Out Now – Lady Death

War has come to the Ukraine, German tanks driving back the Red Army in a brutal mechanical tide. Faced with the prospect of losing everything she holds dear, Svetlana Ivanovna Korzh takes up the gun, ready to defend her homeland. Turned from a teacher into a sniper, she heads into the streets of Odessa in a desperate attempt to stop the onslaught. But as her friends start to fall, a far more personal struggle begins…

Lady Death is my latest story from Commando Comics, brought to life by the art of Manuel Benet. It was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary history book The Unwomanly Face of War, which explores the role of women in the Red Army in World War Two, their experiences both in action and in transitioning to and from civilian lives. It’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it enough for the way it brings forgotten stories to light and personalises a vast historical narrative.

While an action comic could never do justice to the complex and difficult lives these women led, I wanted to at least draw attention to their experiences, from the harrowing losses to the touching moments of friendship amid the horror of war. In doing so, I’ve taken fragments of reality and stitched them together into a fictional whole. Many elements of the story are taken from real life. The recruiting officer who doesn’t want to accept women. The troop trains strafed on the way to war. The wedding dress made from parachute silk. The partisans fighting in the catacombs. And most importantly, the thousands of female snipers who risked their lives, only to be forgotten in the aftermath.

Historical storytelling is a strange thing, a delicate balance of truth and fiction. I hope that I’ve included enough truth here to make the story worthwhile, and enough fiction to keep you entertained.



***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

You can read more about From a Foreign Shore, including what other readers thought here. It’s available on Kindle through Amazon.



I Hoped That In London… – a flash historical story

The noise and smell of London’s streets were overwhelming. Carters and traders, street preachers and half-drunk apprentices shouted at each other across roads that ran with rotting refuse. A pamphleteer waved a sheet of printed paper in my face and talked excitedly about how God and Drake had saved England from the King of Spain’s armada. I was about to tell him that I couldn’t read, never mind spare a penny for his wares, but he had already cast an eye over my tattered clothes, drawn his own conclusions, and moved on.

I walked along the street, stopping at every shop and tavern I passed. At each one my question was the same:

“Do you have work?”

And always the same answer – a swift no, often with a look of disdain or with eyes that would not meet mine.

“Please, I’ll do anything,” I said to a stable master. “I work hard.”

“Then why don’t you have work already?” he asked.

“Things are tough on the south coast,” I explained. “Jobs are scarce. I hoped that in London…”

He shook his head.

“Everyone has high hopes for London. But we’ve all got our business to be about, and I don’t have time to spare for vagrants.”

I slipped away, shoulders slumped, and sat at a street corner while I tried to find the will to continue. As wealthy men passed I held out a hopeful hand, but buying fine doublets had left them all without a penny to spare.

As dusk fell, a group of young men in matching blue livery came striding down the street. One of them pointed and they stopped.

“No money, old man?” they stopped said. I couldn’t have been ten years his senior, by I knew I wore those years like coarse and crumpled cloth.

“No,” I said, head hanging. “And no roof to shelter me.”

“Come with us.”

My heart lifted as they helped me to my feet and led me down the narrow alley between two houses. Then they stopped, surrounded me, and pulled out wooden cudgels.

“Another filthy, lazy vagrant trying to live off others’ work,” the leader said. “Time to teach you a lesson.”

*

“You alright there?”

A man loomed over me. He wore a simple tunic and had a mass of wild hair, but it was hard to make out more in the thin lantern light that crept down the alley.

I pushed myself up on one elbow and wiped the blood from under my nose. Even that much movement hurt.

“Why’d they do that?” I asked, bewildered.

“Apprentices, was it? The authorities encourage ‘em. They’ve got more love for those stuck-up pricks than for the gutter-born like us.”

“I was born in a barn.”

“Ah, a country lad. New to the city?”

I nodded, which made my head spin.

“Then let me offer you a lesson,” he said as he helped me to my feet. “No-one with power here gives a fig whether you live or die. God’s harsh truth. But the likes of you and me, we look after our own. Head down to the brick kilns in Islington and ask for big hands Davey. Tell him little Bill sent you. He’ll sort you out.”

