Here is a scene giving some of Oscar’s backstory. It takes place in the desert wasteland in the lull before the host and Abaddon’s Iron Horde draw up their battle lines.
Oscar clasped his hands about his knees and his eyes fixed upon a spot lost in the distance of quivering heat haze.
“My family was unlike many others,” he began. “My father wanted to have me brought up in the king’s household, thinking it would stand me in good stead when it came to returning favours. That is not unusual, but my mother wouldn’t have any of it. She kept us all by her, me, my brother and sisters, and my father let her have her way.”
“Why would you not have been brought up in your own family?” Maeve asked, curious.
“Parents want what is best for their children. Is it not better to be a foster son in the house of the king of the province than the son of an insignificant clan chief?” He asked, but the question was ironical. He knew already that Maeve would not see how it could possibly be better. “Then, when I was ten years old, Medb, my mother’s young sister, married the High King of the entire island, and my father set his sights higher for me, proposing that I join my aunt’s household as her foster son. But still I was loath to leave home, and my mother was set against letting me, so she, my father, and Medb made a bargain. I would stay in my father’s house until I was twelve years old, then I would join the High King’s household and train as a warrior.”
Oscar stopped speaking and he stared at something Maeve could not see. She wondered whether his childhood memories were pleasant ones. “Were you not happy?”
Oscar chuckled. “Oh, I was happy enough. And why wouldn’t I be? The spoilt son of his mother, hunting with his father’s men, dallying with his sister’s friends. I hadn’t a care in the world—until I turned twelve, and the time came for me to leave my home and live with my aunt and the High King.” Oscar hung his head.
“You didn’t want to go.” Twelve, she thought, the same age as David.
He shook his head. “When the time came, my best clothes were put in a bag, all my weapons and the few bits of gold I possessed. My father came to see me off and give me his blessing. The men were assembled, my mother, my sisters and my younger brother, all gathered in the hall to say goodbye. The messengers from the High King were waiting with them, impatient to be on their way back to Temaire with the High King’s young foster son. But I had run away, gone to hide in a place I knew in the oak woods. My father was furious.”
Maeve grinned. “I bet he was.”
Oscar sighed. “Would that I had not been such a young fool. My father was angry that I would so shame him before the High King. He took all the men of the household and scoured the countryside for me, leaving only a few old slaves behind at the fort.”
Maeve’s blood chilled as she guessed what was coming next.
“That was when a neighbouring clan chose to raid my father’s fort. They came on horseback and rounded up all our cattle. Before they left, they broke into the fort looking for women to steal. When my father returned, he found my mother dying, one of his swords still clutched in her hand. And they had taken my ten-year-old sister.”
“Did you get her back?” Maeve asked to fill the silence that fell.
“My father took his men and went after the raiders. They caught up with them on the plain and called out to them to stand and fight. When she heard our father’s voice, Dervla bit the arm of the man holding her and threw herself from his horse. She broke her neck in the fall.” Oscar’s eyes remained fixed on the middle distance, and Maeve guessed that he saw not a curtain of shimmering heat but a green field far away. “If I hadn’t behaved like a spoilt child, my father would not have left the fort unmanned, and perhaps my mother and sister would not have died.”
“But you aren’t to blame for what your neighbours did! It was the raiders who killed your mother and your sister, not you!”
“So it was,” he replied grimly, “and the lad we captured said they hadn’t even known the fort would not be guarded. They couldn’t believe their good luck.”
“You see,” Maeve said triumphantly. “They would have attacked the fort anyway.”
Oscar nodded. “As I said, sometimes there is nothing that can be done. Sometimes it will be too late to change anything.” Maeve hung her head. “But we bear our guilt regardless.” He covered Maeve’s hand with his own. “People are made like that. We look back and we regret. But life goes on, and though your young friend may face a small skirmish in the city, the real battle will be fought here, in the open, in this godforsaken wilderness.” He looked with contempt at the stark rock and thorn bushes and the dusty dunes.
“I thought you said the battlefield wasn’t a safe place for a girl?” Maeve attempted a pale smile.
Oscar laughed. “Anywhere is safe if I am there to look after you.”
“I’ve always looked after myself before,” Maeve said with a hint of annoyance.
“But now you are a guest of my house,” Oscar said with a smile, “and I have a duty to make sure you come to no harm.” His smile faded and his expression was one of deep sorrow. “I failed in my duty once. I have no intention of doing so again.”
“Then you had better teach me how to use one of those knives of yours,” Maeve said softly. “It might be too late to change anything, but if it isn’t, I want to know how to fight properly.”
