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.

How I Write a Commando Comic

My latest issue of Commando is out today, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about how I create a script. Buckle in, this is going to be one of my longer posts…

Inspiration

Desert Vultures cover art by Neil Roberts

My inspiration for Commando comics can come from a bunch of different places. TV shows, larp events, conversations on Twitter, things I studied at university, these have all fed into issues. Most come from plugging together more than one source.

The immediate inspiration for Desert Vultures was the 80th anniversary of Operation Compass, the first big Allied push of the Western Desert Campaign. Anniversaries are handy things for Commando, as they’re a good way to hook people into an issue. Sometimes my editor at Commando will send me a list of anniversaries they’d like to cover, and I pitch to those. Sometimes I spot an opportunity and suggest it myself.

My biggest source of inspiration, as I recently discussed in a video interview, is history books. I read a lot of them, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for other writing projects. Back when I was writing for War History Online, I read a lot about the Second World War, which meant that I already had ideas for how to look at the Western Desert campaign.

When looking for a Commando story, I’m often looking for a conflict between people on the same side, not just a fight against the enemy. In-group conflicts often lead to more interesting stories, as characters argue and compete with each other – think about all the twists and tensions in Game of Thrones. I also like to cover the international nature of the Allied war effort. Fortunately, bringing people from different backgrounds together often causes conflict, so that became the hook for Desert Vultures – French and British officers forced to work together despite their differences, one of them rigidly rule-bound, the other relaxed and improvisational. Could they achieve a shared goal?

Pitching

Once I’ve got my inspiration, I write a pitch. This sets out the story in two ways – first as a three-sentence synopsis, giving the setting, the main character, and the hook for their story. Then a page-by-page breakdown of what will happen.

When I’m writing the pitch, my thinking is shaped by two things – the characters and the plot. As Robert McKee points out in his excellent book Story, these two aren’t separate, but it can still be useful to talk about them that way.

The character is the core of a Commando story. Readers have to care about the people they’re spending time with. That means making someone who’s interesting to Commando readers, and who will drive the story forward. There are dozens of different ways to achieve this, and I always consider the balance of competence, proactivity, and likability, as recommended by the team at Writing Excuses. Most importantly, the protagonist has to want something, to keep them motivated.

The nature of Commando does a lot to define the comic’s protagonists. They have to be involved in military activity, usually during the world wars. They need to have a mission or objective, something that propels the story forward, whether it’s saving lives, sinking a submarine, or perhaps escaping occupied territory. For Desert Vultures, it’s a specific military mission – finding and destroying a hidden Italian base.

The story is then driven by this mission. What does the protagonist have to do to achieve their objective? Who stands in the way? What setbacks do they face? I structure the broad strokes of the story around this, then flesh it out with cool details, often found in those books I mentioned. Give the plot a few twists, and I’ve soon got 63 bullet points, one for every page.

I send my pitch to my editor at Commando, then wait. After an editorial meeting, they come back to me with one of three responses:

  • Yes, write it!  My favourite response, for obvious reasons.
  • No, this isn’t suitable. This one doesn’t happen often, as I have a good idea of what Commando are after, but just occasionally an idea isn’t right for them, or has already been used.
  • Yes, but… The most common response. I’ve got a good idea, but it needs refinement. This might lead to a revised pitch, or just to me making some changes as I write the script.

Writing

Once the pitch has been approved and the outline adjusted, it’s time to write. My deadline is usually two or three months ahead, but I seldom wait that long, as I love writing comic scripts. As a fulltime freelance writer, I have the flexibility to make space in my schedule, but other projects sometimes have first dibs, especially if they’re on a deadline or offering a big payment. Within a few weeks of approval, I set aside some days when my focus will be on writing my script.

Having a detailed outline makes the writing relatively quick. I don’t have to think about the broad strokes of what’s on each page, just the details. How many pictures will there be? How will one lead to another, telling a clear and coherent story? What will everyone say?

For the flow of the images, a lot of my inspiration and guidance comes from comics guru Scott McCloud. His writing on comics is phenomenal and taught me about such critical topics as transitions. A comic isn’t just a bunch of pictures, it’s what’s implied by the way you move from one to the next, and thinking about that adds a lot of complexity.

