Short Story: The Sin-Eaters of Wickshire

Frederic Edwin Church, 1877

The knock on the door preceded the last breath by only a moment.  It was the last sound a dead man would hear, but whether it was fright or relief which hastened the soul’s departure, no one was willing to say.

The timing may have seemed uncanny, if tradition did not state that a window should be left open to allow the spirit to flee to the heavens – and perhaps to allow a small, sallow figure to peek over the sill and get his entrance just right.

John would have told anyone who asked that he could smell death coming, but no one had questions for a sin-eater, unless it was to ask why he had not gotten gone yet.  No one had kind words for him except once in their lives, and often it was too late to speak them.  He preferred it that way.  Death was a steady business, and a reasonably profitable one, but he didn’t like looking at their eyes.

He wasn’t supposed to, really.  He was just supposed to eat the bread and drink the bitter, frothy ale balanced on an unmoving chest, taking upon himself the misdeeds and mistakes and bad manners of old, shriveled men and wizened women clasping strings of prayer beads in knotted, numbing fingers as he recited the ancient words of pardon.

“To rest I bid the soul of thee; thine sins transfer from thou to me.  Haunt not the lands where once you’d dwell, but fly towards heaven and leave me for hell.”

No sooner would he finish than he would be tossed a farthing for his services and sent quickly on his way, providing solace but given no succor in the darkened houses of the marginally mournful.  Sometimes, when he looked over his shoulder, they were already scouring drawers and desks and dressing gowns for items of portable value.  Most of the time, the servants had already gotten to them first.

Only the old folks asked for him anymore.  No one else believed in him.  Wickshire was growing modern, he thought disgustedly as he forced himself to swallow the day-old crust, stuck in his throat and tasting vaguely tangy with the spit-up blood that spattered the nightshirt underneath.  Only the old folks knew.

John was hardly in the spring of his youth, either.  His breath came too short; his eyes were dimmer, and his knees creaked now as he scuttled back from the kicking boot of the home’s new owner, the grown son of a man who would hardly have protested at the actions of his progeny.

“Peace, good sir,” he muttered as he ducked out of the way.  “I ain’t done you no harm but what you asked for.”

John would have no sons of his own, for which he was grateful at such times, nor any daughters, nor a wife to recall him fondly when the winters piled over him one time too many.  His bones would crumble into the earth unburied, returning sustenance to the soil, turning bread and ale into food for wheat and rye, turned again to food for the righteous and the sinful.

They said a sin-eater came from nowhere and left nothing behind him, but John knew better than that.  He knew what would happen when the gluey rattling in his chest became too much to bear.  He was an expert on death, and he needed no open windows to smell it stalking him.

In the old days of Wickshire, he would have been provided for.  The villages would each send a brave man, or perhaps their most foolish one, with bundles of split wood and bags of hard-baked oatcakes and summer roses dried and crisped to scented brown, to last him through the cold, dark nights and send him on his final way with honors.

They would have realized that they needed him more than he needed them.  There were more villages than sin-eaters, these days, and still a smattering of people who harkened to the old ways.  There were enough that he could find a better situations somewhere else, if he was not enticed to stay.

In the old days, the villagers would have remembered why it mattered.  They would have known that their sins did not die with the eater: that tainted loaves and watered beer were not the end of their deceit.  The gods demanded more of their disciples, and the demons craved sweeter meat.

As dying bones leeched their nutriment into the soil, so too would the sins of the village be taken up in bread and butter and frothy milk, to be returned to their children again and again – unless John did more than take a proffered farthing and run as fast as his stiffened legs could carry him.

There were no blossoms to cheer his heart as he began his slow, shuffling journey to the last house he would enter, but not the last one he would leave.  The children called it a fairy house, and sported in its shadow with their bare feet and ribboned braids, rolling willow hoops down to the river and delighting in the dappled shade.

Perhaps ignorance was not so wrong for them, but children these days grew no wiser as they aged, and for that he pitied them.  No one would pity him, though, his breath whistling through his teeth as he tried to squeeze himself inside the low dome of plaited branches, cool and close and coffin-like.

He didn’t know who renewed the tightly woven fronds of birch and hawthorn, but he did know that the thick layer of rich, ashy soil was not natural to the river’s edge.

John settled down, cross-legged, ignoring the twinge and the ache and the pointless complaining of his twisted spine.  The night that fell upon him was not natural either – or perhaps it was the most natural thing he had ever known.  He was not the only sin-eater with impeccable timing, and he smiled as he murmured the words that would send the sins of the last half a century away from Wickshire and back to where they came.

