When I'm not ranting about miscreants and ne'er-do-wells, I write books.
At infrequent intervals, I mention these books here in the blog. Who am I kidding? I plug my books shamelessly, hoping a couple of you will follow the convenient links below the sample to get your very own copy.
Today's excerpt comes from my Markhat novel THE BANSHEE'S WALK. Markhat, the feckless hero, is a finder, which is what private eyes in his world paint on their doors. People who've lost wives or husbands or sons or hope come to see Markhat, and if they're lucky, he finds what they've lost.
But what Markhat usually finds is trouble. In THE BANSHEE'S WALK, Markhat is hired by a wealthy patron of the arts to determine who has been surveying her estate in the dead of night, and why. Markhat suspects nothing but a petty land grab, or a squabble over property lines -- but what he discovers in the forest called the Banshee's Walk is something much older and far more sinister.
Enjoy the excerpt. Links to various e-book versions and the printed book follow...
Excerpt from THE BANSHEE'S WALK
Moving through a forest at night is a perilous business. You can’t see briars before they tear through your clothes and into your skin. You can’t see rattlesnakes until you’ve annoyed them and they bite. And Heaven help you if you run into a wild boar sow with piglets nearby, because boars are worse than snakes and briars combined.
I never saw an example of any of those. All I saw were soldiers, some mounted, most on foot. These weren’t all kids, either. Half were my age, which meant they were vets who done this sneaking around business before.
I just hoped none of them were better at it than me.
The stars wheeled by above. The coward Moon never rose. The wind kept blowing, howling now and then, reminding me of Buttercup. I still had a hunk of corn bread for her, mashed flat and wrapped in one of Lady Werewilk’s good cotton napkins.
I topped a tiny little hillock, made my way between the trunks of two mighty oaks, popped my head up long enough to count fires. I saw two.
And something else. A faint blue radiance, bobbing and trailing sparks that lay there glowing but didn’t touch off any fires.
I bit back a curse word. I’d watched five of the black robed bastards be yanked up into the sky and I’d been sure, absolutely sure, that I’d seen the last of sorcerers at least for the night.
But here was at least one more, still on the hunt.
I hoped Buttercup was somewhere safe. I wondered why they were so determined to snatch her.
I eased my way back down the hill on my belly, and then I crawled on, heading for the Faery Ring.
I chided myself a dozen times on that dark journey, about my destination. I was making an awfully long leap of faith, going from two mentions in an old Werewilk family history to being sure something ancient and potent was hidden along a creek that had dried to nothing generations before the War even broke. You’ll feel pretty foolish, I told myself, if you reach the Ring and all you find are oaks and .
You’ll feel even more foolish if someone sees you and puts an arrow through your gut.
I couldn’t argue with either sentiment, but I kept going.
Halfway there, I began to see signs that I might have been right after all.
I found rutted wagon tracks, in the forest. Wagons had left the old road. I counted at least five. Men had cleared the way with axes, oxen and ropes. Some of the cut timber was so fresh it still wept sap.
But there were no men. Not a single sentry had been left in the wagons’ wake.
Although men had accompanied the wagons, in single file on either side of them, in numbers I couldn’t even estimate.
I stayed thirty feet or so off the new-cut road. I moved as quietly as I could, but I no longer crawled. Instinct told me that, at last, I was about to learn just what the fuss was about.
I smelled smoke from the fires before I saw them. A few moments later, I heard the first voices, and the first sounds of hammers and picks and axes. And then I topped another gentle rise, and it all came into view.
A ring of torches. Wagons. Men moving and shouting and working. Most were digging. Others were erecting a scaffold of fresh-cut timbers over the deep wound they’d dug in the soft, wet earth.
As I watched, chains were dragged from a wagon, and a heavy block and tackle, and ladders were propped against the scaffold and men clambered up them, chains and tackle in tow.
I felt a tiny hand slip into my right pocket. I didn’t even smell her over my own enthusiastic stink.
