A Swampling King excerpt, because of guilt

Because I never post anything here, and I feel bad about that, here is the first scene of my next book, The Swampling King.  It’ll probably get a few more passes before I’m done the book, so don’t hold me to anything, I just wanted to post something.

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Zerill gripped the handhold that Verik had left in the mountainside and hauled herself above the clinging mist, into a sunlit sky.

The light was hard to take, at first, and she blinked against the harsh whiteness that exploded across her vision.  She resisted the urge to cover her eyes—it was a long fall to the Swamp below, and taking her hands from the cliffside would be foolish until she regained her sight.  Besides, she had experienced this particular blindness before.  She welcomed it.

The sunlight—so much brighter, so much warmer, than the dim luminescence of the witchmoss that grew in the Swamp that it hardly seemed fair to even call both things “light”—was her favorite part of the climb.  Few of her people would agree, she knew.  They feared the sun.  They would tell her that the highlanders’ Sky-God had no mercy for the Abandoned—that his great fiery eye would burn any who ventured into the places above the mist.  But to Zerill it had always seemed that no one could be so cruel, least of all a god.  If he could just see us, he would know that we mean no harm, she thought.  The highlanders may not see it, but surely a god can.  Smiling, she threw her head back to let the light warm her face, and gazed into the strange, brilliant blue that she saw so often in her dreams, and so rarely anytime else.

The gentle tapping of Verik’s boot against the cliff face above stole her attention back, and she glanced up to see her friend peering down at her.  His pale hair and skin—and the grin she knew was stretched across his fine-boned features—were barely visible through her light-blindness, but the large black eyes that their people all shared stood out starkly, two dark spots floating in midair above her head.  He released one hand from its hold and flicked his fingers through a series of signs that Zerill had to squint to follow.  Every time, the same thing.  I should blindfold you when we climb.  We will be seen if we are not quick, and you could stay here for hours.  It was more jest than reprimand; Verik had little of the sternness common to the Makers.  Few others of his Kin—none, really—would have made the climb with her at all.  Not without the Grandmother’s permission.

Zerill held back her laughter at the mockery—an instinct so natural she barely had to try.  Silence was life in the Swamp, but even more so above it, when any Highlander who heard might glance down and see the two of them clinging to the mountain.  It would do no good, she signed back, risking the gesture as her sight began to adjust.  I would still feel the light.  And no one will see us.  Highlanders never look down.

Verik’s fingers moved again.  Fear your sister instead, then.  The longer we take, the angrier she will be.

Zerill let out a near-silent snort of annoyance, but nodded and gestured Verik onwards.  It was not that he was entirely correct—Azlin had forbidden their climb this year, and would be furious no matter how long it took—but thinking about her older sister’s stubbornness had quenched any desire for levity.  Azlin was Grandmother of the Lighteyes, and tended to insist her word be obeyed without question, whatever Zerill’s misgivings might be.  But all she wants to do is hide, and nothing changes without action, Zerill told herself, not for the first time.  We are Lighteyes, not Silent Walkers.  No other Kin will do this.  We must know as much as we can about the highlanders, whether or not Azlin agrees.  Father would have done the same.  She didn’t know that, not really—her father had died in the highlanders’ purges when she was just barely old enough to remember his face.  But it made her feel better to think so.

Above her, Verik reached a hand upwards, felt around briefly for some feature in the cliff that appealed to him, and then dug his hand into the stone.  The solid rock melted and reshaped under his fingers; a moment later he gave a satisfied nod, gripped the new handhold, and pulled himself up to create another.  Zerill followed closely behind, her hands finding purchase in each hold his feet left empty.

Few days passed without some reason to be grateful for Verik and his less-than-strict adherence to the rules of his Kin, but as she ascended the mountain behind him, Zerill gave particularly fervent thanks to her ancestors that he was willing to take this risk with her.  The climb would have been all but impossible without a Maker—the only faces of the mountain left unguarded by the highlanders were the ones they thought truly impossible to scale.  Even with the Deep Art to shape the path, it was dangerous to say the least; without the Art, there would be no entry to the Plateaus whatsoever.

Her arms and legs ached and the hide sack looped over her shoulder felt like a stone weight pulling her from the cliff by the time Verik stopped to gesture again, a little under an hour later.  The overhang is ahead, he signed.  Rest?

Zerill nodded and kept climbing.  She knew the spot he meant; they had stopped there before.  It was little more than a jut in the cliff with a small shelf beneath where they could sit without being seen from above, and the climb to the lowest of the Plateaus’ farmlands from there was not  more than a quarter-hour, but the mountainside grew no less sheer above.  Better to rest here than fall on the way up, she thought.  There was no need to hurry, anyway, despite Verik’s earlier warning; the highlanders’ festival would not start in earnest until late in the day, and she needed the excuse to wear her mask if she was going to walk among them.  Without it, her pale skin and large black eyes would immediately mark her to the highlanders as one of the Abandoned, and the penalty for that—for making them think of the Swamp, for existing at all—was death.

She had nearly reached the ledge when a gust of wind took her by surprise.  There was no wind in the Swamp, and it was easy to forget how strong it could be so high up.  It was just enough to throw her off balance, to make her reaching fingers graze—but not quite catch—the next handhold, and suddenly she was falling.

