Over 60% of my readership is female. One of my first editorial critiques (pre publication) adored the story, but questioned its audience, and suggested that I retool the story so that Caenith was the hero and focal point and Morigan was the secondary hero and obvious love interest. This was before the surge in feminist and diversity based literature, mind you, right on the cusp of it actually. “People will relate better to traditional high fantasy”, they said. Having not too recently (from that point in time) watched my mother’s nearly indefatigable fight against cancer, I thought: horse shit. My entire life I’ve been mentored and guided by women’s voices—my mother, my grandmother, my editors, my closest friends. And the paternalistic undertone that women couldn’t handle a bit of blood and guts, when really, they’ve been handling it since their first period or when they squeeze watermelon sized squealing humans out of their bodies is again, horse shit.
I went ahead with my plans, not knowing that I was swimming with the current at the time, and here we are. So, this is for you, my moms, sisters, daughters and friends: an excerpt from the final draft of Feast of Darkness, Part I. Yes, I buried the lead, for obvious and suspenseful reasons, but I got the manuscript back this week and I’m already a hundred pages through the draft (just a copy edit). I think we’re on track for September! Thank you for your support, and have a wonderful Mother’s Day. I hope this slice of what’s to come makes it even better.
All my love,
CHAPTER I: THE MEDICINE OF FORGIVENESS
“Muriel! Not so far, please,” called Simon.
Raising his hand to act as a visor against the sun, he squinted to find her. He was doubtful that his daughter would heed him, though she couldn’t be faulted for her carefree behavior given the magnificence of the day. Even though winter was supposedly howling away somewhere in Central Geadhain, the beaches down from the port from Taroch’s Arm were year-round, among the finest in the land. Great stretches of warm, white sands rolling beneath him had demanded he bare his feet. A sweet and stringent breeze blew in from the east. And so much sunshine surrounded him that everything was encircled by halos, as though kissed by the divine. Simon’s vision had been reduced to a haze.
He squinted at a nearby wall of shattered rock speckled with fragments of emerald green; it lay far enough from the River Feordhan’s great blue tongue that it would never be licked. Simon wondered how the wall had been created, and if it had ever been part of the ancient clay hills into which Taroch’s Arm—that second embankment looming beyond the black wall towering over the beach—was built. They seemed to be of different ages entirely—different elements, even. The fragmented wall’s stones were densely dark and seemingly igneous, not like the sedimentary formations that surrounded Taroch’s Arm. Indeed, the formations seemed almost to have been unearthed and thawed from the legendary Long Winter.
As a geologist, Simon often pondered the differing lithologies of the foundation here and beyond in Taroch’s Arm whenever he and his daughter came to the beach. However, he’d never gotten around to actually taking a sample of the wall—not even a smaller fragment. This morning, as he did whenever curiosity tugged at him, he decided against it. The black wall was old, he decided, older than Taroch’s Arm, and from an age in which nature, not man, had held dominion over Geadhain. As a scientist he preferred to examine fossilized mysteries—he rarely wanted to participate as a subject in active wonders. Perhaps his old friend from college, Tal, would have leapt at the opportunity, but he had never been as brave.
However, the mystery as to where his daughter had run off was certainly a concerning one. Again he called for her, and Muriel’s high and excited shriek echoed back to him. Simon swung his sandals as he sauntered toward the radiant silhouette that waded and splashed along the shore up ahead. The first thing he did upon reaching his daughter was lead her out of the shallows. A father’s primary instinct was one of safety, and he had to be twice as diligent since Muriel had no mother to compensate for any of his own potential negligence.
Whenever he glanced at his daughter, he felt the spirit of his departed wife: it was in his child’s laugh, her auburn hair, the stare that twinkled when she was amused. However, he admitted that Muriel’s tanned complexion and haleness—still slighter than a boy’s—came from his side of the genetic trade. Supposedly, there was old Swannish blood in his veins, which accounted for his persistent beard and the well-placed hirsuteness of his chest, forearms, and legs. Ideally, Muriel wouldn’t be burdened with those particular traits and instead might inherit her mother’s voluptuousness, once she’d added another ten summers to her dozen.
