The Promised Lie (Bookworm Successor Series)–Snippet

8 Nov

Prologue

The valley was as dark and cold and as silent as the grave.

Lord Havant of Hereford glanced from side to side, warily, as his as his guide led him further down the rocky path. He’d been warned, time and time again, that the forbidden lands were forbidden for a reason … that they were dangerous, rather than places the Grand Sorcerers preferred to keep to themselves. Walking into the valley bothered him on a very primal level, even though his rudimentary magic sensed no threat. There was something about the cold seeping into his bones that urged him to flee.

He banished the feeling with an effort, drawing his cloak tighter around his body. He’d expended far too much effort on crossing the Wild Mountains – far too close to the Goldenrod Lands for comfort – to back out now, despite the sensation of danger that pervaded the dark air. Hark had told him, time and time again, that the ancient temple was the only place they could perform the rite and Havant believed him. The monk knew better than to lie to the heir to an earldom.

The shadows seemed to shimmer as they reached the bottom, revealing a strange building hidden within the shadows. He couldn’t quite see it, as if there was a spell concealing its precise dimensions. All he could make out were impressions: strange towers, dark runes on the walls, stone statues positioned by the entrance … and a faint light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. His guide didn’t hesitate. He walked past the statues, and through the entrance as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Havant knew himself to be a brave man – he’d led his brother’s forces in war – but it took all of his courage to follow the guide into the building. The urge to flee was growing stronger and stronger all the time.

Inside, the building was empty, save for a single stone alter. The light grew stronger, radiating out of the stone walls. Hark was standing on the other side of the chamber, his hood pulled back to reveal his long beard and stern features. His dark eyes flashed with a fanatical determination that made him seem a different man. Havant had to force himself to look back, evenly. He was the master outside the building. He could be the master inside too.

“You have come,” Hark said. His voice boomed in the shadows. “Did you bring the blood?”

“I did,” Havant said.

He reached into his pocket and produced the tiny vial. It had been his sister, Queen Emetine, who’d obtained the blood. Her husband’s guard had slipped, just once. Perhaps Emetine felt guilty for what she’d done, or for what she’d set in motion. But it didn’t matter. Emetine had failed in the first duty of a queen and it was only a matter of time before her husband put her aside for someone younger, prettier and more fertile. A childless royal marriage simply couldn’t be allowed to last.

And then it will be a matter of time until the civil war resumes, Havant thought. His family couldn’t afford another round of strife. They’d worked hard to secure their position and he had no intention of losing it. We have to strike first.

Hark walked forward and took the vial, then snapped his fingers. The monks started to walk into the chamber, the shadows moving around them like living things … as if, the monks were shadows themselves. Their faces were hidden completely behind their cowls, lost in the darkness. They made no noise as they moved. Havant couldn’t even hear them breathing. It was easy to believe, just for a moment, that they weren’t truly human. Suddenly, all of the strange tales about the forbidden zone seemed terrifyingly believable.

“Ours is the gift of death,” Hark said. His voice echoed in the chamber. “We offer it freely to those who wish it.”

Another hooded figure stepped out of the shadows and walked towards the altar, then stopped and removed her cowl. Havant stared, despite himself, as the cowl pooled around her bare ankles. She was naked, old enough to wed yet untouched by life; her face both enchantingly sweet and strangely alien. There were no blisters on her body, no sign of a hard life on the farms. She showed no sign of feeling ashamed or vulnerable, even though most girls on the Summer Isle were raised to keep their clothes on at all times. The sense of wrongness grew stronger as the girl climbed onto the stone altar and lay on her back. Havant could feel … something … drifting in the air, a presence waiting to be born. The entire world seemed to be holding its breath.

“Death is our gift,” Hark said.

He unstopped the vial and poured the blood onto the girl’s chest. She didn’t move, even when he dipped his crooked finger in the blood and used it to draw lines and runes on her body. Havant wondered, suddenly, if she’d been drugged or enchanted. There were plenty of spells and potions that would account for the girl’s calm. And yet …

“Mighty Dusk,” Hark said. “We ask for Your blessing. We ask for Your gift. We ask for Your guidance as we work for Your day.”

“Death is our gift,” the monks said.

