Extract / Preview: Foul Tide’s Turning by Stephen Hunt

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It was cold coming out of the east in winter, a biting chill that even the flames from the burning, overturned wooden coach couldn’t cover, nor the whipping snowstorm conceal. Young Thomas Purdell – Tom to those in his confidence – suspected he might not live long enough to warm himself at the wreckage’s inferno, though; not the way the bandits were working their way through the surviving passengers. So far, they had only slit the throats of those travellers who’d put up a struggle while resisting the sudden attack. Tom was far from hopeful he was out of the woods yet. It was hard to question a dead man or woman; and this attack wasn’t quite as it appeared. Not that the wilds of Northern Weyland weren’t infested with bandits and marauders. But such men usually rode cheap nags and carried old single-shot rifles. These eight killers were suspiciously well-equipped with lever-action rifles from the Landsman Repeating Arms Company, and though Thomas wasn’t much of a judge of mounts, their horses were healthy grain-fed sorrel-coloured steeds rather than the usual nags rustled as prizes by the likes of these. The dirty and well-patched clothes were fully in keeping with their supposed ignoble profession, however.

‘You’ve not got much on you,’ noted the bandit chief, placing himself in front of Tom. He carried a short sabre on his belt that lent him a piratical  air.

Tom glanced at the prisoners on either side of him; a well-dressed traveller on his left, and one of the coach’s surviving drivers to his right. They cowered, not meeting their captors’ eyes, and were about as much use to Tom as trying to warm his hands on ice-cubes. As useless in a fight as the two women, a pair of sisters, from a southern city whose name he had already forgotten. Staying silent to avoid attracting attention; as the only two women on the coach, they had already failed in that task.

‘I’m a simple journeyman from the Guild of Librarians, travelling to my new order,’ said Tom. He tried to keep them talking. Keep them conversing long enough, and they might start to see him as a human being, rather than just another mark that needed robbing and killing. Sadly, Tom reckoned that basic tradecraft might not apply here. These men, he suspected, would share a feast with you, laugh at all your jokes, and then happily slit your throat at supper’s end, before lifting your wallet. ‘What wealth the guild has sits on its shelves. Archives,’ Tom added, ‘that are very well protected inside our guild holds.’

‘Anyone would think there were thieves abroad,’ laughed the chief. He waved a leather tube, the wax seal at the end broken. Tom groaned aloud. That had been well concealed inside his luggage tied to the coach roof. Not well hidden enough, it seemed, from the expert fingers of these dangerous, desperate men. Tapping the tube against his palm, the bandit removed a thick paper scroll and turned it around to reveal… a list of numbers scratched by hand in black ink. ‘And what the hell is this, then?’

‘A cipher.’

‘I know it’s a bloody cipher. What’s it say?’

‘I don’t carry the means to decrypt it,’ said Tom. ‘In all likelihood, it’s just a message of greeting from the Master of the Codex at my last library to my new master. The old girl was never happy with my work. She’s probably telling Master Lettore to watch me like a hawk in case I slack off.’

The bandit leader snorted. ‘That’s not going to be a problem for your guild boss anymore, simple librarian, trust me. If you know anything about what’s really written on this, I could make things go a lot easier for you.’

‘It’s encrypted,’ said Tom. ‘And you don’t send the key with the man. It’s not how the guild does things.’

‘Pity,’ said the bandit. Tom didn’t get the feeling he meant it was going to be a pity for the raiders. He swivelled toward the prisoner kneeling next to Tom, a slick dark-haired passenger with a jutting chin and a tanned neck enclosed by a starched white collar and dark red tie. ‘What about you, fancy pants? Where’re you travelling?’

‘Northhaven prefecture,’ said the passenger. ‘I’m a salesman for the Turnage Machinery Manufacturory, selling horseless ploughs and subsoilers to the landowners up that way.’

There was a ripple of discontent among the bandits at this news. ‘Ah,’ said their chief. ‘You’ll have to forgive my boys. Many of them were labourers on farms in the eastern plains . . . until their landlords cleared them out and stole their fields when they couldn’t make rent. What a hoot, eh? All those machines that can work land using just a tenth of the labour; such generous harvests they produce, and your family still dies of hunger when you can’t find work. I think that’s what they call irony, isn’t it?’ He kicked Tom in the ribs; painful, but meant as a gentle nudge. ‘What do you say, Mister Guild of Bloody Books? That’s irony, isn’t it?’

Tom nodded. ‘That’s one word for it.’

‘Yeah,’ said the chief, tugging a thumb behind his leather bandoleer. ‘I thought it was.’

‘Why are you doing this?’ asked Thomas Purdell. ‘Attacking a coach on the road? If we had money, we’d be travelling with a Guild of Rails train. If we had real money, we’d be flying.’

