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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Saturday Story - 'Final demand'

Wikipedia commons

Nik Morton

Nervously lowering himself from the stucco wall of his rich aunt's Georgian house, Jeff Grayson was suddenly startled by a familiar voice from the darkness.  "Visiting your relatives, Jeff?" Eric Hinton asked in an ironic tone as he stepped out from the shadows of a kerbside sycamore.
"She - she wasn't in..." Jeff stammered, trying to hide a small sports bag behind his anorak.

"What's that?"  Hinton snatched the bag.

Jeff's heart sank.

Hinton whistled, brown eyes bulging.  "Must be two hundred quid at least!  Her mattress must've been hellish lumpy!  Doesn't the Gas Company pay you enough?"

"Please," Jeff whispered, knees shaking.  "I'll repay her; I'm only borrowing it... I've got a dead-cert at Chepstow..."

"Still playing the gee-gees, eh?"  Surprisingly, Hinton handed back the money.  "Okay... But be careful, since it's not yours!"  He lifted a crush-proof pack to his mouth and his thin lips curled round a cigarette.  Lighting it, he strode off, chuckling.

The dead-cert should have been declared dead or as good as: it came in so late it almost won the next race.  Jeff still owed too much money to unsavoury people.  At least he was glad when the uproar of his aunt's burglary died down.  Until he had a visitor. 

Mrs Wycherly, his landlady, let Hinton in and showed him upstairs to Jeff's bedroom.

Surprised to see Hinton, Jeff stood at the door and gaped.
Hinton leaned against the door post and lit a cigarette.  "Pity about your aunt's holiday savings, eh?  You'd think people'd trust banks more, wouldn't you?"
Stomach churning, Jeff glanced guiltily at the head of stairs: "You - you won't turn me in - will you?"

"Don't worry!"  Hinton gently shoved Jeff inside and shut the door behind them.  "Let's keep this little conversation private, eh?  He twitched ash onto the carpet.  "Now I think we can be of mutual assistance."
Despite his shock at seeing Hinton here, Jeff was wary of his old associate's silvery tone; still, he was curious.  "How?"
"I've heard about your gambling debts, Jeff, my boy.  My little scheme could help you get out from under, know what I mean?"
"How?" Jeff croaked.
"Don't you print the bills for the company's customers?"
"Yes - but - "
"Is it easy to increase the demands?"
Jeff paled, realising what Hinton was suggesting.  "I - I've never thought about it..."

Hinton supplied the names and addresses of fifty customers - local pensioners, aged spinsters, widows, widowers and the infirm. 
Jeff was a frustrated computer programmer in the company's operations room.  He was able to circumvent various checks and controls to adjust the print alignment routine. 
This routine usually printed lots of x's on pre-printed and numbered computer stationery - the bills and statements - to permit the computer operators to line up the paper in the printer before the genuine details were printed; these alignment prints were destroyed by the operators and the inclusive pre-printed numbers declared void in the accounts schedule. 
Now the adjusted routine pulled in fifty client names who paid by cash, not through a budget scheme.  It produced 100%-increased bills among the alignment bills while the printing of the fifty statements were skipped.
The processing on the individuals' accounts was unaffected.  
Jeff enveloped and posted these bills himself.  Trying to adjust the accounts system package, to pay the extra direct into a bogus bank account was, he considered, too risky.
If anyone came into the office to complain or pay up then it would be attributed to a computer fault and profuse apologies made.
But the majority of recipients wouldn't be able to leave their homes or would await the red reminder before venturing to settle.
As a representative of GAS Co (General Altruistic Services Company), Hinton was already calling at these addresses, demanding half-payment per month. 
The actual bills were paid by cheques drawn on General Altruistic accompanied by a letter of explanation stating further correspondence was to be addressed to the Company PO Box.

In the second month of the new quarter they'd amassed a nice little profit.  But Jeff wasn't very comfortable with it; trouble was, now he'd dug himself in deeper.
Then the publicity broke concerning another Gas Company area, just a coincidence.

A 65-year-old widow had received a bill for £159 and was now under sedation.

A middle-aged cripple's inflated bill prompted him to write to the national papers deploring the inefficiency of computers.

