By Royal Navy official photographer, Russell, J E (Lt) – photograph A 11484 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

“The food here is terrible,” Giuliano Fattorini said, scraping the last briny, flavourless scraps from a tin their captors had insisted on calling beef. “It is no way to treat an airman.”

“Yes, Captain.” Luca stood by the barred window, scowling out across the rooftops of Malta. He had worn that same expression for three days straight, ever since British sailors had fished them out of their ruined plane in the harbour. Though Fattorini admired the younger airman’s passion, his intensity was exhausting to be around.

Outside, bombs were falling, filling the air with the whistle of their descent and the roar of their detonation. That was another thing Fattorini disliked about being captive on the island. The Regia Aeronautica and their Luftwaffe comrades were doing a splendid job against the British, he had always said so, but that splendour was unsettling when experienced up close.

Luca’s eyes widened and he flung himself away from the window. Fattorini rolled out of his chair and covered his head just as a blast shook the building. With a groan of straining masonry, the outer wall collapsed, hitting the street with a crash.

Luca was back on his feet first, staring out through the swirling dust.

“Captain, this is our chance!”

Fattorini peered across his fallen chair. “Our chance?”

“To escape and return to the war. Come on!”

Luca lowered himself to the edge of the floorboards, then swung his legs out where the wall had been. He looked back expectantly at his captain.

The floorboards were rough beneath Fattorini’s fingers, the sounds of the falling bombs unbearably loud. Of course he wasn’t afraid, it was the shaking of the building that made him tremble.

“Is it safe?” he asked, crawling across the floor.

“Safe enough.”

Luca dropped onto the heap of rubble below. Fattorini followed. A brick slid from beneath his foot as he landed. His ankle turned, but not painfully, so there was no reason not to follow Luca as he scrambled down the heap.

Most people were indoors, hiding in shelters and cellars while planes battled overhead, the rattle of guns and roar of engines like thunder from a clear sky. The two men dashed down empty streets, Fattorini puffing and panting as he struggled to keep up with Luca.

At a junction, a soldier was crouching behind an overturned truck. When he saw them coming, he leapt to his feet and swung his rifle around.

“Halt!” he shouted in English. “Hands in the air!”

Fattorini did as he was told.

“What did he say?” Luca asked. He was ten feet ahead of Fattorini, and the soldier swung his rifle jerkily back and forth to cover them both. Fattorini hoped that the man’s trigger finger was steadier than the rest of his hand, or this could end very badly.

“He says hands up,” he translated. “Alas, it seems our escape is at an end. We will be forced back to a new cell, to live out the war on watery stew and bad coffee. Oh, for a—”

“What are you on about?” the soldier shouted over the sound of bombs. He advanced towards Fattorini, rifle still raised. Fattorini, stomach jumping, clamped his mouth shut.

A chunk of masonry hit the soldier in the head and he fell, his rifle under him.

“Yes!” Luca shouted. He had another brick in his hand, ready in case his first throw had missed. “Come on!”

They ran on through the streets, heading for the harbour. Fattorini sweated like a pig standing at the butcher’s block. Was it his imagination, or had the bombing grown even more intense?

They emerged at the water’s edge. There were boats in the harbour, some of them sinking or riddled with shrapnel, others bouncing on the waves. Half the buildings had their windows blown out or sections torn from their front facings.

“That one,” Luca said, pointing to the nearest boat. “If we get in while the British are busy, we can sail out before—”

There was a fountain of water as a bomb landed feet from the boat, then a muffled boom and a towering spray. The boat was flung onto its side, sat for a moment on the sudden swell, and then tipped over, landing upside down. Its exposed hull was riddled with holes.

Luca stared at the ruined boat as waves lapped against its sinking sides. He held himself with a different sort of intensity now, his mouth hanging open, eyes wide.

Fattorini laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

“Maybe we don’t escape today, my friend.”

“But freedom, and the war, and…”

The bombs were still falling. Fattorini steered Luca to the doorway of the most solid building he could see.

“I will be sorry to miss it too, but we can’t help if we are bombed or drowned, can we? We will just have to wait for another chance.”

They crouched in the doorway, heads down in case shrapnel flew their way. Fattorini thought again about his tin of watery beef stew, and about the shredded mess that was the underside of that boat. He felt suddenly giddy at the thought of returning to their prison room. Maybe he could grow to like English food after all.

***

 

I have a new Commando comic out today. Flight to Freedom is a story of aerial combat and daring escape in the Mediterranean theatre of World War Two, featuring Capitano Fattorini and Luca in very different circumstances. You can buy it at newsagents or in digital form via Amazon Kindle or Comixology.

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.

***

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.

