Chapter Four- The Frostpass

As the last remnants of sunlight drained from the world and night crept upon the camp, the cold seeped into each man, undeterred by the fledgling fire burning between the tents. Since leaving the shack with Baymark, two men had died over the fifty miles they’d covered. Ash, one of the officers from Lorrand’s party, had gone down in an ambush by three rebels who’d obviously not learnt that the war was over. The tradition was to give good men good burials, but Ash had never been a particularly good man, nor did they have the time to delay if they hoped to reach the Northern Host by the new moon.

Later that day, one of Baymark’s guards had fallen from his horse. Upon inspection, he’d been dead for hours, held onto his horse by a sleeve tangled around some ropes. When they came loose so did he, rendering another of their party dead. No swords or blood, just endless cold had killed him. As they had began to say some words for him, in the tradition of the Southerners, they’d realised no one knew his name. In the end they took his coat and furs along with supplies, restocked Lorrand with a new sword to replace one he’d lost in the ambush and threw him off the ridge. He could at least feed the wolves that way.

Eventually night settled, leaving the flames as naught but a scar in the black canvas. The men fell asleep one by one, leaving only Vaygrand and Lorrand sat there still. Both were silent, with Lorrand staring into the flickering light and Vaygrand sharpening his sword. Seemed he was never without a whetstone. For a good hour they sat that way, time measured by the scraping of the blade. At some point between dusk and dawn, when the metal was as sharp as it would ever be, Vaygrand cursed wearily and sheathed the weapon.

Seemed him and Lorrand had lost their damned grudge since they’d been rescued. Funny thing, how a little bit of respect can turn an enemy into a friend. Problem was, it worked the other way as well. Baymark was wrapped in blankets and snoring loudly, his guard sprawled on the naked ground with an empty pipe in his hand. Lorrand supposed he’d best learn his name when he woke. After all, who knew which of them would be the next to be buried and he was damned if he was losing another nameless soldier.

‘Warm night at least,’ he said. It was a rare thing to talk to Vaygrand without arguing about some petty thing or another, but even that was preferable to the crushing boredom of his mind. ‘I bet those Southerners think this is cold.’

‘I guess they would,’ he replied, shaking the snow out of his short, black hair, ‘they’ve probably never seen snow before. Hardly their fault where they were born.’

‘Why Vaygrand, you almost sound liberal there. Is your heart softening and letting love out to the world? I always knew there was a poet in you somewhere.’ It’d  have to be somewhere very deep, but letting him know wouldn’t have done much good.

‘And you,  Lorrand, almost sound like a condescending idiot. Oh wait, you are.’

‘Ah well,’ he sighed, grinning at the soldier, ‘seems you’ve not changed that much. Better the devil you know, anyway.’

‘You calling me Satan, you mad old bastard? Careful, the church will have your head off for that blasphemy!’ he guffawed, the laughter spreading to Lorrand like a virus, cracking his frown right open.

‘You know what? he said after the tirade of laughter stopped, ‘It’s been so long since we’ve had anything to laugh about, I almost forgot how.’ At that, his smile slipped and his thoughts turned to the past. Turned to lonely nights beyond the mountains after his friends were dead. Turned to the bloodbath during the War of Ice, when the valleys echoed with the screaming of dying men. But most of all, he thought of his house burning, his childhood and dreams lost on a pyre made from the flesh of his family and walls of his ancestors.

‘You’re a general. You can’t afford to laugh. God knows you need to bully your men to keep them in line, even if it breaks your heart.’ As quickly as it had come, the happiness was gone again from the two of them, sucked out by the horrors of the past. Everyone had horrific pasts. Men had to do horrific things to survive nowadays, anyway.

‘I never really had you pinned as having a heart, Vaygrand. You had me fooled.’

‘I have everyone fooled. You still annoy the hell out of me, Lorrand, but you’re one of the few bastards I trust.’  Coming from him, that was a compliment.

‘Nice to have someone trust me. I suppose I trust you as well.’ But only as far as your sword stretches, he thought. Complete trust was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Sad fact, but that was the way of it. Still, it seemed he wasn’t going to be stabbed in the back by him any time soon. ‘What do you think of the latest addition to our stroll through the deadly Wilderness?’

‘Who, this boy from the South? He’s an apathetic idiot with grand delusions of the splendour of warfare and noble warriors, but he knows his stuff. I reckon once he sees a few hundred corpses and forgets his ego, he might make a passable officer.  But General? Never.’ As if to mark the moment, Baymark let out a loud burp and rolled to his side, on top of his guard. Lorrand arched an eyebrow at Vaygrand, smirking slightly in the dark. ‘Or maybe he’s hopeless,’ he conceded, draining the last liquid from his bottle.

*****

Morning came, and with it clear skies. The snows passed, leaving the camp nestled between white slopes basking in the winter sun. Over the Eastern mountains, birds wheeled between peaks, while to the West the land dropped away to the great river far below. Winding between pine forests and frozen bluffs, the water made its slow way from the far North to flow to the very heart of civilisation like an artery, earning it the name Lifewater.

Suspended between the earth and the sky, the ridge upon which they sat eating was crushed by silence from every direction. The river’s crashing was lost to the winds and the birds were singing too far away to hear. As it was, the dawn brought an icy paradise for the group. Even after seeing it so many times, even Lorrand was captivated by the beauty of the world from its roof. He’d seen too much red snow and not enough white over the last few years.

‘The Frostpass is… frosty,’ Rarsh said cheerily, ducking out from under the tent and squinting at the vista.

‘That’s why they call it the fucking Frostpass, actually,’ Crow shouted back, winking good-naturedly at his friend. For all the teasing, the two were inseparable.

‘Tea, anyone?’ Baymark ventured, pouring the steaming liquid into ornate cups, fashioned with pale flowers. Vaygrand was staring at them, aghast.

‘You brought cups?’ he asked, with an amazed expression. ‘You brought bloody cups to the Wilderness?’

‘Yes, I did. Do you want any or not?’ he snapped, frowning at Vaygrand as if he was an uncivilised oaf.

‘Sure. But if you’re hoping those things are going back with you in one piece, you have another thing coming.’ Downing the tea in one long, scalding gulp, he threw it on the rocks at his feet, cracking them into pieces.

