Saturday, October 31, 2009

FREE FICTION: Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic, Day Four

The fourth day of the preview of Andy Remic’s Kell’s Legend. Helpful pages: Angry Robot Books, Review of Kell’s Legend, Interview with Andy Remic, Part One, Part Two, Part Three.



Kell’s hushed whisper, despite its low tone, carried with surprising clarity. Nienna and Kat froze instantly in place. Both young women were walking a high-rope, skating thin ice, breathing the tension of the besieged and sundered city. Again and again they passed corpses, shrivelled husks, sometimes piles of men, women, heaps of disjointed child corpses, huddled together as if for warmth; in reality, all they craved was a chance at life.

Kell lowered his hand, half-turned, gestured for the girls to join him. They scampered down the cobbled road, gloved hands holding cloth over the freezing skin of their faces, swords sheathed at waists more as tokens than real weapons. Both girls understood that in real world combat, their lives hung by a thread. And the thread was named Kell.

‘See,’ he hissed, gesturing towards the Selenau River, flowing like ink beneath swirling tendrils of ice-smoke. ‘The enemy have a foothold here; now it’ll be damn impossible to steal a boat.’

Nienna watched the albino soldiers, streams of them in their hundreds, marching down the waterfront. Many dragged prisoners, some kicking and screaming. These, they locked in huge iron cages which had been erected beside the sluggish wide river. Many dragged corpses, and these they piled in heaps as if… Nienna frowned. As if they were waiting for something?

Nienna’s eyes searched as far as the false horizon. Sometimes, ice-smoke parted and she got a good glimpse down a length of the river. Huge black and red brick factories lined the water; they were mainly dye-works, slaughter houses and tanneries. The sort of place which Nienna had been destined to work before her ‘nameless benefactor’ stepped in with university fees. Huge iron cranes stretched across the river for loading and unloading cargo. Wide pipes disgorged chemical effluence, dyes and slaughterhouse blood and offal into the river. Even in winter, the place stunk to high heaven; in summer, vomit lined the waterfront from unwary travellers.

Kat edged forward, and crouched beside Kell. She met the old warrior’s gaze and he had to admire her edge. ‘What about another way out of the city? There’s too many of the bastards here.’ She spat on the ground.

‘They will have the gates covered. This whole situation stinks, Kat. I’ve seen this sort of… slaughter, before. The Army of Iron don’t want anybody getting out; they don’t want anybody to spoil their master plan. If somebody was to get word to King Leanoric, for example…’

‘That is our mission!’ said Katrina.

‘No girl. Our mission is to stay alive. Anything else – that comes later.’

In truth, Kell still felt deeply uneasy. What sort of conquering army simply committed murder and atrocity? It didn’t make sense. Slaughter all the bakers, who would bake bread for the soldiers? Murder the whores and dancers, who then to provide entertainment? Soldiers marched on their stomachs, and fought best when happy. Only an insane general went on a pointless rampage. Kell had seen it once before, during the Days of Blood. Bad days. Bad months. Kell’s mouth was dry at the thought. Bitter, like the plague.

The Days of Blood

A dark whisper. In his soul.

A splinter. Of hatred. Of remorse.

You took part, Kell. You killed them all, Kell.

Visions echoed. Slashes of flashback. Crimson and shimmering. Diagonal slices, echoes of a time of horror. Screams. Writhing. Slaughter. Whimpering. Steel sawing methodically through flesh and bone. Worms eating skin. Eating eyes. Blood running in streams down stone gutters. Running in rivers. And soldiers, faces twisted with bloodlust, insanity, naked and smeared with blood, with piss and shit, with vomit, capering down streets with swords and knives, adorning their bodies with trophies from victims… hands, eyes, ears, genitalia…

Kell swooned, felt sick. He forced away the terrible visions and rubbed a gloved hand through his thick beard. ‘Damn you all to hell,’ he muttered, a terrible heaviness sinking through him, from brain to stomach, a heavy metal weight dragging his soul down to his boots and leaking out with the piss and the blood.

‘You look ill.’ Kat placed a hand on his broad, bear-clad shoulder.

‘No, girl, I am fine,’ he breathed, shuddering. And added, under his breath, ‘on the day that I die.’ Then louder, ‘Come. I can see a tunnel under the tannery.’

‘That’s an evil place,’ said Kat, pulling back. ‘My little brother used to collect the piss-pots used in the tannery; he caught a terrible disease from there; he died. I swore I would never go inside such a place.’

‘It’s that, or die yourself,’ said Kell, not unkindly.

Kat nodded, and followed Kell and Nienna down the street, all three crouching low, moving slowly, weapons at the ready and eyes alert. As they approached the tunnel, an incredible stench eased out to meet them: a mixture of gore and fat, dog-shit, piss, and the slop-solution of animal brains used in the bating process. Kell forced his way inside, treading through a thick sludge and coming up grooved and worn brick steps into a room hung with hides still to be stripped of hair, gore and fat. They swung, eerily, on blood-dried hooks. There were perhaps a hundred skins waiting for the treatment that would eventually lead to water-skins, armour, scabbards and boots. Kell stepped over channels running thick with disgorged brains.

‘What is that?’ gagged Nienna.

‘When the skins arrive, they need to be scraped free of dried fat and flesh. The tanners then soak skins in vats mixed with animal brains, and knead it with dog-shit to make it soft.’ He grinned at Nienna, face demonic in the gloomy light where shadows from gently swinging skins cast eerie shapes over his bearded features. ‘Now you can see why you were so lucky to be accepted into the university, girl. This is not a place for children.’

‘Yet a place where children work,’ said Kat, voice icy.

‘As you say.’

They moved warily between swinging skins, the two women flinching at the brush of hairy hides still strung with black flesh and long flaps of thick yellow fat. At one point Kat slipped, and Nienna grabbed her, hoisting her away from a channel filled with oozing mashed animal brains and coagulated blood.

‘This is purgatory,’ said Nienna, voice soft.

Kat turned away, and was sick.

As Kell emerged from the wall of hung skins, so he froze, eyes narrowing, head turning left and right. Before him stood perhaps twenty large vats, four with fires still burning beneath their copper bases. This was where excess flesh and hide strips were left to rot for months on end in water, before being boiled to make hide glue. If nothing else, this place stunk the worst of all and Kell was glad of the cloth he held over his mouth.

Then Kell turned, frowning, and strode towards a vat containing the foul-smelling broth and hoisted his axe. ‘Are you coming out, or do I come in axe-first?’

‘Whoa, hold yourself there, old fellow,’ came an educated voice, and from the shadows slipped a tall, athletic man. Nienna watched him, and found herself immediately attracted; something the dandy was no-doubt used to. His face was very finely chiselled, his hair black, curled, oiled back, neat above a trimmed moustache and long sideburns that were currently the height of fashion amongst nobles. He wore a rich blue shirt, dark trews, high cavalry boots and a short, expensive, fur-lined leather cloak. He had expensive rings on his fingers, a clash of diamonds and rubies. His eyes were a dazzling blue, even in this gloomy, murky, hellish place. He had what Nienna liked to call a smiling face.

Kat snorted. Nienna was about to laugh as well, so ridiculous did the nobleman look in this evil-smelling tannery from hell; until she saw his sword. This, too, had a faint air of the ridiculous, until she married it to his posture. Only then did she consider the broad shoulders, the narrow hips, the subtle stance of an experienced warrior. Nienna chided herself. This man, she realised, had been underestimated many times.

‘Why are you skulking back there, fool?’

‘Skulking? Skulking? Old horse, my name is Saark, and Saark does not skulk. And as for fool, I take such a jibe as I presume you intend; in utter good humour and jest at such a sorry situation and predicament in which we find ourselves cursed.’

‘Pretty words,’ snorted Kell, turning back to Nienna and Kat. He turned back, and realised Saark was close. Too close. The rapier touched Kell’s throat and there was a long, frozen moment of tension.

‘Pretty enough to get me inside your guard,’ said Saark, voice soft, containing a hint of menace.

‘I think we fight the same enemy,’ said Kell, eyes locked to Saark.

‘Me also!’ Saark stepped back and sheathed his blade. He held out his hand. ‘I am Saark.’

‘You already said.’

‘I believe it’s such a fine name, it deserves saying twice.’

Kell grunted. ‘I am Kell. This is Nienna, my granddaughter, and her friend Kat. We were thinking of stealing a boat. Getting the hell away from this invaded charnel house of a city.’

Saark nodded, moving close to Nienna and Kat. ‘Well, hello there, ladies.’ Both young women blushed, and Saark laughed, a tinkling of music, his eyes roving up and down their young frames.

‘Saark!’ snapped Kell. ‘There are more important things at play, here. Like the impending threat on our lives, for one.’

Saark made a tutting sound in the back of his throat, and surveyed his surroundings. And yet, despite his smile, his fine clothes, his finer words, Nienna could see the tension in this man; like an actor on the stage, playing a part he’d rehearsed a thousand times before, Saark was enjoying his performance. But he was hampered, by an emotion which chipped away at the edges of his mask.


It lurked in his eyes, in his stance, in a delicate trembling of his hand. Nienna noticed. She enjoyed people-watching. She was good at it.

Saark took a deep breath. ‘How did you know I was here?’

‘I could smell you.’

Smell me?’ Saark grinned then, shaking his head. His face was pained. ‘I cannot believe you could smell me amidst this stench. I like to think I have better grooming habits.’

Kell had moved to a window, was standing back from the wooden shutters and watching soldiers down by the river. He turned and eyed Saark warily. ‘It was your perfume.’

‘Aaah! Eau du Petale. The very finest, the most excitingly exquisite…’

‘Save it. We’re moving. We can escape via the pipe which dumps tannin and slop out into the river. If we head down into the cellars, I’m sure…’

‘Wait.’ Saark brushed past Kell and stood, one manicured hand on the shutters, the other on the hilt of his rapier. Suddenly, Saark’s foppish appearance didn’t seem quite so ridiculous.

‘What is it?’

‘The carriage. I know it.’

Kell gazed out. A carriage had drawn alongside a cage full of weeping prisoners; all women. The carriage was black, glossy, and had an intricate crest painted on the door. The horses stomped and chewed at their bits, disturbed either by the stench of the tanneries or the moans of the women. The driver fought to keep the four beasts under control and their hooves clattered on ice-rimed cobbles.

‘Well, I know him,’ snarled Kell, as General Graal stalked towards the carriage and folded his arms. His armour gleamed. He ran a hand through his long white hair, an animal preening. ‘He’s the bastard in charge of this army. He called it the Army of Iron.’

