Sunday, April 26, 2015

Status Update

I'm pleased to announce that Black Coven is complete. I'll be preparing it for publication and doing some final proofreading over the next few days, and I expect the book will be on sale before the end of the week.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Black Coven Teaser 3

Kozalin was a lot more impressive than I’d expected.

Back on my own Earth, low-tech cities were invariably tiny and overcrowded compared to modern megalopolises. It takes enormous amounts of labor to build anything with muscle power and hand tools, especially if you’re working in stone. So aside from a few monuments built at staggering expense by emperors or pharaohs, ancient structures tend to be surprisingly small and cramped.

But in this world they had magic.

I’d gathered that Varmland was a pretty big kingdom, encompassing what in my world would have been the Danish peninsula, southern Scandinavia and a good chunk of the Baltic Coast. The geography didn't quite match up - the Baltic Sea seemed to be a lot smaller in this world, and there was a stretch of flat farmland and a couple of rivers where the Kattegat should have been. All told the Kingdom was about the size of modern France, and had probably had over a million inhabitants before Fimbulwinter began.

Kozalin was the major center of magical learning in the Kingdom, and it showed. The city was built on the north bank of a major river I was pretty sure was the Elb, a few miles inland of where it emptied into the North Sea. The landward side was defended by a wall that had to be forty feet tall, a fact that was all the more impressive because the city was several miles across. A moat wide enough to look like a small lake stretched out from the base of the wall, crossed at three points by stone bridges that would have formed nasty choke points in warmer weather.

Round towers rose well above the level of the wall, their flat tops supporting a variety of both mundane and magical siege engines. At the eastern end of the city a cluster of even taller towers advertised the location of Brokefang Castle, an ancient fortress that was widely considered impregnable after withstanding an attack by dragons several centuries ago. At the western end of the city a gleaming metal spire hundreds of feet tall marked the home of the Red Conclave, the most powerful organization of mages in Northern Europe. The sky overhead was patrolled by a flight of knights mounted on griffons, and I could see the immaterial glow of a vast network of magical protections enclosing the entire settlement.

Unfortunately, any hope of safety we might have entertained was dashed by the breach in the wall.

The frozen moat was littered with the bodies of giants, a mute testament to the price they’d paid for that hole in the city’s defenses. Hundreds of laborers were already at work turning the mound of rubble in the gap into a proper barricade, guarded by several companies of soldiers. But if a band of giants could accomplish that much, what kind of damage would a dragon do? Or a pack of ungols?

A city this size wouldn’t fall easily, but protecting it would demand a steady price in blood from the men who held the walls. If this went on long enough, eventually there wouldn’t be enough of them left to man the defenses.

Judging from his expression, Carl was having similar thoughts.

“There must have been at least a hundred of them,” he observed. “With an enchanted battering ram, I suppose. Damn, but Loki’s allies are getting bold.”

I nodded. “They haven’t been finding much that can stop them. Although I’m surprised they’re already attacking a place like Kozalin. You’d think they’d work their way through the smaller towns first, and then take the time to concentrate their forces.”

Carl shook his head. “Probably just testing our defenses. They’ll strike where we’re weak, and leave the stronger positions for later. So we’d better make Kozalin as strong as we can, eh? I bet you can repair that breach before the next attack.”

“Yeah, I can fix that in an afternoon.”

“See? Come on, let’s get our people settled so I can introduce you around. The High Adepts will be happy to have you.”

The first part of that turned out to be easier said than done, at least for me. The gate guards recognized Carl’s group and let us in readily enough, but once inside we found that the city was packed with refugees. The main streets were mostly clear, but every alley and plaza was clogged with carts, livestock and huddled masses of desperate people.The inns were full to overflowing with nobles and wealthy merchants, and soldiers spilled out of the towers and barracks spaces to cover drill fields and practice yards with closely-spaced tents. By the time we were halfway to the Conclave’s tower Carl was shaking his head apologetically.

“I should have realized the city would be like this,” he admitted. “I’ve probably sent a thousand people here myself, and there were a lot of us working rescue early on. Maybe the Conclave will have room?”

“We’re headed that direction anyway,” I agreed. “Might as well see what they say.”

The city’s main roads were surprisingly wide and straight, hinting at some past effort at urban planning. We’d entered into what was apparently a trade district, where shops and inns lined the streets. Most were three-story buildings, and the traditional layout seemed to be a business on the ground floor and living quarters above it. Brick and wood were the main construction materials, but there was a fair amount of stonework as well

I was a bit surprised to note storm drains along the side of the road, and a distinct absence of sewage in the streets. Unlike Lanrest, apparently Kozalin had a sewer system.

We passed through another gate into what Carl referred to as the Wizard’s Quarter, and I noted approvingly that the walls separating the different districts of the city were as stout and well-manned as the outer wall. At least the extra manpower was being put to use.

“How many districts does Kozalin have?” I asked my guide.

