Excerpt 1, The King Trials
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 had nearly finished breaking his fast when his squire bolted out of the predawn darkness, shorn of breath and damp with sweat. He was too quick, and tripped on a root that sent the boy tumbling 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 frightful statue we saw. 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 the look his squire gave him as he knelt to fold the clasps around his leather 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 sliced his eyes to slits. “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 bright gleam on the horizon that could pass for dawn’s breaking light.
I’ll do it this time, especially if he’s done any more harm to 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 was a good boy, more noble of heart than Damien was in this moment. The squire sprinted almost heedless after his knight, trying to dissuade him from doing anything hasty. Inside, he smiled. He knows what my faith has cost me with my liege lord, and wouldn’t want any more harm to befall me for a murder.
The knight stopped for a weary turnabout. Devan Ball was doubled over, hands on his knees, drizzling sweat beads that fell thick from his coal-black bangs. “Don’t worry, Dev,” he said. “I’m a knight sworn to safeguard a lord’s Commons. Why would I break those vows over someone like Jacob Spittlelip?”
Devan gazed up with eyes of shivering glass. “It wasn’t Spittlelip I was worried over, sir.” He thrust a familiar thing into his hand, a small, beautiful thing he’d forgotten to take with him in his haste. Morning sunlight glanced through his coif’s steel links, illuminating the corkscrew folds in Helsar’s flourishing gown. His only child had made him this gift on Winter Solstice, with coin her mother scraped up. You could find better woodwork in Southpoint, but this had come from his daughter, and Damien Sothron loved her above all else in Arna, above the Old Faith and the New, above even his king.
The space in his heart grew larger still for the squire, if that were possible. Helsar guides the brave back to hearth and home, he knew. “Thank you, Devan. I’ll need the goddess in the swordwood.”
“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 the squire’s hair playfully. “Stay here. Watch over camp. You can have my last sausage. Oh, and Dev”—he snatched his tunic sleeve and lifted it to reveal a budding red scar beneath—“show more care in Draywood. 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, hardly the reaction the knight had wanted. He parted with a grin, and left his loyal squire on a hill coming to life with whirring midges and hopping squirrels warm in sunlight’s embrace. Up a sloping ridge, past a talkative brook, and toward the unsettling gleam he went, suppressing a dread that threatened to overwhelm his senses. He supposed he couldn’t kill Jacob Spittlelip, not unless he wanted his noble lord’s disfavor. Gods knew he had plenty of that already.
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 troubled 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.”
Please the gods? Then why not send them to parish? When the knight had asked his lord how they’d please them, exactly, he’d replied, as easily as if he were instructing a Casaanite in his castle to fetch wine, “We’ll honor the Old Ways. Word has reached my ears that some peasants think it would be meet to make a Gift to their old gods.” He’d clapped a firm hand on his shoulder. “I need you to help them do it.”
The Lord Warden had been vague but all too clear, and it left Damien mute with horror. Some of his fellow villagers—maybe his own neighbors—were Sylvanians, he’d realized in that unreal moment. It didn’t bother him that they worshipped trees and stone and dirt.
What bothered 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 about it at temple, his lord had said, even confided about it in Brother Elfred. He’d wanted Damien to see to this personally in the swordwood on the Half-Day to Summer Solstice—with witnesses.
Damien hadn’t believed his ears. “But why the horse, my lord?” The knight had 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 bloody 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 to pieces if she ever learned that her father had slain their beloved courser like a lamb.
Uthron had at least seemed to waffle—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, 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, a villager who had his own reasons for reviling the tax collector, had just one week past told him that he’d caught the vile shit lingering on Sara.
His daughter was eleven years old. Why, my liege? the knight wondered. Why corrupt your noble 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 Damien that this service could also shift his liege back into his corner. 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. Gods 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 Common peasants said held the remains of a demon somewhere deep within.
A haunted forest should’ve looked the part, all dark and forbidding, but that was what made Draywood so sinister: it seduced the eye. Because every forest tree reflected light like a mirror surface, everything glimmered. Stretching southward, the forest canopy rippled like some choppy sunlit sea, aswirl with brilliant yellows and morning golds that warped in the divots of chrome-silver trunks, and in the curl of turquoise-blue leaves, and in the grooves of tortuous roots otherwise lost to shadow. Even Damien, heartbroken over the task ahead of him, couldn’t dismiss its ethereal beauty.
