Below are the opening two chapters of Brothers of the Knife, Book 1 of the Children of Bane series, in which we meet Hal’alak, and our unlikely hero Akmenos as he is thrust from the comfort of his kitchen into an adventure he really hadn’t planned on going on.
Akmenos only ever wanted to bake a perfect soufflé, but the murder of an elvish prince at his banquet table sweeps him into a spiral of intrigue, deception and betrayal which is bigger than even his biggest casserole dish.
Caught in a desperate struggle between warring nations and shadowy organisations, Akmenos must stay one step ahead of the sinister figures intent on hunting him down ‒ his own brothers among them ‒ while he tries to clear his name, unmask the true killer, and find a decent cup of tea.
Stumbling from one misadventure to another across continents and planes as the world and his family crumble around him, Akmenos will need to be stronger than he ever thought he could be ‒ stronger even than the blue cheese down the bottom of the larder that should’ve been thrown out months ago.
The body fell, almost graceful, a teardrop falling into oblivion, an arc of black dust twisting across the desert sky. Hal’alak admired the artistry of death and gravity before spinning again, her blade flashing. A whisper of steel, a ghostly scream, another sacrifice to the desert spirits. The carrion birds would welcome her offerings. Not waiting to watch the last one fall, she threw herself upward into the void.
The winds howled, tearing at the dusty cloth and parched leather that preserved her against the killing sun, and she ascended. None remained to stop her now; the Guardians of the Eternal Stair lay defeated in her wake. Phantom voices screamed through the shrieking wind, as the white blanket of the desert spread ever wider below. She had unlocked the gate to forever, and she would know eternity. The Guardians were meant to ensure that few achieved such glory. Only the cleverest, the most able, and the finest in battle could locate the Eternal Stair and defeat its defenders. Hal’alak had bested every challenge and had entered the void, even as it howled its defiance.
The world lay at her feet, yet she was looking heavenward. Above her swelled a blinding light. She wouldn’t raise her hand to block out this vision of glory, her glory, her triumph over death.
The pain came hot and sharp. She screamed. Blood flowed from her torn flesh like so much spilt wine, swirled towards the hungry light above, blurring her vision in a red mist.
You risk more than you can afford to pay, mortal.
Her left hand sheared away and was swept towards the light, connected to her body only by a ropy twist of pumping gore.
Legends are not all they seem to be. We accept few into our ranks, and you may yet be deemed unworthy.
Hal’alak clenched her jaw as her right hand pulled away from the bone and soared heavenward, trailing her life’s blood.
She drew a breath as the wind tried to rip it from her lungs. “I have overcome the Trickster of Qratan! I defeated the Ceredan at the Mountain of Arches! I traversed the Crystal Desert! I have beaten the Guardians and whoever you are, I will defeat you too!” Her body was a rage of agony, her skin flayed, a hunk of meat lifted and torn in a maelstrom of sand and blood.
Yet you scream in pain. Your body still matters more to you than the true glory of your ascension. The weak are not welcome here.
“I am not—” Her words choked off as an unearthly pain tore through her knee. As her lower leg spiralled past her face, she fought an overwhelming urge to vomit.
Yes. You are human. You are weak. You are nothing. You are the fodder we play with. Finding us is no more than a parlour trick. You are not the first, and you will by no means be the last. You will fall and join the ranks of the Guardians in their eternal deathwatch. You have changed nothing, achieved nothing, but your own end.
Hal’alak had come too far to fail now. She had come seeking immortality, and she would have it. “Were I no more than flesh and bone, I’d be dead already. I’ve seen strong men die with lesser wounds than you contrive upon my limbs. You speak of parlour tricks, yet it is you who deceive. I will not be denied. End this mummery now!”
The wind dropped. The light faded.
Hal’alak sank onto solid ground, her palms pressing against something soft; grass, perhaps, or moss. She was in possession of all her limbs. She allowed herself a small smile.
She raised her head and the smile faded.
Before her stood a company of men, women, and beasts, cloaked in a crawling mist like worms hungering after rotting corpses. Warriors in tattered cloaks bearing chipped weapons and dented armour stood alongside stalwart dwarves in dour chain and elves in bloody fluted platemail. They eyed her with menace. Hal’alak rocked onto her haunches, hefting her scimitars. Comforted by their cold steel, she squared her shoulders. “I’ve solved your riddles, defeated your Guardians, and seen through your illusions. I’ve proved myself worthy to join you. Accept me.” With due ceremony she stood, crossing her twin scimitars over her breast in salute; in challenge.