Yet another case concerned a spinster who was now afraid to use her gas appliances.

All incidents were explained as being computer-errors or accounts department mistakes.

Jeff saw it as the end of the line.

Once customers lost faith in the Gas Company's computerised accounts, Hinton's demands would fall on deaf ears.  He chuckled at the irony: the fake bills wouldn't be believed!

"Let's pack it in while we're ahead," Jeff suggested.

Hinton's stubby nicotine-stained finger prodded Jeff's chest. "Listen, I told you before," he said adenoidally, "I've enough on you to put you inside..."

"But - "

"No buts."  Hinton shook his head.  "You don't know anything about me now... A phone-number's all you've got."  He sniffled, red nose submerged in a huge flannel handkerchief.  "Damned flu..."

From his glowing stub he lit another cigarette. "Just carry on printing those bills, and I'll carry on dragging round from door to door collecting extra cash!"  He sneezed and said in a martyred tone, "That's how I caught this flu!"

Returning to his digs, Jeff recalled with a smile that he'd sent his landlady, Mrs Wycherly, an extortionate bill, to clear suspicion from him.
Then, entering the parquet hall, he smelled gas.
Mrs Wycherly was sprawled in the kitchen, her head resting on a cushion inside the cooker: a human sacrifice to the bill in her limp bloodless hand.
Kneeling down, Jeff felt her neck like he'd seen in the movies and detected a faint pulse.

Hands trembling with guilt - this was his doing, his bill had scared her into suicide - he heaved her out the kitchen and upstairs - if she wakes up on the bed she mightn't remember her attempted suicide, he thought. 
Even though she was small and quite light he had to rest half-way up.
Flopping her onto the bed in the back bedroom, he forced open the sash windows and breathed in fresh air.  His legs wobbled weakly after the unaccustomed exertion.
Shivering in the night breeze, he grabbed Mrs Wycherly's arms and began artificial respiration.

Mrs Wycherly's desperate act convinced him: their greed was irresponsible and dangerous. How many old folk would be callously scared out of their wits by Hinton?

At last, satisfied she'd live, he phoned Hinton. "I'm quitting," he declared, and thought sod the consequences.
A sharp angry intake of breath at the other end. Then, finally: "Wait there!" Hinton demanded.

From his own upstairs front bay-window he watched Hinton dashing along the deserted street.  The roadside lamp provided a perfect view of the ajar door.
Panting on the threshold, Hinton pushed the door.
"No!"  Jeff's eyes widened in alarm. "No!" But Hinton couldn't hear him.  Jeff stared, transfixed by fear.  In his moment of shock he'd forgotten to turn off the gas - while he saved Mrs Wycherly's life his nostrils had become used to the faint smell up here.  But Hinton wouldn't notice the fumes because of his cold, and was striking a match to a dangling cigarette -
Jeff grabbed the window-frame as the floorboards shuddered under him. 
The explosion shook the whole building.  Lights went out. He caught a hazy impression of door, glass and Hinton bundling across the starkly illuminated street.
All three emergency services arrived in record time.
The blast demolished the hallway, kitchen and the front box bedroom adjacent to his own.
Surprisingly, at the rear of the house, Mrs Wycherly slept through the pandemonium.

"You might as well talk," Detective Inspector Stokes said, steely eyes glaring at Jeff in his multiple bandages.  At the private ward's door was an anxious nurse and a policeman in uniform.  "We've been checking on a number of pensioners' complaints over inflated gas-bills," Stokes continued, fanning himself with a tattered notebook.  "This was on Hinton's body and it clearly fingers you as the scheme's mastermind..."

Previously published in Costa TV Times, 2009.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014

If you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book, see below:


Thursday, 23 October 2014

November release - The Prague Papers

Due out in November from Crooked Cat Publishing, the first psychic spy Tana Standish thriller, set in the Cold War, which Mr Putin seems intend on bringing back...

Czechoslovakia, 1975. Tana is a spy - and she’s psychic. Orphaned in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, she was adopted by a British naval officer and his wife. Now she works for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Czechoslovakia’s people are still kicking against the Soviet invasion. Tana was called in to restore morale and repair the underground network. But there’s a traitor at work.