“Thank you,” I said, so grateful for kindness that I almost cried. “How can I pay you back?”

Little Bill chuckled.

“Don’t worry about that. It’s between Davey and me.”

*

“You look like a strong lad,” Davey said in a lilting voice. “Done lots of heavy lifting, have you?”

“Used to bring in the grain,” I said. “But there wasn’t enough work the last few years.”

“Well, we’re after a different sort of harvest.”

There was laughter from the half dozen men and women he’d gathered between a pair of brick kilns. They were a friendly bunch, plainly dressed, many of them visibly scarred. A woman handed me a hefty stick like the ones they were all carrying.

“We’re going to visit a dyer by the name of Roberts,” Davey said. “He’s been making a pretty penny lately, and it’s time to share the wealth. Lizzy and the new lad, once we get in, you head straight to the bedroom and grab his wife – surest way to get his cooperation. The rest of you, see what looks shiny.”

I tried to hide my horror from my new friends. Without them, I was alone in the city.

“We’re robbing him?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, boyo,” Davey said. “We don’t rob anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Think of how they looked at you, what they let those apprentices do to the likes of you and me. This is justice, so it is.”

I took a deep breath and tried to gather my thoughts, but I was hungry and tired and full of pain, altogether too distracted to do anything but agree.

*

As we crept towards the darkened house, Davey stopped us one last time.

“This Roberts is a strong one,” he said. “So swing clubs first and ask questions later.”

I remembered the apprentices clubs swinging at me, the thud of their boots against my flesh. The stick felt heavy in my hand.

Davey kicked the door open and the gang raced in past him. He turned to look at me, the only man to give me aide or shelter.

The man who wanted me to make me a robber.

I dropped the stick, turned, and ran.

*

The noise and smell of London’s streets receded as I trudged south. Maybe I’d find harvest work, maybe I wouldn’t. But I would rather starve back home than give in to those streets.


Elizabethan England wasn’t often kind to people who were down on their luck, who flocked to London in growing numbers as economic and social changes caused difficulties elsewhere. And while our protagonist heading home makes for a satisfying ending, it wasn’t a realistic option for many. There’s a reason historians write so much about crime and vagrancy in this era.

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

You can read more about From a Foreign Shore, including what other readers thought here. It’s available on Kindle through Amazon.

Filling the Gaps in the Past

I’ve been working on a comic script for Commando. Unusually for me, it involves real historical figures, not just fictional characters thrust into real events. During the course of the story, several of these real people die in battle. It’s important to the story that those deaths happen, and that’s going to work best if it happens on the page, as dramatic turns in the course of battle scenes.

So far so straightforward.

Here’s the catch – in every case, we don’t know how these people died. We know which battles they died in, but not who killed them or how. One has been the source of much debate, but for the other two, there’s just no evidence of the details.

That creates an opportunity, and with it a dilemma. Because of the uncertainty about these deaths, I could depict one of the characters doing the deed. It would add to the drama, and that’s a large part of what storytelling is about.

But that feels presumptuous to me. One thing I know is that my characters didn’t kill these people, because my characters didn’t exist. If I put the blood on their hands then I’m giving them a weight of historical significance, and I’m not sure they can stand beneath it. Maybe if the story was all about the man who killed such-and-such, then I could do it. But as a passing moment of drama in some other story? It feels like a stretch.

Do I give those deaths more emotional consequence in the story by involving my fictional creations, or do I acknowledge their real significance by keeping my characters out of it? I haven’t decided yet, but as a writer and someone passionate about history, it’s a really interesting question.

On Sundays I See Sunlight – a flash historical story

It was winter when Mark came back from the war. He strolled down the road from Penzance and into our lives as casual as if he’d never been away. But his skin was weathered by the Spanish sun, his back scarred by the lash, and the faded red coat of one of Wellington’s men was still finer than my Sunday best. My brother was welcome, but he was a stranger to me.

“Can I stay with you a while?” he asked, once we’d eaten and Alice had put the children to bed.

