Exile. Mercenary. Lover. Monster.
We’re thrilled to share the cover and preview an excerpt from J.L. Worrad’s Pennyblade—publishing February 2022 with Titan Books.
Exile. Mercenary. Lover. Monster. Pennyblade.
Kyra Cal’Adra has spent the last four years on the Main, living in exile from her home, her people, her lover and her past. A highblood commrach—the ancient race of the Isle, dedicated to tradition and the perfection of the blood—she’s welcome among the humans of the Main only for the skill of her rapier, her preternatural bladework. They don’t care which of the gleaming towers she came from, nor that her grandmother is matriarch of one of Corso’s most powerful families.
But on the main, women loving women is a sin punishable by death. Kyra is haunted by the ghost of Shen, the love of her life, a lowblood servant woman whom Kyra left behind as she fled the Isle.
When a simple contract goes awry, and her fellow pennyblades betray her, Kyra is set onto a collision course with her old life, and the age-old conflict between the Main and the Isle threatens to erupt once more.
James Worrad lives in Leicester, England, and has for almost all his life. He has a degree in classical studies from Lampeter University, Wales. In 2011 James attended Clarion, the prestigious six-week SF workshop held at the University of California, San Diego. There, he studied under some of the genre’s leading professionals. 2018 saw the publication of his first space opera duology ‘Feral Space’. He’s had short stories published by Daily Science Fiction, Flurb, Newcon Press and Obverse Books. He also writes screen plays for short films, one of which- Flawless was selected for both the Cannes and NYC Independent film festivals.
I could hear them following us. My ears, nose, eyes, all superior to a human’s in darkness.
But they were no idiots, these. Country folk. Knew the land, knew well the forest by night. And there were many. I knew from their stumble, their half-blind wade through wet undergrowth.
Ned and I crashed through bracken; I was hoping to evade our pursuers while their eyes adjusted to midnight beneath a canopy. They had just been staring at a burning barn after all.
Ned seemed to share my thinking. We were keeping a good pace together, but not as fast as I might have alone. Ned’s eyes were excellent, but still human. My fears began to whisper of parting ways, of running solitary.
He caught up with me again and we struggled down a decline. I couldn’t use my right hand to balance against the gnarled trunks I passed and my third and fourth fingers throbbed, a melody atop the ache all down my right side.
‘We lost ’em?’ Ned whispered behind me as we reached the bottom.
I couldn’t hear anyone.
‘Keep going,’ I said.
I didn’t answer. I moved on, slower now, stealthy. Our pursuers’ eyes would surely have quickened to the gloom. Minutes passed. I could feel the fire cooling in me, the pain rising in its place. My hand felt like a club of flesh and snapped bone.
‘You think she made it?’ Ned’s voice behind me. I heard him stumble.
‘No,’ I said.
‘You dun’t care, do you?’ he said. ‘I’d’ve got her out.’
I didn’t answer.
I heard a stream’s burble ahead. We got closer, and its ripples glinted, moonlight blades dancing beneath a hole in the forest’s canopy. Our side of it was a muddy bank, the other a tangle of bracken.
‘We can jump that,’ I said. ‘Throw your bow over.’
‘It’s wrong,’ Ned said. ‘Wrong to be so cold as you.’
‘Fall out of love, Ned?’ I laughed but it became a wince. Laughing hurt.
I didn’t like the look on Ned’s face, either. I turned away, ran and leaped. I landed on my left side, scuffled with wet bracken. My right side took it like a punch and I spasmed, managing to get my foot in the stream. I didn’t shriek. I refused to.
‘Throw me your bow,’ I said, louder than I’d hoped. I looked around. No one but Ned.
The bow landed in the bracken next to me.
Ned leaped. He made the stream better than I had.
‘C‘Mon,’ I said. ‘Leave the bow. It’s slowing you down.’
He didn’t look at me, just went to get his bow. I turned to walk.
For a moment I thought he was betraying me, then I turned and saw him face down in bracken, arms flailing, his left leg frozen, shaking.
He’d trodden on a bear trap.
Ned kept screaming. I ran over, crouched.
He wouldn’t stop. I held his shoulder with my undamaged hand and looked back where we had come. I couldn’t hear for Ned’s incessant yelping. I placed my bad hand over Ned’s mouth. Took the pain. His yelps sank to sobbing.
What now? The Innkeep, I thought. If it was the Innkeep behind all this then he couldn’t allow us to live. I’d already told him we’d point the finger. Couldn’t hate him, in a way. Helping his village, cleaning up a long and ugly mess. Blame it on pennyblades.
Ned’s foot was at a right angle to his ankle. The trap’s jaw ran black; the smell of his blood excited my nostrils.
‘Duh’t lehme,’ Ned whimpered against my palm.
‘No,’ I said. Could I hear movement from the ridge we’d clambered down? Or was it the wind? It was impossible to think.
I leaned down toward Ned, my face inches from his own.
‘I won’t leave you, Ned.’
I held his gaze with mine and drew my stiletto with my good hand.
I nestled my cheek against his and kissed his ear. He whimpered. His teeth chattered.
‘I do, Ned, you hear me?’ I whispered, sweet as I could. ‘My love. I do.’
I drove the point into his jugular, twisted. The heat on my knuckles. The scent.
Best this way. The kindest blade the swiftest.
He gargled, coughed. Ceased.
I wiped my stiletto on bracken and sheathed.
Dawn saw me negotiating mire. The trees were thinning out, lone beeches all ghostly upon islands of dry earth. Shoe-sucking mud everywhere else. Mists rolling in.
I tried to keep to the trees, avoiding the mire and murk wherever I could, which was far from always. My teeth chattered, but I felt hot. My arms shook as I walked. Sweat ran from down my scalp over drying mud. I’d broken a rib, two fingers. Sword fingers. I was fucking ruined.
I slipped on a muddy rise, slipped up to my thighs. Agony. I wanted to sob.
I stopped moving, took deep breaths. There was little to see in such mist. Devil’s ground, the locals likely deemed it, to be avoided by man. The sort of place, Commrach saga tells us, where the Fomorg slumber. Where their evil might arise one cursed and distant eve. I kept picturing the figurine in the cellar, its yarn-bound grin widening. I’d no idea why.
Monsters. Oh, but my monsters were real. Rossley, the Innkeep and his friends. The Crown. Shortleg.
Had he betrayed us? He’d left before the fire, and after the fire he could dig up the six hundred pipistrell we’d buried in the cold wet mud. Perhaps he’d been working with all Tettleby, finding them likely pennyblades the world wouldn’t miss. Corpses to scrub away their crime.
If Shortleg hadn’t betrayed us he’d been cut down on his way to emptying his bowels. No way of telling. The man existed simultaneously in two states within my thoughts: an object of loss, an object of hate.
I wouldn’t dwell on Ned; I might stop moving.
The mists ahead parted and, in that moment, the beeches resembled pillars in Corso, the slender columns that ran along the twelfth tower’s colonnades. I laughed, pictured acquaintances passing, saluting them with a mud-caked hand. Perhaps my brother, perhaps…
Illusion. Sucking me down like the mud all about. I set myself to action, struggled to my feet.
Do not expect a tale of revenge. This isn’t one, not exactly. A pennyblade’s life is such you’d be a fool not to expect this manner of betrayal. Betrayal is life.
No, revenge did not spur me on. Nothing so banal. Rather, my delirium, the increasing visions of my island home, my past.
For I feared I might see you, Shen.
Excerpted from Pennyblade, copyright © 2021 by J.L. Worrad.