Fantasy Author Interview: David Pilling on Bail

Fantasy sequel The Path of SorrowI often get asked how David Pilling and I go about co-writing our fantasy novels, The World Apparent Tales. One of the things we do is we each take ownership of specific characters and write their whole story. This means we can really get into the mind of each character and ensure they speak with the same ‘voice’ throughout the story.

With that in mind, I asked David a few questions about his character Bail, a ruthless cut-throat who plays a prominent role in The Path of Sorrow. I’ve removed all the vile language and graphic death threats and posted David’s answers below:

What was your inspiration for the character of Bail?

He’s a sort of anti-Aragorn figure i.e. a mysterious, charismatic wanderer with a hidden past. The difference is there is nothing remotely heroic about him: he is vain, selfish, greedy and rather cowardly. Sometimes he will fight like a cornered rat, but only because he has to..I suppose there’s more than a hint of Harry Flashman in his makeup as well.

What would you think of him if you knew him?

I would think that he was an appalling man, if entertaining on occasion. We would probably end up blocking each other on Facebook, which is at least preferable to hitting each other with swords.

Bail appears on the surface to be interested solely in his own welfare. Is there any compassion there, deep down?

None, or very little. That is partly down to his nature, but also to his upbringing. Bail has been alone all his life, and had to fend for himself at every turn. It’s only natural he should think of himself first.

Do you think some people have a natural tendency towards good or evil, or is everyone a product of their environment?

I think everyone is different, and born with certain characteristics. It may be possible to change those characteristics to an extent as a person grows to adulthood. It very much depends on the person. Could anything have prevented Harold Shipman becoming a mass murderer for instance, or was the impulse to kill written into his DNA?

Bail seems to be so ruthless that he has more of a struggle justifying an act of compassion than one of total self preservation. Is it difficult writing a character who never engages emotionally with another character?

Not at all. That probably speaks volumes for my own character! I think there is too much emphasis on compassion and emotional engagement in fiction. These values are promoted in our lives, because this is the modern world and we are supposed to be a developing species. Bail exists in a horrifically brutal sub-medieval environment in which any display of weakness could lead to his violent demise. Wolves don’t deal in compassion.

Bail’s life seems to have been a constant struggle for survival, from one squalid, brutal episode to another. Is he destined for something better, or will he never escape his past?

I can’t really answer that without giving too much away! You’ll have to wait and see…he certainly has the ambition, nous and sheer willpower to better his lot in life.

Besides co-writing fantasy fiction with me, you are a successful historical fiction author. How much inspiration do you gain from history when writing fantasy characters and world building.

Quite a lot. Certain historical figures have influenced some of my characters in The World Apparent novels, as well as bits and pieces of historical wars and political events etc. I try not to make those influences too obvious, though.

What fantasy and/or historical works are you working on right now?

I’m currently writing the fourth book in the Leader of Battles series, my Arthurian saga. The latest tale is based on the legend of Tristan and Ysolde.

* * * *

You can read a similar interview with me on David’s blog. I’m answering questions about Captain Wade, a flamboyantly murderous pirate who terrorises the high seas of the World Apparent in The Path of Sorrow and will return in the third novel in the trilogy.

The first two novels in The World Apparent Tales are The Best Weapon, followed by The Path of Sorrow. Both are available on Amazon on paperback and kindle. David and I are currently working on the third.

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Saxons, Dogs and Rock & Roll Witches

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here is my dazzling reposte to my friend and fantasy co-writer, David Pilling’s blog post entitled ‘Uhtred Shmutred’, which is of course, utter swill. His post lays out his criticisms of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles, which tell the story of Uhtred of Bebbenburg, a ninth-century Saxon raised by Vikings as a pagan warrior.

The difference between me and David, at least in terms of this particular little set to, is quite simple:

Pilling's magical box of facts

Pilling’s magical box of facts

David has the benefit of having studied history at university and of being a very studious, intellectual man of some moral fibre, who has a disturbing fixation with the facts. He writes historical fiction for a living. He’s good at it. He spends a considerable amount of time researching these ‘facts’ of his to make sure he gets this ‘history’ of his correct. He’s a clever lad, but then, my dad’s a member of Mensa with an IQ higher than I can count, and he didn’t understand that a vacuum cleaner needs to be emptied.

I, on the other hand, have a grade F in GCSE history from one of the worst performing schools in the country (at the time, it’s a bloody academy now and the kids get ipads. Unbelievable.). This is what gives me the advantage! I can look at Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles with the eyes of a reader who wants to be told a story, not a scholar or a writer of historical fiction. I can take the story on its own merits, and here’s why.

