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.

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.

Out Now – Dare to Die

The cover of Dare to Die, showing a fight on top of an armoured car in the desert.

Well look at that, I have a new issue of Commando out today!

I wrote Dare to Die to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Special Air Service. It takes us back to the earliest days of the SAS, raiding in the Western Desert during World War Two. When a raid goes wrong, two soldiers are left stranded in the desert, struggling against the elements and enemy patrols. Can they survive against such dramatic odds? Or can they do something even more daring, and finish their mission?

Dare to Die is out now in newsagents and on Comixology.

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.

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale

Smashwords have just started their annual summer/winter sale, which runs for the next month. You can find a whole bunch of e-books at discount prices, including many of mine at 50% off. Meet Victorian explorers, magical gladiators, or a robot developing emotions. There are links for my books here, and more great discounts all across the Smashwords site. Go on, treat yourself.

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.