I hope you will allow me a small self-indulgence this week.
Two years ago, I was privileged to see my debut novel shortlisted for one of the most prestigious adventure fiction awards open to unpublished authors. By some small miracle, my second novel was shortlisted for the same award this year.
The award in question is the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, hosted by the Wilbur & Niso Smith Foundation. Created by renowned author Wilbur Smith and his wife, Niso, the foundation seeks to encourage adventure writers around the world and helps to cultivate their talent. The Adventure Prize features three categories: best published author, best unpublished author, and author of tomorrow. Myself and five other authors were shortlisted for the middle category. Over the summer, we each worked with talented editor, David Llewellyn, to refine our manuscripts. We submitted our final drafts to the judging panel a couple of weeks ago, and are now eagerly awaiting the announcement at the awards ceremony in September (which will be online this year, by virtue of our friend, Mr Corona).
Working in this position as editor of ‘Showcase’ is a real privilege and exposes me to some phenomenal British and international writers. I admire everyone who submits for all the world to share in their creativity. It takes guts to put yourself out there. With that in mind, I’m going to do likewise, so here’s the opening scene of my shortlisted novel, The Lioness & The Flame.
To contrast the dramatic tone of my extract, and to further emphasise how ‘Showcase’ is a platform for creatives of all styles, I’m also thrilled to be sharing a comical submission by Greg Chown. Greg is a friend of mine who shares my taste for humour that teases and subverts expectations, often by employing a dark or bizarre twist. In this submission, he has taken a selection of popular nursery rhymes and reimagined them for our amusement. Greg has made the most of the current global crisis to explore and develop his creative side. I cannot wait to read more of his work in the near future!
Keep on writing!
Dan (Associate Editor)
The Lioness & The Flame by Dan Cross (novel extract)
Sheets of rain rolled over the castle ramparts at regular intervals, smacking Joanna’s face, pinging off her steel plate armour, and pooling at her feet. Each icy surge struck her raw cheeks with the full force of the wind that carried it, the invisible torturer snapping the whip no less vigorously than he had been at the beginning of the evening’s storm. Joanna wriggled her button nose, moved her mouth and jaw, and scrunched her small eyes every few moments to fight the numbness penetrating her muscles and dulling her senses. But still, the scattered, warm glows in the fields below the battlements were beginning to streak and blend into one another, her consciousness ebbing and flowing with the stride of the tempest.
A voice from behind shocked her back inside her body ‘Madame de Montfort?’
Joanna opened and clenched her gloved hands a few times until she felt in control of her fingers again. She wiped droplets from her bushy eyebrows and blinked until the dull smudges started to reform in her vision as the sweeping plain of tents below.
‘Is that you, Governor?’ She turned her chin into her shoulder, so that the man behind her might hear her better over the whistling wind. ‘Look at that accursed field down there. Is it not enough that the enemy must kill our soldiers in the skirmishes in the mornings and mock us with their drunken songs in the evening? I must watch them slumber, as well. How much longer will this damned siege last?’
Joanna raised her arms slowly, crossed them, and clutched each elbow with the opposing hand. She imagined her husband, John de Montford, was behind her, not the Governor, reaching around to keep her warm. He was the lord of Castle Hennebont, after all, and the people inside should be depending on him for their safety, not her.
But John was three hundred miles away, locked up in Paris for claiming the title of Duke of Brittany, as was his right. She pondered how a friend, a coward, had turned traitor and allowed John’s rival, Charles de Blois, to capture her husband. And while John rotted away in the fearsome Louvre Fortress, Charles had marched his army across Brittany, forcing nobles to recognise him as the new duke, arresting those who remained loyal to her husband, and at last arrived at Hennebont. But capturing the castle was only his secondary objective, she was certain. His main goal was to eliminate Joanna and her infant son, putting an end to her husband’s claim, once and for all.
There was another deep grumble from the tower behind her. Joanna turned until she could see Governor Geoffrey in the light of the torch. He hugged his torso under the arch of the doorway.
