As I mentioned yesterday, I've got two fantasy novels in preparation, each with strengths of its own. I'm going to ask my readers which they prefer, based on short excerpts that I'll publish here, today and tomorrow.
This one's set in a Middle Ages-type environment; think Robin Hood, if you like, but more primitive. The protagonist is an older man, past his prime, but who was once a King's Champion (i.e. a fighter good enough to represent the King and Kingdom in armed combat, if necessary). He's just visited the grave of an old comrade-in-arms when this action occurs. The book is provisionally titled "King's Champion", but that may well change.
Owain woke shortly after midnight. Cursing his aching back and knees, he slipped out of the two heavy horse blankets under which he’d slept, fully clothed for warmth, and pulled on his boots. He walked over to the stable’s double doors and opened one half very slightly, looking out. The rain had ceased for now. The light of the half-moon was visible through a few holes in the clouds.
His horse snorted, stamping softly on the straw covering the earthen floor of his stall. The traveler turned and grinned. “Are your old joints complaining, Ned? Aye, mine too. We’re both getting on enough in years to feel the damp in our bones now.” He fetched another horse blanket from the pile in the store-room, shook it out and spread it carefully over Ned’s back. “This’ll help to keep you comfortable for the rest of the night. I –”
He froze as a distant screeching, wailing cry echoed faintly down the valley. The hair on the back of his neck rose as his eyes widened. He hadn’t heard that sound in over three decades. “It can’t be!” he whispered, only to be given the lie as it came again. Beside him Gerd sensed his alarm and growled softly.
“Quiet, boy!” he whispered urgently. He hurried to the wall, unhooked the bridle and fitted it to Ned’s head, working in frantic haste, then tied the horse to a ring set into the stone wall of his stall. He patted his head. “Sorry, Ned, but there’s deviltry afoot. You stay here where you’ll be safe – unless they rip the roof off, of course; but if things get that far, we’ll all be done for.” He glanced across at the stall occupied by the inn’s horse. It had heard the sound too. It was stamping nervously, tossing its head, eyes wide. He wouldn’t have time to secure it too.
He slung the baldric bearing his sword over his right shoulder, the familiar weight settling on his left hip. His dagger’s scabbard was still belted on his right hip. He reached for the blade where it had been lying next to his head in case of need, sheathed it, then hurried back to the doors and peered through the narrow opening.
Two huge black-winged silhouettes were visible in the faint moonlight, arrowing down towards the inn. The closest was already back-winging to slow its flight, preparing to land next to the main building. Two huddled figures sat atop saddles on its long neck, two big, bulging saddlebags strapped between them.
“Gruefells!” the man hissed. “I was right about that cry.” He laid a restraining hand on the dog as it tensed beside him. “Not a sound, Gerd. They’d kill you in a heartbeat, and me, too.” The well-trained warhound obeyed, crouching down at Owain’s feet.
He licked his lips, feeling the tremble of fear that always came before a fight, already channeling it, transmuting it into cold, hard determination, focusing on what was to come. He didn’t draw a weapon yet. He’d have to see what the riders did – there were four in all, two on each gruefell – and respond accordingly. Fleetingly he longed for his battle-axe; but it was three days’ ride from here, hanging on the wall of his chamber. Others regarded him, more or less tolerantly, as an anachronism, a throw-back to the old days, because he was one of the few who still insisted on wearing sword and dagger. They’d have feared him as a potentially dangerous lunatic had he carried the axe as well.
The first gruefell thumped solidly to earth outside the front of the inn. Its two riders jumped down, drew swords and daggers, and dashed for the main door. As they reached it, the gruefell reached forward with its head and butted the double doors. They burst open as the locking bar snapped, crashing back on their hinges, swinging wildly. The two men ran inside as alarmed shouts sounded from the innkeeper and his family upstairs. Owain cursed softly. The gruefell’s eyes were sweeping around, looking into every shadow. If he tried to go to the aid of those in the inn, it would spot him before he’d taken two paces. Its saw-edged beak and spear-sharp talons would close on him before he could reach the main building.
