Annotated Excerpt: THE SWORD DEFIANT by Gareth Hanrahan (Orbit)

HanrahanG-LotF1-SwordDefiantHCOn May 4th, Orbit Books are due to publish The Sword Defiant, the first novel in Gareth Hanrahan‘s new series. Before we get hand things over to the author, here’s the official synopsis:

Set in a world of dark myth and dangerous prophecy, this thrilling fantasy launches an epic tale of daring warriors, living weapons, and bloodthirsty vengeance.​

Many years ago, Sir Aelfric and his nine companions saved the world, seizing the Dark Lord’s cursed weapons, along with his dread city of Necrad. That was the easy part.

Now, when Aelfric – keeper of the cursed sword Spellbreaker – learns of a new and terrifying threat, he seeks the nine heroes once again. But they are wandering adventurers no longer. Yesterday’s eager heroes are today’s weary leaders – and some have turned to the darkness, becoming monsters themselves.

If there’s one thing Aelfric knows, it’s slaying monsters. Even if they used to be his friends.

And now, over to Gareth…

This is Chapter 2 of The Sword Defiant. In Chapter 1, we’re introduced to Alf, aka Sir Aelfric Lammergeier, and his talking sword Spellbreaker, but this chapter starts to get into the backstory of Aelfric’s heroic youth and currently less-than-heroic state.

Part of the original conception of The Sword Defiant was a line in Tolkien’s introduction to The Lord of the Rings, where he says that if the plot had followed the course of World War II, then the Ring would not have been destroyed but used against Sauron, and Barad-Dur not destroyed but occupied. That’s essentially what happened here – the Nine Heroes captured the dread sword Spellbreaker and turned it on its maker, the necromancer Lord Bone, and then they ended up occupying the evil city of Necrad.

Alf left Necrad two years ago, and now a dream has drawn him to the hidden valley where his friend Jan dwells.


Rubble lay strewn across the valley. Acraist had shattered the temple arch before they’d arrived. Alf remembered the headlong race down the path, hastening to intervene before the Wraith-Captain slew the Illuminated One. Laerlyn leaping gracefully down the rocks, loosing arrows as she ran. Jan weeping even as she called on the Intercessors to shield them from Acraist’s death- spells. Miracles warring with dark magic in the air.

In retrospect, the greatest miracle was that none of them had tripped and broken their necks as they ran down the steep path into the valley. The little sparkling lights led Alf along the safest route, until he reached the valley floor. Then they shot off ahead of him, meteors racing over the rubble, dodging in and out of hiding places. There was something playful about their movements.

The Sanctum of the Illuminated One – another thing wizards did was Audibly Pronounce Capital Letters – was carved out of the rock of the canyon. Pillars covered with twining glyphs bore images of godly figures Alf didn’t recognise. One was a woman, her face so worn nothing of her features remained, although Alf could still make out chains carved on her wrists. Opposite her was a horned figure holding a staff, arcane sigils in an arc above him.


 He remembered Jan and Blaise had yammered about how bloody old the temple was – older than any shrine in Summerswell, even the big one in Arshoth.

A lot of the fun of the book was writing from the point of view of an old, weary warrior – someone who’s seen it all before, and finds a lot of the wonder and magic a bit tiresome, these days, but deep in his heart he’s still trying to be a hero.

If they liked old stuff, they’d love Alf now. Forty-five summers by the reckoning of the south, but Necrad didn’t have proper summers, or proper time, so who knew how old he was. He felt as ancient as the toppled statues around him.

I sometimes mutter that this is my mid-life – or mid-level – crisis book. I just turned forty-five myself, although I wrote the first draft of this chapter back in 2015 or so.

He followed the lights, and they led him towards a hut of piled stones.

Jan sat waiting at the entrance.

This book’s in past tense. The Black Iron Legacy books are present tense. I didn’t think too deeply about my choice of tense in the first novels (I’m used to running roleplaying games, so I had to restrain myself from using second person present!), but a sizeable number of readers strongly prefer past tense.

She’d become thin – so thin he could see the hut through her, as though she was made of coloured glass. The little lights ran to her, flowed into her, and he could see them now like stars through the window of her body. She smiled at him, and it was like looking at a radiant sunset. Still, he shivered at the sight. They’d all changed so much.

The rest of the Nine had, anyway. Alf remained Alf.

