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.

Out Now – We Are The Winter

Cover art by Neil Roberts

I have a new Commando comic out this week. “We Are The Winter” is set during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia which kicked off 80 years ago this month. The story follows Olga Goncharova, a partisan leader trying to protect her village from the invaders. When other Soviet troops arrive, they offer the promise of assistance, but also the threat of greater destruction. Can Olga save her people from the horrors of the war?

“We Are The Winter” has art by Khato and a marvelously dynamic cover by Neil Roberts. You can buy it now through Comixology, from British newsagents, or as part of a bundle through the publisher’s online store.

Out Now – It Will Have Its Way

“Say what you would about East Berlin—and after two years Jo had a lot to say—but at least the men here were too scared to misbehave. Back in the States, every veteran thought his service gave him the right to get between her legs, and any man who’d stayed home was over-compensating for it. Never mind that Jo had risked more than any of them, playing native among her Grandma Kleiber’s people, praying not to fall foul of any of the smart Nazis…”

Did you ever wonder what would happen if dark forces stalked the streets of post-war Berlin? I mean, darker forces than Soviet spies, CIA agents, and black-market profiteers? OK, maybe that’s dark enough, but I’ve got a new story out this week that adds something more, with elritch powers stirring under the city. “It Will Have Its Way”, a historical horror story, is in the new issue of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running small press sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Aurealis #141 also features stories from A. Marie Carter and Benjamin Keyworth, as well as non-fiction and reviews, all for the fabulously low price of $2.99, so go check it out.

Spam Today – a historical short story

Lancaster bomber in flight
Image by h s from Pixabay

The windows of the mess hall rattled as a Lancaster bomber rumbled along the landing strip outside, smoke trailing from a damaged engine, the last to return from the previous night’s run over Germany. Behind the serving hatch, Wilf Turner crossed himself and offered up a silent prayer for the ones who wouldn’t come back.

“What have you got for me today, Turner?” Flight Lieutenant Halliard asked, late to arrive as usual, expecting the kitchen staff still to be there ready to feed him.

“Spam today, sir.” Wilf deposited a fritter on the lieutenant’s plate, then reached for the mashed potato spoon.

“More bloody spam?” Halliard sighed. “I know there’s a war on, so it’s not going to be duck a l’orange every lunchtime, but can’t you get us a bit of variety? I ate better than this at Eaton, and we all know what that was like.”

Wilf most definitely didn’t, but he wasn’t going to highlight the reasons someone like Halliard looked down on him.

“I’m doing my best sir,” he said, shifting to take the weight off his club foot. It sometimes hurt to spend this long standing at the hatch, but if he couldn’t be up in the air, he could at least help those who were.

“The worst part is, you probably are.” Halliard shook his head, took the plate, and walked away, leaving Wilf to glare after him.

*

Wilf was on the verge of closing the serving hatch when Flight Lieutenant Halliard swaggered in, still wearing his flight suit, grabbed a plate, and walked up with the usual smug look on his face.

“What have you got for me today, Turner?” he asked.

“Spam, sir,” Wilf said, reaching for the serving spoon.

“Again? Christ on a bike, Turner, I thought it was your job to feed us as well as you can.”

“I am, sir, but there are limits.”

“Limits to your intelligence.”

Some of the other airmen looked around to see what the fuss was about. They watched with amusement as Halliard pulled a face of pantomime disgust, while Wilf crumpled in on himself in embarrassment.

“What have you made?” Halliard continued. “It looks like someone ran over the commander’s dog and shovelled it onto a plate.”

That got laughter. Wilf’s cheeks burned with shame. He’d worked hard on the meal. He knew it wasn’t brilliant, but he didn’t have brilliant resources.

“It’s a spam hash, sir,” he said. “It’s made with—”

“At this point, I honestly don’t care. No idea why I expected better from a sallow-faced shirker who spends the war in the kitchen, not out there fighting the good fight.”

Wilf felt like an artillery shell was clogging his throat. Everyone was watching, but he wasn’t meant to answer back to officers, and he didn’t even know where he would start. How dare Halliard talk to him like this? If he could have done, he would have been up there with the rest of them. Hell, he would rather have been shot down over Germany than be stuck here all this time.

