“Fantasy writing at its best”
“… a complex tale of love and loss, fantasy and intrigue in an action-packed novel that keeps the reader on their toes from start to finish”
– Irish Examiner
“… weaves [three] stories together neatly, and really hits [its] stride in the last section of the book with brutal and spectacular battles”
– Evening Echo
The great city slept beneath a blanket of snow.
Guards dozed on the freezing outer ramparts, their numbed fingers gripping wooden pikes, precious body heat escaping through metal helmets. They faced the shrouded fields beyond where no one and nothing moved.
Within the city, even the bravest, or most desperate, of its citizens were off the streets at such a late hour, closer to sunrise than sunset. They had long since hurried along the cleared cobbles, chuffing plumes of vapour as they zigzagged their way home. Only creatures with four legs roamed the icy roads.
And then there were two more creatures, one tall and lean, the other shorter, bulkier.
Rodents squeaked and skittered away as the dark figures moved deeper into the city. Black cloaks billowed and swayed behind them as they flitted from shadow to shadow. Hoods concealed their faces. They moved with purpose.
And yet, despite their heavy leather boots, they made no sound as they hurried along, choosing the narrow lanes, always moving. No ice crunched beneath them. No thud of footfall upon stone. No telltale swish or flap of material from their clothing. They did not speak to one another.
Candles snuffed out upon windowsills when the two figures passed. Citizens tucked up in their beds within the darkened houses moaned as nightmarish scenes spoiled their dreams: images of vast plumes of black smoke billowing into foreign skies, turning day to night; armies of monsters; great flying beasts and snarling savages with blazing red eyes and dripping fangs; hordes of terrible beasts swarming across rivers and mountains, nothing stalling their advance as they devoured towns and villages, overran other great cities and left nothing but bone, dust and smouldering ruin in their wake. The dreamers felt rooted to the spot while those horrific armies swept forward, their battle cries piercing the mind like a sword through flesh. Citizens cried out in their beds and awoke, sweating and gasping, trying to rid their minds of horrible beasts swooping towards them. Children screamed and wept until frightened parents soothed their fears.
Once the dark figures passed, so too did the nightmares.
The disc of the moon shrugged free of a shredding cloud and cast its rare light upon the frozen earth. It painted the cobbles beneath the cloaked figures as they slinked across a long bridge jutting into the river, a stone finger pointing at the castle—the city within the city.
Traders’ stalls and flimsy shacks lined both sides of the bridge. From within them came the whimper and cry of those suffering dark dreams.
Walls rose from the Great River, which was rerouted centuries earlier to become a massive natural moat. A sealed drawbridge was a huge dark eye peering out of the stone, its lower edge a mere dozen feet above the freezing water.
The two figures paused halfway across the bridge. Alien eyes regarded those on the ramparts. Guards neared the end of watch; the cold blunted their attention. Without a word or signal the two creatures broke into a run. Legs pistoned. Cloaks streamed backwards as the two gained speed. Within seconds they were almost a blur in the moonlight. No sound betrayed their presence.
They timed it to perfection. Two heavy leather boots stamped within an inch of where the cobbled bridge ended. Any farther and the sprinting figures risked plunging into the icy waters.
The dark figures sprang upwards and forwards in a high arc. They flew more than leapt, rising as if they weighed little to nothing, then falling forward.
No one saw the impossible leap. Four guards—two stationed above the entrance to the city and another two farther along the ramparts—caught movement in their peripheral vision and turned towards the river. They saw and heard nothing. The men shook their heads. Conversations reignited. Patrols continued.
Had the guards above the drawbridge leaned over the wall and looked to their left they would have seen the two cloaked figures clinging to the castle walls like giant bats. There they waited, still as stone. Minutes passed. Above them, a guard struck a sulfur match against the heel of his boot. In an instant, the larger of the two figures scrambled upwards, finding purchase amid the thousand-year-old stonework. It reached the lip of the battlements at the moment the match flared brightest, cupped by the striker for another man to light his tobacco roll. A light gust of wind caused the flame to waver. The guards did not pay heed to the sudden breeze on a windless night. Nor did they notice an intruder had slipped into the heart of the city.
