I’m posting another excerpt from the Swampling King today, because I feel like it, and I’m the boss around these parts, darn it.
It’s the second chapter from Zerill’s viewpoint; you can read the first one here if you haven’t yet. There are other viewpoint characters, of course, and these two chapters don’t actually occur directly side-by-side in the book, I just chose this one because it’s is a pretty direct continuation of the first excerpt. Enjoy it below the break!
The eyeholes of Zerill’s mask narrowed her vision down to two small circles, filled with nothing but the discolored wood of the tavern’s ale-stained table. Sitting quietly with her head down and her hood up was the best way, she had found, to be ignored. It seemed an unspoken rule among the highlanders—at least the ones who frequented this place—that those who wished to drink in silence be left alone to do so. And as long as she was left alone, Zerill was free to listen, which was exactly what she had come to do.
The tavern was not that same one she had visited last year—she never went to the same one twice in a row, for fear of being noticed despite her mask and cloak—but it felt familiar. They all looked much the same: warped wooden tables placed seemingly at random; a few fire-blackened lanterns that shed dim light over dozens of pale, dark eyed masks; a stout, surly man behind the bar whose festival garb somehow completely failed to hide the glower he directed at each customer that came through the door. This place was no exception. In fact, though the northernmost plateau of the city—called “Cliffside” by the highlanders—was home to more people than Zerill had ever seen living in such close quarters, it still had far more nearly identical ale-houses than seemed necessary to her.
But she didn’t come to the Cliffside taverns every year for their variety. She came because there was no better place to find the information she needed. During the New Year’s festival, disappointed knights who had failed to acquit themselves in the swordsmanship tournament needed to drown their sorrows somewhere; the drink in Cliffside was cheap and plentiful. And in the six years she and Verik had been making the journey into the Plateaus, Zerill had learned something: when highlanders drank, they tended to talk. They tended to talk loudly, and they didn’t pay a great deal of attention to who was listening.
“Tournament’s all fake anyhow. Th’ real thing’s inna Swamp, tha’s where it matters.” The speaker was a young man with long black hair, one of a trio of highlander knights who had come in close to an hour before. They had claimed a table near the bar, and it had taken only a few drinks before they had begun explaining emphatically to each other—and anyone who would listen—how little it mattered that they had already been eliminated from the tournament. Even after six years, Zerill found it almost surreal to hear the loud-speech used so freely.
She didn’t look up at the man when he spoke, just sipped from her drink and kept her head down. She didn’t want to draw his attention. She had glanced at the group only once, when they had entered, and immediately identified them as knights. It was not something they would ever have thought to hide. Their stormcloud-grey tabards stood out among the garb of the tavern’s other patrons—all in black, a part of their festival costumes—and the knights wore no masks. Nobles and knights rarely bothered to disguise themselves for the night, Zerill had noticed, though she was not entirely certain why. Perhaps they think themselves above the judgement of their gods and demons. It would be very easy, she imagined, for highlanders—and especially their highborn—to think themselves above almost anything. There were no nobles among the Abandoned, but had she been born in a castle on a mountaintop in the open sky, Zerill wondered if she might not feel the same way.
Another of the knights, who Zerill recognized by his deep tones as the largest of the three, voiced his agreement. “’Nother purge’s what we need. Show those dark-eyes we c’n use a sword.”
The third man made a show of lowering his voice. It was only a show, though—Zerill could easily hear him from across the room. “You’ve heard of course? Duke Castar is leading a raid sometime in the next few weeks. Reprisal for the Deepling attack on Greywall.” This one was less far-gone than the others—not sober by any means, but trying to impress those around him rather than just loose-lipped from the drink, Zerill thought. She risked a quick glance at the man, reaffirming her memory. His appearance fit with her guess: wavy black hair, overly styled; tabard pressed and cleaned, absent of stains or signs of wear; fingers adorned with a number of garish rings. She had seen dozens like him over the years. Is it an empty boast, then, or does he actually know of a raid? But it was the most relevant information she’d heard all night; she dipped her head again and concentrated on separating the conversation from the low din of voices in the tavern.