‘You know him?’ Saark met Kell’s gaze.

‘The bastard sent a couple of his soldiers to kill me and the girls.’

‘He was far from successful, I see.’

‘I don’t die easy,’ said Kell.

‘I’m sure you don’t, old horse.’ Saark smiled, and turned back to the distant performance. The carriage door was opened by a lackey, and a man stepped down. He was dressed in furs, and held a cloth over his face against the chill of ice-smoke, which was dissipating even as they watched – its job now done. The man had shoulder length black hair, which gleamed.

‘Who is he?’ said Kell.

‘That,’ said Saark, staring hard at Kell, ‘is Dagon Trelltongue.’

‘The King’s advisor?’

Saark nodded. ‘King Leanoric’s most trusted man. He is, shall we say, the King’s regent when the King is away on business.’

‘What about Alloria?’

‘The Queen?’ Saark smiled. ‘I see, Kell, you have little schooling in nobility, or in royalty. It would be unseemly for a woman to rule in the King’s absence; you would have her meeting with common-folk? Doing business with captains and generals? I think not.’

‘Why,’ said Kell, ruffled, ‘would Trelltongue be here? Now?’

Saark transferred his gaze back to the two men beside the carriage. ‘A good question, my new and aged and ragged friend. However, much as I would love to make his acquaintance at this moment in time, I fear your escape plan to be sound – and immediately necessary. Would you like to lead the way, Kell, to this pipe of disgorging effluence?’

Kell hoisted his axe, looked at Nienna and Kat, then tensed, crouching a little, at what appeared behind the two women.

‘What is it?’ hissed Nienna, and turned…

From the hanging wall of skins, moving leisurely, gracefully, came a Harvester. Its flat oval face seemed emotionless, but the small black eyes, coals in a snowman’s face, searched across the room. Vertical slits hissed with air, and the creature seemed to be… sniffing. The Harvester gave a grimace that may have been a smile.

‘I followed you. Across the city.’ The voice was a dawdling, lazy roll, like big ocean waves on a fused beach.

Saark drew his rapier, and gestured to the two women to move. He took a deep breath, and watched as the Harvester lifted a hand. The embroidered robe fell away leaving five long, pointed fingers of bone…

‘I thought I explained, sweetie. You’re just not my type.’ But terror lay beyond Saark’s words, and as he and Kell separated, Kell loosening his shoulders, axe swinging gently, Saark muttered from the corner of his mouth, ‘Watch the fingers. That’s how they suck the life from your body.’

Kell nodded, as the blast of terror hit him. He stood, stunned by the ferocity of fear which wormed through his mind. He saw himself, lying in a hole in the ground, worms eating his eyes, his skin, his lungs, his heart.

Come to me, came the words in his head. A song. A lullaby. A call stronger than life itself.

Come to me, little one.

I will make the pain go away.

The Harvester drifted forward, and with a scream Saark attacked, rapier moving with incredible speed; a lazy backward gesture slapped Saark a full twenty feet across the tannery, where he landed, rolling fast, to slam against a vat with a groan.

Five bone fingers lifted.

Moved, towards Kell’s heart.

And with tears on his cheeks, the old soldier seemed to welcome them…


A Taste of Clockwork.

Anukis awoke feeling drowsy; but then, the ever-present tiredness, like a lead-weight in her heart, in her soul, was something she had grown to endure over the years, something which she knew would never leave her because… because of what she was. She stretched languorously under thick goose-down covers, her long, curled, yellow hair cascading across plump pillows, her slender white limbs reaching out as if calling silently across the centuries for forgiveness.

Anukis glanced at the clock on the far wall. It was long, smooth, black like granite. Through a glass pane she could see tiny intricate cogs and wheels, spinning, turning, teeth mating neatly as micro-gears clicked into place. A pendulum swung, and a soft tick tick tick echoed through the room. Anukis’s eyes stared at the clock, loving it and hating it at the same time. She loved it because her father, Kradek-ka, had made the clock; and just like his father before him, he had been one of the finest Watchmakers in Silva Valley, his hands steady, precise, incredibly accurate with machining and assembly; his eye had been keen, not just with the precision of his trade, but with the delicate understanding of materials and what was perfect for any machine job. But it had been his mind that set him apart, indeed, highlighted him as a genius. Anu’s grandfather had accelerated and pioneered the art of watch-making, turning what had once been a relatively simple art of mechanical time-keeping into something more… advanced. This way, Kradek-ka had upheld the family traditions, and helped to save, to prolong, and to advance their race. The vachine.

Anukis rubbed at her eyes, then stood, gasping a little at the cool air in the room. Naked, goose-bumps ran up and down her arms and she hurried into a thick silk gown which fell to her ankles. She moved to a porcelain bowl and washed, her long, dainty fingers, easing water into her eyes, then carefully, into her mouth. She rubbed at her teeth, cold water stinging, then moved to the window of her high tower, gazing out over Silva Valley, eyes scanning the high mountain ridges which enclosed the huge tiered city like predator wings around a victim.

Anukis smiled. A victim. How apt.

Maybe they’ll come for me today, she thought. Maybe not.

A prisoner of the High Engineer Episcopate since her father had died (had been murdered, she thought hollowly), she was not allowed out from a small collection of rooms in this high tower suite. However, what the high-ranking religious Engineers and Major Cardinals did not realise, was that Anukis was not a pure oil-blood like the majority of the city population lying under a fresh fall of snow below, pretty and crystalline, a pastel portrait from her high window.

The smile faded from Anukis’s face.

No. She was far from pure. She carried the impurity seed within her. Which meant she could not drink blood-oil. Could not mate with the magick. Could not… feed, as a normal vachine would feed.

Anu could never enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

There came a knock at the door, and a maid entered carrying a small silver bowl which she placed by Anukis’s bed. With head bent low, she retreated, closing the door on silent hinges, hinges Anukis herself had oiled for the purpose of freedom. Anu moved to the bowl, glanced down at the tiny, coin-sized pool of blood-oil that floated there, crimson, and yet at the same time streaked with rainbow oils. This was the food of the vachine. Their fuel. That which made them unholy.

Anukis could not drink blood-oil. In its refined state, such as this, it poisoned her, and made her violently sick. She would be ill for weeks. To the Watchmakers, the Major Bishops, the Engineers, this was heresy, a mockery of their machine religion; punishable by exile, or more probably, death. Anu’s father had gone to great pains to protect his daughter for long years, hiding her away, dealing with the amoral Blacklippers of the south and their illegal import of Karakan Red, as it was known. Only this unrefined, common source – fresh from the vein – would, or could, sustain Anukis. And, she was sure, it was this subterfuge which had led to her father’s untimely death…

A face flashed in her mind. Vashell! Tall, athletic, powerful, tiny brass fangs poking over his lower lip. He was prodigal, a powerhouse of physical perfection and one of the youngest ever Engineer Priests to have achieved such a rank. Destined for greatness. Destined for leadership! One day, he would achieve the exalted rank of Major Cardinal; maybe even Watchmaker itself!

He had asked Anukis to marry him on two occasions, and both times her father had rejected Vashell’s advances, fearing that for Anukis to marry was for Anukis to die. But she saw the way Vashell looked at her. When he smiled, she glimpsed the tiny cogs and wheels inside his head, saw the glint of molten gold swirling in his eyes. He was true and pure vachine; a wholesome, blood-oil servant to the Vachine Religion. Vashell, a spoilt prince, an upstart royal, had got everything he ever wanted. And, she knew with a shudder, he would never stop until he possessed Anukis.

And… when that happens? She smiled sadly to herself.

Well, she would have to kill him. Or failing that, kill herself.

Far better death than what the Engineers would do to her if they discovered her tainted flesh…

Anukis opened the window and a cold wind gusted in, chilling her with a gasp and a smile. Far below, the sweeping granite roads shone under fresh snow, most of which had been swept into piles along the edges of the neat, gleaming thoroughfares. Buildings staggered away, maybe six or seven storeys in height, and all built from smooth white marble mined from the Black Pike Mountains. The architecture was stunning to behold, every joint precise. Arches and flutes, carvings and ornate buttresses, many inlaid with precious stones to decorate even the most bare of Silva Valley’s buildings – gifts from the all-giving Pikes. And the city itself was huge; it drifted away down the valley, mountains rearing like guardians to either side, for as far as Anukis could see. And her eyesight was brilliant. Her father had made sure of that.

The scent of snow came in to her, and she inhaled, savouring the cold. The vachine had a love affair with cold, but Anukis, being impure, and contaminated, preferred a little warmth. This, again, was a secret she had to jealously guard. If the Engineers discovered what she was… and the things she did when darkness fell…

Despite its well-oiled silence, Anukis caught the sound of the door opening. She also sensed the change in pressure within the room. Her eyes shone silver with tears and still gazing out over her beloved city, the one which her grandfather, and father, had given so much to advance, she said without turning, her voice a monotone, ‘What can I do for you, Vashell?’

‘Anukis, I would speak with you.’ His voice was soft, simple, almost submissive in its tone. But Anukis was not fooled; she had heard him chastise servants on many occasions, watched in horror as he beat them to death, or kicked them till they bled from savage wounds. He could change at the flick of a brass switch. He could turn to murder like a metal hawk drops on its prey…

‘I am still in mourning. There is little to say.’

‘Look at me, Anu. Please?’

Anukis turned, and wiped away a tear which had run down one cheek. With the tiniest of clicking sounds, she forced a smile to her face. Ultimately, her father would want her to live. Not sacrifice herself needlessly for the sake of sadness, or misery, or impurity. She took a deep breath. ‘I’m looking, Vashell. You have picked a bad time to intrude on my thoughts. And I am barely dressed. This is an unfortunate time to receive company. But then, if the High Engineer Episcopate keeps me a prisoner, I suppose my body is theirs to do with as they please…’

‘Hush!’ Vashell stepped forward, but stopped as Anukis shrank back, cowering almost, on the window-seat. ‘If anybody hears you speak so, your life will be forfeit! They will drain your blood-oil. You will be husked!’ For a vachine, there was no greater shame.

‘Why would you care?’ Her voice turned harsh, all the bitterness at her father’s death, all the poison at being kept prisoner rising to bubble like venom on her tongue. ‘You are a party to all this, Vashell! You said, twice, that you loved me. And twice you asked my father for the gift of marriage. Yet you stand by the Engineers whilst they keep me locked here,’ and now her eyes darkened, the gold swirling in their pupils turning almost crimson in her flush of anger, ‘and you collude in the capture of my sister.’