And she learns about a secret Soviet complex, concealed in a colliery in the Sumava Mountains. Unknown to her there’s a top secret psychic establishment in Kazakhstan, where Yakunin, one of their gifted psychics, has detected her presence in Czechoslovakia. As he gets to know her, his loyalties are strained.

With her old flame Laco, Tana infiltrates the Sumava complex. When she’s captured, a desperate mission is mounted to either get her out or to silence her - before she breaks under interrogation.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Writing - Work in progress - Catacomb

Catacomb is the sequel to Catalyst which is due for publication from Crooked Cat in time for Christmas purchase.

Catalyst introduces Cat Vibrissae, who is out to get revenge on Loup Malefice, the Head of Cerberus Worldwide, the man responsible for the takeover of her father’s company. She is a trained chemist but has forsaken that career and become a successful model. During her first brush with Cerberus she crosses the path of Rick Barnes, an adviser in the Cerberus organization...


I've written 800 words today, which isn't bad, but not great. Approaching the action-packed denouement and setting up the storyline for the sequel. 

Then comes the self-edit stage, which entails, among other things:

Checking all those echo words, repeats.

Checking consistency.

Ensuring that the story and characters behave logically.

Making sure I can visualise each scene, because if I can't through my words, the reader certainly can't.

Is each scene written from a single character POV?

Decide where the chapter breaks will occur - ideally at high-tension or dramatic moments, and allocate appropriate chapter titles.

Write the first page or so of the sequel...

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Writing - competition - Words with Jam short story competition

Words with Jam is the ezine for writers and publishers and it's jam-packed with information, articles, interviews, humour and links.
You still have 10 days to send off your competition short story!
Categories comprise a 2500 word Short Story Category on any theme, a Shorter Story Category for stories up to 1000 words and a Shortest Story Category for stories up to 250 words.
Overall Prize Pot £1500
1st prize in each category - £300
2nd prize in each category - £100
3rd prize in each category - £50
5 runners up in each category will be published in our Short Story Anthology (of which they will receive a copy), and awarded £10. All winners and runners up will receive a printed copy of our Short Story Anthology (inclusion optional*).
Short Story Category - for stories up to 2500 words
Shorter Story Category - for stories up to 1000 words
Shortest Story Category - for stories up to 250 words
Closing Date 
31st October 2014
Entry fee
1 story - £6, 2 stories - £10, 3 stories - £14, each additional story - £4
Submission & rules
Go to:
All 1st, 2nd and 3rd place stories will be published in February 2015. 
Winners will each receive a printed copy.
Short Story Judge (up to 2500 words): Emma Darwin
Emma Darwin is a novelist and short story writer. She was born in London and brought up there, with interludes in Manhattan and Brussels. After an education which involved a lot of history, a lot of reading and a degree in Drama and Theatre Arts, she worked in academic publishing for a while. Despite being diverted into a photographic darkroom for a few years she wrote her way towards becoming a full-time writer. Her first novel The Mathematics of Love was published in 2006. It was short-and long-listed for various prizes, including the Commonwealth Writers' Best First Book, and translated into many languages. Her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was published in November 2008 and reached the bestseller lists. Along the way she acquired first an MPhil and now a PhD in Creative Writing, enough novels in manuscript to prop up several table legs, and a Bridport and other prizes for her short stories. Emma is also an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing for the Open University, and a senior editor with Writer's Workshop, and has appeared at numerous literary festivals.
Shorter Story Judge (up to 1000 words): Sam Jordison
Sam Jordison is a hugely talented, bright, young writer. He was co-editor of the bestselling Crap Towns and the follow-up book - Crap Towns 2 - as well as writing four solo titles. He writes a regular books column for The Guardian, and is the founder of Galley Beggar Press.
Here's what Sam looks for in a short story:
What makes a short story stand out from all the others?
I wish I could answer this more sensibly, but the truth is that there is no formula. What makes a story stand out? Good writing. What is good writing? I wish I could tell you. I think there has to be a lot of craft. You have to know that each word is where it should be, and each sentence has been carefully thought out. But beyond that… The mysteries of art…
Two of your favourite short stories (famous or otherwise)?
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway. Big Two Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway. They’re probably the best short stories I’ve read. Everyone who wants to write short stories should look at them, try to understand what he’s doing, and just as importantly, what he doesn’t do. Learn from them. But don’t imitate them. That wouldn’t work…
What are the two most common mistakes you see?
I don’t know if I can answer that. Everyone makes their own mistakes. Dialogue is possibly the hardest thing to get right. I also quite often advise people not to explain too much. They shouldn’t have to spell out the lesson in the story. The story should do that for itself, if it’s working… Generally. But, I’m always wary about laying down rules. Lots of the stories I like break them, after all…
Shortest Story Judge (max 250 words): Debbie Young
The English author, journalist and blogger Debbie Young has a special interest in short stories and flash fiction. Her short fiction has been published most recently in the National Flash Fiction Day's 2014 anthology Eating My Words and in its online journal FlashFlood, and in her own collection Quick Change (2014). She is also a reviewer for Vine Leaves Literary Journal which focuses on the vignette. Debbie is Commissioning Editor of the Alliance of Independent Authors' Self-publishing Advice Blog and co-author of its campaigning guidebook, Opening Up To Indie Authors and the author of the popular marketing handbook for indie authors, Sell Your Books! Debbie has an honours degree in English and Related Literature from the University of York, where she specialised in 19th and 20th century fiction. She now writes full-time. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

