Please enjoy this excerpt of Will Power by A.J. Hartley, a brand new fantasy novel featuring the characters from Hartley’s debut novel, Act of Will.
While on the run from Empire guards, Will Hawthorne and his band of thieves are transported to a mysterious land that none of them recognize or know how to get home from. Turns out that they’ve landed right in the middle of a battle between goblins and humans. Their human allies are practically storybook counterparts to the rough sorts they knew in Stavis, speaking in high-flown prose, dressed to the height of fashion, and dripping with wealth and social propriety. Will’s companions are quite taken by these fine folks, but the Fair Folk are appalled by Will’s unorthodoxy.
At first Will does whatever he can to try to squirm into their good graces, but just when his efforts are feeling totally futile, he begins to wonder if these too-perfect courtiers and warriors have anything to offer beyond their glamour and their burning hatred of the goblins. But is there any recourse for Will and his friends once it turns out that the humans who are sheltering them may not be on the right side of their eternal conflict?
[ SCENE I ]
Far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but I was about to become a bit of a legend. We had been lying around Stavis mulling over our triumphs in Shale three weeks ago like a family of pythons that had recently gorged on a rather less fortunate family of gazelles, or whatever the hell pythons eat. Now we were going to see a little excitement. I had, I must say, been quite happy doing the python thing, but sleeping late and producing no more than bodily excretions for a whole month had started to wear a bit thin even for me. The others had, of course, tired of it rather earlier.
Garnet and Renthrette, our straight-from-the-shoulder brother and sister warriors, had been spoiling for a fight with anyone who made eye contact for a couple of weeks now. Even the generally placid, if surly, Mithos, the famed rebel and adventurer who had tormented the Empire for close to twenty years, had recently started pacing the Hide’s underground library like the proverbial caged cat. Orgos, our overly noble weapon master, had begun polishing his swords again, barely concealing a mood as black as his skin. I saw little of Lisha, our girlish but revered leader, because she was usually busy poring over maps or gathering news on Empire patrols. Yours truly— Will Hawthorne, former dramatist, actor, and con man, current apprentice adventurer, and damn-near-professional gorged python—couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. We had solved the riddles of Shale and environs, or most of them, and had come away feeling virtuous, and, more importantly, rich.
With me so far? I hope so, because—as is now graven in theater lore—nothing kills a story like exposition. I once had to be in this play when nothing happened for twenty minutes because all this backstory had to be wheeled out for anything later to make sense. Not surprisingly, we got booed offstage a quarter of an hour in. So I’ll be moving on. That’s who we were and what we’d been doing. But by this point, even I had become conscious that—if I might milk the python metaphor one last time—the flavor of warm gazelle meat was becoming a rather distant memory.
Thanks to my investigative brilliance, this was about to change, but before we got to the adventure bit there was food to be eaten. We were dining in the Waterman, one of Stavis’s many traders’ inns, in the northwestern part of the city. It was eight o’clock, and, perhaps for the first time this season, the landlady was lighting a fire in the main hall’s grate to ward off the chill that came with early autumn. To our left was a party of wool merchants who ate nothing but baked potatoes straight from the oven: no butter, no salt, no herbs. Yet they were munching with an enthusiasm which meant they either came from somewhere that had little or no food of any kind or that they were seriously delusional. To our right was a family of ebony-skinned Trellenians swathed from head to foot in lustrous silk and eating a curry that would strip varnish. At the bar was an elderly man in dignified black, sipping Venarian claret. And on the table in front of us was a large game bird known locally as a rossel, roasted and carved to perfection, surrounded by tiny links of smoked sausage and a moat of thick, hot sauce made from tart red berries, the whole sumptuous display sitting among spinach leaves and wedges of lime, steaming invitingly. Even the wool traders’ mouths were watering.
“Where was I?” I said as the serving boy left us. “Oh yes. So then Venario is on stage by himself, lying in wait for Carizo and Bianca. His sword is drawn and he’s ready to attack Carizo and have his way with Bianca. He has a few smug words with the audience and takes his position behind one of the front pillars. Then, hearing a noise, he leaps out. But it’s not Carizo. It’s the ghost of Benario, rising out of a trapdoor and wailing: ‘See here, O cursed wretch, the gaping wounds/Which thou didst carve into my living flesh . . .’ ”
“Who’s Benario?” said Garnet.
