Last week, I published a brief synopsis of my work-in-progress debut novel, Ashes of the Forgotten.
Today, I thought I might post my current draft of the prologue chapter. It’s still in work-in-progress mode, although I have given it a once over in the revision stages. Words are still subject to change, though!
Mostly, I’m publishing this as a bit of a taster for what’s to come.
Ashes of the Forgotten: Prologue
Knight-Commander Adill wiped yet another film of sweat from his brow. His eyes stung from the salty mixture secreting from every pore. Yet it was an overcast day. A solid blanket of darkened cloud covered the sky. Without the sun, a near-twilight shrouded the Felton Mire.
The Mire was much as it name suggested: a bog-laden swamp. One needed to be careful while navigating the narrow mud paths around the brown pools. More than a dozen men per year misstepped, falling into the water. It was a death sentence, as though their bodies were dragged into the darkness below. Local folk spoke of mysterious creatures lurking at the bottom, waiting to feast. Upon a hapless traveller disturbing the water, they would wrap their tendrils around the poor fellow’s legs and drag him to the bed.
Other legends asserted the Mire itself lived; that the many pools were the jaws of a restless demon. If the Mire were such a beast, it would be a full one.
Above the many pools, mist collected and with it a stench of decay that swept throughout the Mire. So pungent was the stink, it seemed to assault a traveller’s smell receptors. Adill had made this journey countless times over the years, and even now, it would be weeks upon arriving at Centralis before he could enjoy the smell of baking bread again.
“Wish it would bloody hurry up and rain!” snapped Marlow, one of nine junior conscripts forced upon Adill.
Adill grunted, neither in agreement nor disagreement. He did not care. Adill was an old soldier, now serving under his fourth Emperor. His body bore the evidence of a lifetime’s service. Even his face had not been left unscathed; a scar from the tip of an assassin’s blade parted his otherwise neat, trimmed beard.
Yet for all his service, he was only a lackey. Even his rank granted him little favour. It had occurred to him that his rank was the result of long service, rather than a reflection of his accomplishments. Yet again, he was charged with escorting the latest batch of conscripts from The Shalelands. Adill had struggled alone through the Felton Mire and Balefields. Now, he made his way back to the sprawling city of Centralis in the Golden Plains. Despite traversing half the Pentarthian Empire, and back, the Iron Guard had not even bothered to provide him with a horse.
“Can’t we stop for an hour? My feet are killing me!”
Adill took a deep breath and continued forward, ignoring Marlow’s blithering. If Adill must endure such trials, he was damn sure that these recruits would too.
Marlow grabbed Adill’s arm. Adill spun around dagger in hand and held it to Marlow’s throat.
“Hey! Hey! Easy!” Marlow protested. His voice squeaked with the high-pitch of a frightened mouse.
Marlow wasn’t an imposing man. He was almost as thin as the slaves who worked in the harbour of Centralis. Even his face seemed malnourished, the skin shrunken to the bone. Short, grey hair covered his head. It seemed odd that a man of his age was already grey.
Adill had yet to discern whether Marlow wished to join the Guard for a better life, or whether some petty offence had left him banished from The Shalelands. Either, or both, were possibilities. It didn’t matter. The Iron Guard accounted for close to half of the population of Centralis. Whatever a person’s background, the Guard took whoever they could get to sustain those numbers. It was both a point of pride and a warning to the enemies of the Empire. Adill considered it a poor use of resources. The bulk of a guardsman’s duties involved guarding the Great Library. He could never understand what was so important about dusty old tomes.
“You’ll address me as, Ser,” Adill said, after a moment of holding the blade close enough that a twitch from either man would have seen Marlow’s throat cut.
Adill sheathed his dagger and proceeded forwards. The other recruits sneered and smirked as the procession continued through the Mire. Adill knew they were as weary as he was, and likely all growing impatient with Marlow. In every batch of recruits, there was one who couldn’t shut his face. Inevitably, they were also the one who would not survive the first six weeks of training.
