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1. All Things Have A Beginning
(A twenty-minute read)
In the darkest corner of the Mud Witch Tavern, a red patch of light glowed urgently amber before fading to crimson. This was followed by a puff of grey smoke that wafted casually across the table and the two chairs that were barely visible in the sullen darkness. The smoke had been dispatched from a mouth of variable size containing an irregular collection of teeth and a wet and pinkish tongue. It should be noted that to those of a more discerning eye, the pinkness had a distinct tendency towards purple on account of the claret.
The mouth then spat into the blackness that was the slate floor beneath the table and a poorly illuminated hand placed a pipe carefully down upon the sticky surface alongside a battered leather tankard. There were visible teeth marks running around the rim in a sequence of indentations of differing shape and depth.
The hand and the mouth as well as the tongue and the spit belonged to Seagrum, a dwarf of significant stature (for a dwarf). He was also the proud owner of a fearsome reputation both as a mercenary and more recently as a bounty hunter and was a household name amongst many of the sentient creatures that inhabited this world.
The pipe was also his, although it had begun that particular day in the possession of somebody else. This however is the story of the dwarf and not of the pipe and so, for our purposes and irrespective of the former owner whose life blood had ceased to flow some hours before and whose corpse now lay abandoned in an alleyway somewhere not far from the place now partially described, we shall give it little further thought.
Other than to say that its final contribution at this particular time is to offer a modicum of pale luminescence – for it could not really be called light – to a character sitting opposite the dwarf and who at this very moment seemed unwilling to move, speak or indeed to breathe.
“You ‘ave it then?” growled the dwarf, his eyes suddenly visible in a faint dragon-light that seemed suddenly to pervade the corner.
The other seemed to swallow something unpalatable and ended its attempt at higher language with a grunt, followed by some other indistinguishable offering.
“Do I take that as assent?” hissed Seagrum with disdain that was almost palpable.
“Whuh?” came the reply.
“How much you askin’ for it, laddie?”
“Fufty...” muttered the other in what was at least a shift towards higher language.
“Beaks!” muttered the dwarf to himself.
It wasn’t entirely clear whether this expression of surprise was a result of the price or, as the dwarf might have put it himself, the fact that the piece of half-human detritus sitting opposite him could actually claim the skill set of language.
Either way, he decided to speak to the only person present at the table who seemed capable of understanding him or indeed of making sensible sounds, himself. After all, if the other could manage to follow that was at least a diversion but in the matter of the transaction in hand it wasn’t strictly necessary.
“Let’s start again,” he said, “you listen and ...”
He paused to offer a nod to the darkness as he chose his words.
“You grunt.... I’ll talk.”
He waited a sufficient time to allow the words to soak in to the damp sense of misery that was pervading the space opposite before he began again. He decided it would be easier if he used a list, so that it would be simpler to explain and he ignored the obvious failure of the character opposite him to respond.
“You have the ...merchandise?"
He had paused as if he was unwilling to speak the name of the item out loud.
He waited a further moment before continuing.
“You have a delivery note for me somewhere about that shabby half-corpse that you drag around with you. It says that it...”
He had used a pronoun to replace the distasteful item.
He paused again. This time he was considering the location of the merchandise.
“It is stored in a warehouse barely a stone’s throw from here, down by the waterside. The building, for want of a better word, that is leaning towards the water and is held up by the decaying roof timbers in much the same way that a marionette is held up by string...”
There was an obvious quietness. That is, the silence opposite continued but at the same time it seemed somehow to be more uncomfortable, more malleable.
“What? You don’t know what a marionette is?”
It hardly mattered and this was going to be too short a transaction to bother with further explanations. As it was, Seagrum knew that this conversation was no more than a self-indulgence.
“You may nod or otherwise confirm that you have heard all of this now. It would help to speed things along a bit,” said Seagrum with moderately exaggerated contempt.
“After all, I’m not looking for understanding," he added.
“Mn...” the other nodded although the movement in the darkness was as unnoticeable as the sound was unclear.
“Mn," repeated the dwarf.
“There’s a little more, isn’t there?”
“No don’t speak, let me guess.”
He picked up the pipe from the table, his pipe, and took a few rapid puffs to get the leaf smouldering again. Once more the vermillion luminescence appeared in the bowl, this time giving a gentle red glow to the tip of a large nose that sat, slightly off-centre above the dwarf’s mouth. Perhaps off-centre was a little wide of the mark as the saying goes. It would be more accurate to say that it was skewed significantly out of normal by a severe break that had occurred late one night a few years ago in a brawl in this same tavern.
There was a slightly heady smell in the air that for a brief moment reminded the dwarf of another place, a nicer place altogether: a place where the sun shone on open meadows and in the warmth...