“Papa, why are you staring at me?” asked Muriel. Her hazel eyes widened fishlike, and she frantically wiped at her cheeks and brow. “Is there something on my face? Sand? Seaweed? A lady is nothing without her looks.”
Simon laughed and assured her that her countenance was impeccable, then insisted that a proper lady was about much more than her looks. She blew him a kiss and began to hunt for shells in the sand. Simon plopped himself down on the beach, keeping a lazy watch on his daughter while propped on his elbows. Muriel was patrician with her play. She paused at intervals to ask her invisible friends to “behave,” to straighten her two-piece solari suit and shawl, or to shake the sand from her glittering wide-brimmed hat—an accoutrement that was adorned with rainbow-colored glass beads, and befitting a mad duchess. Simon couldn’t recall whence the glitzy hat had been purchased.
Muriel’s obsession with society and “ladyisms” had soared to new heights since he’d been able to afford a finishing school for her, but he’d never placed such suggestions in her head. Some women were naturally inclined toward lace, restrained laughter, coiffed hair, and powdered faces. Of all men, he would not compel his child to conform to the trappings of any gender. She’d simply gravitated toward these comforts—possibly because she was familiar with her mother’s proclivities for perfumes and dresses. Or perhaps she’d picked up on her father’s, though as parents he and Mary had been careful to shield their child from bedtime activities.
He missed Mary. The loss created a dull throb of pain he carried with him every hourglass. She hadn’t judged him, but rather loved him for his tastes. When she’d caught him plain as a criminal under a spotlight in her closet, wearing her garters and uncomfortable shoes, she had only smiled. There’d been no wrath, no decrying of betrayal. Indeed, she’d been grateful to learn that her intuition regarding his moments away and secret-keeping weren’t related to another woman. Well, perhaps in a sense it was—the woman he’d wanted to be. It became their secret, another reason to love what made the other special. Thereafter, Mary had always told him, “I’m the luckiest woman in Geadhain, for I have a sister, a mistress, and a husband in one.”
For a time, drifting through memories of his wife was as pleasant as watching his child’s play, or the gentle beat of surf onto sand. Then the crimson flashes of his last moments with Mary threatened to ruin his calm. Simon kept them at bay for as long as he could with kinder remembrances of her smile, her violet perfume, or the feel of her—the silky graze of her fingers upon his chest. He loved her too much to allow memories of her to be darkened by her savage murder. Although, even as he claimed this imperturbability, another self—a forgotten self—sat coiled in the darkest corner of his skull. There, an emaciated, mad-eyed, and ghoulish version of him clutched an improbably long, curved dagger in each hand and muttered about finding the man with the two-colored stare. At that moment, Simon heard that inner demon whispering, and unwittingly followed his lead through a doorway into his deepest, darkest memories.
“Mary?” shouts Simon.
Riverton, a place once so familiar, has abruptly become both bewildering and grotesque: the lights strung between masts glare down at Simon like floating milky eyes, the permanent pall from witchroot smoke feels as smothering as a pillow upon his face, the cheese and wine laid out on their table smell as sharp and foul as vinegar; around them, the circus of people and music seems violently animated. Simons feels as if he spins in the center of a cackling funhouse of horrors. Where is Mary? She was there a moment ago, in the distance just beyond the eatery’s cheap metal fence. Now she’s vanished. Why did she rise from their meal so abruptly? Who was that cloaked and shadowy figure she’d spoken to before becoming lost in the crowd? Simon, trembling, places down the napkin he’s been clutching, pushes back his plate, and stands before helping his tiny daughter off her seat.
