HARDWAY – a sneak preview of the new epic fantasy by Bolton and Pilling

Fantasy - Inherent Rage by Martin Bolton

A work in progress

With Sorrow soon to reach its sixteenth and final episode, we take a break from that story (for it does not end there) and journey east to Hardway. I cannot tell you much about Hardway, other than that it is another tale which takes place in the World Apparent, because we haven’t finished it yet and I don’t want to give away any of the plot. However, as we are so excited about it, I thought I would share a very early excerpt with you. I mean “early” because it is early in the book and because it is yet to be properly edited – this is fresh from the murky depths of my mind. That’s right, you are privileged with a peek at a work in progress. I hope you like it.

HARDWAY

by Bolton and Pilling

Maximilian concentrated intently on each brush stroke. No soft skin tones here, no pert, alabaster bosoms, no flowing blonde hair, no innocent blue eyes and no playful expression hinting at, but never showing, the subject’s burning sexuality. No such conformity for the great Maximilian Shackle, oh no, he was a revolutionary, a pioneer! He would show those tyrants at the Masters Temple that painting should be the fullest expression of man’s true vices and virtues, not a rigid oppression of them. He would paint evocative images of all the darkness and the light within, not bland scenes of piety and idealism. If a bard could sing of a bloody battle, could he not paint a demonic vision of the desires which cause such barbarism?

His paintings would show the world that man’s beauty lies in his weaknesses, and that perfection is an ugly myth. Not only that, damn it, but he would show the so called Masters that art, true art, cannot be tethered to their outdated ideals. He just needed the right inspiration, the right subject matter, and they would see he was right. Then they would be begging him to come back to the temple, to take his rightful place amongst the-

“Max, please, can we have a break?” Eva shivered, wrapping her arms around her naked shoulders, “I’m freezing.”

“Keep still!” he replied, “I am almost there, just a few more minutes.”

“Why must I pose at night? It is too cold.” She complained.

“I have explained this, Eva,” Maximilian was losing patience, “I am painting the legend of The Moment of Silence, the blacksmith exists only in the moment of silence following the ring of his hammer. The painting shows that very moment, you are shown in the glow of his forge. I must paint you by candle light to capture the colour of the flames on your skin! Besides, I am paying you well to model for me, so kindly hold your position until I have finished.”

“There is a difference between agreeing a fee and actually paying one, Max.” Eva assumed her pose again, that of a frightened maiden, horrified at some unseen horror. Naked, of course.

“Oh yes,” replied Maximilian sarcastically, “pray tell, what might that be?”

“Well at the moment it is about one hundred and fifty sovereigns.” Eva gave him a triumphant look.

“Ah,” Maximilian tried desperately to think of a clever answer and found none, “is it that much?” Damn it, why did he have to choose such an intelligent and eloquent muse, all his peers had chosen whores who were happy as long as they were kept sufficiently off their tits on murka and given plenty of cheap wine. In every verbal exchange with this woman he seemed to come off second best. But then, that was why he liked her. After all, if something wasn’t a challenge it wasn’t worth doing.

Before he could think of an answer, Eva had wrapped herself in her thick gown, gone over to sit on the window sill with a bottle and started rolling a cigarette.

As he painstakingly put together a stirring speech to justify his debt, there was a knock at the door. Not a polite tap tap, but an obnoxious rapping conjuring the image of a large, hairy fist in Maximilian’s mind and making the door rattle violently in its frame.

Maximilian jumped, his brush and wooden pallet clattered on the floorboards. Eva rolled her eyes at him and went back to gazing elegantly out of the window and smoking. He tried to pull himself together and approached the shuddering door wiping his hands on a cloth.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming!” He called nervously as he attached the safety chain and slid the bolt free. The knocking ceased immediately, leaving a pregnant silence. Slowly, Maximilian eased the door open the hand’s breadth that the safety chain would allow and peered through the gap.

He was confronted with a pair of lumpen hands, their knuckles like the gnarled and twisted roots of an ancient tree, axe-handle thumbs tucked patiently into a thick leather sword belt. Maximilian’s gaze instinctively wandered upwards along one tattooed trunk of a forearm, up further still, past a shoulder the size of a stallion’s rump, on past a thick volcano neck, and finally rested on the implacable visage of Rollo. The vast henchman peered down at him from the dimness above the door frame.

“Tulgan wants to see you,” warbled Rollo.

Rollo was indeed a paradox. By far the biggest man Maximilian had ever seen. He moved with an ungainliness that made him appear wooden, like some otherworldly creature removed from its natural environment. Yet those unfortunate enough to know him long enough knew that his natural environment was any state of extreme violence. When a situation got ugly, and they frequently had when blessed with Rollo’s presence, he moved with a devastating swiftness and grace.

Rollo the Wind, he had been dubbed by the more poetic of Hardway’s criminal fraternity, because he could be eerily still or unstoppably destructive. And he could change in the blink of an eye, without warning. He was more commonly known amongst the blunter, less imaginative scum of Hardway as Grizzly Rollo, Runaway Rollo (either because he was like a runaway wagon or because that’s what most people did when they saw him), Red Rollo and many more.

