First Chapter: The Jack of Souls by Stephen C. Merlino
: The Jack of Souls
: Stephen C. Merlino
: Tortoise Rampant Books
: YA Fantasy
An outcast rogue named Harric must break a curse laid on his fate or die by his nineteenth birthday.
As his dead-day approaches, nightmares from the spirit world stalk him and tear at his sanity; sorcery eats at his soul.
To survive, he’ll need more than his usual tricks. He’ll need help—and a lot of it—but on the kingdom’s lawless frontier, his only allies are other outcasts. One of these outcasts is Caris, a mysterious, horse-whispering runaway, intent upon becoming the Queen’s first female knight. The other is Sir Willard—ex-immortal, ex-champion, now addicted to pain-killing herbs and banished from the court.
With their help, Harric might keep his curse at bay. But for how long?
And both companions bring perils and secrets of their own: Caris bears the scars of a troubled past that still hunts her; Willard is at war with the Old Ones, an order of insane immortal knights who once enslaved the kingdom. The Old Ones have returned to murder Willard and seize the throne from his queen. Willard is both on the run from them, and on one final, desperate quest to save her.
Together, Harric and his companions must overcome fanatical armies, murderous sorcerers, and powerful supernatural foes.
Alone, Harric must face the temptation of a forbidden magic that could break his curse, but cost him the only woman he’s ever loved.
A tale of magic, mischief, and the triumph of tricksters.
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“You written your will yet, lad?”
Someone shouted the words in Harric’s ear over the din of the crowded barroom. He turned from the group of knights and house-girls he stood with, and found the brewer, Mags, leaning across the bar behind him. The old man fixed him with a look, drunk and earnest, and indicated the winch-clock on the bar. Five minutes to midnight. Five minutes left of Harric’s nineteenth year, and his last full day of life. “You’d best write it quick,” Mags said, “or Rudy’ll snatch up your things before your corpse is cold.”
Harric’s throat tightened. He clenched his jaw against a rising rage—rage at the unfairness of his fate, at the madness that spawned it, and—
He shook it off. He would not end like the others, howling or blubbering for mercy.
He tipped his cup back and took a deep drink from his wine. “The night is still young.”
“Don’t make light of it, son. This is the day.”
“You think I don’t remember?”
“Just trying to help.”
“You’re trying to clear me out before my death spoils the party.”
The old man scratched his stubbled chin. “Well, it would cramp the mood considerable…”
Harric managed a wry smile. He pointed to the winch-clock that towered above him, a column of woodwork on the bar, like a coffin on end. “When the twelfth chime sounds at midnight, my precious doom has till sunset tomorrow to find me. Plenty of time to write a will.”
The brewer nodded, and grimaced as if struggling with emotion. He drew Harric close, old eyes glistening with unshed tears. “You know there isn’t a one of us here who wouldn’t have stopped your mother if we’d known. I’d have killed her if I had to. I swear it.”
Unable to speak, Harric downed the last of his wine. “You’re right about one thing,” he said, pulling away. “It’s time to leave the celebration to my guests.” Before Mags could object, Harric stepped on a chair and onto the bar beside the winch-clock. From the back of the clock case he drew out the crowbar he’d hidden inside, and in two quick moves he wrenched out the mainspring to the accompaniment of cracking wood and outraged chimes.
“Wha—?” Mags choked. “Who’s gonna pay for that?”
“Keep your hair on.” Harric dropped his purse of coins on the bar, and steadied himself against the clock, forever stopped at one minute to midnight.
The clamor drew all eyes to the bar. A few present could read clocks and understood his joke; most simply saw him on the bar and fell silent, expecting a speech from their host.
Harric looked out into the smoky hall at the sea of upturned faces. In the gloom at the back of the hall, orange embers of ragleaf pipes pulsed like fireflies, and the place had fallen so silent he imagined he could hear the embers crackle with each pulse. Among the expectant faces he saw mostly locals of Gallows Ferry, familiars with whom he’d grown to manhood. Others were strangers passing through the outpost on the way to the Free Lands. He’d invited them all, and not a single enemy stood among them, for he’d drugged Rudy and his crew and left them sleeping with the hogs. A double pleasure, that.
“Almost time,” he called, with a room-filling bravado he did not feel. “And it’s going to stay that way for the rest of the night!” He raised the mainspring in mock triumph, to a roar of applause.
“I have no gloomy speech for you,” he assured them. “We’ve said our farewells, and this night is for celebration. I leave you now to finish the wine and continue as if this night would never end. For you I bought up all the wine in Gallows Ferry, so it will be a great affront to my memory if a drop remains at daybreak.”
Applause shook the timbered walls. Gentlemen and free men saluted with swords or raised cups. House-girls and maids threw flowers and other favors on the bar. In their faces he saw affection and curiosity and pity.
For that moment, Harric was a hero. He bowed, savoring the feeling for a single, aching heartbeat, then flung the mainspring to the crowd and departed for his chambers through the service door behind the bar.
