War is Hell – a fantasy short story

Image from Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R05148 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The world was an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that Hans Feist shook all the way to his bones. The ground beneath him lurched; the air stank of smoke and blood; everywhere he looked, when he dared to peer from his tiny shelter in the trench wall, he saw earth and sky combine as fountains of dirt spewed from craters gouged out of the hellscape that had been the Somme.

So this was war. Not grand charges, noble duels, or banners flying over a victory parade, but being shelled to death, hungry and haunted, his trousers soaked with mud and piss. He clutched the tiny wooden crucifix his mother had given him and prayed for salvation.

He didn’t even know who was still alive. His brain was so shaken that he couldn’t remember the names of men he had arrived with, never mind the replacements who had come since. He couldn’t remember how long he had been here, just that it was too long.

An officer walked down the trench toward Hans. The man must be insane, to walk so openly through this storm of shells. Hans clenched with dread as he anticipated the moment when that pristine uniform and waxed moustache would be reduced to a cloud of blood. But the man kept coming, somehow untouched, and a worse fear gripped Hans. Was the officer going to order him up to his post, ready to defend the line?

The officer crouched in the mud, which barely touched his polished riding boots, and peered into Han’s tiny shelter.

“Didn’t make it into the tunnels, eh?” the officer said.

Hans shook his head. He probably should have tried. He would have been safer down there than in this muddy hole, but he couldn’t face the moments of exposure it would take to reach the steps. Fear was more powerful than reason.

“I can get you out of here,” the officer said. “For a price.”

Hans had heard about officers like this, ones who would offer a transfer to somewhere safer in return for sating their own needs. He wanted to think that there were lines he wouldn’t cross, but this shaking world made that untrue.

“What do you want?” he asked.

There was an explosion behind the officer. It should have torn him apart, but instead he was framed by the blast, silhouetted against the pale burst of smoke and debris. In that moment, spikes of windblown hair became horns and fire flickered from him.

“Your soul,” he said.

Hans squeezed the crucifix so hard that his hand ached. Now that he saw what the officer was, he could not unsee it. The pointed teeth, the snake-like eyes. The man drew a cigarette, lit it with fire from the tip of his finger, and offered the packet to Hans.

“Well?” the officer said.

Hans screwed his eyes tight shut. He should be better than this. His soul was at stake, something infinitely more valuable than this weak and trembling body. But he had lived in mud and blood and the roar of the guns for so long that he couldn’t remember what it felt like not to be afraid.

He opened his eyes. “Yes.”

As he took the officer’s hand, a sense of peace came over Hans. Was this part of the deal, or was it the certainty that came with knowing that, whatever happened from now on, his future had been decided?

The officer pulled Hans to his feet, then led him away, walking through the maze of twisting trenches. They didn’t see another soul, but the shells kept shaking the ground, filling the air with noise and debris. With each step, Hans left a little of his fear behind, shedding a weight that had held him down for so very long. He strode purposefully through the mud, toward a light beyond the clouds of smoke.

He was almost free.

The officer turned to look at Hans and mouthed a single word: “Now.”

There was a crash and a force like a hundred hammer blows flung Hans off his feet, slamming him into the trench wall. He slumped to the ground, half his body blazing with pain. With one working eye, he stared down at the blood and guts sliding from his torn tunic. All the fear flooded back, redoubled by his inner scream of pain.

The officer stood over him and chuckled.

“You said you’d save me,” Hans said. “We had a deal.”

“And I fulfilled it, many years ago.” The officer crouched to look Hans in the eye, and his smile was terrible to see. “Now we are into the payment, and we both know what your idea of Hell would be.”

Through the pain and the fear and the death of hope, Hans felt himself slip toward darkness. Tears ran down his cheeks.

“Why?” he whimpered.

“Because I can.”

The world faded away…

Hans Feist woke to an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that it shook him to his bones. He didn’t know who was still alive, couldn’t remember how long he had been here, but he knew that it was too long.

***

This isn’t the only war story I have out this week. Horror of Hurtgen, my latest issue of Commando, is out on Comixology, in newsagents, and as part of a bundle through DC Thomson’s online store. Set in the late stages of World War Two, it follows an American soldier caught up in the horrifying fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. Fighting through a fever to prove himself, he finds himself facing real monsters alongside the Nazis. Are his visions real, and what will they mean when his squad finally reaches the enemy lines?

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

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The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Ypres Lungs – a historical flash fiction

The hospital train was crowded, every bed filled with an injured man heading for the coast. Some, like Tom, had been caught in the gas attack at Ypres and now lay rasping through ruined throats, struggling for the breath they needed to survive. Others had been ruined by bullets or shelling, their bodies wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, arms and legs brutally shortened. The man across from Tom screamed in pain at every bump in the track, until a nurse came around and gave him an injection.

As the man sank back onto his pillow, she turned to Tom.

“How are you doing, Private Macdonald?” she asked.

Tom shrugged.

“Better than some,” was all he could think to say. Every breath hurt. He barely had the strength to stand. Just getting out of bed to relieve himself was a humiliating struggle. But he was alive, unlike many he’d left behind, and he was intact, unlike some of these other poor souls. How could he complain?

