You asked. I've delivered. Here's more of the new book Bloodmoon, my current work in progress!
In the meantime I'm pleased to report that we're at 124k words and racing toward the finish. I should have this book done and dusted, ready for editing, by the end of April! Huzzah! Follow my progres on Twitter or Facebook via the hashtag #Bloodmoon.
[As always - ignore any typos as this is pre-edit]
Sand and rock passed them by, lazy and still in the afternoon scorching of the summer sun. June in the desert had a cruel taste to it. If the heat did not make you sweat and burn, then the light blinded you, or the terrain tricked you. Even when the sand faded into prairie here and there, and the sagebrush and hardy grasses swayed in the hot wind, they got no relief. The ground undulated and swayed, made to weary any traveller. The constant ups and downs and rocky tors stole their breath away. Even Merion was tired. The mule blood had died away after an hour or two, as his aunt had said, and he had succumbed to the scorching drudgery.
By early evening, their feet were sore and hot, and their mouths parched. They longed for a place to rest their legs. Lilain was now bringing up the rear, lagging behind. Lurker had dropped back to help her. Merion was striding ahead, leading them towards a distant smudge of green and brown, where a handful of hardy trees had banded together and formed a copse. As they drew nearer, something sparkled in the orange glow of the setting sun. Something that looked like water. Merion’s tongue rasped between his lips.
Rhin, who had met them a mile past the church, strode beside him, silent and yet keeping pace with the purposeful boy. His own parched tongue had another longing; it wanted to speak, to break the constant thudding of boots and crunching sand and say something. Anything.
To his utter surprise, it was Merion who broke it, not him.
‘Looks like water,’ he said.
Rhin squinted, and saw the glittering between the trees. ‘That it does. By the Roots, that’s lucky.’
‘I can’t tell whether we’re on a wining streak, or sore out of it,’ Merion whispered with cracked lips.
The faerie ran a hand through his hair and thought about that. ‘We found the church. And we got lucky with Doggard. Sounds like a winning streak to me,’ Rhin said assuredly.
‘Hmmm,’ came the reply, and then there was silence again. Rhin did not mind one bit. That was a step in the right direction. Lucky indeed, he thought.
Under the trees the evening air was cool, the sand dappled in the last shadows of the day. There was a strong smell of roasting wood and resin, one that sparked a memory in Rhin’s mind, one he had not dug out in many a year. Somehow it smelled like the fires of Can’Erfjan, the fortress where he had grown up. Standing fast between the raging sea and the ice creeping down the black mountains, it was one of the oldest faerie forts. One of the first, built before the Fae crept south with the Barbarians and the Kelts, off to fight the First Empire. Before they had been driven back to Eyra, or Éire as the humans called it.
Rhin had been a tax, an ancient Fae law demanding the second-born of every family to be a fighter, to make war for Queen Sift. Rhin had been an offering, left on the steps to be raised, or more accurately, beaten, into manhood. Like the Spartans of olden days. Or the Scythians.
Another memory, one that had been buried even deeper, came back to him then. One of trolls and cracking stone. Screams in the dust-choked darkness of the tunnels, slicing through the constant roaring and gnashing of jaws. Rhin shuddered involuntarily, and pushed those memories away for another day.
There were no two ways about it; it may have been a brutal upbringing, but it was what made Rhin the Fae he was today, and it helped to hold a little of the blame. Lighten the load. It was like Merion’s father had once said to him: A man is the product of his boyhood. How a boy is shaped echoes in the man he becomes.
Rhin shook his head and rubbed the memories out his eyes. He went straight to the water, buzzing wings powering him forward, saving his feet the trouble. He kneeled at the water’s edge, cupped a hand, and sipped. The water was cool and fresh, with the tiniest hint of desert salt. ‘It’s pure enough,’ he told the others, who were slowly shuffling into a space between the trees. Lurker helped Lilain sit down, and then promptly crumpled into a heap next to her. Merion wasted no time in whipping off his hat and plunging his head into the cool water, blowing bubbles with a long sigh. Merion came up for air and got to his feet, letting the water drip down his neck and chest, washing at least some of the day’s dust and sweat away.