Gort was licking chicken grease from between his filthy fingers when there came a light tapping on the door of his quarters. His tongue didn’t pause, but his piglike eyes darted from his dinner for a moment. He hoped he imagined the sound.
His significant belly had rumbled and grumbled throughout the day anticipating the meal awaiting him. It distracted him. Gort didn’t notice most of the insults fired at him from the various people he met during the day. One guard gave him a hefty boot in the rear for delaying the unlocking of a cell door. Even the Meister tapped him on the head with one of his ancient books and asked if he knew he was blocking the whole corridor, while narrowing his eyes at the drool on Gort’s whiskers.
But who could blame him for wanting his prize? Had he not performed a great deed for a trader near the river, lifting the corner of a laden cart in the driving sleet whilst the owner took forever to put a misbehaving wheel back on its axle? Yes, Gort rescued somebody in their hour of need and marched back to the castle with a shivering chicken inside his coat as just reward. But more. Had he not performed a second great deed for Cat the Cook in agreeing to scrub her burnt tin pots and rid them—almost—of their blackened insides? Gort scratched his head when she told him to use elbow grease, then bustled out of the kitchens. He spent a long time searching for such a substance before deciding to use brute strength and a wire brush. Yet again, Gort had assisted someone. This time Cat agreed to kill, pluck, clean, and roast his fowl prize, but only after the other meals were served. The message boys and chambermaids had their fill before she grabbed his chicken and clucked him out of the kitchens. That was why Gort was ravenous. Helping people was hungry work, and it was way past his usual dinnertime. Also, he loved Cat’s roast chicken.
The quiet knock came again. Gort’s tongue froze.
He swore and tossed the chicken leg onto his plate. It was probably the Meister at the door, looking for keys to the library or the apothecary.
Gort groaned, clambered out of his seat and smeared hot grease across the seat of his trousers. In a moment of inspiration, he snatched the chicken leg from the table and plunged it into a pocket in his tunic. He grinned and waddled across the room. He unlocked the door and pulled it open, ready to tell the Meister he wasn’t at his beck and call at every goddamned hour of the—
There was no one there.
“Good,” said Gort.
He stepped into the hallway, expecting to see the old man shuffling away. It was empty. The torch nearest his room had gone out. Gort sniffed, backed through his door and locked it.
Something sharp and cold pressed against his throat. Someone behind him growled into his ear.
“Make a sound and I’ll gut you like your chicken.”
Thirty seconds later, Gort was panting, weaving his way through the warren of corridors. Thinking was difficult for him at the best of times, more so with a knife pressing into his back. All thoughts of trying to escape or—gods forbid—attempting to disarm the figure dressed in black had vanished twenty-five seconds ago.
“Take me to your special guests.”
Cold sweat stung Gort’s eyes. But he didn’t dare take a hand away from the ring of keys behind his back to wipe at his face. The knifeman had pushed him back out through the door of his quarters and pulled Gort’s hands behind him.
“If I can’t see your hands, you die.”
Gort ran through possible strategies in his mind, wondering which one would not result in him dying this cold evening. Shout for help? Futile. The only other person down here was the Meister and he was more than half deaf. Lead the knifeman to the guardhouse? Instant death. No, there was only one way of living to see another morning—do as the knifeman ordered and hope he let Gort go once it was all done.
Long, twisting corridors gave way to shorter ones with doors. The safety of his quarters fell behind. The Meister’s Library, his Apothecary and the great kitchens were havens rapidly falling behind and out of reach. That part of the castle was about order—everything in its place. Ahead, there was chaos—politics and war. And highly likely, Gort’s own death.
He paused before the first of the heavy wooden doors. The blade bit his back.
“Please,” said Gort without turning. “How can I open it without using my hands? And my eye is stinging.”
Hot breath seared the side of Gort’s face. The knifeman pressed the blade deeper as he spoke. “Shall I carve it out of your skull?”
