Out Now – Maps of Broken Places

Maps of Broken Places book cover

A clockwork city winding down into entropy. A forest where moving statues stand sentry over the dead. A post-apocalyptic garbage heap. Visit all these places and more in fifty-two short stories set in worlds beyond our own.

Maps of Broken Places is my annual e-book collection of flash fiction, bringing together every story I published on this blog last year. If you missed out on some of the stories or would like them together in one handy place then please consider picking up a copy. It’s a chance to lose yourself in some strange and amazing places and the people who inhabit them.

Little Foot – a flash historical story

Sharru and Little Foot, his trusty mule, had just emerged from the river when the bag fell with a crack against the rocks. Perhaps the current had somehow loosened the straps. Perhaps Sharru hadn’t bound them properly. Whatever the cause, he felt a sense of horror at the sound.

That bag was the most precious thing he carried. More valuable than the supplies for their journey or the token that would see him served at relay stations along Assyria’s great roads. That bag held his duty.

He opened it with trembling hands and looked inside. Sure enough, the clay envelope was cracked. He had broken the message he carried between the Great Ones.

Unable to bear the sight, he closed the bag. In twenty years of service as a courier, he had never once broken a message. What would they do to him?

He tied the bag back into place, pulling each knot so tight that he felt the rope scraping on his hands. Then he climbed onto Little Foot’s back and they continued along the road.

Sharru imagined Tukulti, the man who ran the next relay station, a man with a belly big enough to match the importance of his job. He would be fuming when he found out what had happened. Would he beat Sharru himself, or would he call for soldiers and have him dragged away? The Great Ones’ messages were a sacred trust, a thread holding civilisation together, now broken by Sharru.

“What will we do?” he asked.

Little Foot snorted and shook his head. It seemed to Sharru that the mule understood his distress and was comforting him with the gentle rhythm of his walk. But then, it always seemed to Sharru that Little Foot understood him.

Despite Little Foot’s reassuring snorts and steady pace, Sharru couldn’t keep his mind on the mule or the road ahead. His eyes kept falling to his message bag. It was like a scab over a painful wound – he knew that he should leave it alone, and yet he couldn’t help wanting to pick at it.

He should leave it as it was, get to the relay station and hope for the best.

And yet he found himself opening the bag and drawing out its contents.

The envelope was cracked along one side but had not yet split in two. The tablet within remained concealed.

Sharru had never seen one of the actual tablets, though he had carried thousands back and forth along this road, all wrapped in that outer layer of clay. What might it say? Orders for soldiers at the frontier perhaps, a request for supplies to the capital, maybe even something about how the messengers were to be run. Could it be announcing a royal tour or the start of a war?

His fingertips ran across the surface, nails digging into the crack in the wounded clay. The damage was done already, his career over. Why not go all the way, break the seal on the envelope and see what was inside? After all these years, didn’t he deserve a look?

Little Foot snorted and shook his head. A fly buzzed away.

Sharru sighed and slid the tablet back into his bag.

“You’re right, old friend. I shouldn’t make things worse.”

He leaned forward and rubbed the mule’s head, just behind the ears. Being parted from Little Foot was the worst thing he could imagine. Never hearing that familiar snort again, never knowing the rhythm of those hooves. The mule was getting on now, just as he was. Maybe, if he was very lucky, they would get rid of Little Foot when they sacked him, and the two of them could leave together, go to his brother’s farm and live out their days in peace.

More likely they would be torn apart and he would be beaten for failing the Great Ones.

The relay station was up ahead, a clay brick building by a fork in the road. Sharru wanted to slow down, to put off the inevitable, but he didn’t want to spoil Little Foot’s pace.

As they reached the building, Tukulti came out to greet them.

“Got something for me?” he asked, holding out a hand.

Sharru sighed, took the clay envelope from the bag, and handed it over.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, hanging his head. “I have failed. I dropped it and-”

“Feh.” Tukulti waved a hand dismissively. “It’s just a crack. Happens to everyone from time to time. As long as it’s in one piece, we’ll be fine.”

“But my sacred burden, my duty to the Great Ones…”

“The letter’s in one piece, right? That’s all that counts. Now come on in, we’ll pass this to the next rider and you can put your feet up.”

Sharru felt like he was floating in the air. He turned to Little Foot with a grin.