“My foot,” he mumbled.

Halliard rolled his eyes. “Keep your excuses to yourself. And next time I’m here, there had better not be any bloody spam.”

*

A movement in the doorway of the mess hall made Wilf reach under the counter. Then he saw that it was one of the senior engineers, not Halliard, so he took the lid off his pan and scooped up a ladle full of stew.

“Beef!” the engineer exclaimed as he caught the stew’s scent. “Turner, you’re a legend.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wilf put the lid back on the pot, glanced at his hidden plate of spam, and grinned. Everyone else was so happy with their meals, but wait until Halliard turned up. This time Wilf had been practising what he would say. “Sorry sir, we’ve run out of stew.” Or perhaps “there was some, but you came too late.” Most importantly “here’s what we’ve still got: spam.” Oh yes, he was looking forward to it.

He glanced out the window. The last plane had got back half an hour ago. Halliard really was taking his time.

“Something the matter, Turner?” the engineer asked.

“Just wondering where Flight Lieutenant Halliard has got to, sir. He’s usually the last one here.”

“You haven’t heard?” The engineer shook his head. “Halliard’s plane took a direct hit over Kiel, went down in flames.”

Wilf took a step back onto his club foot. Stew dripped from his ladle onto the floor.

“Sorry, Turner, was he a friend of yours?”

“No, sir,” Wilf said. “I just…”

I just hated him, he wanted to say. I just needed the fight.

“I understand. It’s always tough when we lose a crew.”

The engineer nodded and walked away.

Wilf put the ladle down. The spam stared accusingly at him, a sordid and pointless pile of pink meat.

Serving time was over. Wilf closed the shutters. He picked up a bowl, and was about to fill it with stew, but then the other plate caught his eye. He picked it up and reached for a fork.

“Spam today,” he muttered to himself.

***

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.

War is Hell – a fantasy short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?” he asked.

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

“Your soul,” he said.

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

“Well?” the officer said.

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

He opened his eyes. “Yes.”

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

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

He was almost free.

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

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

The officer stood over him and chuckled.

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

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

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

“Why?” he whimpered.

“Because I can.”

The world faded away…

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

His Father’s Sword – a historical short story

Hugh walked into the smithy and slammed a sword down on the anvil.

“Sharpen it for me.”

A warm summer wind blew in through the door, stirring the flames in the fire of the forge. Steam hissed from a bucket as Hugh’s Uncle David plunged a horseshoe into water, then set his work aside.

“Where did you find this, lad?” David picked the sword up with his right hand, then ran the remaining fingers of his left hand down the rust-blotched flat of the blade.

“Hidden in the rafters. It was my father’s.”

“Oh, I know whose it was.” David set the sword down carefully. “I made a matching pair for your father and me, before we went to war.”

It was one of Hugh’s first memories, the two most important men in his life marching away like warrior saints, sunlight gleaming off their spear tips. The return had been bleak, Uncle David alone, crusted bandages around his hand, Hugh’s mother crying while David talked about a battle at a place called Barnet.

“I’m going to fight for Henry Tudor,” Hugh said. “This time we’ll win.”

“Maybe.” David scooped sand from a bucket with a rough cloth. “I’ll clean the rust off first, then get to sharpening. If you’re sure you want to fight.”

“Of course I want to fight! And what do you mean maybe?”

“I mean perhaps you’ll win, perhaps you’ll lose.”

“Why are you fixing my father’s sword, if you don’t believe in me?”

David sighed, but kept working the blade.

“You shouldn’t go to fight because you think you’ll win, lad.”

“You did!”

“No. We went to fight because the cause was just. Wanting to win and expecting it are very different. One drives you to do better, the other blinds you to the truth.”

“Liar! My father thought he would win, otherwise why would he leave us like that?”

“Because we wanted to mend a broken country. And because we were fools.”

Tears welled in the corners of Hugh’s eyes. He snatched the sword from his uncle’s hands. He was going to fight for the true king, like his father had done, and he would come back, like his father had intended.

“You’re a liar and a fool,” he snapped.

