(Warning: the following contains scenes and content that some may find offensive. Readers are advised to stop being pussies.)
Probably necessary to provide a slight intro as to what this one’s all about before launching face-first into an excerpt straight from the middle of the book.
Two Blades bubbled up from the deepest reaches of my darkside as a way of purging it from my system, lest it start to intrude on the other books which have lighter, more PG-rated themes and tone. Rather than fill them with battles and gore and blood and moral ambiguity and so forth, I penned all of that in one, with no forethought to plot, or characterisation, or structure. I literally wrote scenes I thought would be fun to read.
Well that didn’t last very long before I started to ask questions. Questions like; who are these people? What am I doing with their lives? What am I doing with my life? What’s happening here? How’s this going to end? Actually the only real idea I had was that last one. I knew exactly how Two Blades would finish, but no idea how it should start, or what to put in between. The resulting draft has been over a year in the making, chipping away at it only when the psyche was high. And to cut a long anecdote short, I retrofitted the entire thing with everything a book actually needs. Like a reason for existing, for instance.
So, here’s the first excerpt. In it, one of the main characters, a hard-bitten blood-soaked mercenary, is but a child experiencing his first taste of warfare in all its horrific glory. Rather than a hulking 6ft 6 monster, he’s a podgy six year-old afraid of his own shadow. He’s been shipped off to a nobleman to squire for a year, doing everything from filling his cups to buckling his armour to, as you’ll see, handing him his weapons from behind the lines. And forgetting the characters and the drama between them for a moment, scenarios like this were very real, and commonplace throughout Europe and England back in the day.
The war-hammer was such an awful weight.
Pelt felt it slide off his shoulder, the bulky, clumsy, heavy iron head splashing down into the mud, spattering the back of his legs, though that didn’t really matter, not when he was muddy all over anyway.
He turned and tugged on the polished shaft, the head pulling a wad of sticky black muck up with it. Suddenly afraid of what Duke Fraem would say about his precious war-hammer covered in mud, and the terrible punishment he would give him, Pelt tried his best to rub it clean, as hastily as he could. He cringed at a nearby scream, heard the clatter and clash of battle, and wallowed in thick pools of black blood and entrails, oblivious. He needed to get to the Duke, needed to be there when the man’s hand came back, searching. The Duke was not one to wait, especially on the tardiness of his squires.
Panting with panic, Pelt grunted tearfully as he heaved the wretched thing back over his shoulder. He bit his bottom lip bloody, snorted back cold snot and saw, through the mist of his tears, the edge of the battle just before him. Hulking men in once bright plate armour and blazing surcoats of blue and red were now smears of brown or grey in the cloaking fog. The din of arms clashing, of squealing and shouting and bellowing and wailing melded together into one throbbing rumble, in which a certain sound would now and then echo back to him, cold and piercing.
Lurching from one freezing pool of oozing red slurry to the next, Pelt staggered after the front lines, tripping here and there over a hand, a smashed skull, a metal body half submerged in the mud. The air stank of puke and shit and the harsh iron taint of blood, as thick and cloying as a slaughterhouse. Men moaned, waving an arm, a feeble hand, unable to right themselves for the weight of water in their armour, or the terrible injuries beneath. Pelt saw a man gurgling, saw the gristle bubbling in his wide open throat. Their eyes met, his full of disbelief and fear and pleading, Pelt’s full of terror, and helplessness.
He staggered on under the weight of his chain, his sodden wool and leather, and that horrible length of wood and iron burdening his shoulder. He struggled with it, tripped on a leg and fell onto a breastplate, hand plunging through the ragged ruin and into soft, squelching guts that were still warm, smelling of rotting food, and shit. He heaved, but of course he’d brought all his breakfast up hours before, and so, wiping a string of bile from his lip, he pushed on, seeing now that the buckling, lurching horde of metal ghosts was closer than it had been, but which one was Duke Fraem?
‘Boy! Helf me!’
Something clamped around his ankle and brought him down. ‘No, please! I’m just a squire, just a squire!’ Pelt had dropped the war-hammer again. The Duke would be so angry! He scrabbled around frantically for a moment until his fingers closed on the haft, half submerged already. Hands scrabbled at his belt, his coif, yanking him back. Trying to lift the war-hammer was impossible, but he did have a dirk. Fumbling with numb fingers sticky with other men’s blood, he wrenched the thing free of its sheath and dropped it. With a plop it was gone, sunken to the bottom of a red sea.
‘You muss helf ee! Pleaf!’
Turning around, Pelt cried out in horror. He was surely looking at a demon. The man’s helm had gone, knocked off, lost, who knew? What was left was half a face, a bloody pulp shot with shattered bone where the other half should have been. Voice slurred as his jaw swung loose, he spat blood and teeth as he spoke, his voice a ruined mockery. ‘I thin’ I’m hurt…helf ee!’
His grip was terribly strong, so that Pelt was unable to claw himself free. He beat the man about the arms, the head, screamed and kicked, helpless.
‘Get off me! Duke Fraem, help!’
The man had Pelt by the throat, squeezing, squeezing. Blood raged up and down behind his eyes, in his ears. He pressed a hand to that red pulp, heard the man utter a ragged croak of pain, and watched as a blade rammed through the side of his skull and into the mud below.
The hands fell away. Gasping, Pelt had no time to look up as another one the size of a bear’s paw seized him by the hem of his hauberk and wrenched him to his feet.