I’ve recently changed my approached to scripting. At the time I wrote Desert Vultures, I wrote everything for one page, then moved on to the next, and so on, writing the descriptions and dialogue together. I’ve recently changed to writing all the descriptions first, then going back to the start and adding the dialogue. I find that works better for getting character voices right.

I’m no artist, but I do occasionally draw at the writing stage, to help me plan out the action. The things I draw are normally seen only by me and my waste paper bin, because I’m a terrible artist. But drawing can help me work out the flow of the panels, breaking a page down into a series of distinct images, each one with its own unique elements that together tell a story. Many stick men have died brutal deaths on scrap paper battlefields to improve my Commando scripts.

Writing dialogue is a funny thing. It’s never about being realistic, but it is about sounding realistic. In real life, people um and ah, they let sentences trail off and leave things half-said. They don’t deliver snappy dialogue while they’re busy fighting for their lives. But a story requires dialogue that flows while creating the illusion of people really talking. In the case of a comic like Commando, it means dreaming up things people could say while bullets whip past their heads or they punch each other in the face. It’s a fun challenge to create that sort of dialogue without it coming out stilted.

Creating distinct voices is important too. I’m the first to admit that I don’t always manage this, but if a character’s verbal ticks and preoccupations stand out, that makes them seem more real.

But the most important thing about writing isn’t any of these technical details. It’s sitting your arse down in the chair and having the discipline to keep going, even when you’re bored or distracted. Discipline, more than anything else, is how I get a script done.

Editing

Before I send a script off, I read it over a couple more times and make edits. This is usually just proofreading, as I’ve done my story edits at the pitching stage. Sometimes it’s adding more detail to the action of an image or sharpening up a piece of dialogue. Mostly, it’s finding my typos and grammatical errors.

If I have time, I leave a day or two between writing and editing. That way I can look at the script with fresh eyes. But the brutal truth is, often I need to be moving on to my next project. Then the script just gets left until after lunch, then given that polish and sent on its way.

Out of My Hands

From that point on, my work is done. The script vanishes into the ether for months on end, only to re-emerge some time later as a fully formed comic. To me, it’s magic, but this is where the hard work happens. I could never create the amazing images that Commando’s artists come up with. You’d have to ask one of them if you want to know how that part works.

Sometimes I’ll see the cover or snippets of art as Commando HQ build buzz for a release, but I don’t see the interiors until the issue comes out. This is also the point at which I get to read editorial changes to the story – how the team at Commando have sharpened up my dialogue, expanded on descriptive panels, or adjusted the plot beats to make the story even more exciting. The thrill of seeing a new Commando is as real for me the writer as for anyone reading it.

With a script finished, it’s time to go back to the beginning. Seek inspiration. Invent a character. Craft a pitch. Sit my arse down in my chair and start work on the next issue.

The circle of writing starts again.

Crossing Bridges – a historical short story

1817, Waterloo Bridge.

Fred and John stood on the south bank of the river, watching as the excited crowd paid their tolls and stepped onto the new bridge. It stretched across the Thames in nine elegant arches, north and south banks meeting somewhere above the darkly flowing waters.

“Grand, isn’t it?” John said. “Like looking at the future.”

“It’ll be handy,” Fred agreed. “Much easier to get to those apprenticeships Master Brown offered.”

“Easier for me to see Sally, too.” A distant smile suffused John’s face.

“You know there are other girls in London, right?”

“Not for me.”

Fred rolled his eyes, but he smiled. At least they could cross the river together each day.

“If we’re going to train as masons, we might get to build things like this. We should go across, see what it’s like.”

“Well then.” John patted his jacket, and there was a clink of small coins. “Let’s try the future of bridges together.”

*

1831, New London Bridge.

“That’s good work,” John said, eyeing the new bridge. “You must feel proud.”

Like Waterloo Bridge before it, this was a series of granite arches, an elegant stretch of grey stone connecting the south bank to the north, the world of home to the world of work.

“It’s grand to think I helped make it.” Fred grinned. “But now I’ve got to look for other work. It’s not like building houses.”

John shrugged. “It won’t make me rich, but I need the reliability.”

“Come on, I haven’t tried my own handiwork yet.”

They joined the swell of people making their way across the bridge, some hurrying about their business, others taking time to watch the demolition of the old London Bridge.

“How’s family life?” Fred asked.