“What? Oh,” I began, “he’s the bastard son of Duke Ferdinand, the one that Venario killed in the first act because he saw . . .”
“Who’s Venario?” said Lisha.
“Who’s Venario!” I exclaimed. “Haven’t you been listening at all? All right. Venario was exiled from the court for having an incestuous relationship with his sister, who he later murdered with a poisoned pot of geraniums and . . .”
“I thought you had word of a job,” murmured Mithos.
I gave him a long, pained look. “Don’t you want to hear what happens next?” I said, injured.
“Sorry,” he said, “but I thought we’d come here for a job.”
“Fine,” I replied, testily. “Fine. Right, forget the play. It’s not important. After all, I only wrote it. . . .”
“All right. . . .” Mithos sighed.
“No,” I inserted. “No. We are here for a job, so that’s what I’ll tell you about. Firstly . . .”
“Wait a moment,” Orgos said, eyes glued to the rossel’s golden brown breast.
“Do I get to finish a sentence tonight?” I asked.
“Not yet,” said Orgos. “It would be criminal to discuss business over so excellent a feast.”
Mithos sighed again and added, without any enthusiasm whatsoever, “So serve it.”
He had a way of discussing the most exotic or delicate meals like they were day-old porridge. He ate them like that, too, mixing things together and spading it down his throat so that it barely touched his tongue. Garnet regarded the great bird with the blend of curiosity and distaste he usually reserved for me and took a forkful gingerly, as if it might come back to life and bite his hand off. Only Orgos seemed to accord the food anything like the respect it deserved.
This had been intended as a surprise feast to celebrate our next adventure, though I should have known that the adventure itself was the only sustenance they needed. I, still sulking about not being able to finish my story, chewed in sullen silence and resolved to make them wait for the day’s big news: news which, with a tremendous effort, I had managed to keep to myself thus far.
Earlier that day I had been sampling a pint of milk stout in one of Stavis’s less seemly hostelries, nostalgically reliving my Cresdon days as a cardsharp, actor, and storyteller, when I fell into conversation with a man of about fifty-five whose eyes held a strange and compelling light. He had some very interesting news.
In a matter of minutes this helpful chap, whose name was Mensahn, would join me and the rest of the party in the Waterman and give us vital information which would allow us to release Dantir, the famous rebel hero. Yes, that Dantir: the guy who had pinned down the Empire’s fourth army during the conquest of Bowescroft with little more than rumor and a handful of well-trained archers. He was the Empire’s prize captive, and they periodically threatened to execute him when things got unruly anywhere in Thrusia. The rebels (and that included most adventurers) wanted him back, partly because he was a bit of a legend and partly because he knew just enough about rebel operations to be dangerous.
And we could save him. Pretty heady stuff, eh? And it was all thanks to me. Our recent inactivity had allowed some of the suspicion with which the party had first greeted me to resurface, if only in muted forms, but this new triumph would remind them of my genius, and my usefulness. After one brief operation they would be feasting me, putting my name in songs, throwing gold at me, and—in Renthrette’s case—maybe herself, too. As I said, I would soon be joining Dantir himself in the rebel’s Hall of Heroes. I munched on the tender flesh of the rossel and my good humor returned.
“I’ve not been in here for weeks,” said Orgos, glancing around the place. “Months, even. Not since that idiot Lightfoot took over the Empire’s intelligence sector.”
There was a flicker of amusement around the table and Orgos snorted to himself, as if remembering something funny.
“Who’s Lightfoot?” I asked.
Garnet took up the story, an uncharacteristic grin splitting his pallid face. “He was a staff sergeant in the Oakhill garrison for years. Then—God knows how—he got himself posted here to intelligence, probably because nothing ever happens here for him to get in the way of. He must have been a terrible liability in Oakhill.”
“I heard he once slaughtered and burned a flock of sheep that the garrison had impounded for their winter meat,” inserted Renthrette, “because one of them reminded him of a local rebel. Something in the eyes, I suppose. The soldiers were famished for weeks.”