“Maybe, but I’ll still sharpen your blade, if you think you should go fight.”

“You don’t deserve to touch this.” Hugh clutched the sword close.

“I don’t deserve…”

A terrible stillness fell across the smithy. No wind blew through the door. The flames in the forge dwindled. Hugh’s uncle stared at him, face set like a carving on the wall of the church.

David held up his hand, both fingers and thumb extended.

“Maybe you don’t deserve that sword, boy, if you can’t face the real world the way your father did. If you can’t accept its pain and cruelty. If the only cause you’ll fight for is a cause that’s already won.

“I fought because the right side might lose, and that doesn’t stop it being right. If you can’t fight that way, then you’re the one who doesn’t deserve the sword I made.”

Hugh trembled. “My father wouldn’t have deserted us.”

David sighed. His shoulders slumped. He stepped around the anvil, and Hugh stepped back, but instead of reaching for the sword, David sat on the anvil, and all the strength seemed to fade out of him.

“Your father thought that it was more important that you grow up in a good country than that you grow up with a father, though he wanted you to have both, and if I’d been quicker with my spear then he might have got part of his way. I’m not saying he made the right choice. I’m saying that, if you’re going to leave your mother all alone, you should do it for a good reason. People die on both sides, and dying because you think you’ll win is dying for no reason at all.”

In his uncle’s face, Hugh saw grief weigh as heavy as the iron chains he forged. Anger, the last bulwark of certainty, shattered in the face of long-held loss. Would he make his mother go through this again, when she was finally smiling?

“I don’t know if we’ll win,” Hugh confessed. “And I don’t know if it’s the right cause. I need to think.” He offered up the sword. “Can you sharpen my father’s sword for me, while I decide?”

“Aye, lad.” David took the weapon with a sad smile. “Let me do that for both of us.”

***

I have a new Commando comic out this week, “Brothers in Arms”, and like this story it’s set during the Wars of the Roses. it follows two brothers who end up on opposite sides of the fighting, and their journey to one of the decisive battles of the Middle Ages. You can buy it digitally through Comixology, or as part of a bundle of issues through the publisher’s store.

*

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.

Into the Unknown – a historical short story

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The weather in the tropics seemed unhealthily hot, so it didn’t surprise Christopher Weaver to find that the ship’s food supplies were turning bad. Back in London, he would have used his wealth to acquire more food, just as he had bought these supplies for the expedition. But out here on the ocean, halfway between the court of Queen Elizabeth and the Americas, there were no wholesalers.

“I suppose we turn around, then,” he said, peering at the stinking meat and mouldy flour. It was the first time he had been part of such an expedition, out to explore the New World, find trade routes to the orient, perhaps rob a Spanish treasure galley or two, but certain actions seemed self-evident, and turning your face away from disaster was one.

“Don’t be absurd, Kit.” Sir Thomas de Poole, the expedition’s captain, slapped Christopher on the back. “I can call you Kit, can’t I?”

“Well, I—”

“Kit, these things happen all the time. We’ll pick up fresh provisions in the Indies.”

Around them, the ship’s timbers creaked beneath the strain of the ocean and the sails.

“Do we still have enough to get to the Indies?”

“Kit, Kit, Kit.” Sir Thomas shook his head and squeezed Weaver’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, your investment is safe. I will make sure that this voyage is profitable. And why did you come along if not for the glory of overcoming terrible odds?”

When he put it like that, Weaver felt a swelling in his chest, followed by a sense of embarrassment at his previous timidity.

“Of course,” he said. “On we go.”

#

Working as a merchant out of London’s bustling docks, Weaver had seen his share of leaky barrels, but they seemed much more menacing when his only source of drinking water was seeping away.

“Shame we can’t drink the ocean,” he said with a half-hearted attempt at a smile, looking out across the endless blue expanse. A length of rigging was tied off just beside where he stood, and he clung to that taught rope, steadying himself in a dangerously shifting world.

“Kit, Kit, Kit,” Sir Thomas said, shaking his head. “Don’t even joke about such things.”

“Sorry. Will we have to turn back now?”

