Late last year I asked you, dear readers, to select which of two possible fantasy novels I should write. I put up two sample excerpts; the first dealing with an older protagonist, Owain, and the second focusing on a much younger man. By popular vote, you selected the first story as the one you'd most like to read. (I'll write the second, too, but later, and after further development.)
I'm well on my way to completing the novel, which I hope will be published early in August. It'll be a stand-alone book, not part of a series. To whet your appetite, here's another excerpt. I've asked my friend Cedar Sanderson to design the cover, and I think she's doing a great job. I'll post a teaser image of it in a few days' time.
Calathon had reached the sixth name in his roll-call when a hunting horn blared a strident call from the far side of the clearing. Everyone stiffened in shock; but even as they looked around in the half-light, trying to see what had caused someone in the southern group to sound the alarm, horn calls sounded from east and west as well. Dark shapes suddenly materialized overhead, dropping fast towards the grass beyond the trees.
Calathon dropped his list and grabbed his axe. “Gruefells!”
“They’re coming from all directions!” the Baron shouted.
Even before he’d finished speaking, the man-at-arms beside him had slapped a bolt into the track of his arbalest and shouldered it. He aimed at the nearest immense shape, black against the pre-dawn sky as it back-winged before touching down, and squeezed the firing lever. His arbalest twanged loudly, steel prod snapping forward with immense force, and his bolt vanished into the gloom. The beast shrieked in sudden agony, jerking its head back, and its back-winging faltered. It crashed the last few feet to the ground, crunching on the frozen grass, and the two figures on saddles astride its neck were hurled to the ground.
Diaval automatically, instinctively slotted a bolt into place on his crossbow, and nocked its notched end to his bowstring. He belatedly realized he hadn’t selected one of the poisoned bolts Owain had left for him, but that didn’t matter against a human target. He aimed at the nearest figure picking itself off the grass, no more than twenty feet from him, and triggered his weapon. The bolt flashed low and flat over the grass and slammed into the man’s chest, piercing his mail coat and all the way through his torso at such short range, its bodkin point and half its length jutting out of his spine. With a shout of agony, the Graben raider fell backwards.
“PROTECT THE ARCHERS!” the Baron bellowed. “Keep the enemy away from them!”
Diaval was dimly aware of his new-found comrades forming a screen ahead of them, crouching low so as not to obscure their aim. He couldn’t take time to focus on them as he yanked hard on the cocking lever, spanning his weapon, then grabbed one of Owain’s poisoned bolts and slapped it into the track. Two archers near him, armed with compound recurve bows, were firing as fast as they could snatch arrows from their quivers, sending their light, fast missiles at the raiders on the ground as they dropped from their gruefells. They couldn’t penetrate mail surcoats at longer ranges, but one of the figures stumbled, clutching at his unarmored leg. Another shouted in pain and dropped his sword as a shaft suddenly sprouted from his wrist.
The other raiders charged towards them brandishing swords, spears and maces. Calathon stepped in front of Diaval, expertly dodging a wild blow from a mace as he swung his double-headed battle-axe in a short, economical chopping motion. The arm holding the mace flew away from the raider, who shrieked and clasped the bleeding stump for an instant before Calathon reversed his swing, the blade carving into the man’s neck with a meaty thump. The head lolled to one side, almost severed, the stump of the neck fountaining blood as the attacker collapsed.
As he fell, the arbalestier beside Diaval fired again, producing a shriek of pain from a gruefell further out in the clearing. Calathon ducked as he heard the twang of the bowstring behind him, then stepped back between the two archers as another gruefell screamed in fury and charged towards them. Shoot at the soft parts, Diaval mentally reminded himself as he snapped the reloaded crossbow to his shoulder. He aimed right into the creature’s mouth as it screamed again, and fired. The bolt streaked across the rapidly closing space between them and disappeared into the gaping saw-edged beak. The gruefell gave a strangled, choking, gargling cry as it reared up, wings beating frantically, head back as if looking straight up at the fading stars. It toppled to one side, heavy body crashing down on top of the first raider Diaval had shot, and lay there, kicking and struggling, its movements already growing feebler.
The arbalestier frantically tugged at his weapon’s cocking lever. Its weakest point, offsetting its immense power, was that it took several pulls at the geared mechanism, and fifteen to twenty seconds, to re-span the steel prod. Diaval’s crossbow, with its less powerful compound prod, was faster to reload than an arbalest, although it could never equal the power of the latter, or match the rate of fire of a recurve bow. He hauled on the cocking lever again, the bowstring clicking into place over its catch, and moved to his left to put more space between himself and Calathon, so the latter would have room to swing his battle-axe. He reached for another poisoned bolt as the Baron yelled a warning, pointing skyward.
