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Book 1 in The Sons Incarnate series
Murdered and reanimated, Erik searches for resurrection through a mysterious necromancer, the Rook, and gets caught in a game between forces beyond his imagining.Share Tweet LinkedIn Embed https://pszr.co/eQHDy
|Fantasy Grimdark Fantasy|
|5 publishers interested|
The dead are rising from this crumbling world—and Erik rises with them.
Murdered by his closest friend and raised by a necromancer, Erik wants more than the remnants of life. He wants Recarnation. Legends tell of the gods raising men to become Recarnates, immortals possessing magic that once shattered the world and barely held it together. And though Erik has his doubts about the truth behind the legends, he has to hope. Recarnation is his last chance at truly living.
One person might be able to help him achieve it: the Rook, the leader of a secret necromantic syndicate. But Erik doesn’t know where the Rook is, and he doesn’t have much time to find out. A dark menace stalks and kills from the shadows, and Erik has to keep one step ahead even as his body breaks down. Still, Erik moves forward. He has already died—what more can he lose?
But the power of the gods will cost more than just his life.
Chapter 1: Remember; Forget
Erik is running from his hometown of Zauhn, remembering the man who killed him - his friend Oslef - as well as the man he himself strangled - the nekromist Vodrun. You come to realize Erik has been reanimated. He tries not to think of his father, and how his father has disappointed him. He stumbles upon a lurcher, or reanimated corpse, and beats it in his anguish. Eyes watch from the forest.
Chapter 2: Hearing of a Hermit
Erik is trying to find someone that can help him, and he goes to a bar in the town next over, Lienze. A loud, drunk tanner by the name of Wil proves a promising lead, and he follows him out. Traveling through the town proves to be dangerous; Erik is attacked and his arm savaged by a nekros dog. Wil beats it back and takes him to his family.
Chapter 3: Meet the Family
Erik meets Wil’s family and gets bandaged up. Then Wil leads him to the Hermit’s place in the nearby forest, the Brunnen’Fost. Just before they arrive, Wil stays behind, and Erik proceeds alone.
Chapter 4: Under Stone and Bone
Erik tries to get help from the Hermit, and asks him about the Rook, the man he is seeking. He doesn’t learn who the Rook is, but learns of another nekromist in the next town over who could tell him more. The Hermit tries detaining him, and Erik kills him and his lurcher servant to escape.
Chapter 5: Ripples
Erik travels through the forest towards the next town. Needing water, he stops at a pond and gets some. However, many glowing eyes watch from across the water, and he feels strange sensations - memories, almost - from one particular pair. The Talstalker, he can tell by its shadow, a rumored half-man, half-beast that just cropped up. But before the sunlight reveals him, he’s gone.
Chapter 6: Father
Flashback to when he was 7: Erik remembers his father first giving him elixir, and the strange, mind-bending experience he had when it happened.
Chapter 7: New Kid in Town
Erik arrives at Kuust, the next town. He tries to get into the essent (nunnery) there, but is turned away. Fortunately, one of the relicts (nuns) comes and helps him by taking him under her wing as a supplicant. Her name is Tara, and she is accompanied by an orphan she takes care of, Persey.
Chapter 8: The Senescent
Tara takes Erik to meet the leader of the essent, the Senescent, to approve him as a supplicant. Tense words are exchanged, but she ultimately allows him in. Erik strongly suspects she is the nekromist he’s looking for, but it is too dangerous to ask outright, at least then - for, if she isn’t, then he would most likely be burned at the stake.
Chapter 9: Losses
Tara and Erik speak of the losses in their life as she leads him to his room, and share a bonding conversation. Alone in his room, remembers the good times, what it was like to be alive. He tries not to fall asleep, but he does.
Chapter 10: Bad Dreams
Erik remembers him being reanimated at the hands of Vodrun. Vodrun mentions the Rook might be the only other person that can do as well by Erik, which is the hope Erik has clung to all this time.
Chapter 11: Lessons in Legends
A spirit prevents Erik’s awakening, but the Senescent has come to his room and helps him through it. It is strange that such a powerful woman would teach lessons, and Erik is aware of it. Yet she takes him through the basic stories of Amodism, before collapsing on the ground in pain. Erik flees after she tells him to leave.
Chapter 12: The Orphan
Erik runs into Persey and Tara in the halls. They try and puzzle out why the Senescent would teach him, and Tara grows worried. She goes after Persey, and Erik goes the opposite way. He runs into a relict who was earlier washing windows, and says to him, “You must be the Rook’s.”
Chapter 13: The Nekromist of Font Amode
This crone, it seems, is the nekromist he’s been looking for. He asks desperately why she thought he’s the Rook’s, but she dodges and makes him follow her back to her laboratory. Soon after they arrive, Tara and Persey are escorted in, along with the Senescent. It is clear the nekromist wants Erik to see something, and that she’s interested in helping Erik for the sake of interest. Persey reveals that she is far’egan, or one who has limited access to magic. And the crone reveals who the Rook is—Erik’s own father.
