Waiting for a Train – a flash steampunk story

The toymaker stood on the wind-swept platform, hands clenched around the handle of his suitcase. The case rattled, not just from the shaking of his nerves but from the impatient wriggling of its precious cargo.

An  old-fashioned suitcase

The toymaker bent over the case.

“Ssh,” he whispered into the lock. “I know it hurts, but you mustn’t move. Not until we’re safely in the city.”

The suitcase went still.

The toymaker straightened and looked up at the chalk board listing trains. Someone had just wiped away the one they had missed, leaving only a white smear on the black and a smell of coal smoke in the air. The toymaker had tried to be clever, arriving just in time so there would be less time for the guards to notice him. Instead, he had arrived just too late. To leave and return for the next train would draw the attention he wanted to avoid, and so instead he waited, his muscles tense and palms clammy, the heavy case threatening to slip from his grip.

A pair of border guards strolled down the platform, bright buttons gleaming against black jackets, rifles slung from their shoulders. The real border was twenty miles away, halfway across the great plain that separated the city from the outlands, but no-one challenged the guards’ presence.

The toymaker huddled back into his coat, trying not to catch the eye of the guards. But they kept moving closer, as if drawn by an invisible string.

The guards stopped in front of the toymaker.

“Papers, please,” said one of them, holding out his hand.

“Of course.” The toymaker set the case down and reached inside his coat, fumbling for his precious papers. He forced himself to smile. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

“Not really.” The guard flexed his fingers. “Come on, cough them up.”

The toymaker held out a bundle of paperwork. There were his identity papers, signed by the local doctor and counter-signed by his town’s mayor. There was the passport, stamped to show that he was a skilled worker of the sort the city needed. There was his letter of transit, showing that he had passed the immigration process. And there was his ticket, one way across the plains.

He held his breath as the guard looked through the papers. He had heard horror stories of people banned from the crossing because they looked at a guard wrong, and there was more reason than that to stop him. The rustling of pages was like sandpaper scouring the rough ends of his nerves.

“Seems to be in order.” The guard handed back the papers. “Enjoy your journey.”

The toymaker smiled and his shoulders sagged.

The guard made to move on, but his partner stopped and pointed down at the case.

“What’s in there?” he asked.

The toymaker tensed, took a deep breath, forced himself to stay calm despite the hammering of his heart.

“My whole life,” he said. “Clothes, tools, food to see me through the week.”

“Show me,” the guard commanded.

“Don’t you have other people to-”

“I said show me.”

The toymaker carefully laid the case down flat on the paving stones. Above him, the station clock ticked down to the next train. He opened the catches and lifted the lid, revealing a neatly folded jacket and shirts.

“See?” he said. “Just ordinary things.”

“What’s that ticking?” the guard asked.

The toymaker pointed up at the clock.

“No, there’s something else.” The guard knelt over the case. His companion brought his rifle around to point at the toymaker’s feet. “Something that got louder when you opened it.”

The guard pulled back the jacket and the shirts, then a pair of trousers underneath.

A figure lay exposed. A boy of brass with a clockwork heart, contorted around himself to fit inside the case. His enamelled eyes flickered in the sudden light.

The toymaker stifled a whimper.

The guard rose and snatched the papers, leaving a cut across the toymaker’s palm, a sudden sting.

“You know the rules.” The guard kicked the case for emphasis. The lid fell shut on the toymaker’s son. “No mechanicals in the city.”

“Please,” the toymaker said, hands clasped as if in prayer. “He won’t do any harm. He doesn’t even need feeding. He just-”

“No mechanicals.” The guard tore up the toymaker’s letter of transit and cast the shreds into the wind. They blew away like ashes from a funeral pyre. He crumpled up the ticket and thrust it into his pocket, then dropped the passport and identity papers onto the cold stone.

“Get out of here,” the other guard said, pointing his gun at the toymaker’s chest.

“But there’s no work left,” the toymaker said, his voice rising to a high and pleading tone. “Almost no food to be had. The city’s my only hope.”

“Should have thought of that before you did this.” The guard kicked the case and a cry of alarm burst from within. “Now take your abomination and get out of here.”

With mournful movements, the toymaker lifted the lid, helped his son out, and dropped his useless papers in with the clothes before locking the case shut. Waiting passengers stood back, some watching him sadly, others muttering indignantly, as the two of them walked wearily down the platform, through the ticket hall, and out into the street.

