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.
NOTE: KELL’S LEGEND HAS CONTENT NOT SUITABLE FOR YOUNGER READERS, INCLUDING VIOLENCE AND LANGUAGE.
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.’