Easy Reading…

… is damn hard writing (Nathanial Hawthorne)


 

Shriven I: Now Your Gods Are Dying

It is twenty years since the devastating Blue War and still Esher is floundering in the mud that is its penance for unleashing a brutal storm of magic on its neighbours.
The arrival of nervous, god-fearing Vashta Leigh brings a spark of hope to the desperately downtrodden populace, but will he be the catalyst for more bloodshed and misery?

In nearby Caris, a trio of young friends from vastly different backgrounds defy class boundaries and religious beliefs to form a powerful bond.
Gypsy foundling Pia Morgana, beautiful, brash crown prince Fabian and intense, troubled Tanis are more interested in carousing and trickery than in playing politics.
But sinister events, destiny and their own natures turn their student idyll into a darker, more malevolent world.

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This is an extract from Shriven I, with a few spoilers taken out. Want to know what happens next? Ha! You’ll have to publish the damn thing…

Heaven Can’t Wait

By forcing balloon-sized gulps of soft night air into his lungs, Fabian managed to focus his eyes until the three identical ghosts floating slowly but steadily across the aqueduct arranged themselves into the single, teetering figure of Tanis.  With arms outstretched, a bottle in each hand, he was already more than half way across the single-brick wide wall. He was singing a mournful but overly popular ballad as he walked, one careful step in front of the other, eyes fixed straight ahead and never glancing at his bare feet or the thousand foot drop beneath him.

Fabian, his neck tipped back so much he seriously thought it might snap, groaned deeply as he felt himself sober up just enough to realise what was happening. He had wagered Tanis he couldn’t walk across the aqueduct wall, holding two bottles of purloined cloudberry wine while singing Heaven Awaits Me. And Tanis had solemnly taken off his boots, handed them to Fabian, picked up the wine and clambered up the hill to begin his traverse.
Shouting encouragement and insults in equal measure, Fabian had followed his progress excitedly from the path beneath the stone bridge, until he had tripped over a root and gone crashing into the undergrowth. The fall had served to break his drunken madness and now he was sure, certain, convinced that Tanis was about to lose his footing on the narrow wall and spiral down to inescapable death.
He felt around on the ground for Tanis’s boots, and then hugged them to him in a sudden prayer. “Anything Apollo, anything, for him not to fall. Take my name, my face, my destiny, but don’t let him fall.”
“Have you fallen into a swoon at my bravery, or are you awed into silence by my melodious voice?” Tanis called out, slurring the words slightly.
“Speechless at your madness, chum,” Fabian called back, picking up his pace so he could reach the end of the path and climb the hill at the end of the aqueduct. “As for the singing, it’s like a host of angels.”
Tanis cackled with laughter, wobbled sickeningly, let out a dramatic “whoooooooo”, regained his balance and took up the song again. Fabian stopped running and vomited suddenly into a thicket of bilberry bushes. He gasped, wiping the slick of sweat from his face, and immediately felt better, lighter, as he shivered with an internal chill despite the warm night air.
It had been odd without Pia, they had both felt it. They had drunk even more than usual, told filthier stories, and stolen two horses to take them into town when the Chandlers’ Hall could offer them no more entertainment. They had found a vile little drinking den down by the river, and thrown silver at the hard-looking dancers and weary singers. They had played archangel bones with the rest of the seedy clientele, got into the inevitable fight when they were caught cheating and ended up chased out of town, wading across the slow, muddy river when they couldn’t find where they had left the horses.
And then the aqueduct. There was a santhstone lurking among some yew trees across the valley that they had used a couple of times before. If Fabian hadn’t been so desperate for the wildness of the evening to never end they would have been there by now, hurtling through the black iron air and singing their way back to the sanctuary of the cottage.
He scrambled up the hill, pulling at the bilberry bushes and rowan trees to speed his way. He could see Tanis ahead of him, already three-quarters of the way across, still singing and laughing and still teetering.
How would it feel, Fabian thought, icily, if Tanis fell and he was left here alone? What would it be like if Pia went off to live a new exciting life and he was left in the cottage alone, always pouring out just one goblet of wine, waking up to silence? Fabian had spent most of life surrounded by people, crowds and crowds of people, all of whom cared passionately, almost obsessively, about his wellbeing and none of whom knew him at all. Only Tanis and Pia knew him, only they cared enough to tell him the truth about himself, and it was only with them he had finally found a place.
“Zeus bedamned, I’m having an insight,” he thought. “I’m finding self-knowledge, I’ll be joining the Octavians next. Gods, Pia will love this.”
“Go steady now Tan,” he said out loud. “Long way down. Don’t want to be taking you home in my pockets.”
“Like you care,” Tanis slurred back. “You forced me on here with promises of overflowing riches.”
Fabian couldn’t remember what he had wagered for Tanis to walk the aqueduct. Had it been his ceremonial sword, or his new cloak, the plum velvet one that Tanis admired?
“I’d give you anything you wanted anyway chum,” he replied, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. He could see now how the narrow wall crumbled away dangerously towards the end.
“Anything?” Tanis called back. “How about your title, your gold, your house by the beach, your signet ring, your heart?”
“You’ve already got my heart chum, now get over here slowly and carefully and come and claim it.”
“That’s an offer I can’t refuse!” Tanis laughed drunkenly and increased his pace, grinning broadly at Fabian, whom he could now see through the dusky air. The moonlight was bright enough to catch in Fabian’s eyes, and to Tanis they looked like glinting topaz.
We’ll remember this night forever, no matter what happens to us now, where we go or what we do, Tanis thought. He felt euphoric, above the drink and the magic of a midsummer night. The night Pia went to Sunspear Palace, the night I walked over the aqueduct. In twenty – thirty – years time, when he’s sat on his throne, Fabian will remember this night and us.
Then his foot went down to encounter not brick but the empty night air and he fell.

