Excerpt: SILENT HALL by N.S. Dolkart (Angry Robot Books)

DolkartNS-SilentHallSilent Hall is N.S. Dolkart‘s debut novel, and it sounds like a fun, epic fantasy adventure:

Five bedraggled refugees and a sinister wizard awaken a dragon and defy the gods.

After their homeland is struck with a deadly plague, five refugees cross the continent searching for answers. Instead they find Psander, a wizard whose fortress is invisible to the gods, and who is willing to sacrifice anything – and anyone – to keep the knowledge of the wizards safe.

With Psander as their patron, the refugees cross the mountains, brave the territory of their sworn enemies, confront a hostile ocean and even traverse the world of the fairies in search of magic powerful enough to save themselves – and Psander’s library – from the wrath of the gods.

All they need to do is to rescue an imprisoned dragon and unleash a primordial monster upon the world.

How hard could it be?

Silent Hall is due to be published by Angry Robot Books at the beginning of June 2016. To celebrate the upcoming release, they have allowed me to share the first two chapters. You can also find out more about the author and his work by checking out his website, and following him on Twitter and Goodreads.

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1

Narky

Narky came from a long, distinguished line of cowards. As far as six generations back, neither his father nor any of his forefathers had ever been to war, at least as far as anyone knew. The Parakese crossbow that was kept ready by the door had never been used in battle. It had been purchased by Narky’s father before he moved from Tarphae’s seaside capital farther into the island. He had bought it in case of wolves, many of which did make themselves known out near the forest, but he kept his sheep in such fortress-like conditions that the wolves never bothered with them. Other people’s livestock were much easier to poach.

There weren’t even so many sheep to begin with. Narky’s Pa was not a rich man, only a conscientious one. His farm stood on the edge of the forest that covered much of the island of Tarphae, a three-day walk from the port capital of Karsanye. He claimed the sea air was not good for his health, but it was widely suspected that Narky’s father was simply afraid of the sea and its potential for storms, flooding, and other everyday problems that normal people took as a matter of course.

So Pa had sought high ground, and built himself a safe haven from all his little terrors. The sheep, at least, benefited from his protective zealotry. The fence in which they were enclosed was a veritable palisade, whose posts extended several feet below ground to keep out burrowers. The neighbors were rather contemptuous of the farmer and son whose livestock were kept behind such high fences. Narky’s mother had been equally contemptuous, and so she had run off with a traveling ironmonger when Narky was eight, leaving him and his father bitter and alone. People joked that Narky was an only child because his Pa had only had the courage to approach his wife for sexual relations once over the course of their nine years together.

Narky’s least favorite part of the week was when Pa sent him on the three-mile trip into town to sell wool or milk, and to pick up supplies. Walking along the little cow path with his barrow was no trouble, but his interactions with the townsfolk were always strained. At the age of sixteen, Narky had had much longer conversations with his father’s sheep than he had ever had with another human being. Which is why he was especially dumbfounded when one day, out of nowhere, Eramia the baker’s daughter spoke to him.

He was in town buying nails when the young woman walked confidently up to him and began a conversation. “Hi,” she said. “You’re the coward’s son, right? What’s it like, living in that house?”

Narky did not know what to say. Frankly, he had no idea why she had decided to speak to him. “What do you mean, what’s it like? I haven’t got much to compare it to.”

Eramia laughed a fetching laugh and folded her arms across her chest. She was an attractive girl, narrow of waist and wide of hip, with big dimples in her cheeks and a subtle one in her chin. She was named after a minor continental love goddess, and though Narky did not know much of theology, he was suddenly certain that Eramia the baker’s daughter was an excellent representative for her namesake.

“You don’t spend much time in town, do you?”

“Do you?” It was a stupid question. Of course she spent time in town – she was a baker’s daughter, for Karassa’s sake! Stupid, stupid, stupid. He had no idea how to talk to women.

Eramia laughed again, for some reason not put off by his foolishness. “Yes, I live here. Maybe I’ll see you next time you’re in town?”

“I guess so.”

That night, he replayed the exchange over and over in his head, trying to divine its meaning. ‘Maybe’ was such an uncertain word, but he knew he wanted to see her again, the sooner the better. He imagined her kissing him – he knew he would never have the courage to initiate something like that on his own – and he vowed to himself that he would see her again soon, and that this time he would make a better impression.