Image by insidehenderson from Pixabay

I tucked my feet under the chair, hiding them from the other interviewees. I’d tried so hard to be ready, spending my savings on the best suit I could afford, catching the bus instead of walking so that I wouldn’t arrive sweaty, but my shoes gave me away. Everyone else’s had leather soles. Mine were rubber-soled, ordinary shoes from an ordinary shoe shop.

The others chatted quietly, talking about rugby games and regattas. I kept my gaze downcast, the better to avoid embarrassing myself, a northern lad whose sports knowledge was limited to the Premier League and darts tournaments. I smoothed down my jacket and tried to calm my heartbeat by pressing my fingers together and casting a spell.

Arnby’s Enhancer was the first spell I had ever mastered, letting me overhear teachers’ conversations and playground gossip. The sensation of casting it soothed me. I heard the rising rumble of cars in the street and a louder version of the rugby chatter, but didn’t try to dig any deeper. I wasn’t trying to listen in on the interview room. I was going to get my placement by merit.

“Kieron Brown?” a voice called from the doorway.

I jolted to my feet. Thanks to Arnby, I caught the stifled snigger of one of the other interviewees. I flushed as I followed a secretary into the interview room, then the door closed behind me and silence fell.

“Mister Brown, please take a seat.”

There were three people on the interview panel: a tall man, a bearded man, and a man in a corduroy suit. Like the other interviewees, they were all white and all wore leather-soled shoes. None of them introduced themselves, leaving me with the certainty that I should know who they were.

I swallowed, which did nothing for the dryness of my throat, and took a seat.

“So, you want to manage a ley line nexus,” Tall said. “Good for you.”

“And you have impressive qualifications.” Corduroy tapped a copy of my CV. “Let’s test your knowledge.”

He started asking theoretical questions, and I clenched up inside, waiting for the difficult ones to come. With each passing answer, and each tick Corduroy made in his notebook, I relaxed a little. I even started to smile.

“That’s all very well,” Beard said, shooting Corduroy a pointed look. “But experience is as important as learning.”

Here came the tension again, a tangled knot in my guts. I half lifted my hand, about to rub the back of my neck, but forced the hand back to my knee. Don’t fidget. Keep smiling. Answer clearly. Always present your best self.

“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work,” I said. “Helping children with magical potential, restoring ritual sites.”

“Splendid work,” Tall said, beaming at me.

“But it is limited,” Beard said. “Almost nothing outside of Yorkshire, no international experience, no full-time internships. Depth and variety are crucial in shaping your magical channels.”

His eyes glittered as he examined the magic in me. I felt a tingle from my fingertips to my toes, knew how much power and instinct I held, and knew what a blunt tool it was.

I took a deep breath. Was I really allowed to say what I was about to say?

“I couldn’t afford to travel.”

Tall cleared his throat. Corduroy stared down at his notes. Beard kept his gaze fixed on me.

“There are bursaries,” he said, “for this very reason.”

What could I tell him? That the application process was complex to the point of incomprehension. That there were seven bursaries and three hundred applicants. That they only covered travel expenses, and I had to work to feed myself. I couldn’t spend a month interning in London.

These men had made that system, and they held my future in their hands.

“I didn’t know about the bursaries,” I said.

“Then maybe you should have done your research.”

Tall tapped his papers on the desk and flashed a sidelong look at Beard, who sank back frowning in his seat.

“As you know, ley lines are a valuable national resource,” Tall said with a smile. “One needing a safe, stable pair of hands. What do you think you bring to that?”

I started talking about my studies, about my volunteer work, about commitment to part-time jobs. Tall smiled and nodded, but I could see that he had heard it all before, and Corduroy was focused on his notes.

“Your background check,” he interjected, “reveals a chaotic upbringing. Repeated house moves, one brother in social care, a sister in jail, a caution from the police…”

I felt like a ley line had torn loose somewhere in the room, flinging me into turmoil. I had been caught with a spliff once when I was sixteen, and sworn off it ever since. Did they really think that no one else in their interview room had ever smoked weed? The guy before me had boasted about snorting cocaine at Ascot.

“I’ve worked hard for this.” The clenching of my fist on the chair arm drew an alarmed look from Corduroy. “I’ve spent years studying, practising, gathering experience, obsessing over the chance to do this work. If that’s not safe and stable enough for you, then what is?”

Beard leaned forward, his eyes narrowed, and opened his mouth to speak, but Tall laid a hand on his arm, silencing him.

“Thank you, Mister Brown,” Tall said, his smile strained. “We’ll be in contact in due course.”

“Thank you,” I said stiffly.

I got up from my seat and followed the secretary to the door. As it opened, Tall leaned toward Beard, and thanks to Arnby’s Enhancer, I heard his whisper.

