Enjoy this peek at The Iron Wolves, the first book in Andy Remic’s Rage of Kings series, out in January 2014 from Angry Robot Books! Additionally, here stands revealed the covers to the first two books in the series which, when combined, are designed to decimate one’s enemies (and the forces of literary boredom). Harrrr!
Thirty years ago, the Iron Wolves held back mud-orc hordes at the Pass of Splintered Bones, and led a brutal charge that saw the sorcerer Morkagoth slain. This ended the War of Zakora, and made the Iron Wolves heroes. Now, a new terror stalks the realm….
“I’M SORRY, DEK. Real sorry.” The large man grimaced through his thick beard, showing a missing tooth. “I apologise. Truly. From the deepest caverns of my heart.” His silhouette blocked out the roaring flames from the stacked hearth in the Fighting Cocks tavern. Voices hushed to a whisper, and everybody turned eyes on Dek. Dek, the Pit Fighter. A pugilist you did not cross.
Dek rose to his feet, swaying under the influence of two large wine flagons. He turned, iron-dark eyes focusing on the newcomer, and his fists clenched showing brutal scarred knuckles. He moved fast, and the right uppercut lifted the bearded newcomer clean from his feet, slamming him over the bar in a diagonal spin of smashed tankards, flying limbs and scattered stools. There came a few shouts, and some hushed curses. Somebody called for the landlord.
Weasel grabbed Dek’s arm. “No! He’s your brother!” hissed the little man.
“Well, I reckon I’m going to kill him,” snarled Dek, spittle on his chin, and Weasel saw the light of rage ignite Dek’s eyes and face and fists. He’d seen it many times, deep in the blood-slippery Red Thumb Fighting Pits. He’d witnessed it in tavern brawls and unlicensed fights down at the fish markets. He’d watched Dek’s extreme violence, sometimes with despair, sometimes with horror, sometimes with approval; it depended how much coin he stood to earn.
“Not today,” urged Weasel, grip tightening, even though his fingers couldn’t even encircle Dek’s massive bicep. “Your mother lies cold in her coffin,” he said, voice filled with a great regret. “Remember! You’re here to honour her. You’re here to remember her. You’re here to tell tall tales and drink plentiful wine; to salute her on her journey to the Hall of Heroes! But no fighting, Dek. You said it yourself. You promised her. You made me promise her. No war. Not today. For your mother, Dek. For your old mum.”
Dek turned bloodshot eyes on Weasel, his oldest friend; his best friend. Weasel saw the pain there, like a splintered diamond piercing the core of the large man’s skull. Pity swamped him. Pity, followed by a sudden, necessary horror. For in Dek there lurked a demon. A dark core. Of violence. Of insanity. Of murder.
“He’s your brother,” insisted Weasel.
“And that’s why he’s got to die,” growled Dek, pushing away Weasel’s restraining hand as if a child’s, shouldering two stocky men roughly out of his way, and leaping over the bar which groaned in protest. Dek landed, both boots beside his brother’s head.
“Get up, Ragorek,” said Dek. “Get up now, before I stamp your skull and brains to pulp.”
“No, Dek. It can’t be like this.”
Dek reached down, grabbed the man’s leather jerkin and hauled Ragorek to his battered boots. Ragorek was taller than Dek by nearly a full head, and Dek was big. Rag was a natural athlete, broad, lean, rangy, powerful, ruggedly handsome and sporting a thick beard. He was a man who commanded instant respect, not just because of his size and bearing, but because of some inherent natural nobility; a genetic legacy that had created a born leader.
“I fucking hate you,” growled Dek through saliva, broken teeth and wine fumes.
Ragorek grabbed his brother hard, by both sides of the head. “I know, little brother. I know that. I loved her as well.”