“Hello, Buttercup,” I whispered.
She found and unwrapped the corn bread, frowned at its mashed state, and then shrugged and began to gobble it down, using the napkin to keep the crumbs in place.
She stood pressed to my side, her right hand filled with corn bread and her left wrapped around my waist.
The top of her filthy little banshee head failed to even meet the middle of my chest.
She was shaking. I didn’t dare move. I didn’t want to spook her, even though the realization that she was probably being tracked by at least one determined sorcerer was sending shivers up and down my spine.
“Did you lose your blanket?”
She looked up at me again and grinned.
And then she coughed, choking on a mouthful of dry corn bread.
It wasn’t the loudest cough I’d ever heard but it was close. But I dropped to my knees and dared putting an arm around her as I did so.
She didn’t bolt. She was shaking. She huddled close, still chewing, her eyes locked on mine.
I raised a finger to my lips.
She hesitated a moment, and then did the same.
I almost laughed. But instead I watched and listened.
The workers down below kept working. The movement of the torches and lanterns kept on as before, with none of them heading suddenly our way.
No booted feet rushed towards us. No iron hooves, either. I decided we’d found Fate’s favor, that time. I hoped the rest of the night would prove as fortunate.
“Do you know what they’re doing, down there?” I asked, in a whisper. I wasn’t really expecting a reply. I had no way of knowing whether Buttercup could speak or understand speech.
She tilted her head and eyed me curiously. I shrugged.
“No matter. We’ll just watch for a while.”
And we did. They dug. Dirt was hauled the edge of the light and dumped. I tried to pick out the ringleaders by looking for anyone not carrying a tool. Part of the activity right at the edge of the excavation was obscured by a tent that was being erected as I watched, and I wasn’t willing to risk moving just to see around it.
A horn blew, three short blasts. In the Army that meant archers to the fore. To the men below, it meant more shovels, on the double, because a mob of them leapt from the backs of various wagons and hoofed it toward the hole.
It was then I caught a brief glimpse of what I decided was the man in charge. A small group of men made a slow circle of the pit. Three of them carried odd glowing implements that they held out over the hole on lances.
The fourth was twice the height of any man I’d ever known, and as thin as he was tall. If he were a he at all. No way to tell, since he or she was wrapped in white robes from head to toe.
I tried very hard to sink back even further into the shadows. My knowledge of Rannit’s sorcerous crowd was by no means exhaustive, but anyone that odd would have been mentioned, here or there.
Which meant an out-of-town wand-waver was in the mix.
I thought back to those stories we told each other in the trenches. There had been something about an inhumanly tall wand-waver, way up in the Northlands. Longshanks or Longlegs or some such, fond of using plagues as weapons. The diseases had killed humans as well as Trolls. There had been grumblings that our losses to illness had been at least as numerous as those of the enemy.
After the War, the bulk of the Regency’s sorcery corps moved with the Regent to Rannit, which had survived the War with relatively little damage. The sorcerers who didn’t make the move were generally the ones who’d made powerful enemies among the wand-wavers who did.
Buttercup gobbled down the last of her corn bread. She then licked the napkin clean of crumbs and butter before deciding my other pockets might bear more yummy treasures.
“Whoa, sister, that’s no way to act.”
I grabbed her hands. They were tiny, but strong. She smiled and before I realized what was happening she leaped up in my lap and kissed me, square on the lips.
I fell over backward. Dry leaves crunched. Tattletale twigs snapped. Buttercup fell with me, giggling and redoubling her grip. I tried to pry her away without hurting her, but her tiny stature belied a powerful frame.
I was about to stand up and take her by the shoulders and just push her an arm’s length away when we both heard the sound of a horse trotting through the trees.
She let go. She drew her hands up over her mouth, covering a tiny mewling noise.
The blue glow shone through the limbs, coming our way.
--- End Excerpt
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