Leaping up, Baymark pulled his sword out and thrust it in Vaygrands face, waving it around viciously a metre or so away. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he screamed, jumping from one leg to the other. If it wasn’t for the fact he had a foot of sharpened steel in his hand pointing at his friend, Lorrand would have found it a comical sight.

‘Put your sword down, kid. You look a right royal cock with it. Perhaps a fork would suit you better, or have you brought any spoons?’ Wincing, Lorrand tried and failed to catch Vaygrand’s eye. It hardly took a hardened fighter to tell there was trouble brewing brewing between the two men.

‘You can’t tell me what to do! I’m your leader, you have to do what I say and I say apologise!’ For a few seconds, Vaygrand said nothing, staring Baymark in the eye.

‘No,’ he said, hardly moving.

‘Fuck you then!’ Baymark shouted, leaping forward. Swinging the sword, it would have chopped into his neck if Vaygrand hadn’t ducked.  Pivoting on his heel, he swung a backhand in Vaygrand’s general direction. It collided with the kettle, sending boiling water everywhere, including on his opponent’s exposed back.

‘Shit!’ he screamed, eyes bulging out the front of his head. Like a trigger, the rest  of the men burst into action. Baymark’s guard came to his aid, drawing a longsword of shining steel. Crow and Rarsh cursed at the scalds on their arms from the water and joined the fight, Crow pulling two knives from his belt and Rarsh picking up a battleaxe from the floor. Realising someone needed to stop the madness and none of the others seemed bothered on doing it, Lorrand unsheathed his rapier and strode between Baymark and his new-found enemy.

‘You two,’ he snarled, glaring at the both of them, ‘stop fucking about over a teacup. Baymark, never pull a sword when you’re outnumbered and Vaygrand, you don’t have to like this little shit, but don’t piss him off for fun. After all, he is the reason you’re alive right now. Everyone, put down your blades.’ Reluctantly, they all did so. All except Baymark.

‘No’ he whispered, in a twisted mockery of Vaygrand and lunged forward with a demented laugh, aiming straight for Vaygrand’s unguarded heart. He trusts me, Lorrand thought in the slow moment, watching the blade dart forward with murderous intent. Without thinking, he ran towards Baymark and cut an arc through the air with the rapier, a deadly slice of honed metal. With a sickening crunch, it cut into his commander’s head and threw him backwards with sheer force, blood spraying from the open gash just under his hairline. Like a hot iron, he dropped the sword, staring in horror at the man on the floor, screaming in pain and writhing in the snow. Staining the snow red again.

‘I rescued you,’ he croaked, breathing raggedly in between crying and screaming, ‘I saved you and this is what I get?’ Every word he spoke was like a vice on Lorrand’s heart, squeezing guilt from the pit of his stomach.

‘I’m sorry. But you attacked one of my men.’ But sorry was hardly going to fix his broken skull. ‘You might live. I’ll stitch that up.’

‘Not a chance, fuckers,’ he said, a grotesque, bloody grin stretching across his broken face, ‘you did this to me. All I wanted was to be a soldier. I wanted, cough, to do something…good.’ With that, he grabbed his own knife and held it to his pulsating throat. ‘I hate you,’ he managed to whisper pathetically, before slitting his throat. Three spurts of crimson and a gargle of breath that would never come and he was dead.

For a few minutes they sat in silence, no-one daring to speak. Finally, he felt he had to say something. ‘I’m sorry.’ At once, his companions turned to look at him, a grim set to their faces. He waited for someone to reply, hoping for forgiveness but fearing their rage.

‘What the hell do we do now?’ Crow asked, on the verge of tears. For the first time, Lorrand realised how young he was. No more than twenty-five, nor Rarsh. Only just past being boys.

‘Why would I have the answers?’ he asked, far more aggressively than he meant to. Then again, having his commander’s blood on his hands was hardly calming him.

‘Well… with him dead, you’re our leader, aren’t you?’ he said with a hopeful tinge.

‘No, I… I couldn’t-‘

‘Oh, fucking accept it,’ Vaygrand said, grinning, ‘You saved my ass back there and you know it. Someone needed to kill that bastard, seems it fell to you. Unfortunate, but that’s the way of it. Don’t feel so damned guilty.’

Looking around at the three eager faces, he realised he didn’t really have an option. He’d led before and they always say, it never really leaves you. ‘Fine. But what do you think?’ he asked Baymark’s guard, who’d been silent throughout the conversation.

‘Fine by me. What, you expect me to hate you for killing him? I would have myself if he wasn’t paying me.’

‘Well then,’ Vaygrand said, ‘that clears it. Lorrand, you’re our leader again. Just don’t ask me to fucking bow. All you have to do now is explain to however many men he led how he had an accident and you bravely stepped up to the role. That’s if you plan to rejoin the Cavalry, that is. What city are we going to sack, again?’

Suddenly, the peaks felt that bit colder. ‘Sinfall, apparently.’ Seems his plans of abandoning fighting were down the drain. Now he was in control of a hundred or so men he didn’t know in the largest army he had ever seen, marching the length of the country to the strongest city in the world for reasons he didn’t quite understand. If this was luck, he decided he had too much of it for his own good. ‘Now, we’d probably better bury him at least. Anyone got a shovel?’

‘Here ya go chief,’ Vaygrand shouted, ‘but it could take a while!’ In his hand, a silver teaspoon from an ornate cutlery set.

 

 

Break the Mould

Sitting on my bed of an evening, I look at the little imperfections in my life that frustrate me. Although I can’t see it, I can feel it, the broken slat at the end. It makes no difference by the looks of it, the bed still holds but it’s always there. I know that the draw in front of me is loose, that if I pull it the front will come off. Every day I tighten the screw, but when I come back the next it’s inexplicably loose again. So is the way of things, with me constantly trying to turn against the tide in vain.

Most of all is the mould upon my roof, crawling in from the window, invading my private sanctuary with insidious deliberation. Despite my best intents and building a fortress, it always creeps in, taunting and beckoning me to try and fight it back. The doubts and fears, paranoia doing its job against my wishes. And as it comes, slowly but surely, the slat stays broken and the draw comes loose again.

Every day, the same. Tightening my draw when I wake up and feeling the bed giving way, more pressure every time. The perfect look of it from the outside and the crippling problems beneath the surface. Sixteen years, and still I can’t break the mould.