The toymaker sighed. It would be so easy to give in, to go back to his workshop, scrape by on what work he could get, and wait out the days until the whole town faded away. But then what would happen to his boy?

There would be other trains, other guards who were less observant. By the time he saved up for another ticket, these two might have forgotten him.

He had to hope.

“Come on,” he said, taking his son’s hand. “We’ll go home and wait for our train there.”

***

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***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Out Now – City of the Dead

Cover for Bards and Sages Quarterly January 2020

An abandoned city, a discredited physician, and gargoyles sacrificed to household gods, such a weird mix of topics can mean only thing – I have a new story out.

“City of the Dead” is a fantasy tale that explores the limits of obligation. Left behind by a great exodus, Pyrus lives alone in an abandoned city. Every day, he makes sacrifices to his clan’s gods, to ensure his family’s safe passage and assuage the guilt of his tragic past. Can he break free from the bonds of tradition, or will the city of the dead destroy him?

“City of the Dead” is in the January 2020 edition of Bards and Sages Quarterly, available now from all good e-book stores.

Silver Sails – a flash science fiction story

Helena stared open-mouthed at the silver sails drifting across the black of space. They moved like a flock of vast and shining birds, flowing back and forth in V-shaped formations hundreds of kilometres across, blown by the solar winds between the binary stars. As they turned, one face or another would catch the light, their bright tissue rippling and folding in invisible currents.

Space

“How do they even exist?” she whispered.

Johar shrugged and steered their shuttle towards the edge of one of the flocks.

“No-one knows,” he said. “Just be grateful that they do. They’re our way out of this system.”

The nearest sail shone brightly as Johar manoeuvred them in behind it. Tweaks of the thrusters, using up their precious supply of fuel, brought them in line behind that sheet of silver.

“Your turn,” he said.

Helena rubbed her hands against her thighs then wrapped them around the grappler’s controls. Her skin was tingling, her heart beating fast, but she tried to ignore that and focus on the task in hand.

She lined up the target finder on one corner of the sail and pulled the trigger, but a jerk of her hand left the shot misaligned. The grappling cable spooled out across the void, missed its target, and trailed limply like a heavy grey thread.

“Come on Helena, you’re better than this,” Johar said. “I’ve seen you practice.”

“It’s different out here,” she said, setting that grapple to wind back in while she reluctantly lined up another one. “They’re so beautiful, it doesn’t feel right to trap them like this.”

“They’re not people, not even animals, just a strange quirk of the cosmos. They won’t know that they’re trapped.”

“I will.”

Johar sighed, unstrapped himself from his seat, and floated across the cabin to her.

“You can do this,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I believe in you. And I believe in us. We could never afford the fuel to escape the system with rockets, but with a sail and a couple of cryo cans we can go wherever we want. It’s a whole new life for you and me.”

Helena couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Instead, she focused on the target finder, lining up the grappling shot like she’d practised so many times. Johar was right, this was their dream.

And yet…

“What if it goes wrong?” she asked. “What if the sail tears or we can’t find somewhere to settle or the place we find is dreadful or… or… or anything?”

Johar took a deep breath before he spoke.

“Sure, any of that could happen,” he said. “But if we don’t try, we know what will happen. We’ll live here our whole lives, stuck in dead-end jobs for an uncaring corporation. I’ll live through that for you, if that’s what it takes to be together. But couldn’t we have more?”

Helena looked out across the flocks of silver sails swirling against the black. She had never known such beauty could exist, never mind that it could exist here. Did she embrace that? Or did she leave it all behind, hoping that the universe might hold something more?

“Everyone I’ve ever known lives here,” she said. “Family, friends, all the places we share.”

“If it’s too much, we can stay.” Johar let go of her shoulder and drifted back to his seat. “Sell the ship, buy a little apartment instead, get by with what we have.”

His fingers stabbed at the controls, setting a course back home, then hovered over the thruster switch.

Helena imagined that apartment, the two of them raising kids in one of the city tower blocks. She imagined snatching a few hours of leisure each week with family, treasured moments between the long hours of her job. She could live with that.

The sail they were following turned with the rest of its flock. Like vast silver birds, the sails soared through the void, shining with borrowed light. The wonders of the universe were laid out before Helena.

She stilled her trembling hand and pulled the trigger. The grapple caught a corner of the sail.

