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.

***

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***

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.

The Art of the Pollaxe – a flash historical story

Armour plates clanked as Harry strode into the training yard and faced his opponent. His father had paid good gold for this man to come from Burgundy, allegedly for Harry’s training. But as far as Harry could see, it was one more way of holding him back.

“Defeat Sir Jean with the pollaxe just once,” his father had said, “and then you can go to the French tournaments.”

What Harry heard was “You’ll never be good enough.”

He would show them. He’d out-fought every other young noble in the north of England. He could beat some upstart foreigner.

“Ready?” Sir Jean called out.

“Ready,” Harry replied.

He snapped his visor down and raised his pollaxe, base forward, so that the pointed steel queue faced Sir Jean. The Burgundian did the same and they advanced towards each other.

Harry brought the pollaxe around and there was a crack as the weapons met. He followed that first feint with another, lower, then pivoted the weapon around for a swift, hard swing at Jean’s head.

Sir Jean stepped nimbly aside, brought his pollaxe around, and knocked Harry into the oak rail at the side of the yard. The force of the blow shook him and he had to pause to steady himself.

“One to me,” Sir Jean said brightly.

Harry clenched his teeth and attacked again. He knocked Sir Jean’s pollaxe aside, feinted left and right, then stabbed at his face.

Again a miss as Sir Jean darted clear in his light German armour.

With a growl, Harry swung his pollaxe around, aiming to stagger his opponent through brute force. But Jean deflected the blow and hooked Harry’s ankle with the head of his weapon. Harry crashed to the ground and the wind was knocked out of him.

“Two to me,” Sir Jean said.

Cursing under his breath, Harry pushed himself upright. He needed this win. He wouldn’t be dictated to by his father, left to rot around the castle.

He almost gave in to instinct and flung himself straight at Sir Jean, but years of practice had taught him better. Instead, he feinted low, as if intending to imitate the knight’s last move, jabbed left, then swung the head of the weapon hard at Jean’s shoulder.

In a flash, Jean hooked the head of his pollaxe behind Harry’s and tugged. Harry lost his grip, stumbled, and found the queue of Jean’s weapon pressing against his throat.

“Three to me.”

Jean stepped back and raised his visor. He was barely even sweating.

“You want to win too much,” he said.

“Of course I want to win! That’s the whole point.”

“But to try to win now, you keep doing the same thing. Feint, feint, attack. Feint, feint, attack.”

“Different attacks.”

“Same pattern.”

“Not this time.”

Harry charged, pollaxe raised. Jab, swing, jab, swing, swing, feint, hook at Sir Jean’s weapon, except the weapon wasn’t there. Something slammed into Harry’s leg and he fell to the ground, his shin throbbing.

“I give in,” Harry said, flopping in the dirt. “You’re better than me. I’m not getting to France.”

“Stop trying so hard to win,” Sir Jean said, reaching out a hand. “Pay attention to how you lose.”

“That’s stupid.”

“How else will you learn to win like me, if not by seeing how I beat you? You want to win when you get to France, no?”

Harry imagined himself in a sunbaked tilting yard, crowds of nobles watching as he knocked out some foreign titan, women gazing at him with wide eyes. They all cheered his name.

He grabbed Sir Jean’s hand and hauled himself to his feet. Armour clanked as he backed away, raised his weapon, and took a fighting stance.

“Come on, then,” he said, grinning. “Teach me how to lose.”

***

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the great things about living in Leeds is going to the Royal Armouries to watch the reenactors. A display of pollaxe fighting became the inspiration behind this little 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.

Out Now – Lady Death

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

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

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

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



***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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



I Hoped That In London… – a flash historical story

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

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

“Do you have work?”

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

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

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

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

He shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with us.”

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

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

*

“You alright there?”

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

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

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

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

“I was born in a barn.”

“Ah, a country lad. New to the city?”

I nodded, which made my head spin.

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

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

Little Bill chuckled.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re robbing him?” I asked.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

The man who wanted me to make me a robber.

I dropped the stick, turned, and ran.

*

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


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

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Filling the Gaps in the Past

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

So far so straightforward.

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

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

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

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

On Sundays I See Sunlight – a flash historical story

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not the work for me.”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s space down the mines.”

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

“Better that than face the hangman.”

“I’ll risk it.”

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

“You self-righteous prick.”

He strode out, leaving the money on the table.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

I hesitated, torn between familial duties.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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

The Price of Peace – a flash historical story

sword and blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

A moment later, the room darkened again.

“Mistress Acwellen, may I come in?”

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

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

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

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

I snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better than another feud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not fair,” I mumbled.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“Here,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

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

So easy.

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

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

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

We were all paying the price of peace.