“Can’t we stop for an hour, Ser?” Marlow asked.
“No,” replied Adill. “It’ll be dark soon, and the Mire’s not a place to be after sunset.”
“But how much further then?”
“If we keep up the pace, we should reach Centralis before morn.”
“Wait! We’re not even gonna camp?”
Marlow mumbled something incoherent under his breath. Such complaining was something Adill had heard many times. It was an arduous trek to make on foot. Cracked skin and blisters for a month were the prizes for the lucky ones. A new home in a manticore’s belly awaited the unlucky ones.
Wiping away another film of sweat, Adill took a deep breath. This heat was unnatural. Countless times had he made this journey and not once before did it feel as though his flesh were baking. His skin itched, but he couldn’t scratch it through the chain-mail.
That it was so hot was reason enough not to stop, even for a moment. The common folk told their tales about what lurked in the depths of the Mire. Although not a superstitious man, Adill was wary of folklore. Too much of it seemed rooted in a long-forgotten truth.
The group clambered over a small rocky embankment and into a field. Successfully navigating the Mire should have given cause for relief, but Adill slowed his pace. The grass was crisp beneath his feet, yet green as an emerald sea before him.
He surveyed the area. It was mainly flatlands. In the distance, two trees stood. Their branches drooping as though struggling under the weight of a million birds. The sky remained blanketed by thick clouds, casting a dreary grey over the scene.
“Why are we slowing… Ser?” Marlow probed.
Adill ignored him. Something was amiss. He continued forward, slowing further with each step. Eventually, he came to a halt.
A sound seemed to flow with the wind; a peculiar stuttered whistling like laboured breaths through a broken nose. It was not the sound of any bird or beast he had heard before, and it didn’t seem to originate from the trees in front. His hand slipped to the hilt of his sword.
“What’s going on?” Marlow said.
“Shut up,” Adill whispered.
Marlow again muttered something under his breath. Adill focused on the strange noise. There was no time to care about the witterings of a pleb from some pointless little town.
Pinpointing the sound was impossible. At one moment it grew louder as if the source was approaching. The next, it would fade away. Back and forth the sound went, as though whatever were making it rode an invisible swing.
Adill’s hand gripped the hilt of his sword tighter. He continued to cast his gaze across the field before him, looking for even the slightest thing that seemed out of place. Beads of sweat rolled down his face, resting in the hairs of his beard. Marlow and the other conscripts gathered either side, joining him in looking out over the fields.
The whistling noise grew louder, shifting pitch as it did so. A droning hum when approaching, and a piercing screech when departing. Yet still, nothing. No beast roaming the plains, no bird in the sky, and no sign of any other travellers in the field.
“Seriously, why are we stopped?” Marlow demanded.
“Shut up and listen!” Adill snapped.
“We need to know what that noise is.”
Marlow screwed up his face in confusion and shook his head. “What fucking noise?”
Adill turned to Marlow, and then to the other recruits. All bore expressions of confusion. Not one of them had heard what he was hearing.
How can that be? Adill thought. The sound was still there. He could hear it as clearly as Marlow’s voice. To and fro the whistling noise went. It couldn’t be a figment of his imagination, could it?
And then it stopped, replaced with the sounds of tired men’s breaths and weary boots shuffling in the grass. Adill massaged his face. He pondered on whether the fatigue of these long journeys was finally besting him?
“Perhaps we should rest for a moment…” he muttered, hunting around in his pocket for his tobacco pipe.
“Thank the Gods!” Marlow cried.
As Adill stuffed his pipe with tobacco, the recruits tossed their sacks of belongings to provide seating. They took out their canteens, likely filled with ale rather than water, and joked among themselves as though they were in a tavern.