He had an opportunity a few days later, when his father sent him back to town for the week’s bread. Narky was so nervous that he mumbled his order and had to repeat himself twice to Eramia’s father, to the latter’s growing impatience. As Narky was putting the loaves into a burlap sack, someone touched his shoulder and he startled, letting the sack fall and trying desperately to catch the two loaves that seemed to be conspiring to outflank his hands. He caught one; Eramia caught the other.

“You’re back in town already!” she exclaimed, chuckling, “And on my doorstep, no less.”

Narky did not know what to make of this, so he just nodded his head. Eramia lifted the sack off the ground and helped him put the rest of the bread in.

“Better put your loaf away fast, before the rats take a nibble.”

She smiled as if this was some sort of joke, but Narky was not sure he understood it. He muttered a thank you and slouched away, his cheeks burning.

“See you later!” the girl called after him.

Embarrassed, Narky kept his head down and had not walked three paces before he collided with someone. The young man into whom he had bumped caught him by the shoulders.

“Where are you going, coward’s son?”

Narky looked up and recognized the young man as the blacksmith’s apprentice, Tank. Tank’s full name was Tan-karass, but even his father called him Tank. His father was a cowherd whose lands abutted those of Narky’s father, and who was well known and well liked as the best talker in town. The son had arms as thick as Narky’s head, but he was no more violent than his sire, though just as talkative.

Narky had not yet managed to find an answer, but Tank didn’t wait for it. “She’s not for you,” he said in a soft voice, pulling Narky closer.

“I’m sorry?” Narky said, dumbfounded.

“Eramia, she’s not for you. She’s Ketch’s girl.” Tank put an arm around Narky’s shoulder. The half-smile on his face was supposed to be kind, Narky thought.

“She’s not really his though,” Narky said. “I mean, they’re not married.”

Tank squeezed him a little, probably a little harder than he meant to. “No, but they will be just as soon as Ketch plants a kid in her. Might have done it already, you never know.” He winked, hideously.

Narky fled home and did not go to town any more that week, or for much of the next. He thought about what Tank had said, and his stomach churned. How could Eramia soil herself with a lout like Ketch? Tank must be mistaken. Rumors were dangerous things, Father always said. If she was really… Ketch’s girl, as Tank put it, then why did she talk to Narky or smile at him so, and make his heart pound the way it did? Did she realize how he loved her?

Eventually, Narky’s father grew frustrated with his son’s evasiveness when asked to run chores in town. He was a good man, but he was not sensitive enough to realize that Narky’s reluctance was not due to laziness on his part, but to the natural moping tendencies of lovesick youth. As it was, after ten days of tolerating his son’s excuses, Narky’s Pa finally caught the poor boy by the arm and threw him out of the house with a wheelbarrow full of wool and sheep’s milk, and instructions on what to buy after he had sold them. It was the heat of the day, when most of the villagers took their afternoon nap, and the waves of hot air rippled off the ground. Narky walked as slowly as he dared down the cow path to town, stopping frequently to shake imaginary rocks from his sandals, or to admire the placidity of Tank’s father’s cows. Did those cows know of love and its heartaches? Surely not. Happy, happy cows.

Narky was only on the very outskirts of town when he spotted a large group of village youths, lying about in the sparse shade of a few tukka trees. The dry season had parched the grass, and the bent, gnarly trees looked like a congregation of skeletal crones having a meeting out in the fields. Narky gulped when he saw that Eramia was among those spread out under the trees, and that both Tank and Ketch were there with her. Ketch looked up as Narky approached, grinned, and got to his feet.

“Narky Coward’s Son!” he called out, extending a hand. “We have a lot to discuss.”

Narky stared down at Ketch’s hand, but made no move to take it. “What do you want to talk about, Ketch?”

“Well, for one thing, I hear you’ve been eyeing Eramia, making her uncomfortable. And that makes me uncomfortable.”

Narky snorted. “I guess you take great care of her.”

He had thought even a dumb lout like Ketch couldn’t have missed the sarcasm in his voice, but Ketch just smiled.

