Where Angels Die: Episode 1, chapter 1

A preview of my new serial, now in progress. I posted a teaser (call it that, rather than a prologue) earlier.


 

Chapter 1

The Taken

 

The first snow fell on the fourth day out from Suranaya, just before midday, though the calendar insisted that it was still early autumn. Three men on sturdy bay horses rode slowly up the zig-zag road towards the northern mountains. A wintry mantle had already settled on the jagged peaks. In full daylight they would have been dazzling white, but they looked like tarnished silver under this livid and sunless sky.

The riders went single file, but drew up three abreast when the leader halted at a bend in the road. He pointed at a deep, narrow rift in the mountain range on the northern horizon. ‘Sai Jilon,’ he said in his own Anayan tongue, his voice as dull and grey as the clouds. Then, for the benefit of his companions, he translated it into the speech of the Commonwealth: ‘Cleft of Bones.’

The other riders looked up at the cleft uneasily. ‘Charming name,’ said the younger of the two, a lean, dark youth with close-cropped hair. He wore a plain woollen riding cloak with brown boots and gloves, and a cynical expression that fell just short of being a smirk. He looked like the sort of person that is always being told to take that look off his face.

‘Take that look off your face, Revel,’ said the third rider, throwing back his hood. He was dressed like the younger man, except for a bright blue sash round his waist, but there the resemblance ended. He was taller than his companion, broad-shouldered, with a wide, honest face that seemed equally ready for anger or laughter. Though he was no more than thirty, his hair was marked by two white streaks, running straight back from the corners of his forehead.

‘You take it off, Badger-brock. I’m not going up there till our friend tells us whose bones it’s named after.’

‘Not bones of men,’ said the Anayan. ‘Come. Dangerous to stop here.’

The three riders urged their mounts into a tired and toilsome walk. The horses puffed clouds of steam as they laboured up the steepening slope. A sharp east wind blew wisps of falling snow about their hoofs. The snow turned the treeless landscape into a jumble of shapeless lumps. Some of them concealed juniper bushes, some dwarf willows; others were loose boulders or heaps of shattered stone. Except for the road, there was no sign of human life, but the riders were uncomfortably aware that most of those lumps were big enough to provide cover for a hostile archer or spearman.

The young rider cast a sour glance over the terrain. ‘Remind me, Badger. Why are we fighting for this iceberg?’

‘Don’t be a fool, Revel. Till now, we’ve shut the Taken up behind those mountains – kept them landlocked. If they take Suranaya, or any other seaport for that matter, they’ll be able to strike wherever they choose; and they’ll bring their winter with them. I suppose you’d rather fight demons in the Pearl Islands? Or your own back garden in six feet of snow?’

‘Since you ask,’ said Revel, ‘I’d rather not fight them at all.’

‘For a man who doesn’t like fighting, you picked a strange profession. We’re not exactly tea ladies. If you—’

The Anayan hissed loudly, and the Badger fell silent. ‘Something moving, Surin. Very close.’

‘Taken?’ Revel asked in an urgent whisper.

‘Could be ordinary bandits,’ said the Badger. ‘Either way, get ready to run. Where did you spot them, Jandi?’

Not fifty yards ahead, the road passed between two low mounds of wind-carved earth. The Anayan pointed to the one on the left. ‘Wonderful,’ said Revel. ‘I suppose there’s no way round?’

‘Only one road to Sai Jilon,’ said Jandi.

‘I was afraid of that.’ Revel sighed and reached for the stout oaken stave slung across his saddle-bow. Shod in iron on one end, capped with a milky jade ram’s head on the other, it was as good a weapon as a footman’s mace. The Badger was already brandishing his stave. Jandi drew a long dagger and tried to look dangerous. Three pairs of eyes scanned the road ahead, gauging their chances of galloping straight through the ambush. Revel reined in his skittish mount, murmured soothing words to try to calm it. The riders looked at one another and nodded. They would try a charge.

It was then that the Taken attacked them from behind.

Eight men in tattered furs sprang up out of a blind in the snow, flung themselves at the horses’ flanks, clawed at the riders’ legs to pull them out of the saddle. The Badger’s mount baulked and tried to kick, but Revel’s bay had other ideas. It flattened its ears against its skull, took the bit in its teeth, and bolted. For a moment that seemed impossibly long, Revel found himself sitting in empty air. Then he hit the road with a heavy thud, and the Taken were upon him.