Vashell swallowed, and despite his mighty physical prowess, he edged uneasily from one polished boot to the next. ‘Shabis is fine, Anu. You know that. The Engineers are taking care of her. She is well.’

‘She is a young girl, Vashell, whose father has just died and whose sister has been imprisoned. When can I see her?’

‘It will be arranged.’

Anukis jumped down from the window-seat and strode to Vashell, gazing up at him. He was more than a head taller than the slender female, and she herself was nearly six feet in height. ‘You said that a week ago,’ she snarled, staring up into his eyes. Vashell squirmed.

‘It is not easy to arrange.’

‘You are an Engineer Priest! You can do anything!’

‘Not this.’ His voice dropped an octave. ‘You have no idea what you ask. So many in the High Council outrank me.’ He took a deep breath. ‘But… I will see what I can do. I promise.’

‘On your blood-oil soul?’

‘Yes, on my eternal soul.’

Anukis turned her back on him, moved to the window. She gazed across the city, but the beauty was now lost on her; decayed. A sudden wave of hate slammed through her, like a tsunami of ice against a frozen, volcanic beach. She would see it destroyed! She would see the Silva Valley decimated, and laid to a terrible waste…

‘You came here to ask me, didn’t you?’

‘I can help you, Anu.’

‘By marrying me?’

‘Yes! If you become the wife of an Engineer Priest, you will be sacrosanct. The Engineers cannot keep you prisoner! It would go against the Oak Testament. You know that.’

‘And yet, still I choose to say no.’

Anukis felt Vashell stiffen, without turning to look. She allowed herself a small smile. This was one thing she could deny him. But when he spoke again, the smile slowly drained from her face like bronze from a melting pot.

‘Listen carefully, pretty one, when I say this. For I will speak only once. Your father was found guilty of heresy by the Patriarch; I do not know what happened to him, but we both know, without seeing the corpse, that he is dead. The Engineers wanted you and your sister dead, also; I am all that stands between the two of you, and the Eternal Pyre. So, think very carefully before offering a facetious answer… because, if I choose to withdraw favour, the last of your worries will be your separation from your sister.’

Vashell swept from the apartment, door slamming in his wake so hard it rattled the oak frame. Dust trickled from between well-machined stones. Echoes bounced down the stairwell.

Shivering, Anukis turned and stared at the elegantly carved portal, then back out over the city. She shivered again, and this time it was nothing to do with the cold. Above her, her father’s clock ticked, every second reminding her of a melting life.

Anukis licked ice-cold lips.

She thought about blood.

And that which was denied her.

Tonight. Tonight, she would visit the Blacklippers.

Friday, October 30, 2009

FREE FICTION: Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic, Day Three

The third day of the preview of Andy Remic’s Kell’s Legend. Helpful pages: Angry Robot Books, Review of Kell's Legend, Interview with Andy Remic, Part One, Part Two.



A Dark Shroud Falls.

Kell reached Jalder University’s huge iron gates and stopped, panting, wiping sweat from his eyes. He listened, eyes darting left and right. Screams echoed, distant, muffled by ice-smoke. And more, off to the right, down the hill from where he’d emerged. Kell’s teeth clamped tight, muscles standing out along the ridge of his jaw-line; the bastards were murdering everybody! And for what? What petty purpose of slaughter? Invasion? Wealth? Greed? Power? Kell spat, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

I thought I’d left the Days of Blood behind?

I thought my soldiering was done. He smiled, a grim bloodless smile with coffee-stained teeth. Well, laddie, it seems somebody has a different plan for you!

Hoisting his matt-black axe, Kell glanced momentarily at the twin butterfly-shaped blades, like curved wings. It would have been a very dark butterfly: poisonous, deadly, utterly without mercy. This was Kell’s bloodbond. The Ilanna. Sister of the Soul, a connection wrenched from him by ancient rites and dark blood-oil magick, flowing with his lifeblood, his very essence. Ilanna had many tales to tell. But then, the horror stories of the axe were for another day.

Kell moved warily up a well-kept path. He could barely see past low bushes and winter flowers which lined the walkway beyond neatly trimmed grass. He stopped, as something loomed from the mist: it was a circle of corpses, young women, each a shrivelled dry husk with faces stretched like horror masks, skin brittle like glass. Kell’s heart-rate increased and his grip tightened.

If they’ve hurt Nienna, he thought.

If they’ve hurt Nienna…

He reached the entrance, past more corpses from which he averted his eyes. Up stone steps, he rattled the large oak doors. Locked. Kell’s gaze swept the mist, his senses singing to him; they were out there, the soldiers, he could feel them, sense them, smell them. But… Kell frowned. There was something else. Something ancient, stalking the mist.

Shivering with premonition, Kell moved warily around the edges of the building. He found a low window, and using his axe-blade, prised the jamb and struggled inside. It was cool and dark. Ice-smoke swirled around the floor. No candles were lit, and Kell’s boots padded across thick rich carpets, past fine displays of silverware and ceiling-high shelving containing an orgy of books. Kell seemed to be in some kind of office, and he reached the door – with its ornate arched frame – and eased out into a carpeted corridor lined with small statues. He listened. Nothing… then a scream, so loud and close-by it rammed Kell’s heart into his mouth. He whirled, around the nearest corner, to see a young woman on her knees, hands above her face, palms out, skin blue with cold. An albino soldier stood over her, a short knife in his hand. He turned as Kell’s eyes fell on him… despite Kell making no sound.

The albino smiled.

Kell launched his axe, which sang across the short expanse and thudded through armour and breast-bone, punching the soldier from his feet to sit, stunned, a huge butterfly cleaving his heart. His mouth opened, and milk-blood ran over pale lips and down his chin. Kell strode forward and crouched before the albino.

‘But… you should be powerless against us,’ whispered the man, eyes blinking rapidly.

‘Yeah, laddie?’ Kell grasped the axe-haft, put his boot against the soldier’s chest, and ripped the weapon free in a shower of waxy blood. ‘I think you’ll find I’m a little different.’ He bared his teeth in a skull smile. ‘A little more… experienced, shall we say.’

Kell turned and crouched by the woman, but she was dead, skin blue, eyes ringed purple. Her tongue protruded, and Kell touched it; it was frozen solid, and he could feel the chill through his gloves.

A distant memory tugged at Kell, then. It was the ice-smoke. He’d seen it, once before, as a young soldier on the Selenau Plains. His unit had come across an old garrison barracks housing King Drefan’s men; only they were dead, frozen, eyes glassy, flesh stuck to the stone. As the cavalry squad dismounted and entered the barracks, so tiny wisps of mist had dissipated, despite sunlight shining bright outside. Kell’s sergeant, a wide brutal man called Heljar, made the sign of the Protective Wolf, and the inexperienced men amongst the squad imitated him, aware it could do no harm. ‘Blood-oil magick,’ Heljar had whispered, and they’d backed from the garrison barracks with boots crunching ice.

Kell rubbed at his beard through leather gloves, and glanced down at his axe. Ilanna. Blessed in blood-oil, she would protect him against ice-smoke, he knew. She would allow him to kill these magick-cursed men. Allow? Kell smiled a bitter smile. Hell, she would encourage it.

Now. Where would Nienna be? The dormitories?

If under attack, where would she run?

Kell, following instinct, following a call of blood, eased through long corridors and halls of the university building, past corpses and several times past soldiers intent on their search. Up to the second floor, Kell found piles of bodies, all frozen, all arranged as if awaiting… what? What the hell do they want, wondered his confused mind?

A scream. Above.

Kell broke into a run, past lines of bodies laid out with arms by sides, faces serene in cold and death. His hands were tight on Ilanna, his breathing ragged and harsh, and he could sense his granddaughter close by. Up more steps, growing reckless the more he grew frantic with rising fear. Through a dormitory, beds neatly made, wooden chests unopened, and up another tight spiral staircase, taking the steps two at a time, his old legs groaning at him, muscles on fire, joints stabbing him with pain, but all this was washed aside by a surge of adrenalin as Kell slammed into the room –

There were four dead girls, lying on the floor, with long hair seeming to float behind pale chilled faces. Nienna and two others stood, armed with ornamental pikes they’d dragged from the walls during their flight. Before them stood three albino warriors with long white hair, all carrying short swords, their black armour a gleaming contrast to porcelain skin.

The soldiers turned as one, as Kell burst in. With a scream he leapt at them, axe slamming left in a whirr that severed one soldier’s sword-arm and left him kneeling, stump spewing milk blood. Nienna leapt forward, thrusting her commandeered pike into an albino’s throat but he moved fast, grabbing the weapon and twisting it viciously from Nienna’s grip. She stumbled back nursing injured wrists, and watched with mouth open as the skewered albino stubbornly refused to die.

‘Magick!’ she hissed.

The albino nodded, smiling a smile which disintegrated as Kell’s axe cleaved down the centre of his skull and dropped him in an instant. The third soldier turned to flee, but Ilanna sang, smashing through his clavicle. The second strike severed his head with a savage diagonal stroke.

The world froze in sudden impact.

Kell, chest heaving, moved forward. ‘Are you hurt?’

‘Grandpa!’ She fell into his arms, her friends coming up close behind, their faces drawn in fear, etched with terror. ‘It’s awful! They stormed the university, started to kill everybody with swords and… and…’

‘And magick,’ whispered a young woman, with short red hair and topaz eyes. ‘I’m Katrina. Kat to my friends. You are Kell. I’ve read everything about you, sir, your history, your exploits… your adventures! You are a hero! The hero of Kell’s Legend!’

‘We’ve not time for this,’ growled Kell. ‘We have to get out of the city. The soldiers are killing everyone!’

Katrina stooped, and hoisted one of the albino’s swords. ‘Normal weapons won’t kill them, right?’

Kell nodded. ‘You catch on fast, girl. The soldiers are blessed – or maybe cursed – with blood-oil magick. Only a suitably blessed and holy weapon can slay them. Either that, or remove their heads.’

‘Will this kill them?’

‘There’s only one way to find out.’

Nienna and the third young woman, Volga, armed themselves with the dead soldiers’ swords. Kell led them to the spiral stairs, moving cat-like, wary, his senses alert, his aches and pains, arthritis and lumbago all gone. He could sense the women’s fear, and that was bad; something dark flitted across his soul, something pure evil settling in Kell’s mind. He didn’t want the responsibility of these women. They were nothing to him. An inconvenience. He wanted simply to save Nienna. The other two? The other two women could…

I can kill them, if you like.