Then the horns of Kuust sound - Kuust is under attack by nekros, and it can only be the Talstalker and his pride of lion-like mooneyes (since the crone controls all the other nekros around).
Chapter 14: Eyes of Dying Light
Erik, Tara, and Persey flee - Tara and Persey wouldn’t be able to escape the nekromist without this distraction - and run into a mooneyes. Erik tries fighting it and is losing, but Persey detains it with her powers, and Erik stabs it to death. Then they flee to a boat, and sail away. Erik hears Oslef’s voice in his mind as he flees.
Chapter 15: Plug
Flashback to when he was 16, and the beginning of Erik and his love with Ilyse, his childhood sweetheart who was killed by lurchers, and whom he feels guilty for never marrying and not being there to protect her. (Plug is her childhood nickname).
Chapter 16: A Hand to Hold
Erik wakes in the boat, away from Kuust. He realizes that two interactions with the Talstalker is two too many - he must be following him - but Tara dismisses his fears. But Erik worries, and once they camp on shore, he tries to leave that night. Persey sees him at it, though, and he finds he can’t betray her trust, even if it means putting them in danger. He goes back to camp with her.
Chapter 17: The Barrows
Erik, Tara, and Persey travel inland. Needing to go as fast as they can, they have to cross through a notoriously dangerous land, the Barrows, where lurchers tend to congregate. Traveling through it one day and night, they are ambushed by the nekros, and Erik discovers he, too, has magical abilities (which have been hinted at leading up to this moment)—but he can’t quite reconcile it, and thinks it was Persey that did it. They barely escape.
Chapter 18: A Noseful of Tannin
Traveling in the woods just outside of Lienze, Wil and a patrol from his town come across them, and decide to take the three of them under their wing after some convincing. Wil escorts them by wagon, and rolls them over to Zauhn. Sneaking Erik in, Erik goes to his father’s home.
Chapter 19: The Rook
Erik enters his father’s home and looks for clues as to how to approach the conversation. The his father finds him in the study, and they have a brief discussion, in which his father seems remorseful, but adamant that he still has done the right thing, and that he can help Erik another way. Then, the horns of Zauhn sound, announcing a nekros attack. “He is coming,” Erik’s father says, and Erik thinks he’s referring to the Talstalker. And through their conversation, Erik realizes he knows who the Talstalker is: Oslef, his childhood friend, the man who had murdered him.
Chapter 20: Encircled
Erik has been administered some elixir, and he’s struggling to remain in a good state of mind. His father helps him out to Wil’s cart, and Wil starts driving them out of town. Erik makes them stop by and get Tara and Persey, but they’ve delayed too long—mooneyes surround them in the main square, and there’s nowhere to run.
And Erik shows he really does have magic—he buffets away the voidic creatures with it, and they don’t pursue. Meanwhile, Erik can sense Oslef going up to Vodrun’s tower, and ravaging the nekromist’s corpse with savage anger. They escape from the town, and Erik faints.
Chapter 21: Ilyse
Flashback three years ago, when Erik and Ilyse were reclining on a rare free afternoon, and Oslef interrupts it. One of Erik’s moments he remembers best of her.
Chapter 22: Questions & Half-Answers
Erik wakes up and they’re on a boat—he’s been unconscious for 3 days. He starts asking all the questions he has for his father, and gets only some answers. He asks about where they are going and what the cure is for him, and his father tells him there is a pool called the Drift Ose, which is the source of life-giving elixir (that is what makes reanimation possible). His father aims to make Erik Recarnate—which is an immortal kind of being of legend, and a solution for which Erik hadn’t dared hope. This is what had happened to Oslef, but something went wrong, and he ended up the half-beast he is. Erik doesn’t muster up the courage to ask about his magic yet, and falls back asleep.
Chapter 23: He Is Coming
They land on the shore (Erik, his father, Tara, and Persey are in their party) and head inland for the Drift Ose. Erik finally asks about magic, and discovers more of the specific, though much is also unknown to him. And when they are in the desert, his father finally shows the depth of his remorse, and tries to explain why he did what he did: because the gods—the Sons Incarnate—are returning to their world, and they will destroy it if there aren’t Recarnates to stop them (this was what he meant earlier by “He is coming”). Then they come upon the Drift Ose.
Chapter 24: The Drift Ose
Erik steps inside, and is launched into a series of twisted memories: hunting with Oslef; the same memory as before with Ilyse, but when Oslef shows up, he’s in his current state, half a beast. They fight, but Oslef immediately overpowers Erik, and he’s left there, dying, when it shifts, and someone heals Erik. He’s astonished at his, even if it is a sort of dream, but he’s even more astonished at who he sees: Er’Lothe, the good Son Incarnate.
