Three men condemned to die: Aldous Weaver, a heretic monk turned sorcerer, imprisoned for accidentally incinerating the leader of his order. Kendrick the Cold, an infamous crusader turned fugitive, is a villain who knows he can never be a hero. Theron Ward, an aristocrat with a penchant for slaughtering monsters, and a legend in his own mind.
When the kingdom of Brynth is threatened by a far greater evil, the unlikely trio must make a choice - seek to escape this land that cries for their execution, or find the true heroes within themselves. And then, armed with fire and sword, march together against the forces of darkness. But can three such disparate warriors ever prevail?
**Fire and Sword is a Shelf Unbound Magazine Notable 100 for 2015**
FIRE & SWORD
A Sword & Sorcery Novel 1
Thy Father’s Will Be Done
The candle flickered, fighting the darkness and the damp of the stone basement where Aldous Weaver hunched over a scarred desk, quill in hand. His fingertips were stained black, black like the sucking mire of woe in the stone basement of his mind. Memories of the darkest kind clawed at the cellar door. He dipped the quill back into the ink, his eyes straining to focus as he wrote.
An honest writer is the most virtuous of heroes; one who lies is the most deplorable of all villains.
Again he dipped the quill.
Those were the most important words I had ever been told. Words that would whisper in the wind as I lay awake and wept in those long nights at the beginning, and from the shadows of my soul the words would echo back. They were the sustenance that I sipped from under the boundless burden of the truth. To write lies that cloak the veracity of what dwells in the abysmal catacombs of the soul of man is a task for politicians and rogues of equivalent wickedness. A task that is tempting with its tantalizing lure to power and control, a task the weaker man will always prefer. To write the truth, to with no more than the oil lamp of one’s own honest intent crawl ever deeper into the black abyss that is humanity, is the gravest of tasks.
These words belonged to my father. He gave them to me the night before they burned him alive.
Aldous paused for a moment to steady his trembling hand. He took a breath and blinked his burning, tired eyes. Then he returned his sword to his foe, returned the quill to the page for the thousandth time, knowing that he would have to do so a thousand times more. Frustration surged.
“Words. They are my only tool, my only weapon, yet they betray me.” Aldous tossed down his quill. “Forever they betray me. This is not honesty.” He glared at the parchment. “This is nothing more than a flowery illusion, masking the scent of the truth. Miserable. Bloody miserable attempt.”
He needed this book, the book he would dedicate to his father, to be perfect. The whole book had to be perfect, yet after a thousand tries, the first page was still nothing.
The fire that gave him light to write his pages was the same fire that could burn them to ash and dust. When he put the edge of the parchment to the candle it caught and burned quickly. He got a glimpse of the last words—they burned him alive—as the flames devoured the sheet.
He remembered as a small child watching men come from far and wide, men who called his father magnificent, brilliant, a writer unsurpassed.
After they burned him, the bastards burned his books. The priests said they were the words of sorcery, and so they must be burned along with the man who wrote them.
That was all ten years ago. Mother took her own life and a seven-year-old Aldous had been given to the church to copy scripture and pray until the day he died. But every day when Father Riker was not looking, Aldous would attempt to write his first page at his desk, a desk notched in the corner from years of dragging his anxious thumbnail across the wood. Aldous liked to think it was notched the way a warrior’s axe was after a thousand battles. He fought his own battles with a quill and black ink, only a faint orange glow from the candle next to him lighting his path.
As of late he’d begun to wonder if his battle at the desk was enough. Could any battle ever be won with the metaphorical sword of the quill, or were all conflicts only solved with the true iron, sharpened and made for killing?
He looked at the candle for a moment. It danced, never tiring, always dancing was that flame. Aldous thought it must have been laughing at him. It shouldn’t have been laughing, though; it had no right to laugh because they were one in the same, Aldous and the flame. Always dancing for another, and never for themselves.
Aldous muttered a curse under his breath.
“Aldous.” He had not heard Father Riker come down the stairs. Father Riker was as quiet as he was old, and the man was bloody ancient. The candle flame jumped in time to the stutter of Aldous’ heart, as if it too were startled. A trick of the eyes, just a flame.
“I pray that was a prayer you just uttered.” The old man’s tone was uneasy, and he fidgeted with his hands as he spoke.
Aldous remembered his first sight of Father Riker, straight-backed, stern, forbidding. He had changed over the years. Every day he seemed to lose a bit of the power he once had. His cheeks had grown hollow and the loose skin of his jowls sagged, his back hunched and his shoulders caved forward. He muttered to himself and darted glances at the shadows. He was melting day by day, in sanity and in flesh.