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The following is an extract from Shriven II: Suns & Stars & Wheels. There is a lot more where this came from. A lot, lot more…

Ambidextrous Sand

There was not a whisper of wind, but the sand swept across the walkway in rippling waves, before spinning into miniature tornadoes. The tornadoes got bigger, pulling in more sand, and the drift that had been pushed away by the opening door rose up too, until the spirals were as tall as men. Until they were men.

They had no clothes, let alone armour, but they did have faces, and they had thin, sparkling blades that reflected the red light and their sparkling, sandy bodies. “The swords are made of needleglass,” whispered Bent. “It can only kill once, then it shatters. But there is nothing sharper.”

Pia had heard of needleglass, another fascinating fable she assumed wasn’t true. You could cut off a man’s arm with it, but leave his clothing intact, his sleeve dangling uselessly by his side. And right now, four impossible men formed out of white sand were holding their mirrorglass blades to Thick Ear’s throat.

He’d followed them. Probably been following her ever since she left him at the school. They had both taught him all they knew about hiding and climbing and creeping. But he wasn’t as tall as Bent and probably couldn’t jump up to the hole above the door. And, anyway, why bother, when Pia had already unbolted it for him?

She tried to step forward, holding her own blade in front of her, but Bent pulled her back. “We can’t take them,” he said. “Yes we can!” she replied. “We have to!”

“It’s the sand. Scuffing it, or moving it more than the wind would move it – that will conjure more of them up.”

The old man he’d paid to give him the directions had told him, and he hadn’t believed him. “Guardians of sand!” the man had croaked in broken Plain. Bent had assumed he meant dunes blown in from the beach. He felt Pia try and pull away from him, but he jerked her back. The sandmen couldn’t see them down here, under the patchy smoke. Thick Ear moving the pile of sand by the door had wakened them – they should make the most of the distraction.

“Where will the workshops be?” he hissed at Pia. She looked at him, confused. “We need to get your bloody trinket and get out. Where do we go?”

The Sand Guardians seemed to be talking to Thick Ear. She could see him shaking his head and staring from one to the other, his eyes flicking around. He’s looking for us, she thought. He thinks we are going to save him. “I just got lost. I was walking and got lost,” she could hear him say. Bent shook her.