Chapter Three- Angels of War

He stood by the window, staring over the leagues of farms, fields, rivers and forests, staring at the great city of Sinfall. From his room in Summerhall’s Palace of Flowers, over a hundred feet from the ground, the East was picturesque, not yet ravaged by the fighting in the West. Soon enough though, it too would be a battleground. Soon enough that great city on the horizon would be burning.

Karlson hadn’t been sleeping. His room was the very definition of decadence; eight silver braziers holding candles on the wall above his bed, rich velvet curtains blocking out all light when closed and pine furniture carved in intricate patterns holding more clothes than a man could feasibly wear. Despite the comfort and luxury, nothing could keep his mind at ease. In every dark corner he saw the ghosts, heard their whispers beneath his pillow and felt their knives on his skin. Not that three children would have knives, but paranoia wasn’t the most realistic of  afflictions.

The only thing provided that he’d even used was the ample supply of wine. Poisoning himself with it did seem, at least, to help his sleep come a little quicker. Unfortunately, he’d had to severely limit himself from the bliss it provided, due to it being extremely potent and showing up to guard duty pissed out of his head would hardly set the right tone in his first week of service. His father once told him a little wine never hurt anyone when it came to fighting, until he died from being hit over the head with a bottle in a pub brawl. The helpful advice had not exactly been forthcoming following that.

He’d loved his father, of course. The man was a drunken oaf, prone to violence and possibly the laziest man alive, but he was also one of the most honest. Upon his death, Karlson found himself owning everything he’d owned, including the dying farm. Promptly selling it all for around half its value, he ran off to join the Cavalry as more than just a volunteer in the Brigade. Not once had he looked back and regretted the decision, for the army was all he’d dreamed of and more: good men to drink with, bad men to argue with and women hungry for tales of adventure. Oddly, for an army of the Faith, the generals had a rather cavalier attitude towards the whores that followed their troops. He supposed there was only so far a man’s piety could stretch.

Pouring another drink from the golden decanter, he gulped down the sweet, red liquid, revelling in the bliss clouding his mind. ‘You’ve started early,’ came a voice from his doorway. Spluttering the drink, he wiped his sleeve over the droplets clinging to his beard, wheeling around to see the unwelcome visitor. None other than Sandrick Bliethorn, a Southerner and only member of the Cloaks to talk to him in the last week. The man had the unsettling ability of appearing quite without warning.

‘I think you’ll find,’ he pointed out, smiling at the sight of a friendly face at last, ‘that one in the morning qualifies as late, rather than early.’

‘Maybe when you were young, but there’s no point arguing about that. It’s four in the morning now and you must have been very young when that qualified as late.’ He had a heavy Southern accent, sweet as the wine he’d been drinking, but with a deadly streak to it, just as the wine had proved with Karlson’s dear Father. The dark charcoal of his skin melted into the rich silks of his formal robes, with long, dark, curly hair rolling down to his shoulders. An angular face with large eyes gave him a feminine look, at odds with his deep voice. For all his talk about the young, he looked little more than a twenty year old himself, although he was, in reality, almost of an age with Karlson, forty at the least.

‘You’ve got me there, Bliethorn. What’re you doing up so early, anyway?’

‘Gratvia wants us. I was here to check you weren’t pissed on the drink and reminiscing. I could ask the same question.’

‘I’m getting pissed and reminiscing. Bloody hell, what could a sane man want at this time?’

‘Who says he’s sane? You’ll just have to come and see. We’re meeting in the room at the top of the Western tower. You might want to put some trousers on first,’ he said with a wink, pivoting in dramatic fashion and heading out into the hallway. Realising rather too late that he’d been halfway through getting dressed when he’d stopped for a drink, Karlson pulled his light armour on along with the rest of his clothes. He hardly saw the point of putting heavy mail on for a night-time visit to his boss. Letting out a yawn, he set out after Sandrick, grabbing his sword at the last minute. After all, you couldn’t be too careful anymore.

In the early hours, the palace was eerily quiet. Pacing through silent corridors, Karlson felt like an intruder in the place. Then again, he was. Summerhall was not where he belonged, nor any of the men who had come with Gratvia; the city was a place of peace and science, not war and faith. The suits of armour lining the walls as he made for the tower made him irrationally nervous. You shouldn’t be here, they said, walking upon our land. He had to say, he would much have preferred to be back in Newgarden with its clear skies and good humour, rather than in Summerhall with naught but grief and fear from the people. The old warriors could keep their dreary halls if they so desired them.

Taking a door on his right, he ascended the spiral steps, up to the very to of Summerhall’s palace itself. He couldn’t see why the Archangel would be up here, but he had no reason to mistrust Sandrick. After all, you’ve got to trust someone in a place as wretched as the city of flowers. Approaching the door at the top of the tower, he realised that he’d not even passed any guards on the way. The fact that Gratvia would leave himself unprotected made him strangely nervous. Something was obviously going on. With a familiar sick feeling in him that so often made itself present, he threw open the doors and stepped into what would surely be the most decadent room in the entire building.

On the other side, however, was a simple rectangle with a desk in the middle and a few small windows. Behind the oak desk stood Archangel Gratvia himself, head of the Church state, one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. Opposite, six other Crimson Cloaks stood. Among them, Karlson noted Sandrick, leaning against a pillar, seemingly not a care in the world, an effect only slightly ruined by the sword in his hands.

‘Ah, the newest shepherd in my flock,’ Gratvia said, a low but soft voice. For a man bringing war and death to a nation, he was a nice enough person. Ruthless to his enemies of course, just as any leader needs to be. What many forget, however, is that they must treat their allies with respect, lest they one day be enemies, and Gratvia treated men with nothing if not respect. ‘Please,’ he said, gesturing towards a bottle on his desk, ‘indulge yourself. After all, you must have some reward for getting up at this early hour.’ Grinning weakly, Karlson reached for the bottle. It seemed he had a choice between getting slightly drunk or refusing a man renowned for his taste for beheading, which wasn’t really much of a choice. Anyway, he’d never been a man to turn away a good vintage.

The meeting was, in truth, much more informal than he had been expecting. Even for a royal guard, drinking with the head of state was not a common pastime. ‘May I ask why I am up at this early hour?’

‘Oh, that can wait for the rest of my merry band of thieves to arrive. Seven, so far? Three left then, unless I’m meant to have a royal calculator to work that out for me. I swear, the more you do the less men seem to think you’re capable of.’ He seemed in a good mood at least, although everything seemed less serious on top of two bottles of Newgarden Red. The talk continued for another few glasses, until at last all ten Crimson Cloaks were gathered in Gratvia’s office, the first light of day beginning to penetrate the room.