“Where’s Mama?” asks Muriel—she’s only just learned to speak, and the innocence of her fear makes her question all the more jarring.
Simon snatches up his daughter and clutches her to his chest. An animal can sense the presence of doom, and suddenly, Simon has such nausea inside of him. He’s sure that Muriel feels it as well, though at least she doesn’t cry as they begin to scour the outdoor marketplace. Simon stumbles into tables, spilling people’s drinks. He nudges his broad shoulders into bearded, chip-toothed brutes who are standing around drinking ale, men who would’ve nudged him back none too kindly if not for the second glance at his child. At the exit of the eatery, he argues with the maître-d’ about his wife, who must have walked right past him. The man claims to have seen nothing and turns his back to Simon. On his way out into the thoroughfare, Simon kicks over a street-beggar’s can of coins. The scrawny man cries out and barks at Simon, who apologizes, squats, and hastily tries to collect the man’s scattered wealth while holding his daughter and spastically craning his neck back and forth for signs of Mary.
“Wot you lookin’ fer?” says the beggar. “Stop messing wiv me coins!”
Indeed, Simon is only scattering silver about, returning little of it to the can. “I’m sorry. My wife. I am looking for my wife,” he replies.
“My Mama,” says Muriel.
Muriel’s charm warms the old beggar, and he gives her a gummy grin. “Wot she look like? Pretty like you?”
“Prettier,” says Muriel. “In a red dress. A lady’s dress. She looks like a queen, my Mama. A red queen.”
“Oh, her.” The old man points a yellowed fingernail toward an alleyway momentarily obscured by foot traffic. As the passersby clear, Simon sees a narrow lane driven between two tall, black ships snugly parked next to one another. It looks like a portal into the afterlife, and Simon’s stomach inexplicably drops. The beggar continues nattering as Simon lurches up and crosses the wooden road. Simon makes it into the alley, and his daughter clings to him—her head buried against him—as they wander a place evocative of a haunted port: Riverton and its collage of naval refuse, ships, bilges, and barges, wherein constricted paths such as the one he now wanders can slither deep into underbellies of crime. Much is quiet but for the subliminal sloshing that occurs beneath the great deck upon which all of Riverton is built. He can hear nothing but wood’s groan and water’s whisper. He can see nothing more ominous than the suggestions of maritime relics such as crates, spooled rope, and barrels. He sees no dim shadow of his wife. Perhaps the beggar was mistaken.
There is a blaring wet shriek. “Gaah!”
The scene Simon then enters, running, will only ever reassemble as a montage of shattered memories. After chasing the scream, he arrives deeper down the alley. A gleam of moonlight or radiance from Riverton’s strung-up lighting has slipped between the ships. But such pitiable light is still enough to see fresh red paint glistening across the boardwalk. The paint is oozing from a wrapped, heavy twist of fabric, like a sopping crimson dishrag wrung into a tube, lying on the boardwalk. It’s the hunch of the shape, what could be shoulders, and the single shoe tossed nearby—his wife’s, one that he’s squeezed into before—that identifies Mary’s body. From the smell, he knows she has to be dead; blood and shit and fear clog his nose. Simon’s body turns as cold as Mary’s will soon be. His body convulses, propelling him to crawl on two knees and one hand toward his wife. Muriel stays buried against his body, clung like a barnacle, twisting his tunic into knots—bless the Kings she does not look, or knows not to. He can’t cry; his brain has separated from his body and will not bring logic to this situation. When he reaches Mary and turns her, and sees her blood-speckled face—her now cataract-like stare—the awful, unavoidable reality finally slams into him.
He chokes on a sob. He begins rocking over his wife’s body and holding their whimpering child. Simon glares at the moon, then at the swirling dark gathered past the scene of the body, demanding with all his soul a reason for this insanity. An answer arrives; a man stares back at him from the blackness. Simon sees only his face: thin, vulpine. He is hooded, though the eyes, one an emerald and one a sapphire, are an indelible and striking trait. That look will be a wonder and a torment for Simon in all his years to come. Whoever this watcher is, he beholds Simon for a beat, then mumbles, “I…”
Simon waits for more.
