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.”

***

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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.’

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.

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.

Clockwork Heartbreak – a flash steampunk story

With a screwdriver so tiny it was almost lost between his fingers, Oliver tightened the last screw on the clockwork flower. His heart was racing as he looked up to see if Elizabeth had arrived yet, but her workbench remained empty. He just had time.

He scurried across the room, placed the flower in her seat, and ran back to his place, where he picked up his tools and set to looking busy.

A moment later Elizabeth came in, a figure of beauty in blue overalls with a single curl of her black hair falling across her face. Just looking at her made warmth spread through Oliver’s chest. The thought of kissing her sent that glow rushing to every corner of his body.

Elizabeth almost sat down before she noticed the flower and picked it up with a quizzical look.

Immediately, the clockwork began to click. Petals unfurled in a delicate dance that mimicked a rose at dawn. Elizabeth gave a shrug that made Oliver’s heart sink, then opened the side of the device to peer at the workings. Those at least drew a small smile, and hope sprang forth once more.

Elizabeth crossed the room and placed the flower on Oliver’s workbench.

“Your work, I believe,” she said.

Oliver blushed. “How did you know?”

“We’ve worked together for a year. I know how you build.”

“I made it for you.”

“I know. Thank you.”

“Would you-”

“I have to get back to work.”

She left the flower, furling and unfurling to the rhythm of its spring, and walked away.

Oliver sighed and returned to work.

*

Oliver arrived at the workshop early, opened a box behind his workbench, and took out the object he had finished the night before. This time it was a whole bunch of flowers, each one a masterpiece of minuscule mechanisation, each a distinct and different flower he had found in a florist’s guide. He placed it on Elizabeth’s workbench and hurried back to his own.

This time she had to be impressed.

Half an hour later, Elizabeth walked in. As she approached her workbench, her usual swift stride slowed. Oliver smiled as he tried to focus on fixing a clock. She must be impressed.

Elizabeth picked up the flowers, releasing the lever that held the gears in place. Clockwork clicked, setting the bouquet to unfurl while roses reached up from the centre, rising toward the light coming in through the window, slender petals of red brass shining. It was the finest thing Oliver had ever made.

She turned and strode over to his workbench. Instead of a beaming smile her face was stiff, almost scowling.

“Stop this,” she said, slamming the flowers down on the workbench. Oliver winced at her voice and at the rattling from the delicate mechanisms. “I don’t want your flowers, Oliver. I’m sorry if something made you think otherwise, but this has to stop.”

She walked away. Oliver looked down sadly as the roses wilted and their brass petals tinkled to the floor.

*

Oliver closed the hatch on a mechanical horse eight inches long, then set it to trotting across the workshop floor. He had surpassed himself. The legs moved as naturally as any animal, the silver strands of the mane flowed in an imagined wind. It was a thing of beauty and he had never felt more proud.

Elizabeth loved horses. She had to love this.

The door creaked open, earlier than expected. Elizabeth stood in the doorway, eyes narrowed as she looked down at Oliver crouching over the horse, which was even now making its way towards her workbench.

“What is that?” she asked sharply.

“I made it,” Oliver said. “For…”

He hesitated. He could already see the disapproval in her face, see her tensing as she got ready to tell him off. Tears welled at the corners of his eyes as a gaping chasm opened in his heart, one that threatened to swallow him whole.

But the sound of the horse, its clicking gears and clattering hoof beats, drew his attention. This thing he had made set a slender, tenuous bridge across that chasm inside him, a feeling of warmth and hope despite the darkness.

“I made it for me,” he said, unable to look at her. “To see if I could.”

“That’s amazing.” Elizabeth’s voice softened. She came to crouch beside him, watching the horse as it came to a halt against the wall. “You should be so proud.”

He was. And as that pride unfurled like a flower in his heart, he felt just a little of the warmth he had felt for Elizabeth, turned in on himself.

Perhaps he would make a dog next. He really liked dogs.

***

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.

Omens of the End Times – a flash fantasy story

Shooting stars blazed across the sky, bright wounds in the skin of dusk.

“Another omen!” Ostelia shouted, glaring angrily at her fellow senators. “The city will fall.”

His body quivering with rage, Asmir hitched up his toga, rose from his seat, and pointed past her through the pillars of the temple porch.