“Wonderful but tiring.” John smiled. “I haven’t had a night to myself in years.”

“I know.” Fred looked away, scowling at the demolition crew. “I’m proud of what we did here, but I don’t like the way the city keeps changing. It was good enough when we were young.”

“World’s got to change. You can’t keep crossing the same bridge every day, because the river changes underneath it.”

“I liked the old bridge,” Fred snapped. “I still like Waterloo Bridge too. Why do we have to leave them all behind?”

“To build a better future.”

“That’s just an excuse to abandon what you had.”

They reached the end of bridge and stood staring back across, unable to meet each other’s eyes.

“I should get to work,” John said.

“Good for you,” Fred replied, and strode away.

*

1862, Westminster Bridge.

Fred saw a familiar face, framed by hair that had mostly gone grey. He hesitated, caught between fond memories and bitter ones, then walked up to John and held out his hand.

“Hoped I might see you here,” he said.

John smiled back, a little awkwardly.

“New bridge replacing an old one, I thought you’d come and see, even if it’s not stone this time.”

“Got to see what the competition are doing.” Fred gazed at the sweeping structure of cast-iron beams, and nodded approvingly. “There’s a few years left in stone, and that’s all I need.”

“Want to give this one a go?”

Fred swallowed, then smiled. “Of course.”

They set out across the crowded bridge, working their way around riders, carriages, pedestrians, and the occasional hand cart.

“How have you been?” John asked.

“Not bad. I kept thinking about something you said, about the river not being the same. Realised I needed to change, so I set up my own business, working on those grand houses in Kensington and Chelsea.”

“No wonder you’re dressed so smart.”

Fred looked down at his tailored suit, then at John’s patched jacket. Doing well usually made him feel good, but not today.

“How’s the family?”

“My Alf worked on this,” John said proudly, tapping a foot on the bridge. “Iron work keeps growing, so that’s him and the grandkids sorted. Did you ever…?”

“No.” Fred shook his head. “That was one thing that didn’t change.”

They reached the end of the bridge and stood in awkward silence while the crowd jabbered around them.

“I missed something out,” John said. “Back when I talked about the bridges always changing.”

“Oh?” Fred looked at him, catching the weight of emotion in his voice.

“All that change is easier to accept with the right person to talk to as you cross.”

Fred smiled. “Let me buy you a pint or three. We’ve got years to catch up on.”

*

1873, Albert Bridge.

Fred stood by the end of the bridge, an elegantly simple looking construction whose cables reminded him of the rigging of ships on the river. He used his walking stick to keep him steady as the crowd battered at him. It was harder to spot anyone these days. His sight wasn’t as good and he couldn’t look over heads any more. But at last, a familiar face emerged.

Except that it wasn’t. This face was younger, the eyes brighter, and for a moment Fred felt the decades fall away, before they came crashing in.

“Mister Jones?” The younger man asked, moving in to shelter Fred from the worst of the traffic.

Fred nodded and fought back a tear. He knew what was coming.

“I’m Alf, John’s youngest. He passed away two days ago. We weren’t sure how best to tell you, and…”

The words drifted off as Alf fought to control his own grief.

Fred gestured across the bridge with his stick.

“We were going to walk this new bridge together,” he said, a lump in his throat. “I think I’ll still go. Will you lend me an arm to lean on? I can tell you about your dad when he was young.”

Alf smiled and brushed dust from his eye.

“That would be grand. I always love to hear about the past.”

***

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.

No Kings – a historical short story

Image by TINTYPEPHOTOS from Pixabay

Robert shifted his musket to the other shoulder, so he could use his free hand to pluck blackberries from the hedgerows. Marching across the midlands wasn’t how he was used to spending the autumn, but it wasn’t all bad. He was doing his duty to God and to England, and there were berries in the bushes like there were back home.

Sergeant Dean was talking as they marched. Robert liked listening. Dean made sense of the war, even when they weren’t winning. He made things feel right.

“Long have we accepted the weight of injustice,” Dean declaimed in his piercing preacher’s voice. “Unjust taxes. An unanswerable ruler. The voice of parliament crushed.”

Robert nodded and popped a blackberry into his mouth. The taste was acid yet sweet, the perfect sign of the changing seasons.