Writing – Market – Sixpenny magazine

This new magazine is due to launch soon (Winter).

It’s looking for short stories and illustrations. As the editors say, “Long, long ago, there were magazines filled with illustrated stories. They created a market for writers and illustrators to hone their craft and make a living, and they gave readers a steady supply of stories they could truly enjoy. When these magazines began, some were called sixpenny magazines, because they cost a sixpence - affordable enough for just about everyone. But over time, all of these 'everyman' fiction magazines died. Luckily, while out in the woods one day, we found a single cell of a sixpenny magazine hidden away in a nugget of amber. Soon after, we discovered the emerging technology of the internet. Thanks to that little pocket computer called a mobile phone, people are reading again. We have decided that now is the time to bring back the SIXPENNY. 

“SIXPENNY is a digital magazine of illustrated short stories. Our stories will be classified as literary fiction, but they'll also be entertaining as a rule.  Each issue has six stories that take six minutes to read: three are by widely published authors, and three are by unpublished authors. We pay our writers and our illustrators. SIXPENNY exists to bring substance and real feeling to the in-between parts of your day.”

For Writers:
Pocket-sized stories. Literary fiction that keeps a reader engaged and excited from the first word to the last. Each story should be a six-minute read – 1,000 words, give or take (just a little). The six stories selected for each issue will be illustrated before publication in SIXPENNY.

How to Submit
The current reading period ends on October 31st.

Six stories will be selected for publication for the Winter launch. Stories can be submitted by clicking the ‘submit’ button on the website, which will take you to their submission engine Submittable. They will attempt to reply with feedback within two weeks after the end of the reading period. They will consider simultaneous submissions but would appreciate it if you would notify them promptly if your manuscript is chosen for publication elsewhere. Multiple submissions to SIXPENNY will be considered.

Payment and Copyright
You must own the rights if your story has been previously published. SIXPENNY acquires First Serial Rights for published stories. Copyright for any works published in SIXPENNY will revert to the author upon publication. “We will request, as part of our publication contract, your permission to feature in published works or excerpts on SIXPENNY’s website and in its advertising. We will also request permission to publish the stories accepted throughout the year in a yearly anthology.”

Writers will be paid $100 for each story published in SIXPENNY.

For Illustrators:
Please submit a portfolio by clicking the ‘submit’ button and follow the guidelines. If your portfolio is chosen, you will be included in their Illustrator Database, and they will contact you when they find a story for you. You will be paid $100 per illustrated story that is published in SIXPENNY. Each story typically needs 3 small illustrations.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Reminiscences - where did those 49 years go?

On 19 October 1965 I joined the Royal Navy; 49 years today. I was seventeen.