‘Now,’ he began, standing up and placing a hand on his sword, as men tend to do when trying to make a point. ‘You may have noticed you are the only men here, no guards or servants. There is a reason for that, just as there is a reason why we are in this…. modest room rather than my office.’ There’d better be, he thought sourly. The wine may be good, but it hardly warranted rising before even the sun. ‘What I am about to tell you can not go beyond these walls. If word escaped, everything we have fought for in Summerhall will be lost. We walk on thin ice here and let me tell you, give these men a reason to doubt our power and we will lose. You see, nearby,’ he pointed vigorously at the map on the desk, ‘is the village of Orstead. An insignificant little place, but home to some renegades from my Cavalry. Around ten people who seemed to… lose faith, as it were.

‘Don’t butter it up,’ came a dark voice from the Cloak nearest the wall, ‘some o’ your people got fed up and went renegade and you want us to kill them like loyal dogs for their masters.’ Karlson winced, sure the Archangel would have him beaten for insolence.

Instead, he gave a quite different reply. ‘Quite right, my man, quite right. Do I hear you complaining?’

‘Heck no, as long as get paid, I’m one happy dog.’ A grin had crossed his face, but not the slightest trace of amusement was present.

‘Excellent. Thank Kel for you, Garth. You’re a refreshingly honest and blunt man to have around these sycophants. Well, I’m sending you, Karlson here and… Sandrick, you as well. Three of you leading a few men should be enough. If anything goes wrong its on your head, Karlson. Being the new one and all, we need to know we can trust you. So, go to Orstead and eliminate our traitors. It goes without saying, it would not do for anyone to learn that some of our members have gone rogue. It could cause… complications” His face had a grim set to it now, entirely removed from the easy smile he had worn previously.

‘Yes, your benevolence,’ replied ten voices in unison. Signalling the meeting adjourned, one by one the men departed, until only Karlson and the two remaining Cloaks on guard duty remained.

‘Gratvia?’ he asked, trying and failing to sound brave.

‘Yes, my Son?’

‘What’s it all for? Why is it so important we control this continent?’ The friendly smile began to fall from the Archangel’s face, the façade giving way to a look much darker, a look of… tiredness, almost. Only for a split second though, as the grin was quickly in place again.

‘For the Faith of course. Now go, child. I’m sorry for waking you, but do try to get some rest. You’re off at midday.’

‘Yes, your… yes, Gratvia.’ Smiling at the small success of talking to the infallible Archangel Gratvia as an equal rather than a master, he left him to his papers and made for his chamber. Outside, Bliethorn was waiting for him in the shadows of the small antechamber above the stairs. ‘And what do you want?’ he asked, irritated at the idea of another lengthy conversation about what someone did or didn’t do. All that war seemed to made of nowadays was secrets and lies and frankly, he’d had enough of them. Before being suggested as a Crimson Cloak, he’d quite happily been a soldier, killing who he had to and living the simple life. For the first time in his life, he’d began to wish he’d never left the farm. If anything, a foray into danger at the village was a blessing.

‘To talk. Just because I’m a bloody Cloak doesn’t mean I’m not human, Karlson.’ Of course, he was right. It was all too easy to forget there were still some good men left.

‘Of course not. I know that, friend. It’s just… sometimes it can be so tiring, the endless plots and fighting. Over twenty years I’ve been in the damned business and I’m getting too old for it. Look at all the bright eyed lads around here, were you ever that vain?’

‘For a man who didn’t want to talk, a hell of a lot of words are pouring out your mouth. No, I was never as vain as them. Times have got easier, old man. They still see the world as full of life and joy.’

‘While we,’ he mused wearily, ‘see it as a place where men fight to make it better, but once they’re gone it will be exactly the same as when they were born. When did we grow up?’

‘Fuck knows. When you saw your first man die?  When  you woke up one morning and just wanted to go back to bed? All I know is that I’ve seen so many years they blur together now. I gave up asking questions long ago.’ By then, they’d arrived back in the corridor leading to their rooms.

‘Well, I’ll be seeing you then. Midday at… the stables?’

‘Not a clue. The Angel can rot for all I care. If he was desperate for us to go as soon as possible he’d be sending us now.’

‘I guess so.’ It was funny, the way that a title can make a man seem so powerful. The Archangel, greatest leader in the land, emissary from heaven and servant of Kel. But beyond all that, a man. Flesh and blood, just the same as anyone else. Just as mortal. A chilling thought and one Karlson put to the back of his mind. Stripping off the armour and sword, he pulled shut the heavy curtains and returned to the embrace of sleep. Returned to his thoughts and nightmares.

 

 

 

Progress Update #3

As some of you may have seen, I now have Chapter Two up on my blog- if you’ve not read it yet, hit the link on the right. I’m currently writing Chapter Three, once more from Karlson’s perspective, the POV from the prologue. It will have some backstory on the Church and his regiment, the Crimson Cloaks, as well as give a look around the city of Summerhold. I’m hoping to have it up tomorrow, although if all goes well it may be ready for tonight.

If you’ve been enjoying my writing, go check out Joe Abercrombie at www.joeabercrombie.com who’s brilliant work inspired me to start writing beyond a few awful paragraphs. His new book, Half a King, is due for release early July in the UK and a week later in the US, which I’ll be writing a review of upon its release.

In other news, I have a week off exams, enabling me to dedicate a good few hours per day to planning out the final details of The Winter Criminals, and do some hard writing sessions. To give you a scale of how long it will be, I’m aiming for 30 chapters, sans the prologue, split into three chunks of ten. At around 3000 words per chapter, the mathematicians of you will realise this equates to around 100,000 words, a standard book length. I’m not saying that’s exact- I’ll let the story organically grow and as I edit it, it may become significantly shorter or longer.

Remember, any feedback, good or bad, is appreciated and if you haven’t already, feel free to follow my blog, or @peterthefish97 on Twitter. Valar morghulis, people.