One assailant was digging his fingernails into Revel’s left arm; another seemed determined to bite through his right boot. For the moment, his right arm was free. He swung his stave down hard on the biting man’s skull, provoking a muffled yelp. Then he was down, four men pinning his limbs while a fifth tried to sit on his head. He could hear the Badger shouting battle-cries and curses, and the heavy thud of his stave against his enemies’ bodies. Jandi seemed to have disappeared.

It was not much good struggling against the strength of five men, but Revel was still trying when the head of the Badger’s stave knocked one of the enemy sprawling. The return stroke caught another in the belly, winding him and making him let go of Revel’s arm. With a desperate squirm and a tearing of wool, the youth broke free and leapt to his feet. Before the Taken could overpower him again, he screamed an invocation in the ancient Sethic tongue. Pale flame blossomed from the jade ram’s head, setting the enemy’s furs ablaze as he rained blows down on the suddenly panicked men. They sprang away from him, howling in terror, and before he was quite aware of it, the Taken were gone.

‘Put that out, idiot!’ the Badger snapped. ‘Every demon for miles will see us.’

Revel opened his mouth to argue, but he restrained himself and let the flame die. ‘Well, there’s one consolation,’ the Badger went on. ‘That lot didn’t know who we were. They thought they were looking at three unarmed travellers.’

‘They won’t make that mistake again,’ Revel agreed with a grin.

‘You’ve got that right,’ said the Badger. ‘Next time they’ll bring an army.’

Revel’s grin vanished as suddenly as his fire. ‘So many? I thought on this side of the mountains—’

‘You thought. Revel, that isn’t good enough. In this country, you have to know.’

‘Surin, come quickly!’ Jandi’s voice came through the thickening snowfall. He was kneeling on the ground twenty yards from the road.

‘What is it, Jandi?’

‘You marked one, Revel Surin.’

Revel and the Badger shrugged and exchanged glances. ‘Don’t let him up!’ the Badger shouted back as they tramped through the snow to join the Anayan.

One of the Taken was lying on his back, eyes open, but evidently stunned. He had the high cheekbones and straight, glossy hair of an Anayan, but his complexion was like nothing human. His face was a deathly mottled grey, like lead sprinkled with ashes. The Badger tore his clothes open to bare his chest, revealing that the man’s body was the same unnatural colour.

‘He’s far gone,’ said Revel.

‘Not far enough.’ Jandi set his dagger to the grey man’s throat.

Before the guide could press the blade home, the Badger knocked it away. ‘Stop that! We came here to fight a war, not to kill. Hold him down, and watch.’


Next: A Battle of Souls

 

Comments

  1. I couldn’t find where to sign up to follow this (never mind – just saw the posts signup under this). Where are you in the serialization process? Are you writing live, or with a buffer (as I am)? Will this be superversive?

    Very subtle start – I hate ‘stories’ that start with infodumps. Have people no patience any more? How fast do you write – will you be overwhelming us?

    Alicia

    • Thank you! I can’t tell you how relieved I am that someone is commenting (and showing signs of interest).

      I’ll be posting chapters from the first episode every few days. I’m not so much writing with a buffer, as writing to build up a buffer. The plan is that there will be eight episodes (of about 15,000 words each) to the first series, with additional series to follow if there is enough interest from the punters. What I am hoping to do is accumulate four full episodes, then release them on Amazon in one swell foop – a variation on the ‘Liliana Nirvana Technique’. By having four new titles on the market at one time, I hope they will generate buzz and traffic for each other and give me something more than the slow trickle of sales that I usually get from a new release.

      The idea is to put each episode up for 99 cents, and when all eight have been out for a little while, release a fixup of the complete serial for $3.99 or thereabouts. (Half price for the reader, but since I’ll be getting 35% of retail on the episodes and 70% on the fixup, I’ll make the same amount per eight episodes either way.)

      The story is definitely going to be superversive; but as I believe is true both in good fiction and in life, the superversion won’t come easily. The characters are going to spend a fair amount of time staring into the abyss.