She had time to shout, the sound tearing from her throat as painfully as a blade. “Verik!”  Even then, with the mist rushing up towards her, it felt wrong to make so much noise.

Verik turned his head, saw her falling, and leaned back from the cliff, one hand stretching towards her, far out of reach.  His face tensed with concentration.

Immediately Zerill knew what he was doing; she turned her eyes downwards to see a knob of stone erupt from the cliff, several yards below.  Her right hand shot out, fingers splayed.  She felt a wrenching pain in her shoulder as her arm took the entire weight of her body—and held.

She didn’t allow herself time to think about how close she had come to death, or to lose her grip; ignoring the pain in her shoulder, she swung herself up to grab on with her other hand.  Only when she had her arms firmly wrapped around the spur of rock did she look up at Verik.

His black eyes were wide with panic, and his fingers moved frantically.  Are you all right?

She didn’t risk taking her hands from the rock, just nodded.

Can you reach a handhold from there?

Glancing at the cliff, she saw that she was within an arm’s length of the recesses Verik had left there.  She nodded again.  “Go,” she said, as loudly as she dared.  “I will follow.”  Best if they reached the overhang soon—she didn’t want him falling too, and she knew that such a large and sudden use of the Deep Art must have taken a great deal out of him.  He hesitated, but nodded when she narrowed her eyes, and started climbing.

She clambered onto the ledge moments after Verik did, her injured shoulder throbbing from the short climb, and sat with her legs hanging over the side.  Though her heart was still pounding, some perverse impulse drove her to lean forward and peer over the edge—to see how far she had almost fallen.  From so far above, the mist-line looked like the ground, flat and grey and stretching away to the horizon in all directions, broken only by the distant silhouettes of the few other mountain peaks close enough to see.  But whatever it looked like, the mist would not have caught her—and it was no short distance to the Swamp below.  This is how the highlanders see it, she thought, as she always did, sitting here.  The Swamp might as well not exist.  All they see is the mist.

Verik tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention, and she smiled at the worry-lines that creased his forehead.

I am fine, she signed—still one handed, even now that her hands were free.  The feel of an empty hand made her reach for the Maker-forged knife at her waist.  Their ancestors had created the sign-speech so that they never needed to let go of their weapons; in the Swamp, being caught unarmed usually meant death, or worse.  Even now she felt naked without her shortspear, though it would only have gotten in the way.

Verik peered at her for a moment, and then let out a long, relieved breath.  My heart nearly stopped, he signed.  Maybe this was not the best idea.

Zerill shook her head vehemently.  We had to come, and we had to come now.  The festival is our only chance.

I suppose so.  Do you think you will find something up there that will appease Azlin?

I don’t know, she replied.  But this is a bad time not to know their plans.  The Deeplings have been more active than usual, and you know they will blame us for it.  And that might mean another purge.

Verik nodded, then flashed a sudden grin, banishing the doubt from his face.  You and I will be lucky if Azlin doesn’t start a purge of her own when we return.  Have you practised your loud-speech?

“You know I have,” Zerill said softly, wincing at the hoarseness in her throat, still sore from shouting.  She could not remember ever speaking that loudly, although she prided herself on her proficiency with the loud-speech, a skill few of the Abandoned possessed.  Though they shared the tongue of the highlanders, most of her people—even her own Kin, the Lighteyes, who were sworn to watch and report on the doings of the mountain-dwellers—relied on signs unless it was absolutely necessary, and even then only used the roughest, simplest terms.  But Zerill practised whispered conversations to herself whenever she felt it was safe to do so.  When she needed them, she wanted to be sure that the words and rhythms of speech were fresh in her mind.  Whatever the rest of her Kin might think, it was their duty to observe the highlanders, and to Zerill it seemed obvious that understanding them better could only help.

Verik did not respond out loud—he had never been as skilled at it as she was.  Instead, he signed, Good.  He smiled teasingly.  I felt the sudden urge to hide myself—you must sound like one of them.

Zerill snorted.  After they’ve had their throats burned by coals, maybe.  But it will have to suffice.

Do you want me to come with you this time?  There was concern in Verik’s eyes now.

Zerill shook her head.  No.  Get me there and then wait here until I return.  Verik’s poor loud-speech would only raise suspicion, and he would be no use as protection—the Makers were forbidden to take a life.  But he always asked—she loved him for that.   She laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled.  I will be fine, Verik.  But thank you.

You had better be.  I already nearly lost you once, and I am not eager to explain it to your sister if you do not return.  She scares me.  He grinned his mischievous grin.  Keep that in mind when you have the urge to do something foolish.

Again, Zerill forced down the laughter that rose in her throat.  I will.

Whenever you feel ready, then.

Zerill rotated her shoulder, testing its range of motion.  It still ached, but not so much that she couldn’t take it.  Inhaling deeply, she tightened the strap on the sack holding her festival costume, looked up at the sun, and nodded.  Let’s go.

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That’s it!  If you liked it, don’t forget to sign up here to be notified by email when the book comes out.

About bensdobson

I'm a fantasy author and an all around swell guy.
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