He felt awkward asking it, but also relieved. The reality of an ocean voyage, the cramped quarters, salty supplies, and blank views, was proving quite unpleasant.

“Ha, good one!” Sir Thomas said. “Of course not. We’ll refill when we strike land.”

“Will that be soon?”

“Soon enough, as long as our charts are correct.”

“What if they aren’t? I really think we should turn back.”

“Remember why you’re here,” Sir Thomas said, wrapping an arm around Weaver’s shoulders. “To experience the wonder of the wide world. Would you turn back from that just because of a few warped barrel staves?”

Weaver hesitated. He had often enthused about the world’s wonders to help sell exotic wares, but he had never seen them himself. Perhaps he should be the sort of person who could speak with confidence about the Americas and the Orient. Someone more like Sir Thomas.

“Of course not,” he said. “On we go.”

#

The storm was still visible on the horizon when Weaver crept out onto the bustling deck. The shattered top of a mast lay in a tangle of rigging, and where the rudder had been there was a splintered stump.

“The lads are building a replacement already,” Sir Thomas said, appearing beside him. “Should see us through until we can get it properly fixed.”

“Should see us through?”

“Exactly.”

“Should see us through?” Weaver stared at Sir Thomas, aghast. “We can’t go on with a broken ship, hoping that a few bits of plank will ‘see us through’.”

“We’ve been through worse, these lads and me.”

Weaver felt sick to his stomach, a gift granted him by physical fear, social anxiety, and the endless, inescapable rocking of the waves.

“I’m really not sure that—”

“Nobody likes a whinger, Kit. What did you come on this expedition for if not the thrill of scraping by on ingenuity, courage, and God-given English luck?”

“The money!” Weaver yelled, turning to face his tormentor. “You promised me trade deals, rare artifacts, a cut of the spoils. Not glory, not wonder, not the thrill of survival, but fat stacks of gold, which I will never see if we starve to death while drifting rudderless around the Spanish Main. Now I must insist, as the prime funder of this expedition, that we turn back for England at once!”

Weaver glared as Sir Thomas, and the knight captain frowned. As the frustration that had given him such unexpected confidence faded, Weaver became terribly aware that only one of them wore a sword, and it wasn’t him.

Then Sir Thomas grinned.

“Oh, Kit, you are an absolute hoot! What a hilarious notion, that we could turn back now, when we’re more than halfway gone and short of supplies. For a moment there, you almost had me going.”

Weaver stared at him, at the splinter remnants of the rudder, at the hatch that hid their depleted stores.

He was going to die, thanks to this lunatic.

No. He was smart. He was capable. He had built his own business from the ground up. Let no man ever say that Kit Weaver gave in when things got tough.

“I’ve done some carpentry in my time,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “Tell me about what we need for the rudder.”

###

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the 16th century voyages out of Europe, in which adventurers set forth to explore the world in the name of discovery, trade, and profit. Though we mostly talk about the successes, Weaver’s experience reflects the disastrous reality of so many voyages. A lot of ships sank and a lot of men died finding routes around the world, but those who came back were raised up as heroes.

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.

Shattered Streets – a historical short story

“Where’s father?” Ursula had to shout to be heard over the air raid sirens and the crash of the first bombs falling on the city. The sound of British planes was a distant third in the maelstrom of noise blasting her eardrums as she stood frozen on the steps down into the cellar.

Her mother’s eyes were already wide with terror, but now her skin went ghostly pale.

“The office,” she said. “They needed him to… to…”

She pressed her face against little Werner’s head, and he gripped her tight, crying at the noise and the confusion and the fact that his mother was scared again. A neighbour wrapped her arms around them both, but the crying only grew louder.

Ursula was almost in tears too as she imagined her father hobbling through the city, trying to out-run the bombs with his cane and his crippled leg.

“I’m going to find him.”

“No!”

Her mother’s scream was a hook in her chest, but she accepted the pain and ripped herself free, running out of the building and into the road.

