Read the first few pages of FLESH GOLEM (IronScythe Sagas Book One)
And from the dark unknown came a hooded avenger, a sable-weaved nemesis branded with living iron whose will it was to destroy all works of delving. His name? He had many over the great swathe of his lifetime, but history remembers him only as… Scowl.
The IronScythe Sagas, Cairn
WITH AN irritated flurry, King-Emperor Jhaz’Elrad and his entourage burst into the Reeving Chamber—a vast, lop-sided cauldron of a room with a vaulted ceiling and high open windows. The space, like all others in Castle Fangarra, was built from thin blocks of soot-coloured shale rudely cemented together and smoothed into swirls of black and white striating lines. A coarse wind blew steadily, groaning like a dying child, turning wall-mounted cressets red, their embers glowing and smoking. A pale imitation of the King-Emperor’s own plush quarters.
Fools and idiots! This place stinks of them, thought Jhaz’Elrad, pulling his rich furs close against the cold and nodding towards his perfumers. The Archon has gone too far this time. I am not some vassal at his disposal. I am King!
A crowd waited in the dimness, but they did not notice the entrance of their liege. The King-Emperor was about to rectify that with an indignant shout, but stopped in his tracks. A monster lay in the centre of the chamber. An ugly naked pile of distorted, twisted limbs, staked to the floor under a net of ropes. The creature moaned unintelligibly, its voice blending with the wind. Keening. Lost. Hands, darting like hunting spiders, lurched from the abnormal body and scrabbled at the uneven paving stones.
The king did a double take. Is it a man?
“Make way for his eminence, King-Emperor Jhaz’Elrad!”
The crowd parted, some tripping over their own feet to get out of the way of the rapidly approaching entourage. Jhaz’Elrad strode forward onto a raised dais of carved, filigreed stone and ascended his throne.
Archon Glave—a rotund, self-satisfied tub of a man with an appetite for politics that outshone his liege—bowed. “Your Eminence.”
For a second, Jhaz’Elrad entertained the notion of kicking the man in his fat backside, but thought better of it. “You dare to summon me,” he whispered. “You go too far.”
Glave straightened, his plump hands coming together in a fleshy union atop his immense belly, a half-apologetic smile plastered across his face. A single wart squatted in the crease of his nose like a red berry. “Forgive me, Eminence, if I took you away from any… important matters of state,” he said with the barest flick of his eyebrows, “but a situation has arisen requiring your presence.” He nodded towards the foul creature and grimaced.
“Do not push your King-Emperor too far, Archon. You overstep your mark.” Jhaz’Elrad paused. The Archon was the kingdom’s magistrate, his direct representative who dealt with petty squabbles and disputes. A small man with a lot of power. He tapped his sceptre, a rod of black fenneral (the hardest and most expensive of all stones) against the Archon’s bulbous chest. Both men knew the significance of the gesture. One word from the king and Glave’s life would be forfeit.
His smile did not waver. “I apologise most humbly, oh wise one.”
The king sat back and shrugged. The Archon knows his worth. But no one is indispensable. “You better have a good explanation for interrupting my private recreations.”
“A fool young noble of the court has been murdered.”
“As fool young nobles tend to be. But a simple death does not warrant the presence of the King-Emperor.”
“Quite…” The Archon’s gaze fell once again on the gibbering creature. He shuddered in revulsion.
“If this monster is responsible, then put it to death. Such a thing does not deserve life, so foul is its countenance.”
The crowd heard the king’s words and jeered.
“They want blood, Archon. Why don’t you give it to them?”
The creature raised itself upon shaky elbows and stared pitifully, raw pleading on features dominated by an awful beak—a nose so distorted and discoloured that Jhaz’Elrad’s foot twitched involuntarily. How I would like to plant it firmly between those close-set eyes and smash asunder. “Well?”
The Archon’s mammoth jowls quivered. “As ever, Eminence, things are not as simple as they appear. I believe this thing is known to you. It is called… Scowl.”
Jhaz’Elrad nodded. The name had recently come to his attention. He never normally listened to the dreary Spymaster—a small, dead-eyed Oldivian—or read his even duller reports, but the name had caught his interest. “If this is indeed Scowl, I now know why his reputation is so loathsome.”
The monster’s head twitched; it dribbled and choked. A ruin of a face lay half-hidden by a swathe of thick hair shining reddish-black in the flickering cresset-light. Hands clasped and unclasped as if searching for something.