“I did not mean for this,” the stranger adds.
Simon whispers to his child to be still and quiet, to keep her eyes shut. He places Muriel, sobbing, onto the tacky ground. He leaps with the ferocity of a Swannish warrior toward the man. But the blue-and-green-eyed shadow has moved without moving, like a ghost or a nightmare’s illusion, and vanished. Alas, Simon’s nightmare is not one he can wake from, and he knows he must turn, step over his wife’s corpse, and collect his daughter. He doesn’t know what to say as he returns to his shivering child. In fact, simply touching her shoulder shatters him like he was made of crystal. He falls, and on the sloppy ground he remains, curled around Muriel, holding her fragile body with bloodied hands, and whispering, quite wrongly, that all is well.
Simon resurfaced from the memory. Perhaps his remembrances were the cause, but the day seemed suddenly darker. Time had passed, and a chill had crept over the beach. A stink, too, had blown in from the Feordhan: sour and wet, as from seaweed and sewage. Simon crinkled his nose and perked up to scan the waterfront. A few threatening cloudy thunderheads floated in the sky, and more appeared to be moving in from the west. Simon’s skin prickled, and he retrieved the light shirt he’d tucked into his waistband and threw it on. The shirt didn’t repel much of the cold, which felt wintry.
“A bit cold, Papa,” said Muriel, echoing his thoughts. She had sat down a while back to put on her shift and trousers. She talked while arranging her shells in the sand. “I thought we never got weather like those poor folks in Heathsholme. I don’t have proper winter clothes. We’ll have to move if it persists. I’d rather not. I don’t like to move, as you know.”
“I know, my flower. And we shan’t be moving.”
They’d moved several times since Mary’s passing. He’d given up his post with the Royal Geological Institute in Menos, abandoned his landmark work on the primeval substrata found along Riverton’s shores. Who cared what the world was like before men and Kings recorded their histories? Who cared about the importance of the monstrous fossils they’d found, the bones of nameless terrors rich with geo-magikal minerals—mysteries he had once been eager to decipher? Simon only cared for one history now—his family’s—and his time with Muriel. Sadly, there wasn’t much work for a highly specialized intellectual who no longer wanted to work in his field of expertise. He’d worked a few seasons as a farmhand in the highlands. It was there that the locals had claimed that a back broad as his, and looks dark as his, surely came from Swannish blood. The families were kind there, and caregivers for Muriel came easily. He wasn’t certain why they’d left, other than his growing restlessness and a feeling that they’d needed to move on, and to build something better for his child. After that, he’d made do with slightly better paying work as a miner in Blackforge, until the Iron army had shown up and those mining operations became suspect.
The job had been simple enough: the crew would set out for a couple weeks at a time and survey the lands north of Blackforge and south of the old mine. Wherever their instruments detected feliron in the granite mounds and natural quarries scattered over Ebon Vale, they set up camp. Then Simon and his pickaxe-wielding fellows would excavate the area. There was never enough feliron to constitute a real mining operation, only lingering flaccid veins of a once grand feliron heart that had beaten through the region in ancient times. Nonetheless, the meager deposits would be collected and taken elsewhere by Ironguards—Simon was smart enough not to ask where.
Augustus Blackmore, lord of that realm, was often on-site, preening like a vainglorious but vicious black dog in his fur and regal adornments—a hand always on his sword and ready to use it. Simon hated him, even more as he knew of the abandonment and excommunication that had been forced upon a dear personal friend by this vile lord. It seemed strange to Simon that a man of Augustus’s arrogance and status would lower himself to squatting in a tent at the edges of a dust-belching ravine, but he clearly did so for a reason. Asking about that reason had seen an inquiring colleague vanish. Another fellow who’d wondered about the whereabouts of his missing friend was suddenly “lost” to wild animals. When the crew returned for their occasional reprieve in Blackforge, Simon had decided that enough was enough, and that he wouldn’t chance leaving Muriel without a father. He picked up his daughter from her caretaker and paid for passage on the first ferry to the lands on the western side of the River Feordhan.