The thought came not so much as words, as primitive, primal images, drifting like a shroud across his thoughts. For a decade she had remained silent. But with fresh blood, fresh magick, fresh death, Ilanna had found new life…


They halted, and Nienna touched his arm gingerly. ‘Are you well, Grandpa?’

‘Yes,’ came his strangled reply; and for a moment he gazed at his bloodbond axe with unfathomable horror. The Ilanna was powerful, and evil, and yet – yet he knew without her he would not survive this day. Would not survive this hour. He owed her – it, damn it! – owed it his life. He owed it everything…

‘I am well,’ he forced himself to say, words grinding through gritted teeth. ‘Come. We need to reach the river. We can steal a boat there, attempt to get away from this… horror.’

‘I think you will find the river frozen,’ said a low, gentle voice.

The group had emerged like maggots from a wound, spilling from stairs into a long, low hall lined with richly polished furniture gleaming under ice-light from high arched windows. The whole scene appeared grey and silver; a portrait delicately carved in ice.

Kell stopped, mouth a line, mind whirring mechanically. The man was tall, lithe, wearing black armour without insignia. He was albino, like the other soldiers, with long white hair and ashen skin; and yet, yet – Kell frowned, for there was authority there, integral, a part of his core; and something not quite right. This was the leader. Kell did not need to be told. And his eyes were blue. They glittered like sapphires.

‘You are?’

‘General Graal. This is my army, the Army of Iron, which has forcibly taken and now controls the city of Jalder. We have overrun the garrison, stormed the Summer Palace, subdued the soldiers and population. All with very little loss to my own men. And yet – ’ He smiled then, teeth bared, and took a step forward, the two soldiers flanking Graal remaining in position so the general was fore-grounded, set apart by his natural authority. ‘And yet you, old man, are fast becoming a thorn in my side.’

Kell, who had been eyeing other corridors which fed the hall in the hope of an easy escape route, eased to his right and checked for enemy. The corridor was empty. He turned, fixing a steel gaze on the general who seemed to be observing Kell with private amusement; or at least, the disdain a piranha reserves for an injured fish.

‘I apologise,’ growled Kell, eyes narrowed, ‘that I haven’t rolled over to die like so many other puppies.’ His eyes flashed dangerous with a new and concentrated form of hate. ‘It would seem you caught many of the city-folk by surprise, Graal, with the benefit of blood-oil magick at your disposal. I’m sure this makes you feel like a big cock bastard down at the barracks, Graal, the whore-master, joking about how he killed babes in their beds and soldiers in their sleep. The work of a coward.’

Graal was unfazed by insult. He tilted his head, watching Kell, feminine face laced with good humour. ‘What is your name, soldier?’ His words were a lullaby; soft and enticing. Come to me, that voice whispered. Join with me.

‘I am Kell. Remember it well, laddie, ’cause I’m going to carve it on your arse.’

‘But not today, I fear. Men? Kill them. Kill them all.’

The two albino soldiers eased forward, bodies rolling with athletic grace. Kell’s eyes narrowed. These men were special, he could tell. They were professional, and deadly. He knew; he’d killed enough during his long, savage lifetime.

The two soldiers split, one moving for Kell, the other for Nienna, Kat and Volga. They accelerated smoothly, leaping forward and Kell leapt to meet his man, axe slamming down, but the albino had gone, rolling, sword flickering out to score a line across Kell’s bearskin-clad bicep that saw the big man stagger back, face like thunder, teeth gritted and axe clamped in both hands.

‘A pretty trick, boy.’

The albino said nothing, but attacked again, swift, deadly, sword slamming up then twisting, cutting left, right, to be battered aside by the butterfly-blades of Kell’s axe. The albino spun, his blade hammering at Kell’s neck. Kell’s axe slammed the blade aside with a clatter. A reverse thrust sent the bloodbond axe towards the albino’s chest, but the man rolled fast and came up, grinning a full-teeth grin.

‘You’re fast, old man.’ His voice was like silver.

‘Not fast enough,’ snapped Kell, irate. He was starting to pant, and pain flickered in his chest. Too old, taunted that pain. Far too old for this kind of dance…

The albino leapt, sword slamming at Kell’s throat. Kell leant back, steel an inch from his windpipe, and brought his axe up hard. There was a discordant clash. The soldier’s sword sailed across the room, clattering from the wall.

‘Kell!’ came the scream. He whirled, saw instantly Nienna’s danger. The three young women were backing away, swords raised, the second albino warrior bearing down on them, toying with them. But his stance changed; now, he meant business. Even as Kell watched, the man’s sword flickered out and Nienna, face contorted, lashed out clumsily with her commandeered sword; it was batted aside, and on the reverse sweep the albino’s blade cut deep across Yolga’s belly. Cloth parted, skin and muscle opened, and the young woman’s bowels spilled out. She fell to her knees, face white, lips mouthing wordless, her guts in her hands. Blood spilled across complex-patterned carpet. ‘No!’ screamed Nienna, and attacked with a savage ferocity that belied her size and age. And as the albino’s sword slashed at her throat, in slow-motion, an unnervingly accurate killing stroke, Kell heaved his axe with all his might. The weapon flew, end over end making a deep thrumming sound. It embedded so far through the albino that both blades appeared through his chest. With spine severed, he dropped instantly, flopping spastically on the ground where he began to leak.

Kell whirled back, eyes sweeping the room. The first soldier had regained his sword. Of Graal, there was no sign. The man, eyes locked on his dead comrade, fixed his gaze on Kell. The look was not comforting, and the arrogant smile was gone. He stalked towards the old warrior who realised –

Bastard, he thought. He’d thrown his axe.

Kell backed away.

You should never throw your axe.

‘Graal said nothing about a swift death,’ snapped the albino, and Kell read in those crimson eyes a need for cruelty and torture. Here was a man with medical instruments in his pack; here was a man who enjoyed watching life-light die like the fall of a deviant sun.

Kell held up his hands, bearded face smiling easily. ‘I have no weapon.’ Although this was a lie: he had his Svian sheathed beneath his left arm, a narrow blade, but little use against a sword.

The albino drew square, and Kell, backing away, kept his hands held in supplication.

‘Your point is?’

‘It’s hardly a fair fight, laddie. I thought you were a soldier, not a butcher?’

‘We all have our hobbies,’ said the albino with a delicate smile.

Nienna’s sword entered his neck, clumsily but effectively, from behind, smashing his clavicle and embedding in his right lung. The albino coughed, twisted, and went down on one knee all at the same time. His sword lashed out in a reverse sweep, but Nienna skipped back, bloodied steel slipping from her fingers.

The albino coughed again, a heavy blood cough, and felt blood bubbling and frothing in his damaged lung. He felt the world swim. There was no pain. No, he thought. This wasn’t how it should end. He felt tingling blood-magick in his veins, and his fingers twitched at the intercourse. He dropped to his other knee. Blood welled in his throat, filled his mouth like vomit, and spilled down his black armour making it gleam. His head swam, as if he’d imbibed alcohol, injected blood-oil, merged with the vachine. He tried to speak, as he toppled to the carpet, and his eyes traced the complex patterns he found there. Darkness was coming. And weight. It was pressing down on him. He glanced up, unable to move, to see boots. He strained, more white blood pooling like strands of thick saliva from his open maw. Kell was standing, his axe, blades stained with blood and tiny flutters of torn flesh, held loose in one hand, resting on the carpet. Kell’s head was lowered, and to the albino his eyes looked darker than dark; they appeared as pools of ink falling away into infinity. Kell lifted his axe. The albino soldier tried to shout, and he squirmed on the carpet in some final primitive instinct; a testament to an organism’s need to survive.

Ilanna swept down. The albino was still.

Kell turned, glanced at Nienna. She was cradling Volga’s head and the girl was mumbling, face ashen, clothes ruined by her own arterial gore. The other girl, Kat, was standing to one side, eyes wide, mouth hung loose. As Kell watched, Volga spasmed and died in Nienna’s arms.

‘Why?’ screamed Nienna, head snapping up, anger burning in the glare she threw at Kell.

Kell shrugged wearily, and gathered up one of the albino’s swords. This one was different. The steel was black, and intricately inlaid with fine crimson runes. He had seen this sort of work before. It was said the metal was etched with blood-oil; blessed, in fact, by the darkness: by vachine religion. Kell ripped free the albino’s leather sheath, and looped it over his shoulders. He sheathed the sword smoothly and moved to Nienna.

‘Get your sword. We need to move.’

‘I asked you – why?’

‘And my answer is because. I don’t know, girl. Maybe the gods mock us. The world is evil. Men are evil. Volga was in the wrong place at the wrong damn time, but you are alive, and Kat is alive, so pick up your sword and follow me. That is,’ he smiled a nasty smile, ‘if you still want to live.’

Nienna moved to the fallen soldier. She took hold of her embedded sword, and tugged at it until it finally gave; it squelched from the corpse. She shuddered, tears running down her cheeks, and followed Kell to the corridor. Kat put her hand on Nienna’s shoulder, but the young woman shrugged off the intimacy, displacing friendship.

‘How do you feel?’

Nienna snorted a laugh. ‘I think I’ve lost my faith in God.’

‘I lost mine a long time ago,’ said Kat, eyes tortured. Nienna stared at her friend, then.


‘Now is not the time.’ Kat hoisted her own stolen sword. ‘You did well, Nienna. I froze. Seeing Volga like that…’ She took a deep breath, and patted her friend once more. ‘Honest. You did brilliant. You… saved us all.’

‘How so?’

‘That soldier would have killed your grandpa. Without a weapon, he was just meat.’

Nienna looked at her friend oddly, then transferred her gaze back to Kell, whose eyes were sweeping the long, majestic hall. He glanced back, bloodied axe in his great huge paws. And with his thick grey beard and the bulk of his bearskin, for a moment in time, a sliver of half-glimpsed reality, he appeared to be natural in that skin. A warrior. No, more. A bestial and primitive ghost.

‘Follow me,’ he said, breaking the spell. ‘And stay silent. Or we’ll all be dead.’

Nienna nodded, and with Kat in tow, they followed Kell out to the hall.

Saark stared, transfixed, as the Harvester stooped and bobbed, striding forward with a rhythmical, swinging gait, ice-smoke trailing from its robes, black eyes like glossy coals drawing Saark into a world of sweetness and joy and uplifting mercy –

Come to me, angel.

Come to me, holy one.

Let me savour your blood.

Let me take you on the final journey.