The Vikings. Pagans, warriors, fearless adventurers. They make for a good bit of story telling, don’t they? They were good story tellers too. In fact, I think Norse mythology is the most fascinating and imaginative body of fantastic tales history has to offer (although I haven’t heard all the stories ever told in the world). J R R Tolkein thought so too, much of his inspiration came from Norse Mythology, and this is clear in his creation of Arda and Middle-Earth. Consequently, you’ll see its influence in a lot of high fantasy.

As Mr. Pilling points out, Cornwell presents a vivid, visceral world. He also creates many diverse, interesting and colourful characters. Some of those characters existed in reality, and Cornwell may well use a bit of poetic licence to make them fit his own story, but he explains why he does this in his notes at the end. Where he is ‘unfair’ to someone, he openly admits it. His books are essentially good stories, and the writer never once pretends these are totally accurate depictions of historical events.

As for his portrayal of a pious Alfred and his ‘poison dripping priests’, I think my esteemed friend has been too quick to simply judge this as ludicrous and biased. This is a realistic portrayal of what people will do in the name of religion – history is full of tragic and barbaric acts committed by supposedly holy people. Look at the Catholic Church, or Muslim Extremists, or those nutters at The Westboro Baptist Church who turn up at soldiers’ funerals shouting about how god hates fags (they couldn’t find Nimoy’s, you’d have thought god would have told them where it was if he hated ‘fags’ so much). Cornwell has done nothing but write a realistic portrayal of priests in a time when organised religion was even more extreme and insane than it is now. To say this is bias, or that somehow Cornwell is trying to say paganism is ‘better’ by portraying Uhtred as a pagan warrior hero who loves to kill priests is a bit of an over reaction.

You ain't nothin' but a hound dog...

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…

This brings me to ‘singing witches’ and ‘magic tunnels’. I didn’t feel that Cornwell was ‘pushing an agenda’ with this. I think Mr. Pilling’s sense of personal outrage has sent him over the edge, now he’s joined the paranoid legions of conspiracy theorists. Next thing he’ll be saying J K Rowling is hypnotising children and commanding them to enslave the elderly. No, as he does so well in the Warlord Chronicles (the Arthur books), he uses paganism as a fantasy element, and it is done more subtly than my good friend gives him credit for. He creates situations where pagan ‘magic’ is used, but it is never confirmed whether this magic actually worked or if it was just coincidence. Merlin, for example, claims to to be casting some spell or other when Derfel and his boys are trapped by the Irish, only for a mist to blow in and mask their escape. It is left up to the reader; did Merlin do it or did some mist just naturally occur? This is often how people started believing in magic. I mean, I could do a rain dance and then claim the credit when it pissed down, but in England that won’t hold much water (snigger).

In the Harlequin series, this fantasy element is replaced by a supernatural or celestial aspect, where the main character, Thomas of Hookton, hears the voice of an angel urging him on to good deeds. What’s this, Pilling? The hero of a Cornwell novel, in league with an angel? Aren’t angels generally Christians? Hang on a minute, Thomas of Hookton actually finds the holy grail, doesn’t he? The point is, Cornwell loves to play with this fantasy or supernatural element, and it does give his stories a magical quality, but it doesn’t go so far as to make them far fetched. He very much concentrates on the characters and what drives them, keeping the story real and grounded.

Uhtred: beautful British name

Uhtred: beautful British name

Anyway, on to the main to the main focus of the Saxon Chronicles, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. He’s lovely, isn’t he? Well, no, he sacrificed his dog to Odin. That’s profoundly mental. It would be all over Facebook if someone did that now, we’d be signing petitions and all sorts. But I get David’s point; Uhtred wins every fight, shags all the women and has dazzling wit as well. He’s a bit like me between three and six pints. You might say this isn’t realistic, well maybe not, but on the other hand, somebody had to be like that, didn’t they? Somebody won all the fights. And it is those people all the stories are written about. I don’t want to read a story about a man who is half decent in a fight, is occasionally mildly amusing and hasn’t been laid for a year. If I want that I’ll stick my Al Murray DVD on. No, it’s a story about a Viking warrior, so he’s got to be the hardest, cleverest, most promiscuous bastard the world has ever seen, otherwise I’ll want my money back.

Just one more point on the subject of Uhtred’s invincibility. If a ninth-century Viking warrior loses a fight, he’s generally brown bread, right? The Saxon Chronicles are written from the first person perspective, so it’s sort of a necessity to keep the main character alive. If Uhtred had died in his first fight, the series would have been a lot shorter. I suppose you would be happy then, wouldn’t you, Pilling?