There was a second thump as the other gruefell landed behind the inn. Its two riders also dismounted, one rushing for the inn’s back door, the other running between the stable and the inn. He was carrying an arbalest, winding at its cranequin as he ran. As he approached, he dropped a bolt into the track and leveled the weapon at the side door. Owain’s blood ran cold as he thought, They know what they’re doing. Three men go in to deal with everyone inside, the gruefells guard the front and rear, and one man guards the side door to shoot anyone trying to escape to the stable. This isn’t the first time they’ve attacked a building. Behind him he heard the inn’s horse plunging and neighing desperately, kicking in its stall as it scented the gruefells. At least the noise would provide some cover for any sound he had to make.
The clamor of a fight erupted from upstairs. The innkeeper shouted angrily, desperately, as his wife screamed and his son squalled in agony. The innkeeper yelled again, a despairing wail that ended in a bubbling gurgle, and his young daughter shrieked wordlessly. Loud, harsh laughter sounded from inside.
The shutter over an upstairs window was thrown back. The man with the arbalest swung his weapon towards it, then relaxed as a black-clad figure showed himself. He spoke in the guttural Graben tongue. It was several decades since Owain had last heard it, but he remembered enough to understand what the intruder was saying. “Only the innkeeper and his family are here – no guests, so there’ll be less loot, more’s the pity. Open the stable and drive the animals out so the gruefells can eat, then come on up. The others are already busy with the woman and girl.” The muffled sounds coming from behind him made it grimly clear what he meant. “We’ll have them next.” He waved, then pulled the shutter closed once more to keep out the chill of the night.
The arbalestier relaxed. He took the bolt from the track of his weapon and returned it to a quiver at his waist, but left the steel prod cocked. As he did so, the traveler faded back into the shadows of the unlit barn.
The intruder tugged at a leaf of the stable’s double doors, pulling it halfway open, and stepped inside. He’d taken five steps towards the kicking, plunging inn horse before Owain stepped out of the shadows behind him and rammed his dagger through his right kidney. He arched his back, gargling in agony, but the noise was stifled as Owain’s hand came over his shoulder, clamping down hard on his mouth. The traveler worked the dagger blade back and forth and up and down in the wound, paralyzing the injured man with the pain of it; then he withdrew the blade, put it to the man’s throat, and sliced it deeply from ear to ear. He eased the arbalest’s sling off the man’s shoulder, took the weight of the weapon, then tossed the mortally wounded attacker to one side.
The noise made by the inn’s panicked horse had helped to cover the sounds of the fight. He looked at it sadly. “It’s sorry I am about this, but I’ve no choice. I’ve got to distract those gruefells so I can get into the inn to deal with the other three.”
He bent to the still weakly moving attacker, wiped the dagger on his clothing and sheathed it, then unbuckled the man’s belt. He removed the quiver of bolts for the arbalest and slid it onto his own belt, then took out a bolt and laid it in the arbalest’s track. He touched the head as he did so, and jerked his hand away as he felt a sticky substance. “Graben poison!” he hissed, mouth twisting in sickened remembrance of those he’d seen dying in agony from it… then he grinned savagely. With luck, some of the attackers would find out tonight how it felt to be on the receiving end of the stuff. He’d have to be careful not to cut his fingers on the bolts. He washed his hands quickly in a stable bucket to remove the greasy unguent, drying them on his kilt, then kicked over the bucket to prevent any animal drinking the tainted water.
A leaf of the stable doors was still half-open. That would be enough, he decided, striding over to the stall where the inn’s horse was still kicking and neighing pitifully. He jerked the gate open, then jumped back as the panicked animal burst out, staggering and stumbling in its haste, and ran for the door, galloping out into the moonlight. He heard the two gruefells scream as they sighted their prey.
He took a precious moment to pat Ned reassuringly. His steed was standing trembling in his stall, not panicking like the other animal, but clearly very frightened. “Stay quiet, Ned. Gerd, come.” The warhound bounded to his side as he ran for the doors.