“Oh, it was, Father Riker, it was certainly a prayer,” Aldous replied, trying to sound as he thought a pious lad should sound.
“To our great God of Light, I do hope so.” Father made the symbol of the Luminescent, closing his eyes and tilting his head upward ever so slightly, and opening his palms to the heavens, the way one would embrace the warmth of the sun.
“Of course, Father Riker, for there is no other god to pray to.” Aldous mirrored the gesture Riker had just made, all the while wondering what sunlight Father hoped to find in this dark basement.
Father Riker grumbled and walked forward to Aldous’ desk so he could inspect the amount of scripture he had copied over the day and evening. Aldous was not sure of the hour, but it was most certainly late, for every other brother had long since been off to their evening prayers and then to bed. Only he and Riker were still awake.
Aldous had not copied much. He accomplished less and less each day, for he was growing restless, and in the few hours he slept, he was haunted by dreams, running from the howling wolves, hiding from the always watching ravens.
He was done being in this church basement, done copying out this indoctrinating drivel called scripture. There had been a time—not right in the beginning, but with the passage of months and years—a time where he found solace in the copying of the words, for the mundane repetition helped him take his mind from all his anger and rage. It helped cool the smoldering fire that was his soul. That time was gone, and again the fire was rising. He did not know what he needed, but it was something other than this basement and the scratching of mindless words on parchment.
Alas, there was nowhere to go. Leaving the church would mean he too would be labeled a sorcerer and suffer the same fate as his father, the same fate as his own discarded pages.
Aldous pressed the fingertips of his right hand hard into the table as he dragged his left thumbnail on the scarred edge of his desk. Leave me alone.
Father Riker remained.
He dragged his thumb with greater agitation, and a sharp pain bloomed. He had torn the nail, so far down it drew blood. Anger surged, at Father Riker, at himself. Heat bit at him, deep in his belly, then his chest and his hands. The surface beneath his fingers grew hot, and he jerked his fingertips away from the table.
There were four marks singed in the wood.
Something flared in him as he stared at the strange marks, a sharp flicker that burgeoned and grew.
Aldous stood and turned around to look at Father Riker, knowing he did not want the man to see the singe marks on the desk.
“Do you hear me, Aldous?” Father asked, his voice shrill. “You are worrying me, and doing so in very dark times. A hunter has been called to our great city of Norburg, for one of the Rata Plaga has been spotted crawling from a sewer in the night. And even now, outside the church, the count’s men water their horses before they set out to arrest that demon, Kendrick the Cold. These are dark times, indeed, and your lack of commitment to the church does worry me.”
Aldous was not sure who Kendrick the Cold was, and he doubted the rats were back, for they had disappeared four years ago with the rest of the plague. And how either of these things had anything to do with Aldous, he did not know, but he did not say so to Riker.
“There are four pages here, Brother Aldous,” the priest said as he loomed over Aldous’ desk and riffled through his day’s work, or lack thereof. “What is it that you do all day, Aldous?”
Aldous took a step forward, meaning to pull out the fifth page he had copied. The priest took a step back and said, “You have been worrying me as of late. You have always worried me, but recently… you frighten me.”
“I frighten you?” Aldous gave a harmless chuckle at this, not understanding what it was he could be doing that anyone would consider frightening. Father Riker recoiled in what Aldous could now see was indeed genuine fear.
“It is true what the other brothers have told me.” Riker backed away more quickly, hands coming up as if to defend himself.
Very much confused, Aldous, too, became frightened. Whatever was happening, it was escalating quickly, like a dream that could not be understood. It was as if he’d entered the scene in a pivotal moment and had not witnessed the introduction.
“What have they told you?” he asked, unable to help the menace in his tone.
“They have seen you tampering with dark energies.” Father Riker’s voice quivered on the last two words.
“Dark energies? I have been tired, Father Riker, that is all. Just tired. I will copy fifty pages tomorrow.” Aldous tried to sound convincing, pacing after Riker, who continued to back away, uttering prayers.
“No,” the priest muttered.
“A hundred, then. I swear to the God of Light, Father. One hundred pages, not a single mistake.”
“It is too late for that, Brother Aldous, too late. The word ‘exclusion’ has been drifting around our church, and I dreaded that such a thing would need to be done, but there seems to be no other choice.”
“I have done nothing wrong, Father. How can there be no other choice than branding me a heretic and forcing me into the wilderness?” he pleaded.