“Did you hear that? It’s going to be alright.” He patted the mule’s nose. “Let’s go find you some food.”

***

Not for the first time, the inspiration for this week’s story comes from Ben of the Crudely Drawn Swords podcast, who told me about the ancient Assyrian mule mail service. You can check out Crudely Drawn Swords on your favourite podcatcher and find Ben’s tweetings over here.

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.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Story’s Story – a historical short story

William Parker led the way up the gangplank and onto the ship sitting at Antwerp dock. She wasn’t a big vessel, but she was what his small band of men could afford, and it wasn’t as if they needed much cargo space.

“This way, Master Story,” he said.

The man who followed was dressed in a better tunic than he was. His hair was better kept, as was his beard, which was going to grey. John Story was many things – scholar, Catholic, servant of the Spanish crown – but he was not scruffy.

“Why aren’t the crew here?” Story asked, peering suspiciously around.

“Taking on their last supplies,” Parker said, the lie tumbling casually off his tongue. “I offered to keep watch for them.”

“And you’re sure there are Protestant books on board?”

“Oh yes.”

Story’s narrowed gaze roamed the boat.

Parker swallowed. If Story grew too suspicious, this could all go horribly wrong. The Spanish owned the Netherlands and they were unlikely to show mercy on an English agent here.

“Does it pay well?” he asked, looking to occupy Story as he led him towards a hatch. “Searching out illegal books, I mean?”

“I don’t do it for the money,” Story said stiffly. “I do it to save souls from heresy. It’s bad enough that our own country has fallen to Protestantism, but now it’s being exported?”

Parker nodded. He might not share Story’s faith, but he liked the man’s conviction. He was up front about his views. It would have been hard to put up with his company the past week, if he hadn’t liked something about him.

Parker opened the hatch and walked down a set of steps into the gloom of the hold. Story hesitated, looking down after him.

“Are you sure there’s no-one else here?” he asked.

“We’re perfectly safe.” Parker took a hooded lantern he’d hung from a hook, slipped back the shutter, and illuminated the path towards the back of the boat. “Just as we were safe under Queen Mary. Weren’t you a man of influence then?”

“That I was.” Story followed him into the darkness, stairs creaking beneath his weight. “A lecturer at Oxford. A servant of the crown. I helped try that heretic Cranmer. Then our glorious monarch died and her bastard sister took the throne.”

“Couldn’t you have stayed in England? Argued for the true faith?”

“How do you think I ended up in prison?”

That made Parker wince. He’d never been locked up himself, but he knew men who had been, whether waiting for trial or struggling to pay off debts. He pitied anyone who went through that.

They approached the door to a private chamber at the back of the ship. Parker produced a heavy key from within his tunic, unfastened a hefty padlock, and slid back the bolt. The door creaked open, revealing a dark room with a set of chests at the back.

“The books are in the chests,” Parker said.

Around them, the ship swayed and its timbers let out the ghost of a groan.

“This place has too much the reek of the cell.” Story peered in but didn’t step through the doorway.

“True,” Parker said. “But you escaped a cell once before, didn’t you?”

“True.” Story grinned. “They couldn’t keep me. I was out of their prison and out of the country before the axe could fall. They called me a heretic and traitor, you know, because I wouldn’t accept Elizabeth and her faith.”

“You’ll show them now,” Parker said, smiling at the man’s bravado. “Imagine the looks on their faces when they hear that you caught more of their books.”

“Ha!” Story walked into the windowless cabin and crouched by one of the chests. “I’ll teach them all a lesson.”

He lifted the lid on the chest.

“You’re sure it’s these boxes?” he asked, a note of suspicion in his voice.

“Oh yes.”

Parker followed Story inside. He was just opening another of the boxes when he heard a creak behind him.

Story whirled around, a moment too late to stop the door being slammed shut and the bolt flung into place.

“Damnation!” Story flung himself against the door, but it was no use. The timbers held solid. “It was a trap.”

“No!” Parker sank to the ground, doing his best imitation of a broken man. “But that means…”

The ship creaked more loudly as it cast off from the docks.

Story turned a steely gaze on Parker.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I escaped them once. I’ll do it again, and take you with me. The executioner won’t have you.”

That he won’t, Parker thought. I’ll be held long enough to keep my cover, then I’ll be let out. You, on the other hand…

He blew out the lantern.

“Best to conserve our light,” he said.