      How fast I write will depend, as always, on the course of my various illnesses. (I know you, of all people, will understand that.) At present I am getting rid of a bad case of flu, and can only work a couple of hours a day. I hope to be able to put out an episode per week once I recover, but I’ll need encouragement in order to do it. In that line, your comment was just what the doctor ordered.

      I believe I shall need to put up a post explaining what I’m up to.

      • Great. I’m in.

        Whatever you do, don’t rush. Quality takes time – the other stuff, well, there’s plenty of that already. Superversive takes time AND space. And abysses.

        If you can get a couple of hours a day out of the flu, you’re doing better than I can, and I’m moving along. Looking forward to the posts.

        I’ll be watching how you split into episodes.

  2. As one of your first readers. I am thrilled this is up so that others can enjoy it. The planned plot arc is nothing short of stunning. as are the characters.

  3. I am looking forward to this! I love the initial tone and characters. I pray you stay healthy Mr. Simon, which I suppose is as selfish a prayer as I have said in a while.

  4. Jeff Ambrose says:

    Tom,

    I think this is great, and I’m looking forward to it!

    Regarding your business decision of publication, have you read WRITE, REPEAT, PUBLISH by Sean Platt and Johnny Truant? The write/repeat part you can skip, but they have some very interesting things to say about publishing series. Writing series, after all, is their bread and butter.

    • Thanks for the kind words!

      Yes, indeed, I have read Write, Repeat, Publish. In fact, it was while reading it that I came up with the idea of doing a serial; and that idea collided with a couple of other ideas that were floating round in my head about the same time, and here we are.

      Unfortunately, my idea doesn’t lend itself to a ‘just what it says on the tin’ kind of title like Unicorn Western, but we can’t all have those.

      • Jeff Ambrose says:

        I was thinking more along the lines of starting a funnel, regular releases, doing a bundle, etc., not so much in terms of titles or other marketing activities those guys do.

  5. Love it so far. It’s interesting, its beginning is superficially similar to a story I’m writing, with the characters riding into mountains on horseback and the use of the word ‘Surin’. Zeitgeist, I guess. Mind giving me the etymology of that one? In mine I spell it “suurin” or “surran” depending on the circumstances and the ‘u’s are meant to be pronounced separately, from the country ‘Suuri’. It looks like yours is the word Jandi prefers for his two companions, perhaps as natives of Suranaya.

    I’m still firming up my thoughts on how I want to use terms like these, so this is genuine questioning, and I’m open to anything, but I’m assuming he’s using ‘Surin’ in both cases like you might call someone ‘Tex’ or ‘American’ as a nickname. Otherwise, if it’s just an adjective, would it be capitalized in the second instance?

    In a similar vein, if ‘Sai Jilon’ is literally “Cleft of Bones” would it not be italicized in the second instance?

    Apologies if these questions/comments are unwarranted and unwelcome, and I will look forward to reading the next entries quietly. (But I am an editor at heart.)

    • ‘Surin’ in this case is an honorific, like ‘effendi’ or ‘sahib’; though you correctly spotted that it is also the first element in ‘Suranaya’, which is the capital and chief city of Anai. The name of that city would translate roughly as ‘Honour of Anai’. Surin has no particular etymology outside the story, except that its form and sound were probably influenced by the French sur. These details should become clearer in context as the story progresses, but there was no room for the explanations in the opening chapter – not if it was going to arrive at action in a reasonable time.

      I italicize ‘Sai Jilon’ in its first occurrence to signalize that Jandi is not speaking in the language of his companions, but giving a foreign (to them) phrase which he will then translate. Thereafter, having established the name, I am merely using it as an ordinary place-name, which (to my way of thinking) no longer requires the ‘marking’ conferred by italics. I may have erred in this.

      Your quesitons are neither unwarranted nor unwelcome. I am glad to see them, and delighted by your interest.

  6. Well, I, for one, am hooked! I look forward to the next installments with bated breath!

    And if they prove as good as this, I will definitely be buying the compiled version.

  7. Psyched. Can’t wait for more of this! Glad to see you’re back in fighting trim, Mr. Simon.

  8. The Laird McKay says:

    I got to reading this (and you thought I couldn’t read…) when sharing this with another. Just like your other writings this is damn fine stuff. Don’t you dare stop.

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  1. […] ‘pilot episode’ (novella length) of Where Angels Die, samples of which have previously appeared in these […]

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