The Beggar Prince – Prologue

It was killing him and she knew it. The entire side of her robe was slick with his blood, and yet the bleeding continued. She had to stop, bind his wounds anew, allow him rest. She had to stop.

“Almost there, my love,” she said instead, her every word tearing at her soul. Their only chance, his only chance, was for them to press on, get out of the marshland they trundled through, get out of the nightmare they’d found themselves in.

Gritting her teeth, she looked down at him as he hung limply by her side. Her arms were heavy, almost numb. And the blood, gods, the blood, it was all she could do to keep a firm grip about him. But she couldn’t let go, she daren’t, and as he stared resolutely on, his breath coming in shallow snatches as he willed his feet to move slowly onwards, one before the other, her heart ached for him. He was trying, dear gods but he was trying.

“Almost there,” she repeated hoarsely. “Please, stay with me. We’re almost there.”

It was a lie, like so many others she’d told since their escape from the compound. But, what else could she say? She raised her gaze up to their path. Everything was corrupted now, everything. From the trees to the buildings, even the birds of the air, nothing was spared, the stench of death and decay clinging to the both of them like a defiling miasma. The town didn’t deserve this. Gritting her teeth, she fought to ignore the waves of guilt that had been threatening to drown her since the incident. She’d wallow in self-pity later. First, she had to get him away.

“Stay with me,” she said as she adjusted her grip on her beloved’s arm about her neck, the sweat in her palm weakening her grasp. She chanced a glance behind them. The screams had long since stopped. Was it their turn to be hunted, or were they now truly alone? As she stared behind them, however, she was oblivious to the dead root jutting out before her, and as she caught her leg upon it, a startled yelp escaped her lips as they both fell to the ground.

Cursing feverishly, she hurried to her feet, turning to help her beloved onto his.

“No…” he whispered, shaking his head weakly as he rose to sitting. “I need to rest.”

“No, we have to keep moving,” she replied, shaking her head as she spoke. “He’s still out there. We have to keep moving. Come, please.”

As she reached for him, however, he looked up at her, his eyes pleading with hers. Shaking her head briefly, she looked behind them, staring intently into the fog as her heart beat loudly in her chest. They were not safe. He was still hunting them. They had to keep moving. Once more, she looked down at her beloved, but as her eyes fell upon him, she realised they had to stop. Relenting at last, she helped him to his feet and walked him over to the large fallen tree whose root had caused their fall. With a grateful sigh, he sat upon it. Once more, she scanned their surrounds. Nothing. But her fear remained. Sighing herself, she looked down at her beloved once more. His lips were purple, and he’d paled greatly. He looked up at her, smiling sadly once their eyes met.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. She shook her head at him.

“We both made this choice,” she said as she grasped the edge of her robe. Tearing free a generous strip from it, she sat beside her beloved and bound his wounds anew.

“But I talked you into it,” her beloved replied. “You were right, we shouldn’t have done it. We tried to steal the power of the gods. We had no right.”

“Save your strength, we–” she began, only for a lone howl to echo out from the mist. Its sound froze her heart as it chilled her soul. She looked at her beloved. His eyes were wide with the same terror coursing through her veins. Wordlessly, he offered his arms up to her. Their rest was over. Nodding, she let go of the torn fabric as she rose to help him up, but at that moment, as she took a single steadying step towards him, a huge, terrifying beast leapt up out of the very mist itself, knocking her away from her beloved as it crashed into him. But as her lover fell to the earth, he did not scream, he did not make so much as a sound, though not from lack of want or need, for the beast had wrapped its huge maw about his throat, ripping it open even as its bulk frame forced him to the earth on the other side of the fallen tree.

Stunned, she stared at what little of the beast she could see, her fear stilling her tongue as the beast gorged on its unholy feast, and for a time, the only sounds to be heard were that of rending flesh and crunching bone.

“Hello, Mother.”

Startled back to life, she looked behind her, and the sight that met her gaze brought a sharp cry from her lips. Scrambling to her feet, she backed away quickly from the little child walking towards her.