“Hello, Aelfric,” said Jan.

“I got the dream you sent.”

She nodded. “And it guided you here.

“Guided ain’t the way I’d put it, but aye.” He paused, awkwardly. He’d loved Jan, they all did, the little mouse of the Nine, but he’d never claimed to understand her. “Should I kneel?”

“Just sit, Alf. Holiness isn’t in your knees.”

Scenes like this are tricky. Jan and Alf are both old, old friends – there’s twenty years of backstory that we’re not privy too. At the same time, the reader’s only known Alf for a few pages, and Jan’s just been introduced, so I needed to give an impression of the depth of the relationship without bogging the reader down in extraneous detail.

Alf settled awkwardly opposite Jan. He found himself holding his breath, as if exhaling too forcefully might blow away the gossamer of her existence. “Jan . . . what happened to you?” Last time he’d seen her was when she left Necrad a decade ago. Then, she’d been exhausted by her work in the city. Angry, too – simmering, bitter, her kindness worn down until it was a thin crust over bubbling lava.

Now, she was something else.

“Are you going elf on us?” he asked. Old elves faded, but not like this – and Jan wasn’t an elf.

The nature of elven immortality is a major part of the series. Elves are truly immortal – they’re bound to the world, and while their bodies may fade or perish, their spirits endure and can eventually be reborn. Just over eight thousand elves woke up with the first dawn, and there’ll be eight thousand elves when the world ends.

I love taking an impossible, mythical concept and treating it as a foundational axiom of a world. Elves are immortal – so what does their society look like? How do they deal with mortals?

She ignored his questions. “Are you hungry? I don’t eat any more.”

“I could eat.”

He noticed a bowl just inside the entrance to the hut. Steam rose from it, carrying a smell that was instantly familiar. His mother had made stews just like this. He picked it up and took a spoonful.

“Is this real?”

“It’s nourishing,” said Jan.

He grunted at that non-answer, but he still ate. His instinct was to never turn down the offer of a meal.

“I left Necrad because I was losing myself,” Jan said. “My faith, my hope. Call it what you will. I couldn’t stay there any longer. Despite everything we did, there’s a pall of darkness over that city. I went away looking for renewal. I went to the temples and looked for the Intercessors, but they didn’t answer. In the end I found my way back here. Back to where it all began for us.” She waved her hand at the ruins of the temple, and Alf couldn’t help notice that her fingers trailed off into mist when she moved. “The Illuminated One and his monks were dead, of course, and Acraist destroyed their library, but I was able to reconstruct some of their secrets. I only intended to stay here for a little while, but . . . ” She shrugged. “That’s not how things turned out.”

“You dead?”

She laughed. “You haven’t changed, Alf. Always cutting things down to the simplest possible question. No, I’m not dead. I’m on a different path now, though. I’m the new Illuminated One, I suppose. I commune with the light.” She brushed back her greying hair. She still had little silver bells and talismans woven into it, but they made no sound.

When writing supernatural elements, I try to ground them as much as possible. Make them feel like they’re impacting on the physical world. 

“Right, right. Sounds nice.” He stirred his stew, trying to work out what it meant for Jan to call herself the Illuminated One. Back home, the village clerics always warned their flocks to shun the followers of the Illuminated. It was misguided, they preached, to reject the kindly hand of the holy Intercessors. Mortals were not meant to commune with cosmic forces directly. The weaving of fate was supposed to be beyond mortal comprehension. Clerics prayed to the Intercessors, and the Intercessors passed word to whatever was up there.

Alf’s grasp of theology was on a par with his history.

Alf is really not the brightest. Pretty much everyone else in the book can outwit him, but he’s got absurd tenacity, preternatural fighting skills, and the most powerful magic weapon ever forged. Oh, and a strong moral compass, which is why they entrusted him with the sword in the first place.

“You’re thinking that I sound like the crazy monks who used to beg for alms at harvest time, back when you were a boy,” said Jan, a mischievous smile playing around her faint lips.

“I don’t like it when people read my thoughts,” snapped Alf.

The sword can communicate telepathically with its wielder when it doesn’t want to talk out loud. This is the one of the few chapters where it’s not making, ah, cutting remarks. No wonder Alf’s a bit touchy on the topic.

Jan flickered, her whole form vanishing for an eye blink. “I didn’t,” she said, “I wouldn’t do that. I don’t need to, Alf – I know your face. I can tell when you have doubts.”