But woe and ruin to the fool who crossed into that metal forest thinking it harmless. Draywood 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. To go alone was certain death.
A strong wind picked up suddenly, ruffling his coif but not one thing in the forest below. Damien reached into the satchel he wore over his shoulder and pawed around for Helsar until he found her. I’ll make Uthron’s Gift, drink mulled wine to forget, and be on my way to you, sweet girl, soon as I can. And may you forgive me for what I do today, if ever you find out, Sara.
“Good morning, Sir Damien,” came a familiar voice.
The priest, Uther Brune, emerged by his side, unsettlingly stealthy for a man his crisp old age. He had on pressed clerical garments, a royal purple cape draped over his cream-colored cassock, none of which seemed to offer much protection from Draywood’s cruel edges. A six-pointed pendant dangled from his wattle neck, fine silver with a flashy ruby centerpiece. His face was buried in the folds of deep-set wrinkle lines that made him look like a wizened bulldog. Silver hair clung to his scalp in fluffy cotton patches. Seventy-one years of life had stooped his shoulders and all but ruined his knees. Yet his hazel eyes were sharp as ever, discerning and wise.
Damien didn’t hide his offense. “Is it good, Brother Uther? I was woken to learn you and Orthos and the rest had gone”—the outlaw pagans, he’d nearly called them instead—“and left my sausages cold to set things to right with a lip-sucking cretin I should’ve been done 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 like a Common whore before even sunrise.” His hands tightened into fists.
It wasn’t just his wife and daughter he had to watch after. No, the twelve-who-were-one had seen fit to curse Damien and their village with a beast raper named Jacob Weeslaw. Most in Rosbury called him Spittlelip on account of the scarred holes in his lips that constantly oozed saliva strings. His shorn tongue hobbled his speech and produced the shrrip, shrrip puckering that always declared his presence. He’d feel low for Jacob if the deformity had been there at birth, but his ruin was a thing the man had brought upon himself.
Damien had a finger pointed in the priest’s face. “It’s not right, not by all the laws of the twelve godfaces and kings and Worthy Assemblies,” he blazed. “To take a horse like that, on the day she must be put to death for pagan witchcraft.” His hilt was luring his hand. “We’ll find him first, and then—“
“Kill him? And compound the tragedy?” The old priest had a reproachful look.
“Tragedy?” Damien scoffed. “Who would miss him, truly? Farmer Grey, who came upon Spittlelip fucking his sheep? His misery is his own doing, priest. Had he not done like Eduard with Elzura, he’d have a whole tongue to speak with.”
Uther softened. “No. I meant your horse, sir—all this foul business our liege 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.”
He twisted around for a grim look at the sprawl of sunlit swordwood that glistened like crystal and didn’t seem to reach an end. “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 twelve-as-one.” Uther patted his shoulder like an old friend. “Come, good knight. Orthos and the others wait for us by the swordforest. 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. Elsewhere in Loran, an Elvarenist and Free Believer would cross the road just to avoid passing the other one. Yet he supposed their alliance made sense, in the same way sworn enemies might share a roof in a blistering snow flurry. At least the Old Faith and the New could still put aside their differences when it came to Sylvanian heresies.
It helped that Uthron Brune was also a second cousin to his liege lord. Damien knew better than to risk any offense. The only man in my lord’s service worth keeping around, and he wears a cassock, 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 roof-tiler Orthos Tyler stood front and center. With him were their other strange companions, Bill with the eye-patch, and lanky Owen, and toothy-smiled Tom, Sylvanians all, he knew beyond any doubt after three days together in the wild.
Damien was in no mood. “Where’s Weeslaw?” he barked.
The look he received from Orthos dripped with disdain. I like them not, and they like me not. Good. “Aye, we seen ‘im,” the pagan answered stubbornly. “Rather, we heard ‘im.” Bill and Tom snickered.
The priest took a turn, hobbling close. “Orthos, you know as well as any that Spittlelip can’t be let alone. Lord Uthron would not be pleased to hear the Gift he wanted to make for your pagan folk was mishandled. Where is he?”
Orthos grimaced. “Aye, in there.” The pagan beckoned to Draywood with a rude nod. “That’s what Bill saw with his one eye, anyhow.”
