Having picked The Court of Broken Knives as my favourite grimdark book of 2017, I’ve been absolutely itching to share this excerpt with you. The Tower of Living and Dying looks to showcase yet more of Smith-Spark’s beautiful prose and breakneck storytelling speed. I cannot wait to get my ARC of this book!
If you haven’t yet, jump on over to our facebook page and you will be in with the chance to win one of a stack of free hardcover books!
The Tower of Living and Dying
Swords ready. The sound of the waves slapping against the hull. Drumming. Gulls.
Oh fuck, Tobias thought, watching the line of ships grow nearer. Tiothlyn’s ships were moving towards them, the same black ships with red painted staring eyes. The drums coming up from them also, the same dull beat to keep the oarsmen steady, loud over the water calling the oarsmen to their work. The only sound they could hear in the world. The dark water between the two lines narrowed. Trumpets began to blow in the ships and on the shore. Trying to frighten the other side off. But there was nowhere for either other side to go. The town, and the cliffs, and the sea.
In the sea things were beginning to move and surface, drawn by the drums.
A flurry of arrows from the leading ships. Beautiful, like the shuttle of a loom. But too early: they fell short, floating on the water, bobbing on the waves. Tiothlyn’s men jeered. We meant that to happen, we’re just doing this to taunt them. Aren’t we? The figure of the king standing in the prow of the first ship with the sunlight on his silver crown. He is death. He is ruin. He is Amrath reborn. He will be victorious. The dead body of the luck horse, the sky’s offering, hangs from the mast as a sign. The enemy’s ships are fewer. Weaker. Bloody glorious. Bloody victorious. Kill and kill and kill until the water heaves with bleeding. Kill them all! But the arrows float on the water, bobbing on the waves. Sticks. Long green fingers reached and pulled one under, snapped it. Flaccid fucking sticks. We meant to do that. Miss everyone. Didn’t we?
An enemy arrow clattered onto the deck of Tobias’s ship. Hissing. Burning. Green. Fire. Green tendrils rushing across the planks, scouring channels as they went.
Oh gods and demons, not again. Not again. Not a-fucking-gain. ‘Earth! Get earth on it! Now!’ Men ran forward, throwing mud from a barrel. The flames died in a choking sputter, stinking wet smoke for a moment and then gone. Another arrow shot past,
dripping flames. Then a rock. Dripping flames.
Salt-soaked pitch-soaked well-seasoned damp wood is . . . astonishing when it explodes.
Two more rocks: the ship jolted wildly as waves hit it from both sides. Boiling waves. Green waves. On fire waves. The ship’s timbers smelled kind of funny, hot like singed wood. The hull was beginning to smoke.
So, what, King Marith just clean forgot Morr Town had two massive banefire shooting trebuchets set up on the harbour in the entirely unlikely event anyone ever decided to invade an island kingdom by sea?
Or never noticed them?
Thought they were purely decorative?
Patches of green twisted on the water, fighting with it, the sea churning and boiling at this unnatural thing searing into it, fire it cannot quench, steam rising with a hiss of clenched teeth. The ship the rock had hit was sinking almost to the mast top, spewing out steam and fire and dead men. The mast of another ship was burning, crackling and hissing, sparks of salt and the crack of old wood, green and blue flames. Gnawed apart, swaying as the bane- fire tunnelled into its veins.
‘The oarsmen! Aim for the oarsmen!’
Another shower of banefire arrows. Another volley of burning rocks. More frantic scrabbling with mud until the flames died. The burning mast came down, shattering the side of its ship. Still burning. The stricken ship tilted down into the water. Long fine fingers like coiled skin reaching up for it, pulling. Men leapt screaming into the sea, then screamed louder and began frantically trying to crawl back onto the burning ship. The water was stirring. Thrashing about. Something down there. Screams. Men’s arms trying to cling to anything to get out. A whirlpool, and for a moment maybe you saw eyes. A fountain of blood shot up from the water, bits of flesh and bone bobbing. Higher than the masts of the ships. A nasty crack that might be someone’s spine breaking. A sound like the gnashing of giant teeth. A man with another man’s innards floating round his neck, as though some kind soul had thrown him a rope. Actually he did seem to think some kind soul had thrown him a rope, from the way he hung on a moment before he realized what it was and screamed and let go and something pulled him under. Bubbles. Then no bubbles. Then another fountain of blood. Screams.
Still they were pressing slowly forward, another volley of arrows from each side crossing each other in the sky, the sea on fire, voices in the sea laughing. Long fine fingers probing the planks of the hull. The king in his silver crown.
More ships. We’ve still got more ships. Stronger men.
‘The oarsmen! Aim for the oarsmen!’
The two fleets finally came together, the first ships meeting, men screamed and the voices in the water laughed. Ramming each other, swords clashing. Like a cavalry charge, really, Tobias saw then. Two big things driven straight at each other in the desperate hope one breaks. The red eyes of the ships staring at each other, and suddenly the eyes were alive, the ships were dragon things in the water, twisting and fighting, and he saw that the men didn’t control them, the ships were fighting among themselves, taking their crews with them down into the water, enjoying it as they fought. The planks of Tobias’s ship groaned as it surged forward. Came up alongside one of Tiothlyn’s ships, rushing fast towards them, there was a channel between them in the water and then the ships met and men were fighting across the gap trying to board, lashing out with swords, the oars meshing and striking together, each shoving at the other ship, trying to pull it in and push it away. Like a beast with too many legs, scrabbling at itself.