It was not long before Lurker had a campfire going. They had bought a tin of beans and some dried, unidentifiable meat to go with them. It would last for a day or two.
Lurker tended the pan, as always. Lilain was already half asleep. Merion was getting there. Only Rhin sat bolt upright, listening to the noises of the desert. Above them, the trees rustled gently in the night breeze. Their pale leaves gleamed in the firelight. Rhin could not get comfortable. He was not sure if it was the memories from earlier tugging at him, or something else that was distracting him. Making him feel uneasy.
‘It’s ready,’ Lurker grunted, jolting him.
The others sat up, rubbing bleary eyes. The day had sucked the life out of them, stolen by the sun. It was no surprise then, that that they ate in silence, munching away, staring like zombies into the dust or at their bowls. Rhin was still the only one remotely alert. He ate his food as he stared out at the darkness beyond the fire and through the trees. He paused chewing, just for a moment. He had heard something, and not just a crunch and squeal of some unfortunate creature, or the hissing of the insects. A rock tumbling.
For an age, all he could hear nothing besides the noisy mastication of the others around him. To his keen ears they sounded like cows grazing, and he strained to listen only to the desert.
There, another rock. Rhin put down his meal and drew his sword. The others seemed startled, a little life had been kicked into their eyes. Lurker made to get up, already swinging the Mistress from her holster, and stay low. He cocked the pistol quietly.
‘What is it?’ Lilain asked. ‘What do you see?’
‘Hush, listen,’ Rhin hissed. His skin was already fading into nothing, just the dim outline of his features remaining. He narrowed his eyes, trying to pierce the darkness, but the light from the fire was too bright. He began to tread sideways. There was another rattle of stones in the darkness.
Merion was reaching for his coat, where the three bottles of blood hid in his pockets.
The faerie pulled out a knife as well. ‘I see people! About five, comi…’
Rhin was interrupted by the thunder-crack of a gun, and the whistling of a bullet as it glanced off the tree above Lilain’s head.
‘Down!’ Lurker shouted, squeezing off three rounds into the darkness. There was a yell and a round of roars and curses.
‘The Sand Rabbits have got you now!’ came a cry.
‘Quiver in fear!’
‘Hand over your coins!’
Lurker growled. ‘Bandits. Merion! What have you got?’ he hissed, as more guns opened fire. They threw themselves behind the nearest trees and hunkered down.
The young Hark scrabbled for a bottle. ‘Chipmunk?’
‘Fast reactions!’ Lilain yelled above the deafening gunshots.
‘Get a rock, and of round the back,’ Lurker ordered him, making a fist and driving it into his palm. Merion understood completely.
With shaking hands, he reached for the nearest, biggest, and lumpiest rock he could find. He wondered whether he was afraid or simply startled. Merion held the rock with one hand and flicked the cork off the bottle with the other. A bullet struck the sand two inches from his foot, and sprayed dust at him, and he could not help but yelp.
The blood felt as though it slid down his throat with all the speed of cold honey. Merion desperately tried to swallow it down as the bullets flew.
Lurker fired again, the Mistress singing out, and the gunfire halted for just a moment. ‘Go!’ Lurker hissed, and Merion seized his chance. As he leapt from the tree and dashed for the desert, he felt the magick suddenly bite him. Merion tensed as it began to flow with his blood. This was a fierce little magick. He could feel it coursing up his spine, as though it were eager to get to work.
Another bullet zipped through the leaves, spinning splinters in its wake. Merion had been seen, and now one of the guns had been turned on him. The boy pushed the magick down into this legs and found himself zig-zagging through the low bushes like a fork of lightning. Merion felt as though his muscles had just awoken from a long sleep, and he finally knew how to use them. He grit his teeth and powered on, bursting out of the copse and curving round to come at the attackers from behind.