In the darkness, he smiled. He’d enjoyed hearing Story’s life’s tale, and he would enjoy ensuring it had a dramatic ending.

***

The kidnapping of John Story was a real operation by British agents in 1570. Story ended up imprisoned, questioned, and executed. Parker spent some time in prison to maintain his cover, had a bit of a breakdown, and then went back to spying.

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.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Clodius’ Pyre – a historical short story

People were swarming around the steps of the Curia Hostilia. Not the patricians usually seen here for senate meetings but a mixed mob, men and woman with swords and clubs on their belts, some glaring with hostility out across the streets of Rome, others bringing in heaps of firewood and jars of oil. I recognised a few of the faces, people I had seen in Clodius’ entourage as he travelled around the city, but many more were unknown to me. I had tried to keep my distance from the mob he used to wield his will, and now that I was forced into proximity with them I found myself an outsider.

I pushed my way up the steps, leaving my servants to deal with the trail of indignation, and hurried into the Curia. There stood the shrine of Vulcan, the viewing gallery, the statues of gods and paintings of battles.

And there lay Clodius, master of half the Roman mob, pale, cold, and empty eyed, laid out on the marble altar.

Fulvia stood by her husband’s corpse and watched as firewood was heaped up around him. Her eyes were red, her makeup smeared, her lips pressed together as she suppressed her fury.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, taking hold of her hand. My own grief welled up inside me – grief for a lost friend and for lost opportunities. “If I had been there I would have-”

“You weren’t,” she said. “Nor was I. But what we can’t undo, we can brand upon the memory of Rome.”

The heap of wood was growing higher around Clodius. Other piles were being made around the hall. I could smell the lamp oil that had been poured over them.

I took a step back.

“You… you can’t be serious. You would burn down the heart of our government?”

Fulvia glared at me.

“They emboldened Milo, and now his party have killed Clodius. You think a government like that deserves to stand?”

A servant appeared with a burning brand in his hand.

“This place is more than just government.” I waved a hand towards the statues and paintings, then pointed at the altar on which Clodius lay. “This is our heritage.”

Fulvia reached for the brand but I snatched it away.

“Give me that,” she snarled.

Other leaders of Clodius’ faction emerged from the throng. Some gathered around Fulvia. Others stood at my back. As we had once faced off against Milo and his men, now we faced off against each other.

“I won’t let you destroy all this in a fit of fury” I said.

“So instead we sit aside and let them win? Let his memory fade with the bloodstains on their hands?”

“If the alternative is casting aside our history, then yes!”

“What use is history if it holds us back? If it makes us weaker?”

I frowned. She wasn’t right, was she? Looking around the building, at centuries of tributes to gods and men, I couldn’t believe that it was right to cast them away.

“There will be other statues,” Fulvia said. “Other paintings. Other buildings.”

“Not like these.”

“And there will not be another man like him. We should remember that.”

I looked at the corpse laid out upon the pail marble, his tunic stained with crusted blood and fresh lamp oil. My ally. My friend. Killed because he opposed men who had sat with me here, deciding the fate of our city. They revelled in their power even as they held back the will of the people, and now it had come to this.

Fulvia was right. Better to let it burn.

I flung the torch on the pyre. The oil ignited and flames shot through the heaps of wood.

“We should go,” I said as fire flared around the hall.

Fulvia took my arm and together we walked out into the dusk.

Behind us, the senate burned.

***

Crazy as it sounds, the Curia Hostilia, home to the Roman senate, really was burned down as a funeral pyre in 52 BC. Clodius, one of many Roman politicians who was as much gang leader as he was statesman, had been killed in a conflict with his opponent Milo. Clodius’ faction decided to make a point by going big on the funeral.

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.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Crone’s Curse – a historical flash fiction

It was a nondescript hut amid some nondescript fields somewhere outside a nondescript town on the edge of Hampshire. There was no mark worth speaking of here, no-one Alice could trick with a sob story or a play on their greed. But if what she’d heard was true, then there was something even better – an accomplice for her greatest con yet.

A woman answered the door. She was stooped and dishevelled, with a jutting chin and sagging eyelids. A black cat rubbed around her ankles. The whole scene could have come straight from one of the witch hunters’ pamphlets.

Alice almost squealed in delight. This was too perfect.

“Judith of Mowbray?” she asked.

