I Hoped That In London… – a flash historical story

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

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

“Do you have work?”

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

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

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

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

He shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with us.”

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

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


“You alright there?”

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

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

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

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

“I was born in a barn.”

“Ah, a country lad. New to the city?”

I nodded, which made my head spin.

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

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

Little Bill chuckled.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re robbing him?” I asked.

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

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


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

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

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

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

The man who wanted me to make me a robber.

I dropped the stick, turned, and ran.


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

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

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


From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Fifty-Seven Reasons Not to Travel in Time – a flash fantasy story

Picture by Parker Knight via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Parker Knight via Flickr Creative Commons

“He’s only a doctoral student,” Doctor Reemark said. “Can’t we just, you know, leave him there?”

The air in the History Department attic glowed as Reemark ran a knife over the back of his hand, blood dribbling onto the chalk sigils, bringing their power to life.

“Of course not,” Professor Avery snapped, staring at the timer on her smartphone. “If we start leaving postgraduates scattered across the time stream then people will notice their absence. Then the physics department will find out about time travel. You’ve seen them. Can you imagine the trouble they would cause?”

Reemark nodded, counting physicists in his head.

“Fifty-seven physicists poking and prodding at causality,” he said. “That’s fifty-seven reasons not to let people travel in time.”

At last the air rippled. Reality tore open in front of Reemark and the smell of the sixteenth century drifted through – less polluted than the present, but far heavier with pig shit.

Together they stepped through the portal into an alley overhung by timber frame buildings. Reemark tried not to consider what he was standing in, instead focusing on the silver needle hanging from spider silk that was their temporal compass.

The needle twitched and they followed it. Reemark pulled the felt hat down over his brow. It was all very well dressing in period appropriate clothes, but good skin could make them stand out as strangers.

After a few minutes, the compass led them into an inn. It stank of tallow candles, cheap ale, and sweat. Two young men sat nursing clay cups at a table in the corner. Reemark was relieved to see that one of them was Sam Jones. Rushes crackled beneath his feet as they hurried over.

“Master Jones,” he said. “Might I have a word?”

“It’s alright,” Jones said, gesturing to the man next to him. “Terry here is one of us.”

“Terry Neville.” The other man held out his hand. “Northumbria University.”

“Northumbria?” Avery sat down. “Isn’t that a poly?”

“They’re all universities now, you know,” Neville said through gritted teeth.

“Well, yes, but still…” Avery’s look of disdain said it all. In her view – and Reemark’s too for that matter – only proper universities should have time travel.

“Never mind that,” Reemark said. “Come on, Jones, we’re here to fetch you back.”

“No thanks,” Jones said, setting down his cup. “I thought I’d stick around for a while. It’s quite fun exploring with a fellow traveller.”

“This isn’t a debate, Mister Jones,” Avery snapped. “You will come with us.”

The innkeeper looked around at the raised voice. Avery, embarrassed, huddled down in her cloak.

“You lot with tenure treat doctoral students like crap.” Jones sat back, arms folded. “Here you have no authority over me. I can do my research in peace. So leave me alone.”

“Very well.” Reemark pulled a straw figure from his pocket, a pre-made paralysis charm. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but-”

He pressed the figure into the wound on the back of his hand and both doctoral candidates froze, eyes wide as they stared at him.

“Good work,” Avery said. “We’ll take them both back. Words will have to be had with Northumbria.”

The air crackled behind them. The innkeeper yelped and leapt back as a woman stepped through a rent in reality. Underneath her sixteenth century cloak she wore a scarf in the colours of Northumbria University.

“What are you doing to my student?” she snapped.

“What is your student doing here?” Avery replied. “We put in our research request for this period months ago.”

“So did we, and I see no reason why-”

The inn’s inhabitants were running, screaming, into the street. Reemark heard yells of “witchcraft” and “Papists”. There was no way he could carry a frozen student through a gathering mob, so he snapped the straw doll, releasing his spell.

The students leapt to their feet. As Avery stood bickering with the Northumbrian professor, Reemark followed the younger men out the door, past a sea of confused faces. They headed toward the alley where he had first arrived, the same place where he and Avery always opened their portals.

“That’s them!” The innkeeper pointed.

“Get the witches!” someone else cried.

“Burn them!”

A mob chased them through the streets, mud flying, pitchforks waving, the light of burning brands flickering off wooden walls. Reemark had never been fit, even when he was a student. Jones and Nevill raced ahead of him, while the crowd quickly gained ground.

As he turned into the alley, he saw the two students leap through the portal and into the modern attic beyond. Jones glanced back at the mob on Reemark’s heels, then bent and started scrubbing out the chalk sigils.

“Sorry, Doctor Reemark,” he called out as the portal closed and he faded from view. “Can’t risk them getting through.”

All hope left Reemark. He had no survival skills. He barely had people skills. He was out of breath and his sides hurt.
Stumbling to a halt, he let the mob grab hold of him. He was smart, he knew the period, perhaps he could talk his way out of this.

As he was dragged toward the town square, he thought of the physics department. They would have made a terrible mess, trying to work out how the magic of time travel worked. Fifty-seven reasons not to travel in time.

