Excerpt 1, A Seat for the Rabble
Posted on March 26, 2017
Disclaimer: Some of this content may be NSFW. The subject matter is intended for mature audiences, as it deals with the sometimes unpleasant realities of life in the medieval ages, which helped inspire this fictional fantasy novel.
Sir Damien Sothron was eating breakfast when his squire bolted out of the predawn darkness, shorn of breath and damp with sweat. The boy tripped and tumbled downhill in a cloud of dust.
“It’s Spittlelip, he—I saw him take off with Little Lady,” Devan stammered as he struggled to a knee, wincing. “I think he means to do it, sir. To kill her himself in the swordwood.”
The knight rose from his log by the fire. He retrieved the coil of his leather belt from the barren soil and secured it to his scabbard. “Where did you last see him leading her?” he asked.
The boy pushed moist bangs out of his line of sight. “I’m not sure, I think southeast, sir. Toward that statue we found. Brother Uther told me about it first so I could come and find you.” He looked on glumly as the knight probed the arm holes of his chain mail shirt. “He waits for you on the border.”
“Did everyone else go with Spittlelip?” Damien harnessed a jacket of boiled leather over the mail.
Devan shook his head. “Orthos and the rest were with the priest.” He ignored his squire’s look as he slid on his boots. “Sir Damien, uh, um—what do you mean to do?”
You mean, would a knight sworn to serve a lord kill one of his peasants over a half-mad horse—a creature doomed to die, anyway? Damien thought darkly. Depending on what Spittlelip has done to her, maybe. And on this day, of all days.
The knight grimaced. “What I should’ve done my first day in this accursed wilderness.” He slipped on his coif, doused the fire, and trudged uphill, toward the gleam on the horizon that could pass for dawn’s breaking light.
I’ll do it this time, especially if he’s hurt that horse, Damien thought with a hand on his pommel. All it’d take is a push down a swordwood slope, and that’d be that.
Devan sprinted after Damien, likely trying to discourage him from violence. If so, the squire was nobler in this moment than the knight he served.
Damien stopped and turned around wearily. The tears in his squire’s eyes softened his resolve. “Don’t worry, Dev,” he reassured him. “I swore to protect my lord’s Commons. Why would I break those vows?”
But I am breaking them today, he swore inwardly. I will.
“It wasn’t Spittlelip I was worried over, sir.”
The squire thrust a familiar thing into his hand, a small, precious idol he’d forgotten in his fury. Sunlight illuminated folds in the gown of Helsar, one of the One True God’s twelve faces. His daughter had bought him this Winter Solstice gift with coin her mother had stashed away. You could find better woodwork in Southpoint, but his child had given him this, and Damien Sothron loved her above all else on Odma, above his king, above even his faith.
Helsar guides the brave back to hearth and home. “Thank you, Devan. I’ll need Helsar.”
“Just think of your daughter, sir. Can’t stand to think of what might happen to her if . . . if anything—I mean, if you . . .” Devan trailed off.
If I perish, or must suffer an executioner’s blade over my love for that horse.
Damien mussed his squire’s hair playfully. “Stay here. You can have my sausages. Oh, and Dev”—he lifted the boy’s sleeve, revealing a red sickle of blood—“show care in the swordwood. It’s easier than you think to fall in and lose a finger—or worse, if you’re a man.” He winked in good humor.
The boy smiled only faintly. Damien trudged downhill. Up a ridge, past a brook, and toward the unsettling gleam he went, suppressing a dread that threatened to overwhelm his senses.
He recalled his last conversation with Uthron Morley in the gloom of his court at Thorn’s Keep. The Lord Warden, his liege these past twelve years, had summoned the knight for a secret errand he said he could entrust to no one else.
“The Commons are restless, and seeking me to blame for their misery,” Morley had said with a vexed look. Then why not let the Commons rest? a small voice inside had pushed him to say. “We need to show the peasants that the Lord Warden of Rosbury knows of their plight, and wishes to please the gods.”