“Aye, that’s me.” Judith looked Alice up and down. “I don’t meet many ladies in fancy dresses with fancy ruffs.”

“I think we can help each other. May I come in?”

Judith led Alice into her house and closed the door behind them. The door didn’t quite fit right in its frame, the hinges sagging and the wood warped. It went perfectly with the battered chairs, odd herbs, and cauldron bubbling over the fire.

“They say you’re a witch,” Alice said. “I work the same trade.”

“Aye, I’m one of the guilty.” Judith stirred the pot, then settled into a seat. Her cat leapt into her lap. “Thought I were just making salves for aching joints, but these last years, they’ve opened my eyes to the truth.”

It was a good act, one of the best Alice had seen. That bit about being persuaded made it feel more real.

“You’ve been here for years, right?” she asked. “Since good Queen Elizabeth was still young?”

“I was only a girl then. Thought I were talking to myself, not to devils. But then Adam the carter broke my heart, and I muttered ill wishes against him. Just a month later he broke his leg, the first curse of many.”

“That’s what I need, someone well-established. I have this whole act where I use my powers to find hidden treasure, then promise them more in return for a room and some pay. I set them doing a day-long ceremony to the faeries, then clear the place out and head off while they’re distracted.”

“You’re a con woman?” Judith gaped at her.

“Of course. Don’t pretend that’s not what this is all about. Convincing people you can curse them, then getting paid to curse their enemies.”

“I’m no trickster. I’m a real witch.”

“Witches aren’t real. I should know, I’ve met enough of them.”

“I am! I cursed poor Adam without even meaning it. Same with Mistress Emily, and the alderman’s cows, and a dozen others. Its why no man ever settled with me. It’s why I’ve only my familiar for comfort.” She stroked the black cat behind his ears and he purred happily. “I’m cursed, and when they arrive this noon, I’ll burn for it.”

Alice couldn’t have made a living if she had space in her heart for pity. But looking at this poor woman, dragged down by misplaced guilt and anxious neighbours, something sad and sympathetic stirred inside her.

She knelt beside Judith, took her hand, and spoke softly.

“People have accidents. Milk goes sour. Any time you get angry at someone, something bad will happen to them in the next month, because something bad happens to everyone every month. It might be a broken leg or a bruised toe, but it’s not your fault.”

“Then why am I alone?” Judith wailed. “Why’d it come to be just me and black-furred Jack?”

Heavy footfalls approached the hut. Judith had said they were coming for her at noon. The smart thing would be to leave now and claim no knowledge of the woman or her works.

For once in her life, Alice didn’t choose the smart thing.

“You’re not alone,” she whispered. “Quick, tell me three things about the man who leads this mob.”

As soon as the answer was out, she got up, flung open the door, and stepped outside.

“Alderman Henry,” she boomed. “You come seeking witches? You have found one.”

The crowd was twenty strong, most of them men. They stopped, uncertain, at the sight of a strange woman in rich clothes.

“You want to burn with her?” A large man stepped forward, better dressed than the rest.

“I want to offer you our services,” Alice said, holding out her hands. “Magic can bring curses, but it can bring blessings. I sense things about you. A sickly wife, old debts unpaid, a storm-blasted tree beside your house.”

The crowd murmured to each other excitedly, as if this was the most shocking thing they’d ever heard. It must be witchcraft. After all, that was what they’d come for.

“Want us to burn you too?” the alderman asked.

“Or take my blessings. There is a treasure close to you, one that could cure your wife.” It would be easy to hide a silver crucifix in a storm-blasted tree stump, then guide this man to find it. Judith could help, providing a distraction and authenticity. “Give me three days with my powers and I can heal your Kathryn. Then we can talk of where other treasure might be found.”

The alderman hesitated. She could see him wavering, tugged one way by pain and greed, the other way by cynicism and anger. His eyes narrowed and Alice feared she had finally overstepped.

Then the door behind her creaked and Judith appeared. A wicked smile crept up the Alderman’s face and Alice knew what he was thinking. Profit from his witches, then burn them. Best of both ways.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll give you your three days.”

Alice took Judith’s hand.

“Come, sister,” she said. “Our powers are needed.”

“But the burning…” Judith looked bewildered.

“No burning, Judith,” the alderman said slyly. “You’re going to do some good.”

Judith’s face brightened.