A broad grin banished the darkness in Oscar’s face. “When I have done, you will make a shield maiden fit for the High King himself.”
I have reached the half-way point in the final (oh I do hope so) comma sweep of Beyond the Realm of Night. To celebrate, and to give me something different to do, here is another excerpt.
The man grimaced but his features relaxed. “Yesterday, early, I heard the sound of riders approaching and a crowd on foot shuffling through the sand. I tried to hide but they found me. A woman, a good woman, Sif her name is, took my hands and urged me into the open. They were all going to Providence, she said, just as soon as the gates were opened. I told her not to listen to the demons’ lies. They were going nowhere but Hell. She had her baby to think of. How could she take a baby into Hell? She might have listened to me—she’s a sensible girl is Sif—but one of the demons barged over. I heard it, a flat, evil voice and the smell of sulphur about it.
‘Leave the old man,’ it said, ‘we need no blind cripples.’ And a rough, sharp-nailed hand, more like an animal’s paw pushed me roughly to the ground and kicked me to one side. As I lay in the dust the crowd shuffled past. The riders passed at a trot and I could hear their horses’ hooves thudding in the sand.
“Sif was still there. She bent over me and whispered. ‘They will finish scouring this area and then we head for the Yellow Rock until the gates of Providence are forced open. After that they say we make for the city. Do you think it’s true? Do you?’”
The old man shook his head sadly. “They dragged her away. I could hear her shouting about not touching her baby. Poor kid. Both of them. That’s why I came here, to find water and a place to hide.”
“Did you not want to go to Providence, then?” Chiron asked.
The man laughed, a harsh, rasping sound deep in his throat. “I know the stories. I recognised the servants of the Evil One. Better to die free in the howling wastes of the desert than as a cringing slave in a crystal prison.”
Jophiel, the gentlest of the archangels, said, “The stranger is right. Abaddon believes he will win the battle for Providence, and the Dananns will fight to the death rather than serve him. Without them, he will need slaves for the menial tasks. Who better than these wanderers who ask nothing better than to be allowed to live in the company of other human beings?”
“But if they are all like…?” Deborah nodded towards the stranger.
Jophiel shook his head. “The survivors of the War were changed and mutilated. All kinds of deformities and handicaps flourished in the poisoned air, but of those who lived, some produced children and grandchildren.”
The stranger interrupted. “The children born with no limbs, no mouths, they died. Only the strongest survived. We are the remnants, ragged and wretched, but the Demon can still make use of us. Except for the blind. Not even Abaddon wants a blind beggar.” The stranger’s voice cracked, and his words ended in a choked sobbing.
Jophiel again placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. “The times are changing, friend. Have patience, just a while longer.”
“Don’t let them take me! That’s all I ask. Leave me here if you want, but don’t let them take me.”
Deborah had stopped listening. She was trying to remember where she had heard the name, Sif, before. Frowning with concentration, she absentmindedly scratched the ears of one of the Fianna hounds that had followed Medb. The dog raised his head and sniffed the air, then slowly and deliberately he approached the stranger. Gently, the hound nosed the destroyed face, his breath startling the man until he realised what it was. He reached out a hand and the hound bent his head and licked it. The awful face broke into a smile of happiness.
“The pups! You’ve found the pups!”
With a shock, the truth dawned on Deborah.
“They’re just hunting dogs, not the…not pups. Did you ever meet a boy,” she asked in a faint voice, unable to pronounce his name, “a runaway from Providence?”
The blind man turned to her in surprise. “Aye, I knew a boy once. A good boy. He would have stayed with me and been my eyes. But I sent him off. I didn’t want him to have the burden of a blind old man. He needed no second bidding—he was itching to be off on some great adventure. He’d got it into his head that there was a girl calling him, a girl from Providence. Said he had to be ready when she needed him.” The man chuckled. “He had these wild ideas all the time. Could never keep still either, always tearing after something or other with his dogs at his heels, a lizard or a strange-shaped rock on the horizon, inspecting caves and galleries, getting himself into mischief. He was a good boy. In a kinder world he would have been destined for great things.” The man’s face darkened. “If those demons have got him, you let me speak to him. I’ll put him straight. It’s no adventure going back to Providence, it’s slavery!”
“It’s all right,” Deborah said gently. “He’s beyond the reach of any demon now.”
Here’s the start of chapter two of Beyond the realm of Night. Won’t be long now. i’m just fiddling with it. Can’t bring myself to start the horror of formatting.