When the knight had asked his lord which gods he sought to please, exactly, the nobleman had replied, as casually as if he were describing his evening plans, “We’ll honor the Old Ways. Word has reached me that some peasants think it’d be meet to make a Gift to their old gods.” He’d clapped a firm hand on his shoulder. “I need your help to see it through.”
The Lord Warden had been vague but all too clear, and it left Damien mute with horror. Some of his fellow villagers—his own neighbors—were Sylvanians, he’d realized in that unreal moment. It didn’t trouble him that they worshipped trees and stone and dirt.
What troubled was their belief in blood sacrifice.
Things had only worsened from there. He learned that his liege already had a Gift in mind. He’d prayed to the gods in his chapel gardens, he told the knight. He wanted Damien to see to this personally in the swordwood on the Half-Day to Summer Solstice. With witnesses.
Damien had been in disbelief. “But why the horse, my lord?” He’d known Little Lady since the foal could barely stand. His wife thought the courser half-mad, but horses were loyal creatures. Unlike men, he thought, then as now. And why send me on with a cretin like Jacob fucking Spittlelip?
He’d tried every excuse he could think of to dissuade his liege, to no avail. Most of his excuses concerned Sara Sothron, whose heart would shatter if she learned that he’d butchered their Little Lady like swine.
Uthron had at least seemed to waver—right up until he crossed looks with that white-haired crone whom the gossips called a witch, and whom the lord called wife. “You will do as I ask, Damien,” his liege lord had countered sternly, “or I’ll find a knight who will.”
And you’ll be in a cell beneath Thorn’s Keep, Damien knew it hadn’t needed saying. What would happen to Rose and Sara then?
Willard Rittman, that’s who, the husband and father to a daughter thought grimly as he ascended another barren ridge. Uthron’s favorite pug-faced sheriff and taxman followed Rose around market like a shadow, and it was becoming a problem he couldn’t seem to resolve without steel. Countless were the times the knight had implored his liege to sack the man, and countless the noble’s meaningless promises—and countless, too, all of his excuses for keeping Rittman on. And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Connor Bagman, his neighbor, had told him in the past week that he’d caught the sheriff lingering on Sara.
His daughter was eleven years old. Why, my liege? the knight wondered in the present. Why corrupt your court with apostates and worse? Why even tolerate Rittman and Spittlelip?
Yet what else could’ve been done? A knight like Damien had to obey . . . or the wolves would devour his family in his absence. It wasn’t lost on him that this service could also shift him back into his liege’s favor. So Little Lady had to perish, and by her own rider’s hand, surrounded by pagans and worse in a dread wood far from home. Damn them all.
With sweat welling in his pits and oiling the backs of his ears, Damien plodded up his last hill. The sun was nearly up by the time he set eyes on a forest frozen in time, the forest that couldn’t burn, the forest that peasants said held the remains of a demon deep within.
A haunted forest should’ve looked the part, all dark and forbidding, but that was what made Graywood so sinister: it seduced the eye. Every trunk, every limb, every leaf reflected sunlight like a riven mirror surface. Stretching southward, the forest canopy rippled like a choppy sea, aswirl with brilliant hues of morning gold and shadowy blue-gray. Even Damien, heartbroken over the task ahead, couldn’t dismiss its beauty.
Yet woe to the fool who crossed into that forest thinking it harmless. Graywood was like a poisonous blossom, colorful but deadly to the unwary. A deathwood, men accurately called it, for everything inside the forest could slice through skin as easily as steel through silk. Hence why they’d wanted to do this thing together in sunlight: to enter that forest in the dark was to trespass into an armory blindfolded. And to go alone . . .
A strong wind picked up suddenly, ruffling the strands of his hair but not one of Graywood’s leaves. Damien reached into his satchel and pawed about for Helsar until he found her. I’ll make Uthron’s Gift, drink mulled wine to forget, and be on my way to you, my sweet girl, soon as I can. May you forgive me for what I do today, if ever you find out, Sara.
“Good morning, Sir Damien,” came a familiar voice.
