mother around the farm, but Maaritje could barely walk, never mind plant beans or milk the goats. We had enough food to live off, but only just.
The Spaniards arrived in uniform, carrying their muskets and their swords. Both were mud-spattered and wary-looking. The officer accompanying them knew some Dutch and my mother spoke a little Spanish from when she had lived near the docks in Amsterdam. It was enough for explanations.
These two men – broad Barros and lean-faced Gonzalo – would be staying with us for the winter, until their company was gathered again. We had to provide them with beds, firewood, candles, and a roof above their heads. There was talk about the officer sending food or the money to pay for it, but even I could tell from his tone that it would never come. Within an hour, he had ridden off, leaving his men with us.
Barros and Gonzalo took mother’s bed, leaving her to sleep on a pile of straw beside Maaritje’s cot. They took most of the food at meal times, though Gonzalo was more sparing, his eyes flitting uncomfortably across what Maaritje and I ate.
We were hungry all the time. Maaritje wailed into the night despite mother’s soothings. My ribs showed more clearly than ever beneath my shirt.
After a few weeks, mother began setting some of the food aside when she cooked. Barros and Gonzalo seldom left the house, so she had to do it furtively, sliding scraps of meat and crusts of bread into the folds of her apron. In the dead of night, while the soldiers slept, she fed me and Maaritje these secret feasts, and we were a little less hungry.
Neither man knew any Dutch, but mother talked to them in Spanish, and as the weeks went by she was able to talk more. Barros started lurking around her while she cleaned and cooked, a hungry look in his eyes. Now she was hiding food within inches of him.
It couldn’t last.
I was out in the yard, my breath frosting as I fed the pigs, when I heard a shout from the house. I ran inside, slamming the door back against the wall in my haste.
Barros and my mother were by the fire, where our dinner was cooking. He had hold of her arm. They were talking over each other in Spanish, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. Gonzalo sat on the edge of the bed, a knife and a stick in his hands. Maaritje sat sobbing in a corner.
As I came in, Barros tugged at a pocket on my mother’s apron. The stitching gave way. Half an apple and a chunk of bread fell out.
My mother froze. Barros pointed accusingly at the food. Then he slapped my mother.
She staggered back, holding her face. Barros advanced on her, grabbed her by both arms, and pressed her up against the wall.
I ran over and tried to pull Barros off my mother. He hit me with the back of his fist. Lights flashed across my eyes and I fell to the ground, the taste of blood in my mouth.
Mother struggled harder, her voice rising in panic. Barros tore at her dress. Maaritje screamed.
Gonzalo rose. He strode across the room in three steps. Barros turned to him with a wicked but welcoming grin.
Then came a moment I could never have imagined, as Gonzalo punched Barros in the nose. There was a crunch, a spray of blood, and Barros fell. His head hit the wall with a sound like a hammer hitting wood. Then he slid to the ground and lay very still.
For a long moment, we all stared at the body. Gonzalo seemed the most stunned of all, unable to comprehend what he’d just done.
I remembered the officer who had brought these men. He was coming back when the army mustered. What would happen if he found this?
I staggered to my feet, took hold of Barros’s boots, and dragged him towards the door. He was twice my size, but I was fuelled by a terrible determination. I had to protect my mother and Maaritje.
After a moment, Gonzalo was with me, lifting his dead companion by the shoulders. Together, we carried him out into the biting winter wind.
I led us towards the trees where we had buried father, Jan, and Lieven. But Gonzalo stopped and pointed at the pigs. He said something in Spanish, but all I could do was stare in confusion and fear. Didn’t he understand that we had to hide this body? Had the shock of killing his friend addled his mind?
He pulled a knife from his belt and my terror deepened. I was sure that he was going to kill us all, and so cover his tracks.
But it wasn’t me he cut.
The pigs ate well that week. Afterwards, we took the broken bones and flung them in the river. Then we settled down to living through the winter, a little less hungry with only four mouths to feed.
In the spring, the officer came. Whatever Gonzalo and mother told him about Barros, he didn’t seem surprised. He just rolled his eyes, muttered something, and set off down the road, his horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the dirt.
Gonzalo laid his musket against his shoulder. With his spare hand, he held something out to Maaritje – a toy pig whittled from a lump of wood. She smiled in glee and he smiled back. Mother nodded her approval. I just felt sick.
Then Gonzalo marched away.
* * *
Billeting soldiers on civilians was a feature of life in Europe for centuries. It seldom went well for the civilians. They were seldom compensated properly, if at all, for their losses. Many suffered cruelty and even murder at the hands of their enforced guests. In regions where the billeted forces were hostile to the locals, things could get very ugly.
I wanted to show some of that in this story, but still find some ray of hope, some glimmer of justice amid it all. If this one seemed a little too dark, just remember, the truth was worse.
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I sat on a stool in front of my cottage, watching the packet ship sail into Falmouth. From up on the headland, it seemed to drift in as pale and silent as a ghost. On the docks, everything would be bustle and noise, people calling back and forth as the ship steered into harbour, bringing news from across the world.
It was a long time since I’d found the courage to face the docks.
“Why are you crying?”