“Where’d y’hear that?” the long-haired man asked. “No one said anything t’me.”
“Tha’s because it’s goatshit,” the big one said. “Good Sir Horte here jus’ wants us to think he’s special.”
The braggart—Sir Horte, apparently—slammed his mug down audibly. He made no effort to even pretend quietness now. “I have it from Duke Castar himself! He is a friend of my father, you know. He recruited me personally!” It was a plausible claim. Zerill had charted the Duke’s rise over the years; there were always rumors about him recruiting wealthy young men to the Knights of the Storm, usually in exchange for some favor from their fathers. Perhaps Horte knew something after all. It was enough to take to Azlin, anyhow. Better to be warned unnecessarily than taken by surprise, Zerill thought.
“Fine, fine, n’ermind. Yer prob’ly right.” The large one sounded cowed—Zerill guessed Sir Horte was something of a leader of the small group. “Jus’ have another round.”
“I am right,” Sir Horte said sullenly. Then, after a moment, “Yes. No matter. Another round! And let’s find some women! I can’t tell under the damned masks, are there any here?”
Zerill’s breath caught in her throat. She briefly considered walking out right then. No, that would draw them right to me. Instead she hunched under her black cloak, trying to remain as formless as possible. She heard a chair screech against the wooden floor; footsteps approaching. She kept her head down.
“You, there.” Sir Horte’s voice, too near. She exhaled, looked up. The young knight was looking right at her. He grinned lecherously. “Yes, I thought so. What brings a woman to a place like this alone? Come, sit with us!”
Zerill frowned behind the mask and considered her options. If she ran he would likely stop her, though he would try to make it seem playful. She had seen drunken knights do the same to other women in the past. She could not let that happen—he would want her to remove her mask, show her face. Highlanders cared very much about the look of a woman’s face. Her hand twitched towards the knife hidden at her waist, but she stopped herself. Violence would only make things worse. She could not risk involving the guards; they might follow her back to Verik. There was only one chance, then: she would have to try to talk her way out of it.
She stood, and gave her best attempt at a highlander curtsey. “I’m sorry, Sir Knight. I cannot stay, my children—”
She had hoped that would put him off—knights usually preferred young, unattached women. But Sir Horte cut her off with a laugh. “You sound far too young and pretty to have children. And if you do, why are you here without them? Come now, don’t be shy.” He stepped around the table and reached for her wrist; Zerill snatched it away. He laughed again. “Quick. I like that. But you don’t have to be afraid, my dear.”
Zerill cursed herself for a fool. React like one of them, she reminded herself. Recoiling wouldn’t help. “You… flatter me. I… am hardly worthy of your attention.” The loud-speech sounded wrong in her ears, stilted, unnatural. Ancestors, I should have practiced more. She forced herself to remain still as he moved his face in close to hers. His breath stank of ale.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” His hand moved towards her face. “Let’s see what you have under that mask.”
Zerill tensed, ready to push past him and run. Better to have him chase her as a highlander woman who had spurned him than as a Swampling intruder—if he saw her face and hair under the mask, all was lost.
Another voice stopped her. “Leave her alone.” A slender man gripped Sir Horte by the shoulder and pulled him back. The knight’s fingers caught in the strap of Zerill’s mask; she felt it snap as Horte stumbled backwards.
The mask fell.
She snatched at her hood with her left hand, pulled it forward over her face as she dipped down; her right hand darted out and grabbed the ceramic mask inches from the floor. Did anyone see? But she heard no gasps or cries from the patrons. She was safe.
“Are you—” the voice choked off, and she looked up to see the slender man who had interceded kneeling before her, staring her full in the face. He wore no hood, only a standard festival mask—pale white ceramic with big black circles painted in the eye sockets—surrounded by a corona of thick black curls. But through the holes in the mask, behind the crude mockery of her own features, she thought she could see something in his eyes: surprise, or perhaps fear.