Revisions and Changes

Just a quick post, letting you know about some work I’m doing. As you may have seen, Chapter Two is now uploaded, meaning one chapter from each viewpoint is ready to read. This is still my first draft and there are undoubtedly some fixes I need to write in, as I’m aware there are some glaring contradictions in backstories between chapters. I’ll be working on ironing out the creases for the next few days and getting everything to slide along nicely! one other thing is, in Chapter Two I’ve removed the character thoughts written in italics. I’ve decided to scrap these, so readers can decide for themselves how the characters think, rather than it being spoon fed. After all, you’re an intelligent bunch! I’ll be updating the prologue and previous chapter accordingly. For now, a quick look at Chapter Three and as ever, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy my work.

Update: The prologue’s been updated accordingly, chapter one will follow suit with a new chapter back with Karlson being uploaded next week.

Peter Hughes

 

Chapter Two- A Cold Job

The acrid taste of smoke hung in the air, a slightly unpleasant but necessary evil. The fire was roaring by now, bringing a warm, crackling light to the small room, making it feel a little less like a cold shack in the middle of nowhere. The low ceiling of logs was lost behind a balck veil, which lined the walls and clung to the five people in there, holding them in its close grip. The sun had been down behind the mountains so long now that it would soon be rising over the great lake to the East, however the windows would have shown no light yet, even had they not been caked in soot. Lorrand was comfy enough, hunched in the soft chair by the flames. As comfy as you can be with a half your arm cut open and bandaged up, at least. By his feet, leaning into the warmth of the flames, were Crow, Ash and Rarsh, three of his officers. They had been, at least, up until each of them had lost his men in an ambush by the very Wildermen they’d been stalking for three weeks. Now, he led the lot of them, since they’d all seemingly lost the will to do much besides stare into the glow, grunting every now and again.

‘Well then,’ growled Vaygrand, slouched in a corner in an oversized blanket so stained it was almost as black as their moods. ‘We’re well and truly buggered, seems to me.’ One gaunt hand was firmly clasped about a bottle of ale, the other around a silver dagger with a point sharp as a needle, his prized possession. Drink and death, Lorrand thought, summed the man up perfectly.

‘Well thank-you for your insight, my good friend, but if your wits were half as sharp as your dagger, you’d realise we are alive and warm, while our enemies are cold and most likely freezing to death half way up a mountain. Try to see the bigger picture, ideally one extending beyond the next bloody inn.’ Lorrand was in no mood for the man’s whining, since they were, as he had so eloquently put it, well and truly buggered. Rather than taking the opportunity to gracefully shut up, the soldier slowly stood up, in what was supposedly meant to be an intimidating move. Once, his face might have incited terror into a man, but wrinkles had crept their way across it, slightly robbing him of the effect.

‘And if they’re not? What the hell do we do then, sitting in this damned cosy deathtrap?’ he said, staring darkly at Lorrand as if he would like nothing better than to see his head on a spike. As it happened, the feeling was mutual at that particular moment.

‘We are in a situation known as a stalemate, if your vocabulary stretches that far. While we hold the pass they can’t attack, but while they remain encamped we cannot retreat. The advantage is that we have shelter and and an army of ten thousand men a few days’ march away. If you really think about it, it wouldn’t look too good if our rescuers arrived only to find we’d killed each other.’ To tell the truth, Lorrand had no idea whatsoever if anyone was coming for them, or even when. They could be knocking any minute, or still marching the same way they had been when he’d taken his followers to scout the area. They may have been war veterans, but politics was a fickle business and the fools leading the host were under the strong impression that men were better use putting on a show by making as much noise as possible and doing as little as possible, rather than actually fighting. Lorrand didn’t want to be so harsh to his men, but nine times out of ten, angry soldiers were more use than terrified soldiers.

‘Alright, I’m sorry chief. It’s just messing with my head, sitting here, powerless. I mean, what’s the point of this? I’m getting too old for war. I don’t even believe in this God they’re banging on about, just saying I do so they’d pay me to fight. I had to send my own family away to Summerhall, just so that Archangel didn’t hang ‘em for not believing. I guess… I guess I’m just fed up of this. If I get out of this little siege, I’m taking my money and heading down to Summerhall as well. It’s been too long since I saw Mary and the kids, maybe we could start a farm.’

‘It’d be strange for you, to be in a situation you can’t solve by cracking an axe over some bloke’s head. Don’t think about it too much, you might hurt yourself.’ A meagre wave of laughter echoed from the men, all of who seemed to have a half-hearted attitude at best to making it through the pickle they found themselves in. He’d read somewhere that war makes the strongest man tired and he was starting to see that whoever said it had the truth. When they’d set out with sixty brothers, jokes and drink had flowed every night, hearts warmed by tales of bravery and adventure. Now they had five men, with desperate attempts at humour to lift the mood, and potent alcohol to get rid of any feeling in the heart at all.

Gradually, as the conversation began to fade and the heat of the fire warmed their frozen bones, sleep lured the men into its warm embrace. Fleeting dreams of home, of his wife and friends flickered though his head, dreams of better times with better people. He never should have left Marshwood, he’d decided long ago. In a village of no more than forty houses, the glittering spires of Newgarden had haunted his thoughts, enticing him to glory. He’d dreamed of fighting for his King, protecting his way of life. Now he fought for a pompous idiot riding around in silks and calling himself an angel, killing honest men for a foreign religion. But it was what it was, so he carried on. Fat lot of good it had done him, he contemplated. Abandoned in the wild, leagues away from anyone he loved, with only men as wretched and hateful as himself for company.

After his restless sleep, he slipped back to conscious thought. The main one was that he really needed to piss. ‘Most useful thing you’ve thought of for a while,’ he muttered to himself, ‘shame it involves getting up.’ Feeling his way around the half-lit room, he eventually located his boots. He dimly noted that the fire had burnt out, letting the cold crawl back into the room. After a couple of minutes of trying to shove a numb foot into his icy boot in vain, he gave up and padded out into the brisk winter morning. The stony path probably should have hurt him, but the frozen jokes on the end of his legs appeared to disagree. It was one advantage to being cold, even if it was a pretty bad one, in his opinion. The sound of a rider emanated from the mist beyond. He concluded it was a messenger, bringing someone a package.

‘Well, let’s get this over with then,’ he said, rustling through the coarse material around his crotch. Finally he found his target and proceeded to let a long stream of warm liquid arc its golden way into the icy grass. He let out a small sigh, feeling much better for his emptying himself. Turning back to the path, he came face to face with three horses, ridden by three tanned men in pointed helmets and the armour of the Crusaders, the army of the faith. It clicked with him just as the front rider, also clad in a crimson and white cape dismounted, that he was miles away from civilisation, making it rather unlikely that a messenger would be taking a morning errand into wilderness and danger. That revelation was shortly followed by the recognition that the man was no other than General Baymark, commander of the Faith’s Northern division of its armed forces.