‘I’m afraid I cannot hear you from there, Governor,’ Joanna cried over the howling storm. ‘Come, join me out here.’
‘I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you. I’ll get soaked, and I don’t fancy catching a bolt through the neck either. The camp may appear still, but you never know if some young mercenary is waiting to try his luck.’
‘You’re already soaked. And crossbow strings are as flaccid in a storm as men’s cocks after a half a gallon of beer. It’s quite safe.’
Joanna turned back to look down on Charles’ army. Enough moonlight shone through the grey plumes overhead to illuminate small patches of the sprawling encampment, where tents had been pitched from treeline to treeline, and as far back as she could see.
‘Anyway, don’t worry about the morning, Governor. We have our walls and hearth to keep away this harsh chill. Those fools down there have nothing but their leaky tents. I wager they’ll lose many to winter fever if this weather keeps up.’
‘At least they can console themselves with a savoury meal,’ said Geoffrey, stepping out from under his shelter. Joanna’s belly groaned at the thought. ‘It was bad enough when we had to kill the cats and dogs.’
‘They were beloved pets, once,’ said Joanna.
‘Well, I hope they gave their former masters some joy in life. They have done nothing for me in death, but leave me with excruciating innards and a flea-infested beard.’ He scratched his chin to emphasise his point.
Joanna was short beside the Governor, and wearing her husband’s armour only accentuated this. Her already broad upper body appeared as wide as it was tall, while Governor Geoffrey was lanky and wiry.
‘Don’t torture yourself with dreams of a roasted mouse, Governor. My maids have already scoured the castle. Even the rats have fled.’
Geoffrey shook his head. ‘Please, don’t call me that, Madame de Montfort, not anymore. It is bad enough that my men and I fled Castle Vannes without putting up a fight. But it was by retreating here that Charles and his army found you and your son. It is my fault you have had to suffer this accursed siege.’
‘Stop questioning yourself, Governor. Charles would have found us sooner or later, especially after I named my son as heir to the duchy. It was this act that directed Charles here, not your escape.’
‘Well, I should have at least diverted my route and recruited more soldiers, Madame. Charles and his army have killed most of our men already. We are defenceless. He knows we can’t fight back, anymore. He has only to be patient and wait for us to succumb to sickness or hunger, now.’
Joanna made the sign of the cross over her head and breastplate. ‘Some would call him patient, Monsieur. I would call him cruel. Charles may be considered a genius strategist and a God-fearing man by his peers, but all I have seen is an obsessive and sadistic devil. But, fortunately, we are not as defenceless as you claim, Governor.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Governor Geoffrey, ‘your secret stowaway, Amaury de Clisson. He did well to leave the castle and get through the siege undetected. But I fear you place too much hope in him. Brittany is crawling with Charles’ supporters, and Amaury had to cross the region, buy passage to England, and survive the crossing, all while remaining undetected.’
‘You do not think him capable?’
‘Amaury is stubborn, and as faithful to your husband as Argos was to Odysseus. He will do whatever it takes to secure reinforcements for us. But, even if he made it across the Channel unscathed, why would the English King risk another war with France by sending us aid?’
‘Amaury will return, Governor. And at the head of a small army.’
Joanna held up her hand. ‘But I grant you, our time has run out. We are out of food, our soldiers are dying, and our defences as thin as tired linen. The longer we remain behind these walls, the more the citizens of Brittany resign themselves to Charles’ claim to the duchy. We must show our strength. We need to take the fight to the enemy before this infernal siege swallows us whole.’
‘Your confidence is inspiring, Madame. It reminds me of your husband. But few can match Charles de Blois on the field. Without more men, we have no hope of overcoming him and defending this city, let alone the duchy.’
‘Oh, Monsieur,’ said Joanna, ‘we have something far better than men.’
‘Excuse me?’ said Geoffrey.
But Joanna had already moved inside the tower, descending the spiral steps as quickly as she could. As she neared the bottom, the echo of the Governor’s boots scuffing against the stone joined the sound of her own, albeit far more slowly on account of his ageing legs.