“Aye, well. I have thoughts so rarely, I want to keep ’em for myself.”

“And your thought was a true one. Those monks were among the last acolytes of the Illuminated One. They were guardians of an ancient tradition, humanity’s first path towards the light. The Wood Elves taught us another way, through the Intercessors. I once followed the elven way, but I’m on the older path now.”

It’s always tricky deciding how much history to include at any moment – especially in a book where the differing views of history between immortal elves and very mortal humans is a big theme.

“You don’t believe in the Intercessors any more?” Alf had never been especially devout, but reverence for the Intercessors was deeply ingrained into him. He’d always liked the thought that even when things seemed darkest, wiser powers were watching over everyone.

“Oh, the spirits are real. But they don’t talk to me any more. I lost the blessing before we got to Necrad. I hoped that they’d come back after we defeated Lord Bone, but they didn’t.” She smiled. “Nothing turned out quite like we hoped, did it?”

“I didn’t know.” He stopped eating. “You helped us pray, though. Said the litanies and all. Took Peir’s confession.” In truth, Alf had never found much of worth in the prayers. It had all seemed like a waste of time to him. He could always think of something more productive to do than sit around and listen to the litany. But he’d sat there and listened, for Peir’s sake if nothing else, and it had been a comfort.

“I was still your cleric. Even if my own beliefs wavered, I could still say the words if they helped you. Faith is a strange thing, Alf. If you hold true to something, if you hold onto it with all your strength, body and soul – you can accomplish wonders. Peir did. He never stopped believing, not even when everything looked hopeless. And he brought us through.” A sad smile ghosted across her face. “My own doubts didn’t matter a bit, compared to his certainty. It was what we needed then. Now . . . now it’s up to us that are left. Or, well, to you.”

Nine heroes went to fight Lord Bone, and only eight returned. The loss of Peir – their leader, the paladin – was where everything went wrong.

“You’re not coming back to Necrad.”

“I cannot.” The light in her flickered for a moment at the thought of returning to Lord Bone’s city. “Tell me, where were you when I called? My dream-sendings could not enter Necrad, so I know you weren’t there when you got my message. Why did you leave the city?”

Why indeed? “I got hurt,” he said slowly, “down in the Pits. A linnorm poisoned me. Healers patched me up, of course, but . . . ” He shoved the spoon around the bowl, as though the answer was hidden in stew that was probably an illusion or a parable anyway. “But I knew I’d messed up. I let my guard down. I needed to get my nerve back, so I went for a walk.” He shifted awkwardly and looked down at his feet. “Been walking for a few years.”

“You were badly wounded,” said Jan, her voice full of concern.

“I’ve had worse,” Alf lied. Or half lied. He’d suffered worse injuries, certainly, during the war. But back then, he was never alone. If he fell, then Thurn or Gundan or Peir would step in to hold the line, Jan or Blaise or Lath would treat his wounds. But he had been alone when he faced the linnorm, alone as he crawled back up through the endless Pits. Nearly alone when he died.

“Where did you go?”

“North, first. Through the New Provinces. They’ve grown like you wouldn’t believe – they’re building forts all along the edge of the wood, and clearing farmland. Great bloody crowds of people coming up through Necrad, now, seeking their fortune on the frontier. Dwarves, too. They found hills full of gold.

I had horrible fun setting up all these reasons for the other members of the Nine to bounce off Alf. Everyone else is entangled in politics and intrigue and greed – Alf’s still the wandering swordsman, simple and unencumbered. Doing the right thing looks easy from the outside.

I went looking for Thurn, first, but I couldn’t find him. The Wilder have gone into the deep wood.” He’d searched for the tribes in primordial wilderness, tangled and unwelcoming. He’d wandered there and in the wastes for months, and scarcely seen another living mortal. The Wilder had avoided him deliberately. The sword he bore was a horror to them: a weapon forged by Witch Elves.

Thurn always reminded them that the Witch Elves conquered the Wilder long before they’d attacked the rest of the world.

There’s a lot of information being dumped there. You can either have your viewpoint character be a clueless ingenue who needs to have the wider world explained to them, or you can trust the reader to keep up (and repay that trust by filling out all those references later on).