Gort shook his head. The flickering light from torches danced through the barred window in the door.
There was never a guard when you needed one, he thought.
“Try something foolish and I’ll sever your spine. It’ll make my visit worthwhile just to blood my blade. Now, use your greasy paws.”
Gort half-bowed and regretted it. He was determined to keep as much of his dignity as possible. Once he opened the door it was inevitable the whole castle—and perhaps the entire city—would soon learn of an intruder. If he lived through this he did not want everyone in Lunden to think of him as a coward. Gort had enjoyed feeling like a hero after helping the trader with the cart earlier; he had no inclination to experience the opposite—being a traitor.
The air in the corridor was freezing. The passage opened out onto the quad close by. Men’s voices bounced off the walls. Gort prayed for a patrol to round the corner and bring this evening to its sorry conclusion. But Gort was taking a sharp right after a short hallway, through another door and down a flight of wet steps. The voices ceased once the knifeman eased the door shut behind them. The intruder didn’t make any sound. His boots made no noise; he didn’t wheeze or pant or seem to breathe at all. Gort did enough panting for them both.
At the bottom of the steps a guard got up from his stool and blocked Gort’s way.
“Where you off to, then?” he said, gripping his pike in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other. Gort waited for the knifeman to plunge the blade between his shoulder blades.
“Well?” said the guard, biting into the small fruit with blackened teeth.
“D-d-down to the girls,” stammered Gort. “The Meister wants me to ch-check something.”
The guard barked laughter. Flecks of apple landed on Gort’s tunic. “Chu-chu-check what? If one of um’s sprouted wings?” He snorted at his own joke. He belched and tossed the apple core away.
“Do me a favour,” he said, grinning his rotten teeth at Gort. “Any of those kittens need a wizard to ’elp um be special, I gotta a magic wand right ’ere!”
The guard grabbed his crotch and cackled, then stepped aside to allow Gort pass. He sat down on his stool with a groan.
Now he’ll see the man behind me, thought Gort. But the guard had lost all interest in the keymaster and propped himself against the wall, picking at his gums, still chuckling.
The knife poked Gort into moving. He waited for a shout or a scuffle as they passed the guard, but… nothing. Impossible, thought Gort.
He snatched a glance over this shoulder. The guard stared straight ahead, blood drenched his tunic, pouring out of the dark slash in his throat. The man lost his grip on the pike and it fell forward. The guard’s killer stuck out a boot, preventing it from clanging on the stones.
He turned back to Gort. “Onwards.”
No other men guarded the holding cells. The pressure from the knife eased. The man in the black cloak stepped around Gort and looked through the port at the cells inside. From deep inside came the sound of a woman softly singing a lullaby.
“How many?” he growled.
“How many… cells?” whispered Gort, rubbing his back.
The intruder turned. Ghostly flesh hinted at the features of a face inside the hood of his cloak. “How many girls?”
Gort dropped his gaze. “I don’t know… Forty, maybe. Not counting the wet nurses sleeping with the infants. Used to be many more, but… Who are you looking for?”
And what are you going to do with her? he thought, but dared not ask. He did not believe the man was there to rescue a child. Revulsion rose in his throat. What would he do if the intruder was here to rape or kill? Would he make a bold and futile attempt to save their lives? Even though it was obvious he would be carved limb from limb before his scream alerted a guard?
Gort made a decision. He would try to stop them from being murdered. He would die and forever be known as a hero—the keymaster who tried to save the lives of forty young girls. Yes, everyone would speak of him in hushed tones and sing songs of his bravery in inns and taverns across the land.
The man in the black cloak ignored Gort’s question. He turned back to the port and peered inside.
“Have any of them shown… signs?” he grumbled.
Gort said: “Signs?”
“Signs of… unusual talent. Any ability or skill a young girl should not possess.”
“No, nothing like that. They’re all normal mädchens—some are frightened, some are angry—most of them are under ten. None of them are …”
He trailed off. Gort had an idea. He knew what to do to save the girls.