“Well then, where the fuck wereyou?” His forehead slammed against Ragorek’s nose, and the large man howled as cartilage splintered. In reflex fists came up, a right overhand blow slamming into Dek’s skull. Dek staggered, but shook his head as the rage of battle fell upon him like a velvet cloak, dark as eternity. He took a step back, then charged Ragorek, punching him in the throat, kicking him in the knee, then grabbing his head between both hands and thrusting his face close. “Where the fuck were you?” he screamed again, and smashed his forehead into Ragorek’s face once, twice, three times. Ragorek went down, his clutching hands grabbing Dek’s torn shirt and dragging the younger man down with him.
He pulled Dek close. “You want to die, little brother? I can do that for you. I can make you suffer.” And he bit down on Dek’s ragged ear, ripping free the lobe in a shower of dark crimson. Dek growled, but did not scream. He was a veteran of the Pits. Dek never screamed. He rammed his fist into his brother’s face, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times until the face became a glossy platter of pig’s blood. Dek’s knuckles were cut by teeth. Dek’s face was a contortion of rage and fear and hate and something else; something primal that transcended hate. A primitive emotion that went so far beyond civilised Man it devolved, and spat itself screaming out the other side like a desolate embryo into a flickering half-life tombworld of oblivion. Some things went beyond emotion. Some things, some murder, just had to be done. And Dek was the perfect killer. He was the widowmaker of the moment.
“Dek my lad. Stay very, very still.” The voice was deep and resonant. “I love you like a son. But by all the gods, if you break up my bar again I’ll put this crossbow quarrel through the back of your skull.”
There came a long pause.
“That’s reasonable, Skellgann. I’ll take it outside,” said Dek levelly, and jacked himself backwards, standing from the coughing, groaning figure of his brother. Ragorek was helped to his feet and he scowled at Dek, spitting blood and a tooth trailing crimson saliva onto the boards.
“I’m going to break you, you little bastard,” said Ragorek.
“Like you did to our weak and dying mother?” smiled Dek, eyes widening.
Ragorek surged forward, but was held back by many hands.
“Outside! Move it out to the cobbles!” roared Skellgann.
“I’m taking bets,” announced Weasel, eyes glittering.
Both fighters were guided at crossbow-point from the Fighting Cocks, and a large group of men crossed ice-cracking puddles towards Heroes’ Square. Here, weathered and broken statues stood, or leaned, around a cobbled central yard. They were a testament to long forgotten wars; ancient dead men; heroes forgotten.
“That mad bastard King is an amusing fellow,” whined Weasel in his high, nasal voice. “This place is being flattened for a new clerks’ offices. Flattened to the ground. But still. At least I’ll have plenty more customers! Now, we have business to attend.” He counted out five dockets and scribbled furiously with the stub of a pencil. His cracked front tooth made his smile disjointed. And despite his love for Dek, Weasel was a pragmatist when it came to coin. Dek would thank him in the morning. Perhaps.
“Break it down, drag it down,” said Skellgann, his broad face flattened into a frown, his arms nestling the heavy crossbow.
“What?” snapped Weasel, frowning himself, focused as he was on odds and numbers and the clink of silver and copper.
“The statues. Our once-heroes. Soon to be smashed, torn down, broken down, destroyed.”
“They’re not my heroes,” said Weasel, giving him a sideways glance.
“Ha! What little you young pups understand,” said Skellgann, filled with a sudden great sadness.
Dek and Ragorek had moved to the centre of Heroes’ Square. Here, a hundred statues of ancient warriors stared down, and Dek removed his thick wool jerkin and coarse shirt, flexing his broad chest and huge, warrior’s physique. He had run a little to fat over the years, but all that did was give him extra weight. Anybody who dared called him “fat man” was soon punished with broken bones.
Ragorek had been joined by two lean ranger-types, old and scarred, battled-hardened men with whom he sometimes travelled. These were not chicks fresh from the nest, but experienced soldiers. Every movement spoke it. They helped Ragorek remove his shirt and cleaned blood from his eyes. Ragorek reined in his fury well, but his orbs were now alight with fire. With the promise of battle.