Peering out from the shadows, he saw the inn’s horse had got no more than fifty yards before the two gruefells had fallen upon it from the air. It was down, kicking its last as the two winged monsters tore at its entrails with their beaks, not even waiting for their prey to die. All their attention was on their meal.
“Quiet, Gerd,” he whispered, and ran towards the side door of the inn. The dog followed him without a sound. He slipped into the inn, laid the arbalest on a table and headed for the stairs, drawing his sword and dagger as he climbed them silently, thanking the Gods that the sounds of struggle upstairs, the screams of the dying horse and the cries of the gruefells covered the creaking of the wood. Besides, the three upstairs were expecting their comrade to join them, so any noise he made wouldn’t alarm them.
The man who’d opened the shutter was standing at the door to the innkeeper’s bedroom, laughing as he watched what was going on inside. Owain could hear two more men within, obviously busy with the women. He came up behind the man in the doorway as silently as possible and stabbed him straight through the heart. His victim arched his back with a cry of pain and fell forward into the room, his sword clattering to the floor.
The other two intruders looked around, eyes wide with shock. One was kneeling between the innkeeper’s wife’s legs as she sprawled face-down on the bed. The other man had bent her nine-year-old daughter over the dresser, her nightgown hoisted up around her waist, and was standing behind her, breeches around his ankles. Both men were pumping away at their victims, ignoring the innkeeper and his eleven-year-old son as they lay on the floor, faces still showing the agony of their last moments, great gaping wounds pouring blood, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
The two men jerked upright and spun around. The one who’d been raping the girl grabbed for his sword as it leaned against the dresser, but her foot kicked it as she struggled to get free. It toppled to the floor, clattering loudly, and her thrashing legs obstructed him as he tried to pick it up. Cursing, he snatched up the dagger he’d laid on top of the dresser and slammed it down into her spine, but it stuck in the bone and cartilage as she screamed and arched her back in agony. Owain didn’t give him time to recover. He leaped forward as the man turned, off-balance as he tripped over his breeches, and stabbed deep into his gut, cutting across with a slicing action as he withdrew the blade. The man’s entrails poured out of the gaping gash in his abdomen. He emitted a croaking cry of agony and collapsed, clutching at them.
The other man thrust himself to his feet as Owain killed his comrade. He’d kicked off his breeches before raping the woman, so he wasn’t hampered by having them around his ankles. He seized his sword from where it lay on the bed next to him and slashed wildly. Owain swayed backwards to avoid the blow as the woman sprang from the bed and rushed to the door, stumbling over the bodies of her husband and son. Screaming hysterically, she disappeared towards the stairs as Gerd growled savagely and launched himself in a flying leap, grabbing the man’s sword arm in his powerful jaws and crushing down hard. His victim shrieked, trying desperately to transfer the sword to his other hand, but Owain sprang forward and kicked the blade out of the Graben’s hand with his boot. He stabbed upward with his dagger as Gerd pulled the man forward. The point penetrated beneath his chin and thrust upward into his brain, killing him instantly.
The whole building shook as a scream of rage sounded outside. Owain realized in a flash that the gruefells had recognized the sounds of battle and returned to aid their riders. They could easily demolish a ramshackle structure like this, using their weight to batter it down and their talons to rip and tear at the wreckage and anyone inside. He spun around and ran for the stairs.
As he reached them he saw the woman, still screaming, wrench open the front door of the inn. He shouted, “Don’t go out!” – but in her panic, she either didn’t hear, or ignored him. She dashed outside, and instantly shrieked even louder. Owain knew a gruefell must have caught her. He ran down the stairs, dropped his sword and dagger on the table and grabbed the arbalest. Hurrying to the door, he looked out to see the gruefell launch itself into the air, the woman’s body clutched in its right claw, two of its talons penetrating her body and coming out of the front of her torso. She was still screaming, struggling weakly.