“Of course,” I said, smiling. “And I can find you work down the pit.”

Mark shook his head. “I don’t want to spend my days in the dark, never seeing a moment of sunlight between autumn and spring.”

“It’s good work,” I said. “And on Sundays I see sunlight.”

“That’s not the work for me.”

“Then how will you pay your way?” I hated to ask, but I could barely feed the mouths I had.

“It’s alright, I won’t be a burden on you. I have other plans.”

*

I looked at the coins Mark had placed on the table. They were as much as I earned in a month. That would have let me buy new blankets for the children, let Alice take a few days rest from mending clothes for merchant’s wives. It was all I could do not to snatch it up.

“They say there are robbers on the roads,” I said, unable to look Mark in the eye. “Men who know how to fight.”

“Do they say what sort of people are being robbed?” Mark asked. “Or what good that money could do for poor families?”

“It’s not right.” I pushed the coins towards him. “I think you should leave.”

“They gave us nothing, Mathew,” he said, leaning forwards to try to force me to look at him. “We spent years marching and dying, and all we got for it were scars and fighting skills. Then they sent us back and expected us to build lives from nothing. We’d be fools not to use what they taught us.”

“There’s space down the mines.”

“Digging twelve hours a day to make the same men rich that sent us off to die?”

“Better that than face the hangman.”

“I’ll risk it.”

“But I won’t, nor will my family. So now you need to leave.”

“You self-righteous prick.”

He strode out, leaving the money on the table.

*

It was dark as I trudged home along the muddy track, the ruts of cartwheels frozen beneath my feet. Alice was waiting for me outside the front door, shivering despite the blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, my breath frosting in the air.

“They caught some bandits on the Penzance road,” she said. “The judge was in town already. They’re hanging them tomorrow.”

“Mark?” I asked, my heart turning as cold as my breath.

“No-one could tell me names,” she said, “but they’re all ex-soldiers.”

“Oh, God.” I hung my head. “The last time we talked, I…”

“It’s not your fault.” She wrapped her arms around me. “It’s not your fault.”

The laughter of our children emerged from the cottage, a warm and joyful sound, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk into the light.

*

I stepped out onto the darkened track and closed the door quietly behind me. This morning was even more bitter than the last, so cold it made my skin sting. Alice and the children didn’t need to be awake yet.

Someone sat on a rock facing the cottage. I almost didn’t recognise him in the dark, wearing a civilian coat instead of his distinctive military jacket.

“Mark?” I strode across the road and wrapped my arms around him. “You scared the life out of me.”

“Almost scared it out of myself, too,” he said. “Or rather, the lawmen did.”

I hesitated, torn between familial duties.

“Do you need somewhere to rest?” I asked. “Somewhere to hide?”

I looked back at my cottage. Did I dare take him in? Could I bear to turn him away?

“Not that,” he said. “But I could do with a job, if there’s still one going down the mines.”

“I thought you didn’t want to spend your days in the dark.”

“I hear that on Sundays I’ll see sunlight,” he said. “That’s more than I’ll get with the hangman’s noose.”

* * *

This story came from combining a couple of real historical details. A trip to the Geevor Tin Mine, a fascinating and moving historical site in Cornwall, taught me about miners not seeing daylight in the winter. From a writer’s guide on crime and the police by D. J. Cole I learned that many of the soldiers who fought Napoleon, poorly provided for on their return, turned to crime, sparking a crisis of law and order. Bring those together, consider the lives touched by them, and here we are.


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my short collection of historical and alternate history fiction, From a Foreign Shore. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

The Price of Peace – a flash historical story

sword and blood

“Acwellen, the Reeve is here to see you.”

Diera, my sister, delivered the news from the door of my hut, well away from where I sat sharpening Holt’s sword. It was the sword he’d wielded against the Danes. The one he’d left at home on the day he was murdered. Maybe if he’d taken it with him then I would still have had a husband, or maybe I just wouldn’t have had a weapon to avenge him.

“The Reeve can fuck off,” I said, spitting into the dirt. “I’ve business to attend.”