Caris waited for him in the passage, illumined by a single candle near the door. Like all horse-touched, she was even bigger than the average man, so she filled the narrow servant’s corridor, hair touching the ceiling and elbows brushing walls. If Harric hadn’t expected her, he might have stepped back to give way, mistaking her in the dim light for one of the knights rooming at the inn, who sometimes got lost in its passages.
As the roar of the bar washed through the open door and past Harric, Caris flinched and clapped her hands to her ears.
He shut the door quickly and flashed a reassuring smile. “Ready? I expect they’ll be on my heels.”
She lowered her hands, but kept her stare on the floor between them, rocking from foot to foot. Even with the door closed, the bar’s clamor distressed her horse-touched senses, so it wouldn’t have surprised him if she turned and fled or—worse—curled in a ball with her hands to her ears. He’d seen it before, but he could never predict when she’d collapse and when she’d stand firm.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” she murmured.
Shrill voices rose in the bar, and her eyes jumped to the door behind him.
“This here’s private, folks,” said Mags, on the other side. “Harric’s done said his farewells.”
“Aw, we can’t leave him alone tonight,” said a voice Harric recognized as Ana. “You know he’s writing his will.”
“Yes, and you aim to kiss your way into it,” said Mags, “but I ain’t letting you. So get!”
“He ain’t slept alone all summer,” Ana said. “Who’s he got up there? Ain’t that simple Lady Horse-touched, is it?”
“I said get! I got drink to pour!”
Caris’s jaw clenched. She turned sideways and gestured for Harric to pass, pressing her back to the side of the passage. It made little space for him to slip by, and since she was almost two heads taller, her breasts stood level with his nose. She blushed, for though she tried to hide her feminine parts in loose-fitting men’s gear, there was no denying their presence.
His skin tingled at the thought of brushing front to front, and the notion summoned the void back to his chest and a sting to his eyes. He bit the inside of his lip and turned sideways to sidle past. Before he took a step, she grasped his arms below the shoulders and lifted until his feet left the ground and his head bumped the ceiling.
“Or you could just lift me,” he said.
Face dark with embarrassment, she rotated him past, set him at the foot of the stairs, and turned back to the door.
“Let me through, Magsy,” said a male voice beyond it. “I’ll be sure you get a share.”
“Magsy?” The brewer snorted. “I said get!”
Caris glanced over her shoulder and frowned when she saw Harric still standing at the bottom of the stairs. “If they get by Mags, they won’t get by me. You can thank me in the morning.”
“You’re the only one I haven’t bid farewell.”
“I won’t let you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Harric gave a weak smile. “You still think I’m crazy. You think all this fuss about my curse is for nothing?”
“I never said crazy. Just mistaken. We make our own fate.”
“Ah. And all the people I grew up with here—all the people who knew my mother and her curses—they’re mistaken too?”
She shrugged. “I’ve only been here two months. I can’t say I know you or your mother like they do. But maybe that makes me see more clearly.”
Harric rubbed his eyes. He knew he should go. He’d kept the boil of grief and rage well bottled all night, and he mustn’t let them leak now. Of all people, Caris would know least how to receive a torrent of emotion. But she surprised him, turning toward him and lifting her gaze from the floor to meet his, a task surely harder for her horse-touched sensibilities than lifting a donkey.
“No mother would kill her child,” she said, voice low, eyes bright with tears. “Not even my mother, the mother of a—” Her gaze faltered, then rose, defiant. “I’m proof. No mother could hate her child like that.”
“In the two months I’ve known you, I’ve never heard you mention your mother.”
“Don’t change the subject. Your mother didn’t hate you.”
Harric sighed. “Who said anything about hate?”
“You’re saying she loved you?”
The ache in his chest deepened. Memories of his earliest years with his mother returned unbidden. Golden scenes of her lucid days, sitting in the sunny window above the river as she read to him, or sang. He swallowed the tightness in his throat. “She’s mad. Her visions showed her that the Queen will fall because of something I do, and only my death can prevent it.”
He nodded. “But her curses are real. I have less than a day.”
The bar door flew open and banged against the wall. With a triumphant squeal, a wave of petitioners swept in, and Caris whirled to face it. Harric retreated up the lowest steps and watched as she grabbed the leader by the arms—it was Gina, the eldest barmaid—and spun her about to face the flood that followed. Pinioning Gina’s arms, Caris used her as a breakwater against the rush.
Second in line was Donnal Bigs, who caught Harric’s eye and waved a debt slip from the card tables. “There you are, Harric! Since you got no use for your coin anymore, be a good lad and float me—”
Donal’s eagerness turned to confusion as Caris put her shoulder to Gina’s back and drove her forward, mashing her into his chest as Ana collided behind. “Hey!” he cried.
“Horse-brained bitch!” Gina spat. “Brute!”
Deaf to their outrage—or perhaps fueled by it—Caris propelled them backwards, picking up speed until she ejected them into the bar, where they fell in a welter of boots and petticoats.
Their expressions as she slammed the door made Harric laugh.
Caris set her back to the door as curses rained against it. She glanced Harric’s direction to be sure he’d seen the action. A rare smile parted her lips, making her quite pretty in spite of her size.