Uther Brune, his liege’s own cousin, emerged by his side, unsettlingly stealthy for a man his old age. The priest had on his clerical garments, a cream-colored cassock draped with a rich violet cape, a stiff white collar about his wattle neck, and surprisingly little else to protect him in Graywood. On his left hand he wore his lord cousin’s favor, an emerald ring wreathed in splendidly wrought silver leaves. Hair clung to his scalp in cotton-white patches. Seventy-one years of life had stooped his shoulders and ruined his knees. His hazel eyes were sharp and discerning.
Damien didn’t hide his anger. “Is it good, Brother Uther? I was woken to learn the pagans had gone, and left my breakfast cold to set things right with some lip-sucking cretin I should’ve dealt with years ago—a man you swore you’d watch close this morning.”
The priest pressed his lips together in contrition. “Yes, I expected you’d be wroth. Forgive an old man his age, sir. I fear sleep steals upon me these days like a thief at night.”
“I’m not the one you should ask for forgiveness,” Damien said acidly. “Ask Little Lady for forgiveness. Not only must she die in this foul wood—no, she has to be defiled ere sunrise.” His hands tightened into fists.
It wasn’t just his wife and daughter he had to watch after. No, the one-who-was-twelve had seen fit to curse Damien and their village with a goat defiler named Jacob Weeslaw. Most in Rosbury called him Spittlelip on account of the honeycombed scars in his lips that oozed saliva. His shorn tongue hobbled his speech and kept him sucking at his lip for a shrriping sound. He’d feel bad for Jacob if the deformity had been there at birth, but he’d brought ruin upon himself.
Damien pointed his finger in the priest’s face. “Weeslaw won’t get away with this,” he swore. “To defile a horse on the day her rider kills her for pagan witchcraft.” His hilt was luring his hand. “I’ll find the hideous bastard and—“
“Kill him? And compound the tragedy?” The old priest had a reproachful look.
“Tragedy?” Damien scoffed. “Who’d miss him? His misery is his own fault, priest.”
Uther softened. “No. I meant your steed, sir—all this foul business my cousin has sent us on.” He touched the knight on his shoulder. “You and I may not be friends in faith, but I’ll beg you like one not to do something . . . ill advised.”
It didn’t need saying. I’m already on shaky ground with my lord. What worse fate awaits me if I kill one of the peasants we were sent to placate? Even if he is the most reviled one among us. Damien stared at the unmoving forest. “I’ll do nothing. I have a wife and daughter to think on. We’ll do this damn vile thing, and be done, and drink to forget it tonight.”
“On that at least, we can agree, parishman. I’ll pray to my twelve, and you can pray to your god with twelve faces.” Uther patted his shoulder like an old friend. “Come, good sir. Let us find these pagans. Would you lend an old man your arm?”
Damien offered his elbow gently, and down they ambled with what haste they could, the priest and parishioner knight. He couldn’t help but think on what a sight they’d make back in Rosbury. In Loran, a Free Believer would cross the road just to avoid an Elvarenist. Yet their alliance made sense, in the same way sworn enemies might shelter together in a storm. At least the two faiths could still put aside differences when it came to Sylvanian heresies.
The only man in my lord’s service worth keeping around, and he wears a collar, Damien mused. These were strange days.
After another fifteen minutes of walking, the pair found the rest of their company beneath the shade of a steel-warped tree polished like armor, not a stain of rust upon it. The silver-haired brothers Orthos and Owen met them first. With them were their other strange companions, Bill with the eye-patch and toothy-smiled Tom, Sylvanians all, he knew beyond any doubt after weeks together in the wilderness.
“Where’s Weeslaw?” Damien barked.
The look he received from Orthos dripped with disdain. “Aye, we seen ‘im,” the pagan answered stubbornly. “Rather, we heard ‘im.” Tom stifled a snicker.
The priest hobbled close. “I failed Sir Damien, but you fail me in turn, Orthos. I told you—Jacob can’t be left alone with Little Lady. Lord Uthron would not be pleased to hear a Gift he wanted to make for your folk was mishandled. Where is Jacob? Tell us now.”
A scolding from their lord’s cousin humbled Orthos. He beckoned to Graywood with a nod. “Like I said, in there,” he grumbled. “We lost him. Wasna about to follow.”