“I don’t know! Down somewhere – under the fire. They must channel the heat out somehow.”

There were steps below them, spiralling past the fire-pit and gleaming in the heat. “Go on then,” said Bent, shoving her. “What? What about you?” she said.

“I don’t want no fucking gyptian. I’ll wait here, keep behind the smoke and watch the door. Get back as soon as you can. Shout if you need help. But try not to.”

She hesitated. “What about Thick Ear?”

He looked away, to where he could see Thick Ear. The boy was pleading now, he could hear the tone if not the words. One of the Guardians was questioning him, in a gravelly voice that seemed to be saying the same thing, over and over. He’ll tell them in a minute, thought Bent. Then they will come looking for us.

“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Tread lightly.”

There was no sand on the steps, or on the walkways further down, but Pia saw small drifts piled up against the first doors she came across. The doors looked like they were carved from dark wood, but when she dared stop and look closer she saw they were a deep red opaque glass, decorated with broad swirling patterns made to look like woodgrain. The heat at her back was almost unbearable, and she moved on, taking the steps down at every opportunity. The fire pit wasn’t a pit after all; it was a bowl with high sides. It was far too hot to touch, but she could tell by looking it was crafted from the same glass the steps and walkways were made of. It was almost opaque, but she could see the dull red of the fire glowing through it. It should melt, she thought. It should crack, at least. It must be some special construction, something added to the mix… Scaramour would know.

The walkway dipped down and suddenly there was no more smoke, just the glowing bowl of the fire and cool, flat earth. She stopped and dropped to her haunches, trying to get used to the dark. Across the room a door opened suddenly and light darted inwards, along with the figure of a man. She could see that his hair was tied into a knot on top of his head and that he was wearing a loincloth. And he wasn’t made of sand. Carrying a long pole, he went over to the fire bowl and pulled open a small door. As she stared, Pia realised there were small, arched doors all around the bottom of the bowl, with long hooks attached to them. The man shoved his pole into the hole, scooped something up, pulled it out again then banged the door shut. The end of the pole was now glowing white, and the man twisted it around steadily as he moved.

He headed back to the door by which he had entered, and Pia darted out. The noise of the fire was fierce enough to hide her footsteps, and she managed to catch the door just before it clicked shut. The man was halfway down a corridor, with an earthen floor and glowing glass walls, still carefully turning his pole in front of him. The noise of the fire-pit was becoming muffled, and Pia cursed the sound her sandals made on the ground. However, the man was intent upon his task, and did not slow down until he had reached the door at the end of the passage and pushed it open. It swung shut behind him but there was no click of a latch or the sound of a bolt being drawn. Steadily, she walked up to the door, put her ear to the smooth glass and pushed.

There was a grinding, scraping noise, and as she slipped her foot into the room, followed by her knife, she realised too late what it was – sand.

The Sand Guardian rose up in a silent whirlwind, the grains becoming a scowling face with clear glass eyes. In his hand, the sand oozed outwards and melted into a long, thin blade, glinting with mirror-brightness. He held the tip to her throat.

“Who are you?” he demanded in a high scraping voice.

“Errr…” Pia looked behind the man of sand, searching for help or an escape. She was in a large room, ringed with shelves and benches, one end open to the sky. If circumstances had been different, she would have gasped. The shelves were crammed with jars and bottles, in a rainbow of mesmerising colours. Balls of coloured glass hung from the ceiling, filled with sparkling chips of multi-coloured glass, and piles of ground glass that sparkled like diamonds. Multi-faceted crystals lay in piles, the colours washing across them in waves of azure blue, lime green and silver. A mirror of deepest, impenetrable green stood against a wall, while a globe hung from the ceiling, delicate colours swirling round it so lightly it was as if clouds had been captured inside. She saw a thick chain laid across a bench, the links made of glittering gold glass, and a bowl of crystals so clear you would mistake them for water. She could hear a clinking noise, like a slow, metal clock, and somewhere water was flowing. The man she had followed was standing, staring in horror at them. Beyond him, she could see the back of a woman, silver-haired and broad-shouldered, as she stooped over a workbench. Her arm was moving up and down, hitting something with a small hammer. That was the clinking noise she had heard.