“We’d have to split up to cover all th’ tracks,” Bill added unenthusiastically.
Owen shifted his posture uneasily. “This swordwood is treacherous even by day. If Spittlelip is already in there with the beast, why not let him make the Gift?”
“Because our liege would have me do the deed,” Damien broke in bitterly. And because my hands should be the only ones to touch her today. “I’ll have nothing else. That’s the cost we’ll pay today to kill my horse.”
Orthos chuckled. “Not me who asked for her. But very well, sir, we’ll find her, and then hand you the dagger.”
Uther butted in, “I think Owen had the better strategy, then. We should split off. We can trill once we find them, and that’ll alert everyone else.”
Bill scoffed. “I meself would rather not alert no pigeons.”
“We needn’t fear the Loyal Company’s birds, or outlaws, for that matter,” Damien said. He had a dark look as he gazed ahead through the swordwood. “They know only fools would enter this wood.”
“Then fools we be,” Orthos said. He had a wry grin that sat wrong with the knight.
Everyone agreed to split the party into half. Damien was surprised when Orthos and Owen kindly offered to travel with the priest so he could list on their arms to relieve his knees. He was left with Bill and Tom, neither of them ideal companions and a trifle useless; the former had just one eye, and the latter was a fool with a fondness for giggling like a hyena. Still, he’d rather have five eyes than just two in Draywood.
Striding past the first few trees, Damien felt his familiar world ebb to trickles of the real. Draywood had no discernible smell, nothing like spicy flowers or thick moisture in the grass. Everything green vanished within the first hundred yards, all grass, all weed, all fern, save for dead leaves swept in by wind. Inside, the wood had a brilliant luster that could disorient the eyes if you didn’t take care. Boughs were as stiff and frozen as they’d been when their ancient Romarian conquerors sighted the mysterious forest millennia ago. The forest divided itself into long lines of silver lances that seemed far too orderly to have ever been green. The knight and his two companions constantly watched their extremities, wary of unintentionally straying into tree trunks grooved with fierce edges. The soft whispers of their footsteps were the only sounds in their ears.
Cursed indeed, Damien thought grimly as he let his gaze wander half-admiringly to the dense forest canopy, layers on layers of brittle leaves and varicose boughs that would take even the most skilled smithy hundreds of years. Only their Firstborn teachers, the long-vanished elves, could have ever wrought such work. But this isn’t the work of elves.
You could choose any number of clashing tales to believe about how Draywood had come into being. Damien heard the two Sylvanians finishing each other’s sentences about how a dying elk god’s blood transformed the forest into a mausoleum. Differing, a priest like Uther would cite the Second Testament verse that taught that the First King himself had buried in this deathwood a Nagarthessi demon, one of the two devil brothers who would one day rise from his crypt to threaten the world of Secondborn men. Parish readers told Free Believers like him that Draywood was just one more mystery the gods had sent for them to unravel.
But how can anyone examine something this deadly to the touch? By some unknown process, a few men had succeeded in prying off swordwood, and enriched themselves tenfold at the markets. Yet that was no easy thing, and more than a few had paid for such greed with their lives.
On and on they wended, listening for a horse’s whinny, their trilling companions, Spittlelip’s slurping, anything. The knight watched, transfixed, as distorted versions of his silver-tipped stubbles and deep-blue eyes slid by in the mirror-like trunks. He stared too long, and felt a headache coming on. He halted to remove his coif and massage his throbbing temples. His face was slick with sweat, and he pulled off a glove to mop his forehead. Ahead, the corridors of steel blurred together like a desert mirage. This is dangerous, he knew. We’ll die here if we can’t even trust our eyes.
“We shouldn’t have come here,” Damien said aloud. “Not even by day. I have half a mind to quit this task. As for my liege, I’ll risk a cell in his vaults. And as for your friend Spittlelip—“
He realized suddenly that he couldn’t hear Bill or Tom, not their feet or breathing. His hairs were on end. Circling about, he discovered that he was completely alone.
Buggering pagans, all of them. He dared not speak too loudly, lest he lose Spittlelip and Little Lady. 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, the one Orthos said they needed to make Uthron’s Gift. In almost every direction, the swordwood looked the same as anywhere else, lines of steel trees and downhill groves that may not have ever seen sunlight.