“We have to show willing, remember.”

Beard snorted. “He didn’t even go to a proper school.”

I walked out of the office, my chest tight, all energy gone. Another interviewee passed me on his way in. He wore leather-soled shoes.

***

 

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

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Image by William Adams from Pixabay

The crowd roared as two knights emerged onto the tilting field, their horses advancing with perfect control, their lances raised so that the blunted tips shone in the sunlight.

Beside me in the stands, the Lady Matorell let out an excited gasp. For a moment, I assumed that the Lord Matorell was taking the field, but then I remembered that he had been knocked out already, flung from his horse in one of the early matches. The lady’s attention had not been drawn by her husband, but by a handsome young knight with a halo of blond hair and a smile of unshakable confidence. A strip of cloth was tied around the armour of his upper left arm, its yellow and blue a match for my lady’s dress.

“How romantic,” she whispered. “Sir Arnau knows that he cannot have me, yet still he wears my colours.”

“Such chivalry,” I replied, smiling through my envy. This was romance like the storytellers proclaimed, the perfect and chaste love of a knight who knew that his desires could never even be spoken. I dreamed of any knight’s attention, while my mistress had it all: a rich and powerful husband to provide for her, and a storybook romance on the side.

“He barely even speaks to me,” she said. “The poor man must be afraid that his passion will overcome his senses.”

She let out a sigh that had nothing of sadness in it.

Sir Arnau donned his helmet, obscuring the features over which so many women had swooned, and lowered his lance. At the far end of the field, his opponent did the same.

I had imagined moments like this as I read to my mistress during long winter nights, but until this day I had never understood the reality of the joust. The thunder of hooves, the crash of blows, the thud of bodies on the ground. One knight had been carried off with his leg bent out of shape, another with blood streaming from his arm. It was thrilling and frightening all at once. My heart raced all the harder for these gallant men in their fine and gleaming armour. It made me feel my lovelessness more, and I slumped in my seat.

In the stands opposite, our host lowered his hand. The two knights set the spurs to their steeds, which sprang into action, galloping toward each other. For a moment, only hoof beats broke the silence. Then came the crack of lances, the cheers of the crowd, the fall, the thud.

Lady’ Matorell’s hand went to her mouth.

“Is he hurt?” she asked, eyes wide.

I saw Arnau’s horse ride on to the end of the lists, while his opponent cast aside a broken lance and raised his fists in triumph. But Arnaud himself was hidden by the spectators below us. I stared at them with my hands clutched to my chest, praying for his safety.

A knight rushed onto the field, followed by a pair of squires. It was Lord Matorell, dressed in the same blue and yellow as his wife, the colours of his house. My heart beat faster. Many stories saw spurned husbands confront their chivalrous rivals. Lady Matorell took my hand and gripped it tight.

Lord Matorell bent down. When he rose, he was supporting Arnau, the younger man leaning on his shoulder while he waved off the attention of the squires. As they hobbled from the field, the two men smiled at each other, laughing in spite of Arnau’s pain.

I had seen smiles like that between men before. I remembered my brother, before he removed himself from temptation by joining a monastery. There was more than one type of love a young knight would have to hold concealed, more than one person blue and yellow could stand for.

I looked at Lady Matorell, and just for a moment her expression narrowed into something bitter. Then Lord Matorell whispered in Arnau’s ear, and the two of them turned to wave at us.

“So noble!” Lady Matorell proclaimed, a little too loudly to go unheard. “The two of them together, despite their feelings for me.”

“A beautiful thing, my lady,” I said, matching her forced smile.

The envy in my heart wilted away. It was easy to be jealous of a real woman’s fortune, but not of a story, whoever had made it up.

***

 

This story was inspired by an article on clothing in Catalan medieval romances by Dr Ester Torredelforth, in Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini. If you enjoy analysis of sci-fi and fantasy then the whole collection is well worth a read.

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

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

The padlock thudded to the ground, its shackle severed not by my strength but by the magnifying power of the bolt cutter, a gift from the rest of the collective.

Tawana yanked the door back along its rails. I twitched my head like a startled bird, looking for predators that might have heard us, but the rattling roar and its final clang were lost amid the sounds of the city, of innumerable intermeshed machines, their pistons pumping and gears turning to a single rhythm, one beat for a million hearts.

“The authorities aren’t coming,” Tawana said. “They don’t even remember that they took this space from us.”

Her words echoed from the cavernous interior of the engine hall. By the light of our lanterns, I saw row upon row of machines, each one custom made for its own particular purpose; to twist wire, cut gears, mold pistons, or any of a thousand possibilities. They were covered in dust, but when we wiped it away, we saw components preserved under cloth jackets and grease. The operators had cared for their legacy even when forced to walk away.