“Stay back!” she screamed. “You stay away from me!”

The little boy smiled at his mother as he neared her. “Were you looking to leave without me?”

She stared at his eyes, her fear shortening her breath as she buried her lips in her hands.

“Please, just stay back,” she begged as she shuffled away from him.

“That was very naughty of you, Mother, leaving your son alone like that. What would Father think of you?”

“You are not my son!” she shrieked as tears streamed down her face. The little boy grinned. It was a soulless grin, an evil grin, one only the darkest of hearts could call forth.

“You are not my son,” she repeated. “Just stay back.”

The little boy laughed. He turned to stare at the beast, a hound of sorts, its body more smoke than flesh. But as the little boy turned his gaze from her, she seized her chance and ran, pulling up her robe and racing forth with all she could muster. Though, barely had she gone five paces when an unseen hand held her fast where she was.

“Going somewhere?” the little child asked. Though she tried to speak, no words came, her tongue stilled as her heart threatened to explode in her chest. Slowly, the unseen hand lifted her off her feet, turning her about before bringing her back to her son. The hound was beside him now, its lips dripping with blood.

“Well?”

She stared at him. She couldn’t speak, for her fear bound her as tightly as the spell within which the little boy held her.

“No answer? That’s quite rude, is it not?”

Still she couldn’t answer. Then, the hound began walking towards her. She stared first at the hound, then at her son, her breath coming in snatches once more, but still said nary a word. Slowly, the unseen hand tilted her to the side, lowering her towards the ground until her head was level to the hound’s. Tears streamed down her face anew as she shook her head desperately at her son.

“Please! Gods, please!”

The little boy stared at her as he smiled the same soulless smile. The hound drew near, stopping just beside her, and, licking its lips, opened its huge maw and brought it about her head.

“Please!” she shrieked, all control, all self-control lost to her. Her son giggled at her as a dripping sound echoed about them. The hound’s jaw was now in line with her throat.

“Somebody help me!” she cried as her gaze darted about her. “Please! Somebody help me!”

The little boy laughed with glee. “Nobody’s coming to save you, Mother Dearest, there’s nobody left! You didn’t think I let you live this long because I couldn’t find you, did you?”

She looked back at the little child, her breath in snatches once again.

“Starlight,” she said. “My darling Starlight, please, stop him. Please!”

Slowly, the little boy’s face fell as he shied away from her.

“Please, my darling,” she continued. “We didn’t mean it! As the gods bear me witness, we didn’t mean it! Don’t listen to what he’s said, we didn’t mean for this to happen to you. Please, stop him! Help Mummy, please. Starlight, please!”

The little child stared at her as tears brimmed his eyes. Pouting, the boy sniffled as he held his mother’s gaze. Time stood still as mother and son stared at one another, one with a pleading stare, the other with a teary gaze full of pain and longing. Then, the little boy wiped the tears from his eyes as he sniffled once more. He looked from his mother to the hound. But as he looked back at her, his face was set once again.

“Bye-bye Mummy,” the little boy muttered sadly, and as his mother drew breath to speak, the hound bit down.

“Bye-bye.”

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The Forging – Prologue

Welcome to this little preview of the novel The Forging. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it

The beating of his heart was deafening, pounding in his ears like an accursed drum, but he dare not stop. It was only a matter of time before the massacre above them came below deck. He had to get them to safety before then. He had to find them sanctuary before it was too late.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?”

Turning, he stared at the little girl to his left, one whose hand was clenching his like a vice. The terror in her eyes was raw. He turned to the others behind him. They were all terrified.

“Listen to me,” he said, stopping and lowering his voice to little above a whisper. “We have to keep moving. We still have a chance, but we have to get there before he sees us.”

“You sure he won’t find us?” one of them asked.

He stared at the cowering little boy. Was he sure? No. For all he knew, he was marching them to their tomb. But what choice did he have? What other option was there?