“Really?” she whispered.

“Really,” Alice replied.

They were going to teach these men a lesson, then be gone before the kindling came out. What more good could a woman possibly do?

With the mob flanking them like an honour guard, Alice and Judith headed across the nondescript fields towards town.

***

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.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

The Executioner’s Art – a historical flash fiction

Heinrich walked into the tavern, ordered food and drink, and took a table. The place hadn’t changed since the last time he was in this town – 1599 maybe, or had it been 1600? Long enough for the walls to gain more stains, the tables more scars. He hoped that at least the rushes on the floor had been replaced, though by their filthy state he wouldn’t swear on it.

“You here for the execution?” said a man at the next table.

Heinrich nodded and smiled. It was good to see that people had come to witness his handiwork.

“Us too,” the man said, gesturing to his companions. “They say this one was a unadulterated bastard, robbed and murdered a dozen honest citizens out in the woods.”

“So I heard,” Heinrich said. He’d heard far more than that from the judge of the blood court. But telling them what he knew would mean telling them how he knew it, and it had been a long time since he’d had pleasant company. So he nodded and sipped at his drink as the others talked.

“Course, that killer’s not the only bastard involved, is he?” one of the men said.

“That’s right,” another said. “That’s executions for you – one evil bastard finishing off another. Difference is, one does it for the law.”

Heinrich gritted his teeth.

“Must take a real evil disposition, to lop heads off for a living,” the first man said.

Heinrich didn’t mind that thought so much. He’d had it himself, from time to time, though he knew that he’d had little choice as an executioner’s son – like most, he’d had to take the job he could. No, what bothered him was what they always disregarded, those who talked in low tones about his work.

“It must take skill,” he said. “To chop a head clean off in a single stroke.”

The first man snorted. “Just like chopping wood, isn’t it?”

“Wood is nothing like flesh.”

“Butchery, then,” said the second. “Just cutting up meat.”

“Does meat move as you prepare to butcher it? Does it beg you for mercy or recite the Lord’s Prayer?”

“Well then, what is it like?” one of them snapped. “Or are you the sort just tells others why they’re wrong?”

“It is like nothing else on earth. The poise and balance needed to swing the sword just right, to sever the head of a standing man in a single stroke. To take account of his height, his build, his twitching, the expectations of the crowd. To make a spectacle that will bring swift, merciful death yet deter others from a criminal path. It is a fine art.”

The moment he saw their reactions, Heinrich regretted his words. They were evaluating him now, looking for something they’d missed. The first man narrowed his eyes.

“How would you know all that?” he asked.

Too late to hide it, even for one evening of friendly company.

“How do you think?”

Heinrich stood. The men flinched away as he stepped out from behind his table and headed for the tavern door. He didn’t need to look back to know that they were watching him, judging him, readying condemnations for the conversation that would follow.

But they would be there tomorrow to watch his art. And unlike him, they would cheer at the results.

***

This story was inspired by reading The Faithful Executioner, Joel F. Harrington’s biography of Frantz Schmidt, a real executioner from 16th century Nuremberg. It’s a fascinating and unsettling read about a grizzly profession, one that saw its members treated as pariahs by the very people who clamoured for their work.

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Owning the Sin – a historical flash story

Rob raised his musket and aimed at the oncoming Roundheads. Even through the smoke drifting across the battlefield, he could smell the powder in the pan so close to his face and the match smouldering away in the lock.

“Fire!” the captain bellowed.

Rob squeezed the trigger and closed his right eye. There was a click and a flash as the match hit the pan, then a moment later his musket barked, along with hundreds more along the line.

“Reload!”

Rob lowered his musket and reached for his powder and shot. The first round of each battle was an orderly business, the men working in unison through the intricate dance of loading and firing. But by now they were all just going as fast as they could to get their hits in before the enemy reached them.

A man next to him fell as the Roundheads fired back, but Rob pressed on. Reloading complete, he raised his musket and took aim.

A familiar face emerged from the ranks across from him, a face all too similar to his own. His stomach lurched.

“Fire!” the captain bellowed.

With a jerk, Rob tilted his musket up, then squeezed the trigger, firing into the sky. It was one thing to shoot the nameless men who had taken up a false cause. It was another when their rank included his own brother.

“Reload!”

Red-faced with shame, Rob reached for his powder again, but this time he didn’t reach for the shot.