“To you I bid the sins of all; thy food to stuff thine greedy maw.  Haunt not the lands where black hearts dwell, but send me to heaven and stay you to hell.”

It was hard to finish the phrase as the demon crunched his way up from his cooling toes, supping on bitter blood and avoiding John’s gaze as it stiffened and his last breath sighed away.

In the old days, the villagers would have believed in him, he thought.  In the old days, the sin-eaters would have been remembered.  But Wickshire was growing modern, and soon there would be no one left to realize how much they needed him as the children played in the rich river soil.

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Short Story Thursday: The Red Mountains

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This little story is mostly notable for being the first piece of anything fictional I have managed to scrape together in more than a month.  Thank you, what is sure to be a very temporary break from crippling insomnia.

The horse had come back alone.  Shela knew she couldn’t hate him for it – she couldn’t afford to hate him, now that she was alone, but that didn’t stop her from throwing a clod of crumbling dirt at his oblivious flank as he grazed peacefully on the few tufts of wiry grass that hadn’t burned.  The horse raised his head, staring idly at her as tears rolled down her face.

“You daft old fool,” she shouted, her dry voice cracking into a foreign croak.  She couldn’t afford the tears, either.  There was no water left, and now there was no Jament to help her try to fix the well.

There wasn’t even a shovel.  Everything had burned.  The horse had come back, expecting its warm stable and a bale of crunchy hay – perhaps a piece of dried apple, if Jament was feeling inclined towards a great degree of generosity – but its instincts had betrayed its master, dead on the road somewhere for all she knew, and now Shela didn’t know what she was supposed to do next.

She had never wanted to come to the horrible place to begin with.  The Red Mountains were no place for a woman, Jament had told her one night, his thumb gently twisting the ring he had put on her finger only six months before as they sat together, leaning on each other, warm before the hearth.  He was supposed to have gone alone, for just a year, to look for the gold that everyone said was hiding behind every bush and stunted, gnarled tree.

It didn’t matter that there was little food and less civilization, or that the soil was too poor and the roads too treacherous to do anything about either.  But they wouldn’t need to grow their own crops when they came back to the city.  They wouldn’t care about the bad roads that made it impossible to bring a wagon full of their tools to the forges hot enough to fix them, a day and a half away if the sun wasn’t out to cause their horse a heatstroke.

They weren’t supposed to care about any of that once they found what they had been looking for.  She had come with him out of necessity as much as dutiful love: she could not make enough coin on her own to support herself in the city without his wage to pay for their cramped, overly priced room.  It was a fool’s choice, and perhaps a false one, but she had followed him into the mountains, blindly and full of trusting hope.  There was gold out there, and all they had to do was find it.

She had done well, she had thought at first, to leave her city ways behind her.  She had learned to cook without a stove, and without ground flour and yeast and meat and fruit.  She had learned to haul her own water, while Jament was away in the hills, and wash their clothes on a flat rock, and clean their few possessions with the scouring root of the roughstock tree, dug from the clay with a second-hand spade.

But then one night, Shela hadn’t been careful enough about sweeping out the straw that covered their dirt floor, harboring little wiggling worms and bright red chiggers that made them howl in frustration during the hot, still midnights when their ankles itched like fire without end.

It was the fire that had taken their little homestead, a gap-walled hut cobbled together from all the ancient, knotty pine that Jament could drag into the vicinity.  They hadn’t had the horse back then.  They had found it, wandering thin and knock-kneed along the crest of the baking ridge that separated them from the dawn.  They had used so much of their precious grain to feed it back to health, recognizing the importance of the investment, going hungry themselves through the short, blazing evenings before collapsing into darkness, exhausted by their fruitless labors.

It was the fire that had woken them, but not before catching on Jament’s sleeve, rousing him with a shriek louder than the one he had once laughed at Shela for letting loose when a diamond-heart snake slithered into her cookpot and made it a cool, shady home.  There was no laughing when they raced outside, slapping their hands against his shirt to stop the burning before she remembered that he was supposed to roll it out in the dust.  There was no laughing when they watched, dull-eyed and frozen, as the hut snapped up into flame like a curl of parchment, a beacon in the starry night that no one was close enough to see.