Chapter 25: A God Remembers
Erik speaks with Er’Lothe, and it seems the god barely remembers anything, much less who he is, though he seems to remember more as their conversation goes on. Erik asks him to try and make him Recarnate. As they try, Erik feels parts of himself being torn away, parts of his memory, though he can’t remember what, exactly. Er’Lothe smiles and calls it his sacrifice, and seems more himself. Then he tells him to go forth, his accolade, and make ready for his coming.
Chapter 26: Sons of Zauhn
Oslef is waiting for Erik when he comes back out. Mooneyes are at the edges of the Drift Ose, and Tara, Persey, and Erik’s father are in the middle with them. Erik seems outmatched at first, and sustains several wounds that should have killed him, but he simply heals back—a part of becoming Recarnate. Something triggers the magic in him, and he matches Oslef with it. But still, he is on the verge of being overwhelmed, and Erik’s father helps out, as does Persey with her own powers. Erik’s father sustains a mortal wound, but Erik manages to kill Oslef with force and magic. The mooneyes slink away, their master defeated.
The Final Chapter: Timeless
His father, as he lies dying, bestows some final advice upon Erik: don’t trust either one of the Sons Incarnate, either or both could be the enemies of the world. Also, he needs to learn more about what it means to be Recarnate—he should seek out the only other one his father has known, a man known as the Collector, who hunts down people of the Font and sells the relics of their body parts once they’re dead.
Erik leaves his father there, hand in the pool, hoping he, too, might become Recarnate somehow. Then he, Tara, and Persey head out. At the end, they intend to keep together, and to go to the cities of Erden Isle in the southwest, in hopes they can find a boat through the king’s barricade on the island and find the Collector—and learn enough before the Sons—both Sons—return in truth, and threaten the world’s balance.
From Game of Thrones on TV to Joe Abercrombie in book stores, gritty fantasy - or grimdark fantasy - is in its heyday. And my novel, In the Shadow of the Rook, fits well with readers' expectations, featuring grim scenarios, bloody fights, morally grey characters, and decisions with no good answers.
Readers of Martin and Abercrombie work generally; some other authors that have similar audiences are Mark Lawrence, Scott Lynch, Graham McNeill, Dan Abnett, and R. Scott Bakker.
Hi there! I'm a fantasy author, unpublished in the fiction space, but with several poems in literary journals, including Pif Magazine and Black Heart Magazine. I've recently earned an MA in English (concentration in creative writing) at Truman State University, and "In the Shadow of the Rook" is its culminating thesis.
Other than “In the Shadow of the Rook” and its upcoming sequels, I'm in the initial drafts of the first book of another fantasy trilogy. It starts with a seller of secrets tracking down the disappearance of a king, and following the trail to a supernatural coup that threatens to consume not just her city, but her world. I've already written a comedic fantasy heist that follows one of the secondary characters and will accompany the trilogy.
It should go without saying, but I love reading and book of all kinds. Some of my persistent favorites are Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. More recently, I've fallen for N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series, Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, and Pat Rothfuss's The Kingkiller Chronicle.
Other hobbies include photography, strumming/keying musical instruments of several kinds, and system gaming.
For the day job, I develop web-based training courses for a variety of Fortune 500 clients.
In addition to the usual network of friends and family - I compiled a list of about 100 friends I believe have a very high chance of purchasing the book, in addition to 30 or so family members that would - I've been steadily becoming more involved in several social media groups I believe will be invaluable in selling In the Shadow of the Rook. The first is "Grimdark Fiction Readers & Writers" on Facebook, which boasts over 2700 members, many of which are active. To demonstrate this activity, in a survey I posted to see which vendors people are reading through as well as what form (it turned out these readers often choose paperback, but otherwise go Kindle or Audible), over 200 people responded.
In addition, I'm active on Reddit fantasy groups and a couple other Facebook fantasy groups I could tap into.
Some of the following authors I mentioned above. Here are some specific works that bear similarities to mine:
The silence of the years pounds down
The silence of the years pounds down
Still, I shout into the Void:
Can gods know so little of being men?
The Brothers looked over the great folk’s land
All they saw, they claimed their right by birth
But no god can share with another for long
That secret pride hidden deep within his breast
Circling each other, they were as astral bodies:
In their eyes, burning suns
In their hands, crushing mountains
In their hearts, shallow silence
One seized the Moon as his hammer blow
The other claimed the hard anvil of the World
One fell, one rose, and came on the crushing blows
While all that laid between fell broken
You, friend, have called them saviors
You, friend, have called them gods
But tell me, what good fruit grows
From roots drowning in reddened waters?
- The Sons Incarnate, “Plea of the Witness,” first cantus
Witnessed and recorded by Sanct Eckard, the Living Testament
Written the 192nd Illuvian Year, the Second Year of the Broken World
* * *
“Locked lips,” the man had said. “Locked lips, and if I unlock them, that’s two dead men, see?” He had a gleam to his eyes—beer tears, like he always had. “Though you know how I’d love to gossip with an old friend.”