On the far side of the Great River, a pack of wolfmen scuttled backwards and forwards, whining and snarling. An elegant stone bridge spanned the river haunted by kelpies, merrows, and lindworms, and the wolfmen were torn between their fear of what dwelt in the river and their horror of the power that had brought back the bridge from oblivion.
Gliding overhead on iridescent wings, Oriax watched the yapping, cringing mob, and his lip curled in disdain. Raising a careless hand, he pointed at a skinny black wolfman, more wolf than man, running round in circles, his tail between his legs, unable to summon up the courage to step onto the smooth paving stones of the road across the bridge. Oriax projected his anger and his contempt, concentrated into a ball of power, and hurled it at the unfortunate creature. With a shriek of surprise and pain, the wolfman exploded in a bright flower of flame, scattering his fellows in all directions.
Oriax sought the leader. The grey and black brindled monster loped on two legs a short distance from the bridge and stopped. He raised his muzzle and sniffed the air, the stench of burnt flesh and fear, and the stench of the bridge. The bridge was the work of the green witch and reeked of green magic, the opposite of the black terror of Abaddon and the Pit. The creatures from Hell could no more cross the bridge uninvited than they could sing grand opera. The leader howled, and the panicked wolfmen stopped in their tracks.
Oriax reached into the primitive brain of the pack leader and squeezed. The creature jerked backwards then fell to the ground, writhing in agony. Oriax relaxed the pressure and spoke, his words appearing in the wolfman’s head, pricked out with red-hot needles. Cross the river, imbeciles! Swim, carrion dogs! And pick up the scent of Loki-traitor on the other side.
The brindled wolfman shook his head slowly and stood upright. The rest of the pack watched, tongues lolling, heads held on one side, waiting for the order. The leader drew himself up to his full height and threw back his head in a savage howl that was taken up by fifty wild throats.
“Swim!” The grey leader snarled and ran to the bank, throwing himself into the murky, swift-flowing waters. The pack followed, and within seconds the river was chopped and broken by the frenzied splashing of wolfmen.
Shadows moved on the river bottom, things older than Hell, already forgotten when Abaddon was cast over the rim of the sky, and answerable to no demon king. Creatures of the deepest oceans, they were drawn to the Great River by the stirrings of magic. They sensed the coming battle and wanted their share of the victory, to bask in the orgy of destruction that would follow. Oriax watched unperturbed as the hungry shadows rose, slow and deadly, and the first of the threshing swimmers was dragged down. A trail of bubbles, a cloud of red in the brown water marked where the wolfman had been, and the shadow sank back to the depths.
Wolfmen jabbered and whined as they splashed their ungainly way across the river, battling against the river currents, gripped by a cold fear of the unseen horrors below. Another struggling beast disappeared beneath the water, then another. The leader howled in fear and urged the pack forward.
Oriax laughed silently at the terror-stricken wolfmen. Idly he fixed on a shadow slowly rising from the mud and tried to pierce its mind, amused at the idea of the utter terror he could cause by tormenting the mind of such a primeval monster. The dawning of fear in its primitive brain, when the creature realised it was caught in a trap that surpassed its understanding, would unleash havoc before it died. He threw a bolt of power, anticipating the terrified threshing as the monster tried to escape, then the eruption of ancient flesh and torrents of river water.
Instead the smile disappeared from his face as the bolt was caught and flung back, harpoon-like, against him. A harpoon with a deadly chain attached. Oriax felt the chain tighten and begin to drag him down. His wings beat furiously as he fought against the terrible pull. Like the wolfmen in the water, the demon floundered in the air, drawn inexorably lower. He gasped, his strength failing, knowing he was unable to stay aloft much longer. Abaddon! My Lord, Abaddon! He sent out a desperate silent call. For a terrible instant Oriax dropped like a stone as his wings refused to obey, then a pair of glowing red eyes flicked open inside his head. Oriax screamed as a line of flame shot through his head and along the chain that bound him to the creature in the river. He clutched his head in agony as the pain intensified, searing the back of his eyeballs, plunging into the river beast’s brain.
In a hiss of steam the river erupted, and a pale, deathly white belly rolled briefly into sight before it sank back into the depths. Abaddon withdrew his red-hot needles from Oriax’s head. The demon’s wings sprang open and bore him upwards, away from the filthy river. With a sigh of gratitude, Oriax opened his eyes.
The pain, when it struck, caught him unawares, with a force so violent that his vision went black and his heart faltered, the pressure on his thorax crushing the life’s breath out of him. Do not fail me, worm! Abaddon hissed into the flailing demon’s consciousness and, with a dismissive snort, left him.