As someone piled up kindling by a post in the centre of the square, dread clenched at his guts.

Now he had fifty-eight reasons.

* * *


As part of the panel I was on at Fantasy Con last weekend, the idea of academics scattered across the timestream came up. Never one to waste a moment of inspiration, I thought I’d see where that led me, and hte answer was this story.

If you’d like to read more short stories from me then please consider signing up to my mailing list – you’ll get a free ebook and a new story every Friday – link here.

Henry VIII Gets Jiggy: Capturing a Real Person in Fiction

I’m endlessly amazed by the different ways that we can see the same person. Whether it’s a friend, a colleague, or a celebrity, we’ll all view them in a slightly different light. That’s particularly obvious when the person is a historical figure, and one significant enough to have been made into fiction.

The Sex Lives of Henry VIII

Take King Henry VIII of England. More specifically, take the intimate life of Henry VIII, a man whose divorce birthed the Church of England and the international Anglican communion. What motivated Henry to get down with a series of eligible ladies is important historically. This isn’t just one man getting jiggy, this is a monarch re-writing the rules of church and state so that…

Well, possibly just so that he could get jiggy.

Check out the embroidery on that guy.
Check out the embroidery on that guy.

Wolf Hall: Powerful Passions

The TV adaptation of Wolf Hall shows Henry as a man driven by fierce romantic passions. Sure, he wants to put his genitals in places he maybe shouldn’t, but the fate of a nation isn’t decided by the fact that the king has wood.

This is Henry as a fierce romantic and man of complex depths. His motives get tangled up in his head, and no-one is going to call his subconscious on its bullshit. His intentions are very personal and emotional, but you couldn’t call them shallow.

Hands up who wants to be where that sword is.
Hands up who wants to be where that sword is.

The Tudors: Horny Henry

Then there’s another recent TV depiction – The Tudors. I’m only a couple of episodes in, but this seems like a very different take on Henry’s bedroom antics. Here he’s a total horn dog. If a pretty lady crosses his path, odds are he’ll be showing her his mighty weapon later. And if she’s not available, he’ll give one of her servants a trip on the royal roller coaster instead.

Yes, there are real emotions at stake here too. But fundamentally, Henry is portrayed as a man driven by his man parts, not his subconscious.

Picture from Henry's Tinder profile, courtesy of Hans Holbein
Swipe left or swipe right? Henry’s profile picture, courtesy of Hans Holbein

How About a Classic Henry?

There are all sorts of other historical interpretations of Henry’s love life. It’s possible to see his marital antics as entirely driven by stately concerns. After all, his lack of a male heir put the country at risk of foreign domination or civil war once he died. You could argue that his was a noble and well-intentioned sex life. Boning for the greater good.

So What?

So what’s the lesson here?

Both as writers and as readers, it’s worth being aware that even very specific areas of a person’s life are open to interpretation. As I discussed in a recent article for Re:Fiction,  it’s worth knowing what the different interpretations are and what they exist for. Wolf Hall Henry is a literary fiction character, designed to explore the depths of the human soul. The Tudors Henry is history for a mass audience, exciting and accessible. Political penis Henry is Henry for patriotic historians, who want to see noble intentions behind the important moments in British history.In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.

In looking at Henry’s romantic shenanigans through this kaleidoscope of fractured images, we see a lot of different pieces of the truth, without ever learning all of it. And when we write about him, we have to choose which aspects to explore.

We’ll never understand the whole of Henry, or of anyone else. These are just pieces of who they are.

Heresy by S. J. Parris – The Past is a Hazardous Country

heresyI’m currently a little obsessed with 16th-century history and in particular Tudor England. It was a time and place of transformation. Religion and politics were closely tied together and both going through upheavals. Saying the wrong thing could get you executed. Deviance from acceptable doctrine – religious heresy or a lack of patriotic loyalty to your country – was a recipe for exclusion, deprivation, and death.

I’m therefore loving reading Heresy by S. J Parris. It’s a well-written historical murder mystery in the style of such predecessors as Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books. Like any good historical fiction, it makes use of what’s distinctive about that time. Intense allegiances and prejudices come into play. Structures of religion, gender and social standing all provide potential motives. The criminal investigation becomes compromised by the secret agendas of espionage and underground religion.

Like the best sci-fi and fantasy, it creates another world in the mind of the reader, and helps you to understand that world’s values. If you enjoy historical fiction then it’s totally worth a read.



And if you’re looking for something briefer, my collection of historical and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, is available as a Kindle e-book for 99c.

Being Troubled by the Tudors, or Writing With Feeling

Further reading, for those who want to know more about poor Mary Tudor

I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.

Poor Bloody Mary

Lets start with a history lesson.

Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.

There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.

As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.

Feeling History

Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.

There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.

Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.

And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.

Dealing With the Pain

There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.

And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’

These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?

More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.

I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.

*deep breath*

OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.

And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.