“I’m the Queen of Carrow. Who are you?”

“I guard the glass magicians,” the sand man replied in his grating staccato. “What is your purpose here?”

Pia shrugged. “Just visiting. I’m with my friends, over there.” She nodded towards the two figures behind the Guardian. He only glanced over his shoulder for a moment, but that was all she needed. Stepping back, she lowered her head and barrelled her way forward, pushing through the sand man’s chest. There was a heart-stopping feeling of resistance, then she felt him collapse like a loaf of sugar. Immediately, the whirlwind started as he began to reform, but Pia carried on moving. “Help me, please!” she said to the main in the loincloth. He looked open-eyed at her, then at the woman behind him. The woman had put down her hammer, but did not look round. “Pincers,” she snapped. The man in the loincloth opened his eyes even wider, and Pia could feel the Sand Guardian getting taller behind her. “Apprentice Astrikin! I have been preparing this mix for two years! Nothing will divert me!”

Astrikin blinked suddenly. “Yes, Mistress Glass,” he mumbled, before darting past the Guardian to pull a large pair of pincers from the wall.

Pia wasn’t looking. She had already taken hold of a long metal pole with a paddle at the end and had flung open the door to the oven she had seen at the end of the workbench. Her hands burning, she rammed the paddle inside, scooped up some white-hot molten glass, twisted, and flung it at the Sand Guardian. It hit him in the chest, sizzling briefly before creeping outwards, hardening into a splat of solid glass. The Guardian slowed, then came towards her again, blade outstretched. “What is your purpose here?” he grated at her. Pia scooped up another pile of glowing glass and launched it at the him. This one hit his shoulder and cheek, melting the sand and leaving a mottle of circles large as gold pieces. He stopped, as two pieces of molten glass joined up before they solidified, making his shoulder stiffen. It was the arm that held the needleglass blade. Pia gasped in relief, until he moved the blade to the other hand. Ambidextrous sand. What are the bloody chances? This time, she pushed the paddle into the flames and span around as she pulled it out, charging the Sand Guardian with it. She aimed for his leg, pushing it into his thigh, which immediately melted and hardened. As she did so, she was dimly aware that the apprentice and the glassblower were still there, the woman whipping a pole around her head, a glowing ribbon of bright green molten glass streaming from it. She’s making a gyptian! Pia realised. She’s making a fucking gyptian while I fight for my fucking life!

The Sand Guardian carried on coming, and she whacked at it uselessly with the cooling paddle. This time he caught the pole in his other hand and spun it around, despite the brittle shoulder. Pia ducked, but not fast enough, and the blow caught her on the side of the head. The paddle was not hot enough to melt sand, but it was still bloody hot. She felt pain sear through her and heard her hair sizzle as she scrabbled under a bench, sending bowls of coloured glass chips cascading to the floor. The Guardian reached down and swung his short-sword in a low arc just as Pia pulled her foot away. The blade zipped through the sole of her sandal, severing it in half and leaving it dangling from her foot, still held on by the straps. She felt a sudden coldness, then the familiar hot sting as the blood began to flow.

“What is your purpose?” the Guardian repeated. “Shopping! I’m just shopping!” Pia shouted, pushing up with all her strength. The impact of her head hitting the underside of the bench made her go lightheaded, but, along with her hands, the impact was enough to jar the surface. Bottles and bowls jumped and slid, sending a cascade of rainbow-coloured chips into the Guardian. As they hit him, tiny rivulets of sand ran down his legs like blood and he suddenly shrank as his feet collapsed when a bowl of amethyst-coloured needles crashed onto them. He staggered backwards on his stumps, but as soon as the sand fell onto the floor it began swirling and reforming again. Pia scuttled out from under the bench, her head still ringing, grabbing at anything she could reach; dashing massive hanging globes to the floor, she upturned a tray of flasks containing some treacly liquid the colour of orange sherbet. The Guardian turned, pivoting on his half-frozen leg, and came after her. Behind him, Pia caught a glimpse of the apprentice, looking aghast, and the glass mistress, working at her bench, her arm twisting furiously as gold sparks sprang around her head.