The journey to join HMS Raleigh as a recruit has been covered in the blog here

Part of page 2 of my Service Certificate
I finally left the navy 2 August 1989, having served almost twenty-four years.

In that time I was fortunate not to be at sea for a lot of my career. I sailed in three frigates: in the Cod War our ship was holed below the waterline; skirting the edge of typhoons in the China Sea and hurricanes in the Caribbean, the ship superstructure was buckled. I’ve participated in realistic landing and insurrection exercises in Portland including nuclear and biological attacks and undergone advanced first-aid classes. I’ve been inside communications centres and on the ships’ bridges - the nerve-centres - and bounced around in Gemini assault craft.

I’ve sailed in a conventional submarine and the hunter-killer HMS CONQUEROR and also toured the ‘nuclear forests’ of a Polaris submarine. On South Georgia I walked inside a glacier and slept overnight at Leith's ghostly deserted whaling station. I’ve flown in Wasp helicopters and been winched onto a ship's deck. Having flown from Karachi to Islamabad, Pakistan, I drove up the Khyber Pass where I met some Pathans, quite forbidding characters draped with ammunition-belts; from here I looked out over the Plain of Kabul. (See this blog here ). I snorkelled in the Red Sea, trekked the mosquito-riddled jungle of Belize and stood atop the Mayan pyramid of Altun Ha.

I learned Chinese kung fu (quanshu) in Malta where I teamed up with Gordon Faulkner to write the first of a fantasy series set in mythical Floreskand – Wings of the Overlord (see below). I’ve fired automatic pistols, rifles and machine guns, though not in combat, and carried the bodybags of airplane crash victims and viewed corpses post-autopsy. I’ve manned and loaded ship's guns and my memory can still smell the cordite. All useful material, I guess, for a writer.

Before I joined the navy, I dreamed of being a writer, and had written two spy novels (unpublished). While following my career as, appropriately, a Writer in the RN, I still pursued that goal in various guises – editor of ships’ magazines, selling short stories and articles, and sending out many a manuscript that would fail. The navy taught me many things, not least to be persistent and never to give up. Finally, I started getting novels accepted in 2007 and thereafter; an ‘overnight success’ that has taken roughly fifty years.

Never give up.

[This is written from the perspective of a writer. Great joy also came with marriage, the birth of our daughter and our grandchildren].
* * *
WINGS OF THE OVERLORD by Morton Faulkner
Available from Amazon UK here
Available from Amazon COM here

Available post-free worldwide from the book depository here

So begins their great quest that tests the trio to the limit. Exciting obstacles include raging torrents, snakes, feuding warrior hordes, lethal fireballs, terrifying electric storms, treacherous mountains, avalanche, betrayal and torture. The travellers start out barely able to tolerate each other but, gradually, as their problems are overcome, they grow closer. The strength of comradeship is evoked and also selfless sacrifice. Their story is rich in history and threatening events that beset them on their quest.


Friday, 17 October 2014

Saturday Story - Tales of the Red Tellar-1

Tales of the Red Tellar - Regloma Troglan, duellist

As my co-author Gordon Faulkner is signing copies of our book Wings of the Overlord today Saturday at Inverness Waterstones (1200-1400), I’m making a departure from the usual Short Story blog.

This is an excerpt, which can be read as a complete story (having been tweaked for this presentation).