The sense of presence grew stronger. Havant watched, feeling almost as if he was floating outside his own body, as Hark withdraw a silver knife from his robes. Something told Havant that he should be alarmed, but … he felt calm, utterly unmoved. And then Hark raised the knife up and held it above the girl’s chest.

“Death is our gift,” he said, once again.

He stabbed down, hard. The girl cried out, once. Blood splashed in all directions. The presence grew even stronger, pressing against the boundaries of reality …

… And, four hundred miles away, King Edwin of the Summer Isle screamed and died.

Chapter One

“Well?”

Isabella ignored Big Richard’s rather snappy demand as she concentrated on the village in the distance, reaching out with her senses. It was a small village, forty miles from the nearest town; fifteen hovels, a blacksmith’s forge, a hedge-witch’s home and very little else, all surrounded by patchwork fields. It should have been teeming with life – men working in the fields, women and children tending the animals – but it was deserted. She couldn’t pick up a hint of life.

Big Richard snorted, rudely. “Performance issues?”

“No,” Isabella said, tartly. She concentrated. There was something, right at the edge of her awareness. A sense of … something. She couldn’t put it into words. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the village.”

“Magicians,” Big Richard sneered. “Always coming up with excuses for failure.”

“There’s no one within eyeshot, either,” Little Jim pointed out. “Or can you see something the rest of us can’t?”

Big Richard made a rude sound. Isabella looked at him, then his brother. It was hard to believe they were related, even though they had the same eyes. Big Richard was a short, but beefy man, so muscular that Isabella rather suspected he had some orc blood in him somewhere, carrying a massive axe slung over one shoulder. His brother, by contrast, was tall and slim. The only thing they had in common was red hair … and a prejudice against magic-users. Big Richard hadn’t made any bones about distrusting anyone who used magic, Isabella included. If Lord Robin hadn’t insisted on Isabella joining the company, Big Richard would have tried to drive her away.

Which wouldn’t have been easy, Isabella thought. The protective amulets Big Richard wore were effective, against hedge-witches. She’d been taught ways to get spells through basic protections, ways to curse someone who thought he was safe. And yet, that would have probably cost me my job too.

She rolled her eyes as the two men turned back towards the deserted village. She’d been with the company for six months and she knew, despite everything, that she’d been lucky. Female mercenaries were rare, even in troubled times. And while she had proven herself to Lord Robin, she knew that too many of the other mercenaries distrusted her. They knew very little about her past.

And if they did know about my past, she reminded herself, they’d distrust me even more.

Very few people would have recognised her, even if they’d heard her name. Isabella was hardly a common name, but it wasn’t that uncommon. Her close-cropped black hair, scarred face and form-fitting brown leathers – complete with a sword, a knife and a wand – were very different to the clothes she’d worn years ago, in another life. No one would draw a connection between her and the Isabella who’d left the Golden City, seven years ago. And that was how she wanted it to be.

Lord Robin cantered up and smiled at them. He was a handsome man, Isabella admitted privately, with short blond hair and shining armour. And he was a good leader, one strong enough to rule a band of mercenaries and yet smart enough to listen to their concerns. She had no idea if he truly was an aristocratic bastard or not – he was the only person who called himself a lord – but it hardly mattered. There were countless noblemen seeking real power now the Empire was gone.

“I can’t sense anything,” Isabella said. There was no point in telling him about the feeling at the back of her mind. If she couldn’t pinpoint it, no one would take it seriously. “I think the village is deserted.”

“Probably hiding from the taxman,” Robin said. “King Romulus has been squeezing his peasants pretty hard over the last few months, hasn’t he?”

He raised his voice. “Mount up!”

Isabella nodded as she scrambled up into her horse’s saddle and followed the others down the dusty road towards the village. The heat grew stronger, a grim reminder that everything – even the weather – was in flux these days, as if the final days had come. Her eyes narrowed as she glanced from side to side. Too many streams intended to water the fields had run dry, leaving the crops spoiled. Even the millpond looked painfully shallow. She wondered, sourly, if Robin was right. The villagers had plenty of reason to know that drought was not an acceptable excuse for not paying their taxes. Perhaps they’d decided to hide somewhere in the countryside rather than pay.

And a tax collector vanished out here, she reminded herself. That’s why Lord August hired us to investigate.