“The warehouse is secured with a large and heavy looking padlock that is sadly broken. The chain is rusty looking but sturdy. The kind of chain that looks like it hasn’t been used in years. Inside this highly pregnable fortress there are two hooded shapes lurking in the shadows: both carry long knives and one has a cudgel, the other a hooked stick of some sort.”
He paused to draw again on his pipe.
“How does that sound so far? No don’t answer, let me tell you a bit more.”
“Both men look sort of shifty. One is short and fat, the other also short and not so fat. Both are poor runts from bad litters. Their clothes have seen better days and better owners, more likely. They, on the other hand, don’t know what a better day is. Nor will they ever, now.”
The hooded man opposite him had not said anything; had not made a sound in fact. To anyone who might have been sitting nearby, there was nothing coming from him but a faintly damp smell, rather like that of a wet dog that has lived on the streets for a while.
“Outside in the alleyway leading to the warehouse - you know, the place where the lamp has been broken and it gets really difficult to see – there is a large shape. I imagine that the stench coming off it would fell an ox but no matter. It holds in one paw a large wooden club – about the span of your arms I would estimate. Oak or yew, I guess. It’s always difficult to tell in the darkness until it comes into contact with something. I always find that oak seems to resonate better – that is, if the item that it strikes permits it to do so. Obviously organic material doesn’t usually offer that luxury unless it’s a hyperborean elk – not that you’d get one into that alleyway – so I imagine that we are never going to know what type of wooden club your tame troll is actually holding.”
Seagrum took another puff at his pipe and once more placed it back on the table.
“Beaks! I know that I’m doing all the talking so just you feel free to chip in.”
He paused and sighed.
“God’s ear, I’d actually welcome some change from the monotony. You know, it is possible to get sick of the sound of your own voice.”
“Mn...” said the nameless one.
“Well, perhaps not in your case, my loquacious friend,” Seagrum continued with a half-laugh more to himself than anyone else present.
“Sadly, and more is the point, your troll is never going to know what type of wood he was holding either,” said the dwarf with a tone of relative finality.
“What d’ya mean?” vocalised the shape, lurching out of its hitherto inarticulate trance, a vague green light almost visible in his one remaining eye.
“Well, see! That wasn’t so difficult was it?”
Seagrum continued with a smile that failed to rise to his eyes.
“Of course it’s all in the detail really, isn’t it?”
There was a long pause during which time the dwarf’s heart beat with that rhythmically slow thump of, well, a dwarf’s heart and the half-human’s thumped to a beat that betrayed the growing anxiety that he felt.
“I suppose that I neglected to mention the three feet of poor quality steel that is lying at an obtuse angle through the entrails of your troll.”
“Whuh?” retorted the former troll’s temporary employer.
“I always find penetration so difficult with these lads," Seagrum continued.
He made a strange sweeping gesture with the flat of his hand.
“I guess it’s the hide that gives the greatest problem. After all once you’re in, you’re in, as it were. Still,” he mused, more to himself than anyone else present, “once the job’s done ...”
He was quiet once more.
“Of course there’s always the risk that the wretched creature won’t work out it’s dead until after it has pounded it’s assailant and half of its immediate environment into dust, rocks, squishy bits and what not. Fortunately, this particular troll was a bit smarter than most and so he worked it out pretty fast. He barely had the time to roar a challenge.”
He stopped talking suddenly and seemed to stiffen slightly before leaning forward and reaching under the table as if to rub his knee.
“You’re listening, aren’t you?” he asked with a slightly sinister tone. “I’d hate to waste this time explaining if you weren’t actually interested.”
He retrieved his pipe from the table.
“Mn...” was about as much as he could expect for an answer and that, in all fairness, was what he got.
“Ok,” the dwarf continued, puffing a large quantity of smoke into the face of his monosyllabic companion.
“So your tame troll is now out of the picture as it were and into it for the last opportunity steps another figure. This one has curves though and I have to say that for a witch she is a pretty good looker, despite the complete lack of fashion sense and sadly lacking sense of personal hygiene."
He paused for a moment, picturing once more the good looking woman with her dark curly hair.
"Long voluptuous curls of rich black hair with not too much movement amongst it. I like black hair when it’s thick and coarse. Shame about the beard though, I like a woman with a bit of facial hair but she had skin that was as smooth as a baby’s backside. Still you can’t have everything, can you?”
He paused again and looked for a while in silence at the creature opposite. When he spoke again, his tone had hardened.
“Why do I get the impression that you’re not listening?” he asked, a slightly more significant hint of menace in his tone.
“Mn…” came the reply, sounding perhaps a little more strained than was normal.
Seagrum continued to stare into the darkness that was the shape opposite and for more than a long period of time no sounds were heard from either of them.