“This was my grandmother’s machine,” Tawana said, running her fingers over an engraved name plate. “She made clockwork springs for different time signatures.”

There was only one time signature now, the one I could feel pulsing in the floor and up through my feet. The same rhythm I had felt my whole life. It filled us, surrounded us, dictated the pace of our lives from the factory floors to the way we ate our meals. Even now, I walked in time to it.

When I was young, I was enchanted by dance. I learned chainé and chassé, shiori and sashi. I tried different forms and routines, but they never matched the excitement of my imagined dance. They were too fast or too slow, too constant, all tied to that rhythm. Every dance reduced to a single beat.

Tawana pulled a tray out of the base of her grandmother’s machine.

“It’s still here,” she said in an awed whisper.

In the golden pool of lantern light, she laid out a lozenge of brass no larger than a matchbox. With shaking fingers, she turned a key in its side, then let go. Clockwork whirred and tiny levers twitched on the upper surface, moving to a rhythm I had never seen.

I watched, open-mouthed, until it wound down. At my urging, Tawana wound it again. This time I closed my eyes and listened to the clicking of those levers against the case, a fragile and fascinating sound.

The machine next to me had made wire. Thick offcuts lay in a box underneath. I took out a handful of pieces that no-one had touched in a generation, the things our ancestors had meant to recycle. To me, they were artefacts of a golden age. I was at risk of becoming so spellbound by veneration that I never let them become something new.

Just like the authorities.

I picked out four thick pieces of wire, each the length of my hand.

“May I?” I asked, hovering over the clockwork box.

Tawana looked at me as though I had casually asked to dig up a grave. Then she took a deep breath, nodded, and stepped away. Back stiff, arms folded, she watched.

Using the tips of the bolt cutters, I twisted the ends of my four wires into tiny loops, then attached each in turn to one of the clockwork levers. When I was done, I set this simple device down on the concrete floor, the wires becoming slender legs.

Tawana crouched beside me and turned the clockwork’s key. When she let go, our machine began to walk. Its movements were lurching and clumsy, its body wobbling on legs whose lengths didn’t quite match, but it moved to a new beat, one that didn’t join the pace of the city around us, but that gave it a fragile grace.

Laughter rushed through me, as energising as any engine. I leapt to my feet and started to dance, not following the rhythm of our tiny clockwork creation or of the city throbbing all around me, but of something in between, something my own.

***

 

This story was inspired by two things – Jeannette Ng’s latest Hugo acceptance speech and the song Bolt Cutter by Doomtree. Now feels like a time when fresh voices are reclaiming the spaces that others forgot they had taken.

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, 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.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Fifty feet above my head, there’s a wildfire blazing. Towers of flame stretching into the sky, destroying everything from windweed to prefabricated houses. The nearest city is probably ash by now, but I’m down here, cool, safe, and mercifully alone.

It might have been useful to have company when I reached the shelter. The firestorm came in so fast, I rammed my car into a tree racing here, then gouged my leg on the twisted bumper. It’s not easy to bandage yourself when you’re shaking with shock, but I did it, and I’ll be fine once the painkillers kick in. Better to deal with it myself than to be stuck down here with some random stranger, listening to their snoring and clearing up their discarded trash. If I wanted company then I would have stayed on Earth.

Time to go check out the kitchen, see what I’ll be living off for the next few weeks.

#

If I ever meet that colony recruiter again, I’m going to kick his ass. He told me these bunkers were heatproof, but I’m sweating like a politician in front of the press.

#

Father was the bear, you see? But then the waves, and the falling, and it’ll all be ecstatic.

asdfggggggggg

#

Three days of fever dreams, and I wake up to find that my leg’s still infected. I replaced the bandage, but the new one already stinks like a garbage dump. This place has a tiny shower cubicle, so I washed the sweat and crud off the rest of my body, but the wound on my leg hurt too much to be cleaned. Then I had to lie down for two hours, because apparently ten minutes of standing is more than I can take.

If only I’d been more careful getting out of the car. Just a few seconds of caution would have saved me a world of pain. If I’d looked down, stepped a little wider, or stopped at that first tearing sound, instead of letting fear of the flames rush me.

Idiot.

I’m reduced to eating cold meals out of cans because I used up all my strength on that shower and there’s no-one else here to cook. Can’t even call for a takeaway. I’ve watched the same stupid movie on loop three times because it’s easier than using the remote, and now I’m dictating rather than typing. Seriously, what have I become?

#

My temperature’s back down and the leg’s healing nicely. I’m going to have an awesome scar.