“The city will not fall because of this,” he said. “It will fall from our neglect. The great lake has not dried up through the will of the gods but through our inaction.”

A rumble rose out of the east. A great foaming wall of water came rushing across the lake bed toward the city.

“Another sign!” Ostelia exclaimed. “The end is upon us!”

“The dams have broken.” Asmir swung around and grabbed a servant. “Quick, ring the bells, get people to high ground.”

The water surged across the dried out lake bed and crashed against the houses beyond. Buildings at the foot of the temple hill were smashed aside. Timbers and bodies spun in the current as the waters rose. One by one, the temple steps vanished beneath the flood.

“The end is upon us,” Ostelia declared.

Half the senators cried out in agreement. They followed her as she strode solemnly out of the temple, onto the steps, and down towards the waters.

“Get back here, you fools,” Asmir shouted. “We’ll need everyone we can get to rebuild after this.”

He ran after them, sandals flapping against stone, and tried to haul them back. A brawl broke out as half the senate tried to keep the other half from drowning itself.

Ostelia reached the water’s edge. It was still rising, but slower than before. She raised her hands and stepped in. The edge of her toga darkened and clung to her shins.

“Take me, oh divinities. Carry me into the purer world that follows.”

Asmir was about to grab hold of her when something caught his eye. A wicker basket bobbed across the water to them, carrying with it a baby’s frightened cries.

Thoughts of Asmir’s fellow senators fled his mind. He tore off his toga and dived into the swirling waters. Currents snatched at him, trying to drag his body this way and that, but this was one thing at which he excelled. Though he was spun around and almost sucked under, he kept his course, until at last he laid a hand on the basket.

There was a hiss. A cat popped its head up over the edge and glared at Asmir. It dug its claws into his fingers, causing a fierce flash of pain. Tail stiff and back arched, it stood protectively over a tightly swaddled infant.

“I’m here to help,” Asmir said, but the cat just raised its claws again.

No time to appease the savage beast – Asmir would have to take whatever punishment it gave him. As blood welled from his fingers, he turned the basket and pushed it ahead of him towards the shore.

The waters tugged at him again as he neared the temple steps. He was so close, but a current clutched him and he could feel himself being drawn away.

Then a hand reached through the last grey light of dusk. Ostelia was in the water, and other senators behind her, a chain of them clinging to each other back to dry land. Asmir grasped Ostelia with one hand and the basket with another. Battling the force of the flood, the senators dragged him to shore.

At last, Asmir sat sodden on the hillside, lit by torches the servants had brought out, the torn up timbers of the city being swept away in front of him. The cat leaned its head out of the basket and licked his fingers, cleaning the wounds it had caused. The baby gurgled, smiled, and raised a tiny pink hand.

Ostelia leaned in, her toga dripping, and the baby grabbed at her dangling hair.

“It is an omen,” she whispered. “A sign that life will go on.”

Anger flared in Asmir. Ostelia had almost died of omens, almost taken half the city’s leaders with her. Now she was twisting this so she didn’t have to see her own madness.

The baby laughed and something shifted inside Asmir. He might not believe in omens, but he believed in people.

“It is a sign,” he said. “A sign of hope. A sign that we can rebuild together.”

Ostelia laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled.

“Together,” she said.

***

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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.’

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.

***

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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.

No More Milk – a flash science fiction story

After the funeral, we went next door to the pizza place fuelled by the crematorium fires, in accordance with Uncle Frank’s will.

“If anybody’s getting their dinner cooked by my burning body, I want it to be you,” the will had said. That was Frank – at sea in a world he didn’t recognise, clinging to some scrap of control as if it could keep him afloat. The cancer had won in the end, but he sent us to claim a final victory over his broken body.

We snacked on fried crickets and chatted idly while we waited for our meals. When the food arrived we toasted Frank and joked about him joining us for one last supper. But once the waiters had moved on, there was no avoiding the real conversation anymore.

“One of you should take over the farm,” Mum said. “It’s what Frank would have wanted.”

Kath and I looked at each other. We’d both known this day was coming since we were kids and Frank had taught us to set up milking equipment. He and Mum had persisted through our teenage rebellions and the decline in dairy sales, keeping the herd alongside oat fields and a silo converted for breeding edible beetles. When Kath came home from agricultural college, the only courses they asked about were animal husbandry. When I insisted on studying tourism instead they almost screamed the place down.