Moonlight and searchlights combined to cast disjointed shadows that shredded the shapes of streets, creating a world of jagged angles and sharp, broken surfaces, as if the impossible geometries of nightmare had spilled out into the heart of Germany. But Ursula had lived in these streets for fifteen years. She knew the reality behind the illusion. Even as her eyes tried to make sense of the chaos, her feet carried her across the cobbles, dashing down roads and alleyways to her father’s office.

The bombs fell like the footsteps of an angry giant, crushing buildings as the raiders crossed the city. The percussive booms grew closer with each moment, while the sirens howled like wounded beasts and the stutter of machine gun fire stabbed through the engine growls above. By the time Ursula reached her father’s office, she could feel each quaking impact in her guts. Flames had taken hold two streets over, adding their infernal glow to the hellscape she ran through.

Her father stood in the doorway of his office, staring up at the sky. With one hand he clutched his walking stick, while the other clung to the door frame. Behind him stood Herr Schwartz, his faced drained of self-importance as he hugged a bundle of ledgers to his chest.

Ursula grabbed her father’s hand.

“Father, we need to get to the shelter!”

“Ursula, what are you doing? It’s not safe in the streets!”

“It’s not safe here. Come, now!”

He came with her, leaning on her shoulder. They moved as fast as they could, faster than he ever could have managed on his own, but it still felt terribly slow. They were the turtle in this race, and the hare had been replaced by a clawed and feral wolf.

“Come on, Herr Schwartz,” father called back over his shoulder. “Don’t go down with your building.”

Schwartz stared fearfully after them.

“Quickly!” father shouted as they reached the end of the street.

Schwartz took a reluctant step out of the doorway, then another.

Incendiaries hit, a string of them falling down the length of the building, blooms of fire unfurling, igniting the oil store for the heating system. Flames burst forth then drew back, sucking the air in with them. Papers flew from Schwartz’s fingers before he was caught by a blast from the doorway and fell, burning and screaming.

“We must go back,” father said.

“No! It’s too late.” Ursula dragged him after her. Schwartz’s harrowing cries faded as they hurried away. Tears streamed from her eyes, but she wouldn’t go back. She couldn’t risk her father.

A dog dragged itself out of an alleyway, blood streaming from its shattered back legs. Down a street a woman ran, shrieking and clutching her head. A building crashed down, filling the street with dust and debris, but miraculously nothing touched Ursula or her father.

At last, they reached the apartment building. She opened the cellar door and ushered him in. As she turned to close the door, an unexpected quiet fell. She hadn’t noticed the bomb blasts and the engines receding, but they were gone, leaving only the ringing in her ears. Was that it? Were they safe at last?

No. It was a cruel joke, a mocking imitation of peace. Even if the British were done for the night, the Americans would come in daylight. There was no moment when her broken world reassembled itself, when the pieces made sense.

Ursula closed the door and followed her father down into an imitation of safety.

***

I have a new Commando comic out this week, showing the bombing campaigns of World War Two from the perspective of a British aircrew. It seemed like a good time to show the other side of that experience.

I’m not going to take a “well actually, both sides…” approach to that war. The far-right regimes of 1930s Europe were monstrous and had to be stopped. It is also true that the Allies did some monstrous things to stop them, channelling the courage and skill of individual servicemen into inexcusable attacks on civilians. That courage and those atrocities existed in the same moment, and acknowledging their co-existence is one of the most difficult things history forces upon us.

*

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 Man in the Wall – a historical short story

Image by bassoon12345 from Pixabay

Liza wandered awe-struck through Lady Sarah’s house. It was more like a palace than a house, with a dozen rooms at least, most with their own fireplaces, fancy carved furniture and rugs on the walls. There was even glass in the windows, though not in the kitchen where Liza’s mother was talking with the steward. Glass was only for the richest people.

Liza walked quietly. She wasn’t meant to leave the servants’ rooms, but she couldn’t resist coming to see the glass, like squares of perfectly clear ice, rows of them filling each window.

She walked through a doorway and saw a man in a black dress standing by a fireplace, talking with Lady Sarah. There was a hole in the wall behind him, where a wood panel normally stood.

“Hello, who are you?” the man said, crouching to look at Liza.

“Oh God, the brewer’s daughter.” Lady Sarah’s hand darted across her chest like she was sewing four giant stitches. “What’s she doing here?”