He had signed up to fight because of those injustices. He wanted a fairer world, and the Roundheads had offered to make it happen. No arbitrary taxes or corruption bringing the country down. Men like Dean had made it so clear.

“God made men equal, and they should be equal again,” Dean continued. “And for that to happen, there can be no kings.”

No kings. Robert popped another berry in his mouth as he pondered that one. He had been told that they were fighting to make the king follow the rules, but what Dean said made sense. How could there be justice while one man ruled the rest?

*

Robert stood at the edge of the crowd, a dozen plump raspberries in his hand. He had found them on an abandoned farm next to yesterday’s battlefield, where they had been clearing away Royalist bodies. It was sad that people had to die to get justice, but he didn’t know those men, and the berries took an edge off that distant, abstract sadness.

In the middle of the crowd, Sergeant Dean was arguing with Captain Wragg. Wragg wore the smart red jacket of the New Model Army, like the rest of the men. But Wragg’s jacket didn’t fit as well as Dean’s, and he glared uncomfortably at the angry men around him.

“We cannot simply do away with monarchy,” Wragg said, waving a fistful of crumpled pamphlets. “It is a God-given institution. A righteous monarch gives the country-”

“There is nothing righteous in monarchy,” Dean bellowed. “Just an excuse to raise some above others. When Adam delved and Eve span-”

“Don’t give me that! Poetry is no response to holy scripture, which says-”

Now they were both shouting over each other. Robert wished that they wouldn’t. He liked Wragg almost as much as he liked Dean. They both said things that made him feel smart and helped him understand how he was doing right. He wanted them to get on. He wanted to hear what they both said.

He popped a raspberry into his mouth and frowned. It tasted salty and bitter, not sweet like it should.

The crowd grew louder as men at the front pushed and shoved each other. Robert dropped his berries and turned away. The arguments made him feel sad. He should go and find some new berries.

*

Someone was shaking Robert’s shoulder. He opened his eyes and saw Sergeant Dean standing over him, holding a lantern.

“Come on,” Dean whispered. “It’s time.”

Robert shook off his blanket and joined a crowd of grim-faced, silent men following Dean through the camp.

“Where are we going?” Robert whispered.

“To set things right,” Dean replied.

That sounded like a good thing, but a shudder ran down Robert’s spine. Was it just the cold of night, or was it Dean’s voice that gave him a chill?

“Now!” Dean shouted.

The crowd surged forward, descending on a group of dwindling campfires. The men sleeping there cast off their blankets and stumbled to their feet, looking around in confusion. They were too late. The crowd had grabbed half a dozen of them, including Captain Wragg. They punched and kicked them, driving them towards the edge of the camp.

“We should do something!” Robert said, staring in horror as the Captain was kicked through the embers of a fire pit, dragged himself to his feet, and was struck down again.

“We are,” Dean replied in that piercing, righteous voice. “These men want kings to stay above us. They’re poisoning the minds of the soldiers they lead. Can we accept that?”

“No,” Robert said, shaking his head. “No kings.”

But while Dean’s words usually made the world clearer, tonight it seemed more confusing than ever before.

*

Robert didn’t know where they were marching. Sergeant Dean wasn’t a sergeant any more, and he didn’t have time to explain the war to Robert, who got the impression that this was a good thing, though he didn’t know why. Instead, he marched with unfamiliar men, his footsteps out of time with theirs.

A blackberry bush caught his eye. Winter had almost fallen and there were few berries left, but these stood out against the leaves, swollen purple clusters promising that wonderful mix of acid and sweetness. No one stopped Robert as he stepped off the dirt road.

He smiled as he tasted the first of the blackberries. It reminded him of home, of bringing in the harvest with his father and brothers, of sitting in comfort by the fire. He missed the clarity of knowing that the world was right.

It seemed a shame to let those berries go to waste, so he ate them all. When he turned around, the rest of the army had finished marching past. He could see the red coats of the last soldiers disappearing up the road.

Marching with those men before, he had been sure that he was doing something good, and that made him as happy as when he was at home. But now, looking at them made his guts squirm and his brow furrow. He didn’t want kings, but he didn’t want the army any more.

One last berry caught his eye. He plucked it off the bush, then turned and walked off across the fields, heading for home.

***

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.