In the five years since Mary’s murder, Muriel had experienced a transient and unsettled life. At least here in Taroch’s Arm she and Simon had found a moment’s peace to heal, to be a family again. Their time in the city had indeed been peaceful, aside from that recent incident at Taroch’s Crypt, where a sorceress and her rogue allegedly broke into Taroch’s sacred resting place. Thereafter were murmurs of walking dead haunting the graveyard, and if one believed the outlandish stories, the small horde had supposedly been incinerated by a deployment of the Fingers’ finest sorcerers. Furthermore, the destruction of the Iron City remained fresh in his and everyone else’s mind. Nothing felt fully settled after an event like that.
Simon dusted himself off and stood over his daughter. The world is all shite, sin, and garbage, my little flower. In the least, I have you, and your innocence—somehow preserved. I shall see that it stays that way.
“Yes, little flower?”
“Did you toot?”
“I smell a fart.”
Simon laughed. “It wasn’t I.”
“Are you sure? You do toot quite often. I hesitate to say anything. Being a lady, I shan’t discuss bodily exercises and evacuations. If not you, though, Papa, then something has a terrible smell.” Muriel returned to her make-believe—chatting with invisible patrons at her imaginary boutique, discussing what piece of shell jewelry would best accompany which attire.
Simon noticed the stale, wet reek again, stronger than before. He hunted for it, and while shuffling and gazing eastward, noticed a strange buoy on the horizon: a green sphere—or was that two—sticking up like a frog’s head. Only this wasn’t a public beach that needed safety markers but a quiet and unused stretch of nowhere, far away from habitual vacation spots. It was a secret spot to which he and his daughter enjoyed retreating, and where they’d never met another soul. A second “buoy” appeared, quite close to the first. Perhaps it was simply flotsam from a wreck, he postulated, and approached the Feordhan to inspect. Since the objects weren’t far from shore, and his curiosity had been piqued, he started into the water to get a better look. Goodness, the water was frigid! Simon yelped and leapt back onto the sand.
Danger. Death. Wickedness. Simon’s stomach twisted in a familiar knot of instinctual fear. It was the same visceral wrenching that had afflicted him when Mary had vanished. The green sphere began to rise, then another rose, and another, and still more beside and behind, these shapes juddering into bipedal forms. Men? It seemed a generous term for these horrors of bone and seaweed, draped in vestiges of clothing, with leaking ribcages and water-bloated, mangled heads, with unspooled guts and lesions seeping eels and crabs and rot—these motley, moaning abominations risen from graves and time and animated with unholy life. Gasping, dizzy, though still in the grip of something resembling sanity, Simon realized he was observer, perhaps even first watchman, to the advance of an army of the walking dead.
And an army it was, he realized. Beneath the water, and beyond the smattering of rising dead, he now noticed the ripple of a shadow, curving and stretching toward the piers and terracotta dwellings of Taroch’s Arm. Not only here, but elsewhere the horde was still unfurling under the waves, and in mere sands the dead would cover these shores. In moments, the dead would be scrabbling across the docks of Taroch’s Arm or pulling boatswains and their vessels into bloodying water. The smell overtook him like acid being poured down his throat, and he gagged and coughed. Only a dozen dead had risen here, and those few sloshed and snarled toward the living pair on the beach.
“Papa!” cried Muriel.
“Close your eyes,” ordered her father.
Without a sliver of uncertainty, Muriel embraced him. His arms lifted her up, and even as the garbled, angry hisses and roars echoed around her, she felt—she had to believe—that he would keep her safe.