“It’s alright.” The man smiled at Liza, and she almost believed that he was happy to see her. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

“But the family aren’t—”

“What’s your name, young mistress?”

“I’m Liza.” She finally remembered to curtsy. Doing that felt fun. “Or Elizabeth.”

“Like the Queen.”

Liza smiled. The Queen’s house must be a lot like this one.

“What do we do now, Father?” Lady Sarah’s voice trembled. “If Topcliffe questions the girl we’re all undone.”

“We will carry on with our game,” the man said. “That’s what we’re doing here, Liza, playing a game. I’m hiding from some friends, who are looking all over the country for me. You wouldn’t spoil the game by telling them where I am, would you?”

Liza shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Not even if they ask very nicely?”

“No, sir.”

“Or if they ask very meanly?” He scowled comically.

Liza laughed. The man was far friendlier than Lady Sarah, who stared at her like a dog that might bite.

“No, sir.”

“Then I think we will be alright. God would not send an innocent to do the devil’s work.” The man walked into the hole in the wall, then turned and waved. “Goodbye, Liza.”

The wood panel swung into place and the hole was gone. Liza curtsied, then ran away before Lady Sarah could tell her off.

#

Liza was in the kitchen of the big house, watching her mother argue money with Lady Sarah’s steward, when men burst in with muskets, clubs, and swords. The fiercest of them wore armour on his chest and a fancy hat with a feather.

Liza’s mother pulled her close, holding on so tight that her fingers dug into Liza’s shoulder. The steward spluttered, but was silenced by a slap from the armoured man. Liza buried her face in her mother’s skirts, wishing that the men would go away.

“Spread out,” the armoured man said. “Search every nook and cranny. I’m not letting that damnable priest slip through my fingers again.”

“This is an outrage,” the steward said.

Liza opened her eyes a crack. Two men had the steward pinned against the wall, but the armoured man was looking at Liza’s mother, and that made her really scared.

“Where’s the priest?” he asked.

“I’m here on business,” her mother said. “We’re good Protestant folk, and I don’t know anything about a priest.”

“If you’re such a good Protestant, what are you doing in this den of papists?”

“Their money’s as good as anyone’s.”

“Good for buying silence, I’d wager.” The man’s eyes narrowed as he stepped closer, then looked down at Liza. “I bet you see things, don’t you, child?”

Liza tried to curtsy, but her legs wobbled and she almost fell. The man laughed.

“Do you know what a Catholic is?” he asked.

Liza remembered the church bells ringing the year before, and people telling stories about Spaniards, ships, and storms. The Catholics in those stories were terrible foreigners coming to kill the Queen.

“Bad men,” she said.

“That’s right. And one of them is hiding in this house. Have you seen him?”

That didn’t make sense. The man she had seen was friendly. He couldn’t be one of these Catholic devils. And besides, he had asked her not to tell.

She shook her head.

“Have you seen anything strange here?” The man took hold of her mother’s chin and tipped her head from side to side, staring into her eyes. The trembling of her mother’s hand passed into Liza’s shoulder. “Remember, bad things can happen when you lie.”

Liza didn’t want to tell the angry man about the friendly man. She had promised that she wouldn’t even if he asked meanly. But she had never seen her mother scared before, and that made her more frightened than she had ever been.

“There’s a man in the wall,” she whispered.

#

Liza watched through a veil of tears as the men smashed the wood panel with axes. The friendly man didn’t look scared as they dragged him out, not like Liza’s mother or Lady Sarah or any of Lady Sarah’s friends, who stood by one wall, swords pointing at them.

The man in armour had a terrible smile.

Lady Sarah stared furiously at Liza, but when the friendly man saw her, he only nodded and smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Liza wailed.

“Don’t be,” the friendly man said. “None of this is your fault. Besides, I’m going to a better place.”

Liza hoped that place was a palace, like the one the Queen lived in. She hoped it had rugs on the wall, carved chairs, and those perfect squares of glass in the windows. She hoped the friendly man would be happy, no matter what a Catholic was.