The man turned once again and took a step closer. His foul breath enveloped Gort’s face. “Lie and you die!” The point of the knife pressed into Gort’s fleshy chin, lifting it so the two were face to face.
“N-n-no lie, no lie! You’re looking for someone ‘unusual’. All of those girls are normal, despite the rumours.”
Gort wished the Meister was here; he would know exactly what to do.
“Tell me these rumours.”
“You know, keeping them till they come of age is to keep an eye on them. The Kaiser’s rule that they get a proper education is just a ruse. That—that one of them will show some kind of ‘talent’, as you say. But in sixteen, seventeen years since the Kaiser began his Maidens Decree none of them has shown anything unusual.” The knifepoint rose. “In the early days, many mädchens were taken before the Kaiser for being good at art or for being double-jointed or refusing to speak. Even the Meister didn’t know what to look for. People invented weird talents and imagined the girls had such skills—the ability to melt iron in their hands or lift great weights.”
Gort shut his mouth. Fear made him jabber like an old maid. He tried to control his fear.
The man growled. “Did you not think a talented one would possess the skill to keep it hidden from you all?”
Gort said nothing.
“Open the door,” growled the intruder. He pushed the knife upwards until it pierced Gort’s skin. A bead of blood spread out below the cut as it merged with sweat. “I brought my own key to unlock hidden talents.”
Gort took a breath before speaking. “There is someone ‘unusual’.”
The intruder’s eyes grew larger. “Open the door.”
Gort shook his head. More blood oozed from the knife wound beneath his chin. “No, not in the cells. I didn’t lie about the girls. There is… another. Elsewhere.”
“I tire of your voice and your greasy stench, fat man. My work here should be long done. Now you try to distract me to save these girls. Perhaps you’ll keep them alive for a few minutes more by taking me elsewhere, because if your claim is untrue I’ll come back here and slay every single one of them.”
“I swear this is true,” said Gort, amazed at how calm his voice sounded. But he spoke the truth. There was an ‘other’. He had no qualms about giving her up though he had never laid eyes upon her. He overheard—while eavesdropping—the Kaiser speaking about her with the Meister during their frequent walks through the corridors near Gort’s room. It was the only time he heard doubt and fear in the Kaiser’s voice. They regained their confidence once ‘she’ had been put in the ground. If this intruder wanted to rid the Kaiser and Lunden of her once and for all he would be doing both a favour. And if Gort helped such a result come about while saving the girls at the same time it would make him twice the hero.
“She’s buried below the centre of the quad.”
The cloaked figure fastened to the city wall high above the Great River whispered to itself, then somersaulted over the wall and onto the walkway. Heavy leather boots drummed the planks. It freed its weapons from beneath its cloak. Moonlight reflected from four short curved knives, each gripped by a hand.
The monster was upon the guards before they had time to lift their gunnas and defend themselves. Knives swung in a blur. Links of chain mail flew. Men screamed their final breaths. Blood and flesh spattered the city walls. The beast waited until the men’s cries spiralled into the night sky before cutting off their heads. The castle reverberated with the pounding of boots and the yelling of men. The night watch roused. The creature did not flee. It stood and sharpened its four blades against the stone wall.
Gort lead the intruder past the dead guard. At the top of the final flight of steps, the killer whispered ‘stop’. Gort rested against the wall. His lungs rattled. He puffed like a leaky bellows, swiping at a quivering drop of sweat on his brow before it blinded him.
Through the barred port in the door before them came the far-off sound of men screaming; terrible cries of pain and fear. Closer by, a sword clattered on stone, a deep voice cursed, boots thud-thudded, men shouted, and doors banged.
For the first time since he opened the door to his quarters Gort felt safer staying where he was. The whole castle had been wrenched awake while men died. He didn’t feel the urge to go outside.
Burning pain bloomed in Gort’s side. A hand slipped around his throat and muted his scream. Once more, hot fetid breath engulfed him.
Gort did so. He pulled the door open, turned left, passed the door leading to his quarters, round a bend and into the quad.