‘If I had wings, I’d attack merchant carriers in the sky. If I had a hundred more men and powder to blow the rails, I’d bushwhack a train and damn their high-and-mighty guild. As it is, you grass-suckers are my marks today. You see, there’s always someone worse off than yourself,’ said the bandit chief, pulling out his sabre. Its steel almost glowed in the white of the snowstorm. ‘The trick is to make sure that those worse off stay that way, while stuffing your own pockets. Just ask those landowners out east. Besides, it’s not just money that travels by road. Sometimes secrets do, too.’ He nodded at his men. There was a scream from the two sisters as the bandits dragged them closer to the burning coach, ripping the women’s dresses as they hauled them away. It looked like the marauders intended to stay warm by the coach’s wreck, at any rate. Tom cursed the old harpy of a guild mistress who had forbidden him to travel with a pistol. Librarians are not soldiers, she had archly instructed him. Knowledge is our weapon. Maybe he could try braining the bandit chief with the single book he carried as a gift to the new library. The Philosophies of Holtus. God knows, Tom had found it hard enough to penetrate the text . . . maybe its weight would concuss this fiend long enough to escape through the snow.

The travelling salesman tried to get to his feet, mumbling a protest about his ill-treatment after handing over his coins, but the bandit chief merely plunged his sabre into the multi-coloured threads of the man’s tweed jacket, adding a spreading stain of crimson to the rich fibres. Tom stared down at the salesman’s corpse as it collapsed to the hard, icy ground. Neatly and efficiently done.

The bandit chief winked at Tom, as though they were just exchanging pleasantries at a local tavern. ‘That’s man’s work, sticking someone to put ’em in the ground. Haven’t designed any dishonest machine to do that yet. Why waste a bullet, eh?’

Tom heard the words whisper out of the white, like jagged ice pushing in on the snowstorm. ‘It’s not a waste.’ The wind rose like a detonation. Just as Thomas Purdell thought he might have imagined the words, the sabre clattered to the ground, falling from the bandit chief’s fingers; the marauder staring in shock as a pool of bubbling blood spread across his chest, a mirror image of the wound he had just inflicted on his hapless prisoner. A snow-swallowed silhouette moved at the margins of the blizzard, barely visible, and Tom was deafened by the rippling explosions of two pistols being fired simultaneously, little arrows of flame marking each shot. A grey ghoul emerged from the white-out, cloaked in wolf fur, twin long-barrelled pistols smoking, hot gunmetal leaving a trail of vapour drifting behind as though the weapons had sucked up the souls of the departed only to expel them through its barrels. But this wasn’t a ghoul. It was a man concealed by a fur cape, only his face really visible. Why was there no return fire? Tom cast his eyes back. Four bandits lay scattered across the snow, crimson blemishes spreading where the men had fallen, three more had tumbled into the blazing shell o  the coach, the two sisters shivering in the gusting wind, speechless, too shocked even to scream at the sight of the raiders charcoaling in the flames. Thomas Purdell hadn’t registered enough shots to match the number of fatalities. But there must have been, unless the man cloaked in wolf fur had found a way to dispatch multiple victims with a single bullet. It had all occurred impossibly fast . . . or maybe it was just impossible. ‘There’s a fork down the road which you passed a little while before the raiders hit you,’ said the figure. He had the kind of voice a ghoul should possess. Deep, sonorous, commanding. He crossed to the trees where the coach’s surviving horses had been tied up by the bandits, released them and led them back to the driver. ‘Follow it for ten minutes . . . you’ll arrive at a farm run by a family called the Proillas. They’re good people. They’ll take you in until Northhaven Township sends a patrol out to escort you.’

The figure walked back into the white-out and returned, leaning forward on a horse as if he was communing with the storm. Concentrating, in the event more raiders stalked the night. Tom watched the man pass before turning to their surviving driver. ‘Is he a scout for the army?’

‘That’s the pastor of Northhaven,’ said the driver.

‘Pastor? You mean a churchman? What kind of churchman is that?’ ‘The kind that’s been through hell, I reckon,’ said the driver. ‘A while back the town was hit by slavers. They killed half the folks and stole most of the rest young enough to be worth stealing, murdered the pastor’s wife and kidnapped his son. It was the pastor that went after the missing people. Went out as one man. Came back as another.’

That was a familiar tale. ‘What’s his name?’ ‘Jacob Carnehan.’

‘He’s the man I was sent to find,’ said Tom.

He grabbed one of the horse’s reins from the driver’s hand, mounted it and rode into the snow after the pastor, catching up with the churchman shortly after. Despite the fierce weather, he didn’t seem to be in any hurry; just advancing steadily through the storm as though it belonged to him. ‘My name’s Tom Purdell and I have a message for you. It needs to be taken to the librarian’s hold in Northhaven to be decrypted.’

‘You knew the message was for me? You should have told the bandit leader. He might have spared your life.’