“I do, Coward’s Son, I do. Look, I know you’re just a rude little guy, but you should really shake my hand when I offer it. You think you’re impressing someone by being disrespectful?”

Narky looked down at Eramia, following Ketch’s gesture. What would she think if he refused to shake Ketch’s hand? He reluctantly reached out his own hand, much though it pained him to do so. Immediately, Ketch caught Narky’s hand and twisted it painfully behind his back. Narky cried out as Ketch bent him over and spanked him mercilessly. Tears sprang into his eyes as he struggled and could not break free from the larger boy’s hold, and his pride hurt far more than his buttocks as Ketch kept relentlessly at it, to the laughter of the group.

“You have eyes on my girl?” Ketch spat in his ear. “You rude little turd. You have eyes on my girl? Answer me, coward.”

“No.”

“What’s that, Coward’s Son? I can’t hear you.”

“No! No, I don’t! I never did.”

Ketch laid off the spanking and bore Narky further into the ground. “Why not, Coward’s Son? Don’t you think she’s pretty?”

“Hey!” Tank’s voice cut through Narky’s sobs. “Ketch, that’s enough.”

Ketch let go as the ironworker’s apprentice pulled him away.

“The kid didn’t do anything,” Tank said. “Besides, we all like Eramia. You’re a lucky man.”

Ketch laughed. “Damn right I am!”

Narky rose to his feet, wiping his eyes as best he could. Eramia held a hand over her mouth – was she shocked, or trying to hide a smile? Either way, he did not wait to hear what she had to say. Instead, Narky ran home as fast as he could. His father was asleep when he arrived, still holding back sobs and rubbing his eyes furiously on his sleeve. He wanted to hide under his bed and never come out, but Pa would be angry when he found that Narky had left a barrow full of wares out on the road, unsold and unguarded.

There was only one way Narky would be able to face Ketch, or Tank, or any of those horrible people without breaking into tears of utter worthlessness. He took his father’s crossbow and quiver of bolts from their place by the door and stepped back out into the sun.  Maybe if he came armed for war, no one would dare bother him.

The barrow was still there when he got back, though half the sheep’s milk had been drunk or spilt by the louts who had laughed at his humiliation. The teens themselves were absent by now, so Narky put the crossbow in his barrow and went about his business. He sold his wool to the carder, and did his best to consolidate the milk into a few presentable skins, which he sold at a slight discount. Then he stopped by the well to wash out the remaining skins and have a drink. He filled the skins while he was at it, hoping that his prudence would save him from having to make a trip to town tomorrow, with a bucket. Then he sighed and headed homeward.

Past the tukka trees, Ketch was waiting for him. He was leaning against a fencepost with a languid expression, and roused himself with a studied nonchalance as Narky approached.

“Hey, Coward’s Son,” he said. “Hope I didn’t hurt you too much. Just don’t disrespect me like that in front of my friends again, all right?”

Narky pulled the crossbow from his wheelbarrow. “Don’t come any closer, Ketch. You’re a bastard, and you don’t deserve her.”

Ketch laughed. “Put that bow away. You want another spanking?”

Narky just stood there, shaking. With anger, he told himself.

“Hey, did you hear me?” Ketch jerked forward as if to charge, but then stopped with a smile. He’d been faking it.

Narky shot him. The threat was clearly over by the time Narky released the catch, but somehow the signal did not reach his fingers in time. Narky watched, horrified, as the bolt sprung from the bow and buried itself deep in Ketch’s chest. Ketch reeled back, his smile remaining on his face as if he did not really believe what had just happened. Then he fell.

Narky stood there for a moment, just staring. Ketch did not move. O Karassa, what have I done? Narky wanted to drop the crossbow, but for some reason his fingers would not open. I’m going to be stoned, he thought. They’re going to come for me, and they’re going to stone me. He could just imagine the rage on the townspeople’s faces as they tore him from his father’s house, each trying to take a piece out of him on the way. No. No. There had to be another way.

They would know it was him. They knew what Ketch had done to him, and they knew his father owned a crossbow. Nobody would listen to his side of the story, besides which, what was his side of the story?