She had used strips of her skirt to bind up his burns, caked in red dirt and redder blood and odd white patches of blister and bone as he shivered and shook with silent pain while the fever grew rapidly inside him.  The fire had taken the crooked well sweep and the bucket and the rope, and there was nothing she could do to quench his thirst.  She had pleaded with him to let her go instead, before the sun rose and sucked the last of the meager moisture from the air, but the bad road was no place for a woman, he had smiled weakly at her as he kissed her goodbye, and he had mounted the horse with his arm dangling down as he climbed slowly over the ridge and out of sight to fetch whatever help he could find.

And now the horse had come back alone.  Two days had gone already.  Two parched and hopeless sunsets had arced over her bowed and frightened head, which meant that Jament, if he lived, was too far away for her to reach in the unforgiving glare of the sunlight without any water to sustain her, already wilting as she was.  It was too far to town.  It was too far for somewhere that would just ask her for gold she didn’t have to treat her missing husband’s wounds, and no one would trade their time and precious medicines for a knackered old horse with no meat on its bones.

“Come along,” she said, yanking on his tether as it huffed at her in annoyance that she would interrupt its meager meal.  It was his last meal, perhaps, and she felt a little bad that she was taking him from it, but she would not die alone in the ashes with nothing but a stubborn horse to mark her grave.

Everything had burned, but if the fires they could make were hot enough to melt the metal of the spade and the flat-end hoe and the pincers and the cookpot that Jament had sold their city life to purchase, they would never have needed to make the long trip to town a day and a half away.  There was value in those, even without their handles, and whether or not her husband had survived his fall from the ornery animal, she would need them to trade for shelter and bread and the small comforts of the outpost village barely clinging to its ruddy outcrops of stone.

“Come along,” she repeated, one hand on the bundle of tools lashed to the small of his back with vines threaded under his belly as she turned away from the homestead without taking a glance behind her.  “This is no place for a horse.”

Release date revealed and other big announcements

darkcover1Hello, everyone! I’ve got lots and lots of news for you today.

As many of my Facebook followers found out over the weekend, I have decided to move ahead with publishing Dark the Night Descending and the rest of the series through my very own imprint.

Why? Well, I’ve taken a little bit of time to query a few agents, none of whom replied positively (most of whom didn’t reply at all). While the process of querying makes me feel frustrated, insignificant, discouraged, and annoyed, I’m never happier than when I’m moving forward with a self-publishing project: creating, experimenting, exploring, and engaging with a world that makes me feel competent and at ease. 

Far from “giving up” on literary success, as some people have indicated, I am simply pursuing it from an angle that lets me enjoy the process as well as the outcomes. It’s better for me because it’s fun, and it’s better for you because you don’t have to wait another two years to read my next book.

In fact, you’ll only have to wait until October 6, 2014, which is when Dark the Night Descending will be available for purchase.

The Kindle and paperback versions will be available for pre-order in the next week or so on Amazon, and I will also be hosting a Goodreads give-away if you want to try your luck at snagging a free copy. There will be other fun pre-release activities, too, so stay tuned! 

If you can’t wait until October to read some new content, then you can check out a free download of Salt and Oil, Blood and Clay, a collection of my short stories and poetry that is now available from Smashwords for Kindle and any other e-reader you might have. You can click on the link above or try going to my new bookstore page instead.

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Most of the stories have been previously published on Inkless, but there are a few new poems, as well. I’ve also included The Earthstepper’s Bargain, a longer epic fantasy piece that was available for purchase elsewhere. Feel free to check it out and pass it along…and leave some reviews? Maybe? Please? 

Anyway, there you have it. There are plenty of new things on the horizon, and this autumn will be a very busy one (especially because I also have two business trips coming up). I’m looking forward to sharing my new worlds and new characters with you guys, and I hope you will all help me make this book launch a success!

Short Story Tuesday: Melted Cheese

mozzarella

Avery reflected on the wispy string of mozzarella emanating from the edge of the darkly crisped panini while her mother continued to talk.  It had been a good sandwich, for the first few bites, before her mother had asked her how she could eat at such a moment.  She had been eating because it was good, she had wanted to say, and because it had cost her eight dollars and fifty cents, plus tax.  She had been looking forward to the sandwich a lot more than she had been looking forward to talking to her mother, but Avery hadn’t really expected to get what she wanted.

She never did, where her mother was involved.  Even now, as she idly toyed with the strangely hardened, cooled spur of cheese, half-listening to Shelly detailing the reasons why she had separated from Mark – was it Mark?  No, this time it was Jeffrey, probably – all she wanted to do was shove her mother’s untouched pesto flatbread into her mouth and tell her to shut up so she could have lunch in peace.