***

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Out Now – All the Beautiful Sunsets

My latest book, All the Beautiful Sunsets, is out today. Collecting 52 flash stories I published on the blog this year, it covers a wide range of settings, from ancient history to the far future.

A fairy noble hunting for spies. A soldier digging for his life beneath a battlefield. A man learning the cost of renting out his brain. Meet all these characters and more in fifty-two short stories set in worlds beyond our own.

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

Men of War – a flash historical story

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

“Master van de Velde!” I exclaimed as the artist walked up the gangplank. “How good to see you. Out sketching ships again?”

“Oh yes!” Willem van de Velde said, setting down a bag of paper and pencils. He pulled out a pouch of coins and passed it to me. “I wish to set out immediately. Will this suffice?”

I opened the bag, peered at its mix of gold and silver, and felt its weight.

“It certainly will,” I said, then raised my voice to reach the crew. “Boys, get ready to cast off!”

The younger Willem van de Velde appeared behind his father, just before the gangplank was stowed away. Then we unfurled the single sail of my little galliot and headed out, threading our way through the maze of merchantmen that crowded the docks of the Hague, their timbers creaking and rigging whistling in the wind.

“Where to today?” I asked.

“West,” van de Velde said, a strange twinkle in his eyes. “Towards England.”

“Isn’t that where the fleet went?” I asked, breaking into a sweat despite the wind. “To fight the English?”

“That’s why we’re going there,” van de Velde the Younger said. “To turn war into art, retrieve beauty from horror, and capture a moment of great patriotic pride.”

“Which men will pay dearly to hang on their walls,” his father said.

“We usually avoid battles.” I twisted my cap nervously in my hands. “On account of all the killing and sinking. I think you’d better find another ship.”

“Really?” van de Velde the elder said, tossing me another bag of coins.

“Patriotic pride, you say?” With that weight in my hand, ambition overcame fear. “Then it’s our duty as Dutchmen to help you.”

*

By the time we got near the battle, my ambition was sinking beneath the weight of my nerves.

The sea was thick with ships, great men-of-war with full sails and bristling gun decks. They edged towards each other in long columns, smoke billowing around them, cannons roaring. The smallest could have contained my poor boat a dozen times over.

“Surely this is near enough,” I said, watching war unfold before me.

The mainmast of the nearest ship shook, then toppled slowly over, hitting the deck with a crash. The screams of mangled sailors were far too loud across the open water.

“We must get closer,” van de Velde the elder said. He sketched as he spoke, leaning on a board that rested on the rail, pencil flying back and forth across the page.

“But the danger!”

“They’ll be shooting at each other, not us,” the younger said, adding a dab of watercolour to his own work. “We need to get in with the fleet, before and behind the ships, to see the timbers splinter and flames roar, to capture the giddy heart of battle.”

“I’m not sure that my heart can take-”

Another bag of coins landed at my feet.

“Well, when you put it like that.” I raised my voice. “Boys, we’re getting in close!”

*

Months later, I sat in a dockside tavern, sipping at a cup of warm ale. This stuff didn’t taste as good as it used to, but then, nothing did. The days seemed greyer, the songs less lively. Perhaps if I had been sleeping better, that might have changed, but I woke in the night dreaming of the cannons’ roar and the van de Veldes’ sketches.

An old shipmate came to sit with me.

“Did you hear?” he said. “There’s been more trouble at sea. Fleet’s heading out to give the English a bloody nose.”

My heart raced. I smelled gun smoke and heard the crack of shattering timbers.

“Excuse me,” I said, downing my beer and abandoning my seat. “I have business to attend.”

I ran down to the docks. Sure enough, there were the van de Veldes, bags in hand, eyeing up fast vessels.

“Excuse me, sirs,” I said, rushing up to them.

“Captain!” van de Velde the Elder said. “I thought that you were, in your words, done with our madness.”

There was a strange twinkle in his eyes again. I recognised it now, having seen it in my own reflection. He too heard the battle rage around him and felt his heart hammer at the thrill of it.

“I was over hasty,” I said, leading them towards my galliot. “In these troubled times, an honest sailor cannot afford to turn down business.”

“I understand,” van de Velde the Elder said, nodding solemnly. He handed me a bag of coins. “Here. I wish to sail west.”

* * *

 

This is one of those stories where the real history was so wild that I didn’t need to make it up. Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger were 17th century Dutch artists who specialised in nautical scenes. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, they would sail with the fleet to make sketches of the battles, getting right in amid the action. These sketches became the basis for grand, dramatic paintings that celebrated the achievements of the Dutch fleet. They later emigrated to England, where they were employed by King Charles II.

If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And you can read more historical fiction and alternate history in my collection From a Foreign Shore, only 99c in all e-book formats.