Merion saw the flashing of muzzles a dozen yards from the tree-line. There seemed to be seven, maybe more. Every time a gun crackled, Merion caught glimpses of a fierce face, or the brim of a hat, or a threadbare jacket. Bandits indeed, he thought. It had to be. Common thieves come to kill and steal. Merion found his nervousness seeping away. He had no love for thieves.
The young Hark scurried low between the rocks and boulders, holding his own firmly in his right hand, twitching with every gunshot. They were spread out in a line; diagonal to Merion as he hid between two boulders. Speed would be of the essence, he told himself under his breath.
Fortunately for Merion, fast is what chipmunk blood is famed for.
The boy darted forward as the nearest man stopped to reload, cursing to himself as another of Lurker’s bullets ricocheted off the rocks. The resounding thud of Long Tom could be heard now as well. Merion raised the rock high, and before the bandit could react, he brought it down hard against the side of his head. The man went as limp as a dead snake, dropping his gun and bullets in the sand as he fell flat on his face.
‘Here!’ came the startled cry of the next man along, already swinging his pistol at Merion. But the boy was faster than the man, ducking just in time for the gun to fire at nothing but darkness. Merion spun as he rushing forward, swinging the rock upwards into the man’s groin. He howled as he folded in two. There was a sickening, muffled bang as he fired a round into his own stomach in pain and panic.
The other five men had all seen Merion now, and they were all bringing their guns to bear. Merion gulped and blindly hurled himself to the side as the guns fired. Though his mind may not have willed any finesse into the dive, his muscles had plenty to spare.
Merion rolled agilely to his feet and darted from side to side, puffs of sand exploding in the ground around his feet. Not a single one seemed to be able to touch him, though a few came close. Merion just held his body as he lurched from side to side, ducking and dipping, never in one place for more than a whisker of a second.
Before he knew it he was swinging his rock again, swiping three of the guns aside. A blade flashed, and Merion skipped to the side. A muscle in his stomach spasmed, and for a moment he though he was done for. But it was Rhin, bringing further chaos to the dwindling pack of bandits. Fae steel slashed through leather and cloth, slicing at calf muscles and tendons. One man went down with a bloodcurdling scream, clutching at the backs of his legs. A sword to the back of the skull silenced him. Rhin wrenched it free and spun the blood from it, still only half-visible. It was hard to keep up the spell in the midst of battle, but Rhin was more practised than most. He held his blades out to the side and began to jog forward. The remaining bandits were now shooting madly at the desert. Far too high, and far too wide.
Nobody ever suspects a faerie could do so much damage.
Rhin raised his knife and threw it hard, catching one of men in the chest. The blade may have been small, but it was as sharp as a winter wind, and hurt like the depths of hell when it caught bone, which it had. While the man clutched his chest, face crinkling into a cry, Rhin bounded to the top of a nearby rock and lunged at him, his wings buzzing loud and strong. Rhin sailed through the air, slicing the man’s throat as he flew past his head.
A few paces away, Merion found himself being grappled from behind. Even rushing the chipmunk blood, it caught him off guard. Once again, Merion rolled instead of landing on his face and quickly turned to face his attacker, a brawny bearded man with wildness in his eyes. He had a small knife in one hand, and was jabbing it at the boy viciously.
Merion leant to the side and felt the blade whistle past his ear. He smacked the rock of the man’s ribs and he grunted. The bandit barged forward, pushing Merion off his feet again, only this time he fell with him. Merion felt the breath driven from his lungs as they hit the dust. Magick rushed into his arms and hands, wrenching them upwards before the knife plunged into his skin. One to the man’s throat, the other to his wrist. They writhed and strained, wordless, muscle against muscle, with the only prize being life.
The bandit broke Merion’s hold with a forehead to the brow. Merion, head pressed to the sand, pushing with all his might, could not do a thing about it. Sparks exploded in his eyes and he reeled. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the man raise the knife high for the final strike.