‘He wouldn’t have,’ said Tom, swaying uncertainly on his borrowed horse. It was still skittish; after being halted, cut from the train, rustled and made a witness to two massacres in a single evening, Tom could hardly blame it. In fact, he knew how it felt. He took a closer look at the man he had been sent to find. As straight, tall and sharp as a razor; a big man in his late middle age with hard, knowing eyes fit to unpeel a man’s soul. His movements were careful and close, spare and measured. But he could explode into violence at speeds that should be impossible for anything mortal. Tom had already seen that. Can a devil be a churchman… can a stealer? Things here weren’t exactly what they seemed.

‘No,’ said the pastor. A voice that was used to being obeyed, the word dragged over gravel. ‘He wouldn’t have. You’re not stupid, boy. I’ll give you that.’

‘Foxy enough to know those raiders had been told to raid the coach and search it for messages,’ said Tom.

‘It’s not foxes that are needed out here,’ said the pastor. ‘It’s wolves. Wolves to eat wolves.’

‘I’m just a simple librarian.’

‘I believe that as much as the bandit leader did back there,’ said Jacob Carnehan.

‘You’re a distrusting man,’ said Tom.

‘I’m alive,’ said Jacob. ‘And fixing to stay that way.’ He spat onto the ground; it froze on the way. ‘You won’t be able to reach the library until tomorrow morning, not without freezing to death. You had better come into Northhaven with me. You can stay at the rectory.’

‘My credit’s good for a hotel in town,’ said Tom.

‘And I might wake up tomorrow to find you in a ransacked hotel room with your throat slit and your message vanished,’ said Jacob. ‘The kind of news that can’t be passed down open radio relays for fear over who might intercept it, that kind has a way of attracting trouble.’

‘I’ll be safe in your rectory?’

Jacob’s eye’s narrowed to dark slits. ‘The protection of the good lord, guildsman, do you doubt it?’

Tom’s eyes drifted down to the twin pistols on his belt. And his tools.

‘I’ll stay with you, don’t worry. Is it true, Father Carnehan? You were one of  the people who brought back the true king.’

‘True king?’ said Jacob. The pastor grunted. ‘Seems there are two men who claim that title these days, which one of them did you mean . . . Marcus or Owen?’

Thomas Purdell knew when he was being teased, or perhaps tested. ‘Prince Owen. His uncle has to renounce his claim to the throne.’

‘I don’t suppose the people’s assembly is any closer to deciding the matter of who should wear the crown?’ said Jacob.

‘They’re in debate,’ said Tom.

‘That’s what assemblymen do best,’ sighed the pastor.

‘The assembly is split down the middle,’ said Tom. ‘People are talking about a war, a civil war, now. Both sides are at odds.’

‘Won’t be anything civil about it, if war comes,’ said the pastor. ‘Family against family, house against house. There’s no feud quite so vicious as a good clan feud.’

‘You didn’t answer my question,’ said Tom. ‘Were you one of the people who found Prince Owen at the end of the world and brought him back?’ Far-called, that’s what people called it. When you went travelling across a world without end, not knowing if you would ever return alive.  Or ever want to.

‘I left my home to do two things, Mister Purdell. The first was rescuing my son from a slow death in a foreign hell-hole,’ said the pastor, ‘and that I did. A lot of enslaved Weylanders escaped during the same slave revolt.’

‘Some say the prince is mad…’

‘Some do? They wouldn’t happen to be newspapers controlled by the uncle who took the throne when the young princes conveniently disappeared, would they? Held as a slave for over a decade, watching his brothers worked to death in a mine under the whip? Wouldn’t you be mad about that? I’d say Prince Owen’s mildly irked right now. When he gets mad, then the country might really be in trouble.’

There was a fury in Jacob Carnehan’s words, every bit as cold as the blizzard swirling around them. ‘You said you went out to do two things, Father. I know you found and freed your son. What was the second thing?’

‘Oh, the second’s a-coming,’ said Jacob. ‘And I’ll let you into a little secret, guildsman, by way of thanks for the encrypted message you’re carrying. I won’t have to travel far for it. This time, it’s coming straight to me.’

Tom’s eyes drifted down to the holstered pistols, steel barrels still warm and cutting a fine mist in the cold. And he thought of the eight dead bandits lying back on the road around a burning coach. Gunned down so fast and quick. Like quicksilver. Tom had never seen anything like that before, never even read of anything like it. And reading was, in theory, meant to be his trade. How many killers’ corpses would you trade for a murdered wife before you counted yourself satisfied? Tom reckoned it would depend on the man. He stared at the shadowy silhouette sharing the road and being knifed at by biting snow, and he saw the pastor as he truly was for the first time. A shadow on the world, making shadows. Safe in this man’s rectory? Like hell. Thomas Purdell suddenly realized he was caught at the heart of the storm.



Foul Tide’s Turning
Stephen Hunt
Jacob Carneham rescued his son from slavery but he may have started a war – one in which he is hopelessly overmatched – and his wits and ruthlessness will only take him so far.
Carter Carneham has gone from slave to revolutionary – but what will his ideas be worth when they come under fire?
The Carneham’s are about to find out . . .