Let me taste your life…

The long, bony fingers reached for Saark, who stood with every muscle tense, his body thrumming like the string on a mandolin. Saark’s eyes flickered, saw the hooded man creeping up behind the Harvester even as those long points of white reached for Saark’s chest and his shirt seemed to peel away and five white-hot needles scorched his skin and he opened his mouth to scream as he felt flesh melt but there was no sound and no words and no control and pain slapped Saark like a helve to the skull, stunning him, his legs going weak as an ice-wind whipped across his soul–

The hooded man screamed a battle-cry and charged, a large meat-cleaver held clear above his head, his bearded face, red and bitten savagely by the ice-smoke, contorted into a mask of frenzy.

The Harvester turned, smooth, unhurried, and as the cleaver lashed down the Harvester’s arm lifted in a sudden acceleration, and the cleaver bounced from bone with a clack and spun off, lost from the man’s flexing hands. The Harvester’s finger slammed out, puncturing the man’s chest above his heart. He screamed.

Saark fell to his knees, choking, coughing, and released from the spell, grappled wildly at his burning, melting chest. He glanced down, at five deep welts in his skin, deep purple sores surrounded by concentric circles of heavy bruising. Saark continued to cough, as if slammed in the heart by a sledge-hammer, and he watched helpless as the Harvester lifted the brave attacker high into the air kicking and screaming, impaled by the heart on five spears of bone. Body thrashing, the man screamed and screamed and Saark’s eyes widened as he watched the man sucked and shrivelled, arms and legs cracking, contorting, snapping at impossible angles as the skin of his face was drawn and shrivelled until it was a dry, useless, eyeless, husk.

The corpse hit the ground with a rattle; like bones in a paper bag.

The Harvester turned back to Saark, flat oval face leering at him. Thin lips opened revealing a black interior ringed with row after row of tiny teeth.

Saark grunted, rolled onto his hands and knees and accelerated into a sprint faster than any man had a right to. He powered away, chest on fire, heart pounding a tattoo in his ears, mouth Harmattan dry, bladder leaking piss in squirts down his legs. Down long alleys he fled, with no sounds of pursuit. He turned, and almost choked. The Harvester was pounding after him, so close and silent Saark almost fell on his face with shock. He slammed right, twisting down a narrow alleyway, dropping ever downwards towards the river. He skidded on icy cobbles, turned again, and again, ducking into narrow spaces between carts and stalls and wagons, squeezing past boxes, and suddenly shoulder-charging a door to his left and barging through a deserted house, past still bubbling pans and up narrow stairs to the roof –

He halted, listening.


His terrified eyes roved the staircase below, and he moved to the window and stared down into the street. Had he lost it? He tried to calm his breathing, and climbing out of the window, he reached up to the eaves of the house and with frozen fingers, ice-smoke swirling around his boots, he grunted, hoisting himself up onto slick slate tiles. Carefully, Saark climbed to the ridge-line and without waiting moved swiftly along the house apex, leaping a narrow alleyway with a glimpse of dark cobbled streets encased in ice below. Scary, yes, but not as heart-wrenchingly terrifying as the creature that pursued him; the monster that sucked life and blood and fluid from bodies, the beast that drank out people’s souls. Saark shuddered.

What hell has overtaken the world? he thought.

What law did I break, to be so cursed?

From house to house, from roof to roof, Saark leapt and slithered, many times nearly falling to cobbles and stalls far below. Through drifting mist he ran, a rooftop ghost, a midnight vagabond; only this time he was on no simple errand of theft.

This time, Saark ran for his life. And for his soul.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

FREE FICTION: Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic, Day Two

The second day of the preview of Andy Remic’s Kell’s Legend. Helpful pages: Angry Robot Books, Review of Kell’s Legend, Interview with Andy Remic, Part One.


Kell awoke, senses tingling, mouth sour, head fuzzy, and wondered not just what had awoken him, but how in Hell’s Teeth he’d fallen asleep? ‘Damn the grog,’ he muttered, cursing himself for his weakness and age, and swearing he’d stop the liquor; though knowing, deep in his heart, it was a vow he’d never uphold.

Kell sat up from the window-bench, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He glanced right, but all he saw through the long, low window was mist, thick and white, swirling and coalescing through the streets. He could determine a few muffled stone walls, some snow-slick cobbles, but that was all. A terrible white had expanded to fill the world.

Kell moved to his water barrel and gulped three full flagons, with streams running through his grey beard and staining his cotton shirt. He rubbed his eyes again, head spinning, and turned to watch the mist creeping under his door. Odd, he thought. He glanced up to Ilanna, his axe, hanging over the fireplace. She gleamed, dull black reflecting firelight. Kell turned again, and with a crack the window, nearly the width of the entire room, sheared with a metallic crackling as if it had been placed under great pressure. Mist drifted into the apartment-

In reflex, Kell grabbed a towel, soaked it in his water barrel, and wrapped it over his mouth and nose, tying it behind his head. What are you doing, you crazy old fool? screamed his mind. This is no fire smoke! It will do you no harm! But some deep instinct, some primal intuition guided him and he reached up to tug the long-hafted battle-axe from her restraining brackets. Bolts snapped, and the brackets clattered into the fire…

Ice-smoke swirled across his boots, roved across the room, and smothered the fire. It crackled viciously, then died. Outside, a woman gave a muffled scream; the scream ended in a gurgle.

Kell’s eyes narrowed, and he strode to his door – as outside, footsteps moved fast up the ice-slick ascent. Kell twisted to one side. The door rattled, and soundlessly Kell slid the bar out of place. The door was kicked open and two soldiers eased into his apartment carrying black swords; their faces were pale and white, their hair long, braided, and as white as the ice-smoke which had smothered Kell’s fire.

Kell grinned at the two men, who separated, spreading apart as Kell backed away several steps. The first man rushed him, sword slashing for his throat but Kell twisted, rolling, his axe thundering in a backhand sweep that caught the albino across the head with blade slicing a two-inch slab from the soldier’s unprotected skull. The man stumbled back, white blood spraying through clawing fingers, as the second soldier leapt at Kell. But Kell was ready, and his boot hooked under the bench, lifting it hard and fast into the attacker’s path. The soldier stumbled over oak, and double-handed, Kell slammed his axe overhead into the fallen man’s back, pinning him to the bench. He writhed, gurgling for a while, then spasmed and lay still. A large pool of white blood spread beneath him. Kell placed his boot on the man’s armour and tugged free his axe, frowning. White blood? He glanced right, to where the injured soldier, with a quarter of his head missing, lay on a pile of rugs, panting fast.

Kell strode to him. ‘What’s going on, lad?’

‘Go to hell,’ snarled the soldier, strings of saliva and blood drooling from his teeth.

‘So, an attack is it?’ Kell hefted his axe thoughtfully. Then, his face paled, and his hand came to the water-soaked towel. ‘What dark magick is this? Who leads you, boy? Tell me now, and I’ll spare you.’ It was a lie, and it felt bad on Kell’s tongue. He had no intentions of letting the soldier live.

‘I’d rather fucking die, old man!’

‘So be it.’

The axe struck the albino’s head from his shoulders, and Kell turned his back on the twitching corpse showing a cross-section of spine and gristle, his mind sour, mood dropping fast into a brooding bitter pit. This wasn’t supposed to be his life. No more killing! He was a retired soldier. An old warrior. He no longer walked the mountains, battle-axe in hand, coated in the blood and gore of the slain. Kell shook his head, mouth grim. But then, the Gods mocked him, yes? The Gods were fickle; they would see to it any retirement Kell sought was blighted with misery.


‘Damn them.’ Kell moved to the steps, peering out into ice-smoke. He nodded to himself. It had to be blood-oil magick. No natural mist moved like this: organic, like coils of snakes in a bucket. Shivering, Kell moved swiftly down the steps and ice-smoke bit his hands, making him yelp. He ran back up to his apartment and pulled on heavy layers of clothing, a thick hat with fur-lined ear-flaps, and a bulky, bear-skin jerkin which broadened Kell from his already considerable width of chest. Finally, Kell pulled on high-quality leather gloves and stepped back into the mist. He moved down wooden stairs and stood on a mixture of snow and cobbles, his face tingling. All around, the mist shrouded him in silence; it was a padded world. The air was muffled. Reduced. Shrunk. Kell strode to a nearby wall, and was reassured by the rough reality of black stone. So, he thought. I’m not a victim of a savage, drunken nightmare after all! He laughed at that. It felt like it.

Head pounding, Kell moved warily down the street towards the market. The cobbled road dropped towards the Selenau River, then curved east in a broad arc and wound up the hill towards rows of expensive villas and Jalder University beyond. Kell reached the edge of the market, and stopped. There was a body on the ground, mist curling around withered, ancient limbs. Frowning, Kell dropped to one knee and reached out. He touched dry, crisp flesh, and cried out, shocked-

Boots thudded at him from the white, and a sword slashed for his head. His axe came up at the last moment, and there was clash of steel. Kell rammed his left fist into the soldier’s midriff, heard the ‘whoosh’ of expelled air as the man doubled over. Kell stood, and stamped on the man’s head, his heavy boot crushing the albino’s skull as more came from the mist and Kell, shock and realisation slamming through him, recognised that he was outnumbered and his brow furrowed and dark thoughts shot through his brain and his blood was pumping, fired now, a deep pulsing rhythm, and he hadn’t wanted this, he’d left this behind and it was back again, drawing him in, drawing him onto the knife edge of–


Another sword whistled towards his head, and Kell ducked one shoulder, rolling left, axe whirring fast to embed in flesh. His right elbow shot back into a soldier’s face and they were around him, swords and knives gleaming but that made life easier. He grinned. They were all enemy. Kell’s mind took a step back and coolness washed his aura. His brain calmed, and he changed with an almost imperceptible click. Years fell away like abandoned confetti. He felt the old, dark magick flowing through blood like narcotic honey. He’d fought it. Now it was back. And he welcomed it.

Smoothly, Kell whirled and his axe thundered in an arc trailing white blood droplets. An albino soldier was beheaded, the axe continuing, then reversing suddenly to slam through another’s breast-plate, cleaving through steel to shatter the sternum and pierce the pumping white heart within. Kell’s fist clubbed a soldier to the ground; he ducked a sword slash, which whistled by his ear, and Ilanna slammed a third albino between the eyes, splitting his head like a fruit. Kell’s thick fingers curled around another soldier’s throat, and he lifted the lithe albino, legs dangling, and brought him close to his own serene and deadly calm features. He head-butted the soldier, spreading nose across pale white skin, and allowed the figure to flop uselessly to the cobbles. Then Kell was running, pounding through the market dodging husks of dried corpses, his own mouth dry, not with fear, but a terrible and ancient understanding as the extent of the slaughter dawned on him. This wasn’t a few rogue brigands. This was a full scale attack!