* * *
“Do you recall hearing about Regloma Troglan?” Alomar asked with a grin.
        “Indeed – a famous duellist – oh, about fifty years ago,” supplemented Fhord, remembering the books in the Archives.
        Alomar chuckled. “If our bookworm can recall, all the champions he unseated were special–”
        “No, I can’t remem – wait, they held their champion-sword for less than two quarters each?”
        “True enough, but no, I was thinking of their personal lives. Perhaps that was an unfair question. Of course, I’m speaking from personal experience now. All the champions he unseated had something to lose which meant more to them than any championship – be it family, wealth, esteem in business, whatever.”
        “Go on,” urged Fhord eagerly.
Courdour Alomar had entered the Lorgen’s Fable inn on his way through Endawn when he thought he recognised an old acquaintance, though he was lief to think he was mistaken.
        Then the man, slumped over the table in a shadowy corner, rose unsteadily and swerved, demanding another drink.
        In the light now, though unshaven and wearing old and patched clothes, his black hair in disarray, the man was Reall Demorat, until but recently a champion duellist of Endawn.
        Recognition did not flicker in Demorat’s eyes as Alomar held him by the shoulder and guided him back to his shadowy table. The warrior ordered another bottle of wine and settled down to talk.
        Strangely, after the first new goblet of wine, Demorat seemed to sober up, and recognition slowly dawned.
        After their first expressions of surprise and pleasure at this coincidental meeting, Alomar asked, “By what ill fortune have you come here, Demorat?”
        “Regloma!” Demorat seethed, gripping the wine bottle till his callused knuckles whitened. “I owe it all to that devil-spawn cheat!” And, shakily, he poured another goblet full to the brim.
        Demorat raged with an obsession that the present unbeaten champion duellist, Regloma Troglan, was a fraud, for he employed two henchmen to threaten any champion or contender listed to fight Regloma. The threat was basic enough: lose the fight if you wanted to see your family without disfigurement or death.
        Despite the amount of wine Demorat imbibed, Alomar tended to believe his friend; such chicanery was typical for the city of Endawn. “But you weren’t married – nor even involved with any–”
        “My body – they threatened to cremate me!”
        Of course, now Alomar remembered. Demorat belonged to a rare sect who staunchly believed that they must be interred after death; to be burned to ashes meant that the soul would dissipate and wander aimlessly for evermore. He had to admire Regloma’s men, they had chosen the only chink in Demorat’s personal armour. What was a duelling championship title compared with eternal oblivion?
        After a while it became evident that Demorat wished to leave, though now almost incoherent. Alomar gathered that the hostel where Demorat slept shut its doors shortly; and the streets of Endawn were not safe after mid-moon had passed.
        Alomar paid for the wine and, with his right arm round Demorat’s back supporting him, Demorat’s limp arm round the warrior’s neck, and taking the main weight on his right shoulder, Alomar guided his drunken companion out into the dark alleyway.
        Demorat vaguely indicated they should move to the right.
        They had not gone far when Alomar’s sixth sense detected movement in the shadows. He stopped, propped Demorat up against the rough-stone wall, and withdrew his sword as the four attackers stepped out of the darkness.
        Alomar was hard put to it to keep all four at bay, but presently one of his assailants erred in his judgement and the warrior’s sword ensured that no more errors of judgement would be committed by that man.
        Demorat seemed to realise his life was at risk, and, though drunk as he was, he reached for his sword: with his trusty blade in his grip, he tended to sober a little, and clashed swords with one of the remaining three.
        Alomar shattered the sword of another attacker and as its blade fell with a loud ring to the cobbles, the two other assailants faltered then backed off, and soon took to their heels.
        Aware of the silence at his side, Alomar turned: Demorat was crouched against the wall, his back to Alomar. The other assassin lay dead; but a knife protruded from Demorat’s side.
        To withdraw the blade now might mean a slow death, life-blood oozing away; Alomar gripped the handle and with a tremendous jerk he snapped it at the hilt, leaving only the blade slightly protruding. Gently lifting Demorat to his feet, Alomar adopted the same carrying method as he had earlier before the attack.
        When the two distinct thuds sounded Alomar pitched forward with Demorat, unmindful of the hard cobbles.
        There he lay, unmoving though his ears were attuned to any untoward sounds from the night.
        After some time had elapsed, he risked rising watchfully and slowly.
        Whilst he had been fortunate, his companion had fared badly: one arrow shaft had sunk in the nape of Demorat’s neck, the other in his arm roughly in the same position where it had been limply resting over Alomar’s neck.
        They had silenced Reall Demorat’s drunken accusations for ever.
     As he was in a strange city Alomar had no wish to answer questions. With regret he left the murdered champion to the street rats. He had a purpose to fulfil, however, and he would not rest until he had accomplished it or – pleasant thought! – he died in the attempt.
            The latest of a long round of duels had been publicised for the next day; Regloma Troglan was billed to fight a brash young contender for his title.
        As Alomar took his seat in the duelling room he wondered at the manner of leverage Regloma’s men had used on this contender.
