Richard Nell is a hugely popular self-published dark fantasy author. His Ash and Sand series, which begins with the critically acclaimed Kings of Paradise, has been a huge hit and is currently approaching 700 ratings on Goodreads with an average score of 4.3/5. Richard kindly sent us a sample chapter from The God King’s Legacy, a contestant in this year’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off contest. I hope you all enjoy.
The God King’s Legacy
Celeste was gone when Lamorak kicked the door and growled.
“Get up, and wake the men.”
Johann grunted but stayed in bed long enough to smell her scent on his sheets, pillows and skin, then rose to the pre-dawn gloom. After brief hesitation he packed away his apprentice robes, setting aside the lighter and more comfortable uniform of a Fort Tyne Regular. He set his inks, quills and needles on top, wrapping them in the heavy fabric before finding space for books, drawings, and finally his pistol.
“Are you afraid?”
Celeste had trailed the ink and tender flesh with her finger as they lay in their first post-coital glow the night before.
“The creature I mean to capture is within my strength,” Johann said, as if unconcerned, but really thinking yes, I’m terrified.
He’d felt her eyes on him, so he’d smiled. “Anyway, I could die in battle, or to one of Lamorak’s rages, and then I need not worry at all.”
She’d smiled back and drawn closer, as if for protection and comfort. But as he draped an arm around her shoulders, he’d wondered who was comforting who.
“Hurry the hell up.”
Johann jumped as Lamorak kicked the door again. He pulled the tie to close his bag, tossed it onto his back, and grasped his gun.
He found the knight fully dressed in traveling clothes outside his room, already chewing old bread and greasy chicken at the dining table. He looked up, and winked his milky eye, and Johann saw the good one was red and bleary, as if he hadn’t slept.
“First, the men, then eat your fill. You’ll need the strength.”
With a nod Johann obeyed and walked through the empty hall and corridor, using a candle to light his path. He shouted into the barracks first, then walked through counting to make sure every man roused.
“Where is Hagan?”
He found one bed empty, and knew the men well enough now to know who was missing. Hagan’s bunkmates glanced and shrugged, seemingly not concerned or interested.
“Stow your gear and muster in the courtyard. We collect water and rations and then march. Understood?”
The verbal salute rose sleepily down the line, and Johann wondered in amazement again that suddenly he was a ‘sergeant’.
God damn Scribery. God damn Lamorak.
But he smiled a little as he walked back to the courtyard, which was now dimly lit by a rising dawn. His pace slowed as his mind wandered to logistics and the journey ahead. The carts can bear most of the water, powder and shot, but perhaps I should have the men carry extra ammo.
Also he didn’t really know if they would stick to roads, or if they had to cross fields or woods. Perhaps they couldn’t even bring the damn carts at a certain point, so the men should carry most of the ammo.
Dark shapes flickered and mixed with Johann’s shadow to disturb his thoughts. He squinted and idly glanced up, then stopped walking. He saw the feet, first. Soldier’s boots, dangling beneath the swaying corpse of a young man.
The soldier still wore the blue and silver of the king, the colors more vivid next to the paleness of his dead skin. He sagged from the fort’s rampart, nailed to a wooden beam, his purple neck signaling he’d been hung, first. It was Hagan.
Johann lowered his eyes and ran inside the fort. A few servants tried to greet him with polite bows, but soon leapt aside when he said nothing and stomped past.
“Lamorak!” He wasn’t sure if he meant to warn, or accuse. The main entrance flew by unnoticed, and Johann soon stood in the guest wing with fists at his side.
He found the knight still seated, belching loudly as he drank what Johann hoped was water. Something in the knight’s eyes brought a swift and sober dose of calm, and Johann’s feet slowed as he clacked the last few steps over the tile.
“Have you seen Private Hagan, Sir?”
Lamorak set down his cup and sniffed.
“I strung him up.”
“May I ask his crime?”
The knight’s face remained frighteningly impassive.
“Private Hagan was caught last night attempting to leave the fort. He was therefore either a deserter, or a spy.”
“Was either? You don’t know which? And for this he was killed and hung on a stake like a bloody scarecrow?”
Lamorak smirked, which did not help.
“Yes, a scarecrow for traitors. Very good.”
“And you think this will be good for morale, do you? On the first morning of our march?”
“Let me worry on morale. It needn’t concern you.”
“You’re the one who made me their defacto quartermaster, their defacto sergeant. Isn’t that my bloody job?”
“Yes fine and you’re doing admirably. In fact I’d say you’re a natural, which I fully intend to say in my report. Now shut your God damn mouth, and go do your job.”
Johann straightened, feeling slapped. “I fully intend to.” He paused to regain control over his emotions, and wondered when and why the hell he’d considered anything except capturing Sazeal his job. “In future, if you’re going to hang my men without trial, I would at least like to be informed.”
“It happened quickly.” The knight rose and wiped grease from his face with a sleeve. “Besides,” he showed his yellow teeth as he met Johann’s eyes, “I came to tell you. You were…busy. I chose to let you sleep, undisturbed. Was I wrong?”