And the enemy, with matching armour, were professional, skilled, disciplined, ruthless. Throughout Kell’s recent economic slaughter there had been no panic, no retreat. These were a people bred for war. And yet, even so, Kell had a premonition that he had met only the untrained – the frontliners, the new recruits. The expendable.

Sourly, Kell ran on, and stopped by the edge of the market, leaning against the stall of Brask the Baker to regain his breath. The smell of fresh bread twitched Kell’s nostrils, and reaching out, he realised the racks of loaves were frozen solid. And so was Brask, down on his knees, hands on the edge of his stall, flesh blue and rigid.

‘The bastards,’ snarled Kell, and calmed his breathing. Unused to running, and suffering the effects of excessive liquor and pipe-smoking, a decade out of the army, ten years sat watching the mountains and the snow, well, Kell was far from battle-fit. He waited for pain to subside, and ignored the flaring twinges of hot-knives in his lower-back and knees, in his right elbow and shoulder, an arthritis-legacy from decades wielding a heavy battle-axe and carving lumps of flesh with solid, jarring bone-impact.

The Days of Blood, whispered a corner of his imagination, then cackled at him.

Go to hell!

Kell glanced up, into the mist. No, he corrected himself. Into the smoke. The ice-smoke.

He wasn’t far from Jalder University. But it was uphill, and a damn steep hill at that. Gritting his teeth, face coursing with sweat under his thick hat and heavy clothing, Kell began a fast walk, holding his ribs as he prayed fervently to any gods willing to listen that Nienna was still present in the university grounds… and still alive.

Saark gazed down at her beautiful face, skin soft and coolly radiant in the glow from the snow-piled window-ledge. He lifted his hand and ran it through his long, curled black hair, shining with aromatic oils and the woman smiled up at him, love in her eyes, mouth parting, tongue teasing moist lips. Saark dropped his head, unable to contain himself any longer, unable to hold back the hard hot fiery lust and he kissed her with a passion, tasted sweet honey, sank into her warm depths, savoured her gift, inhaled her scent, imbibed her perfume, fell deep down into the soft lullaby of their kissing, their cradling, their connection, their joining. His hand moved down her flank and she pressed eagerly against him, moaning deep in her throat, in her chest, an eager, primal animal sound. Saark kissed her harder, more ferociously, feeling the beast inside him rear from the pit of his belly to his throat to encompass his mind and drown everything of reason in a pounding drive of hot blood and lust and the desperate need to fuck.

She stepped from her dress, and from glossy, silken underwear. Saark watched as if in a dream. He removed his jacket, careful not to let the jewels – so recently stolen from this beautiful ladies’ jewellery box – tinkle, as he draped it over a gold-embroidered chair.

‘You are a real man, at last,’ she breathed, voice husky, and Saark kissed her breasts, tasting her nipples, tongue toying, his voice lost, his mind scattered; how could anybody, anybody keep such a gorgeous creature locked in a high cold crenellated tower? But then, her husband was ancient, this woman his prize, a beautiful peasant bought like any other object with favours from an outlying nobleman’s villa. He kept her secreted here, a creature denied liberty and sexual congress.

Saark kissed her neck, her throat and her breasts which rose to meet him as she panted in need. He bit her nipples and she groaned, thrusting her naked body onto him. ‘Why does he keep you locked away, sweetie?’ mumbled Saark, and as he murmured his fingers dropped to her cunt which pressed his hand, warm, slick, firm, inviting him, urging him to take her… to take her hard…

Both her hands ran through Saark’s long, curled black hair. ‘Because,’ she hissed, ‘he knows what a wild cat I’d be if he let me out to play!’ She threw Saark to the floor, and dropped, straddling him. Saark glanced up as she towered over him, aggressive, powerful, dominant, totally in charge, her jewelled hands on naked, swaying, circling hips, the smile of the jailer etched on her face as she eyed him like a cat eyes a cornered mouse. Saark’s gaze slowly strayed, from the sexual cunt-honey dripping from her quivering vulva, to the large rubies on the rings that circled her fingers. He licked his lips, dry now at the excitement of gems and gold. ‘I think,’ he said, in all honesty, and without any trace of the subtle cynicism which commanded him and in which he prided himself, ‘I think this is my lucky day.’

It was later. Much later. Weak light sloped through the ice-patterned window. Saark propped himself on one elbow and gazed down at the sultry vixen beside him. She was breathing deep, lost in sleep and a totality of contentment. Gods, thought Saark, with a wry grin, I’m fucking good. In fact, I must be the best. He ran long fingers from her throat and the gentle hollow there, down her sternum, over her rhythmically heaving breasts, and further down to curl in the rich mound of her pubis. She groaned, lifting her hips to him in unconscious response, and Saark eased his hand away. No. Not now. Not again. After all, there was business to attend to. He couldn’t afford to get her excited; although, he considered, it was extremely tempting. However. Business was business. Gold was gold. And Saark took his business very seriously.

He stood, and slowly, easily, silently dressed. Finally, he pulled on his long leather cavalry boots, and gazed longingly at the beautiful woman, head thrown back on the bed. Oh, to have stayed there for a whole day and night! They would have enjoyed so many sexual adventures together! But… no.

Saark moved to the mahogany sideboard, and eased open the top drawer. There was money, a small sack of thick gold coins, and these Saark tempted into his pocket. The next drawer held nothing but silken underwear – Saark considered helping himself, but greed for wealth over trophies got the better of him; he didn’t want to be too much of a pervert. The third drawer held papers tied together by string. Saark rifled them, looking for bonds, shares or agreements; he found only letters, and cursed. On top of the sideboard he found a long, jewelled dagger, used, he presumed, to open correspondence. It had fine emeralds set in a heavy gold hilt. He pocketed the dagger, and moved to the wardrobe, opening the door with a slow, wary gesture, seeking to avoid the groan of aged wood and tarnished hinges. Swiftly he searched the contents, and at the back he found a satchel. It was locked. Dropping to his knees, he pulled free the jewelled dagger and swiftly sawed through leather straps. Inside, there was a sheath of bonds and Saark whistled silently to himself. He held a small fortune. His smile broadened, for these were Secken & Jalberg; he could cash them at any city in Falanor. Today, Saark realised, was not just a good day. It was probably the first day of a new retirement…

‘You… bastard.’ The words were low, barely more than a growl. Slowly, and still on his knees, Saark turned to see the wavering point of his own slender rapier.

‘Now don’t be like that, sweetie.’ He wanted to use her name, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember. Was it Mary-anne? Karyanne? Hell.

‘Don’t sweetie me, you pile of horse-shit thief.’

‘Hey, I’m not a thief!’

‘And a rapist,’ she said, eyes gleaming, lips wet with hatred, as they had so very recently been wet with lust.

‘Whoa!’ Saark held up his hands, and went as if to stand. The rapier stabbed at him, nearly skewering his eye. ‘What the hell do you mean, Darienne?’

‘It’s Marianne, idiot! And do you know what the Royal Guard do to rapists when apprehended?’ She glanced at his groin, and made a horizontal cutting motion with her free hand.

‘Marianne! We had such sweet sex! How can you do this to me? It’s despicable!’

‘Despicable?’ she screeched. ‘You take advantage of me, then seek to clean me out of every penny I’ve squirreled away from that old vinegar bastard I call a husband! Do you know what I’ve had to put up with, marrying the stinking toothless old goat? His acid sour breath? His pawing, hairy hands on my tits? His unwashed fucking rancid feet!’

Saark managed to get to his feet without losing an eye, and with both hands held in supplication, his voice a soothing lullaby, he searched frantically for a way of escape. ‘Now, now, listen Marianne, we can both still come out of this smelling of roses…’

‘No,’ she hissed, ‘I can come out of this smelling of expensive perfume, and satisfied, but you,’ she jabbed at him again, drawing a shallow line of blood down his cheekbone, ‘you’re coming out of this without your balls.’

In a swift movement Saark slid free the jewelled dagger, lifted his arm – and froze. The door behind Marianne had opened revealing a tall, lithe warrior with shoulder-length white hair and crimson eyes. The albino stepped forward in a sudden violent movement, and his sword-tip burst from Marianne’s chest in a blossom of spurting blood. Marianne’s eyes met Saark’s. They were filled with confusion and pain and for a moment there was a connection, a symbiosis deeper than words, deeper than souls… she opened her mouth to speak, but a deep arterial blood flooded out and ran down her breasts, stained her flat toned belly, and dripped with a spattering of rainfall to the warped uneven floor. Marianne toppled over, trapping the albino’s sword.

Saark’s hand slammed forward, and the jewelled dagger entered the soldier’s eye. The albino stumbled back, sitting down heavily. Incredibly, he lifted his hand and pulled free the blade with a slurp, letting it tumble to the wooden planks with a deafening clatter.

Saark leapt forward, kicking the soldier in the face and scooped his rapier from Marianne’s dead grip. The soldier grappled for his own sword, milk-like blood running from his ruined eye-socket; Saark slammed his sword hard into the soldier’s neck, half-severing the head. Saark staggered back, watching milk-blood pump from the limp corpse, and he tripped over Marianne’s body, slipping in her blood, hitting the ground hard. His eyes met her glassy orbs. Her face was still, and awesomely beautiful, like frozen china. ‘Damn you!’

Saark stood, slick with Marianne’s warm blood, and moved across the room and, ever the thief, retrieved the jewelled dagger that had saved his life. With rapier tight in his fist, he stepped onto the stairwell and glanced down where ice-smoke drifted lazily. Frowning, Saark descended, and felt the bite of a savage cold on his legs. He retreated, and rummaged through the wardrobe, finding heavy furs and leathers. Wrapping himself up, Saark descended again, and stepped warily out onto the cobbled road.

Here, property displayed affluence with open vulgarity, the houses, villas and towers wearing wealth and privilege like jewels. The street was deserted. Even through thick clothing Saark could feel the cold nipping at him, stinging his skin, and he hurried down the street and towards the river – stopping only to gaze at small child lying face down on the cobbles. Saark moved forward and knelt gingerly by the boy. He prodded the child, then rolled the boy, who was only four or five years old, onto his back and drew back with a gasp. The face and limbs were shrivelled, shrunken, the shirt opened over the boy’s heart and deep puncture wounds showing clearly, gleaming under drifting ice-smoke. Saark reached forward and counted five holes, his hand hovering above the wounds. ‘What did this to you, child?’ he whispered, horror suffusing his mind. Then his jaw clenched, his eyes hardened, and he stood, hefting his rapier. ‘Whatever did this, I’m going to find them, and kill them.’ Rage swam with his blood. Anger burned his brain. Hatred became his fuel, and death his mistress.