Snow lay ankle deep in the square. Someone had shovelled a rough path around the perimeter and along the diagonal paths crossing at the centre of the quad, forming a huge ‘X’ with the raised circular platform the middle. Moonlight made the snow glow. Gort distracted himself from the pain in his side by trying to identify the only key on the ring he had never used. The last time he held it between his fingers was when the Meister had given it to him—after ‘she’ had been buried.
High up on the ramparts, someone—or something—scraped metal against stone. Footfalls and shouts swirled about the quad, each corridor and hall amplifying the sounds of men rushing to defend the city. Gort sensed movement in the shadows to the right. Four guards bolted through an archway leading to the watchtower. Gort didn’t dare look up to see what awaited the men on the walkway.
They reached the centre of the quad and climbed the three steps to the platform. Everyone called it ‘the well’. It was where the first inhabitants of Lunden hauled their water a thousand years ago, before the Romans arrived and built roads, and the Germanic tribes arrived and redirected an arm of the Great River.
At the centre of the raised platform was a black circular stone. The Meister once told him such a stone had fallen from the sky. Gort did not know if the Meister was allowing himself a moment of fantasy, since such an idea was preposterous and he rarely lied.
Gort didn’t need to be asked and didn’t wait to be stabbed. He used the key to scrape away the film of ice coating the edge of the smooth stone. Then he focused on its centre. Flecks of greys and blacks mirrored moonlight. Gort grunted, his key filing the ice around the large fleck at the centre of the stone. His key caught an edge. He tried to force it. It didn’t budge. His hands were numb. The fleck was frozen in place.
Guards crowded the walkway high above the quad. Metal clanged against metal. Metal pinged against stone. The crack and flash of gunnas encased the battle in a thunderstorm.
Gort barely heard any of it. His universe contained him, a polished stone, and his set of keys. From the ring he chose the sharp-edged lever the Meister had made for unplugging locks. The lever snagged the edge of the fleck and prised it out of the centre stone. Beneath lay an oblong keyhole. Gort slotted the key into it.
“Hey! What’re ye two doin’ there?”
A commandant marched across the quad towards them. His rifle pointed away, but he looked ready to swing it around. “I sai—”
“Do you need more men up there, sir?” said the intruder, stepping around Gort and going to meet the commandant.
The officer’s look of anger changed to confusion. He tilted his head to get a better look at the approaching stranger. Something fell from the ramparts with a flapping sound. The commandant turned away to watch the body of a dead guard crash to the ground, spraying snow. The intruder rushed past the commandant, his knife slicing through the man’s throat as he went. He circled the still-standing officer and walked back to Gort. The dead man crumpled in a heap and tipped over into the snow, his gunna disappearing into the slush.
Gort took a breath and turned the key.
Ice splintered and shrieked. Metal crunched against rock. The deep unpleasant vibration travelled up Gort’s legs and all the way to his skull. Four heavy steel bars emerged from the lip of the topmost step, about a foot beyond the platform, pointing along each of the quad’s diagonal paths. Gort marvelled at the steel and stone lock. He imagined each of the bars gripped the centre stone to prevent it from being lifted. It bore the hallmarks of the Meister’s clev—
The familiar blade of the intruder’s knife pressed against Gort’s nape.
“Lift it!” said the killer.
By now, the entire castle was alive. People yelled from lighted windows overlooking the quad. Guards thundered through corridors. Commandants roared orders. One hundred feet above the quad floor, a monster with four arms protected itself against shrapnel and arrows by using a dead soldier as a shield.
Gort gripped the edge of the centre stone with both hands and pulled. The stone was lighter than he expected and he toppled back onto his rear, flipping the rock over and onto his knees. He ignored the pain in his legs. He stared at the black hole he had uncovered. How many times had he stood here, never considering what lay beneath his feet? That he would one day unlock the castle’s most secret prison.
The cloaked killer peered into the hole. He crouched beside the opening and reached into it. His hand came out covered in a dark slimy substance. The killer turned to Gort, flicking the scum from his fingers.