Narky took up the quiver and slung it onto his back. Then he took the water skins and tied them around himself with a piece of extra rope he found at the bottom of the wheelbarrow. He hung the pocket that held his money around his neck, and began to walk away. After a few steps, he broke into a run. He was glad that nobody seemed to be around to notice him as he tore down the road that led to Karsanye and the sea. Justice would follow him soon. If he wanted to survive, he had to get off the island.

2

Lord Tavener

“Perhaps it’s my fault,” Lord Tavener explained. “After all, it was my idea to name the boy Hunter. But he doesn’t enjoy life. He doesn’t live his life, you understand?”

The Oracle of Ravennis inclined her head. “What keeps him from his life, to your mind?”

The Tarphaean lord looked down at his hands, and at his sword hilt. “War,” he said, looking up. “The boy does nothing but train for war.”

The Oracle smiled. Her teeth were even whiter than her pale continental skin. “You are a high lord of Tarphae, your king’s right-hand man. You were his champion in many battles. Is it not right that your son should follow in your path?”

Lord Tavener sighed and shook his head. “At his age, I was kissing girls and drinking my father’s wine. I only trained for war in order to impress the girls. But Hunter, he trains for the sake of the training. Never mind that it’s my older son, Kataras, who will be the king’s champion if we go to war again. Kataras is like me; he enjoys life. Hunter spends his days tiring out the swordsmaster, and his nights sitting alone, sharpening his weapon and concocting new ways to best the master tomorrow. If the swordsmaster were not such a loyal friend, I swear he would have left us long ago. Hunter doesn’t pull his cuts. Even Kataras doesn’t spar with him anymore – he’s tired of getting bruised and battered, and I don’t blame him!”

The Oracle nodded. “So you have come here to learn how you might soften your second son’s warrior spirit.”

Lord Tavener sighed again. “Well no, not exactly. I wouldn’t want him to lose his spirit; I just want him to get more out of life. The boy never smiles. You know what they say about those who live by the sword. I want Hunter’s life to be long and meaningful.”

“So your request is that I ask the God how you might make your son Hunter’s life a long and meaningful one?”

The lord smiled, relieved. “Yes. Yes, exactly.”

The Oracle stood. “Very well,” she said. “I shall put your question to Ravennis, the Keeper of Fates, and perhaps He shall answer.”

“Perhaps? Doesn’t my payment earn me more than a ‘perhaps’?”

The black-haired woman shook her head. “The God of Laarna does not always answer, and when He does, it is not always an answer people like to hear. Sometimes a thing is impossible, and it falls to His messengers to deliver the bad news. And sometimes the answers leave much larger questions in their wake. It is good to be precise when we ask Him, but the fates are complicated, mystifying things. Great Ravennis does not always unravel them for us, even if He does give us a glimpse of them.”

“Well, please just ask Him for me.”

The Oracle nodded her head again, the dark locks spilling around her pretty young face. They were very attractive, these Laarnan women, with their skin even lighter than the Atunaeans’ and their hair black as obsidian. The Tarphaean islanders had black hair too, of course, that went more naturally with their dark skin. But where the islanders’ hair rose in jubilant curls, continental hair was straight and solemn. Which was attractive too, in a funerary sort of way. Lord Tavener had married twice, both times to Tarphaean beauties, but if he took another wife, he thought he might try a continental girl. The color contrast on this young Oracle was quite compelling.

Tavener had expected a much older woman when he came to seek out the famed Oracle of Ravennis, but what did he know? On Tarphae, only two Gods mattered: Mayar of the Sea, and His daughter Karassa, who had raised the island and made it habitable so that Her people might live and praise Her.

The famous Oracle of Ravennis had turned out to be three women in the three ages of life, and for reasons unexplained, Tavener had been given the young one to tell his troubles to. When he had asked her how long she had been doing this, the young Oracle had smiled.

“Five years, my lord. Ravennis usually gives His Young Servant the questions that are more easily asked. When we look upon our supplicants, we feel, all three of us, who is best suited to ask each supplicant’s question. The Venerable Servant usually gets those whose questions require the most unraveling and the most tact, and the Graceful Servant often gets those questions that are of a sensitive nature, those that one might not feel comfortable discussing with me. I was called to you, so however complicated the answer to your question might be, the question must be relatively direct.”