“He’s insane?” I ventured.
“Let’s say ‘eccentric,’ ” Orgos qualified. “He sees rebels everywhere and has devoted his life to lunatic schemes designed to flush them out. Almost every month he goes from tavern to tavern trying to lure adventurers or members of the resistance into an ambush with tales of Empire treasure convoys or defenseless generals. Then, at the appointed time, he shows up at the pub or wherever with a hundred soldiers and storms in. It is always deserted except for a few random traders. He interrogates them for a few hours and then lets them all go with an official pardon and a couple of silver pieces in compensation. It costs the Empire a fortune.”
“Really?” I said, slightly uncomfortable.
“Lately,” Garnet joined in cheerfully, “he’s reverted to that ludicrous yarn about Dantir the great rebel hero. As if the rebels would do anything to get that old drunk back anyway. The only secrets he had concerned the whereabouts of the Empire’s cache of Thrusian grain whiskey.”
“Hasn’t Dantir been dead for years?” asked Renthrette.
“At least two,” answered Mithos, distantly.
“Really?” I managed again. Against all odds, I had lost my appetite. Beads of cool sweat had pricked out across my forehead. This was not good.
“How could even someone as harebrained as Lightfoot believe that anyone would fall for such an obvious ruse?” Renthrette wondered, sipping her wine. “I mean, how asinine can anyone be?”
“The story which is supposed to bring us all running into the arms of the Diamond Empire this time says that Dantir is being moved around,” Garnet continued, now breaking into outright laughter, “with an escort of elderly ladies, or something. . . .”
“One Empire platoon, actually,” I spluttered thoughtlessly. “It’s not that preposterous!” My voice was rising defensively. “All right, it might not be likely, exactly . . . but it is, you know . . . plausible. Kind of. I don’t see why you think it’s so obviously ridiculous. If you lot didn’t already know of this Lightfoot character you might have fallen for it. It is possible, you know, that your bloody perspicacity wouldn’t be so dazzling if you didn’t have all the facts in front of you. They could have been moving Dantir around. They could!”
There was a momentary silence as the smiles and good humor slipped away as if I’d mentioned that one of their elderly relatives had just kicked off.
“You didn’t,” growled Mithos across the table.
“Well . . .” I began, but, unable to shake off his eyes as they burned dark and hard into mine, I decided to leave it there.
“That was the big adventure you promised us?” stuttered Garnet as realization dawned like an unwary sun in a very cold place. “That was what you brought us here for? You stupid, simple-minded, moronic . . .”
“Lightfoot is going to arrive here any minute with a hundred troops?” said Lisha quickly, clarifying.
“Actually,” I faltered, glancing at the clock over the bar, “he’s slightly late.”
There was a thundering of chair legs on the wooden floor as they leaped to their feet. Almost simultaneously, there came the distinctive creak and slam of the inn’s door being flung out onto the chill evening air. I spun to see the white cloaks and silver scale of Empire troopers filing in, two abreast.
We weren’t exactly armed to the teeth right now, and a pitched battle against a force this size would have led pretty quickly to our being carried out in casserole-sized joints. There were no obvious ways out of this situation. Our options were starting to look like hanging or beheading (at best) when Lisha prodded me firmly in the ribs. I turned, my face aghast and sickly, to find her staring up into my face, her black eyes even narrower than usual. She took hold of my wrist and gripped it firmly, as if I was about to run (she knew me pretty well by now). Through barely parted lips she hissed, “You got us into this, Will. Now get us out.”
That was all she said, but the looks of menace I was getting from Garnet and Mithos underscored the point. Renthrette had closed her eyes, frustrated at herself for believing for a moment that I wasn’t a walking death trap with the mental agility of a beer keg. Orgos glanced around the room as it flooded with soldiers, as if he was still calculating the odds of a last-ditch stand. His hand strayed to the hilt of that huge sword of his, the one with the yellowish stone in the pommel.
Turning swiftly toward the approaching footsteps I found myself looking into the slightly wild eyes of Lightfoot himself, now out of his rags and dressed in his best uniform. Uncertain what else to do, I smiled warmly and extended a hand. “Commander Lightfoot,” I announced heartily, “how good to see you again.”