        For the majority of the audience the fight was excellent – and there were plenty of thrills – especially when the lithe youngster from Lellul narrowly missed drawing the champion’s blood. But to the eye of Alomar there were a few flaws in the duel. The subtleties were missed when they should have been grasped; openings remained open, to be ignored or unseen.
        The warrior looked about him, studying the older, worldlier members of the audience. Strangely, there were few. It was as though the men who had once duelled stayed away by design, knowing too well the travesty of their art that would be performed this day.
        All who watched were the sensation-seeking public, ever-watchful for a killing, though by tradition the challenger had the choice of first-blood or death. This aspirant from Lellul had chosen first-blood – as had all Regloma’s protagonists.
        At the duel’s close, when the contender received a cut, lost his sword and somewhat grudgingly acknowledged defeat, Alomar tossed his poniard down into the arena.
        The dagger thudded into the wood boards and the cheering subsided. His intentions were explicit enough: he challenged Regloma to a duel.
        Because of the public challenge, Regloma had to accept. “Two days hence – and who, pray, shall I have the pleasure of depriving of pride?”
        Alomar tendered a false name, claiming he harked from Carlash which was so far to the ranmeron few if anyone present would know the peculiarities of a Carlash native. “First blood,” he declared.
        That night he expected an encounter with Regloma’s henchmen and he was therefore not surprised to come upon an altercation in an alleyway close to his lodgings.
        The spindly silhouette of a tall man towered over a cowering figure at the end of the alley adjoining the inn.
        Alomar ran up, shouted, “Stay, villain!” and his voice echoed in the narrow confines.
        At that instant, the spindly fellow pivoted round, snarled something unintelligible and slashed his sword side-ways, against a knotted rope that stretched upwards. A wet-wood cage crashed down, trapping Alomar before he could jump clear. He smiled grimly. They had snared him well.
        Now, each man lifted a long spear out of the heap of rubbish in the corner and advanced on him.
        He felt the wet-wood and appreciated their choice: it would not be cut by axe-stroke, let alone sword; and the combined weight of the cage was too great to lift. He was trapped like a wild mountain beast.
        “We want words with you, man of Carlash,” said the tall one. And he jabbed the spear through the bars: Alomar dodged only to be sharply pricked from behind by the other, smaller henchman.
        “Say your words, then,” growled Alomar.
        “Lose your duel with Regloma, friend. Or else we must perforce claim your life. If you lose, then regard the debt paid.”
        Yes, they had chosen well. Somehow, they had guessed aright; he would not welcome being killed as a caged animal. And, as was the custom, because he was at their mercy, his life was theirs – to claim at any time.
        Alomar nodded and they both relaxed. “You leave me no choice.”
        He grabbed the spindly man’s spearhead, ignoring the cut hand, and pulled the weapon towards him.
        So surprised was the fellow, he had no opportunity to let go. Alomar pulled the man’s head through the bars, jerked suddenly, and the crack of vertebrae sounded loud and awful in the night.
        While the other tried stabbing with his spear mainly out of rising fear, Alomar parried with his sword and relieved the corpse of the cage keys; they were soon covered with his hand’s blood, slippery and awkward to manipulate, but he finally unlocked the cage.
        As he stepped out, the other spearman turned and ran down the alleyway.
        Alomar picked up the fallen spear.
        His throw was deadly accurate.
The same motley band of spectators was assembled.
        Adjusting his bandaged hand, Alomar studied the steely eyes of the gaunt Regloma. He was a good swordsman and not to be underestimated.
        After the salute, they closed and the first clash of blades sent a roar of expectation from the crowd.
        Thrust and parry, attack and retreat, until sweat covered both men and the crowd as one sat on the edge of its seat. Word of the long duel had obviously passed out into the street, for many of the once-empty seats were filling.
        After a lengthy period of fierce swordplay, Alomar decided he had sufficiently worn down the wiry body of Regloma. At their next clamorous clinch, he snarled, “I killed your two henchmen, fraud!” And he whispered his real identity.
        His words had immediate impact. Regloma pushed free and shakily backed off, amidst cat-calls from the crowd. Those once-smug eyes briefly reflected fear: now, he must fight in earnest.
        Another clinch, and Alomar said, “I shall let you win this fight, Regloma – but any more you wish to win will be done so on your own merits... or I shall return...”
        Alomar had no wish to become a champion, fighting duel after duel, as if by rote. He had needed to be footloose and uncluttered. He let Regloma cut his hand and disarm him, though no one would have guessed.
        He kept a wary eye on the champion, however, ready to use his poniard should betrayal enter Regloma’s heart.
        But Regloma accepted his defeat in victory. He was acclaimed with tumultuous cheers, the most riotous praise for any victory he had ever “achieved”.
        Leaving the champion to his triumphant circuit of the arena, Alomar caught an empty look in the man’s eyes.
        A bitter pill to swallow, indeed, to taste the ecstatic jubilation of the crowd, knowing it would be for the first and last time. For once tasted, it would become a drug.
Cobrora Fhord shivered not only with the cold. “And –?”
        “And,” supplied Alomar, “Regloma lost his next duel and never again won, though he travelled to all the duelling houses in Floreskand. The audiences of Endawn’s duelling rooms once again comprised duelling men.”