Her heart contracted painfully, and she rushed to replace her own mask, holding it to her face with one hand. It was too late, though, and she knew it. There was no chance that he hadn’t noticed. Her skin was white as bone, her eyes deep black and twice the size of his, her hair a pale yellow-white unheard of among the dark-skinned, dark-haired mountain people. No one could mistake her for a highlander. He saw. A deep, instinctive fear cried out in her blood—never be seen by a highlander, never—but she forced herself to ignore it, and reached a shaking hand for her knife.
And then the man cleared his throat, and extended his hand. “Pardon me. Are you all right?”
Her fingers froze inches from the blade at her waist. Why isn’t he yelling for help? He had to have seen my face. Hesitantly, she took his hand. She didn’t know what game he was playing, but she let him help her to her feet—if he was going to give her time to reassess the situation, she would take it.
Sir Horte’s two friends had moved to his side, and the three of them blocked the way forward. Their attention was on her rescuer now. “You’ll regret that,” Horte said.
“I doubt that very much.” The curly-haired man’s voice was unafraid; he might have been on the verge of laughter. “Tell me, were the Swamplings too much trouble? The Knights of the Storm are hunting women in taverns now?”
“Shut your mouth!” the big knight to Horte’s right roared. He surged forward, throwing an unbalanced roundhouse punch. The slender man side-stepped with ease and thrust out a foot; the knight stumbled over it, pitched headlong into a nearby chair, and tumbled to the ground with a grunt.
“Come on!” her rescuer gripped her free wrist and darted through the opening; Zerill followed, still holding her mask tightly to her face.
There was nobody in sight as they left the tavern. Highlanders didn’t walk outside alone during Dal’s Rest; they gathered together at the festival grounds, or celebrated inside their homes. Dusk had only just fallen, but it was already dark as full night in Cliffside. The closely clustered buildings cast the streets into deep shadow, and the mountain winds moaned long and low through the narrow passages, like a choir of bereft spirits. The sound didn’t bother Zerill, though—the Swamp was home to more angry ghosts than the Plateaus would ever know. Instead, she felt a rush of confidence. She could evade the highlanders easily now. Their eyes were no match for hers in the dark, and the wind would mask the sound of her passing.
She pulled her wrist away from the slender man. The knights would be following them shortly; she had to go. She knew she should run. But this man had seen her face, she was certain of it—and he had said nothing. She looked him in the eye, trying to take some kind of measure of him, and she asked, “Why?”
He didn’t answer, and the mask hid his face, but she felt the uncertainty in his silence. He doesn’t know any better than I do.
After a moment he said, “You should run. That way.” He pointed down a narrow alley to the west. “They’ll follow me.”
She hesitated, still trying to glean something from the eyes behind the painted black circles of the mask, but the sound of the tavern door forced her into motion. The knights were coming. She darted into the alleyway. Let him draw them away, then. He’s a highlander. I don’t care what they do to him. Somehow, though, she found herself looking back. A rain barrel sat in the narrow passage; she ducked behind it and watched.
The three knights barrelled out of the tavern, nearly falling over each other in their drunken haste. The slender man lingered until they saw him; he began to run only when he had their attention, heading south down the street.
“Stop!” Sir Horte bellowed. He and his friends drew their swords and gave chase.
A few short seconds and they were beyond Zerill’s sight. I should go, she told herself. I can’t stay here. She tucked her mask into her belt. She couldn’t spare the hand to hold it in place, not now. In a single leap she was atop the rim of the rain barrel; another and she was gripping the edge of the tavern’s second floor window. She clambered up to the roof easily. She had been climbing the sheer cliffs of the Queensmount for years; this was nothing.