*

The camp was dark but not quiet. Everybody knew that they would fight again tomorrow. Despite a day of marching and shooting, the tension of that knowledge overcame their exhaustion.

Rob crept through the camp. He had left his belongings behind, pretending that he was just going for a piss. By the time anyone realised the truth, he would be long gone.

“Where are you going, Rob?”

The voice stopped him in his tracks. He turned to see the captain in his red coat.

“Just, you know, in the trees…”

“Wrong way for the trees. Looks to me like you’re heading towards the road.”

Rob stiffened. He reached for the sword at his side, then hesitated. He wasn’t willing to kill his brother. Was he any more willing to kill a man he’d fought alongside?

He let out a sigh and his whole body slumped.

“I saw Adam on the other side today,” he said.

“That’s the brother who turned puritan?”

“Yes.”

“Hm.”

The captain watched Rob in the dim light of the nearest campfires.

“I can’t shoot at my own brother.”

“So you’re deserting?”

Rob nodded. He hadn’t let himself think that word, even though he knew it was true. Wretch that he was, he could at least face the consequences with dignity.

“I’ll take my punishment, whatever it is.”

“It’s a tough situation, lad, but you’ve owned your sin, now you can overcome it. Head back to camp and I’ll say no more.”

“I was deserting! I deserve to be punished.”

“You’re not deserting now, and that’s what matters to me.”

Rob trudged back to the fire and the comradeship of his unsuspecting company. Their welcoming smiles stung more than any lash.

*

Rob raised his musket and aimed at the oncoming Roundheads. Along the line, others did the same, ready to kill for king and country.

Rob scoured the faces across from him, looking for that familiar one. He could fire into the sky again, or choose to load powder without shot. His captain was busy with the battle line. He’d never know.

But what then for the rest of their men? What danger did he put them in by not fighting? And what of the cause he’d sworn himself to?

He took aim and tightened his grip on the trigger. He couldn’t see his brother in the front rank facing them. He would just have to hope he wasn’t in the rank behind.

“Fire!”

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about the English Civil War recently. There are some features of recent politics that are disturbingly similar to the buildup to that terrible war. While I’m not running around panicking that we’re on the verge of violence, it has put the war and its dilemmas in the forefront of my mind – hence today’s story.

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

The Dancing Plague – a flash historical story

“This is nonsense.” Lukas glared at the people dancing uncontrollably in the street. “They’ve not caught some curse or disease, they’re just after attention.”

One of the dancers came closer. His tunic was dark with sweat and his shoes worn through until his feet bled. The expression on his face would have been one of horror if not for the placid, distant staring of his eyes.

“Dozens of people dancing like this for weeks,” Heinrich said, backing away from the man. “Some collapsing and dying. Surely this is a sign from God?”

“You’re just encouraging them,” Lukas said. “When will you all accept that this is nonsense, so that it can end?”

He turned on his heel and strode away.

All through the summer of 1518, Strasbourg’s streets had been blighted by the dancing plague, people breaking into wild fits of movement in which they paused only for sleep, apparently unable to control themselves. He had said from the start that it was nonsense, yet the so-called victims had been encouraged, even put on display in hopes of ending the curse. All that had done was encourage more. It was a disruption to good business and good order.

He reached his home and went inside. The wool trade had been good to Lukas, and he had a large house with two floors and three rooms on each. A bedroom for him and Bertha, another for the children, and a counting room, as well as the kitchen and space for a servant. Quieter than when he’d shared a place with his old master, but a far better reflection of his worth.

He stopped just inside the house and stared, his whole body tense.

Bertha stood in the middle of the room, dancing uncontrollably.

Lukas pulled himself together. His brow furrowed and he let out a derisive snort.

“Stop this at once,” he said.

Bertha kept on dancing.

“I said stop.” He grabbed her arms and turned her to face him. The beauty of her face had become twisted by that distant, horrified expression he had seen on others. Her legs kept twitching even as he lifted her up.

“Stop it!”

He put her down. She danced around him and out the door, her green woolen dress swirling around her.

“You’re better than this,” he cried out as he ran after her. Neighbours looked up as they passed, some with sympathy, others with smug satisfaction.

“You’re a smart woman. You don’t need to do this.”