But of course, the sandwich was ruined now.  Mozzarella never melted the same way twice.  She could take it home, she guessed, nodding and making a sympathetic noise where required, and put it on the George Foreman grill she had gotten at a yard sale last year.  That was as close to owning a panini press as she had ever gotten.  Asking her mother for kitchen appliances had always upset her, even if it was for a birthday.  Who are you going to cook for? It’s just you, she would say, accusatory and disappointed.  You’ll never use it.

It was probably true, Avery had to admit, abandoning the mozzarella thread and turning her attention to rolling the edge of her napkin between her fingernails.  After gorging for the first week on grilled cheese, pressed wraps, and burritos she didn’t need to be eating, the stupid thing would go into a cabinet and never emerge again.  They were hard to clean.

Mark had bought her a blender, in an attempt to secure the good will of his on-again, off-again paramour by getting her daughter on his side.  Avery had accepted the appliance with enthusiasm, but it hadn’t paid off the way Mark expected.  She cared about him just as much as she cared about her mother dabbing the thick foundation away from her cheeks as she pretended to cry over Jeffrey, peeking over the tissue to see if Avery was showing the proper level of concern.

She wasn’t.  She was hungry, and she wanted more than watered down Diet Coke and watered down sentiment from her mother, who thought being alone was worse than crying over flakey dates and lackluster romances.  Her mother had a bright blue Kitchen Aid stand mixer from her first marriage.  Avery had coveted it since the day her father filed the divorce papers and the house went up for sale, but Shelly had stubbornly held onto it, like she held on to everything else from her long-spent youth.

Avery took a bite from her cold sandwich anyway, grimacing at the tough prosciutto and the soggy bread where the tomatoes had lingered for too long, ignoring Shelly’s frown.  She was on a budget, and she would be damned if she let good food go to waste.  She had paid for the pesto flatbread, too, as a special mark of generosity in her mother’s time of distress, but it lay limply on its plate, untouched, as her mother scolded her for disregarding her feelings.  Six seventy-five, and the sodas had cost extra.  Shelly had gotten potato salad, too.

The George Foreman would have to be good enough for the leftovers.  It had been good enough so far.  She would be able to leave in a few minutes, when her mother got around to realizing that she wasn’t going to get much more sympathy out of Avery that day.  Maybe she would have time to run home and put it in the fridge before she had to be back at the store.  Maybe she would give Jeffrey a call the next day, and he would take her out to lunch to hear what Shelly had said about him.  Jeffrey liked seafood.  Jeffrey didn’t mind if she stuffed her face.

Avery made her escape when Shelly slunk off to the ladies’ room to replenish her mask of makeup, a kiss on the cheek and an extra squeeze to her obligatory hug making up for her desultory attention as far as Shelly was concerned.  As the waitress came round with a Styrofoam container, Avery glanced quickly at the bathroom door before reaching across the table.  She plunked her mother’s uneaten sandwich on top of her own, dumped in the potato salad, and took a final swig of soda before she bolted gratefully from the bare table.

Short Story Monday: Manu and the Wall

Dear readers, a plea: If you have a few minutes, I would be eternally grateful if you downloaded and reviewed my excerpt for the Quarterfinal round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  While reviews and downloads don’t affect the judging at this stage, some honest feedback is always helpful for me as an author.

And now, have yourself a Short Story Day as preemptive thanks.

stonewall

It was wrong to sneak out of the house every night, wrapping soft rags around his bare feet to stifle the sound of his footsteps on the rusted tin roof of the first floor as he lowered himself carefully out of the upper story window.  Manu knew it was wrong.

The window shutters wouldn’t be bolted shut if he was supposed to leave.  His mother wouldn’t firmly keep her back to the door, a sliver of dirty light slanting through the small, misshapen hatch that let in their food and let out some portion their rubbish and waste every day.  His father wouldn’t sit in his chair, tucked into a corner far away from that cold block of sun, surrounded by high piles of everything that he wouldn’t let escape: old newspapers and boxes from the weekly food packets and clothes that no one had worn for years.

If it wasn’t wrong to leave, maybe his parents would do so once in a while, instead of having Aunt Yeno and Cousin Sou trudge to the depot every morning to bring back parcels to support both their families, twenty-five children between them, and poke paper tubes filled with dried beans and canned vegetables and soft, supple bags of uncooked rice, one by one, through the only portal they allowed into their dim and darkened home.