Maybe she could live with this place, but she would rather dream of something more.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Dread the Dawn – a flash fantasy story

I dreaded the dawn, not because it would change anything, but because it would show me the truth.

Sunrise over the desert.

Night after night we had fled across the desert, straining at every step against the sand that tried to hold us back. My legs ached and my throat rasped from the dry, dusty air. Patches of skin that had been blistered by the midday sun now felt the bitter chill of the cloudless dark.

Every moment was etched with terror as I watched for our pursuers. Sometimes I would see one of them looming out of the moonlight, would raise my hand and summon ancient power. My palm would blaze and the creature would be driven back, teeth gnashing and claws slashing at the air, or it would be exposed as just a figment of my fearful imagination.

When the creature was real we could fight it. My staff and Kotali’s sword swinging in the darkness while the child clung to her back, whimpering in fear. That was the sound driving me to strike harder and faster, to fling my magic around with wild ferocity, to scream and shout and hammer each fallen beast until it was nothing but broken bones and blood seeping into the sand.

When the creature wasn’t real, only my fear and anger lay exposed, a bloody wound on my soul.

For the sake of our innocent burden, I was becoming a monster. The soft, compassionate woman who had left the city was gone, replaced by a ruthless killer. And yet it wasn’t the loss of myself I feared. It was the coming of the sun.

“This is the night,” Kotali said as we strode up a dune, sand sliding down between our feet. “This time we’ll get there.”

“You said that last night,” I said. “And the night before. And the one before that.”

“This time it has to be true. We’ve come so far.”

“Who says it’s far enough?”

“You’ve got to have hope.”

“I can’t.”

Hope had killed Arden, when he walked towards an oasis and straight into the creatures’ claws. Hope had killed Zell, when she tried to make peace with the sorcerers of the old city. Hope wasn’t getting me, and it sure as hell wasn’t getting the child.

But the creatures still might, if we weren’t fast enough.

“What is it like?” Kotali asked.

Dozens of us had dreamed of finding shelter in Elvast, but only I had ever been. Mine were the stories of the shining towers, the kind people, the wise rulers I had seen in my youth. I was the one who had set our course as we fled the sorcerers’ guards and their ravenous beasts. Only I really knew what we were running towards.

I pictured it rising out of the desert, with bright towers and open gates, the city that took in the lost and the broken, that would give a home to all who needed it. A place where the child could grow in safety until he came into his power. A blazing beacon in a world of shadows.

I remembered the first morning in the desert, watching for those towers as the sun came up, so sure that they must be within sight. I remembered my grief at their absence and my horror as I saw the sorcerers’ creatures dogging our trail, waiting for their chance.

Could I even bear to see that again?

The child pointed east, ahead of us. The sky was growing light. The night would soon be over.

I stopped and turned my head, unable to face what was about to be revealed. Parched as I was, tears formed at the corners of my eyes.

“Look for me,” I said, my voice a strained croak. “I have to watch our rear.”

The creatures were closing in, sensing some change within us, a moment of weakness they could exploit. I felt that weakness, a hope broken before it could even become real. I raised my hand and fire danced between my fingertips. If it had just been me, I could have let that power go, let the creatures end my long, drawn-out pain.

But it wasn’t just me.

Kotali gasped. The child giggled. A flash of something bright and earnest rose within me, faltered, and fell.

I held out my hand to the creatures and waited. Better that than face the dawn.

***

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***

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.’

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.

Steaming Out to Sea – a flash steampunk story

Haruo stood in his boat, shovelling coal into the boiler. Heat blazed from its open door and the glow illuminated him in the pre-dawn darkness.

“What is this?”

Haruo jumped in alarm at the voice. He looked up to see old Master Zuki standing with his stick on the quay.

“Nothing,” Haruo snapped, shutting the boiler door.

“Is that a steam engine?” Zuki asked, his voice rising in alarm. “On a boat?”

Haruo tugged sharply on the rope binding his boat to the dock. A knot unravelled and the rope fell away, untethering him from the city.

“You can’t do that,” Zuki said. “Steam belongs in the city, not on the water. You know the rules.”

“I’m sick of the rules,” Haruo said as he pushed off.

“The rules keep us safe!”

“The rules keep us trapped. I’m going to be free.”

“Guards!” Zuki shouted. “Guards, Haruo has put an engine on a boat!”