The gathering hooted and wailed, anger rising to a crescendo. The King-Emperor lifted his black-fenneral sceptre, and the crowd, eager to get on, immediately quieted. Below, the ominous boom of waves sounded against the castle walls. Rain beat upon wooden shutters. In the distance, a hefty door banged in the whistling wind.
The Archon pulled himself up to his full height and gestured to a thin weasel of a man in the King-Emperor’s own weavery. “Captain Shyk, his Eminence grows impatient. Your report please.”
Shyk, swarthy, unshaven, with a weak chin and rat-like eyes proudly displayed a bandaged arm. “My liege.” He bowed deeply before addressing the court, his voice a reedy sneer. “Part of my duties are to patrol the harbour town for vagabonds, drifts and—unsuitables who land unwanted upon our shores. After all, we cannot allow everyone free access to our fair land, now can we?” He smiled, revealing a set of yellow and black teeth.
The gathering showed its agreement vigorously.
“A loud disturbance brought my attention to the Lower End,” Skyk continued, seemingly eager to retell his tale, “where, to my horror, I found this creature in violent disagreement with the young noble, Radd Krall. There was quite a crowd around the disturbance and, as is my duty, Eminence, I tried to make word and break the argument. When Radd pulled back the monster’s hood, it looked at me with such an abhorrence of features that I knew my life was in danger. I lunged at it, but the thing had an unnatural weapon that smashed my sword. In the same motion, this dark blade stabbed Radd Krall through, pinning him to the quayside. Killed him dead as I watched. I’m not slow to act, Eminence, I hit the creature hard, knocking it over and, thankfully, he dropped that evil sword into the harbour. Without its weapon, a sort of change came over it. Knew he’d met his better, I suppose, although it took me and many brave helpers to disarm him of a smaller blade. Cut me up a treat.” He proffered his injured arm again as evidence.
The Archon pursed fleshy lips, his eyes wet and intent. “Have you any notion what this disagreement was about?”
“None, other than it ended in poor Radd Krall’s death. I would’ve finished the monster there and then, but I know your rules.” Shyk looked at the prone wretch with undisguised malice. “This creature was a passenger upon a recently arrived ship. The same ship as the murdered noble.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Jhaz’Elrad leaned in close to the Archon. “This is all very interesting, Archon Jarvid Glave,” he whispered. “But I am losing my patience.”
The Archon baulked for the first time. It was said that if Jhaz’Elrad used your full name, it would be written on your tombstone soon after. He swallowed hard. “King-Emperor,” he replied with all the reverence he could muster. “It was not my will to summon you, but the law states that only the king can grant a reprieve and this matter is… complicated.”
“You want me to set this vile monster free?”
Before the Archon could answer, an old man approached the throne, a gnarled wooden staff held high before him. Intent blue eyes sparkled from a ruddy, weathered face framed by voluminous silver hair and an impressive white beard. “If I may be permitted to speak,” he said, his voice powerful and loud for one so aged.
The King-Emperor recognised him. Dracus Krall. An ambitious noble who long ago fell foul of my father’s court. What does the old fool want?
Glave nodded. “Say your piece, Dracus, the King-Emperor is waiting.”
The old man bowed, although his eyes remained fixed on Jhaz’Elrad. “The guilt of this creature is not in doubt, King-Emperor, but I have come to this Reeve to request weregild for my dead son, Radd Krall.”
The chamber exploded in uproar.
“He was slain guiltless,” continued Dracus, “and as such I claim a price be paid for this action. The Archon has many powers, but only you, my King, can grant me this boon. ”
“A weregild, you say? How very, very interesting.” The King-Emperor glared at Glave who shrugged. Be-ringed fingers stroked thoughtfully at his elegantly trimmed beard. “Do you not demand his death?”
“What I demand is not so unreasonable, if you will let me explain my motives, oh wise one.”
The King-Emperor nodded and the crowd sank back into expectant silence.
“I know this creature you all abhor.” Dracus’ eyes played over the twitching, prisoner. “His name is Scowl, yet in far lands and courts he has many other names. He is Blackbeak, the Iron-bane, the Hooded Scourge of Delving. He is dark; marked by the Gyre and is not as we see him now for he is incomplete. He roams the land in search of woe, seeking out the unforgettable arts of delving to which he is inextricably bound. It is his purpose to find such vile works and destroy them.”
A flash from the open windows and thunder rumbled from high above. The idiot upon the floor shivered and moaned.
“This is indeed most fascinating,” said the King-Emperor with feigned disinterest, “please, do carry on.”