Owain jumped through the door, pulled the tiller into his shoulder, aimed at the huge body rising above him, and pressed the lever. The weapon kicked hard, surprising him with its strength and power as the bolt soared straight upward. It speared into the gruefell in the black, stinking pit beneath its tail. With a wail of pain the foul creature arched its back, beating its wings frantically, then fell forward and down. He hurled himself to one side as the winged leviathan crashed down on the roof of the inn. The woman’s screams were cut off as if by a knife as she was crushed beneath it. Thatch, rafters and dislodged beams thumped and bounced around Owain as he huddled against the front wall, already winding the cranequin to re-cock the bowstring. The gruefell thrashed to and fro, shaking the whole building, mewling in agony as the poison spread through its body.
An enraged screech sounded from the far side of the inn. Owain threw himself inside the front door again as the second gruefell soared over the inn and thumped to the ground outside, hissing in fury. He huddled against the wall, winding frantically until he heard and felt the bowstring click into its catch; then he grabbed another bolt from the quiver and slammed it into the track, nocking its notched end to the bowstring. As he did so the building rocked again, and part of the wall on the far side of the front door splintered and fell into the room with a deafening crash. The head and neck of the second gruefell thrust into the opening, its jaws agape as it sought whoever had hurt its partner.
Dodging more falling planks and timbers, Owain snapped the arbalest to his shoulder and aimed at the beast’s neck, behind the hollow of its jaw. He pulled the lever, and the bolt flew straight and true. The beast threw back its head and screamed, turning towards the source of its sudden agony. Its eyes fell on him; but his bolt had sunk into the great blood vessels supplying its brain. The poison took almost instant effect. Before it could reach down and seize him in its saw-edged beak, it stiffened and its eyes glazed. Its head fell forward, hitting a fallen rafter with a solid thunk!, then its body toppled sideways, adding to the destruction as it collapsed.
Owain ducked to avoid more falling debris, then ran outside once more. Hands trembling with the adrenaline rush, he spanned the arbalest and fitted a third bolt to its string, then aimed carefully at the still-thrashing gruefell on the roof of the inn. His shot struck the neck of the creature as its head protruded from the half-destroyed thatch. The second dose of poison, much closer to the heart and brain than the first, swiftly took effect. The beast’s struggles slowed, then ceased.
Owain sagged against the doorframe. “If I never again have as close a call as this, I’ll be a happy man,” he murmured to himself, feeling the fear-sweat on his face. He knew full well that, despite his skill at arms, only luck had ensured his survival. If it hadn’t been for the filthy inn, driving him to sleep in the barn instead of a guest room, plus his sore back and knees waking him in time to hear the gruefells’ distant cries, plus the distractions of food for them and rape for the men… he’d have been dead by now. He was also bitterly aware of how his advancing years had slowed his reactions. If there are to be more such fights in my future, I’ll have to rely on experience and low cunning to counter the speed and strength of younger attackers, he mentally instructed himself. His opponents wouldn’t always be so obliging as to get tangled up in their own breeches.
At last he straightened and walked slowly back inside. He put the arbalest back on the table and picked up his sword and dagger, wiping them with the already dirty tablecloth, then sheathing them. The gruefell’s body had destroyed half the roof, knocking beams, rafters and thatch down into the interior, and was hanging through into the upper floor. He heard Gerd whining from the innkeeper’s apartment, and climbed the stairs once more. It was hard work to move all the fallen debris out of the way and squeeze past the carcass, but he eventually cleared a path to the bedroom door. Kicking it open, he squatted to pat the dog and receive his grateful licks.
“It’s all right, Gerd. It’s over now. You did well, holding that one so I could kill him. What I want to know is, what the hell is a Graben raiding party doing here? There’s nothing to attract their attention. Why attack a small, run-down inn, far from any town and in the off-season for travel? They always used to strike farms or villages, where the pickings would be richer.” He sighed. “I guess I’d better search their bodies, then take a look in those gruefells’ saddlebags – they seem pretty full. When the sun rises, I’ll look at it all, and figure out what to do next.”
Well, there you have it. Think about it, and read the excerpt from the other novel that I'll put up tomorrow morning: then I'll ask you to help choose which one I'll write in 2017, if I'm spared.