From the rooftop, she could see many of the protruding flats that gave the Plateaus its name; they jutted erratically down the mountainside like poorly-made shelves of random shape and size, joined together by dozens of stone staircases carved into the cliffs. All around her were the darkened streets of Cliffside, crammed near to bursting with shacks and buildings—safer and more permanent than anything her people had ever known, though they called the place a slum. To the south and lower on the mountain was the larger People’s Plateau, full of homes and markets and shops; the festival ground there was a bright star gleaming beside the lake to the southwest. East of her, the Queensmount’s great peak called the Godspire seemed to rise higher than the sky, as sheer and sharp as the head of Zerill’s shortspear. In the shadow of that peak lay the Countscliff, highest of the plateaus, shining with points of gentle lamp-light like a hundred topaz gemstones. The wealthiest and most powerful of the highlanders lived there—they could afford to make their nights brighter than the brightest day in the Swamp. And wrought from the stone at the very foot of the Godspire was the Aryllian Keep, the palace of the highlander King, its half-circular outer wall traced back and forth in the dusklight by the torches of the Royal Swords on watch duty.
But Zerill needed to go west, to the half-dozen lower plateaus of the farming flats. Verik was waiting for her beyond the livestock fields and terraced crops there, and she had already taken too many risks tonight. She could still hear the shouting of the knights to the south as they pursued the stranger who had helped her. It doesn’t matter, I have to go. Verik is waiting.
And yet… the highlander had seen her face—she knew he had—and still he had risked his own safety for hers.
She leapt across the alleyway and followed the noise south.
The slender man was all black from behind, curly hair blending into a dark tunic and trousers, and there was no light in the street, but Zerill had little trouble picking him out. She had the eyes of the Abandoned, and had lived most of her life in worse darkness than this. He was sprinting at a good pace, and she saw him weave gracefully around a man who stumbled drunkenly into his path, then risk a quick look over his shoulder. The knights were easier to see, in their grey-white tabards—the heavyset man lagged in the rear, and Sir Horte was not terribly far ahead of him. The long-haired knight, though, was surprisingly swift, even after too much drink. He was closing the distance. Not quickly, but he would overtake her rescuer eventually. And they have had enough to drink that they might use those swords when they catch him. Her fingers signed a silent curse, almost unconsciously, and then she was following them over the rooftops, quick and quiet as a bog-owl descending on prey.
The fastest knight was her priority—the other two were already falling behind. She bounded between buildings, landing on the inclined slats of the next rooftop, and scampered up to its apex. The curly-haired man risked another look behind him, saw that he was losing ground, and threw himself to the right, disappearing into a nearly-invisible alleyway. The long-haired man followed closely behind.
The alley passed directly in front of Zerill’s path; she could head him off there. She slid down the sloped roof and then, halfway down, jumped up and landed atop the building’s stone chimney. The wind was strong from the northeast, and she adjusted her facing to allow for it—she wasn’t about to let it surprise her twice in one day—then threw herself across to the next home on the street, grabbing the edge of the roof with both hands. Her shoulder twinged, still sore from her earlier fall, but she had felt much worse, and she was busy. She braced her feet against the wall to interrupt the impact, then pushed off and hauled herself onto the rooftop. The alley was just ahead, and she rushed to the edge.
The long-haired knight was passing below her and a bit to her left, dangerously close to the slender stranger. Zerill drew her knife and raised it to throw.
No. Her knife was Maker-forged, a blade of blue-grey slate merged seamlessly with a wooden hilt by the Deepcraft so that it was impossible to tell where one material ended and the other began. It would be impossible to confuse for highlander steel. And if the highlanders found a dead knight in the Plateaus with a Maker-forged knife in his chest, the Abandoned would suffer the consequences for years. She needed another way. She swept her gaze over the alleyway, left then right. There. Someone had strung a thin clothesline across the small passage to her right, from a window a yard or so down. She threw herself into a tight roll and, just above the window, vaulted over the side of the roof. Holding the edge with one hand, she swung her knife low, severing the line.
