Today is publication day for the first Gallow book, The Crimson Shield, by Nathan Hawke. You’ll notice it on the shelves because it has no cover type, and because of the big bloke with the axe. We suggest not annoying him. Here is another short piece of Gallow fiction for you, and don’t forget our competition for signed copies here. Enjoy!
7 – Grumpy Jonnic
Some days it seemed that every other Marroc in Andhun was called Jonnic. The harbour was full of them. There was Angry Jonnic and Laughing Jonnic and Fat Jonnic and Thin Jonnic and about a dozen others. Now and then, Grumpy Jonnic wished he’d been bald or red-headed or something else more obvious, but fate had endowed him with a dour demeanour and an unremarkable unkempt appearance, and so Grumpy Jonnic he was, like it or not. It was little consolation that he was often right about how things could turn out worse than they looked. The Vathen horde drawing the forkbeards back from across the sea, there was a thing. He’d seen that coming clear as the sun, and now here they were. He did his best to avoid them but it wasn’t always so easy.
Valaric sat across the table. He had more scars than Jonnic remembered, most of them on the inside. The men with him were the Marroc soldiers from Lostring Hill. Years ago they’d all fought the forkbeards together and lost. Jonnic reckoned you got a sixth sense for that sort of thing. They ought to have been friends, but something about them unsettled him. And then the Vathen had come.
He took a deep swig of ale and glared at the other two Jonnics beside Valaric, Angry and Silent. “There’s a lot of them. Two thousand or so and more coming every day. They’re eating everything and drinking the place dry.” He spat on the floor. “This lot are demonwhores, that’s for sure. With the demon himself living in our whore of a duke’s keep.”
“Turns out the Widowmaker didn’t die at Lostring Hill after all, and never mind what–”
“You think that’s news here?” Jonnic hawked up a gob of phlegm. “You’re getting slow, Valaric. The Widowmaker came through the gates this afternoon.”
The look Valaric gave him after that was odd. Shifty, maybe. Troubled. “The Vathen are looking for him,” he said after a bit. “I was wondering whether to help them, or whether that was a bad idea. What’s this Medrin like?”
Jonnic spat again. “Twelvefingers the demon-prince? Worst of the lot.” He looked around, nervous. You never knew who was listening. There were the good Marroc, the ones like Valaric that you could trust. Then there were the bad Marroc, the ones who’d sell you out for a handful of pennies. Most of the men sitting and drinking in the riverside tavern were men he knew but there were always a few strangers. He leaned forward. “He’s the one who’s been hanging people up in the square. So fond of his bloody ravens you’d think he was married to one. Even his own kinsmen don’t seem to like him that much, but they still do what he says. Don’t know if the Widowmaker’s any better but he can’t be any worse. Funny, him showing up. Even the demonbeards thought he’d died at Fedderhun. Been drinking toasts to the end of his damned soul all week, we have.”
Valaric twitched. “Turns out he didn’t die after all. How many men here you trust?”
“In Andhun?” Jonnic shook his head. “Fifty, maybe. Don’t know they’d take up arms against the Widowmaker though. Don’t know that I would either.”
“You’ve seen what they’re doing to us,” snarled Valaric. “You happy with that?”
“’Course I’m not bloody happy!” Jonnic growled right back at him. “But what are you going to do with fifty swords, Valaric?”
“Make it two hundred.”
“And then what? Against two thousand forkbeards led by the Widowmaker?” He laughed. “I don’t mind swinging an axe for you, Valaric, but not when there’s no point. You’ll get us killed for nothing and then this prick Twelvefingers, he’ll decimate the city. He’ll not baulk at murdering women and children, this one. You’ll have the streets swimming red with his bloody ravens.”
“You get your men ready for the call, Jonnic, and then we’ll see. There might be two thousand of them now but there won’t be so many when the Vathen are done.”
Jonnic shook his head. “They smashed the Vathen already, Valaric. You’re too late.”
“No. I’ve seen their army and that was just the start.” Valaric got up. “My money would be on the Vathen, if I had any. Doesn’t really matter though, does it? Whoever wins, you don’t suppose they’re just going to wave and go home? That’s not what they do. And this time it’ll be worse, because if it’s the forkbeards, we’ll just let them shove sticks up our arses and then ask for more. Like we already are.”
Jonnic watched him go. That’s not what they do. He was right about that. Valaric had had a family once. Wasn’t the forkbeards that had killed them either. Just a winter that had been sharp and harsh, a wasting disease among the animals, and the whole village had simply frozen and starved to death, every last one of them. There were whispers of an Aulian shadewalker, but Valaric blamed the demonbeards. If he hadn’t been off fighting them, he’d have been in his home. He could have saved them or else died with them, one or the other.
Jonnic finished his drink and got up. When three forkbeards followed him out it didn’t seem that strange, not with so many of them in the city these days. Not until he turned down an alley to the river and they still they followed him and then stopped to watch while he took a piss into the Isset. By then he knew he was going to die.
He turned. “So what do you three ugly nioingr want then?”
They closed around him. All three had knives at their belts and Jonnic had nothing, so he lunged at the nearest, pushed him backwards and pulled out the man’s knife for himself. The other two grabbed him as he did it, one from each side. He stabbed backwards with the knife and one of the forkbeards grunted and fell away. The other one pulled him hard, spinning him around and head-butted him. Jonnic staggered. For a moment the night was filled with stars.
Arms tackled him from the side, lifting him up and throwing him down. He stabbed out with the knife again but this time they caught his arm.
“Maker-Devourer! The little mare’s killed me!” He caught sight of a flying boot in time to turn his face away. It smashed into the side of his head in an explosion of noise and light and pain. Someone stamped on his hand and he dropped the knife. He screamed as they broke his fingers. When he looked up he could see that one of the three demonbeards was clutching his side, blood seeping through his fingers. After that he lay curled in a ball while they kicked him and stamped on him and cursed. Traitor! Bare-face! Nioingr! Feeble-finger! Mare! Caught one last glimpse of the stars as one of the forkbeards lifted a stick of wood and brought it down, and then nothing until a shock of cold water roused him again.
They’d thrown him into the river. Into the Isset. He felt the pull of the water dragging him towards the sea, dragging him down and sucking him under.
And then the darkness again.