“We can split up,” Owen said helpfully. “Send two parties.”
Orthos paid his brother an uneasy look. “This swordwood is treacherous even by day. If Spittlelip already be in there with the beast, why not let him kill the beast? A Gift is a Gift. We can tell the other peasants.”
“That would be a lie,” Damien said. “If we’re killing my horse, we’ll do it right. In a circle. Just like our lord told us.”
“I think Owen had the right of it,” Uther broke in. “We’ll split up. If you find Jacob, you’ll trill, bird-like. We’ll converge again and make the Gift in a circle.”
Bill scoffed. “Trill. As if anything lives in Graywood. I’d be careful. The Loyal Company’s Pigeons roam these parts.”
“We needn’t fear those traitors or their footmen.” Damien peered into the forest. “They know only idiots would brave this place.”
“Then idiots we be,” Orthos said.
To Damien’s surprise, the brothers offered to accompany the priest so that he could list on their arms. That left him with Bill and Tom, useless, both; the former had just one eye, and the latter cackled like a hyena. Still, he’d rather have five eyes than just two in Graywood. The priest paused with Orthos and Owen before the swordwood, said a prayer, and entered.
Striding past the first few trees, Damien felt his familiar world ebb to trickles of the real. Graywood divided itself into lines of silver lances, too orderly to have ever been living trees. The forest had no discernible smell. Everything green vanished within the first hundred yards, all grass, all weed, all fern, save for dead leaves swept in by wind. Strobes of light pulsed off lustrous trees, disorienting him. Damien and his companions constantly watched their extremities, wary of unintentionally straying into tree trunks riven with fierce grooves.
Cursed indeed, Damien thought as his gaze wandered to the dense forest canopy, layers on layers of silver leaves and branches. Only the long-vanished elves could have wrought this impossible work. But elves sang music for trees to grow. They never would’ve blighted earth with the unnatural.
You could choose any number of clashing tales to believe about how Graywood had come into being. Damien heard Bill and Tom finishing each other’s sentences about how a dying elk god’s blood transformed the forest into a metallic tomb. A priest like Uther would cite verse about the demon the First King had buried in the west long ago. Free Believers held that Graywood was just another mystery the god with twelve faces had sent for them to unravel.
But how can anyone examine something this deadly to the touch? A few men had succeeded in prying off swordwood, and enriched themselves tenfold at the markets. Many more were the ones who slashed arteries and bled out, leaving corpses for wanderers to find.
On and on they wended, listening for a horse’s whinny, their trilling companions, Spittlelip’s slurping, anything. The knight watched, transfixed, as his silver-tipped stubbles and deep-blue eyes slid by in the warped mirrors of trees. Staring too long, he winced from a headache. He pulled off a glove to mop his slick cheeks, massage his temples.
Ahead, corridors of steel blurred together like a desert mirage. This is a cloudless day, he realized. We’ll die here if we can’t trust our eyes in the heat.
“We shouldn’t have come here,” Damien said aloud. “Not even by day. I have a mind to quit this task and risk a cell in my liege’s dungeon. As for that goat fucker you call a friend—“
He realized he couldn’t hear Bill or Tom. Turning, he found himself completely alone.
Buggering pagans, all of them. He couldn’t call for them, lest he alert Spittlelip. Yet he had to do something, because he suddenly realized that he didn’t know where he’d entered the forest, or how to even leave. He’d only come here yesterday, when they stumbled upon that frightful statue. In almost every direction, the swordwood looked the same, lines of steel trees plunging with the hills.
The knight found Helsar in his satchel. Let me return to my daughter, he prayed inwardly.
Over the next hour, maybe longer, he wandered through a lifeless labyrinth. Sometimes he called their names, sometimes he didn’t. With the sun climbing to noon, the metal forest soon felt as sweltering as a blazing forge. He swabbed sweat off his brow, cursing himself for leaving camp without his waterskin.
He was losing patience. “Uther?” he cried out, hearing no reply. “Orthos? Anyone?” He was tempted to call for Spittlelip himself. Again and again, he shouted their names.