Dek, body riddled with old scars, half-finished tattoos and recently-stitched wounds, stepped into the centre of the square, fists by his sides, face calm and patient and waiting. Ragorek moved out to meet his younger brother and both men stared at one another across the ice and stone, their breath steaming like dragon-smoke through the bitter cold. Word had gone round fast. There were at least a hundred spectators present now, a few women, and even a few of the City Guard. Runners were also busy spreading the word.
“I came to apologise,” said Ragorek, almost in regret.
“For what? Being a bastard?”
“She’s dead, Dek. You have to let it go. It’s past and gone. We had our time. Had our time with her. Now it’s over. It’s the end of an era, brother.”
“And now you crawl out of the fucking woodwork looking for cheap copper coins and anything you can scrounge. Is that how it works in Kantarok? Is that the Kantarok way?”
“No, Dek. I came to help, I promise you. I was too late!”
“Ten fucking years too late, Rag!” Dek was staring hard at his older brother, staring with eyes the colour of iron. “You left us. To rot. And when she was dying, you never came to help. You never even came to talk. She was heartbroken, you petty little bastard, but you were so filled with jealousy. Little brother gets all the attention, all the love. Pathetic. How fucking old are you, man? I’ll tell you how old you are – you’re old enough to fucking die.”
Dek charged the short distance, but Ragorek was waiting. Right jab, right jab, left straight, left hook, right uppercut; a quick flurry of heavy punches exchanged, and Dek and Ragorek parted, circling, growling, scowling. Ragorek stepped in, right jab, right hook, right straight. Dek kicked him in the belly and he staggered back. Dek leapt forward, but Ragorek knocked away the boot, then the fist, and slammed a left punch to Dek’s nose that made the younger brother back off. A temporary retreat.
“I’m going to burn your fucking carcass,” said Dek.
“Then you’ll hang, little brother.”
“Then I’ll hang,” acknowledged Dek, eyes burning coals.
“You really hate me that much?”
“You killed our mother.”
“She died, Dek. There’s a difference.”
“No. You pushed her. You killed her. And now you’ll follow her, and father will be waiting with a helve. He’ll beat some sense into you, Little Pup – down in The Furnace. You wait and see. You’re going to burn for eternity, Brother. And I’m going to send you there.”
“As you wish.”
They fought hard, exchanging blows; straights and hooks; pummelling one another’s flesh and heads and bones. Stepping inside a hook, Dek delivered a head-butt that saw Ragorek blinded, spinning away, hands outstretched. Dek leapt forward, but Ragorek kicked him in the balls, had him doubled over, vomit splashing the square. There was no pride. No honour. No tribute. No discipline. No rules. No pride.
“I’ll kill you.”
“I’ll mash your fucking skull.”
“I reckon you bark like a dog.”
Both were bloodied bodies, staggering cadavers, a terrible bare-knuckle fist-fight to the death gone wrong. To the watchers, this was disjointed. Unreal. Even the strung-out rules and deviated regulations of The Fighting Pits were stretched, forgotten, ignored, dissolved, devolved. This was primal. Proper soul-deep hate. Brother versus brother over a matter of family… not honour, but a sense of right. Ragorek had broken some unwritten, unspoken code. Dek felt he was there to punish him.
Both men were tired, bruised, battered, beaten. But Dek had the look of a rabid dog that refuses to let go of a meat-tattered leg. Ragorek looked like he’d had enough, but pride pushed him on, pride and stubbornness, and his bloodied stumps of broken fists were raised, his eyes focused on nothing but Dek – a symbol of hatred and family annihilation and untethered injustice, before him.
Suddenly, a sound cut through the ice night; high-pitched, and shrill, and chilling.
It severed the calm of the square, like jagged glass across meat and bone.
Heads turned, eyes swivelled, but there was a delay with Dek and Ragorek, for they were totally focused on one another; intent on delivering pain, on breaking bones, on the hurt and the agony and the death to come…
It charged, breaking into the square like an enraged bull. Its head was lowered, one bent and twisted horn from the side of its skull dropping and skewering a man and tossing him, sending him squealing, bubbling, flying through the air where he slapped the cobbles and convulsed, blood pumping out in great reverse gulps from a massive crimson hole.