Tinned Beef on Malta – a historical short story

By Royal Navy official photographer,
Russell, J E (Lt) – photograph A 11484 from
the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

“The food here is terrible,” Giuliano Fattorini said, scraping the last briny, flavourless scraps from a tin their captors had insisted on calling beef. “It is no way to treat an airman.”

“Yes, Captain.” Luca stood by the barred window, scowling out across the rooftops of Malta. He had worn that same expression for three days straight, ever since British sailors had fished them out of their ruined plane in the harbour. Though Fattorini admired the younger airman’s passion, his intensity was exhausting to be around.

Outside, bombs were falling, filling the air with the whistle of their descent and the roar of their detonation. That was another thing Fattorini disliked about being captive on the island. The Regia Aeronautica and their Luftwaffe comrades were doing a splendid job against the British, he had always said so, but that splendour was unsettling when experienced up close.

Luca’s eyes widened and he flung himself away from the window. Fattorini rolled out of his chair and covered his head just as a blast shook the building. With a groan of straining masonry, the outer wall collapsed, hitting the street with a crash.

Luca was back on his feet first, staring out through the swirling dust.

“Captain, this is our chance!”

Fattorini peered across his fallen chair. “Our chance?”

“To escape and return to the war. Come on!”

Luca lowered himself to the edge of the floorboards, then swung his legs out where the wall had been. He looked back expectantly at his captain.

The floorboards were rough beneath Fattorini’s fingers, the sounds of the falling bombs unbearably loud. Of course he wasn’t afraid, it was the shaking of the building that made him tremble.

“Is it safe?” he asked, crawling across the floor.

“Safe enough.”

Luca dropped onto the heap of rubble below. Fattorini followed. A brick slid from beneath his foot as he landed. His ankle turned, but not painfully, so there was no reason not to follow Luca as he scrambled down the heap.

Most people were indoors, hiding in shelters and cellars while planes battled overhead, the rattle of guns and roar of engines like thunder from a clear sky. The two men dashed down empty streets, Fattorini puffing and panting as he struggled to keep up with Luca.

At a junction, a soldier was crouching behind an overturned truck. When he saw them coming, he leapt to his feet and swung his rifle around.

“Halt!” he shouted in English. “Hands in the air!”

Fattorini did as he was told.

“What did he say?” Luca asked. He was ten feet ahead of Fattorini, and the soldier swung his rifle jerkily back and forth to cover them both. Fattorini hoped that the man’s trigger finger was steadier than the rest of his hand, or this could end very badly.

“He says hands up,” he translated. “Alas, it seems our escape is at an end. We will be forced back to a new cell, to live out the war on watery stew and bad coffee. Oh, for a—”

“What are you on about?” the soldier shouted over the sound of bombs. He advanced towards Fattorini, rifle still raised. Fattorini, stomach jumping, clamped his mouth shut.

A chunk of masonry hit the soldier in the head and he fell, his rifle under him.

“Yes!” Luca shouted. He had another brick in his hand, ready in case his first throw had missed. “Come on!”

They ran on through the streets, heading for the harbour. Fattorini sweated like a pig standing at the butcher’s block. Was it his imagination, or had the bombing grown even more intense?

They emerged at the water’s edge. There were boats in the harbour, some of them sinking or riddled with shrapnel, others bouncing on the waves. Half the buildings had their windows blown out or sections torn from their front facings.

“That one,” Luca said, pointing to the nearest boat. “If we get in while the British are busy, we can sail out before—”

There was a fountain of water as a bomb landed feet from the boat, then a muffled boom and a towering spray. The boat was flung onto its side, sat for a moment on the sudden swell, and then tipped over, landing upside down. Its exposed hull was riddled with holes.

Luca stared at the ruined boat as waves lapped against its sinking sides. He held himself with a different sort of intensity now, his mouth hanging open, eyes wide.

Fattorini laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

“Maybe we don’t escape today, my friend.”

“But freedom, and the war, and…”

The bombs were still falling. Fattorini steered Luca to the doorway of the most solid building he could see.

“I will be sorry to miss it too, but we can’t help if we are bombed or drowned, can we? We will just have to wait for another chance.”

They crouched in the doorway, heads down in case shrapnel flew their way. Fattorini thought again about his tin of watery beef stew, and about the shredded mess that was the underside of that boat. He felt suddenly giddy at the thought of returning to their prison room. Maybe he could grow to like English food after all.