“Keep moving,” he whispered instead, and before any could object, he turned and resumed their hurried march. They carried on in silence, a silence punctuated by the screams of another poor soul caught by their hunters, screams that pierced the silence and froze the hearts of all who heard before fading into the night. But onward they marched, until at last he caught sight of their destination.

With a deep sigh, he hurried to the barrels propped against the hull, and after a brief scan, leant against four in particular before whispering words in a tongue none of the children understood. Grinning, he turned.

“Help me,” he whispered.

Frowning, two of the taller children stepped forward, and, with a nod from him, they steadied themselves and lifted. Surprise flitted across the pair’s faces as they stumbled backwards. Exchanging glances, the two boys placed their barrels down before opening them. Both were full to the brim, one with sugar, the other, salt.

“Hurry!” he whispered as he rummaged through his pockets. As he fished out a small square etched stone, the last of the barrels was moved aside, revealing the hull behind.

“Don’t see anything,” one of the children whispered.

Grinning, he winked as he pressed the stone against the hull. As he did so, runes began to glow one by one upon the hull, forming a circle before the children’s eyes, a circle the stone completed. Then, when the circle was fully lit, the hull gave way, revealing a cabin lit by a single enchanted torch.

“Quickly now,” he whispered as the runic circle faded, stepping aside as he shoved the stone back into his pocket.

As one, the children stared into the dimly lit cabin with eyes bright, grinning from ear to ear.

“He’ll never find us in there!” one of the children whispered as they hurried in.

As he watched the children enter the hidden room, he found himself wishing it to be true. Once the last child was in, he too entered the hidden room, whispering words of arcane as he put the barrels back into place before closing the door and hurrying over to join the children at the far end of the cabin. It was there they sat, amongst the barrels of spice and mist, waiting in silence for the coming storm, wishing for it to pass them by.

How long they waited, he did not know, but wait they did. Soon, sleep began to claim the children, but he remained vigilant, and it was not long before he was the only one awake. Then, just as he was about to allow himself hope, he heard it.

It was faint, but unmistakable. Claws dragging briefly over wood. Then another. And then another. Eight claws…two hounds. Their hunters. With his heart in his throat, he clasped the stone in his pocket tightly as he whispered a prayer to every deity he knew, and in that dimly lit cabin, he prayed and listened as the hounds came closer, and closer, and closer still. Then, as his breath came in snatches, he heard the hounds walk past and continue on.

The elation that washed over him was indescribable. They’d done it, they’d actually done it! With a grin as wide as could be, he turned to stare at the sleeping children, but it was at that moment of triumph that fate dealt its cruellest blow of the night.

“I must say, you smugglers never cease to amaze me.”

Startled, he turned his gaze towards the door, and what he saw sank his heart to a depth he’d never known before. The boy, the monster, he stood before them, smirking. Quivering, the old pirate rose before taking an unsteady step forward, then another. In the dim light, he could not see the boy’s eyes, a fact he was grateful for, for he had stared into that abyss once before, and he would choose death of any kind to not do so again.

“H-how did you—?” he began.

“The door? Please, such toys are beneath me.”

“But nobody’s—”

“Just because you mortals can no longer sense the arcane like in the old days, doesn’t mean I no longer can. You would have to be brain-addled not to sense the magic of those wards. Or mortal, I suppose.”

“Please, we—”

Once again his words were cut short, except this time it was by the swirling smoke that spun to life on either side of the boy, smoke that formed into two vicious hounds. A startled gasp came from behind him.

“What do you want from us?” he demanded, fighting the urge to turn to the children.

“What do I want?” the boy asked, his brow furrowing.

“Yes! What do you want from us?”

The boy smiled. “Oh, my dear pirate, can’t you guess?”

The old pirate finally turned to the children, and as he gazed at their terrified faces, his heart wept. Shaking his head, he turned back to the boy.

“Please,” he begged. “They’re only children.”

With his smile turning to a grin, the boy chuckled.

“I know,” he said at last.

Then the hounds lunged forth.

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