She looked up as they approached the gate. The palisade wasn’t anything more than a boundary marker – it wouldn’t have stood up to a battering ram, let alone a spell – but there should have been someone on guard. Villagers tended to be suspicious of strangers, particularly ones who might be taxmen or recruiting sergeants. And yet … they cantered though the open gate and into the village, heading straight for the headman’s hut. The village was deserted, utterly deserted. Isabella felt her sense of unease growing stronger. Something was very definitely wrong.

“He should have come out to grovel by now,” Mandan said. The archer was looking from side to side, his eyes worried. He had good instincts, for someone who didn’t have any spark of magic. “Where is he?”

“Probably hiding all the comely lasses,” Big Richard said. “Wouldn’t it be a shame if one of them took a liking to us?”

Isabella silently contemplated the virtue of stealthily hexing his horse as she swung her legs over and dropped to the ground. Dust rose around her boots as she landed. Mandan was right, damn him. Someone should have come running by now, if only to plead for mercy or swear blind they didn’t know what had happened to the taxman. Maybe the villagers had gone into hiding. Lord August wasn’t known for his mercy. The village would be destroyed if they dared to lift a hand against him and his servants.

“Isabella, with me,” Lord Robin ordered. “The rest of you, guard the horses and wait.”

“Aye, sir,” Little Jim said.

Isabella felt Big Richard’s eyes on her as she followed Lord Robin up to the headman’s hovel. It was a large hut, compared to the others, but tiny by her standards. She pushed her senses forward as Lord Robin opened the door and peered inside, yet she sensed nothing … save for the strange something. It was there, right at the back of her mind …

“Deserted,” Lord Robin said.

Isabella entered the hovel and looked around, feeling old training and instincts coming to the fore. The headman’s chair – a rickety construction that allowed him to look down on his fellows – sat in the centre of the otherwise barren room. She felt her eyes narrow as she pushed aside the curtain to peer into the kitchen, where the headman’s wife would have cooked for her husband. It was large enough to suggest that the woman had probably also held court, inviting the other women to chat with her in the evenings. Shaking her head, she scrambled up the ladder into the loft. There was enough bedding to suggest that the headman and his wife had had at least two children.

Perhaps more, she thought. They would have shared bedding as soon as they were old enough to sleep away from their parents.

She shuddered, despite herself. She’d slept in all sorts of places, since she’d left home, but she hated the thought of having no privacy, day in and day out. A slave pen would be kinder, she thought. And yet, none of the villagers would have known any better. The children would grow up, marry the girl or boy next door, then have children of their own. The headman’s kids wouldn’t be any considered any better than anyone else’s children. Her lips twitched in cold amusement. The village simply wasn’t big enough to support an aristocracy.

And they’d probably hate the thought of marrying someone from the next village, she considered. Villages could be remarkably insular. Even somewhere five miles away might be too far for them.

Pushing the thought aside, she searched the upper floor. It was uncomfortably warm and stuffy, worse than anything in the Golden City. She hoped it got cooler at night. A handful of clothes – shirts and trousers, long dresses that had been patched so extensively that she doubted there was anything left of the original garment – were piled in one corner. No underwear, of course; underwear was a luxury. A set of smaller clothes – she guessed the children were somewhere between five and seven, judging by the sizes – and a handful of padded cloths. There wouldn’t be anything saved for later, she knew. The villagers would pass clothes around when the original owner didn’t need them.

But there was nothing to suggest what might have happened to the villagers. She took one last look around, feeling a flicker of sympathy for the headman’s family, then walked back to the ladder and clambered down.

Lord Robin met her at the bottom. “Anything?”

“Deserted,” Isabella said, curtly. “And nothing useful at all.”

“It looks as though they left some time ago,” Lord Robin said. “The food on the table wasn’t deserted today.”

Isabella nodded as they walked back outside into the bright sunlight. It was hard to be sure, but Lord Robin was right. It didn’t look as though the villagers had seen the mercenaries coming and fled in all directions. Come to think of it, it didn’t look as though the villagers had planned their exodus either. They hadn’t taken their clothes or tools, particularly the tools that would be hard to replace. It wasn’t the Golden City. A decent axe might cost a villager more money than he earned in a decade.