“You lied!” he growled, like a dog—no—a wolf, if a wolf could speak.
Behind Gort, another guard crept into the quad.
The keymaster waited for death. He prayed for the killer to plunge the knife into his heart to make his end swift and painless. He didn’t care if he was hailed a hero or cursed as a traitor. Gort’s only—and possibly final—consideration was not to die screaming.
The killer started towards Gort. He stopped and leaned over the ancient well. The dark liquid quivered there. Something moved within it, breaking the oily surface. The killer kneeled, plunged his entire arm into the dark liquid and pulled.
Gort’s jaw dropped open.
From the centre of the quad the killer hauled ‘her’ out of the ground. It was true. The Kaiser and Meister had imprisoned her, hidden her in plain sight. No one, not even the most imaginative rumour-monger or skilful tale-spinner had ever hinted that something lay hidden beneath the quad, concealed in its disused well for sixteen or seventeen years.
And here she was.
The woman was upside-down and covered in an oozing black fluid. The killer held her up by one ankle and she dangled before him like a prize fish. She wore a sleeveless nightdress. Both feet were tied together, her legs bound with wire, her arms folded across her chest, and her fists pressed against the sides of her throat. Her long hair swept the snow as the killer backed away from the hole in the ground. He threw her into the snow below the platform.
She bucked and heaved. Sucking noises emanated from her. Her torso arched and she vomited a black substance, coughing out the rest from her lungs. She wiped her face against the snow. Her eyes blinked open and she looked around the quad.
She eyed Gort. “Behind… you,” she croaked, then suffered another coughing fit.
The intruder moved first, taking two strides towards Gort, placing one foot on the flat stone disc and vaulting over his head.
The guard was about to skewer Gort with a pike. He raised it, but it was too late. The killer’s knife cleaved off the top of his skull, helmet and all. His boot kicked the man over. The killer returned to Gort and crouched beside him. His voice changed. No menacing growl—curious.
“You did not lie. This is—” The killer turned his head to the woman in the snow, then up at the mayhem on the ramparts. “—unusual. The Dark Lord will come for this prize regardless of any other.”
He stood and cast a final look at the coughing woman before jogging across the quad. He turned and sprinted. In two bounds he was on the walkway above, killing three guards and sending their bodies plummeting to the square. He raced along the ramparts towards the four-armed monster, who flung his pellet and arrow-riddled shield at the soldiers cowering near the watchtower, before leaping over the wall and falling into the river far below. Under a hail of arrows and the double crack of gunshots, the killer hurdled the stone wall and dropped like a stone after the other.
A crowd gathered on the bridge, drawn by the commotion from their shacks along its low wall and down from their homes on the far bank. Women screamed as the two figures fell into the icy water between the castle walls and bridge. Men shook their heads when nothing broke the surface of the fast-flowing river.
Inside the castle, Gort crawled through the snow to the woman. She is beautiful, he thought, even though she’s covered with grime and spitting out more. Fine features. Long, lithe limbs. Wide sparkling eyes. A curious strip of silver in a mane of black hair. What sorcery allowed her to survive for years without air and food and water? And what was her sin to deserve such treatment, to be bound with wire and thrust upside-down into a hole filled with gunge?
It eased Gort’s mind to focus on such conundrums. His head hurt when he remembered the intruder warning of the coming of a ‘Dark Lord’. The rumours were true. If the tale of the woman imprisoned beneath the quad was correct then why should Gort disbelieve the nightmare tales of an army of savages and monsters conquering the continent? Waves of weakness swept over him.
“Back!” croaked the woman.
He didn’t care if another guard was bearing down on him. Death offered relief.
Gort shook his head at her. “No. No more.”
The woman who should be dead, the woman who lay hidden beneath the quad stones for almost two decades, the beautiful woman with the black hair streaked with silver and the pale skin covered in grime, lying bound up in the snow, glared at Gort before raising her voice.
“Put… me… back!”
Click on the book to purchase the novel in digital download or paperback from amazon.co.uk. Or any of the following sites:
Or, follow the epic tale from the very beginning!