It’s February, which means a new monthly excerpt from The Hammer and the Blade (B&N, Amazon, Powells), the first novel of my forthcoming sword and sorcery series featuring Egil and Nix, and published by Angry Robot books.
For those just joining the fun, previous excerpts can be found here, here, and here. They’re all about one-thousand words or so, just bits to give you a feel for the tone of the novel, so you can decide if it’s for you. None have been line edited yet, so any typos or other awkwardness are mine. I hope you enjoy and I hope you’re as excited about this novel as I am.
In this bit, we see that Nix does not know as much as he thinks he knows. Alas, this won’t be the last time that happens.
To occupy the time, Nix examined the ivory wand he’d found in the tomb of Abn Sur. He studied the tiny carvings on its shaft, his mind drifting back to his time in the Conclave as he tried to make sense of the characters.
The scent of perfume presaged Kiir’s arrival beside him.
“You have scant idea how pleased I am to see you,” he said with a smile. “’Ware my stink.”
She smiled shyly, sat, and nodded at the wand. “What’s that?”
“’This? This is nothing, just one of my gewgaws, as Egil would say. I took it from the tomb of an Afirion wizard-king after defeating the devil that guarded it.”
He spoke casually, but his words summoned the response he’d hoped for. Her eyes widened with wonder and she made a circle of her ring finger and thumb, a protective gesture, the symbol of Orella. She leaned in close to him, and he felt the warmth of her through his clothes. Her hair smelled of vanilla and the scent made him more lightheaded than Gadd’s smoke.
“A real devil of Hell?” she asked.
“Indeed,” Nix said, warming to the tale. “He stood twice as tall as Egil, coated in scales as large as my hand and as hard as steel. He had fanged rictuses at the ends of his arms. A terrible foe. Terrible.”
“Gods preserve! How did you escape it?”
Beside Nix, Egil harrumphed. “Escape it? Bah. We slew it.”
Her hand went to her heart-shaped lips. “Slew it? How?”
Nix sipped from his tankard. “Sharp steel and sharp wits, same as always.”
She touched his forearm, just a brush of her fingers. “Your life sounds so interesting. It must be exciting to travel around Ellerth as you do.”
“It is. We—“
Suspicion dawned. He turned on his stool, studied her face, her smile, the look of wonder. He pulled back.
“Wait. Are you Jonning me?”
Her smile widened, her brown eyes bright.
“You are!” he said. “Playing me like a Jon. Got me talking about myself while you act the innocent. I see what you’re doing.”
She batted her eyelashes and damned if she didn’t almost have him again.
“None of that now,” he said, and she gave a genuine laugh and laid her hand on his arm. The feel of her skin on his felt warm, comforting.
“Don’t take it ill,” she said. “You seemed to be having fun. It’s habit and hard to break. Besides, men love to jabber on to a pretty girl.”
Nix thought of the coinpurses he’d lifted earlier, both done not out of need but habit. “Habit, I understand. And you are pretty. But now I feel a bit of an arse.”
“Don’t. And if you’re not filling my ears with shite, I am interested in hearing about the wand. Is that a real pearl?”
Nix nodded. “A shaft of ivory capped with a pearl.”
She leaned in close. “What does it do?”
“I don’t know yet. But as I always say, the fun’s in finding out.”
“You don’t know yet?” The surprise in her expression made her look even prettier. “Aren’t you afraid to carry it around? What if it…I don’t know, it went off and filled your trousers with lightning.”
Nix grinned. “Avoiding the obvious response to a pretty girl’s mention of lightning in my trousers, I’ll say instead that while I don’t know exactly what it does, I have a rough idea.”
Egil looked over from his somber ruminations. “Yes, and?”
Nix leaned forward, elbows on the bar, holding the wand across his palms. “The wizard-kings of Afirion were known to practice the art of transmutation, changing things into other things, or modifying existing things to make them better. The ivory and pearl construction is consistent with a transmutational device. The substance used to craft the wand suggests a minor transmutation.”
“Continue,” Kiir said.
Nix’s eyebrows rose. “You understood all that?”
“I’m a prostitute, Nix, not a dolt. I know some things.”
“Er…right. Well enough, then. So, now we examine the carvings that adorn the wand for some indication of function.”
He turned it in the meager light, to show the many grooves and whorls that lined it. Some looked like serpents, other like abstract shapes, others like script.
“And?” Kiir said.
“And this,” Nix said, pointing to a tiny image carved into the wand. “It appears right under the pearl, and also on the opposite end. It’s the operating glyph.”
Kiir squinted at the image. “What is it?”
“It’s a bull.”
She leaned forward and eyed the wand. “That’s a bull?”
“Of course it’s a bull.” Nix eyed it more closely. “Well, I’m pretty certain it’s a bull. An artist’s interpretation of a bull. Maybe. What else could it be?”
“A dog.” Kiir said. “A rat. A cat.”
“Pfft. No, it’s a bull. I’m certain.”
She leaned back. “So if it’s a bull, what does that mean?”
“Not certain of that either.”
“That’s much uncertainty for one wand,” she said.
“Well, what do think of when you think of a bull?” Nix asked her.
“No,” Nix said. “Size, right? Strength, too. Given that, I think the wand will make its target bigger and stronger, at least for a time.”
“Hmm,” Kiir said. “If true, that’d be useful.”
“Indeed,” Nix said.
“If you’re right,” she added.
“You are possessed of little faith.”
“I’m not the priest,” she said.
Another guffaw from Egil. He toasted her with his ale.
“How do you make it work?” she asked.
“A word in the Language of Creation awakens the magic. That’s true of all enspelled items, including and especially wands. Then…you just aim.”
“You know the Mage’s Tongue?” she asked, unfeigned surprise in her tone.
“I’m a tomb robber,” he said with a wink. “Not a dolt. And, as it happens, my tongue knows many, many things.”
She laughed, her lips parting to show perfect teeth. “You’re awful.”
Egil toasted her again. “The priest agrees entirely.”
“I am awful,” Nix acknowledged with a nod. He drained his tankard. “I really am. As it happens, I spent most of a year at the Conclave. That’s where I learned the bits I know.”
She looked even more surprised than when he’d mentioned the Mage’s Tongue. “I thought studies there lasted several years.”
“He dropped out,” Egil said.
“No,” Nix said irritably. “I was expelled. That’s a much more honorable method to part ways with that place and its so-called instructors.”
“Agreed,” Egil said, and harrumphed. “Wizards.”
“Third best event of my life, that expulsion,” Nix said, thinking back on his younger days at the Conclave.
“So, in only a year you learned the Mage’s Tongue?”
“Bits of it,” Nix said, unwilling to admit that he knew some words but not their meanings. “Enough to do a few things. I wouldn’t want to know much more. It’s the gods’ tongue, used to create Ellerth and the vault of stars. Speaking it too much is said to drive a man mad. Words not meant to be heard by mortals and so forth.”
“There’s truth in that,” Egil said. “From what we’ve seen.”
Now it was Nix’s turn to toast his friend. He and Egil had crossed many sorcerers over the years and not one seemed to think with sense.
“They say magic’s in the blood not the tongue,” Kiir said. “So I guess there’s magic in your veins, Nix Fall.”
“Not likely,” Nix said. He was born of a prostitute and a Jon.
“So then,” Kiir said. “How’d you get into and out of a wizard-king’s tomb with your lives?”
Gadd put an ale before her and she smiled her thanks at the tall easterner.
Nix just shook his head. “Tricks of the trade, love. Some secrets we must keep to ourselves. Suffice to say it was a close thing.”