“Richard, Jim, check out the north side of the village,” Lord Robin ordered. “Isabella, go with them. If you find anything, call me at once.”

Big Richard opened his mouth. “Sir …”

“That’s an order,” Lord Robin said, sharply. “Do as you’re told.”

Isabella shrugged as the two men headed towards the north side of the village. She’d worked with people she hadn’t liked – or hadn’t like her – before, although there was something deeply personal about Big Richard’s dislike that bothered her. She was fairly sure she’d never seen him before. And she was certain he didn’t know anything about her past. He would have told the entire company if he’d known the truth. Unless he thought he could blackmail her …

Nah, she thought. He’s too dumb for blackmail.

The hovels were deserted, utterly deserted. They made their way from hut to hut, finding nothing but faint signs suggesting that the occupants had left in a hurry. Isabella kept a silent tally of everything they’d left behind, puzzling over just how much had been abandoned to the elements. Even if the villagers were hiding somewhere within the countryside, they should have come back to recover their tools. If worse came to worst, they could sell them to raise funds.

Big Richard spun around, drawing his axe. “I saw something move,” he said. “I saw it!”

Isabella frowned. There was nothing … nothing, save for the odd background sensation. And yet, Big Richard looked spooked. He was holding his axe at the ready, his eyes moving from side to side as if he expected an attack at any moment. Little Jim looked concerned too, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword. Isabella wasn’t sure if he was worried about a mystery attacker or his brother waving the axe around in a confined space.

“I can’t sense anything,” she said, slowly. And yet, she knew that might be completely meaningless. There were ways to hide from a magician’s senses. “What did you see?”

“I saw … I don’t know what I saw,” Big Richard said. “It was … just there.”

His piggy eyes narrowed. “And you can’t sense anything?”

“Not really,” Isabella said. And yet, something was nagging at the back of her mind. “Shall we go outside?”

The sunlight seemed brighter, somehow, as they stepped out of the hut. She looked around, noting the abandoned pigpen and chicken run. The villagers wouldn’t have abandoned their animals, not when they needed the beasts to survive. And … her eyes narrowed as something clicked in her mind. There was no life at all within the village. No birds sang in the trees, no insects buzzed through the air … the village was dead.

“There’s one more building to check,” she said, nodding to the hedge-witch’s hut. “And then we’ll go back to the others.”

The two men didn’t make any rude remarks as they followed her to the hut. They were spooked. Isabella paused as she reached the wooden door, reaching out – once again – with her senses. There should have been a locking spell or two on the door, perhaps a sneaky transfiguration spell on the knob. Hedge-witches lacked the formal training of sorcerers who went to the Peerless School, but that didn’t stop them studying magic. Or sharing knowledge, despite the law. And yet … there was no magic protecting the hut. If the door hadn’t been covered in carved runes, she would have wondered if it really belonged to a hedge-witch or merely someone trying to compete with the headman.

“No protections,” she mused. “I wonder …”

She pushed the door open, gingerly. The interior was dark, too dark. She cast a light-spell, revealing a wooden table, a caldron perched over a burnt-out fire and a shelf of potion ingredients. There didn’t seem to be anything too exotic, let alone forbidden within eyeshot, but that meant nothing. She knew from grim experience that anything forbidden, anything that would bring the Inquisitors down on the hedge-witch like Richard’s axe, would be carefully hidden. And yet …

Richard poked her, roughly. “What is that?”

Isabella bit down a sharp remark – she knew he expected her to show some reaction – and followed his pointing finger. A tree – a small tree – was growing in a wooden pot, its branches reaching up towards the ceiling. Her eyes narrowed as the background sensation grew stronger. The tree, whatever it was, wasn’t just out of place. It was … wrong.

“I don’t know,” she said. The back of her neck started to prickle. Every instinct she had told her to back away from the tree as quickly as possible. “I think …”

“There’s another one,” Little John said, sharply. He jabbed a finger towards the rear of the building. “I …

Isabella forced herself to keep looking at the tree. It seemed to loom larger and larger, as if it was somehow more real than any of them. And then … she thought, just for a second, that it had moved. Something was very wrong …

She yelped as something snapped onto her right wrist. For a moment, she thought Richard had grabbed her … and then she looked down. A tree branch had wrapped itself around her wrist, a tree branch that had grown out of the wooden walls. She reached for her magic, trying to cast a spell, only to have the magic flicker and snap out of existence. The branch tugged a second later, pulling her towards the wall. Both trees were growing now, turning into a nightmarish vision of tentacles reaching for the human intruders. A defensive spell? She’d never seen – or heard – of anything like it.