Erik ran through the forest, the trees and brush a dark blur. He didn’t see critters scattering beneath decaying leaves, nor the fluttering birds away as he passed. He didn’t even look for lurchers hiding in the shadows, waiting for the next hapless passerby.
“A bird asked after you—wondered of our relationship, asked about my prospects. My prospects—we both know those are complete and utter fek, don’t we? And us for us…well, that’s a bit more complicated, isn’t it?”
Erik’s breathing came fast. As he stumbled over roots and underbrush, a hand went to his chest, to the ribbed flesh where it had been stitched up, after the hot knife had welded the ragged skin back together. It seemed to burn again under his fingers, and he rubbed it, to rub away the pain’s dull echoes.
“I explained the whole history to the bird, line by line. Fast friends we were, despite you having fek for family and lineage, and being ‘fidel to boot. But I saw something in you, and I stuck around, didn’t I? Then we chased the same girls—girl. We had our fights, but what boys don’t? That bird asked what I’d do for you, how far I was willing to go, if it meant protecting you. And do you know what I said?”
“What’d you say, Oslef?” Erik whispered to the woods, only the scattering animals around to ignore him.
“I said, ‘Anything for an old friend.’”
At first, it had been no more than a strange feeling, that something in his chest, no more painful than seeing an arrow in a stump. Even as his heart thumped hard near the metal tip, Erik felt numb, helpless to do anything but stare at the dagger in ribs. His shirt darkened in a widening circle, like watching a drop of ink spread in water.
Then, numbness gave way to the red wave, and it washed over him, drowning.
His foot caught, and Erik tumbled to the ground, memories ripped away. His knees and hands scraped against the twigs and dirt, and suddenly he was pulling up his trousers and peering at his hands in the solid darkness, desperately looking for red lines breaking through the skin. But they were whole; he wasn’t bleeding, he wasn’t bleeding out. He was fine, as fine as he could be.
He sat back against a tree trunk, breathing heavily, and closed his eyes for a moment. But a different scene pressed in on him: stale air in his throat, stiff and cloying as a tomb; pale light flickered from piston lamps on stone walls. And before him, an old man’s eyes bulged, their milky white tinging pink, then cloudy red, like sunset on storm clouds. Strands of thin, pale hair fell over the unnaturally smooth, onyx face; the throat, thin as a starved doe, trembled with horrible gasps, filling the dead air with them, as a pair of hands tightened about it. Then, the noises stopped; there was stillness, silence, a sigh of relief—his own sigh, as he loosened his hands from the body.
Erik opened his eyes, and had to resist the urge to slam his head against the trunk. He rose and pressed on.
Where he went was almost besides the point. He couldn’t stay anywhere near, not with how things were now. Not with what he was. He had to get as far as he could from Zauhn. It wasn’t even that the guards—the Eyes of Zauhn—might come after him, or that he would feel guilty from the blood on his hands. He didn’t know where he needed to go, not yet; and his father, who might know, who might save his son from what he’d become, wouldn’t tell him.
As his throat whistled through his clenching jaw, Erik tried to put thoughts of his father from his mind.
A bush rustled next to him, and he skirted away, frantically scanning the woods around him. The sparse moonlight showed nothing between the leaning trees. Still, his hand traveled down to his belt-knife, and stayed there. He kept peering about into the darkness, and slowly, he found the source of the disturbance.
A shadow emerged from around a tree, and Erik flinched back, hand clenching hard. As the figure moved forward, the moon reluctantly revealed it. First, a shoulder, nearly just bone and tendon remaining. A foot followed, seemingly disconnected in the darkness, its long, purplish nails curling back and stabbing into the toes. Then the face; it hovered above the black body, the skin loose over the skull, wrinkling around the base, with the jaw hanging slack around its few remaining teeth. And the eyes, lolling to the sides, irises bleached of color so that even the thin light of the broken moon seemed to fill them.
Erik swallowed hard and shuffled back, even as his grip relaxed. It was an old lurcher, probably two or more months past fresh. What flesh hadn’t rotted off its body had likely been picked by carrion creatures; the thing looked too feeble to prevent even such intrusions. It would have been dangerous when it was first made: fast as a live man, and twice as furious. Now, it was harmless. He even pitied it.
The lurcher shuffled forward, coming clear of the tree line. He could see it was once a woman, from its skeletal hips; it was about all he could identify. It favored its back foot as it approached, and he could see why; it was little more than a pulpy club at this point.