‘Where’s your dagger, boy?’ Duke Fraem growled, incensed. He tore his longsword free and shook Pelt like a ragdoll. His visor was up, his face a shining mask of blood with two huge eyes gazing madly out. He bent down awkwardly, his bulky armour restricting his movements. ‘You’ve lost it, haven’t you? You’ve bloody lost it!’
Pelt was in tears, he couldn’t help it. They slithered out from him traitorously, and he couldn’t push them back. ‘Yes, m’lord, I’m sorry!’
‘You lost your bloody dirk, I don’t believe this. How many times must I tell you to keep a firm hold of…forget it. You’re an utter disgrace…shames me even to…wait until I tell your bloody father, boy! Where’s my hammer?’
At Pelt’s look of wide-eyed horror, Duke Fraem snarled and knocked his squire flying with a hard blow, made crueller by the lobstered steel of his gauntlet. Pelt fell with a splash, tasted blood in his mouth and not knowing if it was his own or not.
‘FIND MY HAMMER, BOY!’
Scrabbling through the freezing muck on his hands and knees, Pelt knew only that he must retrieve Duke Fraem’s war-hammer. The man had tasked him with its protection, to be given to him the moment he had need of it. And now like a fool he’d lost it. Something as heavy as a falling star crashed down against his back, pushing him deep into the corruption below. His face went under and for a moment his mouth and throat burned with blood, gritty with mud. He came up spitting and choking, and was stomped on again. The world lurched and went black, sound dulling and light pulsing, until with a howl he was back, rolling over, red stinging his eyes to see an apparition of bloody steel looming over him.
Spitting and spraying muck, he screamed out with his hands over his head, ‘It’s just here, sir! Let me…I have it…it’s just here!’
‘On your feet, son, get up! No squire of mine will be seen wallowing in the muck like a sow. Get up!’
Pelt shied away so that huge steel boot hit him in the leg. He whimpered and scrambled to his feet, eyes alighting upon a wooden haft jutting like a half-submerged fencepost from a flooded field. ‘Ah! Here, sir, here it is!’ He lunged and tugged the desperately heavy thing out of the mud. ‘I have it, just like you asked!’
The war-hammer was wrenched from his grasp the moment he had it free. ‘About bloody time, you fat little pig! Now, stay close behind me this time, do you hear? Can you do that for me, boy, or do I have to draw you a damned picture? Tie you to my waist and drag you behind me?’
‘No, sir, I can—’
Duke Fraem cut him off with a bark. He was fumbling at his hip, trying to retrieve his own dagger. Pelt’s insides clenched tight. He would never live to see the end of the battle, his own lord was going to kill him. ‘Sir, no!’
‘Shut up! Take this, and as you follow me, I want you to see to any wounded men as we go, got that?’ The Duke leaned down, felt his armour scrape together and gave up, straightening again. He was a towering iron statue, covered helm to greaves in blood and black muck. ‘I don’t want some cheating mongrel who isn’t properly dead tripping me, or stabbing me or getting up and hitting me from behind, you hear?’ He then made furious swiping motions with his arms when his words were drowned out by the clatter of the battle, which had now swung close again. It seemed the enemy had made a desperate charge. ‘You stab them thusly,’ Duke Fraem roared, ‘see? Very simple! Through the visor if they still have their helms on, or through the eye, if they don’t! Cut their throats, or if he’s not too big, through the heart. You kill them, boy, and you check their necks for favours, their belt-pouches for anything small. I want mementoes, keepsakes, you bring me something worth keeping and I might let you have some supper tonight. Not that you need it.’
And with that the Duke twirled and stalked back toward his men, war-hammer over one shoulder.
Gulping and gasping with relief, cradling the ornate knife like it was a gift from the Gatherer Herself, Pelt hurried after, determined to do his duty, make his Lord proud and, above all, earn his tea. He came to a man on his back, moaning and howling as he waved a stump of an arm in the air. As Pelt peered at him, he saw the sigil on the man’s chest; two crossed scrolls above a lone tower. A Three Towers man, then, which made him one of the Duke’s noblemen. Crippled with indecision, Pelt opened his mouth to shout for his Lord, thinking better of it. Duke Fraem hadn’t told him which men he was supposed to be killing, only that he must follow and do for any that he passed that were alive.
Deciding it was best not to call down the Duke’s wrath a second time, especially when he’d so narrowly escaped, Pelt knelt in the slush, grasped the man’s visor and wrenched it up.
‘Oh thank you, thank you boy! You’re a gift from the—’ The eye widened in horrific realisation, ‘—wait, no, what are you—’
Pelt plunged the knife up to the hilt in the man’s eye, felt the tip scrape against the inside of the skull. Turning his face away lest he get a squirt of blood in his face, he tugged the knife free and, searching fruitlessly for any trinkets the Three Towers man might have had, lurched on, stamping on bodies and leaping pools of viscera in order to stay close to his Lord.
A man whimpered on his right, so he bent and slid the knife into his throat, but not before taking a strand of sodden white silk from it first.
Pelt tucked it into his collar and allowed himself a small, timid grin. At this rate, his dinner was as good as secured. Maybe the Duke would even give him a swallow of wine if he won enough bounty, so, searching around eagerly for more living men lying helplessly in the mud, he squelched on.