There was a flicker of confusion in the officer’s eyes. After a pause he shook my hand cautiously, saying, “I wasn’t aware you knew my name.”
“How could I not, sir?” I breezed. “Commander Lightfoot, the supreme intelligencer, the Empire’s most acute and watchful eye.”
“But when I spoke to you earlier,” said Lightfoot, dimly, “I gave you no clue to my identity.”
At his elbow, two officers exchanged knowing glances.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “it seems we were talking at cross purposes. I was under the impression that you wanted me to try and locate Mithos and his gang for apprehension using the Dantir ruse to lure them to this place? No?”
“Well, yes,” he muttered, “but I don’t see . . .”
“I am a good citizen of the Empire, sir, and, knowing your methods, resolved to do all I could. Alas, as you can see, I was unsuccessful. I decided to dine with my friends here so I could pass on the news.”
“Indeed . . .” said Lightfoot, uncertainly. One of his soldiers smirked and looked down.
Encouraged by this, I went on. “But I do have word, from a very reliable source, close to Mithos’s party, that a raid is intended on the south garrison where they believe Dantir is being held.”
At this, two things happened. Lightfoot’s eyes lit up with anticipation, but the looks exchanged by his men changed. What had been a mixture of bored exasperation and embarrassment instantly became suspicion. It seemed that out of the entire population of Stavis (no small city), only Lightfoot and me were stupid enough to believe that Dantir was alive and worth rescuing. I thought I heard Orgos groan.
One of them, decked out in the white linen cuirass and silver helm of a young sergeant, stepped forward, hesitating awkwardly. Then, in a stage whisper, he addressed Lightfoot. “Excuse me, commander, sir, but these people do actually fit the descriptions we have of Mithos and his group.”
“Nonsense,” spat the commander, with barely a glance at where we stood around the table. “Mithos is on his way to D garrison. We should be on our way to intercept him.”
“Sir . . . if you don’t mind me saying so, sir, I doubt it.”
“What is this insubordination?” muttered Lightfoot, turning on him.
“I don’t think this man is to be trusted,” responded the sergeant, with a glance for support at some of his comrades, “and I don’t think we should act on what he tells us. In fact, we should take him and his ‘friends’ into custody immediately.”
“Custody?” bellowed Lightfoot.
“Yes, sir. The party that arrived in Stavis three-and-a-half months ago was described as looking just like them,” the sergeant continued, his voice rising, as he opted to disregard protocol. “I was on gate duty then and I remember. A pale man and a blond woman”—he said, indicating Garnet and Renthrette—“a black man”—stabbing a finger at Orgos—“and an olive-skinned man with dark hair and eyes, who may be Mithos himself.”
The sergeant stepped closer to make the identification clearer and spoke the last words into Mithos’s face. The soldiers who had been lounging carelessly around the room were now alert and attentive, their spears swinging toward us menacingly. There was a new urgency to the situation, and the troopers felt it. Only the idiocy of their commander could save us now, and, given the grim surety of the young sergeant, even that might be insufficient.
“And what about her?” asked Lightfoot, gesturing to Lisha in an offhand and slightly juvenile so-there gesture. The sergeant looked over Lisha’s almost childlike frame, her impassive face with its small Eastern features and long, raven black hair, and he faltered.
“I don’t know, sir,” he spluttered. “I do not think she was with the party when they entered the city, but . . .”
“Exactly,” said Lightfoot, “and I will not have these good and loyal citizens harassed further.”
“May we go?” I inserted, a little too eagerly.
“Have you finished your supper?” asked Lightfoot. He looked doubtful.
“Oh yes,” I blustered. “You’re welcome to what’s left. It’s quite good, but I had rather a large lunch and . . .”
“Yes, yes,” agreed the commander, hasty and anxious to be off. “Go on your way, and thank you.”
“With all due respect, sir . . .” began the sergeant, now with undisguised anger.
“We’ll discuss this later, young man,” said Lightfoot, ominously.
“You’re damn right about that,” murmured the sergeant, turning his back on his superior contemptuously.