It wasn’t the first lurcher he’d seen. Far from it. He and the Count’s son Oslef had followed many lines of tracks through the woods, hunting for the dragging feet that made them. They would follow through rain and mud, deep into the forest, until they saw the creature before them, walking slowly towards the shore of the island, always towards the shore. They would draw theirs blades quietly from their sheathes, and creep through the underbrush, then rush it. He would laugh as the steel cut through the flimsy skin and brittle bones.
Erik didn’t want to laugh now.
It kept coming, quiet but for the dragging of its foot and the creak of its bones. It didn’t wheeze like he expected, didn’t breathe at all. One day I might stop breathing, too.
Did it know him? Could it tell they were the same, that he was one of them? Its arm reached out, fingers splayed—to welcome? To harm? Or just to touch? It occurred to him that, before a lurcher became estranged from itself, it lost the touch of others. It had felt the loss of touch longer than the decay of its own body; perhaps it was the worse of the two pains.
But why did he think of it as “it”? It had been a woman, once, just as he’d once been a man. Why not “she”?
Her fingers grasped at the air before his face, as if pleading.
Erik grabbed them and crushed them in his hand. The bones became dust, too brittle even to cut. The lurcher made a guttural sound and fell forward, and Erik helped it, propelling its skull to the ground. It smashed into wet grass and mud, with enough force that even the soft earth could not prevent the bone fracturing around his hand. Something oozed between his fingers.
One of its arms reached back, and he pulled it, breaking it at the shoulder. Its scream was muffled in the mud. But still its body pushed up—its legs were still working. A stomp on each femur put an end to that.
Erik rose and stepped away from the corpse, breathing hard. The forest was quiet, not even lunegazers clacking their wings, silent as before a storm.
His stomach roiled, then he was heaving acid into the grass. There was blood and bile on his hands, and the mangled body still moved in the mud before him.
A painting of his future, clear as a forest spring.
He stumbled away, back into the dark woods, leaving the lurcher broken and tearlessly crying, wishing he could curl up and sleep and never wake again.
Again, he wasn’t aware of what was around him. But had he looked, he might have seen, far back in the shadowy brush, a hundred glowing pinpricks, steady as stars. And if he had looked closer, he might have seen they were shaped remarkably similar to feral, hunting eyes.
How long had he run? It felt as if he’d run his whole life—and he had, in a way. First, his father and him had wandered Vestoria, living among groups of fellow copper-skinned Sudenians wherever they congregated, to hide away from the scornful looks of their light-haired countrymen. But those were just oases; they had to keep running, all they way to Erden Isle, in the far corner of Vestoria, to live among the white folk who assumed them infidels and savages. He was forced together with people with whom he had in common only the color of his skin, into a slum in his hometown of Zauhn. Even they accepted him only grudgingly, by margins; for having a father as an alchemist came with its own set of biases and fears, for good reason.
But his father caused plenty of good and little harm (that folk saw), and Erik settled in, little by little. And, for the first time since he was seven, they stopped running. It never occurred to him to ask what they might be running from until years later, but his father never gave a straight answer then either.
Little by little, friendships and infatuations tied him down to Zauhn, and he grew complacent, weak, rooted. He did not strive to learn so much alchemy as before, content to do as his father asked him. He grew closer to a local girl, but only as a matter of convenience. And the old wanderlust only roused when he thought of dying in that backwater place, or growing old with that local girl, but it never so much as stirred a toe.
Then, nekros had raided, and slaughtered, and the girl never woke from the red sleep. He sat by her pyre for a long time after, thinking of the future they could have had, had he been there to protect her, had moved her into his home, instead of bedding her out of wedlock like a whore. He thought of how he could have protected their child, growing in her belly, that became ashes with the rest of her body.
He started running again, but he thought he was the hunter this time. He tracked down lurchers with the Count’s lastborn son, Oslef, as killing nekros was how he felt alive, and he thought he’d remember how to live, eventually.
It never happened, not in the three years of the butchery.
He didn’t run fast enough. It came time to deliver a case of alchemical formulae to the nekromist Vodrun’s tower. Oslef sat there, waiting for him. Smiling. “Anything for an old friend,” he’d said, face red with drink, seeming the fool for all Erik could tell. He hadn’t seen the knife until it was in him.
He remembered thinking how strange it all felt before the pain set in.
It should have been the end, the conclusion to an unremarkable life—but someone wasn’t finished with him running. He woke again, and knew it by the terrible, incessant pain across his body. He opened his eyes, and saw yellow ones set in a small, onyx head peering back at him. Vodrun smiled as wide as he’d ever seen, like a boy given his first pup, when Erik awoke, and that doomed him as much as anything in Erik’s eyes.
How he’d escaped his bonds, he couldn’t remember; all he knew was that when he was done with the Kimamali man—eyes tinged more red than yellow—it was time to run again. Maybe for good this time, or as long as his legs would carry him. As long as his lungs kept breathing, heart kept beating, mind kept spinning.
And he wouldn’t just run this time. He had a goal. A purpose. A quest. Just like he’d always wanted.