Now I can make use of this place, I can really appreciate the opportunity it’s given me. There’s no work to do, no one asking if I want to go for drinks. I don’t even have a virtual connection, because any affordable coms antenna would get melted by the fire. So it’s just me, my thoughts, and a library of digital entertainment. I’m going to work out, read a few classics, and really take some time for myself.

Of course I’m not saying I’m glad of the wildfire, but this is going to be exactly the break I need.

#

Which idiot thought that this was a planet worth settling? That we should live through a firestorm once a decade just so they could mine the minerals? And now we’re here, why aren’t we all living out at sea?

Fuck you, first settlers. And fuck you, colonial recruiter.

#

Nearly four weeks. The hatch sensor light blinks orange, saying that the temperature’s falling above me, but not enough yet.

I got through two books before I had to give up. The air down here must be missing something, because I don’t normally have a problem with concentration. Now I sit limply in front of a screen, watching the same sitcoms on loop, because the moments when the couples connect make me feel warm inside and the jokes almost make me laugh.

These are the people I can live with. People on a screen.

#

I just spent an hour staring at the hatch, wondering how far through the fire I would have to run to find people.

#

A big day in two ways.

This morning, for the very first time, there was no pain at all in my leg.

This afternoon, for the first time, the hatch sensor dropped down into the green.

The advice we were given is clear. Unless you urgently need help, wait for three days in the green before you go out. That way you can be sure that the fire won’t flare up again.

I sit and stare at the sensor. In the background, canned laughter rolls out over cheap jokes. Soon, it’ll be time for the wedding episode. Until then, this little green light has me transfixed.

#

It’s not quite been three days, but it’s close enough.

I’m dictating this with one hand on the hatch. In my imagination, there are rescue workers up there, come to check for bunker entrances that have become buried or jammed shut. People in masks and overalls striding through swirling clouds of ash.

Real people.

The scar tissue feels stiff when I stretch out my leg. I need to be more careful this time, but I also need to get out into the world. Not for the people, of course. For the space and the clear fresh air.

***

 

They say to write what you know, so hey, here’s a story about someone living in isolation. I bet there aren’t a bazillion of those out there already.

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.

Image by katermikesch from Pixabay

The Reverend Hastings straightened his collar and pressed his hands together in a posture of prayer, fingers rising like a steeple above his supper plate. It was Friday, and so of course Mrs Abernathy, the housekeeper, had served him fish, in accordance with his own instructions and the traditional tenets by which a good Christian lived.

Mrs Abernathy had precise opinions on how fish should be served, opinions which the Reverend Hastings dared not defy, and as a result he found his dinner staring up at him, a beady eye glistening in the face of a whole cooked herring. He found the sight distasteful, but understood that this was fish as Christ himself would have seen it, shining in the nets on the shores of Galilee, and so he accepted it as one more providential source of inspiration for the prayers which would one day bring him a miracle.

The gleaming eye swivelled, the pit of its pupil staring straight at him.

The Reverend Hastings leapt back and his seat thudded to the floor. He pressed his hands to his chest and felt the racing of his heart as the fish twitched, then wriggled, then arched its back and leapt up to balance on its tail. Both eyes gazed down a pointed silver face towards him.

The Reverend Hastings’ alarm turned to exaltation as he realised what was taking place. He had always known that his faith, though less ardently expressed than that of the fiery modern evangelicals, was a tower of secret strength inside him. Now the Lord had recognised that faith.

“My miracle,” he whispered, sinking to his knees.

“Your miracle?” the fish asked. “Which of us has come back from the dead?”

“A talking fish! Truly, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. What message do you have for me?”

“What do you think I am, the postman?” The herring flexed its fins. “My message is for my own people.”

“Oh no.” The Reverend Hastings pushed himself back to his feet, from which to look down upon this obstinate son of the sea. “This is my miracle. It will prove to all the parish that I am worthy of their attention. It will be my loaves and fishes moment.”

“Loaves and fishes, eh?” The herring bobbed its head. “Let me try something.”

It spread its fins and made a melodious gurgling sound, like a mermaid’s song emerging from the depths of the ocean. The Reverend Hastings tingled from his smallest toe to the tips of his ears. Suddenly, another man appeared beside him, and another, and another, popping into existence one at a time until a score of them stood in a circle around the dining table. Every one looked exactly like him.

“How…?” twenty clergymen chorused, then clamped their hands to their mouths in alarm. “Why?” they murmured in unison, the words filtered through trembling fingers.

“Because I have a message for all herring kind,” the herring said, its voice somehow noble despite the flapping of its diminutive jaw. “And I’ve got to get their attention somehow – herring are very hard to please.”

The Reverends stared at each other with wide eyes. A talking fish no longer seemed so extraordinary.

“How do I know that I am the real me?” the Reverends Hastings asked, their voices wavering. “Which of us has been offering up prayers all these years? Which of us…” They swallowed, struggling to sustain themselves in the face of the next thought. “Which of us has our soul?”