The knight found Helsar in his satchel. Let me return to my daughter, he prayed inwardly. Over what felt like the next hour, maybe longer, he traipsed through a deathly quiet maze. Sometimes he called their names, sometimes he didn’t. The sun was climbing higher, and the metal forest soon felt as hot as a blazing forge. Swabbing sweat off his brow, he cursed himself a fool for forgetting his waterskin at camp.
Damien felt himself losing patience. “Uther?” he cried out, hearing no reply. “Orthos? Anyone?” He was almost tempted to call for Spittlelip himself.
He had an eerie feeling suddenly. The knight felt himself being watched. But by whom? Everywhere he turned, he saw no one and nothing but the gnarled lances of trees.
“Weeslaw, so help me,” he warned the empty forest. “I’ll gut you myself.” But there was no shrrip.
Through the trees, he spotted a pair of fireflies sliding in and out of sight. Damien breathed with relief. Something that lives, at last, gods be praised, he thought gladly. But when do fireflies fly that parallel to each other? He opened and shut his eyes to make sure they weren’t mirages. He peered closer this time, and saw the fireflies had irises. They looked at him.
Damien took off at speeds he couldn’t seem to control, dropping a slack glove in his haste. Wind in his ears, he leapt over a grassless bank, ducked to avoid a thicket weave of steel foliage, and raced past trees with his reflection. Looking over his shoulder, he misplaced his feet, tripped on a metal root, and threw his shoulder into a bouquet of steel flowers. Trying to slow his speed, he instinctively latched onto a low-hanging tree limb with the wrong hand, and sounded a cry as grooves sharp as halberds cut to the bone.
He forgot about the bleeding and felt his heart fill when he heard Little Lady whinnying. Unable to see his pursuer any longer, he half-ran, half-walked the rest of the way, dribbling a trail of blood that followed his bootprints. Waves of liquid fire coursed through his shredded hand.
A bird trilled for the second time. Thank Helsar, he prayed as he wobbled on, passing beneath steel undergrowth. Ahead, through false tree and blinding glare, he caught a glimpse of the statue that resembled the fallen god Dracar. Cross-legged on a raised plinth, the statue forever stared off, unaware of the goat horns, dragon wings, and wolf’s snout that made it so hideous. To its left was the path they’d followed to freedom yesterday, to its right another sloping hillside that bottomed into a grove littered with leaves.
Stumbling into the clearing, he found the Sylvanians all kneeling before Dracar, heads down, hands cupped in prayer. Bill and Tom were wedged between Orthos and Owen.
Damien screwed up his face. “Brother Uther?”
The kneeling priest lifted his patchy-haired head, careful not to disturb Orthos. He glanced over his shoulder. “Ah, you’ve found us.” He gazed almost curiously at his dripping hand.
He was lost in his anger as he approached. “Aye, and you doing blasphemy,” he snarled through his teeth. “Spittlelip and Orthos I know are treacherous enough. But you?” His eyes grew wide with sudden clarity. “You let Jacob steal off with my horse. You lied to me, priest. Why? Is it 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.”
Damien heard something stir behind him. He heard it too late, the shrrip. Jacob Spittlelip was a blur as he hurled himself into the knight with all his weight. As he felt his feet leave the ground, he caught one last look at the man with perforated lips and hateful eyes, and realized that he pitied him.
His world whirled. Wind roared in his ears.
Moments later, Damien Sothron was in hell. The fire from Dracar’s furnace scorched his body as he writhed. No, not hell, he realized. Draywood. He bled as a river flows from a hundred thousand cuts. He’d tumbled into the grove below the clearing, and lay paralyzed from the spears of steel branches that lanced through his mail and boiled leather. He gazed down his ruined body, and choked on a father’s tears. Countless steel leaves and needles clung to his shattered arms and legs like forest burs. His blood soaked the deathwood floor.
He was dying. Oh, Sara, forgive me.
For a moment, he thought he saw his squire alongside the apostate priest. Devan was weeping. I was wrong. 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 smiled. “Give up your life, now, sir. Gift it to another.”
Damien saw the forest shift in the corner of his eye. The firefly eyes had a body now, and it crawled toward him fast on hands and knees. Off to his side was his wool satchel, and in its dashed contents his daughter’s Winter Solstice gift. He grasped for Helsar as the creature rose tall and menacing.
Somewhere, a horse whinnied.