Suddenly he had an eerie feeling. Someone was watching him. Who, though? Everywhere he turned, he saw no one and nothing but the gleaming lances of trees.
Shrrip, he heard. “Show yourself, Weeslaw,” Damien told the empty forest. “Do it now.”
A rustle alerted him. Thirty yards off, a lanky figure trudged through the trees. “Weeslaw,” Damien snarled. He closed the distance quickly. “Where’s my horse?”
The figure lurched woodenly. He wasn’t Jacob Weeslaw. A man he was, naked and limber. Shoulder-length hair curtained his head.
Damien held his breath. The man . . . had no face. Just the shape of one, ridgelines and cheekbones. No eyes. No ears. No mouth. Blank canvass. A work unfinished. The pale shallows of eyeless sockets located the knight. And without eyes to see, the faceless man charged at him.
In his haste Damien dropped his glove. Wind in his ears, he leapt over a grassless bank, ducked to avoid wiry foliage, and raced past mirror trees. He misplaced his feet and hurled his armored shoulder into a trunk. Trying to slow his speed, he latched onto a tree limb with the bare hand, and cried out at the flood of pain.
He ran and half-ran, for what felt like an hour, breathing haggardly, checking over his shoulder. No matter how many times he looked, he found no sign of a pursuer. A trick of the eyes. It had to have been. A trick. Waves of liquid fire coursed through his shredded hand. He wobbled on, passing beneath steel canopy, dribbling blood that pooled in his footprints.
Then he heard it. Little Lady’s distant whinny. Birds. His heart filled. Helsar is with me. The knight followed their trilling in a daze.
Scaling a hill, he found the statue. Dracar sat cross-legged on his plinth, as if in wait. Even with horns, wings, and a snout, the fallen god made for a welcome sight. Left of the tribute to Dracar lay a path he and Devan followed to freedom yesterday; to its right, a sloping hillside.
Damien screwed up his face. Around the statue knelt his companions, hands cupped, heads bowed. Whispering, Bill, Tom, Orthos, and Owen failed to notice him.
The kneeling priest lifted his patchy-haired head. “Ah, you’ve found us.” He gazed at the knight’s ruined hand.
Damien approached swiftly, unhinged by anger and fear and the unrelenting throb of his hand. “Aye . . . and you doing blasphemy,” he hissed through his teeth. “I know this lot is treacherous. But you?” He widened his eyes. “You let Weeslaw steal take my horse. You lied to me, priest. Why? Is it my faith—my Free Beliefs—is that why? You’d make sport of me for your own satisfaction?”
“No.” The priest’s voice had a deepness it’d lacked before. As he rose, the four Sylvanians rose alongside him. Uther had a morose look. “I take no satisfaction.”
Something stirred behind him. Damien heard it too late, the shrrip. Jacob Spittlelip slammed into the knight with all his weight. As Damien felt his feet leave the ground, he caught one last look of the man with perforated lips and hateful eyes. How he pitied him.
His world whirled. Wind roared in his ears.
Moments later, Damien Sothron was in hell. The fires of hell scorched his body as he writhed. This isn’t hell, he realized. This is Graywood. He bled as a river flows from a hundred cuts. He’d tumbled downhill. He lay paralyzed from the spears of steel branches that lanced through his mail and boiled leather. Steel leaves and needles clung to his shattered arms and legs like forest burs. His blood soaked the soil.
He was dying. Oh, Sara. Forgive me.
Far above, he thought he saw his squire alongside the traitor priest. Devan wept in shudders. I was wrong, Damien thought. This is hell.
Uther’s voice rang down from above. “As I said, I take no satisfaction in this, Damien Sothron. None of us do.” Spittlelip grinned with a shrrip. “Give up your life, now, sir. Gift it to the one beside you.”
Damien saw the forest shift in the corner of his eye. The faceless one rushed toward him on hands and knees, panting through an emergent mouth. Off to Damien’s side lay his wool satchel, in its dashed contents Sara’s Winter Solstice gift. He grasped for Helsar as the creature rose, salivating.
Somewhere, a horse whinnied.
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