There was nothing wrong with the outside, at least not as far as Manu could see.  There was the rest of the village, of course, and the finger of Horse Head Lake that nearly cut the town in two, the cluster of little houses bending into a long, thin line as it traced the shore.  The line was filling up, now, ever since the Wall had crept along the edge of the lake, and the town had reared itself upward, block upon block of houses piled on top of each other to reach dirty fingers up into the sky, the poorest residents hovering like birds five stories in the fetid air.

Manu’s family was poor, but they were also long-established, and had moved into their residence back when the village was young.  The Wall hadn’t even reached them yet, all the way back when his great-great-great grandparents had worked at hauling water from the lake to fill the baths of the well-to-do for a penny a day, but Manu had lived behind it for all of his short life.  He thought it was a beautiful thing, but his mother frowned at him when he said so.  She didn’t think anything was beautiful.  She just wanted the Wall to leave them alone.

He had only seen it at night, since he was scared to leave the house when his father was awake.  They could hear it breathing all the time, of course, day and night and in their dreams, but seeing the unbelievably massive edifice, craning his neck upwards to hope to get a glimpse of the ridge of its back, was something else entirely.  He had seen it sleeping, heaving ever so gently as it lost itself in thoughts so far beyond Manu’s mind that they may well have been the musings of a god.  His mother had told him that.  That he couldn’t understand it – that there was safety in not knowing the Wall.  She had told him that there was no point in trying, but he wasn’t sure he could agree.

The Wall had been come a friend, of sorts.  Not his only friend – he had his brothers and sisters and his Cousin Sou, who sometimes came into the house and tried to scrub the floors, her lips firmly pinched together under the kerchief she wrapped around her nose.  There wasn’t much floor to see under his father’s piles of things, but he shouted at her when she tried to move them, and her brows lowered so far as to touch the edge of the flowery fabric that tried to keep out the worst of the smell.

The Wall wasn’t Manu’s only friend, but it was his most mysterious one.  Someone had told him once that it wasn’t a wall at all: it was the tail of an enormous beast made of stone, and each new scale, each inch that it grew and grew and grew to thread across the whole of the kingdom, was an unanswered wish.  The beast fed on disappointment, they said.  Every kind of discontent was its food, and that is why it had gotten so huge.  It was a good thing, they said.  They needed the Wall just as the Wall needed them.

Manu didn’t know if that was true.  He didn’t think so.  He had touched it once, and it felt as cold and dead as any of the pebbles he kicked down the road in the shadow of the moonlight, breathing as much free air as he could before his father woke up and bellowed at him for his breakfast.  It had been frightening to get so close.  He had had to dodge the guards, walking stiffly in rigid pairs as they tried to keep the curious peasants away from whatever the Wall was.  Sometimes someone would sneak past, and pin a piece of paper onto the stone, scrawled with a prayer or a hope or a bargain that the Wall never seemed to keep.

It would fly away some day, they said.  The tinker claimed to have seen its wings, coiled in anticipation around the unfathomable bulk of its body, lying deep in the Darkwood Valley where the river crashed down into the hollow between the mountains.  It would fly away and leave them defenseless – but what the Wall helped defend them against never seemed to be all that clear.

His father had said that he was keeping all his things for the day the Wall went away.  There would be panic, he predicted, and fear, and no more food.  Manu didn’t think he really had any food that would still be good when that happened, but he knew better than to argue.  His father would eat anything.  His mother would let him.  They still wouldn’t ever go outside.

Manu would, though.  He would stay outside forever if he didn’t fear a beating.  Aunt Yeno would bring him back, his ear clamped between her bony fingers, and his father would pick up something hard from the pile and hit him with it for a while.  Sometimes Manu didn’t mind so much.  Maybe his anger helped the Wall grow bigger.  If he kept going outside, and Aunt Yeno kept bringing him back, maybe he could help the Wall get big enough to soar away.

He would go outside to see it.  Maybe his mother would turn around and peer through the hatch, disapproving and scared.  Maybe his father would scramble over his walls, shouting in panic, and stand in front of the door so no one could see around him.  Maybe Manu would slither out the second story window and sprint for the Wall, grabbing on as it stretched its wings to block out the sun and took to the air, the boy clinging tightly and tiny to a corner of its tail.  Manu had dreams where it happened. Maybe that’s what the Wall dreamed of, too.  Hoping so might make it bigger, and maybe one day none of them would need disappointment anymore.