The Wood Elves stave off the threat of fading by binding themselves to trees when they get old. Witch Elves avoid fading by feeding on human blood. For centuries, they dominated the barbarian tribes of the north, posing as gods and demanding tribute. Now, the Witch Elves have been defeated too; they were allies of the evil Lord Bone, and fell with him.

“I was looking for . . . I don’t know. Trouble. Evil. I went searching through all the old Witch Elf strongholds I could find, looking for any of Bone’s allies that got away. I went hunting a dragon I’d heard tell of in the New Provinces. All for nought.”

Alf closed his eyes. His heart was pounding as if he was in the middle of a battle, even though he knew there was nothing to fear. There were few safer places in the world than this valley.

“Then back south through the Dwarfholt and the Cleft. I thought I’d go home. Didn’t even make it as far as Highfield before . . . ” He shook his head. “No one remembered me. They knew the Lammergeier, of course, so I got to sit at the right hand of all the lords and sleep in beds with silken sheets, everyone licking my arse and telling me things that don’t matter about court nonsense. But no one knew me. And why would they? Haven’t been back since I went away adventuring. Most kids who run off end up dead in some goblin-hole within a month, so they probably think I died twenty years ago.”

The other major character in the book is Alf’s sister Olva, who stayed behind in the village and never had a life of adventure and peril. When her son Derwyn discovers his long-lost uncle is actually a famous hero, he runs off in search of Alf – and get captured by Alf’s enemies. Olva has to go after him.

“You could have told them who you are.”

A Lammergeier is a type of vulture known for breaking the bones of carcasses to get to the marrow. Alf’s best known for killing the undead necromancer Lord Bone. In Book 2, Alf gets to punch the poet who inflicted that nickname on him.

“And then what? Talk about pig herding, and the weather, and gossip about people I don’t know? Or have a string of distant relatives I don’t know standing outside my door all day and all night, asking for favours?

Books are a stew with unexpected ingredients. Years and years ago, I wrote a one-page mock-heroic comedy sketch about a hero returning home, and having very awkward conversations with people he once knew but no longer has anything in common with. In the end, he decides it’s probably best that he goes off on another adventure, and that’s in here.

Or should I have talked to them about the sodding Witch Elves, or the Vatlings, or the problems with the League?”

“But you didn’t go home?”

“I did. I tried.” He threw down the bowl, and it vanished before it hit the ground. “I sat on a hill, Jan, and looked down at the Mulladales. At Ersfel. The village I hail from?”

“I remember.”

“It looks just like it did before the war. Peaceful and happy again. They’ve forgotten the war. They think it’s all done with. There are still monsters out there, Jan. We have to keep watch. The Nine have to be ready, whatever’s left of us. I can’t go home ’til the job’s all done.”

Alf in a nutshell. Vigilant, tireless – but not quite sure what he’s watching for. The rest of the Nine are very much in the second act of their lives – they were wandering adventurers, and now they’re nobles, merchant princes, scholars, parents (or, admittedly, chaos-tainted monsters, but that’s a later part of the story). Alf’s clinging to the first part of his life, to the glory days of his youth.

Jan sighed, letting out a little wisp of silvery mist. “I wish that someone didn’t have to be you, Alf. I wish I could tell you to go back home to Ersfel. Or somewhere more wholesome. You need more time to heal.”

Alf shrugged. “Nah. This is better. I’ve been waiting too long, Jan. I need something to slay. Tell me why you called.”

“I can see shapes moving behind the veil. Powers are abroad in the land. A new peril – or an old one returning, I can’t tell. A darkness rising.” Jan laughed. “Sorry – I know how frustrated you used to get whenever prophecies and visions were involved, and here I am giving you more vague omens.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

Dancing between ‘dropping the mystic plot hook’ and ‘keeping Jan and Alf relatably human’. We’re coming in half-way through the story, so I wanted to give the impression that these two people knew each other very, very well while knowing that the reader isn’t that invested in Alf’s emotional state yet so the plot has to keep moving.

“I don’t see with mortal eyes any more, Alf. I’m trying to articulate spiritual impressions in words that aren’t fit for purpose. It’s better in the elf-tongue – morthus lae-necras I’unthuul amortha. Bad times are coming. If you ever trusted me, Alf, trust me now. I can’t say what will happen, but I know it. It’s swimming in the ocean, and feeling the swell of a great wave before it crests. Darkness is rising, and you must stand against it.”