He grabbed her hand and tried to drag her back, but Bertha resisted with surprising strength. Lukas felt like a great weight was pressing down on him inside. He had promised Bertha long ago that he would never raise his hand to her or the children, never force her to anything. But if she kept on dancing then others would see, and then they would never listen to him.

If he had made the others seen sense earlier then this would be over. Bertha would be fine. But he had failed to get through to them, and now the dancing plague had his love.

Bertha danced out into the square, where so many of the other dancers were. The city’s great and good were watching them, stroking their beards and talking quietly among themselves.

“Look at what you’ve done!” Lukas shouted at them. “You let this thing fester and now it has taken my wife.”

“This isn’t our doing,” a minister said. “This is a disease, God’s message to us that we must deal with the sins of our town.”

“This is just desperate people looking for attention!”

“Is Bertha desperate?” Heinrich asked. “Doesn’t she get your attention?”

Lukas opened his mouth to snap something back, then shut it. Hadn’t he given Bertha what she wanted? Hadn’t he been attentive when his work allowed?

No, this was something else. Some dark influence that had seized her, just as it had seized these other people.

Which left a question to which he had no answer.

“How can we help them?”

“We want to take them to the shrine of St Vitus,” the minister said. “This is the sort of ailment in whose face the saint excels. The problem is getting our dancers there.”

“I have wagons,” Lukas said. “If you want them.”

Heinrich gave him a curious look, which after a moment morphed into a smile.

“Thank you, Lukas,” he said. “That would be very helpful. Can you bring them to the square tomorrow?”

Lukas nodded. Then he drew away from the others and went to stand watching the dancers, watching his Berth as she moved without reason or rest. He watched them all as they suffered this terrible blight and he prayed that they would feel better soon.

***

The dancing plague of Strasbourg was a real event, one of at least twenty recorded incidents of mass dancing manias in mid to late Medieval Europe. No-one knows for sure what caused them, but if you want an entertaining and accessible account of the issue, as well as a theory about the cause of the dancing, then check out John Waller’s A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, which inspired me to write this story.

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Final Flight – a flash historical story

The wind roared past the Lancaster bomber as it limped across the North Sea. At the controls, Flight Lieutenant John Lyall tried to focus on that one sound, to ignore the creaking of the plane, the whistle of air through bullet holes, the crackle of flames, and the groans of Arthur Corby, the bomb aimer, emerging through his headset.

“Hold on, Art,” Lyall said. “Just a little longer and we’ll be home.”

Even through the smoke and the leaking fuel, he thought he could smell blood. Whether it was Corby’s or one of the others, their voices all silent, he didn’t know. The back of the plane must be a ghastly mess if he could smell it from here.

“You’re a lousy liar, Johnny,” Corby said, his voice shaking. “If this bucket makes it home it’ll be a miracle.”

“She’s never let us down before.”

“She’s never been shot up this bad before.”

“Let me worry about that. I’ll soon have you all home.”

Who “you all” meant was a painful thought. He hadn’t heard a word from any of the others since they’d left Cologne with a belly full of ack-ack. The crew could all still be alive, unconscious or trapped at their stations and unable to communicate.

It was just possible, like it was just possible the Lancaster would make it home.

“Get out while you can, Johnny,” Corby croaked. “One of us should live.”

“I’m not abandoning you.”

“We’re bleeding fuel and half the left wing’s on fire.”

“Could you parachute out?”

“Not without leaving my guts behind.”

“Then neither can I.”

Corby groaned and then went silent.

Lyall could feel his pulse pounding. He wiped one sweaty palm on his flying suit and then the other, determined to keep the best grip he could on the yoke, to make sure they got back in one piece.

“You still back there, Art, old chap?” Lyall called out.

“Nnnng.” The noise was one of pure pain, followed a moment later by weak, trembling words. “We’ll never make the airfield.”

“I’ll take us down on a farm as soon as we cross the coast.”

“We won’t make the coast.”

“Then I’ll land us in the drink and we can wait for the rescue boys. The plotters back at base will see where we go down.”

“You think the old girl won’t… won’t tear to pieces when you touch the waves?”

“Then I’ll fish you out of those bloody pieces! I’m not losing you all.”

Again, there was just the sound of the wind, the broken plane, and the slowly spreading flames.

Through the cracked window, Lyall saw cliffs in the distance. But the Lancaster was losing altitude despite everything he did, the sea rising in a fretful tide to meet them.