“You’re Canadian, aren’t you?”

Tom nodded.

“It was very brave of you to come all this way to fight,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder.

Tom smiled.

“Just doing my duty.”

He wanted to make the most of the pretty young woman’s attention, but speaking hurt too much. Instead he closed his eyes and hoped for sleep.

*

The ferry lurched and Tom’s stomach lurched with it. Nausea swept through him. He flung aside the blanket and forced himself to his feet.

Just that movement made his head spin and his legs tremble. He clutched the wall and staggered a few steps, out of the cabin and into the corridor. His throat burned, his lungs ached, and any strength he had seemed to have fled. He slumped against the wall, stomach heaving.

He could do this. He wasn’t like those poor souls torn apart by shells. He’d worked in the wilds, felling trees and hauling timber before the war. He could make it to the rail.

Except that he couldn’t. The floor beneath him shifted, his stomach rose like a wave in a storm, and he was sick, vomit pouring down the front of his pyjamas, covering his feet, spattering the floor.

He felt so helpless he wanted to cry, but he was a grown man, and he was better off than others. To Hell with self-pitying thoughts. He needed to get to the rail before he was sick again.

He stumbled down the corridor, flung a door open and walked out onto deck. The wind snatched at him, threatening to knock his weakened body down. Even through the stink of vomit, he caught the salt smell of the sea.

It was night and no-one else was on deck. He reached the rail just in time to throw up what was left in his stomach, but getting there left him short of breath, his vision blurring. A deeper darkness crept in at the edges of his view.

How could he live like this? He’d been a lumberjack, then for a brief while a soldier. He’d always been strong. What good was he to anyone without that strength?

And he was so damn miserable. Everything hurt. Even when he wasn’t moving, he felt like there were needles in his throat and harsh smoke swirling through his lungs. The rest of his life stretched out before him, decades of frustration and pain.

He could barely hold himself up at the rail. It would be so easy to fall over and be lost in the waves.

The thought should have appalled him, but instead it was a relief. An end to the pain and humiliation. All he had to do was let go.

He leaned over, looking down into darkness, and took one hand off the rail.

So easy.

Almost there.

Another hand settled on his. Smaller, softer, warmer. He looked up to see the nurse from the train standing beside him.

“Please don’t,” she said.

“You don’t understand,” Tom said. “I’m broken. I’m useless. Everything hurts.”

“We’ll find a way to fix you. Do you know how much medicine has changed in the past year, just to keep up with this terrible war?”

“No-one’s dealt with this before.” He pointed to his throat. “There’s no cure.”

“Then live long enough for the doctors back home to see you, to help them learn how it works. That’s how the cures will happen. As long as you live, you’re not useless.”

Tom looked down at the sea – cool, dark, inviting. He felt the hot pain in his throat.

And he thought of how many more would suffer like he did. If he couldn’t live for himself, he could live for them.

“I’m going to need new pyjamas,” he said, stepping away from the rail. “And a bucket by my bed.”

The nurse smiled and wrapped her shawl around his shoulders.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

***

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.

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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.

Out Today – Harriet’s War

I have a new comic out today!

Harriet’s War is part of Commando‘s Armistice celebration, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War. The story of an ambulance driver on the Western Front, it’s a story I was really excited to write, not least because it covers the under-represented role of women in the war.

You can get Harriet’s War from newsagents in the UK and in digital form around the world via Comixology. If you want to read more about it, check out my post from Monday. And if you enjoy it, please let me know – it’s always nice to hear when people like your work.

 

Cover image © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd  2018

Remembrance

In all of human history, there have been few events as monstrously destructive as the First World War.

For four blood-soaked years, the most powerful nations in Europe tore at each other tooth and nail, dragging other countries and colonies into their terrible fight. From the forests of Russia to the lowlands of Belgium, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the South Pacific Ocean, millions of men and women died. For the first time, war was fought on an industrial scale. The results were horrifying.

This war wasn’t fought for a noble cause. Yes, there were aggressors and there were victims. But every nation involved was fighting for self-interest. Nationalism had its grip on Europe. Making your own country stronger was viewed as the highest good, even if other people died horribly in the process. Both sides accused each other of atrocities. Both did terrible things. Among the most terrible was the feeding of a generation of young men into the meat grinder.

When we talk about the Second World War, there’s a sense of right and wrong. The Allies killed thousands of innocent civilians in their bombing raids, but the actions of the German and Japanese regimes were so much worse that the end result looks like a victory for good. A century on, the same can’t be said for the First World War. Like almost every war, it wasn’t about good versus evil. It was just national elite versus national elite, spilling the blood of their countrymen for their own power.

Of course, there were moments of heroism in that war. Acts of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice that are rightly praised. But don’t let that praise spill over in your mind into seeing the war itself as a noble thing. Europe watered the fields of Flanders with the blood of its young men, and the world was the worse off for it.

One hundred years ago yesterday, the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. It’s vital that we remember. This is what the tribalism of nation versus nation gets us. This is what happens when we let ourselves see others as worse because of where they live, the language they speak, or who governs them. This is why we should always challenge those in authority, however uncomfortable that becomes.

Remember the courage. Remember the determination. But most of all, remember the futility of a generation lost.