***

I have a new Commando comic out today. Flight to Freedom is a story of aerial combat and daring escape in the Mediterranean theatre of World War Two, featuring Capitano Fattorini and Luca in very different circumstances. You can buy it at newsagents or in digital form via Amazon Kindle or Comixology.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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 Today – Flight to Freedom

How do you escape from an Italian Opera singer in a seaplane, when you’ve got no weapons, no aircraft of your own, and your only help is from a six-foot-six Soviet who makes up for his lack of English language with his fists?! Issue 5369 of Commando has the answer, in my latest comic story, Flight to Freedom. It’s a tale of daring adventure set during the Second World War, and is out now through UK newsagents and Comixology.

Secret Beloved – a historical short story

Image by William Adams
from Pixabay

The crowd roared as two knights emerged onto the tilting field, their horses advancing with perfect control, their lances raised so that the blunted tips shone in the sunlight.

Beside me in the stands, the Lady Matorell let out an excited gasp. For a moment, I assumed that the Lord Matorell was taking the field, but then I remembered that he had been knocked out already, flung from his horse in one of the early matches. The lady’s attention had not been drawn by her husband, but by a handsome young knight with a halo of blond hair and a smile of unshakable confidence. A strip of cloth was tied around the armour of his upper left arm, its yellow and blue a match for my lady’s dress.

“How romantic,” she whispered. “Sir Arnau knows that he cannot have me, yet still he wears my colours.”

“Such chivalry,” I replied, smiling through my envy. This was romance like the storytellers proclaimed, the perfect and chaste love of a knight who knew that his desires could never even be spoken. I dreamed of any knight’s attention, while my mistress had it all: a rich and powerful husband to provide for her, and a storybook romance on the side.

“He barely even speaks to me,” she said. “The poor man must be afraid that his passion will overcome his senses.”

She let out a sigh that had nothing of sadness in it.

Sir Arnau donned his helmet, obscuring the features over which so many women had swooned, and lowered his lance. At the far end of the field, his opponent did the same.

I had imagined moments like this as I read to my mistress during long winter nights, but until this day I had never understood the reality of the joust. The thunder of hooves, the crash of blows, the thud of bodies on the ground. One knight had been carried off with his leg bent out of shape, another with blood streaming from his arm. It was thrilling and frightening all at once. My heart raced all the harder for these gallant men in their fine and gleaming armour. It made me feel my lovelessness more, and I slumped in my seat.

In the stands opposite, our host lowered his hand. The two knights set the spurs to their steeds, which sprang into action, galloping toward each other. For a moment, only hoof beats broke the silence. Then came the crack of lances, the cheers of the crowd, the fall, the thud.

Lady’ Matorell’s hand went to her mouth.

“Is he hurt?” she asked, eyes wide.

I saw Arnau’s horse ride on to the end of the lists, while his opponent cast aside a broken lance and raised his fists in triumph. But Arnaud himself was hidden by the spectators below us. I stared at them with my hands clutched to my chest, praying for his safety.

A knight rushed onto the field, followed by a pair of squires. It was Lord Matorell, dressed in the same blue and yellow as his wife, the colours of his house. My heart beat faster. Many stories saw spurned husbands confront their chivalrous rivals. Lady Matorell took my hand and gripped it tight.

Lord Matorell bent down. When he rose, he was supporting Arnau, the younger man leaning on his shoulder while he waved off the attention of the squires. As they hobbled from the field, the two men smiled at each other, laughing in spite of Arnau’s pain.

I had seen smiles like that between men before. I remembered my brother, before he removed himself from temptation by joining a monastery. There was more than one type of love a young knight would have to hold concealed, more than one person blue and yellow could stand for.

I looked at Lady Matorell, and just for a moment her expression narrowed into something bitter. Then Lord Matorell whispered in Arnau’s ear, and the two of them turned to wave at us.

“So noble!” Lady Matorell proclaimed, a little too loudly to go unheard. “The two of them together, despite their feelings for me.”

“A beautiful thing, my lady,” I said, matching her forced smile.

The envy in my heart wilted away. It was easy to be jealous of a real woman’s fortune, but not of a story, whoever had made it up.