The only reason I ever read historical fiction is because I was recommended Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles as a teenager. It was a brilliant interpretation of who the true Arthur might have been. It brought the myth into reality by putting Arthur in the shoes of a real man. Not a king but a ‘Warlord’ striving to halt the Saxon invasion. Cornwell makes historical fiction accessible. Of course we should be wary of inaccurate history lessons (don’t get me started on the national curriculum) and not be swayed by hidden agendas that may lie behind an author’s words. But any author who opens up a genre to readers who might normally shy away, and does it with such aplomb, should be applauded. Let’s face it, we’ll never completely agree on history, that’s what makes it so interesting.

Interview: David Pilling – co-author of Epic Fantasy The Best Weapon

Epic Fantasy The Best Weapon

Today we release our epic fantasy novel, The Best Weapon, on paperback and kindle. To mark the occasion I interviewed my co-author David Pilling.

I asked him about his character, Archpriest Flambard, The Best Weapon and The World Apparent (the fantasy world in which the story takes place) in general.

Below the interview is a link to my answers to his questions on his blog.

1) What was your inspiration for the character of Archpriest Flambard?

He’s a mixture of Cardinal Wolsey, Jabba the Hutt and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, as well as various bits and pieces dropped straight from my imagination. I wanted to portray a sly, Machiavellian, physically grotesque man who made the world around him dance like a puppet on a string.

At the same time I didn’t want him to be entirely unsympathetic. He is, at bottom, a human being who believes he is doing the best for the realm he is sworn to protect, including the sacrifice of his own desires. By the end of the story – if I’ve done my job properly – the reader should feel at least a sliver of sympathy for him.

Archpriest Flambard by Zennor Matthews

Archpriest Flambard by Zennor Matthews

2) What would you think of him if you knew him?

I would probably think ‘My God, what an appalling bastard’ and take pains to get away from him as fast as possible! Flambard is a dangerous man to be around. He tends to see other people as tools, to be used and disposed of as he sees fit. It’s impossible to be his friend, though occasionally someone makes the mistake of trying.

3) Do you think it is important that a writer always empathises with their characters, even the villains?

Yes. Otherwise they are just cardboard cut-outs, and of no interest (unless you make them funny). The reason a character like Darth Vader lodges in the public imagination is because of his striking physical appearance and enigmatic character – he was good once, now he’s black as sin, but can he be turned back again? The same with Long John Silver, a murderous pirate who readers are initially supposed to hate, but nevertheless charming and not completely devoid of scruples. A character with no chance of redemption, however slight, instantly becomes less interesting because it’s almost impossible to empathise.

4) What are your thoughts on good and evil characters? Can anyone ever be all good or all bad? Can they change from one to the other?

I’m not sure if a character can be plausibly depicted as entirely good – everyone has a dark side, whether or not they care to admit it. It’s possible for someone to be entirely bad, especially if they have convinced themselves that they do bad things for the benefit of others. The obvious example is Hitler, who committed all kinds of evils in the belief that it was all for the greater good of his country. Flambard is similar in that respect: he is entirely ruthless and there is nothing, literally nothing, he won’t do in defence of the state. At the same time he’s no coward or hypocrite, and demands the same levels of absolute loyalty and self-sacrifice from himself that he demands of others.

5) Archpriest Flambard lives in a society similar to real life medieval Europe. How important is it to consider real life history when creating a fantasy culture?

Speaking for myself, I found it important because my first love is history, and it was only natural that I should draw much of my inspiration from the same source. I usually write historical fiction, and it was fun not to have to check my facts all the time, and to cherry-pick what I liked from different historical periods. In general I don’t think its terribly important to consider or draw from history when creating a work of fantasy: the most important thing is the creation, whether you have managed to depict a living, breathing universe, rather than where you get your ideas from.

6) In The Best Weapon, we only see a small part of The World Apparent. Will later books explore the world further, and what can we expect to discover?

They will indeed. The sequel, The Path of Sorrow, explores a land to the west named Temeria, which has a bit of an Ancient Assyrian/Byzantine feel to it. Future installments will ‘fill in’ other spaces on the map. There is the potential for setting entirely separate tales inside the same world – much like Robin Hobb does in her Realm of the Elderlings series.

The World Apparent

The World Apparent

 

7) What do you hope to achieve in terms of your own development as a writer when you write a novel?

To write something that is an improvement or progression from the last book. I’m not sure I always manage it, but it’s the effort that counts…(probably)…

8) What are your writing plans for the immediate future?