The Guardian raised his blade again, aiming for her throat as he limped forward. “What is your purpose here?” he said. Pia hurled a piece of pale blue glass the size of a rolling pin at his head, and half the sandman’s face fell away, swirling back up his body as soon as it touched the ground. Temporarily blinded, he swept his arm upwards and the blade caught her arm before she jumped backwards. Blood began to mix with ground glass and sand on the earthen floor. He is a guardian, Pia realised. He’ll kill me in the end but he needs to know why I am here. That’s why they didn’t just stick it to Thick Ear – they are trained or enchanted or something to ask the question and report it back to some head sand man.

“Wait!” she said. “Wait, I’ll tell you!” The sand man’s face had reformed and his glass eyes stared at her. Pia put her arms up as if in surrender. She was near the open end of the workshop and could feel the cool evening air on her burnt cheekbone.

“What is your purpose here?” the Sand Guardian repeated.

“I’m supposed to let someone in. They want to steal some of the glass, I have to give them a signal and they will come swarming up the cliff.”

“What signal are you required to give?”

Pia inched backwards, leaving bloody smears on the floor. She dare not look around but could sense the way the ground dropped away to the river, at least a hundred feet below them.

“Here, I’m supposed to wave a torch here when the way is clear. They are moored in boats below. They will use hooks and ropes to climb up, as soon as I signal.”

“This is not true. You cannot be seen from the river.”

The Guardian’s blade was just a whisper away from her throat. “Yes, yes you can. Someone – someone drew a map, that apprentice.” Ha, serve him right for not helping me. “You have to stand right here. You can hear the water against the side of the boats.”

Keeping his marble eyes focused on her face, and his blade at her neck, the sand man leaned sideways and listened. But water was bubbling into a large trough behind him, making it impossible to hear anything else. Pia sagged, as if exhausted, and gave a defeated sigh. Moving cautiously, the sand man stepped sideways. He hadn’t even finished moving when she ducked under his arm, feeling his blade as it sliced down through her hair. Unbalanced, he tried to turn again, but she put her hands flat onto the slabs of uneven glass embedded in his chest and pushed. The water trough caught him in the back of the knees and he fell backwards. There was no splash, just a silent oozing as he dissolved into the water. Pia knew she should run, but instead she stared, fearful the sand would start to spin beneath the water and the Guardian would suddenly emerge. But it remained on the bottom of the trough, the clumps of misshapen glass sending up streams of tiny bubbles as they sank slowly down.

She felt something trickling down her back, and shoved her hand down the back of her neck to discover she had been cut. Just like the legends said, the needleglass had split her skin without severing a single thread of her shirt.

“Why didn’t you just push him over the edge?” The apprentice was standing next to her, staring down into the water. “The river would have dissolved him then.”

“If he hit the side going down he would have reformed. And he may have taken me down with him. I can clamber out of a bath. Not so good out of fast-flowing dark rivers.”

He turned to her. He had the dark eyes and olive skin of a true Ossyrian. “Is there really a gang of robbers waiting in boats?”

“Apprentice Astrikin! Hasten to the storeroom! We need cleaning implements.” The glass mistress was watching them from the other side of the room. The apprentice immediately jumped to attention. “Of course, Mistress Glass!” He looked around at the glittering shards of razor-sharp glass scattered around them. “I will fetch brushes. And… what about the Guardian, Mistress Glass?”

“He’ll stay where he is until we drain the trough, of course. The others will sense his collapse before long.”

Astrikin nodded, and picked his way over the shard-strewn floor to the door. Once there, Pia noticed he automatically took an extra-long step. So as not to disturb the Guardian that usually waits there.