‘Good tidings, Officer; we have broken though the enemy lines and you’re being pulled back South. The war in the North is over. We crushed the opposition and won complete control in this… lovely place.’ He held out his hand, either for a handshake or to be kissed. The former was probably more likely. Lost for words, Lorrand opened his mouth, but not a lot came out.

A less than intelligent ‘Oh,’ was all he managed, before becoming painfully aware of his cold manhood hanging out his trousers. He quickly glanced down, although unfortunately so did Baymark. That was how he came to be standing in a remote valley North of the bloody world, with his cock out in front of his commanding general. It vaguely reminded him of a raunchy joke he’d heard, which monumentally failed to make the situation any better. ‘Sir… welcome to our humble abode. Please, er… come in.’

*****

He was dreaming of home. Of his family safe in Summerhall, safe from the violence and bloodshed his employers loved. Atheists had no place around the Church’s army. Around people like him. He woke up to the sound of the door opening, along with the other men under Lorrand’s command. All hard, strong men, all good allies. All of them looking pretty bloody tired. Instinctively, he reached for his dagger, unsheathed it with a flurry and sat up on his haunches, poised to attack whoever came in. A face appeared in the open doorway, a well kept one in the armour of his employers. ‘You two,’ he said, ‘wait outside.’ Vaygrand Larson may have been a man of dubious loyalties, but he wasn’t one to stab the man paying his wages. Judging by the cape, he was the latest man with the title of Duke who apparently controlled him. Behind him came Lorrand, sheepishly smiling like a child caught doing something he shouldn’t be. Grunting, he reluctantly put the steel into its leather sheath, although kept a hand grasped on the handle. There may have been no immediate danger around, but the feel of the cold metal comforted him. Men changed and were complicated, but metal was solid, uncompromising and loyal to the man who owned it.

‘Ahem,’ Baymark coughed quietly, attempting to catch the attention of the other three. He somehow failed spectacularly, a feat made all the more impressive considering they were alone in a hut together and he was the reason they were awake.

‘Oy, fuckers, listen up!’ he shouted, smirking as three heads snapped around in unison. ‘You’d better listen to this man, he pays you an’ all.’

‘Erm… thank you, good sir.’ Now Baymark looked just as sheepish as Lorrand, awkwardly smiling as though he’d found some entirely unwelcome guests at his door.

‘The hell with ser, why are you up here freezing your balls off instead of sitting in your cosy room? Feeling left out on the fun your trops were having?’ The sight of the man standing there in his resplendent uniform had put Vaygrand in a thoroughly  sour mood, one that was only growing worse as he grew colder and colder.

‘I am hear to bring you and your army home and my presence will give them heart, according to our gracious leader,’ he said, chest puffed out and beginning to smirk, although there had been a hint of sarcasm about the word gracious. ‘I have rescued you all. Where are your boys, anyway?’

‘Rescued?’ he snarled, rage coursing through his body. ‘You never should have sent us up here in the first place! For your information, it is my pleasure to tell you my boys are frozen corpses in a river. Some fucking rescue.’ Hand quivering on the blade, it was all he could do not to thrust it through the man’s pompous face. As it was, he settled for watching the smirk turn into a look of horror.

‘Dead? I hardly believe it… well, you lot certainly made a hash of this job, eh? Can’t get the soldiers these days! Looks like I came up here for nothing.’ The arrogant, easy smile pushed him over the edge. Roaring, he pulled the knife out of its case and rushed at the idiot, screaming like a madman. With a swift thrash of his hand, he drove the steel forward, to cut at… nothing. In the last minute, it seemed that Lorrand had pulled the Duke aside, leaving Vaygrand to slash at empty air.

‘You came up for nothin’? Well what the hell did they come for? At least you’re alive, if not from any help by me.’

‘I… I should have you hanged for that, traitor. General Lorris, arrest that-‘

‘It’s Lorrand, actually,’ the Chief interrupted,  ‘then again, I’ve only served you for a couple of years since you killed your predecessor. I don’t really blame my friend here for trying to cut your pretty face, to tell the truth. Now, take us back to sunny Newgarden. I’ve a mind to have some drink that doesn’t taste worse than what comes out the other end.’ For once, he admired Lorrand. He may have been a harsh leader, but the brat who employed the both of them reminded him there were worse people to have deal with.

‘Newgarden? By the Lord, my man, have you been living under a rock for two years? We’re going back to Summerhall.’

‘No, in a valley. What-‘ Lorrand began to say, before Vaygrand cut him off.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked, stomach tightening in a sick knot and bile rising in his throat. ‘Why Summerhall?’

‘We left Newgarden. For the glory of the Faith we’ve been campaigning across the Northern Continent for a year now, bringing the whole damn place under Church control. The Crusaders are now happily stationed at Summerhall, ready to declare glorious war on Sinfall!

‘What about the people there? Summerhall is full of people… not of the Faith.’ People like his wife, his children and his friends. ‘ Not of our faith, that is. What did you do to them?’

‘We killed them, obviously. Can’t have any of that scum tainting our new empire!’

*****

The eight of them made a strange sight, it had to be said. Leading the pack was one of the guards assigned to Baymark, proudly riding a dark stallion. Behind, Vaygrand was silently pacing after him, wearing a permanent scowl. Besides him, Ash, Crow and Rarsh had similar expressions, though none quite as murderous. That left Lorrand alone at the back of the sorry group, sans the company of General Baymark and another lone guard  a few steps further back.

‘…absolutely must try the rice dishes, they’re simply fantastic!’ The man had been babbling about the latest food trends in the Southern States for some time now, leaving Lorrand rather frustrated by the man’s apparent complete alienation from the fact that there was, in fact, technically still a war taking place in the North, even if the Church had decided to go home.

‘With all due respect, Sir, I’ve been up here for two years. When I left Newgarden, the Church was content with ruling the West and keeping the Wildermen beyond these mountains. Now, it appears to control the majority of the country. So I hope I don’t come across as rude, by saying that food is bottom on my list of things I need to find out about.’ He was starting to regret ever saving the man from Vaygrand. ‘Now, what land do we control, or would it be easier to ask what we don’t?’