Short Story Friday: Traffic Jam

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“It’s all right,” Joan whispered to herself as she waited, and waited, and waited for the car in front of her to dim its brake lights and inch forward again.  “I will get there when I get there.  There’s nothing I can do.  It’s all right.”

It wasn’t all right, though, and the car wasn’t moving.  The mantra her shrink had given her wasn’t really working – she had suspected it wouldn’t, but she had been willing to give it a try.  She had tried a lot of things to try to stifle her anxiety over the past few years, and few of them had made even the slightest dent in the massive, wobbling, suffocating jelly that oozed around her, squeezing and shifting, pinching her throat and ratcheting up her heartbeat every moment she was awake.  It wasn’t good for her, she tried to tell herself as she unclenched her jaw for the fifth time since the river of red lights had flooded the highway.  It wasn’t necessary.  It was bad for her heart.

But it was necessary.  As necessary as breathing, she sometimes felt, and the medications that were supposed to make it all slide away, leaving her mind unfettered and free to be its best self, were more trouble than they were worth.  They made the bathroom scale an unpleasant morning ritual, and they made her face break out in disgusting red spots like it did when she was fifteen.  Side effects, her shrink had told her, but they were affecting her more than the reason for the ostensible cure.

Did it matter?  Maybe it didn’t matter.  No one cared how she looked.  No one glanced at her twice no matter where she went, and maybe that was a good thing.  Loneliness had its perks, she told herself as she slid her hands over the steering wheel, back and forth, three times, before they came to rest right next to each other in the middle again.  It didn’t matter if you kept your head down if no one ever asked you to lift it up.  She gently inched the car forward, as if kissing up against the bumper ahead of her would made the traffic clear faster, but it didn’t.

“It’s all right,” she repeated again, loosening the grinding of her teeth.  “I’m going to be so late.”

She was going to be late.  Those were the facts.  There was nothing she could do about the facts, her shrink had said, and the world would keep turning even if she had to scramble to catch up on her morning work.  It wasn’t her fault.  Everything was her fault.  No.  God, if she could only get past Exit 26, she would be fine.  She would be fine.

But the bubbling shrieking that was building in the base of her throat wasn’t going to go away once she got past Exit 26.  It wasn’t going to go away when she got to work, either, because she would be late and there would be too much to do.  It might go away when she got home that night, and crawled under the covers so her neighbors couldn’t hear her sobbing, but that would only be a temporary relief.  It would build again, and she would bruise the palms of her hands when she pounded them against the steering wheel, and nothing would be all right.

She should have left earlier.  She should always leave early, but some days it was just too hard to lever herself out of bed.  She should get better at it.  She should really pull herself together and try.  It was a matter of willpower, she told herself, gritting her teeth again as the lane next to her started to inch forward without her.  Willpower and getting to bed on time.

“Finally,” she sighed as the lights winked out, one by one, and the speedometer crept up to twenty, then twenty five, then thirty.  It wasn’t fast, but she was moving.  Moving was always better than standing still.  “It’s okay,” she said, glancing at the dashboard clock as Exit 26 flashed by.  Twenty minutes left.  Twenty minutes – could she make it?  Probably not.  No, she was still going to be late, but she was moving.  It was always, always better than standing still.

Sneak Peek Friday: Dark the Night Descending

ocean-33Hey there, guys.  As part of my subtle quest to urge on the warm weather by thinking warm thoughts, I wanted to offer you all a little melted-ice cream taste of what’s coming up from me this summer.

Dark the Night Descending is the first in a new trilogy following the misadventures of Arran Swinn, a ship’s captain who bites off a little more than he can chew when a mysterious cargo and an even more mysterious passenger show up on his doorstep offering too much tempting cash to turn down.

Check out the full synopsis here, and read on for an excerpt of Chapter One.

***

The lulling hiss of the tide creeping up the shore faded from the forefront of Arran’s hearing as he stood, motionless and unseeing, on the deck of the ship.  It was dark and quiet behind his closed eyes as he focused all of his attention on the slight rocking of the wood under his heels.  Was there the hint of a little sideways twist to the motion as the vessel bobbed fore and aft, up and down at anchor?  It would be magnified a hundredfold in a cross-sea, a bucking, braying ass that would not mind its keepers if the wind hit just right.  He smiled.  He liked a girl with an iron will.