Another branch grabbed her left wrist, an instant before she could draw her sword. She tried to cast another spell, but the magic simply refused to form … no, it faded almost as soon as she drew on it. The branches yanked her forward …

Little Jim lashed out with his sword, cutting through both of the branches. The wood around Isabella’s wrists went limp, falling to the ground. Isabella drew her sword as she looked desperately from side to side, trying to find a way out of the chamber. The door was gone, replaced by a writhing mass of tree branches that were growing at terrifying speed. She looked up, just in time to see more branches reaching down towards them.

Richard grabbed her shoulder. “Use magic,” he shouted, as he swung his awe at the nearest branches. Pieces of wood flew in all directions, but the mass came on. “Get us out of here!”

“I can’t,” Isabella snapped back. Her magic seemed to have completely deserted her. She couldn’t muster the power to cast even a simple spell. The light was already failing. “It isn’t working.”

“Fucking useless,” Richard snarled at her. “I …”

Little Jim pulled a bottle out of his back and splashed the contents on the nearest piece of wood. Isabella barely had a second to realise what he intended to do before he snapped at firelighter at it, setting the liquid on fire. Flames spread rapidly, burning through the wood at a terrifying speed. She heard something scream in her head, an instant before a pathway started to open to the outside world. Richard ran forward, swinging his axe with terrifying power. The branches parted, allowing him to flee.

“Go,” Little Jim shouted. “I …”

A branch stabbed him from behind. Isabella watched in horror as the branches melded with him, turning him into … into a monster. And then they reached for her. She turned and ran, waving her sword frantically as she evaded the swinging branches and threw herself into the open air. Behind her, something was roaring in anger …

“Jim,” Richard shouted. “Where is he?”

“Gone,” Isabella shouted back. “Run!”

The entire village was coming to life, the wooden burnings turning into … things. She ran towards the horses, hoping they could get out in time. Lord Robin and the others joined them a second later, swinging themselves into the saddles and running for the gate. The palisade was coming to life, creepers slowly reaching out towards the fleeing mercenaries. Isabella heard something laughing, in the back of her mind, as she dug in her spurs. They made it out with only seconds to spare.

“Well,” Lord Robin said, once they had put some distance between themselves and the village. “We now know what happened to the villagers, don’t we?”

Isabella nodded, slowly. Something … something had moved into the village. And it had killed the villagers and their animals and the taxman … she cursed under her breath. Seven years at the Peerless School and three more in the hardest training course known to mankind – and seven years of experience as a mercenary – and she still didn’t have the faintest idea what that creature was. She’d never heard of anything like it …

… And yet, there were stories. Whispers of things … she hadn’t believed what little she’d hard, but …

“I’m not going back,” Alexis said. The swordsman was trying to hide it, but it was clear that he was terrified. “Whatever that was, sir, I don’t want to face it again.”

“That’s for Lord August to decide,” Lord Robin said. “We carried out our mission. We’ll go back to the inn and collect our wages.”

And mourn our dead, Isabella thought, grimly. She’d have to write a report, although the gods alone knew who might be alive to read it. What was that thing?

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5 Responses to “The Promised Lie (Bookworm Successor Series)–Snippet”

  1. Stuart the Viking November 9, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    Hmm… Mercenaries… Finally getting my posterior in gear and doing NaNoWriMo this year for the first time. (I AM SO FREAKIN BEHIND ON WORD COUNT!!! AAAAACCCKKKK!!!!). I considered doing a story with mercenaries, but went with one of my other ideas. Reading this, now I wish I had gone with mercenaries. They sound like SO MUCH fun to write!

    Looking forward to this book! 🙂

    Ark Royal XI is burning a hole in my kindle app… NO! Will NOT read it till after NaNo! Must write!

  2. sam57l0 November 11, 2017 at 1:25 am #

    Good stuff!!

  3. merr49 November 18, 2017 at 12:03 am #

    Do i have to read the bookworm series first or can i just read this one.

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