But he’d never imagined he’d take his journey after he was already dead.
* * *
He was in control. He was steady. He was back to looking at the world, and playing whatever fek-hand it had dealt him.
Starting with this town before him.
It was the next day’s evening, and the sky was turning pig pink, and Erik had arrived in front of Lienze’s gate—or what qualified as one. The top hinge was rusted through; the bottom one barely hung on at an angle contortionists shouldn’t bend, much less hinges. But what least made it a gate was the fence around it. Or next to it—it extended only to the right, a single post apparently sufficient for the protection of the northern side of town. And what little fence they did have was no higher then his waist, and looked to be just a few tree limbs tied together with frayed rope.
They either had very fierce farmers defending the town—or something else kept the nautded away. But he already knew that; it’s why he was there in the first place.
Could be worse, he thought. Could be I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
Lienze—named after their main crop, the lentil—wasn’t hard to find his way through. Barely a handful of buildings advertised themselves, and only one was applicable to Erik: Brunnen’s Brews & Beds, the sign went, painted in a sickly, brown substance that he could only hope wasn’t human feces. As he looked at the wood shack with the thatched roof, he again wished to lose himself in a pint, and forget his problems inside and out; at least a spinning, beer-logged head would match the mad spin he seemed to be in. Could be worse, he tried reassuring himself, but he couldn’t think much how.
Before he thought better of it, he walked up to the double-braced doors and walked in.
The half-lit room was nearly empty of customers. A mere four men were scattered across it, all at separate tables, but for one pair. There was also a woman behind a counter, rag in hand. She watched Erik he approached.
“Evenin’,” she said, pulling a mug from a counter and resting it on a belly that looked as swollen as if she were with child. She wiped it for a long moment, then asked, “Get you somethin’?”
Before Erik could answer, a voice said from behind him, “Now, there’s a thing you don’t see ‘round these parts.” He spoke too loud for the quiet murmur of this alehouse.
Erik tried to speak evenly through a clenched jaw. “What’s that?”
“A man’s face that doesn’t look like an ass’s ass.” The man burst out laughing, his drink sloshing onto the table.
Erik relaxed and turned to look at the man. He had brown hair the hue of horse leather, its waviness barely contained in a loose ponytail, and that went down well past his shoulders. A strong jaw emerged from under a thick, rust-red beard. His frame, thick as it was, implied a profession of hard work; a blacksmith, or something of the like. But his eyes betrayed a sharp intelligence, or at least a wit that refused to dull, even despite his obvious intoxication. That was good; much as Erik despised the man’s drunkenness, he needed a sharp, talkative man.
From the far corner, one of the pair said, irritated, “Damn you, Wil Tanner, always goin’ on like that…” His companion put an arm on the speaker’s, though, and the man shook his head and said no more.
A tanner—guess he just has the right blood to have that build. That meant Dagathode, the lineage of most peasantry, though with all the red hair, he had to have some northern Seafolk in him as well.
Erik, ignoring the stare of the alemistress—his stomach was still churning a bit too much for beer, much as it sounded good—and sat down at the joker’s table. “So you’re the chatty one around here.”
“Better than being chitty, like old warty Ilnuk back there.” The man named Wil looked back at the men in the corner, and laughed again as his victim formed the vulgar circle in his hand, letting him know exactly how he felt about the comment.
Erik didn’t know what to say. Fortunately—or perhaps not—his companion had plenty of words.
“I tell you, it’s from all the inbreeding ‘round here,” Wil said, keeping hold of his stool while it tipped back dangerously. “The warts and ugliness, you know—not to mention the sheer idiocy.”
“Alrigh’, alrigh’,” the weary alemistress said. But, instead of actually managing her unruly patron, she slipped away through a curtained doorway, demonstrating her profound wisdom.
“So,” Erik started, then stopped. He had trouble concentrating on the words, trying to come up with a way to say what he wanted to—without asking directly. “You don’t seem to have much in the way of defense,” he finished lamely.
“What, you don’t like our wall?” Wil ran a hand through hair matted with sweat, despite the relatively cool weather outside. “Ah, hell, you’re right. Didn’t keep Ilnuk’s goat escaping last week—What could it do against a determined deadwalker?” He looked back again at the man in the corner, but his victim seemed find better entertainment inside his flagon.
“Speaking of attacks,” he continued, turning back to Erik, “you heard anything about that standing mooneyes? Eerie thing, that.”
“Haven’t heard anything at all,” Erik said, and despite himself, he felt a little chill. He was sure it was nothing, like most of the talk spread about Voidic creatures; but to have something new spotted, just as he escaped that tower… He didn’t like to think the rumors might be about him.
“As to that, I don’t know. And just the one, so far—Talstalker’s what they call it. But they say he’s as nasty as any of those damned cats he runs with. Maybe that’s where Ilnuk’s goat went to, eh?”