She did not like the sound of other Guardians coming to investigate their dissolved comrade. She knew the way back, and Bent would be on the lookout for her. Maybe with Thick Ear. The glass mistress had turned away from her again, busy at the workbench. Then she stood aside and Pia saw the gyptian, and the room was filled with glittering spangles of green light.

They both stood and watched the ever-changing patterns as they danced off the glass jars and globes, melding into every shade of green from palest mint to deepest emerald. As they slowly faded, the glass mistress looked straight at her. “One of my finest,” she said. “It captures the energy. A fight for life in fear of death.”

Pia forgot about the Sand Guardians as she went to stand next to her. The gyptian was incredible. The spirals of glass looked like the stems of some wild, exotic plant, the impossible, alchemical liquid constantly changing colour as it flowed through it. She reached out a finger and touched it tentatively. It was the hand she had used to explore the cut in her neck, smeared with ground glass and flakes of dried blood. The gyptian leapt into life again, sending thin shafts of lime green light out around her fingertip.

“It will take a week to cool properly. Any quicker and it will become brittle and crack. It must be kept warm.”

Pia nodded. “Like a cake. I understand.” She opened her hand and slid it around the gyptian. It felt warm. The glass mistress laughed.

“This gyptian is worth twice its weight in gold! You cannot grasp it with your bloodstained hands and take it.”

“I think I can,” said Pia. “I gave you a good show, fighting that animated sandcastle. You wouldn’t have made the thing so well if it wasn’t for me.”

She lifted the gyptian up. It was heavy and seemed to pulse under her hand.

“The Sand Guardians will have already sensed the loss of a brother. They are like a great beach, made up of single grains. Soon they will discover your presence.”

She was right. What with Thick Ear appearing at the hidden door, and the apprentice probably shouting his mouth off, there would be piles of sand everybloodywhere by now. Could they open doors? How did they communicate with each other?

“How can I get out?” she said. The glass mistress looked over towards the end of the room.

“Leave with the water,” she said. “It comes in cool, it goes out warm. You can do the same.”

Pia followed her gaze to a large glass water-chute, open to the air, that ran from the bottom of the trough down into the darkness. Foamy water was trickling down it.

“How far down is it?”

“Far enough to break the gyptian. You will have to leave it behind.”

“I’ll be damned if I do! Why do all this if not to take away a prize? And it is too lovely to leave behind.”

“If it breaks the shards may well pierce your flesh. Puncture a lung, stab your liver, so your blood would mingle with the water and it would all become one and return to the river.”

“I’ll take the chance,” said Pia. She went over to the chute. It was just wide enough to take her, if she lay on her side. There was a drainage hole in the bottom of the trough, with a glass stopper. If she pulled that the rush of water would take her down with it. Her and the drowned Sand Guardian.

The glass mistress was reaching into a cupboard. She turned round holding a wooden box and a pile of wool wadding. She put them on the bench next to a jar of fine sawdust. “I don’t care a grain for your life,” she said. “But the gyptian is precious. At least pack it properly.” She stood back and waited while Pia looked at her suspiciously. But she could see no sign of a trick, and time was running out, so she quickly wrapped the gyptian in the soft fibres, winding them around each spiral. Then she placed it in the box and scattered sawdust around it before pushing the lid back on. Gingerly, she shook it. Nothing moved.

“You cannot keep it, of course,” the glass mistress said suddenly.

“Eh? What do you think I’m doing? You’ve just seen me parcel it up like a meringue.”

“It is not meant for you; gyptians cannot be taken. You must give it away.”

Pia snorted. “After all this? Not likely.” She pushed the box into an inside pocket of her jacket, where the edges dug into her ribs, and went over to the water chute.

“You must give it as a gift to one who has done you a great service. One who saved your life.”

“If this is a riddle to get me to give it back to you…”

Tiny whirlwinds of sand were being blown under the door. Pia counted three of them as she turned and leapt for the chute, each growing bigger by the second. Clutching the smooth glass of the chute with one hand, she turned and yanked the stopper out from the water trough. She saw the flash of a needleglass blade above her as the water swept her away.

glass flying

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