***

This story was inspired by an article on clothing in Catalan medieval romances by Dr Ester Torredelforth, in Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini. If you enjoy analysis of sci-fi and fantasy then the whole collection is well worth a read.

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.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

How Wrong We Have To Be – a historical short story

Maria took a breath as loud as the pounding of her heart. Her grip tightened on the bayonet they had taken from the French soldier. She looked down at him, arms and legs tied to a chair in the middle of the one-room house, blood dripping from his nose onto the white front of his uniform. His blond hair and soft, round face made him look like a cherub beneath the bruises.

“We found him walking alone on the Barcelona road,” Juan said. “Near where they strung up Santiago and Maya.”

“Were you part of that?” Maria asked, pressing the point of the bayonet against the soldier’s neck. Her hand shook at the memory of those bodies, flies buzzing around their drawn out guts, faces contorted by hours of pain. The soldier winced and blood trickled down the bayonet.

“He doesn’t speak Spanish,” Juan said.

“Of course not. Napoleon and his cockroaches want to rule us, not understand us.”

Maria took a step back, removing the blade from the soldier’s throat. Justice should be decisive and deliberate, not a slip of the hand.

Her gaze never left the soldier. Had he been one of the killers? Had those pale, slender fingers ripped off her friends’ clothes? Had this bayonet, blunted and battered, torn through their flesh? If she looked really close, would she find blood staining the corners of his fingernails?

It didn’t matter. He had come to Spain as a conqueror, had chosen to align himself with murderers. He was one of them.

“Take him back to the Barcelona road,” Maria said with a sneer. “Leave the body there for them to find.”

Juan untied the soldier and hauled him to his feet. That soft face looked around uncertainly, eyes darting between Juan and Maria. Bruises shone blue against ghostly skin.

“We’re going to make you suffer,” Juan said, leaning in close to the soldier, baring his teeth in a terrible smile. “Everything you did to Santiago and more.”

Maria frowned. She had sworn to do whatever was needed to set her country free, but what the French had done to Santiago and Maya was hideous.

“Kill him cleanly. Show we’re better than them.”

“No. We have to show that we’re worse, that every atrocity they commit will come back upon them a hundred times over. If we don’t then they’ll never stop.”

Juan spoke of terrible necessities, but his face filled with malicious glee as he dragged the soldier towards the door.

The bayonet was hard and heavy in Maria’s hand. A tool made to kill men, brought into her country for no reason but to keep it under control. The Frenchman deserved this, but what did her people deserve?

She leapt forward, grabbed the soldier from behind, and thrust the bayonet into his back. It was like sewing, a matter of precise placement, the cloth resisting the needle just for a moment before it slid through. Fear and hatred were replaced by the swift, energising moment of action.

The soldier didn’t even let out a gasp. He crumpled, fell, spilt blood across her feet and through the gaps between the floorboards.

“What the Hell?” Juan snapped.

“Take him to the Barcelona road,” Maria said, stepping back. She would have to find something to cover her dress, to hide the bloodstain as she walked home. “Do whatever you want to the body there. Make it as hideous as you like.”

“He was meant to suffer. He was meant to make a point!”

The soldier’s lips were parted in an “oh” of surprise, his blue eyes still open and staring across the bloodstained floor. Every crease and freckle of his skin was a letter in a book that no-one would ever learn to read.

“We only need the French to think that we act like monsters. We don’t need it to be true.”

“You didn’t have the right to make that decision.”

Maria picked up a blanket off the bed and wrapped it tight around herself.

“None of this is about right – it’s about how wrong we have to be.”

***

Maria comes to this story fresh from my latest Commando Comic, which is out this week. V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope, both set during the Peninsular War. English riflemen Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by a washerwoman who is more than she seems. The comic is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.

***

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 Today – V for Vitoria

Spain, 1813: Former opponents Tom Hopper and Samuel Jones are part of Wellington’s army, driving back the forces of Napoleonic France. When their captain is captured, it falls upon Hopper and Jones to rescue him. But it will take a daring escape and a lesson in humility before they can join their comrades to face down the French at the Battle of Vitoria.

Out today from Commando Comics, V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope. See Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by Maria, a washerwoman who is more than she seems.*

V for Vitoria is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.

*No, she’s not Toad of Toad Hall,  though that would also be cool.