He thought he heard a gasp.

“Art?” he called out. “You’re still with me, aren’t you?”

No response. Even the smell of blood was blotted out by the smoke swirling into the cabin.

“Dammit, Art,” Lyall said, tears running down his cheeks. “Couldn’t just one of you make it through?”

Reluctantly, he let go of the yoke and rose from his seat. He secured the straps on his parachute and made his way quickly back down the plane. The deck tilted beneath him.

He pushed himself on past the body of Arthur Corby, his face pale and his belly bloody, his eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling.

Lyall opened the hatch to the howling wind, took a deep breath, and stepped out into the void. For a moment, gravity grabbed him mercilessly and pulled him down. Then his parachute opened, the straps yanked at his shoulders, and he found himself floating on the breeze.

Trailing smoke and flames, the Lancaster plunged into the sea.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Piggy – A Historical Flash Fiction

Annette’s stomach ached. It felt as though it had always ached, though she knew that wasn’t true, just as she knew that the town hadn’t always been under siege. There had been a time before there were Englishmen outside the walls, and her parents insisted that such a time would come again. But they didn’t look Annette in the eye when they said that, just like they didn’t look her in the eye when they said there would be food soon.

Picture of a pig

When Annette brought them the pig, they would look her in the eye and smile again.

No-one else knew about the pig because no-one else went into the ruined houses on the west side of town, shattered by English trebuchet stones in the first days of the siege. Annette had gone there, curious to see why the others wouldn’t, and hadn’t found the wrecked homes as disturbing as the adults did. That was why she had been the one to see the pig, skinny as it was, hiding amid the broken timbers and fallen stones. That was why she was going back now.

Clutching her mother’s knife, Annette crept back into the ruins. She had never killed anything, hadn’t even learned to butcher the family’s meat yet, but the hunger was eating at her as surely as the misery on the faces she saw around town. She wasn’t a knight who could save them all, but if she was smart and fast then maybe she could fill her family’s bellies.

Lithe as a snake, Annette slid between broken wall timbers. The pig was peering into a broken chimney breast, its back to her. She crept toward it, knife raised.

A stone rolled beneath Annette’s foot. She stumbled. The pig turned.

Annette raised the knife, but found herself frozen as she looked into the creature’s eyes.

The pig squealed and ran.

Annette darted after it. If it got into the street then other people would see it, people as desperate as her but with the strength of adults. She would lose her chance to feed her parents.

Annette abandoned the knife and dived onto the pig, wrapping both arms around it. The pig squirmed and kicked. The two of them went rolling through the dirt. Splintered wood stabbed at Annette’s back as she held on tight and let the pig roll her round.

She couldn’t hold on forever. Clinging tightly with one arm, she reached out with the other, seeking a weapon to fight the pig. A stick, a stone, her knife if she could grab it. Anything would do.

The pig squirmed free and dashed across the room. It got to the gap in the ruined wall where a door had once stood, then hesitated, looking back past Annette to the fireplace.

She grabbed a rock and stalked towards the pig. She didn’t understand why it wasn’t running, but she didn’t care. Dreams of pork stew and smiling faces made her smile in anticipation.

There was a squeal behind her, higher pitched than the pig. A pair of piglets poked their heads out of the fireplace. Their eyes were wide, their ears too big for their heads, their mouths open as they stared at her.

The mother pig looked at Annette and its ears flopped. With heavy steps, it returned to the fireplace and stood between its children and the hungry human.

Annette looked at them. All three animals were so skinny that their bones showed, just like hers did. There was barely a strip of meat on them, but any meat was better than none.

She picked up the knife and approached. The mother pig stood steady in front of her young. The piglets looked out past her at Annette, as Annette had looked out past her mother’s skirts to see the approaching army.

She shuffled her feet and gazed down at the knife. She didn’t feel so hungry anymore.

With a sigh, she hid the knife away in her sleeve.

“They say the siege will be over soon,” she whispered. “But if not, I’m coming back for you.”

She crept out of the ruins, watching carefully to be sure she wasn’t observed. As she walked home, she thought about the cute little piglets, with their shiny eyes and their big ears, and their mother looking after them. That thought made her smile. The hunger didn’t hurt as much and the dread of her parents’ grim expressions faded. The might not look her in the eye when they talked of the siege, but no matter what happened, they would always be there.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.