Saark, the outcast.

Saark, the jewel thief!

Once proud, once honourable. No! He had stooped low. He had traded his honour and pride and manhood for a handful of worthless baubles. Saark laughed, his laughter brittle and hollow… like his self-esteem. Yes, he was beautiful; powerful and muscular and dazzlingly handsome. The women fell over themselves to bed him. But deep down… deep down, Saark realised he despised himself.

‘Kill them? You will not have to look far, little man,’ came a soft, ululating voice from the ice-smoke. Saark turned, and there towering over him and wearing snakes of smoke like drifting charms stood the stooped, white-robed figure of a Harvester.

The Harvester’s tiny black eyes glowed, and it lifted its hand allowing the sleeve to fall back, revealing five long, bony fingers… pointing at Saark, gesturing to the man’s unprotected chest, and the heart, and the pumping blood-sugar within…

Saark took an involuntary step back. A sudden fear ate him.

‘Come to me, little one,’ smiled the Harvester, black eyes glowing. ‘Come and enjoy your reward.’

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

FREE FICTION: Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic, Day One

Over the next five days, Luke Reviews is featuring Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic. Each of these days, a new section of the novel will pop up on the site. At the end of the five days, you will have the entirety of the first three chapters available for free. That is the first 80 pages of the novel. If my review didn’t persuade you, or you still had doubts after my interview with Andy Remic, then you now get far more than just a small sample to help you make up your mind. I have a feeling that, once you read all of this, you won’t be able to help running out and buying this one. To my American readers: hopefully this will tide you over until the novel is published stateside! Luke Reviews thanks Angry Robot Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, for this wonderful opportunity.




‘I know you think me sadistic. You are incorrect. When I punish, I punish without pleasure. When I torture, I torture for knowledge, progression, and for truth. And when I kill…’ General Graal placed both hands on the icy battlements, staring dream-like to the haze of distant Black Pike Mountains caught shimmering and unreal through mist: huge, defiant, proud, unconquered. He grinned a narrow, skeletal grin. ‘Then I kill to feed.’

Graal turned, and stared at the kneeling man. Command Colonel Yax-kulkain was forty-eight years old, a seasoned warrior and Command Colonel of the Garrison Regiment at Jalder, Falanor’s major northern city and trading post connecting east, south and west military supply routes: also known as the Northern T.

Yax-kulkain hunkered down, fists clenching and unclenching, and stared up into Graal’s blue eyes. Pupil dilation told Graal the commander could still understand, despite his paralysis. Graal smiled, a thin-lipped smile with white lips that blended eerily into the near-albino skin of his soft, some would say feminine, face. Running a hand through alabaster hair Graal released a hiss and gave a heavy, pendulous nod. ‘I see you understand me, Command Colonel.’

Yax-kulkain murmured something, an animal sound deep in his throat. He trembled, in his frozen, kneeling position, and with ice crackling his beard, gradually, with incredible force of will, lifted his blue-hued face and snarled up at the conquering general. There came a crack as he forced frozen jaws apart. Ice fell, tinkling from his beard. In rage, the ice-chilled warrior spat, ‘You will… rot… in hell!

General Graal turned, staring almost nostalgically across frosted battlements. He spun on his heel, a fast fluid motion, slim blade slamming to cut the Command Colonel’s head from his body. The head rolled, hitting stone flags and cracking a platter of ice. It rocked, and came to a halt, eyes staring blank at the bleak, snow-filled sky.

‘I think not,’ said Graal, staring down the long line of kneeling men, of rigid, frozen soldiers that stretched away down the considerable length of the ice-rimed battlements. ‘It would appear I am already there.’ His voice rose in volume to a bellow. ‘Soldiers of the Army of Iron!’ He paused, voice dropping to a guttural growl. ‘Kill them all.’

Like automatons, insects, albino soldiers stepped up with a synchronised rhythm behind the ranks of frozen infantry at Falanor’s chief garrison; white hair whipped in the wind, and black armour cut a savage contrast to pale, waxen flesh. Black swords unsheathed, eight hundred oiled whispers of precision steel, and General Graal moved his hand with a casual flick as he turned away. Swords descended, sliced through flesh and fat and bone, and eight hundred heads toppled from twitching shoulders to thud and roll. Because of the frozen flesh, there was no blood. It was a clean slaughter.

Ice-smoke swirled, thickening, flowing in the air from a resplendent and unwary city below, beyond the smashed protection of the garrison stronghold. Buildings spread gracefully and economically up the steep hillside from the broad, half-frozen platter of the Selenau River; and as Graal’s odd blue eyes narrowed to nothing more than slits, it was clear the ice-smoke was anything but natural: there were sinister elements at play.

Graal strode down the line of corpses, halting occasionally and stooping to force his finger into the icy stump of a soldier’s neck. The swirling smoke thickened. Through this carnage, up the narrow steps to the battlements, glided –

The Harvesters.

They were tall, impossibly tall for men, and wore thin white robes embroidered with fine gold wire and draped over bony, elongated figures. Their faces were flat, oval, hairless, eyes small and black, their noses nothing more than twin vertical slits which hissed with a fast rhythm of palpitation. Their hands were hidden under flapping cuffs and they strode unhurriedly, heads bobbing as they stooped to survey the scene. The ranks of motionless albino soldiers took reverential steps back, and whilst faces did not show fear exactly, the albino warriors of Graal’s army revealed a healthy respect. One did not cross the Harvesters. Not if a man valued his soul.

The first halted, peering myopically down at Graal who folded arms and smiled without humour. ‘You are late, Hestalt.’

Hestalt nodded, and when he spoke his words were a lazy sigh of wind. ‘We were preparing the ice-smoke for the city. We had to commune with Nonterrazake. Now, however, the time has come. Are your men ready with their primitive weapons of iron?’

‘My soldiers are always prepared,’ said Graal, unruffled, and he unsheathed his own slender sword. The Harvester did not flinch; instead, a hand appeared from folds of white robe. Each finger was ten or twelve inches long, narrowing to a tapered point of gleaming ivory. The Harvester turned, bent, and plunged all five bone fingers into the corpse of Command Colonel Yax-kulkain. There came a gentle resonance of suction, and Graal watched, mouth tight-lipped, as the body began to deflate, shrivelling, flesh shrinking across bones and skull until the man’s teeth were wildly prominent in a death-submission.

Hestalt withdrew bone fingers, and leaving a tiny, shrivelled husk in his wake, moved to the next dead soldier of Falanor. Again, his fingers invaded the man’s chest, deep into his heart, and the Harvester reaped the Harvest.

Unable to watch this desecration of flesh, General Graal shouted a command which rang down the mist-filled battlements. Ice-smoke eddied around his knees, now, expanding and billowing in exaggerated bursts as he strode towards the steps leading down to the cobbled courtyard. His albino regiment followed in silence, swords unsheathed and ready, and like a tide, with Graal at its spearhead, moved to mammoth oak gates that opened onto a cobbled central thoroughfare, which in turn led down the steep hillside into Jalder’s central city – into the city’s heart.

Two albinos ran forward, slim figures, well balanced and athletic, graceful and moving with care on ice-slick cobbles. The oak portals were heaved apart, iron hinges groaning, and Graal turned glancing back to the tall stooping figures that moved methodically along the battlements, draining the dead Falanor garrison of life-force. Like insects, he thought, and made distant eye contact with Hestalt. The Harvester gave a single nod: a command. He pointed towards the city… and his instruction was clear.

Prepare a path.

Ice-smoke gathered in the courtyard, a huge pulsing globe which spun and built and coalesced with flickers of dancing silver; suddenly, it surged out through the gates to flow like airborne mercury into the city beyond, still expanding, still growing, a flood of eerie silence and cotton-wool death, a plague of drifting ice-smoke shifting to encompass the unwary city in a tomb-shroud of blood-oil magick.



Kell stood by the window in his low-ceilinged second-story apartment, and stared with a twinge of melancholy towards the distant mountains. Behind him a fire crackled in the hearth, flames consuming pine, and a pan of thick vegetable broth bubbled on a cast-iron tripod. Kell lifted a stubby mug to his lips and sipped neat liquor with a sigh, feeling alcohol-resin tease down his throat and into his belly, warming him through. He shivered despite the drink, and thought about snow and ice, and the dead cold places of the mountains; the vast canyons, the high lonely ledges, the slopes leading to rocky falls and instant death. Chill memories pierced the winter of his soul, if not his flesh. Sometimes, thought Kell, he would never banish the ice of his past… and those dark days of hunting in the realm of the Black Pikes. Ice lay in his heart. Trapped, like a diamond.

Outside, snow drifted on a gentle breeze, swirling down cobbled streets and dancing patterns into the air. From his vantage point, Kell could watch the market traders by the Selenau River, and to the right, make out the black-brick bulks of huge tanneries, warehouses and the riverside slaughter-houses. Kell remembered with a shudder how dregside stunk to heaven in high summer – that’s why he’d got the place cheap. But now... now the claws of winter had closed, they kept the stench at bay.

Kell shivered again, the vision of dancing snow chilling old bones. He turned back to his soup and the fire, and stirred the pan’s contents, before leaning forward, hand thumping against the sturdy beam of the mantel. Outside, on the steps, he heard a clatter of boots and swiftly placed his mug on a high shelf beside an ancient clock and beneath the terrifying butterfly blades of Ilanna. Inside the clock, he could see tiny whirring clockwork components; so fine and intricate, a pinnacle of miniature engineering.

The thick plank door shuddered open and Nienna stood in silhouette, beaming, kicking snow from her boots.

‘Hello Grandpa!’

‘Nienna.’ He moved to her and she hugged him, the snow in her long brown hair damping his grey beard. He took a step back, holding her at arm’s length. ‘My, you grow taller by the day, I swear!’

‘It’s all that fine broth.’ She peered over his shoulder, inquisitively. ‘Keeps me fit and strong. What have you cooked today?’

‘Come on, take off your coat and you can have a bowl. It’s vegetable; beef is still too expensive after the cattle-plague in the summer, although I’m guaranteed a side in two or three weeks. From a friend of a friend, no?’ He gave a broad wink.