Busy busy busy. I plan to release new editions of Book Two and Three of my series The White Hawk (set during The Wars of the Roses), a new edition of the sequel to Folville’s Law (the first book I ever had published back in 2012), and the sequel to The Best Weapon. I’m also working on Book Four of my Leader of Battles series (an Arthurian saga set during the Dark Ages) and am toying with ideas for a belated sequel to The Half-Hanged Man (a novel about medieval mercenaries set during the 14th century). As well as various other projects. So there’s plenty to keep me going!

* * * *

You can keep up with David’s work by following his blog: Pilling’s Writing Corner. You can also check us out at the Bolton and Pilling Fantasy Fiction Facebook page.

Click here to read my interview on David’s blog

Sorrow Part 13: The Sack of Hasan – latest in the epic fantasy series

Fantasy Sorrow Part 13: The Sack of Hasan

Between life and death, there lies but a heartbeat.

Sorrow Part 13: The Sack of Hasan is scheduled for release by Musa Publishing on 3rd January 2014. The sixteen part series is almost at an end, and the plot is nearing its climax.

Colken reluctantly takes charge of the mercenaries once commanded by the Gray Man and continues his journey towards the High Places. Hoshea, the self-proclaimed Protector, leads his army out of Hasan. His intention is to defeat the High Bloods and unite Temeria, but he has an ulterior motive known only to his shadowy acolytes and a certain demon. Meanwhile, Captain Wade smells an opportunity too good to pass up…

Excerpt

Captain Wade sat in his cabin, casually casting his eye over a battered nautical map. A long, elegant cigarette holder hung lazily from his pale, well-manicured fingers. A wisp of sweet smoke curled about his head, shining brightly in the sunlight pouring through the cabin window.

“Landfall is but a heartbeat away, Erlo, but a heartbeat.”

Erlo stood on a chair opposite Wade’s desk and passively gazed at the map showing the eastern coast of Temeria. As usual, the dwarf was silent.

“Soon we shall drop anchor just off-shore, a short distance from Hasan. If our increasingly erratic employer is correct, and I hope she is, Erlo, the city will have but a small garrison. The vast majority of the city’s army has left on this insane quest to find a child. Such insanity seems to have infected everyone, Erlo, but not me, not me.”

He paused to suck deeply on his cigarette. “I’m still unclear as to the reasons why everyone wants this Sorrow creature, Erlo,” he went on. “But I do know one thing. Whatever the reason, her desire for him has driven the Raven Queen even deeper into her particular brand of dementia. Whatever unimaginable properties this child possesses, they are enough to have Knights of the Temple coming all the way from the Winter Realm in a boat full of refugees, and enough to motivate a General to lead his entire army out of a city weakened by siege and civil war. So, naturally, that city is our first stop. We are pirates after all, Erlo, and some good, old-fashioned burning and looting is in order. If anything else, my miniature enigma, it will keep the crew happy for a while. Vile creatures, my crew, brute beasts. I think of them and shudder.”

Wade lounged back in his chair, taking a deep lungful of smoke, then propped his head artfully on one hand as though posing for a portrait which, being a man of not inconsiderable vanity, he had done many times. Unfortunately, none of the portraits he had commissioned had flattered him quite enough, so he had been forced to have the fingers and eyes of the painters removed to prevent them from causing further insult. In the past few years it had proven difficult to find a painter brave or stupid enough to put brush to canvas for him. At least not one who had eyes or fingers, which he considered essential for the job.

Erlo stood and watched his master, his tiny, beady eyes hardly blinking, like a murderous doll.

“They need a taste of blood and booty to butter them up a bit before our little jaunt inland. We can’t have them mutinying now, can we, Erlo?”

At that moment they heard Gristle’s rasping bellow from the crow’s nest, which was a fitting place for a man with such a voice. He had spotted land to larboard and his voice could be heard all over the ship from port to stern.

Wade slowly exhaled a thick cloud of smoke, hiding his head behind its haze, and smiled.

“But a heartbeat, Erlo.”

Cyber Monday – Get Fantasy The Best Weapon Half Price

Half Price Fantasy Fiction at Musa Publishing

Half Price Fantasy Fiction at Musa Publishing

Tomorrow is (02/12/2013) is Cyber Monday at Musa Publishing. Check out the website to get any publication, including epic fantasy The Best Weapon and the Sorrow series, HALF PRICE. This offer is on for one day only, and all Musa Publications are half price, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to get half price Christmas presents for fantasy fiction lovers.