Karikan admired the precision with which the four groups of gruefells touched down at the cardinal points of the clearing, just inside the boundary of trees – then gasped in horror as first one, then more of the animals in each group staggered, screamed, and began to fall. How is this possible? his brain yammered at him. They were ready for us! Who betrayed us? The Council will blame me for this!
He stared down at the group he’d accompanied to the clearing. Already one of its gruefells had collapsed to the ground, landing hard, throwing its two riders clear. One of them tried to stand, then fell backwards as something slammed into him with vicious force. His companion rushed forward, waving his mace, but was intercepted by – an axeman!
He yelled at the rider in front of him, “That’s our target! Take us down, straight at him! Tell your gruefell to kill him!”
“You’re mad! They’ll hit us for sure! They’ve got arbalests in the treeline!”
“I’m a sorcerer! I’ll take care of the arbalests! Get that man with the axe! That must be Owain!” He watched in horror as the axeman slaughtered the Graben with almost nonchalant ease. He knew the only way he might possibly earn forgiveness for the casualties among the irreplaceable gruefells was to lay the Champion’s head at the Council’s feet, along with all he had stolen.
The rider sent a mental command to his gruefell, which screamed its anger aloud as it saw another of its kind rush towards the axeman, then rear up and fall. It seemed to pivot on a wingtip as it banked steeply over the center of the clearing, then plummeted towards the action. Karikan began the incantation that would hurl a killing spell at the treeline as soon as he could see a target.
——————————Diaval looked up to see a gruefell diving towards them, beak agape, eyes rolling in the fury of battle lust. It seemed to be aiming directly for Calathon. The rearmost of the two riders astride its neck half-stood in his stirrups and pointed at the arbalestier. He seemed to be shouting something, but Diaval couldn’t hear his words over the cries and yells of other fighters. The archer stiffened, dropped his arbalest and collapsed backwards.
Calathon braced himself, hefting his axe, shouting “For the Baron and the King!” as the gruefell bounced to the ground ten yards ahead of them, then charged, its riders still on its back. Diaval threw his crossbow to his shoulder and aimed at the beast’s raised neck, but it stabbed its head down at Calathon as he fired. His bolt skimmed over the animal’s neck and slammed into the belly of the foremost rider. He croaked in agony as he was shoved back by the impact into his passenger, who also shouted in pain and clutched at his chest. My bolt must have gone right through the front rider and hit the second, Diaval realized instantly. His hands were already re-spanning his crossbow as he stumbled backwards, cursing his slow, unresponsive legs, still sore and aching after yesterday’s exertions.
Calathon launched a blow at the massive head as it lunged at him, but it was useless. The gruefell ignored the axe as it bounced off its iron-hard beak, then bit down hard on his midriff. The man-at-arms was bisected at the waist. His legs and hips collapsed to the ground in a shower of blood and torn intestines, while his head and torso were lifted off the ground, the battle-axe falling from his lifeless hands. He was dead before he could even cry out.
With a shout of fury, Brackley charged forward. As the gruefell shook Calathon’s body to and fro, he threw himself upward and lunged with his sword. Its point pierced the creature’s plate-sized right eye, producing a rush of ichor that splattered all over the Baron as he fell back to the ground. The gruefell squalled in agony, dropping Calathon’s torso as its beak opened. It tottered for a moment, off-balance as it reeled, then recovered itself, turning its head towards its riders as they lay collapsed in their saddles at the base of its long, sinuous neck, almost as if it were pleading with them. Getting no response, it spread its wings and launched itself frantically into the air.
Diaval slid the last of his poisoned bolts into the track of his crossbow. He ran forward, seized the Baron’s arm and hauled him to his feet, thrusting him back, then stepped in front of him as he lifted the weapon. His battle fury was tinged with sorrow for Calathon as he tucked the tiller into his shoulder and aimed almost vertically at the beast as it left the ground. He pulled the lever, and the bolt sped straight and true.
Fired at point-blank range, the razor-sharp bolt sliced into the thin, wrinkled skin between the gruefell’s wings, where there were no scales to offer protection. Its point speared through the soft cartilage between two massive vertebrae, penetrating deep into the spinal cavity, severing many of the nerves in the spinal cord. The strongly beating wings froze in mid-stroke, even as the bolt’s lethal cargo of poison began to spread through the spinal fluid. The gruefell shrieked again, arched its back, then toppled backwards as its upward momentum gave out and gravity pulled it down.
Diaval had no time to be afraid as the massive beast collapsed on top of him.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I'm enjoying writing it. More soon!