Removing her coat, Nienna edged to the oak table and cocked one leg over the bench, straddling it. Kell placed a hand-carved wooden bowl before her, and she reached eagerly for the spoon as Kell sliced a loaf of black nut-bread with a long, curved knife.

‘It’s good!’

‘Might need some more salt.’

‘No, it’s perfect!’ She spooned greedily, wolfing her broth with the eagerness of hunger.

‘Well,’ said Kell, sitting opposite his granddaughter with a smile which split his wrinkled, bearded face, making him appear younger than his sixty-two years. ‘You shouldn’t be so surprised. I am the best cook in Jalder.’

‘Hmm, maybe, but I think it could do with some beef,’ said Nienna, pausing, spoon half raised as she affected a frown.

Kell grinned. ‘Ach, but I’m just a poor old soldier. Couldn’t possibly afford that.’

‘Poor? With a fortune stashed under the floor?’ said Nienna, head down, eyes looking up and glinting mischievously. ‘That’s what mother says. Mother says you’re a miser and a skinflint, and you hide money in a secret stash wrapped in your stinky socks under the boards.’

Kell gave a tight smile, some of his humour evaporating. ‘Your mother always was one for compliments.’ He brightened. ‘Anyway, my girl, you’re the cheeky monkey here! With your tricks and cheeky words.’

‘I’m a bit old for you to keep calling me that, grandpa.’

‘No, lass, you’re still a little girl.’ He leant forward, and ruffled her hair. She scowled in distaste.

‘Grandpa! I am not a girl anymore! I’m nearly seventeen!’

‘You’ll always be a little girl to me. Now eat your broth.’

They ate in silence, the only sound that of fire crackling through logs as the wind outside increased in ferocity, kicking up eddies of snow and howling mournfully along frosted, cobbled streets. Nienna finished her broth, and circled her bowl with the last of the black bread. She sat back, sighing. ‘Good! Too much salt, but good all the same.’

‘As I said, the best cook in Jalder.’

‘Have you ever seen a monkey? Really?’ she asked suddenly, displaying a subtle hint of youth.

‘Yes. In the deep jungles of the south. It’s too cold up here for monkeys; I suppose they’re fond of their bananas.’

‘What’s a banana?’

‘A soft, yellow fruit.’

‘Do I really look like one?’

‘A fruit, or a monkey?’

She smacked his arm. ‘You know what I mean!’

‘A little,’ said Kell, finishing his own broth and chewing thoughtfully. His teeth were paining him again. ‘There is a likeness: the hairy face, the fleas, the fat bottom.’

‘Grandpa! You don’t speak to a lady like that! There’s this thing we learnt in school, it’s called eti… ettick…’

‘Etiquette.’ He ruffled her hair again. ‘And when you’re grown up, Nienna, then I’ll treat you like a grown-up.’ His smile was infectious. Nienna helped to clean away the bowls. She stood by the window for a few moments, staring out and down towards the distant factories and the market.

‘You fought in the south jungles, didn’t you, Grandpa?’

Kell felt his mood instantly sour, and he bit his tongue against an angry retort. The girl doesn’t realise, he chided himself. He took a deep breath. ‘Yes. That was a long time ago. I was a different person back then.’

‘What was it like? Fighting, in the army, with King Searlan? It must have been so… romantic!’

Kell snorted. ‘Romantic? The dung they fill your head with in school these days. There’s nothing romantic about watching your friends slaughtered. Nothing heroic about seeing crows on a battlefield squabbling over corpse eyes. No.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Battles are for fools.’

‘But still,’ persisted Nienna, ‘I think I’d like to join the army. My friend Kat says they take women now; or you can join as a nurse, to help with battlefield casualties. They give you good training. We had a Command Sergeant, he came to the school trying to sign us up. Kat wanted to sign, but I thought I’d talk to you first.’

Kell moved across the room, so fast he was a blur. Nienna was shocked. He moved too quickly for a big man, for an old man; it was unreal. He took her shoulders in bear paws with surprising gentility. And he shook her. ‘Now you listen to me, Nienna, you have a gift, a rare talent like I’ve not seen in a long while. The music’s in your blood, girl, and I’m sure when the angels hear you sing they’ll be green with envy.’ He took a deep breath, gazing with unconditional love into her eyes. ‘Listen good, Nienna, and understand an old man. An unknown benefactor has paid your university fees. That person has spared you a lifetime of hardship in the tanneries, or in the factories working weaving machinery so treacherous it’ll cut your damn fingers off; and the bastards will let it, rather than stop production. So, girl, you go to your university, and you work like you’ve never worked before, or I’ll kick you so hard from behind, my boot will come out of your mouth.’

Nienna lowered her head. ‘Yes, Grandpa. I’m sorry. It’s just…’

‘What?’ His eyes were glowing dark coals.

‘It’s just – I’m bored! I’d like some excitement, an adventure! All I ever see is home, and here, and school. And I know I can sing, I know that, but it’s not a future filled with excitement, is it? It’s not something that’s going to boil my blood!’

‘Excitement is overrated,’ growled Kell, turning and moving with a wince to his low leather chair. He slumped, grimacing at the pain in his lower back which nagged more frequently these days, despite the thick, green, stinking unguent applied by old Mrs Graham. ‘Excitement is the sort of thing that gets a person killed.’

‘You’re such a grump!’ Nienna skipped across the room, and tugged on her boots. ‘I’ve got to get going. We’re having a tour of the university this afternoon. It’s a shame the snow has come down so thick; the gardens are said to be awesomely pretty.’

‘Yes, the winter has come early. Such is the legacy of the Black Pike Mountains.’ He gazed off, through the wide low window, to a far-distant haze of black and white teeth. The Black Pikes called to him. They always would. They had a splinter of his soul.

‘Some of my friends are going to explore the Black Pikes this summer; when they finish their studies, of course.’

‘Fools,’ snapped Kell. ‘The Pikes are more dangerous than anything you could ever imagine.’

‘You’ve been there?’

‘Three times. And three times I believed I was never coming back.’ His voice grew quiet, drifting, lost. ‘I knew I would die, up there. On those dark rocky slopes. It is a miracle I still live, girl!’

‘Was that when you were in the army?’ She was fishing for stories, again, and he waved her away.

‘Go on! Get to your friends; go, enjoy your university tour. And make sure you sing for them! Show them your angel’s voice! They will have never heard anything like it.’

‘I will, Grandpa.’ Nienna tugged on her coat, and brushed out her long brown hair. ‘Grandpa?’

‘Yes, monkey?’

‘I… I nearly told mam, about you, this morning. About coming here, I mean. I do so want to tell her… I hate keeping secrets.’

Kell shook his head, face stern. ‘If you tell her, girl, she will make doubly sure you never see me again. She hates me. Can you understand that?’ Nienna nodded, but Kell could see in her eyes she did not have the life experience to truly comprehend the hate his daughter carried for him – like a bad egg in her womb. But one day, he thought savagely, one day she’ll learn. We all do.

‘Yes, Grandpa. I’ll try my best.’ She opened the door, and a bitter chill swept in on a tide of fresh, tumbling snow. She stepped forward, then paused, and gave a half-turn so he couldn’t quite see her face. ‘Kell?’

‘Yes, granddaughter?’ He blinked, unused to her calling him by name.

‘Thanks for paying my university fees.’ She leant back, and kissed his cheek, and was gone in a whirl of coat and scarf leaving him standing blushing at the top of the steps. He shook his head, watching her footprints crunch through a fresh fall towards a gentle mist drifting in off the Selenau River.

How had she guessed, he thought? He closed the door, which struggled to fit the frame. He thumped it shut with a bear’s fist, and absently slid the heavy bar into place. He moved back to the fireplace, reclaiming his abandoned resin-liquor and taking a heavy slug. Alcohol eased into his veins like an old friend, and wrapped his brain in honey. Kell took a deep breath, moving back to the wide window and sitting on a low bench to watch the bartering traders across a field of flapping stalls. The mist was creeping into the market now, swirling around boots and timber stanchions. Kell gazed at the mountains, the Black Pike Mountains, his eyes distant, remembering the hunt there; as he did, many times in a day.

‘Join the army. Ha!’ he muttered, scowling, and refilled his mug from a clay jug.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Storm Approaching by Brian Libby

Luke Reviews is obviously going through some changes. The new site is up and running, with the old one being nothing but a place to dump old reviews, making them convenient to link to. This new expansion gives a lot more opportunities for growth, and to allow the Luke Reviews community to interact even more. However, all this shouldn’t overpower the most important part of Luke Reviews: the books! We are beginning a string of fantasy books. Storm Approaching by Brian Libby is starting things off, and we will follow it up with a special surprise related to Kell’s Legend, the book that spawned this action/adventure fantasy streak, then reviews of The Fighters: Master of Chains by Jess Lebow, Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard, and Reiksguard by Richard Williams.

Brian Libby’s first fantasy novel, Storm Approaching, follows Andiriel, an orphan who seeks more than her tame village life offers. Andiriel manages to bump into Sir Branlor, a very important knight, and plays an important, if small, role in securing the future of the Empire. After her successful work, Branlor takes her back to the Capital, where she becomes a member of the Sovereign Order, a group that works to protect the Empire and its Emperor. Her first mission takes her far from home, to the island of Calman, as she goes undercover, searching for a man who disappeared while doing work for the government. However, that is just the beginning for Andiriel, who is about to go on a life changing journey after a falling out and a run in with some mercenaries.

Libby’s novel is not the average popular fantasy, with very little in the way of the fantastic (other than the occasional wizard-figure who does unexplained magic, and a fox that has a very special, if unexplained, bond to Andiriel), and this give it much of the texture that fills this tale. There are no dues ex machina magical save-alls, making this a far more real tale where death means forever. However, despite that dark allegory, it is a very upbeat, happy tale, with a spunky tomboy protagonist, and a host of very well-realized and full developed characters.

Storm Approaching has the occasional section where things get a little too slow (mostly the very few chapters in which Andiriel doesn’t have a part, as they seem far less involved in the immediate storyline), but for the most part the pace of the plot is spot on. While this book is very much able to stand alone, there are a number of occasions (particularly in the slower chapters I just mentioned) that you can tell that, despite the slowing down, Libby has definite plans for the future of this series. Beyond the first book, he apparently has the next three novels in the Mercenaries series written out, their publishing to occur only if the first book does well. After reading Storm Approaching, I truly hope that sales are excellent, because I cannot wait to find out what happens next to Andriel and company.