Haruo pulled on a lever, opening a valve in the intricate pipework he had spent months building. A paddle wheel turned and the boat inched away from the docks, gaining speed as it went. He grinned as he looked back to see the city watch arriving too late.

“I’m going!” he shouted. “No-one can stop me now.”

Dawn was creeping over the horizon as he steamed away from the city. Ahead, the waters churned above the Great Reef that surrounded the known world. There lay the limit of all the lives within the city, a barrier no-one had ever crossed and safely returned. But no-one had used steam in the crossing before.

His boat was special. It was no flimsy thing of wood, powered by the whims of wind. It was a vessel of hardened steel driven by the power of the industrial age, and no mere reef was going to stop it.

Still, his heart hammered in his chest and he sweated despite the early morning chill. It took all the will he had to keep his hand steady on the tiller.

This had to work, or he would be stuck in the city forever, his genius constrained by rules and tradition.

There had to be something more.

He hit the foaming water around the reef. There were places where he could see it protruding from the waves, and he steered around those. But the further he went, the more turbulent the waters were and the harder the journey became. The boat bucked and shook, scraped against unseen obstacles, screamed as coral gouged its side.

But it stayed whole and it kept moving.

Dawn had come, but not the sun. It was hidden behind a dark bank of clouds, blown in on a billowing wind. Like the will of his ancestors, they came looming over Haruo, trying to drive him back to the city he knew. The rain lashed down and lightning flashed overhead. Great gusts flung the boat about and rising waves threatened to hurl it over.

Haruo clung on tight as the boat heaved beneath him. His stomach churned and bile burned in his throat.

He mustn’t be afraid. Fear was how they kept you in place. Fear stopped you being free.

Lightning crashed down. There was a flash as it struck the roof of the boiler. Haruo leapt away in alarm, just as another wave lifted the boat. He went tumbling as the whole hull tipped. The top of the rail pressed against his spine and gravity grabbed hold, hauling him over.

He shot out a hand and snatched at the rail, clinging on for all he was worth. He was half in the water now, soaking and freezing, battered against the boat by each passing wave. Wet fingers slid one by one from the rail.

He swung his other hand up and grabbed hold just in time. With all his strength, he dragged himself up, over the rail, and collapsed into the bottom of the boat.

Another boom of thunder. The boat was flung about, crashed against the reef, almost tipped over.

In desperation, Haruo turned the steam dial, letting all the power he could flow through the engine. With a chugging so loud it seemed to drown out the storm, the boat gathered speed. Momentum carried it through the crashing waves, across the ocean, towards who knew what.

Haruo lay in the bottom, shivering and shaken, too scared to approach the rail and look out.

At last, the wind died down and the water grew still. The clouds parted and sunlight shone down on Haruo.

Nervously, he sat up and looked about. Behind him were the churning waters of the Great Reef and the roiling sky. Ahead was a terrible emptiness – no fresh lands, no strange boats, just a vast, watery void.

Haruo swallowed. Should he go back now? He had made it through the reef. He had shown it could be done. But all he had seen so far was danger and misery. Were the elders right to say he should stay in the city?

Sunlight gleamed off the water – not a void, but a world of potential, a vast expanse of the unknown. There could be anything out here, beyond the horizon.

Grinning, Haruo turned back to his boiler and started to shovel coal. He was going to see what this world held.

***

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.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Sweet Fruit and Burning Blooms – a flash fantasy story

Lord Cannerby’s coach drew to a halt. Wearily, he pulled himself out of his seat. He’d suffered through three months at court, with all its intrigues and gossip, never a moment’s peace. At last, some time to himself, and to enjoy the peace of his new gardens.

a rose

He descended from the coach onto a pathway of small, black stones that crunched beneath his boots. It was, he considered, a promising start, given the dirt driveway that had led to Cannerby Hall when he left for court. A glimpse of bright flowerbeds further reassured him that he had left his grounds in safe hands.

The architect of this transformation stood facing the carriage, dressed in well worn tunic and hose. Liza Bunnis bowed to his lordship, as was only right and proper, then smiled.

“Would you like the tour, m’lord?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” Cannerby said. “I’ve been looking forward to this since the spring. Somewhere I can put my feet up and smell the flowers.”

The garden had been divided into quarters, as was the style at all the most elegant houses. Bunnis led the way onto a walk planted with bands of springy herbs in different shades of green. With each step, scents burst into the air. Cannerby enjoyed a breath of sweetly aromatic air, another that was crisp and cleansing, then a soft smell that summoned memories of childhood.