Lady Joanna’s Guests – a #flashfriday story

233849776_ca4a1b5497_zLady Joanna thought of herself as well-mannered, but there were times when the world tested her patience. Sending her servants to join Queen Mary’s army at Framlingham had been the just act of a woman aiding her friend, even if it meant having to dress herself. The possibility of raids from the pretender Jane’s supporters instilled fear in her, but pride that they might consider her a worthy target. Discovering that she had been sold a useless mummy, powdered fragments of its wrapping providing no power for her visions, no way to tell how the struggle went? That was beyond the pale.

“A pox on Simon of Ipswich,” she muttered as she reached inside the upright sarcophagus. She should have known that a man that obnoxious would sell false goods.

Scraping pieces of mummia from the wrappings into her mortar, she ground them, tipped them into wine and downed the gritty, bitter results. But no vision came as it had in the past.

A noise made her spin around, eyes wide and staring at the mummy. Something was amiss, but what?

That noise again, a low groaning. Then the mummy’s arms rose, and it stepped slowly out of the sarcophagus, bandaged feet thumping on the tiled floor.

Joanna’s heart pounded – this was not how a corpse was meant to behave. But she was determined not to let her fear show. She straightened her shoulders and looked the creature in the eye.

“I don’t know what you are playing at.” She waved a finger in its face. “But I am having none of it. Your time of moving around has passed. Get back in your coffin so that I can take more mummia.”

Taking another step forward, the mummy reached out toward her.

“I said back.” Glaring did no good.

Joanna was all out of gentlewomanly options, but then serving her own breakfast had been an ungentlewomanly act. The line had been crossed, and there was no sense worrying about it now. Placing both hands on the mummy’s chest, she tried to push it back into the sarcophagus.

“Back I tell you!” It was no good. The creature was far stronger than her, and completely unmoved by the assault.

The thunder of hooves and rattle of gravel announced new arrivals at the house. Rushing to the window, Joanna peered out through the leaded pains. Four ruffians were dismounting and making for her door, swords drawn.

“I will deal with you later,” she said to the mummy as she tried frantically to plan her next step. Could she flee? Probably not, without the stable boy to saddle her horse. Could she fight? She had never used a sword, but how difficult could it be? Except that there were no swords in the dining hall, and the men’s footsteps were already coming close.

The door burst open and the ruffians stomped inside, leaving muddy footprints all over her floor.

“You’re to come with us.” Their leader walked past the stationary mummy and straight toward her.

“Most of this stuff, too.” Another of them started grabbing silverware off the sideboard.

“I will not.” Joanna folded her arms and prepared to argue, but two of the men grabbed hold of her. “Unhand me at once!”

“Not a chance.” The leader’s laughter was as ugly and brutish as he was.

Determination turned to nauseating fear in Joanna’s stomach. She had heard terrible things about what happened to women in times of civil war, even noblewomen.

But the laughter was cut short as a bandaged hand descended onto the ruffian’s shoulder. He jumped six inches into the air and spun around, sword stretched out toward the mummy. It stumbled toward him with slow, steady steps, groaning once more.

“Get back!” The man thrust his sword a few inches into the mummy’s chest, where it became stuck, not budging as he wrestled with the hilt.

The man next to him screamed in terror, dropped a pair of candlesticks and ran from the house. His companions followed suit, the leader sticking around just long enough for the mummy to lunge at him again before he ran, pale and shaking, out onto the drive.

They galloped away in a spray of gravel.

“I’m sorry about that.” Lady Joanna placed one hand on the mummy’s chest, grabbed the protruding sword with the other, and gave it a twist. The blade quickly came free. “I would never normally allow such riffraff into my house, but these are trying times.”

The mummy tilted its head, apparently looking down at the sword and then back to Joanna’s face. It raised a hand, and after a moment’s hesitation patted Joanna slowly on the shoulder.

She sagged with relief, and then offered the mummy a smile.

“Fine, I won’t keep scraping away your wrappings.” She poured a new goblet of wine, this time without any gritty additions. “I could do with some help around here anyway.” She took a sip, and a thought crossed her mind. “I don’t suppose you know how to prepare dinner, do you?”

* * *

This story was inspired by a whole bunch of different little details. I learned about mummia, the dust taken from the wrappings of mummies, while visiting a museum in Dorchester last week. Considered to have magical properties, it was genuinely consumed for medicinal purposes in the sixteenth century, doing far more harm than good.

Lady Joanna is named after one of my incredibly helpful beta readers – huge thanks to that Joanna for her help. Given that ‘Visions of Joanna’ by Bob Dylan is one of my all time favourite songs, putting visions in with that name was almost inevitable.

As for Queen Mary and the pretender Jane, I’ve been doing some freelance work about the Tudors this week, so they were on my mind. The Duke of Northumberland’s attempt to stop Mary Tudor inheriting the crown and instead put his daughter-in-law Jane on the throne was a complete failure, and there was never even a war. Northumberland’s men did do some robbing and burning though.

If you enjoyed this then you can read more of my fantasy stories in By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available as an ebook through Amazon. You can read more of my flash fiction for free here, and get my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring for free by signing up to my mailing list.

If you’ve got any thoughts on this story I’d love to hear them, and if you’ve got a suggestion for a future Friday story then please leave it below – I can always use fresh ideas!

Picture by a2gemma via Flickr creative commons.