I looked around to see a boy, no more than six years old, his head tilted to one side as he looked at me. He was dressed in a threadbare smock and his feet were covered in dust from the road, but there was a brightness to him beneath the grime.
“I’m not crying,” I said, and held up the frayed ends of rope I’d been twining back together. “Just got a loose strand in my eye.”
“Is it because you’re missing a leg?”
If a grown man had said that to me, he’d have felt my fist, and to hell with whether I could stand up to finish fighting him. But children didn’t know better. You had to make allowances.
“It’s the sea,” I said at last. “It moves me.”
“Have you been to sea?” His face all eagerness, he sat down on the ground next to me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Tell me about it.”
I wiped my eye. “It’s been a long time.”
“I bet you have brilliant stories.”
“Aye, maybe.” I hadn’t told any of them in a long time. They reminded me too much of what I’d lost. But you had to make allowances for children. “What’s your name, lad?”
“I’m Edward. Let me tell you about the time I was chased by pirates…”
I sat on a barrel by the docks, sewing up a torn sail and watching ships come in. It had been a rough winter, the storms battering hard at the Cornish coast. But now the packet was back, the surest sign of Falmouth’s prosperity. It swept towards the harbour, slicing through the waves, the crew waving and cheering in excitement to be home. That sight made me smile, remembering my own returns from long stretches at sea.
“Edward!” Robert strode towards me, a sack slung over his shoulder. He’d grown a lot in eight years, each story I told seeming to add a little more to his height. And though he couldn’t yet grow a proper beard, he took great pride in the patches of stubble that dotted his chin.
“Good to see you, lad,” I said. “Come to see the packet come in?”
“More than that,” he replied, slinging the sack down beside my barrel. “I’m looking to sign up for her crew.”
I hunched over my work, jabbing away with the needle, hiding my face.
“Whatever’s the matter?” he asked, always perceptive for one so young. “Don’t you want me to go?”
I thought of everything I’d seen at sea. Men swept overboard. Others carried away as slaves. My own leg smashed by a shot from a French raider’s cannon, ending my sailing days forever. That was no life for a healthy, happy lad like Robert.
I looked up and saw him staring at the packet ship, beaming with excitement. The same excitement he’d shown when I told him all those stories. The same excitement I’d felt for so many years, in those moments before I set out to sea.
Was it really him I worried for, or me, left here alone on the dock?
“You go for it, lad,” I said, forcing a smile. “They’ll be lucky to have you.”
I sat on a crate amid the goods being unloaded from the packet. The ship’s sails hung limp beneath a grey sky. Over the Channel, storm clouds were gathering.
“The lad switched ships in Lisbon,” the first mate explained to me. “Joined a crew heading for the Americas. Said to tell you he was having a grand old time, but he’s thinking of you.”
I pulled myself up on my crutches.
“Thank you kindly,” I mumbled, then headed back up the hill.
I sat on a stool outside my cottage. The packet had arrived in the harbour below, one more set of sails amid the rest. One more forgotten dream.
I looked down at the battered satchel in my lap. I’d said I’d have it back to the Reverend Willows days before, but the work never seemed to get done.
“Why are you just sitting there like that?”
I looked up to see a man walking towards me. His clothes were salt-stained and faded, his skin browned by the tropical sun, and he wore a full beard. But the twinkle in his eyes was unmistakable.
“Robert!” I practically shouted in joy.
He hugged me, then sat down in the dirt at my feet, just as he’d done when he was small.
“Are you here to listen to my stories again?” I asked with a laugh.
“I thought I might tell you mine instead,” he replied. “If you’ve a mind to hear them.”
“Aye, I think I could stand that.”
I sat back, closed my eyes, and listened as he told me about his adventures. And in my heart, I was there on the ship with him, carried once again out to sea.
* * *
For the reality of Falmouth in the age of sail, check out Philip Marsden’s fantastic The Levelling Sea. It’s full of stories of the amazing people who lived in and sailed from the town.
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Last week I was all excited for upcoming historical films. This week though, I learned about Outlaw King…
Maybe I’m still hurting from Braveheart. Maybe I’m hyper-sensitive to depictions of periods I’ve studied in depth. Or maybe, just maybe, this is lining up to be something awful.
What are the danger signs?
First, they’re referring to one of the most famous stories in British history as “untold”. Robert the Bruce’s war against the English is one of the most famous incidents in British history. He’s Scotland’s biggest national hero. The only way your version of this story is “untold” is if you’re making it up instead of trying to tell the truth.
Then there’s the version of Bruce they seem to be going for – the struggling hero. Bruce was many things – successful soldier, political manipulator, a man who freed Scotland so that he could rule it. If we want to tell a real story of nationhood and liberation then we should acknowledge that it often happens for selfish ends. Accuracy means not idolising a man who murdered his rival in a church.
That more nuanced story would be more interesting as well as more accurate. We’ve seen plenty of un-nuanced stories of historical heroism. Let’s having something more sophisticated. Let’s trust readers to follow a flawed man achieving great things.
Of course, I’m prejudging. This film could turn out to be fantastic.
But it won’t.
And worst of all, because I love this period of history, I’ll still end up watching it.