A figure stepped through the menagerie. Her armour was finest steel plate, polished to a shine, face hidden behind a visor. The knight drew a mighty double-handed sword the likes of which heroes of old were renowned to have brandished, in an age before the forests had fallen to the deserts. She was ancient indeed.
Hal’alak tensed. If a duel with the Queen of the Immortals would decide her fate, then she would meet the challenge just as she had faced every obstacle along the way.
The knight dipped her sword in salute.
“This is not the end of your trial, daughter. It is only the first step on your journey.”
Hal’alak narrowed her eyes, expecting a trick to catch her off-guard before the knight launched her attack. “What treachery is this?”
“No treachery. You followed myths and legends, not the truth of our path. To gain entry to the halls you must first prove your worth and your loyalty by serving our purposes for not less than five human years. If you serve us well, you will find your path back here and join us in our eternal glory. Fail, and you will be driven mad, your memories and all our secrets stripped from your mind in gibbering delirium. It is your choice; accept this task, or be cast to the desert sands, spirit and body broken, a waste of flesh in a waste of dead earth. Decide.”
“I will serve you. What must I do?”
“You will see. Goodbye, Hal’alak.”
The mists swirled in and blinded her and, for a time, all she knew was pain and the grief of what she had left behind.
“Cinnamon, you fool, not cardamom!”
Akmenos flinched as steam boiled around him, the masala’s fragrant fumes filling his nose and stinging his eyes. Tossing the pan in one gnarled hand, he grabbed a spoon and tried to scoop out the errant pods before they burst in the heat, infusing the meat with their hot edge. Personally, Akmenos liked a spot of cardamom to spice up a meal, but he was cook, not chef. If he ruined another masala, Skerrl would lash him bloody with a mixing ladle of hardest blazewood. Lifting the pan from the heat, he extracted the pods from among the anise, nutmeg, cloves, sweetroot, and rosemary stalks, and dropped them into the scullery sink. Satisfied, Akmenos returned the pan to the hotplate and reached for the butter to loosen up the masala again.
A hand gripped his wrist.
“Ghee, you imbecile. Never use raw butter in a masala. Why have I been lumbered with such an idiot?”
Akmenos bit his tongue. He preferred the smoky texture of real butter to the oily slick of the clarified stuff Skerrl insisted on using. It was an error he couldn’t have undone with a spoon. “Yes, chef,” he muttered, replacing the butter and reaching for the ghee.
One day, I will be chef, and I will use all the butter I want in my damned masala. One day I will be lord of this whole damned fortress, the whole valley as far as the eye can see, and then I will sleep and dream in butter, and I’ll write my kingly writs by the light of burning ghee. One day, Skerrl will cook for me.
A load of bollocks, and he knew it, but it didn’t hurt to pretend.
Later, as the servants delivered the spoils of the kitchen’s toils to the feasting halls, Akmenos stumped out to the lower balcony to catch a cool breath. He rubbed a sweaty hand over his knobbled horns, greasy with the muck of frying ghee. The sun had just set, leaving the mountain air crisp. The night rang with the sound of fiddles and horns, laughter and dance, as the assembled nobles enjoyed the feast, another political dinner to add to the many that had been held in the castle over the past few months. In the world beyond Kriikan, where armies roamed and wild things stalked, everything was changing. The fortunes of his nation shifted and slid like bay leaves in an oily pan. Where the Hornung empire would find itself when the flames finally leapt from the fire to the frying pan would be determined by the manoeuvrings of her armies in the field, and those of Emperor Rathrax in the feasting hall above. This is why Akmenos mattered, and why Skerrl was willing to flog him raw if he failed to deliver the most sumptuous of dishes to Rathrax’s table every night.
Or so said Skerrl. Akmenos wasn’t convinced. He doubted the fops who dined with Rathrax even tasted their food, too busy watching their opponent across the table while hiding behind a polite interest in the plated offerings.