It was like a horse, but not a horse. It was huge, uneven, with great lumps of bulging muscle, with twisted legs and neck and back, with a misshapen head that was too large to be right. It raised this shaggy-maned skull, then reared suddenly, great flat iron-shod hooves pawing the air as the battered figures of Dek and Ragorek, finally, dazedly, rotated and focused on the creature before them. It was big. Real big. They blinked, mouths working silently in half-drunk disbelief as the creature screamed again from inside its elongated head. It charged a gathering of men to one side of Heroes’ Square, hooves trampling three, bulk crashing others from their feet. Its twisted side-horn lashed out, skewering and slashing. Blood showered the icy cobbles like rain. Blood splattered the statues of old heroes, giving them crimson tears.
“What… the hell is that?” squealed Weasel.
“Weapons! Get weapons!” roared Skellgann, and hoisted his crossbow. There was a heavy click and whine, and a quarrel slashed across the square. It slammed into the beast, making it rear up, howling, blood red eyes spinning in its great, extended, uneven skull. But rather than drop the creature, this act of violence enraged it.
Hooves struck the ground. The beast lowered its head, issuing a deep, reverberating growl like nothing in this mortal realm. The equine head swayed from left to right, then lifted to the heavens, a long deformed horse-head that screeched suddenly like a woman on a knife-blade, and Dek and Ragorek, their feud forgotten, stared in horror at this creature of Chaos; this elemental demon from the torture pits of Hell.
It reared again, and pawing hooves hit the ground at a run, striking sparks. It charged, and Ragorek dived right with a grunt, rolling. Dek moved, but too late, and felt the impact of that great flat, broken horse head. The angular horn missed skewering him by a thumb’s breadth. He was picked up and accelerated across the square like a child’s rag doll, striking a statue which bent him in half, to hit the ground with a dull thump. He lay still, stunned, a beef carcass on a butcher’s slab.
The creature pawed the ground with a deformed whinny, and lowered its head again to charge.
“Here!” screamed Ragorek, waving his arms. The creature swayed, crazed blood eyes staring from under random tufts of black and brown fur. It turned on Ragorek, as Skellgann loosed another quarrel which thumped into the beast’s back. But this time, the creature ignored the impact and bore down on Ragorek, huge jaws wide open, folded back almost, wider than any horse’s mouth should ever physically be. Ragorek found himself staring into that cavernous maw, all bent and broken fangs, a black tongue curling and snapping like a spitting snake, thick strings of saliva and dead men’s blood forming a glutinous web and Ragorek realised he was screaming as those huge jaws moved swiftly toward his face…
Dek slammed into the beast, shoulder first, with his speed and weight and might, and it staggered sideways, jaws instantly snapping around to tear at Dek’s head. He twisted. Crooked fangs tore through muscle above his clavicle, which parted like rancid meat pared under a blunt blade, and pumped blood down his left arm in a thick surge.
“Dek, swords!” screamed Weasel, who had run back to the Fighting Cocks. Dek’s head came up and his right arm reached out. The blade whistled, turning over and over, and Dek snatched the weapon from the air as huge hooves reared to crush his head.
For an instant, Dek stared at the blade as if he held some alien thing, something terrible. Every man watching in hushed horror knew Dek must be crushed by those huge, flailing legs, those crooked iron hooves. But the warrior stepped neatly to one side, and hooves struck a shower of bright light against the cobbles. Dek hacked the short iron blade into the creature’s neck. It snarled, head half-turning, teeth and fetid breath an inch from Dek’s blood-spattered face. Fangs snapped at him, like a lunging dog. Dek felt he was staring into the depths of some evil, cavernous pit; some charnel house, where near-dead things squirmed in pools of necrotic bowel; in pits of slithering, poisoned, headless snakes; in hollows of toxic fumes and severed cancerous growths. Dek froze to his very core as the evil magick of this beast swamped him, took his brain in its gauntleted embrace and crushed and broke his courage in half like a tortured man on a rack.