“The truth is in the blood. The blood of your mother. Your father,” the old priest said.
The sensation Aldous had felt earlier came again, stronger, deeper. The fine hairs on his arms and the back of his neck rose as the howl of the beast shivered through him.
“You are out to see me burn,” he said. “You all are. You always have been, since I came here as a boy.” The words tore from him with the spite and loathing of freedom denied, with the growl of the wolf, paw caught in the snare, the hunters closing in. It came from a place beyond anger, a place where fear dies and is reborn as the fury required to live. He felt no fear now, only the kindling of rage. There would be no more reasoning. No more pleading.
His blood was boiling, really boiling. It was hurting. Burning.
The basement lit up. The lanterns on the wall ignited, the candles at the empty desks awakened, and Aldous’ little candle flame kindled into an inferno. Father Riker stood frozen, mouth opening and closing in soundless terror.
In moments, all the candles melted and the many small fires crawled onto the shadow-cloaked desks of the monks who slept on in their pallets upstairs, and with a terrible craving the flames gorged themselves on the scriptures. Aldous looked around the room, horrified. As his horror grew, the fire grew with it.
Riker pointed one twisted finger and squalled, “Demon, demon… Demon!” He fell to his knees and crawled toward the stairs, blinded by smoke and fear.
Aldous, too, went down on his knees, and crawled toward Riker. “I am not a demon. This is not my doing. Please, you must believe me. I have done nothing wrong.”
Riker fell back as Aldous drew near, and, like a crab, clawed and kicked his way backward. The fire closing in all around, he struggled to his feet, coughed on the smoke and stumbled, then regained his balance and clambered up the stairs. Riker looked over his shoulder once, the horror of a doom-stricken deer when it understands that there is no escaping the wolf etching his features.
Aldous went after him. “Please, I’ve done nothing wrong.” It sounded more a threat than an appeal to innocence.
They reached the main chapel, the smoke following Aldous from the basement like a gray cape. Somewhere, a bell rang. The other monks came running.
“Flee, brothers. Flee!” Father Riker cried, in the same voice he used to preach sermons. “Aldous is a demon, a sorcerer, a fiddler of the dark arts. With nothing but his mind, he engulfed the basement and the scriptures in flame!” Despite his strong words, Riker clutched at one of the wooden pews and sagged against it as he turned toward the sound of the front doors being wrenched open. “Enter, men of the count! Enter, seekers! There is a demon within my chapel. Save me from this fiend!”
“I am no fiend!” Aldous cried, looking from the count’s soldiers to the seekers to the priest, then back again.
The brothers held their distance from him, and they, too, began to yell for the count’s men.
“No, it is not true! Brothers, please.” Aldous begged for them to listen; he even began to weep. For all his feelings of wishing to leave this place, to never copy a page of scripture again, he was terrified at being cast out. This was the only home he had known since the death of his father. Yet they turned on him now without a second thought.
“The count’s men and the seekers will have you, Aldous,” Father Riker spat. “You will burn like your father, devil. I regret the day you came to this church!”
Aldous took a final step to Father Riker then. His terror faded and his rage escalated again into a terrible thing such as he had never known. He grabbed hold of the priest’s wrists.
“I have done nothing wrong, and I am no devil,” he yelled in the old priest’s face, spittle flying from his mouth. “My father was no devil, and my mother was no devil!”
Father Riker screamed in agony as Aldous’ spit burned his skin. Aldous looked down, and where he held Riker, the flesh was bubbling and boiling and bursting, the stink of burning skin and muscle heavy and thick. Flame engulfed the priest. Blood, plasma, and flesh dripped off the old man’s bones and streamed onto the floor. He screamed and he screamed as he melted in the smoldering fire that left Aldous untouched.
Half the monks stayed and prayed for divine intervention from their absent god, and the other half ran screaming from the chapel.
The count’s men swarmed through the door. Aldous stood, frozen in place. He felt as if he were outside himself, an observer to the nightmare of a play.
Five men with broad blue hats and long capes marched toward him, words pouring from their lips, eyes locked on his. Aldous felt weak, terribly weak, and collapsed to his knees. He tried to stand, but he could not, and the strange words of the blue-hats turned to a chant, louder and louder. Their eyes began to glow with a deep blue fire. They stared into him; they cooled his boiling blood. He was standing on a frozen lake. He saw a flash of a woman, black hair, pale flesh, a dress of emerald green. The ice cracked beneath him and he fell through into the black, frigid abyss. He could not see as Aldous anymore. From high up and far away he watched his limp body taken. He watched as the raven.