Nine Tales — from the author of BLACK MARKS and DOOMSDAY’S CHILD.
Fantasy meets horror, humor and history in these nine strange tales of The Other…
* A British Intelligence officer visits the trenches of the Somme. Do the fantastical reports from there stem from some mass insanity amongst the troops … or have the Germans developed a monstrous secret weapon?
* The grandson of the gods attempts to repel an unwelcome—and beautiful—visitor to his mountain retreat.
* A pauper is led to his execution where Evil awaits at the end of the lash. Or will he find Redemption instead?
* A young woman waits by a graveside with her lost love.
* And a washed up musician’s passion for music and for life is revived by four strangers, strangers who prefer speaking from the shadows—strangers who begin to show an unhealthy interest in his son.
For fans of gripping short fiction comes a collection for the train, for the plane, or for days where it rains.
Here lies a wonderful child. Here lies a beautiful boy. Blood of my blood. Flesh of my flesh. My own heart made real.
The tot sleeps soundly beneath deer skins, woollen blankets and fleece while the fireplace burns its last log of the long night. There’s enough light from the fire’s glow to make my way about the cabin without cracking my shins – and enough for me to make out the shape of his nose, the curl of his hair. This, my son. This, my gift to a world that will never want him.
A world that hates us both.
I drag the fleece to his chin. He murmurs, wriggles until it slips back down. I smile.
He is everything to me, just as I am to him.
But I won’t always be. He’ll grow up. He’ll become as I am, a man hating his own father.
This thought is fresh, a dagger’s thrust to the heart making me groan, hand on my ribs. I’ve often thought of the day he’ll no longer sigh Papa upon awakening; that will sadden me but I will survive it. Every father does. But how will I bear the day when he no longer wants and needs my arm, my advice, my company? The day when dark thoughts cloud his expression as he sees me for what I am and sees himself for what I’ve made him?
Did my father once think this way? Did he stand above my bed and grieve for something he was yet to lose? No, my father deserves no sympathy. He didn’t take his son to a place of safety such as I have found for mine. He dragged me from settlement to settlement in order to avoid discovery, until the day came when…
I turn toward the fire and prod the log with the poker, turning the handle over in my hand. Not much iron in this cabin: a poker; two knives; a spoon; my short sword, the only trace of my father in my life, and as clean and shiny as when it was first forged more than a millennium ago; an arquebus rifle, nothing but a decoration with my powder and shot used up. And, of course, the shackles I keep deep in my pack, where their occasional rattle and jingle reminds me of the things I have suffered at the hands of humans. And of the reasons I brought my son here, what I must teach him to fear, what I must teach him to fight.
I touch the tip of the poker to my other palm, gasp in echo of the hiss of burning flesh. I turn my hand to catch the firelight and watch the burn fade to scar and then to healthy skin. Fire is no more danger to me than iron. Silver and gold are what I fear, the metals of high currency. The metals no longer offered in worship to the gods are now the only metals with the power to maim and kill the gods’ grandchildren.
A foot scuffs the mulch of pine needles downslope from the cabin. Somewhere further down the mountainside, a horse whickers.
May the gods damn it! I’ve been so lost in thought, so full of self-pity, that I didn’t sense them coming. I pause, halfway to the door. I was raising the poker in a two-handed stance, but I drop it to my side now, careful to avoid singeing my kilt: my clothes, after all, aren’t made from the stuff of gods. I concentrate: there is no them¸ just a her. What in the four doors to eternity is a lone woman doing all the way out here? To my knowledge, no one has ever sent a woman bravo to kill custodes. I have certainly never faced one.
But there is always a first time.
The Corporal lead the way across a scarred and grassless wasteland punctuated by the occasional dead tree and the abandoned artefacts of battle. As the soil turned to sludge, Smitty steered them onto a system of warped wooden pathways he called ‘duckboards’.
The occasional soldier passed them, heading back the way they’d come, each staring at Charles with the same unfathomable resentment. Once a runner with a message clutched tight in his hand sprinted past them, bumping Charles hard. He would have stumbled off the duckboards if Arthur hadn’t grabbed his sleeve and held him fast.
Arthur’s voice was hollow. ‘Don’t fall off the boards.’
‘Lost two men last November,’ Smitty explained. ‘Right around ‘ere somewhere.’
‘Lost?’ Charles asked, confused. Men died in war; why comment on it now?
Smitty made a sucking sound with his tongue and pointed to the mud where Charles had nearly fallen. ‘Sunk without a trace. Course, it’d been rainin’ for thirty-six days solid. Been dry a few days now. If you slip off the side you’ll probably just lose them nice new boots o’ yours.’
Further on, the duckboards lead down into the network of broad reserve trenches that Charles knew sat some way back from the front line. He heard little but the sighing wind, murmurs of quiet conversation from soldiers down branch-tunnels, and the occasional staccato puttering of rifles and machineguns somewhere in the distance.
He thought of men drowning in muck, of the blackened feet he had glimpsed inside the aid post, and decided the sooner he commenced gathering information, the sooner he could leave this Godforsaken place.
He pitched his voice to carry to Smitty, several paces ahead of him. ‘What can you tell me about this so-called monster?’
Arthur’s tread faltered behind him. Smitty stiffened and glanced up the trench wall to where two riflemen sat on a firing-ledge, watching them, impassive as gargoyles.
Smitty hawked, spat and waved at the two men in friendly fashion. They didn’t wave back, eyes on the newcomer. ‘Let’s talk about that later, eh, Captain?’
Thirty yards on, Charles looked over his shoulder. The two men were still watching him.