Dracus bowed. “For many generations my family has held a murky secret, something so shadowy and worrisome that we have dared not speak of it openly.” The old man’s hypnotic voice reverberated in the Reeving Chamber, hissing around the smooth walls with a trailing whisper like that of a serpent. “A creature from the far past bedevils us, haunts our ancestral home of Keep Krall. A golem of watery flesh created by delving, a murderous thing bent upon the obliteration of our family.”
The gathering drew back in horror. Cressets flickered, casting ghostly shadows in the gloom.
“It prevailed against all attempts at its destruction, and my House is prevented from returning to halls that were crafted for living and joy. The King-Emperor may not be aware, but I am an accomplished scribe. I find pleasure in history and myth, in augury and oracle. On an old, yellowed family parchment, a renowned seer foretold that the slayer of this golem would one day arrive unwanted in this land, and that woe would surround him. I heard of Scowl’s presence upon the Oldivan Isles and dispatched Radd to find him. My son was as ever rash and unbelieving. How I regret the day I sent a mere boy on an old man’s errand. How unwanted can this Scowl be to me?” He bowed his head in anguish. “My weregild is this: release the prisoner, return his evil weapons and dispatch him at once to destroy this golem—as is his wont!”
The King-Emperor’s face darkened.
“Despite appearances,” the Archon whispered to Jhaz’Elrad, “and the boasts of those who captured him, this Scowl is a powerful warrior, dangerous and unworldly.”
“Just look at it; I see no danger in this poor, twisted wretch.”
The Archon’s head gave the barest twitch to the negative. “I have also taken counsel from the Spymaster. We both agree. There is more to this Scowl than meets the eye. We should think twice before we release such a creature into the protection of someone who craves power so openly.”
Jhaz’Elrad breathed deeply. “For once, Archon, I agree. But as you know full well, my hands are tied in this matter. Now finish this. I am a busy man.”
Glave bowed and turned his attention back to the chamber. “That is indeed a revelation, Dracus Krall, I better understand the many enigmas of your family, and the shadow cast upon you and your kin. The King-Emperor is honour-bound to comply with your wishes but—this creature, this Scowl—can you be sure of its compliance?”
Dracus Krall’s eyes narrowed. “I mourn my son, but I also mourn all my family dead. I would place them all against my belief in Scowl’s destiny. The King-Emperor cannot deny me this request. Radd was of my blood and is my blood. The weregild must be given.”
Jhaz’Elrad rose to his feet. “So be it.”
“If my King-Emperor will grant me one more request?”
“I understand you are grieving, Dracus Krall,” said Jhaz’Elrad with menace, “but do not take liberties with your King. It is enough that against my will and better judgment I grant you this weregild. Do not risk my further displeasure.” He fingered his heavy sceptre, the symbol of his authority.
“I would never risk your discontent, Eminence,” Dracus replied bowing. “I ask only that my brother-daughter, Vareena, accompany the quest, to see it done. I have trust in her. A long time ago, my greatest ancestor sealed Keep Krall with an enchantment. Its knowledge passed down from first born to first-born, from father to son and father to daughter. That knowledge now rests with her. Only she, as guardian of that knowledge, can open the Keep of Krall.”
Jhaz’Elrad stared into the old man’s eyes, yet could not divine his purpose. “Guardian or not, you would send a child on an adult’s quest?” he asked with ill-disguised irritation.
A shout brought the King-Emperor’s attention to a girl in her late teens standing close to Dracus Krall. She was tall, her noble birth showing in high cheekbones and defiant eyes shining emerald green even in the smoky gloom of the chamber. She wore the light-brown weave of a fighter: tightly fitting functional leathers that did nothing to diminish her well-proportioned limbs. A well-crafted yet discoloured sword of fenneral, the weapon-stone, rested at her side, its individual crystal facets catching flashes from the cresset-light. Lank-blonde hair hung upon her shoulders.
Jhaz’Elrad’s eye was pleased at her beauty, hidden, as it was, behind a boyish demeanour.
Undaunted, Vareena spoke up, her voice loud and adamant. “I’ve no understanding why my uncle has chosen weregild, nor why he should choose to reveal family secrets to open Reeve. But I’m no child. If it’s his wish for me to accompany the quest—then so be it.”
Dracus placed a protective arm around Vareena’s muscled shoulders, his eyes unwavering. “I must humbly ask for my king’s apology. I do not wish to force his hand. But he must understand my family have been waiting generations for the fulfilment of this prophecy.”
The Archon whispered once again in the King-Emperor’s ear. “We cannot allow this creature freedom to roam our lands. Nor give in to Dracus’ obvious ambition.”