* * *
WINGS OF THE OVERLORD by Morton Faulkner

Available from Amazon UK here

Available from Amazon COM here

Available post-free worldwide from the book depository here

So begins their great quest that tests the trio to the limit. Exciting obstacles include raging torrents, snakes, feuding warrior hordes, lethal fireballs, terrifying electric storms, treacherous mountains, avalanche, betrayal and torture. The travellers start out barely able to tolerate each other but, gradually, as their problems are overcome, they grow closer. The strength of comradeship is evoked and also selfless sacrifice. Their story is rich in history and threatening events that beset them on their quest.



FFB - Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines (2003) is the first in the Hungry City Chronicles, a series of four books by Philip Reeve. Aimed at teenagers, it’s a good read for adults too; an action-packed adventure which oozes originality. 

Over a thousand years in our future, when the earth has virtually been ruined following a very brief but devastating conflict, the Sixty Minute War, the seas are dry and many cities and towns have evolved into mobile fortresses. 

It’s a town eat town kind of world – all to do with Municipal Darwinism, where big powerful towns and cities attack weaker ones and utilise the building materials for fuel and ransack antiques and artwork for their museums and capture people for slaving in the engine-rooms.  And London is on the prowl, it seems, heading into the dangerous hunting grounds...

Apprentice Tom Natsworthy manages to thwart an attempt on his hero Valentine’s life but is repaid by betrayal and is cast out of the city, into the treacherous Out-country, with only the would-be assassin Hester Shaw for company.  A fragile friendship develops between them and they are picked up by a wandering town and imprisoned, to be sold as slaves... 

Their adventures are daunting and exciting, with plenty of chapter-end cliff-hangers. 

In opposition to the marauding towns and cities is the Anti-Traction League who have spies everywhere.  Then there are the air-pirates and their balloon craft.  To make matters worse, searching for Hester is the Resurrected Man, Shrike, mostly metal and virtually indestructible. 

The descriptions of the cities and towns, the forbidding environment and the marvellous individual characters make reading this book a joy.  There are heroes and villains and even the bit-players are sketched-in sympathetically. The grimness of the bowels of London city – with its turd tanks, the colours of the airbase Airhaven and the multi-national pirates, the magnificence of the scenery viewed from the air, all combine to present a visual feast just crying out for a movie.

Then there’s the pirate town of Tunbridge Wheels.  The Mayor of this town, Chrysler Peavey, is a fascinating character who only wants to better himself – and have an easy life at others’ expense, of course...

And hovering in the background is the mystery of MEDUSA and the dreadful power that London’s mad mayor is about to unleash...  The ending was satisfying and sad and made me want to buy the next adventure straight away!
The full series is:

Mortal Engines
Predator’s Gold
Infernal Devices
A Darkling Plain

Reeve was thirty-seven when this first book was published and he’d been writing since he was five. Never give up; keep writing!