“She’s got good bones,” Rickarde said, only the slightest hint of doubt creeping into his voice as the sharp shrieking of a circling gull brought Arran back to the task at hand.  “Clean as a whistle and twice as fast,” he added when his customer didn’t seem convinced.

“She’s a right rotter and you know it,” Arran replied, running his hand over the splintered beam of the ship’s rail.  “How much?”

“Three thousand.”

“You could at least have the decency to look optimistic,” Arran scoffed.  “I’ll give you one and a half.”

“You expect me to feed my family on that?”

“Feed them on these,” Arran said, shaking a termite from his hand and flicking it into the water.

“Two thousand and you can have the sails, too,” Rickarde said, grimacing as he moved away from the infested wood.

“You were going to charge me extra?”

“Think of my –”

“I know, I know,” Arran cut over him, digging around for his wallet.  “Your poor children.  Good thing they’re all grown and married off already or I don’t know how you’d live with the anguish in their little faces.”

“Shut up,” Rickarde grinned, watching Arran reluctantly count out gold from his purse and pocketing the coins.  “You best come in for a cup or my Mollie will have my hide.  Where you taking the old gal, anyway?”

“Who?  The boat or your wife?”

“The boat.  I’d give you the wife for free if it would get her out of my hair.”

“Just up to Paderborn,” Arran said, sitting down in the kitchen.  “Thought I’d see my Mum and take on a job or two.”

“Don’t ask me to find you a crew,” Rickarde warned, putting a kettle onto the stove.  “I have a reputation to protect.”

“Then try selling something seaworthy.”

“Try not sinking it.”

“Doesn’t really work for me,” Arran said, rubbing the healing scar on the back of his neck.  He hadn’t even seen the timber falling.  He hadn’t seen much after that at all, since the spar had knocked him out cold, but he had been told that the vessel’s demise had been slow and wallowing as the longboats grimly pulled into the darkness away from the smoldering wreck.

“How many is that, now?  Three?   I don’t know where you get the nerve to keep asking good men to risk their lives.”

“Because I pay them.  Besides, I’m only running across the bay.  It shouldn’t be too bad.  What’s she called?”

“Who?”

“The tub of rusting bolts you just sold me.”

“I don’t remember,” Rickarde said, as he poured the brewed tea. “The paint’s all rubbed off.  It was something stupid.”

“That doesn’t narrow it down much.”

“Pick a name.  She’s yours now, for what good she’ll do you.  The water has been quiet these past few weeks, but that could change in an hour.”

“I know.  How much is your brother going to charge me if I ask him to pretty her up?”

Rickarde shrugged.  “As much as he wants.  You ain’t going nowhere without a visit to a shipyard, and he’s got the only one in town.”

“So much for fairness,” Arran said, draining his cup.  “I better make sure she can limp that far down the shore.”

It wasn’t that bad, he tried to tell himself on the way back down to the marina for a closer look.  The boat was in the water, and it wasn’t sinking.  That was a good start.

But he missed his old ship, he sighed as he slid down the ladder into the fetid and muck-covered hold.  The Firedrake hadn’t been big or flashy or particularly fast, but it had served him well before its untimely end, leaving him stranded in the little town of Cantrid for the past six months.

It wasn’t a very safe place, nor was it a happy one, and the isolated region’s lack of reliable communication with the capital meant that it had taken him half a year to scrape together enough coin together to purchase anything, even such a disaster as the boat upon which he now stood.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered to himself as he took out his knife and pushed it into one of the ship’s knees.  The tip of the blade burrowed nearly an inch into the massive beam with no resistance, the crumbling wood and mold too soft to stop it.  They would all need to be replaced.  And the budding split in the mainmast needed fixing.  And the sails that Rickarde had so generously included in the price were riddled with dry rot.  Useless.

But he did have to acknowledge that the little ship did have fine bones.  He wouldn’t be wasting his time if she was anything but a corker with clean lines and a sharp bow.  There were good spars and good wrights to be had from Rickarde’s brother, even if they were exorbitantly priced for his captive customers. With a little spit and polish, she would spin like a top if he asked her.  She would have to.  If she didn’t, he’d be dead long before he could be disappointed.

Disappointment came to him anyway as the shipwright tugged at his beard and shook his head, consulting with a foreman who couldn’t seem to keep the wolfish grin off his face as the list of repairs kept growing longer.  There wasn’t even a penny left in Arran’s wallet when the pair of them had finished.  He had hoped to have a little left over to help pay for provisions, but he would need to dip into the last of his savings if he ever wanted to leave the village for more lucrative and exciting shores.