Then he stepped onto the dark green and almost choked.

“What is that?” he gasped, stepping back to escape the aroma of rot and decay.

“They call it dead man’s ears,” Bunnis said proudly. “The contrast cleanses the senses so that you can truly enjoy the rose garden.”

Cannerby frowned. This was not what he had expected. A garden was meant to be relaxing, and there was nothing relaxing about that stench.

On the other hand, Bunnis had come highly recommended. All the best people had her gardens, custom designed to their personal needs.

He took a deep breath, then hurried across the offending herb and into the next section.

“To the left is your maze.” Bunnis gestured to a complex network of short hedgerows. Cannerby smiled at the sight, but his face fell when he heard the moaning.

“What is that?” he asked, a shiver running down his spine.

“The voices of the lost.”

“How can anyone be lost? The hedges are only three feet high.”

“Lost souls. They’re caged at the junctions to misdirect people and make the maze more challenging.”

Cannerby frowned but said nothing more. He could have those cages removed once Bunnis was gone and he had the place to himself.

Oh, how he longed for time to himself.

“On your right are the flowerbeds,” Bunnis continued, “and beyond them the kitchen garden.”

At last, something normal. Roses in a dozen different hues bloomed in the flowerbeds, forming a floral mosaic in the image of the sun.

“Spectacular,” Cannerby whispered, taking a step closer.

Without warning, a dozen of the nearest roses exploded into flames. Cannerby yelped as he leapt back from the heat that blasted his face.

“What in damnation is that?”

“Phoenix flowers,” Bunnis said, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “Aren’t they exquisite? I’ve chosen strains that will burn away and grow back at different times of day. You now own the world’s most dramatic floral clock. You can thank me later.”

Cannerby stared at the blackened stems of the burnt flowers, from which green buds were already emerging. He wasn’t sure he’d be thanking her when a spark from those flowers set the whole hall on fire.

Had he made a terrible mistake in hiring her? Or was he just too old-fashioned in his tastes?

“The orchard,” Bunnis said, pointing to the final quarter of the gardens.

Cannery peered at the trees. Was he imagining it, or were there faces in the bark?

“What madness does that hold?” he asked. “Dryads? Arboreal gnomes? Whirlwinds of leaves?”

“Only a fine selection of cherries and peaches. Your fruit bowl will be the envy of the county.”

With a sigh, Cannerby let go of the tension that held his shoulders up around his ears. Together with Bunnis, he continued down the pathway towards the manor house, beneath a bower of intertwining branches.

“Perhaps I can live with it,” he said. “Some of the features are a little wild for my tastes, but-”

Something grabbed him by the shoulder. He spun around and saw a pair of leaves snapping like jaws, just as another pair swung down and snatched at his arm.

With a scream, Cannerby dashed down the last ten yards of the path and into the safety of his doorway. Bunnis strolled along behind him, unperturbed by the grasping greenery.

“Enough!” Cannerby yelled. “I asked for a garden, not a menagerie of monsters. Tear it up! Burn it down! Give me a lawn and a chair and let me rest.”

Bunnis shrugged with surprising equanimity for a woman whose work was about to be destroyed.

“If you insist, m’lord,” she said. “But just one thought before I do. How many people do you think will risk a trip through this garden to call on you?”

“None!” Cannerby exclaimed. “Why, they would have to be mad.”

No-one would visit once they heard the wailing hedge, smelled the rotten path, were grasped and clawed by those wild branches. Not his nosey neighbours. Not his idiot son-in-law. None of the court dignitaries who rode out searching for gossip.

He would be alone, just him, his wife, and the servants.

He smiled.

“On second thoughts, it’s a splendid job,” he said. “Let me get my account book and we’ll settle the bill.”

***

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.’

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.

A Screw Loose – a flash steampunk story

Emerson clung tight to the controls of her ornithopter as they flew into the mountain pass.

Adean mountains

“Woohoo!” she yelled, waggling the Seahawk’s wings. “Look at that view!”

“Busy,” Caron shouted over the rattle of gears. “Something’s shaken loose.”

Emerson glanced back to see her engineer wrestling with a piston. She might be keeping them on course, but without him the machine never would have survived an endurance race. The Peruvian Grand was a team effort.