“We’ve talked about this,” Kath said and I saw Mum tense. “We’re both willing to take over, but we’d be running things our way.”

A slice of pizza trembled in Mum’s hand. I wondered if she’d noticed that this place didn’t use real cheese anymore. I couldn’t tell the difference, and I figured she would have complained if she’d known. But then, Mum was good at ignoring what she didn’t like.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“If I take over, I’m going to run down the herd,” Kath said. “There’s no market for dairy anymore, not with cheaper alternatives that don’t cost the planet. And we’ve not sold a beef cow in a decade.”

“Those ridiculous cloners,” Mum said. “It’s nothing like the real thing, but who can compete with their prices?”

I kept my mouth shut about how those prices happened, and about the likely origin of the ham on her pizza.

“I’d concentrate on the beetles instead,” Kath pressed on. “Lower costs, lower emissions, and there’s a huge market for them these days.”

“No.” Mum shook her head. “You’re not turning the whole place over to those ghastly, rattling silos. Frank would turn in his grave.”

“Frank just cooked our dinner,” I snapped.

“Simon!”

“Sorry, sorry, that was completely out of line.”

“It’s good that someone here can admit when they’re wrong.” She shot Kath a sharp glare, then looked back at me. “How would you keep the place going?”

“Petting zoo,” I said. “We’d keep a few of the cows for that, and bring in some more exciting animals. Sheep, llamas, maybe some of those prehistoric sloths they’ve started cloning. Those things are adorably fluffy and they can’t run away from over-affectionate toddlers.”

“And the milk?”

“No more milk. It’s just not worth it.”

Now she was glaring at me too.

“If neither of you will keep up with tradition then we may as well sell the place.”

She sat back, arms folded, and waited for us to respond. By the smug look on her face, she thought she’d played a trump card.

I took a bite of pizza, forcing myself to pause and think my words through. Her tone had made me tense up, but I couldn’t let her get to me. I had to deal with this calmly or we’d end up not speaking for six months again.

“That’s fine,” I said at last. “People will always pay good money for land. Without the farm, Kath can take up that research post she wanted and I can move to-”

“How can you say that? How can you let go of the farm? And with Frank only just gone, as well.”

“Don’t start on the emotional blackmail. The world has changed. Diets have changed. The farm has to change.”

“And abandon everything Frank held dear?”

“I’m warning you, Mum, pull that card one more time and I’m leaving.”

I pushed my plate away. I’d had enough. Enough of the pizza, enough of the conversation, enough of the damn family farm.

Kath took Mum’s hand. An untapped well of tears threatened to burst from all of us, a pool of emotion built up through decades of struggling for change and fighting to resist it. The unspoken assumptions, abandoned dreams, and bittersweet memories.

“This is how we preserve Frank’s legacy,” Kath said. “By making it fit for the modern world. We’re on your side, but we have to do this our way.”

Mum sniffed and rubbed at her eyes.

“Can we keep the old milking shed?” she asked quietly. “It’s such a lovely building.”

“Of course. It’ll make a great farm shop and cafe.”

A slightly nervous waiter came over, holding out a set of dessert menus.

“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.

“Why not.” Mum blinked back her tears and managed a smile. “I keep hearing about your rice milk desserts. It’s time I tried one of them.”

***

There’s a lot to be explored about the future of food. What we eat is going to have to change to look after the planet, but that change is painful. It goes against our habits, our expectations, and many people’s livelihoods. I wanted to explore that a little. I daresay I’ll be back to it again later.

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.

***

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.

Rise – a flash alternate history story

Leningrad, 1982.

Just not the one you know.

Nastasia stood in the shadows of dirt-smeared street lamps, clutching a roll of posters in her hand. She could feel the edge of each one beneath her fingers, an edge that could as easily slice her skin as crumple beneath it.

It was a midsummer night, yet Nastasia felt an icy hand gripping her chest, freezing her to the spot where the comforting shadows would give way and expose her to the light.

“Come on,” Kirill hissed, gesturing down the street with a broad paint brush. In his other hand he held a bucket of paste, flour and water and a little cheap glue. Good enough for propaganda. Good enough when it was all they had.