He looked back hopefully at the corner, but soon gave up.
“Ah well,” he continued, “always new things popping up on this island, every damn one of them trying to kill goodmen like ourselves.”
Erik observed his companion as the man took another deep drink from his mug.
When Wil set down his mug, he said bluntly, “So, you’re a darkie. Haven’t seen many of you.”
There it is; there it always is. Still, could be worse—he could have started with it. “Yes,” Erik said evenly. “That’s how I was born.”
“It doesn’t happen after? They didn’t spread tar on you as a babe? ‘Cause that’s what happened to my cousin Nyla’s—that, or she found herself a darkie to ride.” Wil chortled to himself.
He refused to get angry. The comments on his color used to rile him up when he’d been a child and adolescent, but he’d found that if he spent all his time fighting, his skin would only be darker for the bruises.
“I’ve lived most my life in Zauhn,” Erik said, hating how much it sounded like justification. He was as much part of the Vestorian Kingdom as any of them. But he regretted the words even more the next moment—how easy it would be for someone to find him, when he went and said outright where he was from?
But it didn’t set off bells in Wil—the Eyes hadn’t come to Lienze yet, if they were coming. “Yeah, I’ve got some trade down there,” he said, his hands leaving his mug for the first time to fold atop his head. “Used to be schooled there, too, in my wilder years.”
“Schooled?” Though he couldn’t imagine what such a man was educated in, he was really wondering how to get back on topic.
Wil’s face twisted into a wry smile. “Of course,” he said. “I was to be a scribe, if you can believe it.”
Wil laughed. “All the more considering I was such a poor fit for it. Got kicked out my third year, finally, though they should have been done with me the first. The old man wasn’t too pleased; when he got through hiding me, I never thought I’d be able to see leather without breaking down and bawling on the spot.”
He laughed again, but cut off abruptly when he saw Erik hadn’t joined in. “Of course, that’s what my father set me to: leather and tanning. That’s my trade.”
“Right. Though it seems like you’ve got another profession now.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, his annoyance getting the better of him, and he could have kicked himself.
But Wil didn’t take offense, and chuckled. “Aye, you could say that, though a man can’t sustain himself on drink, nor his family, neither.” He grew more sober at the thought. “No, I’m a tanner, no changing that,” he said, as if trying to convince someone of it.
They lapsed into silence, and Erik glanced around the alehouse for a more hopeful prospect. One of the lone drinkers glared at him, and Erik quickly looked aside before there was trouble. The other rose, bent and swaying, and made a meandering path to the door. Erik wished he could leave, too; his palms were sweaty, and his stomach hurt, and he couldn’t keep his leg still. He also felt strangely guilty speaking with the tanner, as if he were committing a crime by acting human. But he needed information; he needed this man.
“Well, what brings you here…er…” Wil seemed to realize he hadn’t asked his name, but didn’t seem to want to backtrack for it.
Erik said the first thing that came to mind. “Looking for a tanner, actually.” Sure, convenient—because that will lead you to a nekromist.
“Really?” Wil said, his eyebrows shooting up. “My reputation outruns me, then!” But he didn’t look as if he believed it as he pointed at Erik’s waist. “But why need me, when you have whoever made that fine craft around your belly?”
Erik looked down, blinking; he’d forgotten about his belt. His fingers went to it, tracing over the familiar etchings as he struggled for a response. It had been made by a tanner in Zauhn who’d died three years back; but it wasn’t him Erik thought of.
You’re still all about me, aren’t you, Ilyse? he thought. As if she could hear him.
He was pulled from the thoughts when the man named Ilnuk and his companion rose from their table and silently leered at the back of Wil’s head as they left. Wil, hearing the chairs scrape, couldn’t resist a final shout after them. “Keep your niece’s bed warm for me tonight, eh, Ilnuk?” He looked at Erik. “Man married his niece, if you can believe it.”
Erik scraped for something to say, but Wil was already somewhere else. “Speaking of my leather, I had the damnedest order come in the other day.” Even with the near-belligerent state he was in, the tanner hesitated. “I shouldn’t say this, but who in the blighted Void’s going to stop me? Order comes in—dunno who the man was, all cloaked and such—and you know what he orders? Do you?”
Wil kept waiting, eyes wide, so Erik shook his head.
The tanner leaned in. “Leather made of lurcher skin. Can you believe it! Now what the hell would a man need that for, eh?”
Erik perked up. Lurcher skin; this was a more hopeful strand.
Wil continued before he could speak. “Live human’s skin would be hard enough to tan, but lurcher? It’d fall apart in your hands, and make for a ragged dress. Imagine that! A man, walking about in that tattered thing, balls swinging for the world to see…No, if you want leather that wears, horsehide’s the thing for you. Sheepskin’s one thing, cowhide’s another, and calfskin sure feels nice—but if you’re needing leather and want it to last, en’t nothing better than horse.” He finished his ale off, froth streaming down his beard, then slammed it empty to the table.