Johann swallowed as his face burned. He shook his head weakly.
“Good. Now sit and eat something, and put a big stupid grin on your face for the men. Then we march.”
* * *
Before they’d left the fort, a small wagon train with two carts and four horses had arrived and waited at the gate. Lamorak stepped out and spoke to the old, haggard looking driver with a toothpick dangling from his dry lip.
“This is Mr. Whitworth,” he’d said, after shaking the man’s hand and returning. “He’s concerned about an ambush from the Militia, so we’ll escort him and his sons on our way.’
Johann hadn’t bothered to ask any questions. He was still sore over Hagan, and in any case didn’t expect a straight answer. Now he marched in line with the men carrying his heavy arquebus on a sling, fifty pounds of gear slowly bending his back like a stalk of wheat in the wind. He squinted a glare at the unseasonally blistering spring sun, then back towards the small caravan.
Lamorak rode beside it speaking with the driver. The two men laughed like old friends, which for whatever reason wore on Johann’s nerves.
“Some kind of side deal, you figure?” The always-nosy Private Taylor had apparently noticed the direction of Johann’s eyes. “A little of the ‘king’s protection’, eh? For a few crowns?”
Johann knew he should immediately reject this. But he stared hard at the knight and decided it entirely feasible. In fact, Lamorak seemed perfectly capable of anything—whether some utterly selfless and noble deed, or something entirely base and vile.
He’s a wolf garbed in chivalry, he thought. And yet he seems loyal, and mostly on the balance good, and retains the king’s colors and trust.
How strange life was.
After a few hours of marching Johann glanced longingly at his horse, which he’d offered up to help tug supplies. The move hadn’t been entirely selfless, if he was honest, since his hatred for riding remained as strong as ever. But his hatred of marching grew by the moment.
Finished at last with his fits of coughing and laughing next to his new merchant friend, Lamorak clicked his warhorse forward to walk near Johann at the front of the men. He spoke loudly.
“So can the wench still walk this morning? Or will she need the day to recover?”
The men glanced at each other, a few smirks forming on confused faces. Johann’s mind seemed to blank entirely, his legs only marching from sheer, monotonous practice.
He makes it public? Now? And dares to call her ladyship wench?
He felt his hand twitch, as if in some madness seeking his gun.
“Oh leave off, brother. The serving wench, whoever she was. You can tell us.”
Lamorak raised a conspiratorial brow, and seemed to mistake Johann’s blinding rage for something coy. He raised his voice so more men could hear.
“Twenty years of untapped lust in a tower. Last night I expect our scribe here broke the poor girl in half.”
The men raised a general roar of approval, and Johann bore the few backslaps and shoulder shakes because he had no choice. He said nothing, and when the men silenced as if waiting for a speech, he cleared his throat.
They howled again, louder and longer, as if they’d heard some bawdy punchline. He walked on in silence.
* * *
By dusk the men had set up barricades with wood and sandbags, camping as ordered on the slight curve of the road-side hill. They’d kept their fires low and mostly hidden by a ring of men’s backs, but still the party wasn’t exactly quiet. Their voices murmured and their knives and spoons clattered on bowls, but as night drew and no threat appeared, they grew less concerned in the gloom.
“Johann, Williams, scouts, with me.”
Lamorak had said little as the men went to their rest, but now he leaned like a dog on the hunt, and pointed at the trees.
Johann followed with his eyes and saw three figures had emerged from the near-by woods. They had clearly come forward a ways before noticing the camp. Now they were frozen like scared rabbits with a predator in sight.
The knight turned and leapt to his charger’s back. Johann and what few scouts they had scrambled for the nearest horses, which were unhooked from their burdens but as yet unsaddled.
A panicked burst of strength let Johann leap easily to the beast’s back, and without thinking he yanked on its mane and kicked its side, steering to follow the red dust rising behind Lamorak’s charge.
“Planck, right, Williams left,” Lamorak called. “There’s three of them. None escape until we know who they are.”
Johann had to turn his mount only with his thighs, but the animal seemed to understand, and seemed also to feel the urgent panic of its rider. As the now cool night wind rushed like a gale over Johann’s ears and hair, for a moment he thought the horse grew wings.
He clung desperately with clenched hands and squeezed legs as it snorted and raced down the slope towards the trees. He felt a thrill of fear, and in the last moments before it rushed into the woods, he prayed it could see the trunks clearer than he.
“Stop, or die, in the name of the king!”
The sound of Lamorak’s call and warhorse echoed like voices in an empty hall, reverberating through the trees. Johann meant to join his voice to it, and tried, then nearly flew from his mount.
A tree branch lashed across his face, the pain sharp against his cheek and half-open lips. He kept from calling out then focused every ounce of will to secure his hold, daring a glance up only after.
In a frozen moment, he looked and observed the wide, panicked eyes of a man-shaped figure, its arms raised. Then it slammed against the flank of his mount.
The man cried out and bounced away with a terrible thud, and Johann’s mount slid across the moist dirt and leaves. It nearly fell, then reared, promptly tossing Johann from its back.