‘Well, it’s all rather simple. For years we’ve been building up an army, as you know, but split into small factions throughout our happy nation. Just over a year ago, in the November before last, we called around half of our forces back to Castle Gratvia in the mountains. From there, we spread out, taking control of the major cities. We now have almost everywhere under our, er, grip. The only place making a stand is Sinfall and its provinces, however there is a good deal of unrest in the cities. Contrary to public belief, we honestly don’t have a tight hold on places like Oldgarden or Summerhall. That’s why we’re taking people back from the North. Even so, we don’t have enough men to attack Sinfall. Take too many out of the cities and we could face an uprising or full scale rebellion.’

The news was sounding worse and worse to Lorrand as Baymark went on, detailing the cities each side had holds on. The church may have ruled in name, but it seemed the Archangel had bitten off more than he could chew. It didn’t really matter to him which side ruled, but as it was the nation was on the edge of civil war. One thing he didn’t need was a long, bloody fight to rob him of the handsome retirement package he’d been meaning to redeem.

‘So the world’s about to fold in on itself if we don’t take Sinfall soon, alright. So what do I have to do?’

‘You, my man? Why, you’re Northern, aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ he replied nervously, not at all liking where this was going.

‘And your kind follow your own?’

‘Yes, but-‘

‘And you have a strong history as a general, a leader of men?’

‘Yes,’ he sighed, accepting defeat. It was perfectly obvious what was coming.

‘Then you have the enviable task of  attacking Sinfall with the Northern host and earning your retirement!” The General’s face broke into a wide grin.

‘Why do I not feel this is not because of my astounding excellence on the field?’ he asked, hardly daring to hear a happy answer.

‘Because, my big, bold friend, you are entirely expendable and really don’t have a choice!’ He gave a warm hearted laugh, which baffled Lorrand even more than it annoyed him. It actually seemed the fool found himself funny. He wasn’t particularly angry with the statement; it was true and he could hardly argue the fact. With a resigned sigh, he gathered his pace, moving ahead of the general’s slow, if beautiful mount.

‘Fighting in the mountains for nothing to storming the hardest city known to man, and at my age? I’m getting too old for this,’ he said to no one in particular. ‘One last fight, then I’m done.’

He’d lost count of the amount of times he’d said that.

 

The Naming

Good news, readers! The book I’m currently writing, under the working title of Phantom Faith, now has its final name: The Winter Criminals. If anyone sees the historical reference, you can have a cookie. My current plans are to reduce the scope of the book, streamlining events and concentrating on a less ‘epic’, more personal story arch.

Following this, if the need arises, I plan to name the series ‘Phantom Faith’, as I think this better describes the background to the world than the events taking place within the book. Nonetheless, I’ve been enjoying writing and rewriting chapters so far, so thanks for your continued support! Now, back to exams.

Progress Update #2

I’m back, guys. Well, in truth, I never left. I know I’ve not uploaded much recently and the previously announced timetable didn’t go to plan, but I’ve still been writing at every opportunity… which is when I’m not reading or revising. I have my GCSE exams coming up, you see, so that’s taken up the majority of my time. Right now I’m revising French (eugh) but I’m going to draft another chapter tonight, from the final of my three viewpoint characters. I sincerely hope it will be uploaded this weekend, as well as having chance to tidy up the previous two. So, stay tuned!

Warmth- For Ellena

Ellena woke with a start. Noises from outside were drifting in through the open window, left open in the hot summer night. She realised it was screaming, high pitched and loud, many voices mixed together. ‘Drunks.’ She muttered to herself darkly, before turning to the wall and burrowing her head deep in her pillows, trying in vain to block out the shouting. Sighing wearily, she rolled out of bed muttering curses and padded along the floor to the window. Pulling back the curtains, she saw a dozen or so people running down the street, screaming their heads off and laughing, bottles in hand. Grimacing, she slammed the window and turned back to get in bed and go back to sleep. ‘Bloody idiots.’ She walked over, yawning, as she heard a noise. The smallest of noises, a gentle creaking, from the landing, right outside her door. ‘It’s nothing,’ she whispered to herself, hardly daring to breathe. ‘Just… just the floorboards.’ Somehow she didn’t quite believe that.

Creeping along, ever so slowly, she approached the doorway quiet as a mouse. Timidly she placed one hand on the handle and breathed in silently, working up the courage to open the way, to see. She could feel the insidious force behind it, urging her to look. A voice inside her, whispering, forcing. Breathing out, she began to count down. Three. She had to look. How could she go back to sleep, not knowing if something was out there? Two. She was being silly. Of course nothing was out there. The house was locked, no one could have got in. One. She heard it again. A floorboard creaking, directly outside the room. Her stomach was churning, fear gripping her heart in an iron vice. Suddenly she thought of the screams outside. What if one of them had broken in? How drunk would they be? In a spur of madness, she pushed down quietly on the handle and let the door open a fraction. Peering through, she let her eyes adjust to the darkness of the hallway and saw… nothing. Sighing, half with annoyance and half relief, she began to close the door again and go to sleep before she woke her parents. Glancing over to their room, the sickness in her gut suddenly returned. Her parents always closed the door, as habit more than anything, but they did it; the door was closed every night without fail. Their door was wide open. What’s more, outside it was a muddy footprint, faint on the carpet in the gloom, but unmistakable.

Almost in a daze, she walked silently through the dark, drifting like a ghost along the short hall. It was no more than four steps to the open door, but in the half light with the blood pounding in her head, time stretched out indefinitely, seconds taking hours, hours taking days and days taking seconds. Reality lost all meaning, with only the open door meaning anything to her. Eventually, she stood in front of it, staring into oblivion. Inside, all was black. The meagre light filtering from her room into the landing was lost now, swallowed up by the cavernous entrance, leaving only a terrible void and a foreboding sense of fear wrapping its cruel hands around her. Squinting into the inky blackness, hardly daring to move, she tried to pick out shapes. She could vaguely make out the bed, directly ahead. A pale square glowed on the wall, the heavy curtains letting the slightest light in, not enough to show anything else. Steeling herself, she stretched her hand out into the room, running her smooth hand along the rough wall, searching for the light switch. She began to doubt herself, why she was doing this. Even if there was someone in there, what could she do? If there wasn’t, her parents would wake up and shout at her for waking them. Bracing herself, she placed her finger atop the switch. Hopefully if she had the element of surprise, she’d stun the intruder and run downstairs to the phone while he was reeling. She applied the slightest pressure to the switch and heard the click, before the room was bathed in light.