Maximilian, on the other hand, knew the real reason why Rollo was considered a paradox. The man sang like an angel, though people were forbidden to speak of it as it went against the necessary persona required by his profession. And he was very professional.

“I told him,” replied Maximilian, unhooking the chain and backing away from the door, “I’ll have his money in a few days, I have works to sell at market.”

“He wants to see you,” Rollo repeated as he unfolded into the room. Maximilian was always amazed at how the man squeezed through the gap without making it any bigger. Rollo spread out like a pool of blood and nodded politely at Eva, folding his enormous arms across his belly, as if to present a neater menace.

Maximilian narrowed his eyes and studied Rollo, trying to work out what this visit was really about – an impossible task since Rollo’s expression remained completely impassive. “What is this about?”

“Tulgan will fill you in on the details,” replied Rollo, gesturing towards the door, “best not to keep him waiting.”

“Quite,” said Maximilian helplessly. He turned to Eva and shrugged. She looked at him, as unimpressed as Rollo, and exhaled a lung-full of smoke before taking a swig from her bottle, the vapour swapping its exit from her lips to her nostrils.

“See you in the morning,” she said, moving towards his bed.

He glanced at Rollo and replied, “I hope so.”

* * * *

Maximilian knew Rollo well enough to know that the easiest way to travel to Tulgan’s office was willingly, and the two walked side by side at a leisurely pace. They knew the route well, as they had made this journey many times, from Maximilian’s room through the narrow cobbled streets and past the familiar shops, inns and brothels hacked into the sandstone on either side, and on into the heart of Hardway.

Many of the people they passed knew them, for both characters were well known. Maximilian for owing most of the population money and Rollo for so efficiently collecting the many debts owed to his boss. A few waved and smiled, a few simply ducked out of sight as quickly as possible.

Tulgan’s office lay at the end of a narrow ravine with sheer cliffs on either side. A stairway ran diagonally upwards along one wall until it reached a balcony high in the cliff face. Tulgan’s office looked down the length of the valley and over the city. Maximilian knew that tunnels lead from the rear of Tulgan’s headquarters, emerging in various places on the island where boats were moored, awaiting the day that the old, self-professed Father of Hardway needed an easy escape. In Maximilian’s life time the need had never arisen – Tulgan’s “children” were mostly obedient – but the perceived threat, as was the nature of Hardway, came from without.

As usual, Maximilian found himself seated opposite Tulgan with a mug of good wine and the old man’s customary pretence that this was a social visit.

“You’re like the son I never had, Maximilian,” Tulgan smiled across his desk, fingers steepled before him, his long, white beard immaculately plaited, the end of which nestled somewhere inside his elegant felt smoking Jacket.

“A son?” In fact Hardway was crawling with Tulgan’s bastard children, but Maximilian knew better than to mention them, “last time you hauled me into your office your man Rollo here punched me in the guts until I puked!”

“Is discipline not an important part of a father’s love?” asked Tulgan, looking hurt, “besides, he only punched you once.”

“Once was enough,” said Maximilian, gingerly feeling his stomach, “look at the size of him, I’m still bruised.”

“It hurt Rollo as much as it hurt you. He doesn’t enjoy violence, but he knows a man must sometimes do things he doesn’t want to do. Isn’t that right Rollo?” Tulgan continued to gaze at Maximilian.

“Life is full of unpleasant tasks. Best to get ’em out the way,” replied Rollo from his usual position – standing by the door looking dangerous. The fact that he not only guarded the exit, but obscured it entirely, enhanced his aura of menace no end.

“My heart bleeds for you,” said Maximilian.

“Now, now,” Tulgan leaned over and poured his guest more wine, “you’ll cut your tongue on such prickly words, young Maximilian. We haven’t the time for trivia, I didn’t invite you here for an idle chat.”

“Look,” said Maximilian, pausing to take a sip of his wine, “I will have some money for you in a few days, just give me time to sell my work-”

Tulgan raised a hand for silence. Maximilian cursed himself for a coward as he immediately complied.

“I brought you here,” Tulgan paused, as though he expected a drum roll, “to offer you the opportunity to pay me in kind.”

“You want me to paint your portrait?”

“Good gods, no!” Tulgan laughed and slowly rocked back in his chair.

“What then?”

“Hardway is under siege, Maximilian,” Tulgan’s smile faded, “the bitter stalemate between the Old Kingdom to the west and Calliss to the east is taking its toll on trade. Whoever gets Hardway has the advantage and both sides know it. They also know that the sheer cliffs and treacherous rocks surrounding our island make invasion impossible. The Council refuse to negotiate with outsiders and the only way in for any invading army, Fort Alex, is too heavily fortified to attempt an attack, so they are targeting the merchants Hardway relies upon. The situation makes it risky for any trading vessels to dock, many are frightened they’ll be punished by one side or the other if they’re caught. Needless to say this is putting a squeeze on Hardway’s fragile economy.”

“What has this to do with me?” asked Maximilian, he was wondering why he had been brought to Tulgan’s office. He was starting to wish he’d had his usual roughing up and been sent on his way with a warning. He knew where he stood with beatings and threats, but this little meeting had the distinct feeling that it was leading to something, and that something was unlikely to be good for him.

