This preview chapter is from The Contessa of Mostol, a novel I plan to write after City of Whispers, and before the A Kingdom for Sinners and Saints series. Its time period will run concurrent to Trail of Pyres, City of Whispers, and into Dark Cloud Dancing, Book One of A Kingdom for Sinners and Saints. The expected release date is the Summer of 2020 at the earliest. The main character is Polên Juvikus, who readers will meet in City of Whispers. What you see here is, however, before City of Whispers. Fourteen days before the Eve of Snows… which might ring a bell.
This chapter was written a couple years ago, right after Eve of Snows finished its first draft, one of those pesky little things that had to be written to get it out of my head. It is not polished, so imperfections are likely.
WARNING: When I first wrote this, a couple people who started to read it stopped, saying they didn’t want to read where the chapter was clearly headed. But, where things are headed isn’t where things always end up. The intro is intended to be a bit… disturbing. But hopefully not too much so.
So, without further ado…
The Contessa of Mostol
The first sense of consciousness was hearing, the voice of a man and the patter of rain on leaves, followed by odor. Mildew and loam, the scent of a forest floor invading the nostrils, but there too was acrid sweat and a whiff of whiskey. At first the words were gibberish, garbled and foreign, but as her mind cleared, they grew into understanding.
“The Berjer ain’t payin’ neither of us to shank the lady.”
“I done broke her, what the hell do you care what I do to a corpse?” Mocking laughter followed and fabric ripped nearby. “Nice tits, this one. Too bad she’s dead, eh?”
Steps moved away, and a man spat. “Curse your soul with the gods as you like, I ain’t having no part of this.”
The closer man grunted, and she heard threads break again, but this time she felt her body lifted and dropped to the ground. The girl they spoke of was her, only she wasn’t dead. Sensations returned, she could feel drips of rain on her naked skin, sense the peculiar position of her head; they’d broken her neck, paralyzed her and assumed her dead.
Pain erupted through her vertebrae, and a crunch resounded ear to ear, reverberating through her skull and along her spine. The agony dissipated into relief, a sense of reconstruction. A wholeness. A finger twitched and her heart beat for the first time she remembered. She’d lost her memory with the breaking of her body, she couldn’t recall her name or anything of her past, but it mattered little as she was manhandled. Her eyes fluttered open and she stared at a lantern hanging from a limb, lighting a glade surrounded by a dense growth of trees.
She wiggled her fingers, clenched the muscles in her arms and shoulders. Strength returned, and even if she didn’t have claws, she had nails.
The man shifted her by her feet, spreading her legs, and she heard his heavy breaths as he lowered himself over her. The stink of breath warmed her cheek, and she turned to stare into the shadowed face of her would be murderer and raper. She didn’t see his eyes in the dark as he pulled back, but she didn’t need to to know the man’s terror before her fingers struck, popping through gelatin and curling in his skull to grab his cheekbones.
The man screamed.
She heaved her body, rolling him to the side and throwing herself to straddle him, breaking his neck with both hands. Her fingers slid from his skull and in the lantern’s light she gazed at his bearded face and didn’t recognize him. Either her empty memory forgot him, or a man she’d never met tried to kill her.
Her fingers twitched with the rush of adrenaline. She’d killed a man. She should feel something other than a sweaty chill of excitement as the last twitches left his body, but she didn’t. Snapping the man’s neck was easy, second nature, maybe she’d killed a hundred men.
Maybe she deserved to die in these woods.
She stood and shed her torn dress, gazing at her gore streaked nakedness, her breasts and legs, calf-high leather boots drawn tight with crisscrossing strings. Everything was so alien. How could she be unknown to herself? She needed to know who she was.
Leaves scattered with a rustle as the other man trotted into the clearing, sliding to a stop. He looked into her eyes and blanched. “Unholy mercies.” He bolted into the dark woods and with a predator’s instinct she gave chase. The man wasn’t just a hired killer, he was her only link to who she was.
The light of the half-moon kept the man hidden ahead, but she could hear his pounding feet, and his heavy breaths gasped louder as she closed on her target. She could see him now, flashing in the moon’s light where the trees thinned, and sped until driving her hands into his back, sprawling him into underbrush and a tree with a crunching crack.