The vomit bubbled up her throat, burning, as her insides churned at the scene laid out before her.

Carnage.

Her parents’ bed was flooded with crimson, their bodies sprawled across it, blood flooding out from their shredded necks, bubbling peacefully in a tide of death with the stink of an abattoir. The sheets were saturated, the red flow claiming everything for its bloody dominion. What should have been inside was outside, flesh parted like the red sea, bodies ripped like a child’s doll, stomachs torn with ragged flaps of meat spread out. Tentatively stepping back, the young girl struggled to process what she was seeing.  Closing her eyes, she tried to think, but reason was escaping like trying to remember a dream. The images were imprinted on the insides of her eyelids, the people who had cared for her for years gone, leaving only jokes of bodies behind. She was vaguely aware she could smell it now, the sickly sweet smell of the corpses.

‘Gone…’ she moaned, the voice not even seeming her own. Saying it still didn’t make it real, like she was viewing the terrible massacre through another’s eyes. Strangely, she felt nothing. Surely after seeing your parents’ bodies lying lifeless you should feel something? But no, all she could think of was the smell. She felt completely empty, not even the slightest sadness or remorse. The people she loved were dead, her life was completely changed at fifteen, yet… nothing.

A creak. Like a switch, she broke out of the daze and was suddenly, terribly aware of the situation. Something had killed her family and it was behind her. Something had broken in and ripped the life from her mother and father before she even awoke. She had walked in while it was hiding from her and now she was trapped. The sights must have robbed any sense of fear that lingered in her, for she turned around without hesitation and screamed at the top of her voice, to catch it off guard. Yet as soon as she saw what it  was, her voice whimpered and died out.

Ellena was small for a teenager, but even to an average sized person the figure would’ve towered above them. As it was, she had to physically look up to see its face. A terrible face, gaunt and savage, milky white skin stretched tight over protruding bones, with matted brown hair trailing down over its eyes. One eye, at least, for the other was ripped out, leaving a bloody hole in its face, caked with dried blood and mangled skin. One cheek was also ripped open, exposing the raw flesh beneath, pus leaking out of the corrupted flesh, which smelt worse than the corpses. Around the mouth more blood was beginning to dry, yet it was clear that unlike the rest of the creature, this was fresh. This was her parents’.

Gazing into its one good eye, she was transfixed. Unlike human eyes, it was utterly and completely black, like a piece of marble had been fashioned into a sphere and implanted in the socket. But it was translucent, grey shapes swirling in the depths of its darkness. If the eyes were the windows to the soul, the soul of that thing was a place she never wanted to go, seeming to scream silent screams, tormenting her. As it grew larger and larger she felt she was falling into it, sliding into its beautiful trance. For the slightest moment, her gaze slipped and with that the spell was broken. The gaping face of it was inches from her own, mouth drawing silent breaths as it enveloped hers. The long, strong arms wrapped her in their deadly embrace, pulling her closer to it. Each touch of its body burnt, like a flame licking her skin, turning her whole body into flame. She wanted the warmth, wanted its power, wanted to feel the heat seep into her bones and take her for its own.

Pushing it away was the hardest thing she’d ever done. But push she did, shoving the damned thing in the chest and sending it reeling. For all its deadly terror and power for entrancing her, it was surprisingly weak. It stumbled backwards across the hall, collapsing to the ground. Despite the gnawing horror of how close she’d come to whatever awaited her in that force, she forced herself to act swiftly. Grabbing an antique clock from a chest of drawers, she leaped over and brought it down hard on the creature’s head. Again and again it collided with the skull, covering her in blood. Only after its head was completely caved in and its brain limply clinging onto a few strands did she at last put the weapon down and curl up into a ball next to it, sobbing with relief and horror after the exertion. It was over at last.

Something must have affected her by that heat, for looking up she saw her mother walking towards her, radiant and smiling kindly. She knew she was dead, but she couldn’t help herself. Climbing to her feet, she walked forward and embraced her, wrapping her arms around the waist of the woman who’d raised her. Had she been dreaming? It had been a sunny day, maybe she’d been suffering sunstroke. It didn’t matter, for she was safe. She began laughing, laughing at the absurd notion of monsters sucking her soul. It all sounded so silly. She was still smiling when her mother kissed her. Still smiling when she felt a familiar warmth, still smiling as the blood began flowing from her neck.

The Writing Block Parable

On a long, warm spring evening, Master Hughes sat at his desk, head cradled in his hands, sat in front of an old computer monitor. At one side he had a steaming hot chocolate, at the other a half eaten pack of Jelly Babies and in front of him the bane of all authors: a white, blank page, with not a word on it. He was suffering writer’s block. No signs betrayed his despair: he didn’t sweat, nor shake, nor do anything out of the ordinary; he didn’t really do anything at all, just sat there finding excuses not to write. Absent mindedly, he stretched his arm out to grab a jelly baby, pulling it from its wrapper, crinkling as it relinquished its contents. Popping it in his mouth, he chewed for a few seconds then swallowed, leaving a sweet taste in his mouth. Not long after, her claimed another of the sweets, the cycle beginning again. Once the packet was empty, he picked up a pen, leant over a notebook and started writing, as if possessed by a burst of inspiration, a smile of triumph on his face. He quickly scrawled a line in the book, which read in messy writing ‘The Writing Block Parable’, before sitting back in his chair, frowning and putting the lid back on his pen. Just as soon as the inspiration had come, it had fled again, leaving him with four words and an ominous collection of lines to be filled. Turning back to the keyboard, he typed up the title from the notebook and began hitting keys in the hope something legible would appear. After a few minutes, he had a couple of paragraphs written, describing the story of a man with writers block. After all, they always said to write what you know about and that was all he really knew at that moment in time. He briefly pondered who ‘they’ actually were, before deciding it didn’t matter and proof read his work. ‘Hm, his writing block caused his rise and demise,’ he muttered to himself, a slightly confused look on his face,  ‘I just wrote the shortest Greek Tragedy of all time.’ Writing down a few sentences to conclude the story, he hit ‘publish’ and went to get a new pack of Jelly Babies.

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