The elvish words mean “the gift of death shall not be given to the undeserving” – but exactly what that means is a matter of interpretation. And why the double negative?

She frowned. “Where’s your sword? You haven’t lost the most potent magic weapon of the Enemy, have you? The weapon forged in darkness to bring ruin to the world?”

“It’s up yonder.” He nodded towards the rim of the valley. “Said it couldn’t enter the holy sanctum or some such.”

“The sword’s made to swallow magic, Alf. Not even the mightiest spells can damage it.”

“Bastard lied to me.”

“Oh, Alf. Keep that sword close. It’s part of all this . . . this rising darkness.”

“Cause of, or weapon against?”

“If I knew that, Alf, it wouldn’t be a mystic prophecy for you to complain about. I can tell it’s important, but I can’t say how. Keep it by your side – but beware of it.”

“All right. Where’s this rising darkness?”

“I don’t know that either for certain – but I certainly can’t see inside Necrad. The city is closed to me. So, whatever’s coming, it starts there. Or dwells there.” She glanced to the sky. The stars were coming out, and they shone very brightly here in the valley. “It might be the Oracle.”

Alf nodded. That made a horrible sort of sense. Of all Lord Bone’s court of horrors, all the vampiric elf-lords and monsters he’d made, the Oracle was the only one that had escaped justice. Laerlyn told them that the Oracle was the eldest matriarch of the Witch Elves, a fate-weaver who spun doom for the enemies of Lord Bone. She’d fled before the siege. Alf had assumed she’d died or faded. In all the years since that he’d spent hunting Bone’s servants, he’d found no trace of her, but the Witch Elves had the patience of eternity. He’d worried for years that she was biding her time, waiting them out.

I originally planned this to be a shortish standalone book, but it became a trilogy. The Oracle started out as a minor throwaway plot point – a lurking danger that might come back – but elements of her story go all the way through the series. Epic stories like these are fractal; you can drill down onto anything and anyone and find more to tell.

Of the surviving eight of the Nine Heroes, all but one were mortal.

“All right. I’ll tell them.” He paused. “What about Thurn? He was the first to go – to leave, I mean.” Not the first to die.

“I sent him the same dream, but it’s a long way,” replied Jan. “I called as far as I could, and you’re the first to come. My dream couldn’t enter Necrad. I need you to be my messenger, Alf, to bring this warning.”


“Such as it is. If I had a clear sight of the peril, I’d tell you, but I don’t.”

“I’ll tell them.” Berys the Thief, Blaise the Wizard, Gundan the Dwarf, Princess Laerlyn of the Wood Elves, Lath the Changeling. Thurn, if Alf could find him. And the League-lords, too.

Character-class hats for your convenience. I was worried about dropping so many names at once, even though there’s a dramatis personae list at the start, but the great thing about having with a very trope-y bunch of adventurers as your baseline is that everyone sort of already knows what to expect. Cleric, fighter, thief, wizard, paladin, druid, barbarian, elf, dwarf.

“Look in on Blaise for me, would you? I worry about him most of all.”

“I will.” Jan wasn’t alone in her concerns. Of all the survivors of Necrad, the wizard was perhaps the one who’d changed the most. Well, him or Lath.

Alf stood. “Jan,” he said, reluctantly, “this thing you glimpsed. It might be the Oracle, I know, but could it be . . . ”

Jan clucked her tongue. “I told you I can’t see inside Necrad. Not even the Light reveals all secrets.” She reached up and stroked Alf’s face. Her ethereal hand felt warm and human for a moment, and then it was sunlight on his skin.

“You have my blessing, Alf, and you carry the hope of the world.” Then she was gone.

To quote an older, more battered, Alf from Book 2: “What a horrible thing to say to a friend. Carrying the hope of the world – who can do that alone?”

The first thing Alf does after this chapter is retrieve his magic sword and summon a dreadworm (a flying steed). He returns immediately to Necrad – and his first stop there is to visit the tomb of Lord Bone.

After they slew the dark lord, the survivors of the Nine interred him in a secret grave, and put a spell on it that ensured no-one else could open it.

Alf finds the grave is open.

One of the Nine opened it.

But which of his friends was it?


Gareth Hanrahan’s The Sword Defiant is due to be published by Orbit Books in North America (May 2nd) and in the UK (May 4th).

Also on CR: Interview with Gareth Hanrahan (2019); Review of The Gutter Prayer

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