Jhaz’Elrad shrugged, catching the eye of his favourite courtier. “As you know full well, I do not share your interest in the affairs of state. I prefer the simpler pleasures.” Here is a perfect opportunity for my power-hungry Archon to earn his keep. “Do what you will.”
The Archon bowed. “Thank you Eminence. This will not end here, I promise.”
Jhaz’Elrad addressed the chamber. “It is a dangerous game you play, Dracus Krall.” He let his eyes roam over the tight form of Vareena and frowned. “Try to make sure you do not lose many more family members, or your House will fall…” He descended the steps and strutted out of the Reeving Chamber. Behind him, the gathering erupted into discussion.
VAREENA KRALL made her way down into the deep warren of Castle Fangarra. A bleak place built high upon an elongated headland. Pointed spires jutted up from a buttress of shiny obsidian—like teeth from a wolf’s blackened jawbone. Hence its fanciful name. Far below, the sea pounded and smashed against the ebony-coloured rock and slowly yielding walls.
This was Oldiva, the far most western land of Arn’s northern continent. It scythed into a cold sea that provided most of their living, for this was a barren land where bare slate held the sway over rare clumps of evergreen. Trade with the Unbidden Isles and the southern dominions of Domarland, Gula and K’Bith made for a more market-based economy, but if not for Ariva to the east, there would be nothing other than dried fish to survive the bad seasons.
Like all lands upon Arn, Oldiva changed under the Gyre. Now, as the extended summer of Goldering ended, it had become a forsaken place of freezing rains and harsh sea gales.
The under-keep was a pokey maze of hidden alcoves and snakelike tunnels. In the coming winter months of Bluster, these passages would fill with those eager to survive the near constant blizzards that buried everything under hundreds of feet of snow. Families lived where they could until the snowfall became thick enough to carve out snow-homes. Every day, new mouths arrived keen for repayment of the levy—a hoard of dried fish, wheat, meats and berries stored in immense larders. Food enough to feed the castle and its levyers through the bad seasons. Until those snows arrived, accommodation was in short supply. Disputes were commonplace and the under-castle a place to be avoided.
Decked and ready for the journey, her favourite sword of fenneral at her side, Vareena appeared especially menacing. And that’s what confused her. Uncle Dracus frowned upon her tomboyish ways. Being a woman of noble birth, it was a constant battle for her to resist the many arrangements of the court.
He’s up to something, thought Vareena, furrowing her brows. Why else would Dracus reveal the family shame before the King-Emperor and set me on what he considers such an ‘unwomanly’ task? Vareena knew the answer: Only I hold the hidden enchantment of opening. Only I may enter that imposing ruin of rock and stone. Not that I want to. Dracus had tried to extract the secret from her, but she’d resisted. I promised my father to never reveal that knowledge, and I‘ll not break such a sacred vow.
Keep Krall once outshone Castle Fangarra. For countless generations this golem had eroded her family’s power and influence that, if not so tainted, could have rivalled Jhaz’Elrad himself. Dracus often reminded her of this. Her family had waited many passes of the Gyre for this Scowl. No matter how she may resent the responsibility, she did not have the power to refuse. If I am anything, I am a Krall. I may dislike my uncle, but I will not let my father’s House down.
With heavy feet and low spirits, she reached the dungeon level—a rank place regularly flooded by the sea. The weasel-like captain waited for her.
“Greetings Vareena Krall,” Shyk said, flicking his small, black eyes over her leather-clad body, his nasal voice amplified in the confined space. “And my commiserations on your sad loss.”
Vareena furrowed her eyebrows, unwilling to discuss her unfortunate cousin. She knew the militia well, and how their gossip often featured the brother-daughter of Dracus Krall. Some of it angry that a noble woman was allowed to wander the castle dressed provocatively in fighting weaves, others salacious and unsavoury. Shyk’s performance at the Reeve had done nothing to commend him. She found his small-mindedness difficult to tolerate. And if he looks at me like that one more time, he’ll feel the flat of my blade where he least wants it.
“It’s a sad business, this. I’d welcome the chance to finish the fiend, yet—”
Vareena drew breath and shook her head. I hate to admit it, but I agree with the nasty little captain. “Where is the creature?”
She didn’t relish the impending meeting, yet her uncle had assured Vareena that this Scowl wasn’t the idiot he seemed—and Dracus never made idle statements. She followed Shyk into a cell lit by a single cresset. Tense-looking militiamen jumped to attention.
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