Adill walked away from the group, knowing they would joke about him. He was a proud man, and moments of weakness tore at him harder than any bear ever could. It was partly why he had not retired, and why he refused to argue when tasked with these excursions. Either would be a sign of weakness. Retiring would mean to accept that in his fifty-third year, he was no longer cut out for service. Refusal to round up recruits from the far reaches of the Empire would be an acknowledgement that these journeys were wearing him down.
Drawing on his pipe, he inhaled the smoke with a resigned sigh. At least, he thought to himself, the noise had stopped. Then it hit him; there was no noise now. Even the recruits made no sound.
Adill spun about. He had not wandered far from the group and was close enough to see that they had all gone. His head snapped around again and again. His eyes covering every inch of the land before him. Nothing. There was no possible way that the recruits were playing a childish prank unless they had crossed back into the Mire. No sane individual would venture into the Mire for the purposes of a joke, let alone nine of them.
Drawing his sword, he cautiously approached the group’s belongings. His hands gripped the hilt of his weapon tighter with each step.
Were it not for the discarded sacks, there was no evidence anybody had even been here. The grass bore no tracks or even any evidence of having been walked on. His men had just vanished.
“Who are you?” a woman asked from behind.
Adill snapped around. Stood before him was a young lady, no older than seventeen. She wore grey robes, embroidered with a golden pattern that even in the darkness seemed to glimmer as though caught by the sun. The woman had hair so long it reached her waist, coloured as black as darkness.
A strange expression adorned her face, a mixture of intrigue and confusion. Adill sensed that the lady was looking at something she had never seen before. A guard, perhaps?
“I am Knight-Commander Adill, of the Iron Guard of Centralis. Who are you?”
The woman smiled, yet shook her head as though she understood none of the words he had spoken.
“Centralis? What is that?”
“Do not jest with me. It is the capital of the Empire of Pentarth.”
“We have never heard of this ‘Pentarth’ of which you speak.”
“Impossible!” Adill responded. “Even the lowest vagabonds and nomads of these parts know of the Empire! All who live in these lands pledge fealty to us.”
“Fealty? To you? Why?”
“I have no time for these games!” Adill snapped. “Where are my men?”
“Your men? Do you own them?”
Adill stood perplexed. The woman spoke with a soft, almost monotone, voice. There was a childlike naivety about the way she carried herself. He noticed that she rolled her head from left to right, like a dog trying to understand human speech.
“I demand to know where my men are!”
“They are where you left them.”
Adill glanced back to the camp. There was still nobody there.
“I left them here!”
“No, you left them elsewhere.”
Growing angry with the strange woman’s riddles, Adill swung his sword, pointing it at the woman’s throat.
“If you do not answer me properly, I will cut you down where you stand.”
The woman beamed a smile. “Yes, that is right. You desire to die fighting. You fear growing old.”
“What? What are you talking about?!”
“We have seen inside you. We know what you want.”
Adill stepped back. He gripped the hilt of the sword so tight that his hands turned white.
“What are you?” He hissed through clenched teeth.
“We are messengers,” she replied.
“Yes, we speak to those who hear our call. You heard us. We have a message for you.”
“What… that noise?”
Adill continued to point his blade towards the woman’s throat. She showed no fear, not even indicating that she was aware the sword was there. Part of him wanted to skewer her here and now. Yet, a stronger part of him needed to know what this strange girl wanted.
“What is this message?”
“We will deliver it shortly. First, you had to know us.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“We stopping here tonight then, or what, Ser?” yelled Marlow.
Adill spun around, stunned. All nine recruits were there. His eyes shot back to the woman, but she had vanished. No matter where he looked, there was no sign she was ever there. Adill rubbed his eyes like he was awakening from a nightmare.
“Ser!” Marlow persisted. “What we doing?”
Adill shook his head, causing all the recruits to grumble.
“No, we reach Centralis as soon as we can. Grab your things, and get moving!”
As the recruits gathered their belongings, Adill stared out over the plains.