He pulled his pipe from his inner pocket and tapped a handful of cloveweed into the bowl, sparking it with a flick of his oily nails and a simple cantrip. Puffing on the glowing leaves, he schemed, daydreamed. He may have been a warlock initiate, and his father head of the Warlock Coven, but Akmenos was the youngest of the children of Bane, being the last of his clutch of brothers to have cracked the shell of his egg. Growing up, he hadn’t performed particularly well at his lessons and, unlike his brothers, it quickly became clear that he would never be more than a lowly acolyte. For his talents or lack thereof, he had been ‘honoured’ to serve in the emperor’s kitchens, destined one day to stand, as did Skerrl, at the horned regent’s side while he ate and drank and wiped slop on his sleeves, dogs slavering at the scraps, while the kitchen staff subsisted on the leftovers. Akmenos shuddered. Much as he loved both the cooking and the eating, sometimes he fancied himself a warlock, in amongst the blood and the rage at the front lines. Taur and elf and dwarf and man, all the ancient foes of Hornung, would fall to his power, and he would know glory. Although, to be fair, war did sound like quite a lot of hard work. But that world was far away, beyond the Skullspine Mountains. Hornung was as safe as the rocky fastness that nestled Castle Kriikan in her arms. Akmenos sighed and puffed smoke.
The scream cut through the night like a cleaver through a block of lard. Akmenos looked to the windows overhead. The music had ceased, and a confused hubbub roiled from the banquet hall, along with the clatter of armed soldiers running. Akmenos grinned. At last, something was actually happening. Someone had brought the war to the hornung.
A servant rushed into the kitchen, the small bells on her horns jangling.
Akmenos tapped out his pipe and stuffed it back into his pocket. “Hey,” he called from the balcony, “what’s going on?”
The younger hornung didn’t stop, vanishing into the tunnels beneath the castle.
Akmenos slipped back into the kitchen and into the service passage, hurrying up the narrow spiral staircase and into one of the secret eaves that allowed serving staff access to the feasting hall. He peeked around the corner and his breath caught in his throat.
A hundred hornung warriors ringed the vaulted chamber, their wicked halberds glinting in the torchlight. Dishes and food lay scattered, spilt wine pooling on the floor. The guests cowered at their seats in terror, apparently stricken by the tableau at the head of the room. Emperor Rathrax was throttling someone on the table before him. Another body, an elf by the looks, lay slumped beside Rathrax, surrounded by elven warriors, their fine steel blades naked and bright. Akmenos’ father, Bane the Cursemaster, and his mother Arah, Head Seeress of the Coven, sat but a few chairs down from the assault unfolding before them. The Emperor’s mighty gilded horns jerked up and down as he lifted his victim and slammed him into the table, rattling mugs and cutlery.
Akmenos had a sudden, pressing urge to be elsewhere, anywhere but here. The dignitary had apparently been poisoned. Rathrax’s suspicions—or his rage—had flown immediately to the chef, even though Skerrl had neither the gumption nor the imagination to contemplate any such act of treachery, much less carry it out in full view of the emperor and stand at his side while the murder took place. Rathrax was not renowned for his subtlety or evenness of temper. Skerrl would surely lie to save his own hide, and Akmenos would no doubt make a suitable scapegoat.
He glanced at his mother and she met his gaze, her eyes wide with questions. Then Akmenos ran, decisions popping inside his skull like corn in a hot pan. He pelted through the kitchen, knocking down pots and crockery as he charged towards the balcony, pausing only to grab his cloak off the peg and clasp it around his neck. It was chilly outside, and he didn’t handle the cold terribly well.
He couldn’t hide in the castle depths; there would be nowhere the Coven could not find him if he were suspected of murdering the visiting nobleman. He burst onto the balcony, decision made: he would leap from the rail and make his escape. Below him was a narrow courtyard and, beyond that, the lower walls of the inner keep. The city proper extended for a mile or so before the outer keep walls held back the night. He clambered onto the rail, teetering there, the space yawning under him, cold with sudden doubt. Maybe he was being hasty. He was only one cook, after all, and Skerrl had several working for him. But none did he hate so much as he hated Akmenos. Akmenos would be the bloody sacrifice, he was certain.
Armour crashed down the stairwell, spears and swords bursting into the kitchen.
“Akmenos!” yelled a helmeted soldier. His brother Fraag, who served in the emperor’s personal guard. “Don’t move!”
Akmenos sucked his teeth, all doubt swept away. Blood would mean nothing to his brother. Blood could not buy him mercy.
And so begins Akmenos’ quest to clear his name and find a decent cup of tea, which will take him far from home, beyond the very edges of his world. Read on by picking up a copy at Amazon, or from the publisher.