We needed no further encouragement. Within seconds I was holding the door to the street open as Renthrette and Garnet filed out. Behind us, Lightfoot growled formal charges to his sergeant. Perversely, I couldn’t help feeling a little disdainful pity for both of them. Still, this was not the time to show sympathy for the enemy. Taking up the rear, I stepped into the open doorway, smiling to myself at a job well done, some dignity saved, and so on. Then, the young sergeant, presumably figuring he had nothing to lose, walked away from his commander, dipped into The Book, and looked up the oldest trick.
“Oh, Mr. Hawthorne?” he called.
And, like the death trap/beer keg that I am, I turned. “Yes?” I began guilelessly.
At that, even Lightfoot’s face fell. Then they started running.
For a second I was rooted to the spot as if I’d been blinded by a combination of my own stupidity and the glittering of all those steel spear tips aimed at me. Then Orgos shoved me out into the street, drew his sword, and closed his eyes.
For a split second there was amused disbelief on the part of the soldiers—this guy’s going to try and hold us off singlehandedly? But then the stone in Orgos’s sword seemed to swell with golden light, and there was a pulse of energy that radiated from it like ripples in a pond. I shut my eyes at the last second, but I still felt the firelight amber of the stone burst forth. When I opened them again, the soldiers looked dazed.
Knowing the moment wouldn’t last, Orgos slammed the double doors shut.
“Wedge them closed,” gasped Lisha. Garnet and Renthrette dropped to the ground, looking for suitable rocks or bits of wooden crate as Mithos joined Orgos, shoulders to the door. In seconds it jolted with the impact of the soldiers’ first charge, but the pale siblings were already positioning a pair of heavy planks up against the door handles. They would buy us a few moments till the troopers levered the doors off their hinges with their shortswords.
I stood there, as I am wont to do in situations like this, looking vacant, uncomfortable and, more to the point, useless. As soon as the doors looked like they would hold, Garnet wheeled around and hoisted me up against a wall, plucking a knife from his belt. Déjà vu, eh? Still, at times like this, it’s nice to know that some things can be counted on. Why worry about the Empire plowing the door down like crazed buffalo when Will Hawthorne is there to beat up on, eh, Garnet?
Fortunately, Garnet wasn’t the only one in character. With a strong arm and a baleful glare, Orgos liberated me and began spitting insistent words like “priorities,” which I could sympathize with, and “time for this later,” which I was rather less keen on.
Lisha interrupted him. “Garnet, run back to the Hide, load as much of our campaign equipment as you can onto the wagon, and meet us tomorrow morning at the Black Horse Inn. It’s about twelve miles north of here on the road to Vetch. Go. Quickly.”
Garnet paused only to shoot me the briefest but most murderous look imaginable, then was off and running. Lisha began walking swiftly, talking as she did so. “We have to move quickly, avoid the major roads. We need to get past the city limits before news of this fiasco spreads. Run! Mithos, go with Will.”
“You mean,” I gasped, wheezing to keep up with her as she strode through the dark streets, eyes fixed ahead, “we’re going to walk twelve miles? In darkness and on foot? You must be out of your . . .”
“Will,” she said, coming to an abrupt halt and turning on me, an edge in her voice that I hadn’t heard before, “I suggest you shut up and run, or, and I mean this quite sincerely, this is as far as you go with us.”
I wasn’t certain if that was a warning that they would abandon me, or the prelude to a possible stabbing, but I couldn’t really chance it either way. And I didn’t like the way that Mithos had slipped soundlessly behind me, as if waiting for the word to lop my head off. Back down the street, the doors to the Waterman roared and splintered. They’d be after us in seconds.
“Right,” I said. That was the last word I uttered for some time. When I turned I saw Lisha running away to the west, Renthrette and Orgos having already ducked around a corner out of sight. Mithos laid a powerful hand on my shoulder and, almost lifting me with the force of it, pushed me into motion. We sprinted into an alley and were barely in its shadows when the door of the tavern burst asunder. Orders were barked, then came the sound of running feet, their armor jingling with each pounding step as they came after us. We ran.
Will Power © A.J. Hartley 2011