He gazed intently at Erik for a moment, then glanced down at the empty table before him. His expression was one of exaggerated shock. “But here I am talking, and you never got a drink!” He turned and yelled into the backroom, “Clot, one for my friend here, and another for me!”
“No, that’s all right…” He’d thought he wanted a drink, but his stomach hurt enough to convince him otherwise. And he remembered something Vodrun had told him when he’d woken that disinclined him to try.
But Wil was not easily dissuaded, and he shouted until the hapless ‘Clot’ came out with two filled mugs, mumbling about her sleeping daughters. But she left quickly again when Wil taunted, “I’ll wake one of them if you really want…”
His throat throbbed painfully as he looked at the drink in front of him. His tongue seemed to scrape against the sides of his mouth. Perhaps a sip wouldn’t be so bad, he thought, and took a swig of lukewarm ale. He breathed in the refreshing malt and hops, and tasted as he swished it in his mouth. Swallowing, the wetness felt good on his throat, and a slight smile came to him. But the stabbing pains in his stomach immediately told him the truth of the matter.
“Not bad, eh?” Wil said. “Clot’s beds are shite, but her brews en’t bad. Nope, not at all bad, and that’s the Mother-sent truth.”
“Mhn.” He massaged his belly with one hand, debating whether it was worth another sip, and thinking how to get back to the subject of lurcher leather.
“I nearly forgot!” the tanner suddenly exclaimed. “Any news us family-town folk might not have heard yet?”
“News?” Any news he might tell would be weeks old—two weeks, at least, if he was right in his estimation—but in a backwater place like Lienze, that might be the freshest they had anyway; few people had reason to go east on the Nord Road when the cities in the west held more profit. And maybe if Erik gave him some information, Wil might give it back. But thinking back before his…transformation…was difficult, and the details hazy; almost as if he were remembering dreams rather than memories.“Let’s see… There were rumors that King Arnuf is sending a legion to the isle.”
“A legion? That young beaver?” Wil dismissed with with a wave. “I’d sooner bet on a legless goat in a footrace! Our king hasn’t the loins to take down his logs and sail over here. Come, now, I didn’t ask for fairie stories! What else do they say?”
Erik thought harder, taking an absent sip, and regretting it as his gut throbbed. “Someone said a duke was murdered. Down in Brav’Stradt, I think.”
“In the foothills of the Este’Tors, on the Ennish border, I know it. The Spire of Stars is there, en’t it? Where the first Arnuf held back the Thousand?”
“Right,” Erik said, confident at least in that. “But it’s said it won’t hold back any armies now—it went up in flames.”
“In flames? The Spire? That damn watchtower stood the whole of the last Ennish war, and it falls when all we’re doing is exchanging arrows across the Moat? Smells of fairie stories again, goodman.”
His stomach put Erik a bit on edge. “But if it’s true, that’s a sight more than arrows, isn’t it, assassinating a duke and destroying a national monument? And this when nautded attack more and more cities, and not just here on Erden. I can’t say I blame the Beaver King for damming where he can.”
He tried ignoring the irony of his making such a claim; wasn’t he partly the reason it would be dammed?
Still, he continued. “Besides, that’s not all. Strange things happened there, it’s said. A giant lizard appeared from nowhere in the castle’s courtyard, and brought down half the entrance with it. And where did the flames come from? Some say—” He hesitated, anticipating Wil’s response, “some say Recarnate have returned.”
“Those freaks?” Wil seemed disgusted with the caliber of his news. “Listen, goodman. I can tell you mean well. But I’ve had an education. There may be small workings of magick these days, but nothing like what the tales tell. No man can rend the earth apart, or break the moon, or make towers burst into flames. Leave that to the Sons Incarnate, not those supposed demigods.” He returned to his drink, looking morose for the first time.
But Erik saw his opportunity. His mouth felt immensely dry as he leaned in close. “Small workings of magick, you say?” He couldn’t help licking his lips. “Is there, possibly, a… an herbalist here?”
Wil looked at him, eyes suddenly sharp and considering. He didn’t seem surprised or abhorred, just a good deal suspicious. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Er—Kirik,” Erik fumbled.
“Kirik? Strange name, that,” Wil said. Then he leaned forward as well, so that Erik inhaled in his sour breath. “Let me tell you something, Kirik: You don’t want to be asking that question here. Not as dangerous as some places, true, but still not what a smart man should do.”
“I have to find him. I need him for something.”
But Wil drained in his mug in silence and rose. “Good meeting you, Kirky,” he said. “But I’ve told all I will.”
Then Wil left the alehouse—without paying.
After a moment, Erik rose as well, and slipped out before Clot could stop either of them for not paying. Then he moved into the moon-touched darkness, and followed the faint shadow of the tanner down the road.
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