She emerged into the waterlogged bailey and marched towards the shadowy figures running back and forth between the keep and the portcullis. The horses kicked and bucked at the thunder rolling overhead. The closest figure spotted Joanna, and shouted something to the others. As the message passed from one gloomy shape to the next, a group started to gather in front of her.
‘My fellow Bretons,’ cried Joanna, ‘these walls are all that hold back an army bent on stripping my husband of his claim. His right, by King Philip of France’s own law, to be your next duke of Brittany. These gates are all that separate you from your loved ones, who have sacrificed their lives to protect you, and who now lie face down in the dirt.’
Another crash of thunder shook the castle walls, and a flash of lightning poured a colourless light over the faces of the women who had gathered at the centre of the bailey. Raising her chin, Joanna examined the faces of the chambermaids, laundresses, cleaners, and kitchen staff, unflinching in the deluge which showered the pebbled ground. Mothers cradled their young children, sheltering them from the rain. Wives scowled at the mention of their butchered husbands.
‘This siege has made sick and dead our children and parents. It has murdered the fighting men of Hennebont. And now, with the last of our food spent, it starves us.’
She held out her hand towards a young boy by the tower. The Governor had arrived at the doorway, and stared open-mouthed at the regiment of women armed with short swords, kitchen knives, cloth sheers, and hammers. The boy started staggering towards Joanna, dragging a heavy pole behind him, at least three hands taller than any man she knew. When he was beside her, the boy struggled to raise the long, curving blade above his head, trying to look as ceremonious as he could, as he attempted to steady himself on the wet stones under his boots.
Joanna reached for the polearm and moved the huge weapon to her side, raising the sharp, silver steel high into the sky.
‘Beyond these gates, beyond this contemptible siege, the English sail to relieve us. Our men laid down their lives to protect us from scoundrels, and this gate has held strong to keep us safe in our beds, secure until help arrived.’
The shadows cheered. It wasn’t a shout Joanna recognised among women, but a restless ovation, full of excitement, anger and hatred. It was the cry for battle. The cry for blood.
‘But we cannot wait any longer. Our brave warriors died defending you, defending me, and defending my young son. And now there is no-one left to defend us, but ourselves. So, let us cut off these skirts and take our fate into our own hands. Let us show those cowards at our door what it means to corner Breton women. Let us reveal the courage and strength we guard beneath our dresses and mantles. Let us take up these swords and cast furious flames of vengeance upon our evil foes!’
(C) Dan Cross, 2020
Dan is a twice-shortlisted author with aspirations to publish via a traditional publisher. You can follow him on his Twitter account: @dancrossauthor, and read more about him and his books on his website. Dan is a professional editor and is accepting manuscripts from authors of adventure, high-concept fiction.
You can read more about the 2020 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize (Best Unpublished Manuscript) and the six finalists here.
Nursery Rhymes (Variation on a theme) by Greg Chown
Hey Diddle Diddle
Hey Diddle Diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed,
To see such fun,
And these pills have definitely got a bit of acid in them.
Mary Had A Little Lamb
Mary had a little lamb,
And it made a bloody good kebab.
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man.
Bake me a cake as fast as you can
Pat it, and prick it, and mark it with “B”
And put it in-
There’s a queue.
I said “There’s a queue. You’ll need to take a ticket like everyone else.”
Polly Put The Kettle On
Polly put the kettle on,
Polly put the kettle on,
Polly put the kettle on,
DO IT YOUR BLOODY SELF!!!!!!
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the wo-
That’s not a star!
It’s not a star; it’s moving… towards us… IT’S MOVING TOWARDS US!!!
RUN!!! IT’S A METEOR!!! FOR GOD’S SAKE, RUUUUNNN!!!!
Roses Are Red
Roses are black,
Violets are black,
Can someone turn the lights on? It’s making this a lot harder than it needs to be.
(C) Greg Chown, 2020
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! Showcase, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read more fiction, poetry, interviews and author advice in the latest issue of Write On! Available here
So, let us cut off these skirts and take our fate into our own hands. Let us show those cowards at our door what it means to corner Breton women.