“All of you, I suppose. Or none of you perhaps. It’s much the same thing.”

The Reverends shuddered. “Which is the real me? Which of us is this moment for?”

“Oh, I see.” The herring’s tone was rich with slowly dawning realisation. “You’re trying to draw a distinction that doesn’t exist. You are all just as much the Reverend Hastings as each other.”

“But then what makes me unique?” the Reverends asked, their limbs hanging as heavy as lead, their vision blurring with unshed tears.

“Maybe I have a message for you after all,” the herring said, hopping to the edge of its plate and from there down onto the floor. “Simply to live is a miracle in itself, and one does not have to stand out from the crowd to be amazing.” It patted one of the Reverends on the shin. “Just ask all those fishes Jesus was so fond of.”

Using its tail fins as tiny legs, the herring wobbled its way to the door. As it stepped out of the dining room, Mrs Abernathy walked in. She looked down at the passing fish, then around at the assembled Reverends, her expression shifting through curiosity to confusion to resignation in the space of seconds.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting the large teapot then?” she asked, picking a Reverend at random to address.

Nineteen Reverends Hastings nodded in unison. The twentieth was staring out the window, his attention caught by a beam of sunlight streaming through the garden. His thoughts filled with the wonder of God’s creation, like the thoughts of so many men before.

***

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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.’

Tod Fortuno opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling of the cave. The rocks were colours he didn’t have words for, impossible protrusions that folded across and through each other in defiance of geometry. Tod hadn’t even whimpered when he’d broken his leg during a cage match gone out of control, but looking at that ceiling made him want to scream.

At least it was better than the sky outside.

“Where are we?” he said, still trying to make sense of the rocks.

“Another dimension,” Captain Lesting said, grinning as she brushed dust from her dress uniform. “Pretty cool, right?”

“Why?”

“The maths of this place, mostly. It’s not often you see somewhere so spectacularly at odds with our universe.”

“I mean why did you bring me here?” Tod forced himself to sit up, despite the wild spinning of his brain. Now he knew why only a select few entered the Interdimensional Corps – it must take a twisted sort of mind to cope with this.

“I asked if you wanted to go somewhere that would blow your mind, and you said-”

Tod groaned. “I thought it was a chat up line.”

Lesting looked down at her feet.

“It kind of was. I’ve always had a thing for wrestlers, and the party was boring anyway, so I thought maybe…”

“Just take me home.” Tod closed his eyes. He’d thought that Lesting was his type – short, brunette, dressed in a uniform – but it turned out that his type didn’t include interdimensional joyriders.

“About that…” Lesting held up the device she’d been playing with before the real world vanished. It could have just been a smartphone, if not for the eerie light pulsing on one end. “Coming here drained the battery. I figured that once we were on our own it would have time to recharge, but-”

Outside the cave, something howled. The sound was closer than the last time, which had been closer than when they’d seen the creature outside, a clawed cross between a jaguar and the aftermath of a bomb blast, muscled legs covered with jagged protrusions and swirling with toxic grey dust.

“That thing is coming for us!” Tod yelled.

“Ssh!” Lesting pressed a finger to her lips. “You don’t want it to hear us – not until the opener has recharged.”

“What difference does hearing us make? It saw me. It looked into my soul and I swear I could feel its hunger, like a maggot trying to eat me from the inside.”

Lesting tipped her head on one side and looked at him.

“You should be a poet,” she whispered.

“Are you high?” Tod asked, narrowing his eyes. “Or are you just insane?”

“Little of column A, little of column B.”

Tod pressed the palms of his hands against his head, as if he could somehow press down the mounting pressure that came from his anger and the dizzying weirdness of looking around this place.

Part of the cave wall melted, turned briefly into something like a pile of silver bricks, then returned to its original form.

Lesting smiled at her device. “Halfway there.”

The howl sounded again. The creature had come a lot more than half way.

“What do we do if it gets here?” Tod asked, looking nervously towards the cave mouth.

“Usually I have guns and bombs and emergency transponders, but apparently you’re not allowed to take those to parties.” Lesting’s look of baffled frustration turned suddenly to excitement and she looked up at Tod. “You could wrestle it!”

“That thing’s seven feet tall and covered in claws!”

“You wrestled the Overtaker. He’s seven feet and he was wearing a robot suit.”

“But that wasn’t real. That was TV. That was us faking for an audience!”

“No!”

“Yes, of course, you mad b-” Tod stopped, seeing the glitter of mischief in her eye. “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”

“Little bit.” She held up the device. “Battery’s charged.”