Stars swirled above him in the red streaked blackness, and he rose slowly, and cautiously, testing each limb. When he found his feet and thanked God his body hadn’t been shattered, he staggered to the fallen silhouette of a cloak-wrapped body laying prone in the dirt.
“Are you alright? Who are you?”
Johann reached to his belt for a weapon, realizing now he hadn’t taken so much as a knife. He stood still and panted as he clutched his aching side, still debating what to do as Lamorak and the scouts dragged two more figures into the tiny clearing.
The knight dismounted, glancing briefly at Johann and around the trees.
“You’ve lost your horse.”
He didn’t smile, but Johann knew him well enough now to see the amusement in his eyes.
“We had a minor disagreement.”
Lamorak nodded and threw back his prisoner’s hood before tossing him to the ground, the scouts instantly doing the same.
“We ain’t doing no ‘arm, sir, please, don’t kill us.”
The almost feminine voice held a pitiful whine, and Johann blinked and stared at the total lack of whiskers on either face. He soon realized they were only boys of maybe eleven, or twelve.
Lamorak didn’t seem to notice, or perhaps care. He drew his sword and stepped forward, laying the naked steel on the boy’s shoulder.
“Kill you? Why should I kill you? What are you doing out in these trees in the middle of the night?”
“Please, please.” The boy’s face paled, his wide eyes reflecting the moon. “We won’t tell no one you were ‘ere, we swears it.”
At this the knight glanced at Johann, his jaw clenched, his eyes hard.
“Tell? And who would you tell, boy?”
While he spoke he knelt and checked the child Johann’s horse had rammed, flipping him to his back.
Even in the dark Johann saw blood smeared across the young face. He could hear the slight wheezing as the unconscious boy drew difficult breath.
“Nobody, sir, ‘ain’t nobody to tell, I mean, and I wouldn’t.”
Lamorak propped the unconscious boy against a tree, then without a word or a pause, he ran him through. A gurgled last choke escaped the boy’s lungs, and Johann jerked involuntarily, staring as the boy died. He felt a sudden numbness.
“I know you serve the militia. It’s alright. Are there more of you? More of you out in these trees?”
The boy stared at the corpse of his companion. “N-no, sir. I mean we don’t, sir, and ain’t no more of us. I swear.”
Lamorak nodded, then smiled sadly, like a father punishing his rebellious son. “Good lad. It’s alright. Look away now, or close your eyes.”
He seized the prisoner firmly, but gently, and the boy nodded and cried out as Lamorak pierced his chest with the bloody blade. They stayed there, almost embracing, as the child died.
“And you?” Lamorak looked to the last boy, who trembled and clutched the corpse beside him like driftwood in the sea. “Anything to add?”
The survivor swallowed, then spit in the dirt. “Long live the patriots.”
Lamorak nodded, then in one swift motion drove his blade through the boy’s chest.
All the while, Johann and the scouts stood perfectly still. Finished now, the knight paused and breathed the night air, and for a moment it seemed as if time froze in the clearing.
“They were children,” Johann finally whispered. He couldn’t seem to stop himself from shaking.
“Yes, children, and soldiers, and traitors.” Lamorak planted his bloody sword tip in the earth as he looked at the scouts. “Well done, gentlemen. Find the sergeant’s horse and return to camp. Tell the others the enemy scouts are slain. They can rest easy tonight.”
“Sir.” The scout blinked and tore his eyes from the bodies with a brief salute, then moved into the trees. When he’d gone, Johann met the knight’s eyes.
“You call this the king’s justice? This?” He pointed. “The slaughter of children?”
Lamorak surged instantly forward, face twisting with sudden rage. He seized Johann’s tunic and shook him, painfully tugging the fabric before he held him tight.
“I didn’t make him a soldier, did I? You’re all children. All of you. You’ve no idea how your world was forged, no understanding of loyalty, or honor, or knowledge of what your king gives you, what he bears for you. And I would murder ten thousand, a hundred thousand, to preserve this kingdom, this paradise, now rejected by those living like spoiled brats within. Do you understand me? Can you possibly?”
The knight gasped and released him, wild eyes blinking as they regained focus. Johann said nothing and stood perfectly still. He felt as if the knight could truly kill him. But when Lamorak spoke again, his voice had calmed.
“This is not a story in one of your books, Johann. In this world the strong gnash at one another with bared teeth. They twist and use and devour the weak, and justice is an endless war that can’t be won.” He sighed. “Tomorrow you and I will take our host of young men to slaughter another, and the old lords who roused them will sit in their castles and plot again. That is the truth.”
He took a deep breath and stepped away.
“Now get back on your fucking horse. Ride back to our men, and say we got the bastards trying to kill them. Show them their officers are keen-eyed killers, and all is well, and maybe a few will find their rest tonight. Understood, Sergeant?”
Johann stiffened, unable to quite wipe the sneer from his face, though deep down he wished he could. He raised his hand to his chest and clicked his boots in the formal salute of a Keevish soldier.
“Yes sir, perfectly, sir.”