She leaped onto his back and dug a finger into each eye, yanking his head back hard enough to make him scream. She took a few controlled breaths and spoke. “Why did you try to kill me?”
“You were dead!”
“The Berjer tê Mostol, he hired us. Kill the witch, all he said.”
If she’d truly been dead, maybe she was a witch. “Who is the Berjer, and why’d he want me dead?” She pressed her fingers deeper against his eyes.
“Polên Jivikus, that’s your name, but I don’t know you. He didn’t say nothin’, just gave us silver.”
The name perplexed her, it didn’t sound familiar at all. She wondered how much silver Polên’s life had been worth.
“Where’re the coins?”
“Pouch, on my belt.”
“You’d best hope he paid you enough to make me forget you tried to kill me.”
The man’s breaths labored as her nails scratched his lids. “We did kill you.”
She snapped his neck, but did him the courtesy of leaving his eyes intact. “You shouldn’t have made that point.”
She patted him on the head, worked the knot on his pouch and stood, hefting his earnings with a shake. If all those were silver, she figured the Berjer wanted her dead in a valuable way. She realized she shouldn’t have killed him, at least not so quick, and regretted her burst of temper. Still, she had two names, her own and that of the man who wanted her dead. It would have to suffice.
She strode through the woods, finding the raper’s body and searching him. She took a dagger and another heavy pouch, and tried on the man’s coat, but it reeked of liquor sweat and onions. Her dress lay tattered and soaked in the mud, but she couldn’t bring herself to wear the dead man’s jacket. A mist cooled her, and a light breeze blew, but it was comfortable enough. Naked felt natural anyhow, it was the boots that felt funny.
She opened a pouch beneath the lantern’s light and whistled. The man was a lousy assassin, but he didn’t lie. Silver coins shone in the light, enough to buy a dozen fine dresses if she guessed right.
She lifted the lantern from the branch and turned a slow circle, looking for any landmark that might look familiar, guide her from this place. “Tree, tree, tree, and another, very helpful.”
Wolves howled in the distance, reminding her of how alone she was, and how vulnerable. She’d taken these men with surprise as her ally, a pack of wolves or a lone bear would make a meal of her if their bellies were empty. Lost in dark woods, wandering might be the death of her, but two men wouldn’t have carried a body far without a horse or pack animal. She glanced at the dead man. Blood would attract predators big and small, so sitting until dawn didn’t make much sense either. Did they carry or drag me? The answer might save her life.
She found two trails side by side, and she imagined the men with their arms under her shoulders, dragging her corpse. She snarled, wishing she could kill them again. She had her road from here, but she guessed it led straight to a place where a wealthy man wanted her dead. Without memories of herself, let alone this man or more enemies she might have, she needed caution and clothes, lest she hand herself naked to the bastard she now swore to kill.
She exhaled and held chilled, bloody fingers close to the lantern, grateful for its meager warmth, clenching and releasing her fist. It was good to be alive. Again. She smiled and tied the sash from her dress around her waist, it was enough to cover her most private parts, and adequate to hang a dagger and two pouches from. Satisfied, she took her first steps toward what she hoped was home.
Who are you, Polên Juvikus? The only clues she held were the Berjer Tê Mostol wanting her dead, and a man claiming she was a witch. Somehow she knew a Berjer was a powerful lord, but Mostol could be a town, a city, a kingdom, or the happy place of a child’s fancy for all she knew.
The notion of being a witch resurfaced, and it made sense of her situation. She hadn’t another reasonable explanation for returning from the dead, but how would two blokes who looked hired straight out of an alley be able to kill someone with the power of life over death? And she, able to kill with her bare hands? No explanation her mind grasped for gave her a satisfying answer.
Her breaths turned to light puffs of fog as the night pressed on and she shivered. But the chill was nothing compared to the shudder which shook her body when the frenzied yapping of wolves echoed in the distance. It was the sound of fighting over a fresh kill, or a meal found. For a moment she felt bad about the men she killed, but she shuttered away her pity behind hatred. If it weren’t them, it would’ve been her.
