Last Alley – An Excerpt from The Storm of Northreach
This is the latest excerpt from The Storm of Northreach, the sequel to The Curse of Troius, due out sometime in 2011. As of now, this is unedited, since I wrote it yesterday afternoon. It may reflect that fact. But it does give an idea of what the novels are like without giving anything away, since this the former minstrel Ternn’s first appearance anywhere. Enjoy! Or hate it. I can’t tell you what to do. But you can tell me what you think.
The pouring rain ran in a sheet down Ternn’s seamed and pinched face. He clenched his arms protectively the crude clay jug pressed against the sodden fraying remnants of his shirt. He staggered down the half-flooded road, plodding obliviously through the rank water that had risen from the lowest channels of the refuse canals that cut through the Gutters. At this point, he would have waded through a knee-deep pool of the city’s collected shit in order to reach his favored spot, now that he’d gotten his hands on enough of Icar’s rotgut to keep him in a stupor for a few days. With his treasure, he’d be able to keep the memories haunting him at bay for a little while longer.
Until he reached it, though, he’d need to endure the flashes of remembrance that still plagued him even after a near-year of subsistence in the worst part of the Antican slums. They’d steal up on him quietly, then fill his vision with images vivid enough to wrench his heart and still his lungs.
Well-lit rooms, dry and airy. Scores of faces turned towards him in anticipation. A dozen or more pairs of eyes smoldering at his, from maids to matrons to other men, all filled with promises of delights unending. He could remember the warmth of banked fires, hot meals, spiced wine that danced on the tongue instead of burrowing into his gut. The smells of cooked meat mingled with herbsmoke and the secret scent of women’s hair haunted his nostrils like unseen ghosts.
Ternn fell against the wall to his right, overwhelmed by the flood of bye-gone days as much as by the few pulls he’d allowed himself from the jug. His smeared vision took in the streets around him and the shadowy figures that stalked there. He grunted and pushed himself away from the rain-and-slime coated wall and staggered forward once more, away from the shapes that wanted his jar.
He fought his way through more memories – his once-clear voice ringing from thick wooden walls as he held a room enthralled – as he neared his destination. The mouth of the alley yawned ahead of him, shadowed and blurred in the evening downpour. He looked up at the wall that separated the near-defunct North Gate guardhouse from the rest of the Gutters and shuffled towards it. He placed his left hand, one that so deftly managed the lute strings a lifetime ago, against the ancient stone and turned towards the blank welcoming face of Last Alley, the one place Ternn could huddle with his jug in peace.
He moved forward, stepping with the practice of habit over the corpse a dozen steps away from the street. This one looked like the rats or dogs had been on him, from the spare glance he’d given it. Ragged flesh, skin torn up, a sight that would have sent the Ternn of 3 winters ago scuttering away in fright. Now he shuffled away, already forgetting the wretched corpse sprawled behind him.
He settled in to his sheltered place, a pair of cast-off boards covered with a scrap of old waxed tarp from some merchant’s wagon of a decade prior leaning against a block that had fallen from the upper stories of the building it sat against. Away from the rain, he smiled a toothless grin at the rough clay vessel he reverently lifted like an offering to Ban.
Ternn could see past the jar to the shadowy figures milling near the mouth of the alley. Gutter-rot denizens could always smell a bit of liquor, and he cradled his hand over the spike-studded stick on the ground next to him as he took a deep, eye-burning pull of the fiery liquid. He coughed raggedly for a time, eyes filled with tears, but the warmth was already spreading as he looked back up.
He watched as the man he’d stepped over clambered awkwardly to his feet, a few steps ahead of the other shadows approaching him. A dim memory, newer than the rest, wanted his attention, but another quick nip kept it at bay. He sighed, the sound of a man who has finished a hard day’s work now bothered with a new unwanted task, and crawled out of his meager lean-to.
He hefted the stick in his hands, the jar crouching behind him as he stepped forward to defend it. Usually the sight of him was enough to frighten the others away. Ragged and used-up as he was, he was still just over twenty summers old, and still younger and stronger than the wrung-out rats that ended up in Last Alley.
This time he resigned himself to using the stick, as the half-dozen figures moaned and reached out towards him. His only swing smashed into the arm of the ravaged half-eaten man he’d stepped over. Undaunted, the rest of the clutching hands fell over him, gripping his wrists and arms, preventing him from lifting the club again.
Ternn’s scream echoed in the narrow channel of the alley as the rending teeth tore into him, reaching a pitch he’d been unable to achieve in years, as he’d made his way down the path of seedier taverns and Gutter-pits, ending in Last Alley, where the former residents chewed him up and swallowed him, accompanied by the ringing sound of his voice.