All around in the hearts of darkness and the doubtful recesses of the tavern, other noises could be heard. There were of course some casual or light hearted conversations running along in the background and, occasionally, some laughter or perhaps a vocal disagreement. Then there were the urgent business like whisperings of other deals and dealers.
There were the other noises too. The pretty much unmistakable sounds of couples rutting: a gasp here; a guttural grunt or two there; some rhythmic pounding of knees on wood and the urgent slapping of flesh on flesh. A gasp, a moan, perhaps even a fart, a sigh, a grunt and silence; at least relative silence as another set of similar sounds stepped up into the dark arena or picked up half-way through on the same rocky road to relieve the hormone fuelled reproductive urge.
The sounds gave the lie to the sense of quiet respectability that seemed to settle on the tavern’s gentle and perhaps too unassuming exterior, opening up a whole new canvass and other unsavoury plagues that were the consequence of the ancillary business that was transacted under license within.
“Mn...” said the dwarf with the appearance of a temporary reversal of roles.
“Was your woman, was she?”
The other person was silent now, a frisson of almost palpable anxiety hanging above him like a succubus.
“Mn...” said the dwarf once more.
“You did realise that dwarves are pretty impervious to magic, wizardry and all that kind of stuff, didn’t you?”
More silence and palpating misery seemed to flow from opposite; the cold fog of growing angst slipping silently from his thoughts into the cool air and condensing just above the table surface.
“Anyway, I don’t know what she said but it sounded kind of dirty. I could feel the hairs on the back of my hands lifting.”
He sniggered almost childishly, “and that wasn’t all that was rising, I can tell you. Beaks, she sounded hot!”
A moment of unhurried recollection flowed slowly into his thoughts, dispersing itself amongst all the other stuff that was in there and making him feel somehow a little lighter, a little less angry.
“You see, I’ve got this thing that I carry around with me. Got it from another...” he paused as if to pluck just the right word from his mental lexicon but then with a short grunt settled with the best he could offer.
He was watching the other creature closely now. It may not seem it, but this was a pivotal moment in the transaction. It could go either way, depending on the other’s ability to respond and, as Seagrum had to admit, he hadn't done too well so far.
“It’s some kind of talisman," he continued.
"Not to save me from the magic, you know, it’s more to get my own back. You see I don’t like people whispering stuff at me with a view to giving me grief, even if it sounds as sexy as hell and gives me a boner that needs a week to settle back down again. It makes me feel that I have been taken advantage of.”
He permitted himself a short chuckle in the absence of any sounds whatsoever from across the table.
“That made her gasp, and no mistaking. Her eyes and mouth popped open like someone had banged her in the darkness, if you get my drift. Gone, it was. Just like that. One minute whispering words or wizardry at me, the next minute just another skirt in the dark street. That is one good talisman, I can tell you. Magic goes in and it never comes back out. She ain’t a witch anymore.”
Seagrum permitted himself a slight sigh as he relaxed and his hand came away from the handle of a wickedly curved knife that was lying carefully across his knees. The moment had passed and he leaned across the table and gave the shape that was sitting opposite a shove. The head lolled back, dribbling a little black liquid at the corners of its mouth. In contrast the face was white; bleached bone white. The eyes were wide open, staring into sights that no one could guess at: the pupils huge, dilated and deep.
“Ah, there you have it, my friend.”
He curled his hand behind the back of the half-human’s neck and pulled it towards him. The corpse lunged forward hitting the table hard and knocking over the tankard, its greasy black hair mingling with the sticky muck that glazed the surface.
“You need to be a bit more careful about what you drink. You never know who’s been messing with it.”
Seagrum looked appraisingly at the delivery note that he now held in one hand.
“So, I guess you’ll just have to take that learning point with you into the next life, if you have one, you sad bastard. In the meantime, I’ll just have to arrange for collection of the merchandise from your warehouse before some other piece of vermin attempts to make off with it.”
He stood up, pushing the table away from him rather than moving the chair. It was as though the thing was distasteful to him, even though the whole mess was technically his own handiwork. He noticed, as he stood, a slightly unsavory stink rising up from the vicinity of the dead trader.
“Ah yes, I forgot,” he said possibly to himself, possibly to the corpse and possibly to no one in particular, “the poison does have that effect on the subject.”
He stomped, rather than walked the distance from his alcove to the bar. This was the physiological influence of his slightly short legs on his rather large and actually quite muscular, body. His capped boots cracked crisply on the flags, announcing his approach to the inn keeper even before he managed to emerge from the darkness.
He also had to disentangle himself from two pairs of semi-naked legs en route. His eyes followed one pair down to the breeches that were gathered unceremoniously around the booted feet and then upwards towards a meaty male hand massaging the soft flesh of pale, but sadly rather dirty, white thigh – with or without the subcutaneous mites.
“I’ll be in my room,” he said to the dark shape behind the bar as he flipped a small gold coin towards him.