And it was still cheaper to pay for the work than it was to snatch a beauty off the market, where a boat that survived six months was hailed as too lucky to ever abandon.  He had almost gotten there with the Firedrake.  He had almost gotten a lot of things before the Siheldi took them away.

“It’ll be three weeks at least,” the foreman told him, spitting a wad of tobacco juice onto the floor of the office as the yard clerk wrote up a receipt.  “The freedom walk is in a fortnight, so you ain’t losing much.”

“I can get a crew,” Arran said defensively.  “I don’t need to stink up the place with prisoners who couldn’t buy their way out of the cells before their time.”

“Right,” the foreman smirked, shifting the enormous glob of crushed leaves and spittle from one cheek to the other.  “I’ll see you there, then, yeah?”

“Probably,” Arran muttered.

“What do you want me to call her?” the shipwright said as Arran folded the parchment and stuffed it into the pocket of his coat.

“Surprise me.  I’ll be at the club if you need anything.  Except more money.”

The foreman laughed and waved him off, leaving Arran to pace alone into town.  There wasn’t much of Cantrid, but what there was had seen better days.  It had been a popular fair weather retreat about a century ago, and still boasted a large square fronted by row houses that had, at one time, been quite elegant in their way.  But the intervening years had decayed them into a blocked up, knocked out warren for the poor, who had taken over the abandoned dwellings as quickly as rats multiplied in a sewer.

The old gentleman’s club was still in business, though, still maintaining the shreds of its dignity under the age-old name of Whitstone.  Anyone who fancied himself of any importance was a member, splashing out on a weekly supper or spending a few evenings every month in the smoking room.  The meeting house had turned into an unofficial marketplace, where trade was conducted and bargains sealed over brandy and clam soup.  A familiarity with the establishment and its clientele was essential for anyone looking to capitalize off the town’s modest maritime industry.

A crew to sail his new vessel could be found on any street corner, freed monthly from the debtor’s prisons, like the shipwright had mentioned, or culled from the constantly replenished ranks of disillusioned apprentices, runaways from angry fathers, or hard men of the sea living out hard luck on land.  But cargo and high-paying passengers were much more difficult to find, and in Cantrid, they had to be finessed from the tight grip of Whitstone’s preeminent patron, who went by the name of Roydin Balard.

“Can I buy an old friend a drink, sir?” Arran said brightly, making his best bow when he found the man in his usual chair, tucked into the corner of the room where he could observe his fellows without being disturbed by them.

“Oh, God.  Not you,” Roydin groaned when he saw who was addressing him.  “Get out.”

“Don’t be like that, sir,” Arran said, sitting down uninvited across from the portly, balding fellow.  He didn’t look like a very shrewd businessman, with the frayed slippers he wore everywhere and his ancient, greasy coats, but Arran had been left puzzled and penniless more than once after a so-called negotiation with Roydin, and this time he wasn’t going to be put on the back foot.

“You owe me six thousand pounds for that damned disaster last year,” Roydin told him.

“I don’t believe I do, sir.  Your insuring company paid you.”

“Yes, and now I have to give them an extra two hundred a month because they think I’m an extraordinary risk.  That’s your fault, Swinn.”

“Well.  Maybe.  But I’ve got me a new ship, and she’s as fast as the angels.  I just need a bit of something to break her in.”

“Like the five hundred bolts of fine satin that are now sitting on the sea floor because of you?”

“Exactly like that, sir.”

“Keep your dreaming.  You’re not getting another farthing out of me.”

“Please, Roydin?  Anything you’ve got.  Rice.  Pigs.  Your least favorite child. Anything.”

Roydin looked at him carefully, tilting his head.  “You’re begging me?”

“Apparently.”

“Well, I can’t say that’s not pleasing.  But it’s not going to be very effective.  You can stand a trip across the bay without a full hold.  Try cheating someone in Paderborn out of their money.  There has to be at least one natural-born idiot there you haven’t let down yet.”

“Come see the new boat next week, when she’s had a proper scrub,” Arran coaxed.  “I’ll show you what she can do.  I promise you’ll be satisfied.”

“I already am.  I get to keep my gold.”

“But –”

“Goodbye, Swinn,” Roydin said firmly.

“Thank you for your time, sir,” said Arran, forcing a smile.  “Maybe we can work together in the future.”

“Don’t count on it,” the merchant said as Arran bowed again, his false pleasantness fading as he left the room in defeat.