Cyber Monday also marks the first day of the Thirteen Days to Christmas promotion. The release schedule of the 13 Days Free Reads is as follows:

The Silence of Reza by IJ Sarfeh 02/12

The Break-In by Carrie Russell 02/12

Christmas Crossroad By Viki Lyn 02/12

Out of Magic by CD Coffeit 03/12

Boughs of Halle by Holley Trent 04/12

Medusa by Kaitlin Bevis 05/12

The Terrible Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith 06/12

Jump by Shannon LC Cate 07/12

War Crimes by Jennifer Povey 08/12

Dream Stealer by HL Carpenter 09/12

The Last Stage by Nicky Penttila 10/12

Looking for Home by Lyn Rae 11/12

Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Devin Hodgins 12/12

Sweet Revenge by Liese Sherwood-Fabre 13/12

Marisa Becoming Fourteen by Kadee McDonald 14/12

The Smartest Fish In The Ocean by Heather Lockman 15/12

The Wicked Duke and the Yuletide Gift by Emma Lane 15/12

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.

Sorrow Part 11: The High Bloods – Latest in the Epic Fantasy Series

Fantasy Sorrow Part 11: The High Bloods

“To find the truth, seek the High Places.”

Sorrow Part 11: The High Bloods is now available from Musa Publishing. Here is a brief synopsis and an excerpt.

An uneasy peace has descended over the World Apparent. The Winter Realm and the Old Kingdom are recovering from the cataclysmic events of the Twelfth Reconquest, while in the south, the Djanki and the Sharib retreat to lick their wounds from the battle at Temple Rock. To the east, the divided Empire of Temeria is nearing the end of a long civil war, in which rival Generals have fought like mad dogs to seize the long-vacant Imperial Throne.

Sorrow leads Bail into the mountains in search of an ancient relic, escorted by the savage tribe who dwell there. Colken’s path leads him onto higher ground where he is met by someone, or something, unexpected. Meanwhile the infamous pirate, Captain Wade, has a meeting with the Raven Queen that could go either way…

Excerpt:

Up, and further up. The Heartstones had been buried somewhere in the highest, remotest, and most inaccessible regions of the High Places, above the snow line, where even the mountain goats and snow lynxes preferred not to tread.

“It couldn’t be easy, could it?” panted Bail, though he knew it was folly to waste breath. The air was becoming lethally thin, and his lungs burned with the mere effort of expanding and contracting.

For the third time that morning he stopped and leaned against a handy tree for support. He closed his eyes, fighting against the pains in his chest and preferring not to see the contempt of his companions.

Amkur Beg had sent eight of his best warriors to accompany Bail and Sorrow on their quest for the Heartstones. Tall, rangy, lean ruffians in gray robes and goatskins with long hooked knives stuffed into their belts. They chewed and spat and scratched themselves, careless and leaning on their spears like negligent sentries after too many illicit brandies.

“These are the best I have,” said Amkur, “and will see thee safe. I cannot give more, for greater numbers might attract the attention of the other clans.”

Bail could not argue with that, and Sorrow said nothing. The boy had been very quiet since coming to the tower, watching events unfold with his bland, owlish expression. Bail was convinced that Sorrow was capable of sorcery, especially since Amkur had nearly choked to death at such an opportune moment. Bail had always felt uncomfortable in Sorrow’s presence, which was one reason he had tried to sell the boy into slavery.

Thus he set out from the tower in an uneasy state of mind, troubled by fear of knives in the dark and magical fingers clutching at his throat. A suspicious and vengeful character himself, he had no doubt that both Sadaf and Sorrow wanted to exact revenge on him, and would do so at the earliest opportunity.

“We must push on,” insisted a familiar childlike voice. Bail opened his eyes and looked wearily down at Sorrow. The boy didn’t seem affected by the altitude, and in the three days since they left the tower he had kept up a steady uncomplaining pace that impressed even the hard-bitten clansmen. By contrast, Bail feared he would soon have to be carried, even though such an admission of weakness would destroy any respect the High Bloods had for him.

Had he more energy, he would have snapped back a retort. As it was, he played for time by admiring the view. Below him the broken ground dipped steeply, leading precipitously into the heavily misted forests the party had spent days climbing out of. Rows of lesser peaks spread out far to the south, putting Bail in mind of jagged teeth or the spine of some monstrous skeleton, and brooding giants dominated the central mountain range. Green forests clung to the lower slopes of these ageless peaks like mossy growths of beard, and layers of snow and ice crystals shimmered at their peaks.

“Come, we have no time to stop and stare,” Sorrow said irritably, plucking at the hem of Bail’s jacket. The boy trotted away, clambering up the loose shale and pebbles as nimbly as a mountain goat. Sadaf and his warriors followed in silence, though one or two glanced sideways at Bail. He took a moment longer to gather himself for another effort, and then trudged after them, sucking in lungfuls of the thin air and breathing slowly.

“Three days,” Bail managed to croak. “Three days. That is all I give you.”