“There’s a bit of a mess in the corner over there but that should cover the cost of removal and a bit of sawdust or straw to cover the floor – and a bit left over for the inconvenience.”
The arthropod behind the bar caught the coin, even though it was looking in the other direction. Whether the second pair of arms had anything to do with it was anybody’s guess but it was a good catch. The coin went to mouthparts; was bitten and then flipped into a purse around its neck. The string was drawn tight before it chirruped acknowledgement.
“Ow ah,” said the dwarf almost as an afterthought, “there’ll be a woman along in a while; dark hair good curves – looks a bit like a witch if you know what I mean!”
He permitted himself a short laugh, almost a grunt.
“Send her up, I’m kind of hoping ...”
Something to say?
Seagrum the Dwarf
Seagrum is a dwarf who gets things done. When the Magister of the Hue and Cry recruits him to solve a little problem that he has with vampires , it seems pretty obvious that he is going to get it sorted. The only question that there should be is how long he will take to do it and how long would it take Florencetown to get back to normal.
That is how the thing should have gone but it did not. Perhaps it was the fault of the dwarf's irascible temper or his infatuation with a beautiful former witch who has been drawn into the vampires' scheme. It could be the interference of the Magister's tame and invariably hungry werewolves who are opportunistic feeders , perpetually looking out for a free lunch. Maybe it is the simple fact that the Magister has his own issues in the form of a beautiful woman with a penchant for stilettos, leather and a whip who seems to appear whenever he rings a curious little bell that sits unobtrusively on his desk.
Of course, the fact that no one actually understands exactly what a vampire's death pledge is doesn't really help. Although we might refer to them as mortgages, no human ever takes more than one death pledge in the world of Seagrum the Dwarf: it just isn't possible given that humans only have one life (and death). Vampires, naturally enough and despite the many edicts of the Hue and Cry, simply don’t tell: preferring to keep their dealings shrouded in mystery.
Then there is the matter of payment. Seagrum is extortionately expensive: more than the Hue and Cry can afford in fact. That is where Jonas the Strangler comes in.
A tale of finance, political intrigue and perversion
Seagrum is a dwarf of significant stature and prowess who has been recruited by the Magister of the Hue and Cry to deal with a problem that he has with vampires. The problem has nothing to do with the usual issues that vampires cause but rather it is the result of a financial transaction that they have set up with the human population of Florencetown. The vampires are the bankers of this fantasy world and in their pursuit of dynastic growth, they have latched onto the avaricious nature of the humans and have introduced a way for them to acquire things beyond their abilities in return for a promise of service.
The death pledge of Seagrum's world is the mortgage of our own. The only problem is that someone has messed about with the concept of the death pledge and servitude now extends beyond the original contractors to their heirs in perpetuity.
The Hue and Cry, as the governmental body responsible for the granting of licenses to the Vampire Houses, has gotten wind of this but its own in-house staff, mostly werewolves, have proven themselves to be singularly inept at finding a solution to the problem. This is where Seagrum comes in. With a reputation for getting things done and with a proven track record of similar actions in other towns of the Xandrian City States, he seems to be the obvious dwarf for the task.
However, Seagrum has a number of weaknesses. He is arrogant and single minded; he has a tendency to participate in clandestine business transactions; he hates werewolves with a passion and he has a penchant for the macabre. He also finds himself seriously attracted to a young witch, the employee of a former business acquaintance in one of his shady deals, and her influence tends to cloud his judgement a little.
He is also fiendishly expensive to hire: in fact he is beyond even the deep pockets of the Hue and Cry, especially given that his task is to destroy the power base of the Hue and Cry's main benefactors (the Vampire Houses) whose back-handers, referred to in the more business-like term as fines, prop up the expensive lifestyle of the Magister and his tame werewolves. This is where the hagiographer known as Jonas the Strangler comes in. He is a sweeper: he tidies up. The Hue and Cry have recruited him also to deal with the problem of Seagrum, once the death pledge matter has been resolved.
In spite of Seagrum's growing interest in the witch known as Persephone and despite the power struggle between the town's Mayor and the Magister of the Hue and Cry, Seagrum manages to solve the vampire problem in the only way that he knows how: violently. It is an end rather than a solution because the problem, the avarice and greed of humans, has not gone away and almost as soon as one family of vampires is out, a new delegation is approaching the Mayor for approval to set up another death pledge business in the town.
Though set in a fantasy world and employing devices that may on occasion seem a little extreme, the story is meant to provide a set of caricatures that represent real life whilst at the same time offering a kind of amusement and hopefully, entertainment. The tale is certainly adult in some of its content and although there is neither gratuitous sex nor violence, there are certainly both wrapped up within the pages. It is a crude world inhabited by crude characters.