Tobias swung his sword at the figures facing him. Very little art to this with the world moving and the men really too far away to hit. The deck tipped, suddenly he was near enough, got a man on the arm. Blood dripped into the water. A crash as the two ships collided. He was fencing for a moment with the man he’d just injured, up very close, got hit himself on the shoulder leaving a hard pain through his armour, then the ships moved apart again and he was looking across grey water at his opponent, their swords flailing at each other across the gap. Again like a thing with too many legs, like a louse on its back scrabbling.
Maerlk shouted as the ships moved, lost his balance, fell. His head was visible in the churning water. Blood in the water. Long fingers, curling around his legs. Screaming like someone might stop to throw him a rope. The ships came together. He was gone between them, wood closing over him like doors shutting, trying to claw his way up through the hull, buried alive in the dark as he drowned.
‘In oars! Board her!’ The men scrambling across the sides. A crack of wood as an oar was crushed between them, the rest pulled back up into the body of the ship. Tobias leapt and scrambled with the others, got across, picked up fighting again with the man he’d left off before Maerlk died. Brand was across too, pushing hard at an enemy soldier, blood on his face, smiling. Never get involved in amphibious warfare. Never. Never. Never. Just don’t. The bloke Tobias was fighting almost got him in the neck and Tobias moved backwards and whacked his leg on an oar and suddenly he was up against the side of the ship and there really wasn’t anywhere to go that wasn’t either into a sword blade or into the sea. This was not fun fighting. This was fucking nightmare fighting. This was about the worst fighting Tobias could remember, possibly barring the dragon, or the Sorlostian Imperial Palace, or the first battle of Malth Salene, or . . .
Or pretty much anything involving King Marith. The sea was on fire. The ships were on fire. The ships were sinking. The trebu- chets were slinging stones around not really caring which side they hit so long as they hit something so that it died. Men were thrashing about in the water, weighed down by their armour, and you could see the arms reaching round their necks to pull them down. Crunching teeth. Hot blood.
Pretty much anything involving King Marith . . .
The ship jerked and moved of its own accord, swinging round, the ship they had come from wedged into it locked by oars and ropes and dead men’s bodies; for a moment he saw King Marith on his own ship, fighting, shining, his sword flashing silver-white.
Pretty much anything involving King Marith.
The snow was getting heavier, settling on the deck, making it slippery, hissing and steaming where patches of banefire still burned. Can’t see. Snow and smoke and I can’t bloody see. They shouldn’t have engaged us, Tobias thought. Should have just stood back and shot green fire at us until we were all floating in the sea with our skin melting off our faces, nicely cooked. He fought on relentlessly with gritted teeth. Just survive. Just survive. He slipped on the wet wood of the deck, almost fell, got his balance back, killed someone.
The ships looked like wrestlers tussling together. It looked like a tavern brawl, these vast dark shapes gripping, moving, shoving, giving way, coming together again. Cheers and screams one against the other. Impossible to tell who was winning or losing, except that Tobias had a strong sudden feeling that they were losing on this one ship. Brand seemed to be fighting with the wrong hand and his right hand was a mass of blood. Maerlk had drowned lifetimes ago. Lots of other soldiers with them fighting but there seemed to be a lot more trying to fight them off. A bloke called Janis went over the side, one of the enemy’s lot went down too, another two came at Tobias together seeing him as a good dangerous threat. Definitely seemed to be more of them.
This was hard. Getting really fucking hard. He was getting tired, the voyage wearing on him. Hacked and parried and the men he was up against were just better than he was. Maybe not on a good day. Maybe certainly not on a good day, rested and ready on dry land with the confidence of what he was doing at his back. But not after everything else. Not like this here.
Wasn’t thinking all this, not really, not thinking anything except trying to stay alive and to kill the men trying to kill him, but it was squirming around burrowing at the back of his mind, some new kind of release and wondering. Why? Why? Why? Why am I here and why did I want Marith to be king, and why am I doing this? Echoing out to the rhythm of sword strokes, the creak of the ships, the hammer of iron on bronze. A sword got into his arm, bruised him and ripped his armour apart at the elbow, blunting the enemy’s blade but now he was vulnerable in the sword arm that was weaker already from Sorlost. His leg was aching too, giving under the constant movement of the ship that made him slip and work. Not good. Not good. He lashed out, hit one bloke in the shoulder, the bloke went back with a groan looking hurt but the other came again at him seeing his damaged armour and the grey sweat on his face. Not good. Oh fuck. Fuck, fuck. I don’t want to die, Tobias thought. I really don’t want to die.
Wasn’t anywhere else to go that wasn’t either into a sword blade or into the sea.
Do yourself a favour and grab yourself a pre-order of this book. Anna writes the type of grimdark fantasy that you should be reading.