A gust of air snatched at their wings and the yoke jerked in Emerson’s hands. A mountainside loomed into view and she pulled back, lifting them in time to avoid a fatal crash.

She let out a sigh of relief and wiped the sweat from her brow.

Another ornithopter flapped past beneath them, so close to the ground that snow swirled up beneath it.

“Lunatic!” Emerson shouted as the craft rose in front of them, its tail almost hitting the Seahawk’s nose. She yanked on the yoke again to pull them clear.

The other ornithopter bore the red markings of the Malian team, the last people she wanted to see. There were only three real competitors here in the final leg – the Malians, the Chinese, and her and Caron flying for the Angevin Republic. The Chinese she knew she could beat, but the Malians were a mystery, their pilot never even showing his face. Who was behind the controls of that machine?

“Keep her steady,” Caron shouted. “I’ve got to get this piston back in place.”

Emerson held the yoke level and let an updraft lift them. With a cloud bank above and the mountains below, there was little space to manoeuvre. This was the leg of the race meant to test them to the limits.

She was gaining speed on the Malian ornithopter, thanks to Caron’s excellent work building and maintaining their engines. If she could just get past the Malians then victory was assured.

She edged left and up, past the other craft’s slipstream, almost there…

The Malian’s wings twitched and the craft shot into her path. She yelped, banked right, and almost lost control as another gust of wind swept in.

“That guy’s got a screw loose,” she said. “If I’d been a moment slower we’d have crashed into him.”

Caron emerged from the rear, took his seat, and pulled out a map. “The valley forks up ahead. Go right.”

“I don’t like the look of the winds that way.”

“No-one does, so we’ll be alone. Best way to get clear.”

Sure enough, a mountain loomed ahead, splitting the route in two. And, as Caron had predicted, the Malian ornithopter veered left.

“This is it,” Emerson said, grinning as she steered them into the right-hand valley mouth. “World record, here we come.”

Another unexpected gust caught the Seahawk and sent them spinning towards the mountainside. Emerson cut power to the engines, lifted one wing, and pulled them up seconds before they would have smashed into rocks and snow.

“What the-?”

She stared in bewilderment at the Malian ornithopter. It had flown up so close under them that it flung her of course. Now it was hurtling ahead, following a mad, twisting trajectory down the valley while she fought to regain control.

“Madman!” she bellowed. “Imbecile! I’ll have you drummed out of the sport for this!”

She re-engaged the engines and felt the pulse of power as the Seahawk’s wings flapped. They accelerated after their opponents, but the difference in speed was too great, the gap between them insurmountable.

Caron sank back in his seat and let out a loud sigh.

“Second’s not bad,” he said. “Not given the competition.”

“Second be damned! I’m going to punch that lunatic’s lights out.”

*

The aerodrome crowd was cheering when they came in. Not for them, of course, but for the winners walking away from the red-painted Malian craft.

Emerson set the Seahawk down, scrambled out of the cockpit, and strode across the packed dirt. The crowd parted before her, some of them offering congratulations, others commiserations. She ignored them.

“You.” She grabbed the first Malian by the shoulder. “Are you the pilot?”

The woman lifted her goggles and tugged down her scarf.

“I’m just the engineer,” she said, eyes shining.

“Well your pilot is a lunatic. Did you see the way he was flying? He could have gotten us all killed! I can’t believe that you-”

“One moment.”

The woman turned away, leaving Emerson gaping at her audacity.

The engineer walked over to her companion, who was posing for a photographer. She took off his scarf, goggles, and flying hat. The crowd gasped, and Emerson along with them, at the sight of a shiny brass skull.

The engineer frowned, pulled a screwdriver from her pocket, and played with something on the back of the brass man’s head. Then she pulled the goggles, hat, and scarf back into place and left him with the stunned photographer.

The engineer walked back to a bewildered Emerson.

“Sorry for the crazy flying,” she said. “He had a screw loose.”

***

I confess, I wrote that whole story for the punchline, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Out Now – Scrapheap Destiny

When journalist Eve goes back to her home planet, she thinks she knows what she’s after. A corporation is rebuilding the old scrap fields and they’re paying her to tell the story. But not everybody thinks that change is for the better, and Eve will find herself caught between her community, her sponsors, and her own desires.

My latest short story, “Scrapheap Destiny”, is out now in issue 30 of Neo-opsis.