Nastasia took a deep breath and forced herself to take a step forward. She had chosen this. While the Red Army marched west against the capitalists, people were struggling and starving back home. It wasn’t right and Nastasia had been brought up to do what was right.

She had also been brought up hearing stories of the gulags and KGB cells, stories whispered behind closed doors, warnings to act and dress like everyone else, to keep her head down or face the most terrible punishments.

She hadn’t had the courage to join when the protests started. But then she’d seen the march in the print district and felt her heart lift, only for it to be trampled with the protesters the army beat and dragged away. That was when she had known that she had to do something, or live the rest of her life in shame.

One arduous step after the other, she walked over to Kirill. With trembling hands she peeled a poster from the roll and held it out while he applied the paste. Then they spread it across the wall and flattened it, the paste dripping in pail globs around the edges.

She stood back and smiled at her work.

“POWER TO THE UNIONS!” it read above a picture of a raised fist. “LET THE TRUE SOVIET RISE!”

The cold hand loosened around her heart and she shifted a little lighter on her feet.

“Let’s do another,” she said, laying a hand on Kirill’s shoulder.

“Where?”

“Over there.”

They stuck a poster to the leg of a bridge, another to the wall of a shop. The wet brushed slapped against paper, paste dripped, and words of defiance claimed the streets for their own.

Then a brute voice sounded behind them.

“Who’s that? What are you doing?”

Nastasia turned, heart hammering. The posters tumbled from her hands and unravelled across the road toward the approaching policemen.

Her pulse raced. For a moment she stood frozen again.

The stories returned unbidden to her mind. Stories of cells. Stories of gulags. Stories of torture and death. Stories of the police and the KGB. So many stories.

Then she was running, and Kirill beside her. Running like a hunted beast. Running because her life depended on it.

They raced along side streets and alleyways, through pools of pale electric light and stretches of shadow. The policemen ran after them, their boots hammering the ground, their shouts the barking of a hunter’s hounds.

Nastasia wanted to wail and to scream. Tears slid down her cheeks at the thought of what must come. She felt every cobble beneath her feet, saw every passing scrap of litter, the city flooding her senses, revealing itself to her one last time.

And then those heavy footfalls faltered. Snapping and snarling gave way to wheezing, which faded as they left the policemen behind.

Still she ran, muscles aching, legs stretching for every inch of distance she could gain.

At last, Kirill sagged into the mouth of an alleyway. Nastasia flopped to the ground beside him and filled her burning lungs with deep, soothing breaths.

A dizzying wave swept through her, left her shaking and hysterical. Not tears now but laughter. The sensation that had seemed like dread was transformed, becoming the thrill of survival. She gloried at her triumph in the chase.

“Guess that’s it,” Kirill said, his voice caught between disappointment and relief. “We should get off the streets.”

“No,” Nastasia said. This feeling was a revelation and she could not turn away from its light. “More posters, more paste. We still have half the night.”

“But the police…”

“We’ve outrun them once, we can do it again.” Just saying it made her grin, though she trembled as she pushed herself to her feet. She raised her fist. “Let the true soviet rise.”

Leningrad, 1982.

Just not the one you know.

Not anymore.

***

This story is set in the same divergent history as my new novel, co-authored with Russell Phillips…

The Bear’s Claws: A Novel of World War III

It’s 1982 but not as we know it. The Cold War has lost its chill and World War III has arrived, threatening to send the whole planet into meltdown.

Vladislav Rakovich is a young, idealistic communist. He dreams of being an officer, leading his soldiers on a mission to free the world from capitalism. But as the Soviet armies roll west, he gains his first bitter taste of command and reality hits. Can he stay focused on his aim in the face of undisciplined troops, a corrupt superior officer, and NATO’s military might? As conflict rages around him, Rakovich finds that his biggest battle comes from within as his faith in the communist cause is shaken by the horror of war.

Back home in Leningrad, Rakovichs beloved sister Anna has other things to worry about. Drawn into a world of trade unions and protests, Anna finds herself driven by a new purpose, although her beliefs introduce her to a dangerous world where dissent can lead to disappearance or even death. Will this war birth the second revolution the nation is crying out for? Or will the people be trampled underfoot by the establishment once more?

The Bear’s Claws is a compelling and powerful story of how family, courage, and conviction can survive in a world torn apart by war.

The Bear’s Claws is available at all good e-book stores and as a print book via Amazon.