The howling came again, so close it shook Tod’s teeth. Fear had replaced nausea and confusion in the wrestling match for control of his mind. He grabbed hold of Lesting’s hand, squeezing far tighter than on their way out of the party.

“Get us the hell out of here.”

“I love it when you take charge.” She grinned at him, then pressed her thumb against a blinking light.

A bright flash forced Tod to close his eyes. He felt himself lifted for a moment, then settled back onto his feet and looked around.

“We haven’t moved. Why haven’t we moved?”

Lesting looked down at the device. The blinking light had turned to a dull glow.

“Sorry about that,” she said, letting go of his hand so she could tap the top of the screen. “These things don’t always work first time. We’ll just have to wait for a fresh charge.”

She looked at the cave mouth and her face went pale. The howling rang out, closer than ever, and the cave walls rippled in response.

“Oh shit,” she whispered.

The creature prowled into view, its single eye glowing like a supernova. Tod looked from it to Lesting to the light that was slowly building in brightness on her device.

He turned back to the beast and squared his shoulders.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m gonna wrestle it.”

“But your wrestling’s fake!”

“You think they know that in this dimension?”

He raised his hands. The beast bared its death-black teeth. Tod’s head spun as he tried to make sense of the way the beast moved and the cave walls warped around it.

“You were right, this place really did blow my mind.”

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

“This is crazy,” Dirk said, hacking away the brambles that trailed between the statues. Life-sized courtiers, servants, and guards stood stiff and silent, recreations of humanity with enamel skin over brass flesh. “Who builds a clockwork palace just to let it get overgrown?”

His words, accompanied by a steady ticking of gears, echoed back from the vaulted ceiling on which figures from ancient myth had been painted, their faces concealed by centuries of cobwebs. Dirk wanted to wipe those cobwebs away and see the long-lost art underneath, but not as much as he wanted to see these statues in action. A thrill ran through him at the prospect of wonders no-one else had witnessed.

“Becoming overgrown was the point,” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms said. “To embody the very essence of the fairy tale – a sleeping kingdom buried beneath the wild. Count Volkengrad meant to return after a decade and awake his porcelain princess with a kiss.”

With a click of gears, Blaze-Simms finished winding the mechanism inside a guard captain. He drew out the key, walked to the woodworm-riddled remnants of a bed, and knelt beside the figure who lay there, pale and dust-covered amid the rotten sheets. He brushed the dust from her neck, thrust the key into a hole by the collar bone, and started to wind.

“Then why’s she still here?” Dirk asked, dragging the last of the trailing plants away.

“Volkengrad caught a chill reenacting the emperor’s new clothes, came down with a fever and died. His descendants decided it was best to just fence off his fairy tale forest and pretend it never happened.”

Blaze-Simms withdrew the key from the automaton and stepped back.

“Now what?” Dirk asked, rubbing his hands together.

Blaze-Simms shrugged. “She should be waking up.”

“Don’t you need to kiss her?”

“I don’t see how saliva could help in any mechanical way.”

But the princess lay sleeping still, the intricate plates of her face inert.

Dirk leaned in and ran a hand across a cold cheek. She really was beautiful, the most perfect princess art could create.

“You do know that magic isn’t real, don’t you?” Blaze-Simms asked. “Kissing her won’t break some spell. One of the gears has probably just rusted in place.”

If Dirk knew one thing in life, it was that there were limits to scientific understanding. Maybe there was some kissing-based mechanism here and Blaze-Simms just didn’t know it. If that was what it took to wake the place up, then Dirk was willing to give it a go.

He ran a thumb across the princess’s cold lower lip. The metal gave way, there was a click, and she jerked upright.

Dirk leapt back, almost reaching for his pistol before his rational brain took hold.

“I say!” Blaze-Simms exclaimed. “Well done, old chap!”

Around them, whir of wound springs turned into a rattle of movement. Guards, servants, courtiers, every statue that Blaze-Simms had wound sprang into action, approaching the two adventurers with shuffling, mechanical steps. The statues opened their mouths and a terrible cacophony filled the palace.

“What is that?” Dirk asked, clamping his hands to his ears.

“I think they’re cheering!”

The princess approached Dirk, arms rigidly outstretched, lips parted, her once-beautiful face transformed into an uncanny imitation of human movement.

“No thanks,” he said. “You go find yourself a porcelain prince.”

But she kept moving, grabbing at Dirk’s arms with pinching metal fingers, trying to pull him close.

He backed away but she kept coming. The others were closing in too, surrounding him with a crowd of twitching metal limbs.

“Maybe this wasn’t the best idea,” Blaze-Simms said, glancing around.

“You think?”

“So now what?”

Dirk slammed into the nearest statue, a guard swinging an all too real halberd. The statue fell to the ground with a clang and he leapt over its prostrate form.

