My 24th novel is due to be published soon. It’s an epic fantasy, a bit of swords-and-sorcery with, I hope, an original slant. It’s called NAVARIN, THUNDER AND SHADE and it opens as follows:
The wizard was dead by the time they got there. He had put up a good fight; it was the green and purple blasts from his hands that had drawn them to the scene, the deadly flashes lighting up the woods and the evening sky like one of the Duke’s beloved fireworks displays.
Broad inspected the wizard’s assailants – what was left of them – ragtag outlaws sprawled in a ring around the deceased magician. “He killed the lot,” he said, grimacing at the twisted remains. The attackers were contorted and scorched as though they had been hit by forceful fire.
“There’s not a mark on him,” said Shade. “They didn’t get near him. Didn’t get the chance.”
Broad raised a quizzical eyebrow; there was no need to give voice to the question.
“What killed him?” Shade said it for him. “Exhaustion, I’d say. Must have used all his energy fighting off these rascals. He just ran out of life.”
“Poor chap,” said Broad. “I wonder why he just didn’t turn them into frogs or something. Why did he obliterate them?”
“They don’t do that frog thing really,” said Shade. “Perhaps he was protecting something. Something these fellows were after.”
“So it wasn’t a random attack in the forest?”
“You know I don’t believe in random,” said Shade. He gestured to the nearest outlaw corpse. Beneath the grime and tatters glinted the armour and insignia of the Duke’s men. Broad gaped; Shade was always the first to pick up on these things. “Have a look in his poke.”
Broad approached the body and stooped over it, one hand on the hilt of his sword, just in case. The wizard was half-lying on the shapeless sack, his fingers clutching it, bunching the neck. Broad had quite a wrestling match on his hands before he could free the bag and peer inside.
“Nothing.” He sounded disappointed.
“Well, this is a waste of time,” said Shade. “I’d stamp my foot if I could.”
Broad glanced at his strange companion. It was true: Shade was fading fast, was hardly corporeal at all. He was like smoke in the shape of a man, and the smoke was thinning, becoming transparent. Broad could make out the stripes of the tree trunks behind him. “And there’s nothing for you…”
Shade managed to shake his head. “We were too late. He was long gone.”
Too late to save the wizard. Too late for Shade to feed.
Broad sprang up and did a quick tour of the outlaws. He found one slumped against the trunk of an oak, with breath still rasping through a hole where his throat used to be. “Here’s one!” he cried. “He might be enough for a snack.”
Shade floated over as though wafted by a breeze. Broad turned his back and walked off; it made him uncomfortable whenever his companion fed. But we all have to eat.
“Just don’t make that sucking noise,” he pleaded without turning around.
“I don’t suck,” Shade was indignant. He swooped over the dying man.
“Matter of opinion,” Broad muttered. He tried to think of something else while Shade replenished himself. He was being ungenerous; he knew that. If it was not for Shade, Broad would have died many years ago, but would death have been worse than being joined to the weird creature for the rest of his days? Sometimes, Broad thought it might not.
“Hurrah!” cried Shade, turning cartwheels across the clearing. He bounced around, full of vim and vigour until a baleful look from his human companion prompted him to contain himself. He was always the same after a feed, so full of life. “His name was Jolf,” he reported. “He was in the Duke’s guard and was going to ask somebody called Rosahild to marry him. Well, I guess that’s never going to happen.”
“What else? Was he in the know, this Jolf? Why was a pack of guards disguised as outlaws and attacking a wizard?”
Shade shrugged. “Jolf was along to make up the numbers, to add a bit of muscle. He wasn’t party to the finer details.”
Broad surveyed the scene again. Finer details. Absolute bloody shambles, more like, with emphasis on the bloody. The Duke was renowned for, among other things, his hatred of wizardry. Was that behind this attack gone wrong? Or was that the intended result, the death of the magician? Or was there something else?
“You’re thinking again,” Shade teased. “I can tell. You get that crease in your brow.”
Broad swatted at him and the backs of his fingers came into contact with something like lumpy fog. Shade was always more solid after a feed. He struck a pose.
“Yes, yes, muscles, you said,” said Broad. “Very nice.”
Shade stuck out his tongue. “They won’t last, I know. Not like yours, Mister Carcass of Beef.”
But Broad did not want to be drawn into one of Shade’s bickering matches. He walked away so he could look back at the scene from a distance and try to take it all in as a whole, to picture the way it might have played out. The wizard had been surprised. Surrounded. These two blocked the path in front, those two must have crept up behind. These four must have dropped out of the trees…
“We should get moving,” Shade advised. “While it’s still dark and I’ve got my strength – well, technically speaking, good buddy Jolf’s strength.”
“Shouldn’t we bury them first?” asked Broad. “The wizard at least.”
Shade pulled a face. His features were temporarily those of the late guard Jolf. “Waste of time. Let the wolves have them for supper.”
“Doesn’t seem right,” said Broad. “Doesn’t seem respectful.”
Shade let out a long-suffering sigh. Humans and their ways. “You’re too squeamish about your dead,” he scolded. “They are gone, all gone. What’s left is just meat. Honestly. Let the wolves benefit not the worms.”
“But someone should say something, at least.”
“What? Like don’t come back and haunt us? Don’t get up again? It’s hollow superstition; I keep telling you. Dead is dead is dead.”
A howl, not as far off as Broad would have liked, settled the matter. They would get moving to avoid being an entrée for the banquet that lay waiting for the wolves. Instead, thought Broad, we shall be more of a running buffet.
He paused to retrieve the wizard’s poke and, murmuring apologies, hurried after Shade who, with Jolf’s long strides, was already some distance ahead.