Yesterday’s post about my forthcoming sword and sorcery novel, The Hammer and the Blade, had a very positive response. My sincere thanks. You all rock. The response was so positive, in fact, that my most excellent editors at Angry Robot Books have authorized me to post an excerpt from the novel.
So, let me introduce you to Egil of Ebenor and Nix the Quick, late of Dur Follin. I think this bit, which joins them in media res, gives a good flavor for the book and the dynamic between these two. It’s my sincere hope that Egil and Nix will stand in your mind beside Cale and Riven and Mags, and Jaden and Khedryn and Marr.
Also, please feel free to share this excerpt anywhere you’d like (that’s especially easy to do if you just click the Facebook “like” button at the end of the post, or the “tweet” button to share it via Twitter).
Anyway, I hope you enjoy (and any typos are mine; this hasn’t been through a final editing pass).
“No rust on a door more than six centuries old,” Nix said. “Odd, not so?”
Egil sat on the floor with his back against the smooth sandstone wall, his twin hammers lying on the stone floor to either side, his legs stretched out before him. Sweat collected in the fringe of black hair that ringed his head above the ears. Blood – not his own – speckled his thick forearms.
“Odd, aye,” the priest said, worrying at a wound in the tree trunk of his leg. The tattoo inked on his bald pate – an eye looking out from the center of a starburst, the symbol of Ereben the Momentary God – stared at Nix while Egil looked down. “Can you open it?”
The question pricked Nix’s pride. He faced his friend fully, his finger pointed like a loaded quarrel at Egil’s face.
“Perhaps one of the zombies struck the sense from your head? Can I open it? I? Am I not a peerless gilt? You may as well ask can a whore hump, or can a wizard dissemble. These are things intrinsic to their nature. Can I open it? Hmph.”
“There you are,” said Egil, ignoring Nix’s tirade. He brandished a sliver of bloody stone he’d plucked from a small gash in his left thigh and squinted up at Nix, brown eyes all innocence. “You were saying something about a wizard humping locks?”
Nix crossed his arms over his chest. “You heard what I said, whoreson.”
“I heard,” Egil said with a longsuffering sigh and a weary nod. He held the sliver of stone close to the lantern for a better look. “Look at this. It’s a piece of one of the zombie’s blades.”
Nix and Egil had pulped a score of the undead creatures – onetime temple guards animated to unlife by the wizard-king’s priests – on their way through the tomb.
“You may have heard but you didn’t reply, so let me restate. Are you acquainted with a door I couldn’t open? I press the question only to illustrate your soft-headedness, as demonstrated by a faulty memory. It’s important that you understand your limits.”
Egil cast the sliver to the ground, tore a strip of cloth from his tunic, and pressed it to the wound. “There was that time in the Well of Farrago—“
Nix shook his head emphatically. “That was not a door.”
Egil looked up, eyebrows raised. “It had hinges, a handle. It opened and closed. How can you say—”
“It was a hatch.”
“Of course it was a hatch, and only a fool priest of the Momentary God would confuse a door with a hatch. A hatch is a different thing from a door. A hatch can be troublesome. You see? Does having an eye inked on your head make your other two blind?
They stared at each other for a long moment, the lantern light flickering over their faces.
“Well enough,” Egil said at last. “It was a hatch.”
“Now you’re mocking me? I hear mockery.”
“I’m not. I’m agreeing. I said it was a hatch.” Egil stood, tested the leg, seemed satisfied.
“I heard the words,” Nix said. “It’s the tone that bothers.” He held up a hand to stop whatever justification Egil intended to offer. “Leave off. We both know the truth.”
He turned back to the door, muttering, more determined than ever to get it open. He eyed it from different angles, examined the stonework around it. There were no hinges, so he surmised it opened with hidden counterweights. Holes bored into the pale stone above the lintel caught his eye. They’d been filled with plaster long ago. Perhaps sand had been poured into the chamber beyond after the door had been sealed? He’d seen such things before.
He went down on his belly, saw that the bottom of the door sat flush on the floor, sealed with a thick layer of tar or something similar.
That he’d never seen before, and it puzzled him. Perhaps to prevent blades from being stuck under? But why?