But the luck stayed with him. Lurker loomed, grasping the man’s knife hand with two of his and driving it down into the man’s forehead as he turned. He was dead before he hit the dust. Lurker raised the Mistress and fired, once, twice, and all fell silent in the desert.
Only panting and the ringing of ears filled the vacuous absence of gunshots and yells. Rhin was busy wiping the blood from his sword, and retrieving his knife from its temporary home.
‘Thank you,’ Merion wheezed, still regaining his breath.
‘Don’t mention it,’ Lurker rumbled, dark eyes roving the rocks around them, looking for any further trouble. The desert offered none, at least for now. ‘Nice job,’ he said, helping the boy to his feet. The magick was wearing off now, leaving Merion trembling and short of breath. He swore silently to himself never to doubt chipmunks again.
Once the blood had been washed from hands and blades, and the fire stamped out, they huddled up, leaning their backs to each other. Rhin sat between Merion and Lurker, sword on his lap. Even though he looked as though he was lounging, he was like a coiled spring, ready for more should the night offer any further adversaries.
‘Who were they?’ Lilain whispered to the darkness. The only light they had was that of the bright stars above and the fat half-moon in the south.
‘Bandits?’ Merion ventured.
‘Right,’ Lurker affirmed. He was cradling Long Tom. ‘Must have seen the fire and fancied their chances,’ he added, contempt dripping from his voice. Merion wondered if they reminded him of his wife’s murder in some way. ‘Just a small crew, probably watchin’ the road.’
‘Got what they deserved,’ Rhin said.
Merion shut his tired eyes for a moment and then grimaced. The image of the bandit raising that knife seemed to be etched into his eyelids. He could not stop playing it over and over again in his mind. What he could have done. What he should have done. But every time, that knife lifted up, poised to plummet down and bury itself in his heart. Merion felt his teeth began to chatter, and told himself it was the cold.
Seven dead and not a word traded with any of them. It was almost transactional, and coldly so. Survival always makes murder a little easier to swallow. They had all rolled their dice and the bandits had come up short. Merion just could not shake the feeling that the margin had been too thin. Whether it had been over-confidence, or simple outnumbering, Merion could have died at that man’s hand, and was a sliver away from doing so. Had it not been for Lurker, it would have been Merion lying out there in the sand, unburied and unblinking, staring blankly up at the stars with a knife through the skull. And that, Merion swore to himself, would simply not do at all.
As the boy felt the tiredness begin to ferry him off to sleep, as his eyelids sagged and his body grew heavy, he made himself a promise. He would train, and train hard, and he would never let this happen again.
‘Merion,’ Lurker whispered to him. The prospector was dangling in the clutches of sleep himself. He was rustling in his pocket. ‘I forgot I had this,’ he said. ‘Found it earlier searchin’ for bullets. I brought it from the fort thinkin’ it might cheer you up. If we run into it, that is. Not good to focus so much on one thing all the time, and I should know,’ Lurker rumbled. There was a crackle of paper as he found what he was looking for. ‘My father took me to a circus when I was just a boy, and I never forgotten that day since. Lions. Elephants. Pretty girls spinnin’ on ropes and wires. All sorts of things. It was one of the things that used to keep me going when I was in chains. Seein’ another circus again. Yes sir. First thing I did after the war.’
Merion looked down and found a half-ripped poster in his lap. He turned it over and squinted at the words in the dappled moonlight. Cirque Kadabra, it said. Merion turned around to thank him, but Lurker was already snoring. Lilain was taking the first watch.
Merion traced the lines of the words and the gaudy images of wild beasts and a grand tent filled with all sorts of strange wonders. ‘Heading east,’ he mouthed the words along the bottom of the poster. Merion read them again, and again. He remembered his own words, standing bloodied and beaten under a grey sky and Fell Falls burning in the distance.
He would rush in circuses if he had to.
Merion fell asleep, a little idea beginning to blossom in his mind.