That made its own kind of sense, Lord Tavener supposed, but it did disconcert him to be speaking to an oracle easily half his own age. The Oracle now rose and retreated to the sanctum. After some minutes, the Tarphaean nobleman felt wingbeats on his heart, as if one of Ravennis’ sacred crows had just alit from his soul. It was a strange, light feeling, but it soon passed, and his heart returned to its earlier feeling of foreboding. Oh, Hunter. What was a father to do?

The king had laughed to hear that Tavener wanted to take his problems to an oracle. “Now, Tav,” he had said. “Isn’t there an easier, more traditional way to get your boy’s mind onto girls? Why go see some old woman when you can bring him a young one?”

Lord Tavener had not told him that he had tried, and that Hunter had glared at him as if the old lord had threatened to take his sword away. At first Tav had wondered whether his son might not be attracted to women at all, but Hunter had seemed mostly put off by the dishonor of his father’s suggestion. Honor. The only other thing Hunter seemed to care about, besides swordsmanship.

Long minutes passed, and still the Oracle did not return. Was the God giving her a long answer? he wondered. Or was He simply taking His sweet time getting back to her? What did the Oracles really do in that sanctum of theirs? Gossip with each other, perhaps? Drink wine and laugh about their supplicants’ foolish questions?

He should not think thoughts like these. The Oracle of Ravennis was well respected, and Ravennis was, after all, the only God he knew of who claimed a concern with fate. One would have thought that Elkinar, being the God of both Life and Death, might have some interest in fate, but apparently not. Tav did not understand these continental Gods.

For one thing, there were simply too many of them. Back on Tarphae, sacrifices were made to Karassa or to Mayar. But here on the mainland, there were so many Gods to keep track of that Tav wondered how people kept them straight. Other than Mayar, who was also worshipped along the coastline, there was Mayar’s divine brother, Magor of the Wild, and a second pair of brothers, Atun the Sun God and Atel the Messenger. There was Eramia the Love Goddess, who was supposed to be the sister of one of the others… Elkinar, maybe? Elkinar was God of the Life Cycle, and then there was Pelthas, who had something to do with scales – was he the God of Justice, or of merchants? There was Ravennis, of course, and some mountain God whose name began with a C, and countless smaller ones. Tomorrow evening began Karassa’s summer festival on the island of Tarphae, but how the people of the continent managed to keep track of all their holidays and festivals, Tav would never know.

Next week would be Hunter’s seventeenth birthday. Advice from an Oracle had seemed like a good present yesterday. Anyway, it could not possibly be as counterproductive as his previous gifts. At fifteen, Hunter had received his sword, and at sixteen his armor and shield. He had obviously appreciated both presents, and trained with them as much as he was allowed to, but Tav distinctly felt that they had only contributed to his son’s strange malaise. What could a loving father give to a son whose passion was eating him from the inside?

At length the door to the sanctum opened, but it was the gray-haired Venerable Servant who stepped forth to meet him. “My Young sister will be with you shortly,” she told him. “Please keep your question to Ravennis in the forefront of your mind until she emerges.”

Oh, very well, Tav thought. How can I make Hunter’s life long and meaningful? How can I make Hunter’s life long and meaningful? How long am I going to have to wait here? All right, how can I make Hunter’s life long and meaningful?

Finally, the younger Oracle came out to meet him. “Do you remember what your question was?”

“Yes,” Tav said impatiently. “How can I make Hunter’s life long and meaningful?”

The Young Servant raised her two hands, her thumbs and middle fingers pointed toward each other in the symbol of Ravennis. “Return to the island of Tarphae, to your home, as quickly as you can. Do not stop anywhere along the way, except to ensure your passage. When you arrive, find your son Hunter and make sure that he leaves the island that very day, on the first available vessel. Do not rest for an instant until you have seen him off the island.”

“What?” Bile rose in Lord Tavener’s stomach when he thought of sending his son off into the unknown, without so much as an explanation. “That day? Even if I can make it home by tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be lucky to get him to the docks before evening and the start of Karassa’s festival! Chances are, there won’t be any ships leaving port by then. Can’t it wait until the day after?”

The Oracle glared at him. “The God of Laarna has spoken. Do not hesitate, and do not tarry. Your son’s long life and happiness depend upon it.”

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