“The situation is unfortunate,” continued Tulgan, “but like every situation, it can be manipulated to our advantage. While some feel the pinch, others grow richer. That’s where you come in. Have you heard of the House of the Celestial Sphere?”

“Of course,” Maximilian’s anxiety was growing. Tulgan looked very pleased with himself, which was the only thing worse than Tulgan looking angry.

“It is growing. The future of Hardway is under threat, and where do people turn when they are unsure of their future? Religion. The House’s coffers are straining under the weight of their followers’ donations – money they should be spending on wine and murka. My money.” Tulgan’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the table and his face hardened, the gleam in the old man’s eye betraying his anger. He composed himself and continued.

“Not only that but the House itself is bulging with the sheer number of people, and still more are coming. They are the major religion in Hardway, and religion is the new thing!”

“I still don’t understand what this has to do with me,” said Maximilian.

“They’re building a new temple! A huge one, not far from Fort Alex, so that everyone who comes here will see it. First the magnificent fort, then the magnificent Temple of the Celestial Sphere!”

“I’m no builder,” Maximilian held up his soft painter’s hands as evidence.

“No, but they require your particular talents for something else,” Tulgan stood and spread his hands out wide, “a giant mural! Think about it, the painter of the greatest piece of work in Hardway would be famous! Not just here but news of your work would travel. Word would spread of the great Maximilian Shackle!”

Maximilian had been listening with some trepidation, but now his ego had been roused by Tulgan’s talk of fame. He tried his hardest to sound unimpressed, despite his excitement.

“I have heard nothing about plans for a mural. Surely word would have spread that the temple required an artist. My peers would have been tripping over themselves to be first in line. Why is news of this not all over Hardway?”

“My dear Maximilian,” said Tulgan, strolling over to the open fire and scooping up the poker, “I run the streets of Hardway, and I have the power to spread rumours or quell them. Besides, the mural was my idea, and the Abbot thought it a very good one. I have all the arrangements in place, I have paved the way, this is your big break. And it is all thanks to me.”

“You have met with the Abbot?” Maximilian eyed the old gangster suspiciously.

“Of course, I have negotiated terms,” Tulgan slowly stoked the coals, “the job is yours.”

“What if I don’t want it?”

“Do you know how much you owe me, Maximilian?” Tulgan asked.

“Three hundred and twenty sovereigns.” Maximilian replied.

“Five hundred sovereigns, plus interest,” Tulgan corrected him, “and how much do you owe others?”

Maximilian began counting his fingers.

“I’ll tell you how much, sixteen hundred and seventy two sovereigns, to ten different murka dealers, wine merchants, ale houses, even a furious Cillissian paper merchant. Have you not wondered why you still walk?”

“I can take care of myself,” Maximilian didn’t sound convincing even to himself.

“Oh yes?” Tulgan smiled at him, “and what about your little muse friend, what’s her name? Eva? Very pretty girl, that. You can protect her too, can you?”

At the mention of Eva’s name Maximilian felt an unfamiliar twinge, something in his chest, was it shame? Guilt? Love? The thought of her coming to harm had struck a nerve, which was entirely unexpected.

“I, and I alone, am the reason you live,” Tulgan continued, “because you are worth too much to me. Paint the mural, make it your greatest work, and I will settle your debts. You’ll have a clean slate, and fame to boot. Or I can withdraw my protection and see if you make it home alive.”

Tulgan paused for a moment. Then dropped the poker and walked back to his desk, rubbing his hands together, and raised his wine.

“So,” he said, “let us drink to our new partnership.”

Maximilian suddenly realised how stupid he had been, and how lucky he was to be alive. A small part of him thanked the gods for Tulgan’s protection. Another part of him hated the man for manipulating him, and for doing it so easily. He tried to act like he wasn’t surprised, “I’ll need money for materials,” he said.

“You’ll have no money,” Tulgan replied, “everything will be taken care of, however. Drink!”

Maximilian drained his mug and held it up for more.

* * * *

It seems a long time since I was born, and yet it seems like it was yesterday. Perhaps yesterday was longer ago than I realise. It seems as though a lot has changed, and yet everything is the same. Is change a constant, counter-acting the effects of time – cancelling each other out? The World Apparent is circular in more ways than one, and so it has moulded mankind in its own shape, giving him cycles and seasons. Every drama in life repeats itself over and over.

Each town and city is a microcosm, reflecting the nature of the world as it revolves, just as each man is shaped by his environment. Consequently man has his moods, just as the world has elements which dictate its nature. And man, too, has levels of consciousness, just as the world has spiritual levels – one celestial, one physical and one infernal – each as real and tangible as the last.

As I roam the streets I see the world’s cycle reflected in the everyday dramas of their inhabitants. Love and hate, right and wrong, life and death, justice and crime – every action with its opposite, every virtue with an equal vice. Every act of kindness delivering a new god to the celestial sphere and every act of selfishness and hate spawning a new demon in hell.

Such is the life of men, and so I turn with the world. Ever changing, ever constant.

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