“I don’t think he’ll do that,” Diera said, looking over her shoulder. “And he didn’t come alone.”

“Then he can fuck off in company.” I ran my whetstone down the edge of the sword, the sound ringing around the hut.

The room grew lighter as Diera left the doorway. I kept at my work.

A moment later, the room darkened again.

“Mistress Acwellen, may I come in?”

I recognised Faran’s face, having seen him in passing at local markets, and of course I knew his name. Neighbours of mine had often gone to the reeve with disputes and questions about tithes, but this was the first time he had come to our village.

“You’ll come in whether I like it or not,” I said. “Isn’t that what the king’s man does?”

Faran stayed in the doorway, watching the whetstone as I ran it up and down the blade.

“It’s up to you who comes into your home,” he said. “But it’s up to me how criminals are punished.”

I snorted.

“We dealt with these things ourselves before the king made his new laws. We can deal with them now.”

“If not for King Alfred, you would still face raids by the Danes. This village might not be standing. Is law and order such a high price to pay for peace?”

“Yes!” I leapt to my feet and pointed the sword at him. “When that law gives you the right to tell us how we live, that price is too high.”

“I’m not telling you how to live. I’m just asking you not to kill, to take the blood money instead and use it to raise your children. Surely that’s better for them?”

I stormed across the small room and shoved him in the chest. He was a big man but I was strengthened by anger. He staggered out into the mud in the middle of the village and I followed, sword still in hand.

“You want my children to know that their father’s death goes unpunished?” I snarled. “To know that others could get away with murder? You think that’s good for my children?”

“Better than another feud.”

Now he was outside, watched by his own men and a score of villagers, Faran stood his ground, arms folded, as I glared up at him.

“You know how it goes,” he said. “Cerdic killed Holt in a drunken fight, so you go kill Cerdic. But then Cerdic’s brother wants vengeance, so he kills you. One of your friends hunts the brother down, only to be slain in return, and on and on until half this valley is red with blood and there’s no-one left to raise your children. Holt’s children. Is that what you want?”

When I was young, there had been a feud between two villages the far side of forest. A dozen dead, some of them people my father had traded with, all because someone was careless while out hunting.

“It’s not fair!” I shrieked. “Holt’s dead and Cerdic’s alive and it’s not fair!”

“Will Cerdic’s death make Holt’s death fair?” Faran asked. “Will yours?”

I stepped back, cradling the sword to my chest, unable to look him in the eye.

“It’s not fair,” I mumbled.

“Come with me,” he said. “Accept the blood money. Buy your children warm clothes and good food to see them through the winter.”

We stood for a long time, Faran waiting for my response.

“I’ll come,” I said at last. “But I’m coming armed.”

*

The sword was a steady weight pressing against my thigh. I kept my hand gripped around the pommel, something comforting of Holt’s. Faran, standing beside me, watched from the corner of his eye.

“Here.” Cerdic held out the bag of coins to Faran. “It took a while, but this is all that you demanded.”

“That the law demanded,” Faran replied. “And it goes to Acwellen.”

Cerdic took a deep breath and turned his attention to me. My hand tightened on the pommel. He flinched, looked nervously at the sword, and finally held out the bag to me.

“Here,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

It would have been so easy to draw the sword, to cut him down then and there. What better chance would I get? How much better would the world be without him?

So easy.

I let go of the pommel and took the bag. It was heavy, more coin than I had ever known. Enough to see us through many winters.

“I didn’t mean to kill Holt,” Cerdic said. “Things got out of hand. If I’d only-”

I turned away and started walking down the valley, the king’s reeve following me, my heart heavy and my hands full. Tears streamed down my cheeks.

We were all paying the price of peace.

***

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

Out Now – All the Beautiful Sunsets

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.

All the Beautiful Sunsets is available as an e-book from all good stores.

Men of War – a flash historical story

The Surrender of the Prince Royal by Willem van de Velde the Younger

“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.

Out Today – Harriet’s War

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

Harriet’s War

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

The Dirt Beneath Messines – a flash historical story

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.