“Maybe try to pick the lock?” Egil offered.
Nix offered Egil an obscene gesture.
“Your pride is too easily tweaked,” Egil said, smiling. “And I make that point only to illustrate the fragility of your ego. It is, after all, important to understand your limits.”
Nix stood and offered the obscene gesture with both hands.
Egil smiled, took his yellowed ivory dice from the pocket of his trousers, and shook them in his hand.
“Must you?” Nix asked, knowing the answer.
Nix reached out toward the door, stopping a finger’s width from its surface. He waited, waited, and after a moment, the hairs on his forearms rose. He looked knowingly at Egil.
“You see? Warded.”
“Well noticed,” Egil said. “Now what?”
“Now this,” Nix said, and unslung his leather satchel of needful things.
Within the satchel he carried his tools, both precise and blunt, the enchanted items he’d acquired through purchase or theft, together with sheets of parchment, sticks of chalk, a vial of ink, quills, and anything else that seemed to him likely to be of use on an expedition. It also held his collection of keys.
“One of your gewgaws?” Egil asked. The priest stepped to his side, eyed first the door, then the contents of the satchel.
Nix rifled through his various keys – all of them purchased in the bazaar or found on expeditions – until he found the one he wanted: a small brass beauty, with a thin tube for a blade and a beaten copper coin for a bow. He held it up for Egil to see.
“My gewgaws, as you so roughly call them, have saved us more than once.”
“That’s truth,” Egil acceded. “But the odds of that key working in an Afirion tomb are about as good as finding a virgin in The Slick Tunnel.”
“Or, one might say, about as likely as finding a priest possessed of wit.”
Egil laughed. “Nice.”
Nix chuckled in return. “Anyway, this isn’t an ordinary key. I purchased it in Dur Follin’s bazaar from an agent of Kerfallen the Grey Mage. It opens wards, not doors.”
“I pray it’s so,” said Egil and bowed his bucket-sized head reverently, putting the eye of Ereban squarely on Nix. “Though I credit the agents of wizards not at all.”
“Alas, I credit your prayers still less. Ereban isn’t called the Everlasting God, my friend. The Momentary God was divine for…a moment.”
“Lives are made of moments, Nix.”
Nix heard the seriousness in his friend’s tone and treaded lightly. “Ereban is dead. So there are no more moments left to him. He doesn’t hear prayers. And you’re his only worshipper as far as I know.”
Egil smiled, adjusted the mail shirt he wore. “That makes me High Priest, not so?”
“I guess it does. Pray, then. Can’t hurt.”
While Egil murmured a prayer in his native tongue, Nix pointed the open end of the key’s tube at the door, drew a dagger, and lightly tapped the key’s end with the weapon’s point.
The key vibrated, lightly at first, then stronger, emitting a prolonged chime that would have done credit to a bell tower, the sound reverberating through the large underground chamber, the echo replaying itself again and again. Nix winced at the sound but held the key steady before the door. The metal warmed between his fingers. As the sound died away, the key grew hotter, too hot. He held on as long as he could then dropped it with a curse. It hit the floor, flared white, and melted into slag.
A wet slithering and high-pitched shriek spiked his adrenaline and jerked his head up. He caught a flash of one the stone lampreys carved in the door jamb, now made flesh and as thick around as his forearm, lunging at him out of the stone, the black hole of its mouth ringed by a vicious sphincter of fangs.
He stumbled back, trying to brandish his dagger, too slow, and—
Egil snatched the creature out of the air in mid-lunge and slammed it to the ground. It writhed frenetically in his grasp, hissing, attempting to twist enough of its body free to latch its teeth onto his flesh. The priest pinned it with his boot.
Nix jerked his falchion free of its scabbard and cleaved the lamprey in half. Its pieces squirmed for a moment, spurting stinking black ichor, before going still and reverting back to two chunks of stone.
Egil removed his boot from the creature’s body and eyed Nix.
“You see?” the priest said, kicking one of the pieces of the creature across the sand-dusted floor. “Moments, Nix. Life and death are experienced in the moments.”
Nix’s heart was still racing. He thumped Egil on his huge shoulder. “Point taken. Thanks.”