She pressed on through the trees and undergrowth and within a horizon the woods thinned and she found a brick road. Just in time for her lantern to burn out.
The woods grew sparse to her right, which she guessed was south, so she followed the road’s edge from tree to bush, taking any obscuring cover she could find until the world opened into a rolling plain of grasses where heavy split-rail fences blocked her path. She crawled through the fence, but thought better of it as a bull with massive horns eyeballed her, so she made her way to the road.
The moon had set, leaving only starlight for strangers to witness her passing, and the air grew cool as a bank of darker clouds arrived from the east. Only a fool would accost a strange, bloody, naked girl traipsing down a road at midnight. She giggled at the absurdity of it all, and she regretted her humor as a dog barked. Where there were fences, cattle, and dogs, there would be people. Odds seemed good a random farmer would be safe, but waking them in the middle of the night bore risk.
She followed the barks until coming to a dirt lane rutted by wagon wheels, pot holes filled with gravel, and she traveled its middle. The mist turned to a light rain, and a gust brought goose pimples. The barking grew loud before it went silent, and she spotted the creature through the drizzle. The hound stood high as her waist with a broad muzzle filled with bared teeth, and an intense stare bore into her.
She kneeled, covering her breasts with one arm, though she couldn’t say why, while extending the other as an offering of peace. Or as the animal’s next meal.
Its gaze eased, lips relaxing to cover its teeth, and it trotted to her, sniffed her bloodied fingers. When the tongue licked instead of bit, she smiled and allowed the animal to clean her hand. “Let’s see if your owners are awake, shall we?”
Polên strode the road with her hand resting atop the dog’s head until coming to a stone cottage with thatched roof, a gray rectangle hidden by dark and rain. The dog ran to the door and barked to announce their arrival, and a light appeared in a window before she reached the stoop.
The door opened to a middle-aged man lit by a lantern. “Stop there, I say.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but found her voice stifled. She cleared her throat. “I’m lost. I was attacked in the woods.”
The man leaned with a squint, licking lips surrounded by a beard salted with gray. “You nekid, girl?”
A woman appeared behind him. “Lufus!” She charged past him. “Gracious! You poor dear.” She turned and reached back inside, and trotted to her with a cloak in hand, wrapping it around her shoulders. “Quit your staring, you oaf, and start a fire.”
Lufus snorted, settled the lantern on a hanger by the door and disappeared inside.
The woman’s arm caressed her shoulder. “My name’s Neru. What happened, dear?”
“I don’t know, not exactly. I woke in the woods, naked… a man.” She glanced to spatters of blood on her hands and arms, imagined there must be more. “I killed him. With his knife.”
“Oh my! Well, come inside. What’s your name, sweety?”
She hesitated. “Polên Juvikus.”
Neru lead her into a sitting room where Lufus kneeled in front of a fireplace blowing on smoking tinder. “We’ll have a fire soon to thaw your chill. We don’t need fires much this time of year.”
“I’m fine, thank you.” She sat in a cushioned chair, the woman doting over her.
“Neru says you need a fire, you get a fire.” He turned with a sincere smile.
Neru cocked her head. “Juvikus? Ezeldu Juvikus’ daughter?”
Lufus’ smile faded. “By the Mercies, now you say it… she’s the spitting image.”
Neru’s hand kneaded her shoulder deeper. “I’m so sorry, my dear.”
Polên’s eyes flicked between the two, heart racing, as a woman’s face flashed in her memory. Mother? Is this what I look like? “Why? What happened?”
“A fire, dear, three days ago. Half the village burned afore they got it put out.”
The two shared glances. “Sorry, dear.”
The face in her mind’s vision smiled; if this vision was her mother, had she known she was gone already? Her head spun.
“I need to lie down.” But she curled her legs to her chest and buried her face in her knees. She closed her eyes as Neru settled a blanket over her. Visions of the mysterious woman in her mind, smiling, assaulted her emotions, and Polên knew if she managed to remember her, humiliating tears would fall.
She vowed she would remember, and she vowed that when she did, she wouldn’t cry.