“Now we run!”

They dashed through the palace, followed by a cacophony of clattering and clanging. Dirk couldn’t tell if the statues were following, or if they had just fallen in a heap in the main chamber. He didn’t care, as long as he was clear of those strange and stumbling figures.

They emerged from the palace into the forest, where their horses stood tied to a tree. While Dirk looked back, watching for signs of pursuit, Blaze-Simms pulled out a notebook.

“What a marvellous place,” he said. “I wonder if I could replicate it.”

Dirk snatched the notebook and snapped it shut.

“Some things are best left to the imagination,” he said. “Just like fairy tales.”

***

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***

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

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

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

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

Maria took a breath as loud as the pounding of her heart. Her grip tightened on the bayonet they had taken from the French soldier. She looked down at him, arms and legs tied to a chair in the middle of the one-room house, blood dripping from his nose onto the white front of his uniform. His blond hair and soft, round face made him look like a cherub beneath the bruises.

“We found him walking alone on the Barcelona road,” Juan said. “Near where they strung up Santiago and Maya.”

“Were you part of that?” Maria asked, pressing the point of the bayonet against the soldier’s neck. Her hand shook at the memory of those bodies, flies buzzing around their drawn out guts, faces contorted by hours of pain. The soldier winced and blood trickled down the bayonet.

“He doesn’t speak Spanish,” Juan said.

“Of course not. Napoleon and his cockroaches want to rule us, not understand us.”

Maria took a step back, removing the blade from the soldier’s throat. Justice should be decisive and deliberate, not a slip of the hand.

Her gaze never left the soldier. Had he been one of the killers? Had those pale, slender fingers ripped off her friends’ clothes? Had this bayonet, blunted and battered, torn through their flesh? If she looked really close, would she find blood staining the corners of his fingernails?

It didn’t matter. He had come to Spain as a conqueror, had chosen to align himself with murderers. He was one of them.

“Take him back to the Barcelona road,” Maria said with a sneer. “Leave the body there for them to find.”

Juan untied the soldier and hauled him to his feet. That soft face looked around uncertainly, eyes darting between Juan and Maria. Bruises shone blue against ghostly skin.

“We’re going to make you suffer,” Juan said, leaning in close to the soldier, baring his teeth in a terrible smile. “Everything you did to Santiago and more.”

Maria frowned. She had sworn to do whatever was needed to set her country free, but what the French had done to Santiago and Maya was hideous.

“Kill him cleanly. Show we’re better than them.”

“No. We have to show that we’re worse, that every atrocity they commit will come back upon them a hundred times over. If we don’t then they’ll never stop.”

Juan spoke of terrible necessities, but his face filled with malicious glee as he dragged the soldier towards the door.

The bayonet was hard and heavy in Maria’s hand. A tool made to kill men, brought into her country for no reason but to keep it under control. The Frenchman deserved this, but what did her people deserve?

She leapt forward, grabbed the soldier from behind, and thrust the bayonet into his back. It was like sewing, a matter of precise placement, the cloth resisting the needle just for a moment before it slid through. Fear and hatred were replaced by the swift, energising moment of action.

The soldier didn’t even let out a gasp. He crumpled, fell, spilt blood across her feet and through the gaps between the floorboards.

“What the Hell?” Juan snapped.

“Take him to the Barcelona road,” Maria said, stepping back. She would have to find something to cover her dress, to hide the bloodstain as she walked home. “Do whatever you want to the body there. Make it as hideous as you like.”

“He was meant to suffer. He was meant to make a point!”

The soldier’s lips were parted in an “oh” of surprise, his blue eyes still open and staring across the bloodstained floor. Every crease and freckle of his skin was a letter in a book that no-one would ever learn to read.

“We only need the French to think that we act like monsters. We don’t need it to be true.”

“You didn’t have the right to make that decision.”

Maria picked up a blanket off the bed and wrapped it tight around herself.

“None of this is about right – it’s about how wrong we have to be.”

***

 

Maria comes to this story fresh from my latest Commando Comic, which is out this week. V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope, both set during the Peninsular War. English riflemen Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by a washerwoman who is more than she seems. The comic is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.

***

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.

Spain, 1813: Former opponents Tom Hopper and Samuel Jones are part of Wellington’s army, driving back the forces of Napoleonic France. When their captain is captured, it falls upon Hopper and Jones to rescue him. But it will take a daring escape and a lesson in humility before they can join their comrades to face down the French at the Battle of Vitoria.

Out today from Commando Comics, V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope. See Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by Maria, a washerwoman who is more than she seems.*

V for Vitoria is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.

 

 

 

*No, she’s not Toad of Toad Hall,  though that would also be cool.