Her timing was good. A bundle of damp laundry plummeted onto the knight’s head as he passed beneath her. Blinded, he stumbled forward, and his foot caught on a cobblestone. With a startled cry, he toppled to the ground and landed heavily on his stomach. It looked very much like a scene from one of the festival puppet-shows she had seen on the streets earlier in the day, and Zerill couldn’t help but smile as she pulled herself quietly back onto the roof.
Sir Horte rounded the corner into the alley just as the slender man exited at the far side and continued south down the next street. There was no sight of the heavier knight. Too slow. He must have given up. Zerill knelt at the corner of the rooftop, watching until Horte passed beneath her—she couldn’t risk leaping the gap while he might see. There was a comfortable distance between her rescuer and his pursuers now, though, and the long-haired man had yet to regain his feet. He can outrun them now. There’s nothing more I can do.
As if to prove her wrong, two men in the blue tabards of the Royal Swords rounded the corner of the intersection ahead, lanterns in hand.
Zerill ducked lower to avoid being caught in the light. The slender man checked his stride at the appearance of the guardsmen, looked behind him to see Sir Horte emerging from the alley, and redoubled his speed.
“Stop him!” Sir Horte shouted, waving his sword overhead to attract attention.
The two Royal Swords came to a halt, and one of them, a man with a shorn head, raised his lantern. “Who goes there?” Even before hearing an answer, the two men spaced themselves to effectively block the narrow street.
Between breaths, Horte bellowed, “I am… a Knight… of the Storm! Stop him!”
The curly-haired man appeared to accept that there was no way past the two Swords and slowed his step as he approached, raising his hands. “Yes, please, stop me. Three Swamp Knights with swords chasing an unarmed man, and I’m the one needs stopping.” Again, he sounded more amused than threatened.
Horte’s face went dark red, as he stumbled the last yards that separated him from the other men. “I… am no… Swamp Knight.” He inhaled deeply, then pointed his sword at the slender man and tried to look threatening. “Say it again and die.” Zerill gathered that the knights didn’t approve of the term. No surprise, that—highlanders didn’t tend to enjoy being associated with the Swamp.
The second guardsman, a tall, lanky man, took Zerill’s rescuer by the wrists and held him as Sir Horte approached, watching the drunk knight with a wary eye. “Is this man guilty of some crime, Sir Knight?”
“Assault… against a… Knight.” Panting, Horte braced his hands against his knees as he tried to catch his breath. “Take off his mask. I would know… I would know his face and his name.”
This time the slender man laughed aloud. “Remember when you said I would regret what I did to you? I think it’s only fair that I return the favor: you are really going to wish you hadn’t taken off my mask.”
“Quiet!” Horte barked. He gestured impatiently at the guards. “His mask!”
Zerill frantically cast about for some plan, but she was too far away now, and she could not risk revealing herself, not while those lanterns brightened the street. There was nothing she could do—this man had helped her, and now he was going to be badly beaten for it at the very least. Capture had not lessened his insolence in the slightest, and highlanders did not like to be mocked. She could only watch as the bald guardsman pulled the ceramic mask roughly from the prisoner’s head, revealing a brown-skinned face with high cheekbones and dark, intelligent eyes.
“I warned you,” the slender man said. The impertinent grin he directed at Sir Horte looked just like his wry tone had suggested it would, even beneath the mask; it reminded Zerill of Verik, a little bit.
She braced herself for Sir Horte to strike him, or worse. But to her surprise, the bald Sword uttered a panicked “Lord of Eagles!” and both he and his partner dropped to their knees. A moment later, some realization dawned across Sir Horte’s face, and then he too knelt before the slender man.
It was only when the bald guardsman spoke again that Zerill understood, and the breath left her lungs as if she had plunged into ice-cold water.
“Prince Josen! We have been looking all over the Plateaus for you!”
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Hi. Scriber is a book I wish I had written. Amazing depth of character. The world you created is as complex and flawed as the one we live in today. Olga
Thanks, Olga. Here’s hoping you enjoy my next one too!