Ragorek screamed, leaping forward to hack his own sword into the creature’s spine. Fangs clashed like steel in front of Dek. He blinked, and point first, rammed his own blade up through the creature’s throat. Through the dark maw tunnel and strings of saliva he saw the sword slice up into the mouth, skewering the tongue; with a grunt, he jerked it up further, watching the blade slide further into the brain.
The creature reared, tearing the sword from Dek’s grip, roaring, squealing, and black blood sprayed from its broken jaws in a great arc. It staggered around, hooves and claws and fangs snapping and stamping. Ragorek darted in, plunging his blade into the beast’s flank. It staggered sideways under the blow. Skellgann came closer, and taking careful aim, fired a quarrel into the monster’s mouth. It gave a deep groan. More men had gathered arms, and rushed in as a group, spears jabbing at the creature which accepted the blows, the wounds, the slices, the impalement, and simply refused to go down. Only when Dek took a long sword from a bearded man with fear bright and brittle in his plate-wide eyes, and with a great swing hacked off one leg, then a second, did the beast finally topple to the ground to lie, panting, wheezing, coughing blood, crazed eyes switching from one man to the next to the next as if remembering and storing their faces for some future retribution. Dek stepped in close, and hacked free the other two legs which lay, oozing black blood from jagged stumps, as twisted scarred iron hooves jittered and trembled as if still connected by some crazed puppeteer. The legless body squirmed and shifted, a dark slug, moving slowly around in a circle, and Dek realised everybody was watching him; eyes wide, terror coiled around their limbs and sword arms, horror and disgust holding them in thrall.
“So then, I’ll do it, shall I?” snapped Dek, annoyed at the group, and spat, and moved in close to those snapping jaws. And the monster’s eyes were watching him, piercing into his own from that great flat head, and they made him shiver as his mouth went dry and fear flooded him. For in that instant, the orbs looked nothing less than human.
Dek’s sword hacked at the neck, and it took six blows to break through thick sinews of muscle, tendon, ligament and spinal column.
Only then did the beast lie still, slowly collapsing down, deflating, onto a freezing platter of expanding crimson.
Ragorek approached, still holding his sword in swollen fingers.
“Well done, little brother.”
“I reckon it’s your turn next, you bastard,” snarled Dek.
“Not tonight,” breathed Weasel, eyes still wide. He held up both hands, palms outwards. “Not now… not after… this.”
“This changes nothing,” growled Dek, but suddenly his sword clattered to the ground and he dropped to one knee. He cursed, and looked at the deep glossy wound in his shoulder. He struggled to rise. “Damn it, I have a job to finish!” But blood loss left him weak, and he slumped over, onto his side.
Skellgann rushed over and rolled Dek to his back. “Who’ll help me carry him back to the tavern?” Men rushed forward, and they bore the huge fighter away leaving Weasel and Ragorek standing, weak and limp, staring at the steaming carcass of the slaughtered beast.
“What is this creature?” breathed Ragorek.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Weasel, rubbing his eyes wearily. He smeared stray droplets of blood across his own skin, and then stared at his hands for a moment, confused.
“I fear the world is changing,” said Ragorek, gently, the tip of his sword touching the icy cobbles with an almost inaudible cling, “when beasts such as this can invade the home lives of good, honest men.”
“Changing?” Weasel gave a bitter short laugh, like a slap. He poked the massacred beast with the toe of his boot. “This monster is not a product of our mortal realm. A raven-dark wind blows, Rag. I feel it, in my soul. This is just the beginning. I sense it. In my blood, like Honey-leaf drugs. In my bones, like rancid marrow. There’ll be nowhere to hide for the likes of us, when this thing starts proper.”
“I promise you, mate,” said Weasel, and turned, heading back for the tavern, the light, the warmth, the camaraderie, and an illusion of sanity, which promised to nurse him to a bitter, drunken oblivion.
The Iron Wolves copyright © 2013 Andy Remic