Another throb of loss in his gut. He hadn’t had enough time with her. “Thanks, Caris. You’ve been a good friend—”
“See you in the morning.” She slid down the door till she sat, knees to chest. Refusing to meet his gaze, she clapped her hands to her ears.
“Gods leave me, you can be stubborn,” he said. She gave no sign of hearing, and he wondered for the hundredth time how she came to be horse-touched. Whether a careless maid had used mare’s milk for her mother’s tea, whether she’d been conceived in a saddle, or a dozen other explanations he’d heard, of which none might be right. The only thing anyone knew for certain about it was what could be seen: the massive body, the uncanny sympathy with horses, and the crippling incomprehension of people.
He turned up the stairs before his grief boiled over.
In the silence of his chambers, four floors above the bar, Harric inked a quill and laid it to paper.
To the lady Caris, I leave all the silver in my strongbox. May it help her find a knight brave enough to make her his squire.
To Mother Ganner, I leave my collection of painted playing cards, with all but the Jack of Souls, which I want buried with me, and the Maid of Blades, which I leave to Caris, for luck.
He leaned back in the chair to read what he’d written, and frowned. The style was too informal. He’d learned to forge wills as part of his mother’s teaching, and they had always been ceremonial in their language, but somehow he hadn’t thought his own will would need it, or that he’d ever value such ceremony. He set the sheet aside, bemused.
On his last sheet of paper he began anew.
I, Harric Dimoore, being of sound mind and body, do hereby bequeath unto the following people, the worldly possessions here named.
That was better. He formalized the rest. Then he added, Item: One longsword, barely used, for Mother Ganner’s mantel, and chewed the end of the quill while he studied the words. Should he add, with my love, or for being my mother when my real one was mad? Of course. He wrote it all and swallowed an unexpected knot in his throat.
“Damn you, Mags,” he hissed, rubbing a sting from his eyes. He’d already said his farewells and had his tears, and now writing the will dragged him through it again.
To Rudy, the stable master, he wrote, my chamber pot, with contents.
Harric chuckled, then wept.
And damn Mags for watering the wine. He’d drunk enough to lay him out, but it merely filled his bladder.
He hastily wrote off the rest, adding, To Caris: My unrequited heart—if only it had longer to convince you to open yours. That made him laugh again. A flirtation from beyond the grave. She’d find that perfectly in character.
Signing it for Mother Ganner as witness—as he signed for all her dealings—he set it aside.
As the sealing wax cooled on the will, he noticed the air had grown hot in his chambers. Outside, the usually ceaseless river winds had died. He tore off his shirt and dropped it to the floor, then crossed the room and threw open the wind shutters.
Silver moonlight of the Bright Mother bathed him, and he stood at the sill to let the summer air caress his skin. She watched him from across the scablands, her face full and serene as if all were well in the world. Below his window, the dark void of the river canyon sighed. He nudged a candle stub off the sill and watched it fall past five stories of inn and fifteen fathoms of cliff face toward the swirling waters. Since they’d built the inn upon the very edge of the cliff, and since the top floors jettied even farther over the river, the candle hit the surface well away from the foot of the cliff to vanish without a sound in the black waters.
The view of the broken hills across the river, which normally cheered him, only made him wistful. This was his last look. After tonight, would he ever know beauty again? Would he know anything? As the Bright Mother moon set into the scablands of the opposite shore, her low-angled light etched the rocks in stark relief, a jagged labyrinth of stone. He had always meant to explore those lands, but never had. In patches of darkness between its crags he spotted the campfires of emigrants bound for the Free Lands, another place he’d never see.
As the Bright Mother sank below the horizon, he imagined he felt her protective powers withdraw, even as the Mad Moon, which he knew rose somewhere in the east, marshaled threat and destruction.
He snorted. “Such symbolic timing, Mother.”
Laughter gusted from the windows of the bar far below. His guests were probably betting on the manner of his doom again. He’d started the wagers himself, to keep things light at supper. “Hanging” had been a popular one, along with “tooken by a god,” though his personal favorite was “loved to death by hoors.” They all knew it was a pointless pastime, since all victims of his mother’s curses died under cover of fog. The last two victims had been Harric’s friends, Chacks and Remo. The day before their appointed dooms, they’d fled for the Free Lands, and the fog overtook them. Emigrants had found their bodies on the north road, without a mark on them to show how they’d died.
Harric slammed the shutters on the view, biting back a string of curses against his mother.
The room spun. His head felt heavy. Maybe the apple wine was finally doing its work. He tore off the remainder of his clothes and flopped on his bed to lie sweating in the stagnant air. If sleep would come, he’d have it; no sense watching all night for his doom. Without sleep he’d be dull and vulnerable the rest of the day, unfit for resistance.
He pulled his sword from under his bed and lay with it clasped to his breast in its scabbard. Small help, perhaps, when fighting a mystery, but its weight and edge gave comfort.
He closed his eyes, resolved at least to rest, and fell into a wine-soaked sleep, his last in Gallows Ferry.