***

During the 16th century, attitudes to religion got pretty screwed up in England. Fear and anger led to a brief period when Protestants were oppressed by a Catholic government, then a much longer period when the Catholics were oppressed by Protestants. There were covert religious services, a secret printing press, and a long, deadly game of hide and seek as the authorities hunted down priests sent to England from abroad. Those priests hid in specially built hiding holes in the mansions of sympathetic nobles, only to be tortured and executed if they were caught. Richard Topcliffe, the only real named person in this story, was among the more fervent priest hunters, and by all accounts a nasty piece of work. If you want to learn more, check out God’s Secret Agents, a very readable history of the period by Alice Hogge.

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.

Obeying Orders – a historical short story

Captain Baptiste’s voice was a saw blade cutting into Verdier’s chest, leaving his heart and soul exposed. As the captain finished reading the telegram from home, the base’s officers stared at him in stunned silence.

“You cannot be serious?” Verdier said, his throat squeezing tight around the words. “We are simply to give in and collaborate with the Nazis?”

Sand swirled through the doorway of the officers’ mess, blown in on the last gasp of the past week’s defiant winds. Out in the streets, ordinary Algerians were going about their business, oblivious to the turmoil inside the French barracks, oblivious perhaps to the war raging across Europe.

“Deadly serious,” Baptiste said. “France has fallen, but Pétain remains, a good military man. When our orders come, we will obey. Go tell your men.”

Verdier walked slowly across the parade ground, dragging the captain’s words behind him like a ball and chain. He had heard the rumours of a government in exile, of De Gaulle in London and the Free French rallying to fight on despite their country’s fall. But discipline was everything, order was everything, and as long as Baptiste was his superior, he had to obey.

He entered the barracks room and surveyed his men. Their open books and half-finished hands of cards were a charade, and their attention focused on him the moment he entered. Every brow was furrowed, every back rigid with tension.

“It’s over,” Verdier said. “An armistice has been signed. We are to collaborate with the Germans.”

“But…” It was the closest any of them had come to challenging him since their first days together. They knew better. This was the army. Discipline was life.

In the corner, one man let out a stifled sob. Another flung his book down in disgust. Private Plantier gathered up the cards he had been playing with, straightened the pack with a sharp rap against the table, and then stood up.

“What are our orders, Lieutenant?” he asked.

Verdier opened his mouth, then closed it. An unexpected realisation swept over him. There were no orders yet, not from Baptiste or from any other officer. Those orders could end up being almost anything, depending upon who was giving them. On the one hand, there was Baptiste, the wavering conformist. On the other hand, there was Major Chapelle at the next town over, an opinionated officer and old friend of De Gaulle.

“Load your packs with provisions for three days march,” Verdier said. “Then assemble on the parade ground.”

He saw their confusion as they bustled about, and the growing hope as they whispered to each other and glanced his way.

Ten minutes later, they stood to attention on the parade ground. Verdier completed the roll call, straightened his own pack, and turned to face the gate.

Once he did this, there was no going back. It wouldn’t matter that he had followed every order he was given, not to anyone but him.

Baptiste emerged from the officers’ mess. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Verdier.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Going out for a march, sir,” Verdier replied. “Our presence should remind the locals of who is in charge during these chaotic times.”

Both statements were true. If Baptiste chose to interpret them as connected, that was his own fault.

Verdier tensed. His men stood stiff behind him, perfectly disciplined, their expressions giving nothing away. If Baptiste gave Verdier different orders now, would he obey them? Could he ever do otherwise?

Baptiste frowned, then nodded.

“Good idea, lieutenant. Carry on.”

They were halfway out the gates when Baptiste called after them.

“Verdier!”

Verdier froze, turned on the spot, and looked back at his captain.

“Yes, sir?”

There was a knowing look on Baptiste’s face, and a flicker of sadness. “Good luck out there.”

“You too, captain.”

***

I have a new comic out this week, an issue of Commando featuring Lieutenant Verdier in a tale of action and adventure set in the Second World War. So if you’d like to see what happens to him next, check out “Desert Vultures”, available on Comixology, through British newsagents, or as part of a bundle of issues via the publisher’s online shop.

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.