“Five,” Carl answered. “The Trade Quarter we just passed through, and ahead is the Wizard’s Quarter. There’s also the Military District back east around Brokefang Castle, the Docks along the river, and the Temple Quarter in the middle of town. The defenses are all designed so we can hold out even if one district falls, and there are a lot of strong points and secret sally ports to make an attacker’s life difficult. Most of the defenses were built against the Saxons, or these days the Franks. But unless the dark gods send all their hordes at us I don’t think there’s any danger the city will fall to outside attack.”

I nodded. “It looks like a good position, at least for us. I wouldn’t want to be one of these refugees.”

Carl shrugged. “Nothing to be done about that. Better an alley in the Trade Quarter than a felwolf’s belly.”

I couldn’t argue with that, although I suspected there would be trouble if something wasn’t done about them soon. No matter how oppressed the peasants were here, I doubted they’d just meekly sit in the snow until they froze to death.

The Wizard’s Quarter was noticeably more prosperous than the Trade Quarter, with larger buildings that often had stone walls or even glass windows. Spacious villas were mixed in among the bookstores and merchants specializing in exotic materials, and there weren’t nearly as many refugees. Then we came to a broad plaza paved in marble, before a massive structure of dark metal.

“The Iron Citadel,” Carl explained proudly. “Home of the Red Conclave for three hundred years now. Only mages and their personal retainers are allowed inside, but your people can wait in the plaza here. I’ll let the guards know to leave them alone.”

I eyed the fortress thoughtfully, impressed despite myself. The walls were half again the height of the ones around the city, and the gates that stood open before us were made of metal a good four inches thick. Obviously the whole place had been built with magic somehow, although how anyone had conjured that much iron was beyond me. Getting pure metals took so much power even I had trouble with it, despite my cheat.

Although, come to think of it, the fortress wasn’t rusted and it wasn’t the distinctive black color of wrought iron. It was more of a brownish gray, with a textured surface that showed a lot of subtle color variations. Interesting. I’d have to think about that.

A squad of men in full plate armor directed traffic before the gates, but behind them I could see rows of large articulated iron statues along the walls of the entranceway that had to be golems. A tough place to break into, and come to think of it getting out might not be easy either. Better be on my best behavior.

Fortunately I’d taken the time to question Cerise and Captain Rain about such topics as court etiquette and the customs of the Conclave. Making the right kind of impression here would be important.

“Gronir, Daria, you’re on bodyguard detail. Cerise, you’re with me. Captain Rain, keep an eye on things until I get back.”

Carl raised an eyebrow at that. “You’re taking a woman as one of your guards?”

“It’s mostly a ceremonial position,” I pointed out. “Unless you think the High Adepts will take it as an insult somehow?”

“No, it’s just odd. But so is everything else about you, so I suppose it fits.”

Visiting mages were only allowed two guards inside the walls of the citadel, and I suppose Carl had expected me to take Oskar and Captain Rain. But the half-wolf couple would be a lot more likely to escape if something went wrong, and their keen senses might pick up interesting information.

Cerise, of course, was accompanying me as my apprentice. If the Conclave accepted me as an ally that would give her access to the citadel as well, and provide a ready explanation for her own magic. Anyone perceptive enough to see exactly what kind of magic she wielded would probably see her binding as well, and conclude she was an enslaved witch that I was trying to hide. Either way would work for most purposes.

The citadel’s entryway fed into a huge hall, big enough to use as a ballroom or to muster a battalion of troops. Wide stairways covered in decorative ironwork swept up to balconies on the second and third floors, and servants dressed in the distinctive red and black livery of the Conclave bustled about everywhere.

Carl led us up a stairway to the second floor, and through another iron gate into what I guessed must be the interior of the main tower. From there we circled an ornate audience chamber that didn’t seem to be in use, and made our way up another flight of stairs to a meeting area that was laid out along more practical lines. 

The sounds of an argument were audible all the way down the hall.

“...I’m telling you, we don’t have the manpower! This weather working has tied up half our membership, and we've lost four Adepts to those rescue operations you insisted on. We barely have the resources to maintain our existing commitments, let alone tackle another major project.”

“Then drop the damned weather spell! It isn't going to work anyway, Lukas. The gods aren't going to let you reverse Fimbulwinter, and keeping trade going-”

“Trade with who? There’s snow falling in Sicily, Caspar! No one is in any better state than we are.”

“Yes, and we've got thousands of craftsmen ready to keep plying their trades if they can just get raw materials. Damn it all, man, the ocean isn't going to freeze! We just need to keep the ice out of the harbor.”

The speaker was a muscular young man dressed in a suit of armor that must have cost a fortune, considering the amount of gold inlay it featured. The gold circlet he wore identified him as royalty, so that was easily explained. The man arguing with him was much older, with thinning hair and a long grey beard, but he held an iron staff set with a fortune in jewels and his crimson robes looked fancy enough for a king’s court. A small crowd of assorted servants, retainers and onlookers stood about the room, all of them looking like they were trying to spontaneously develop the power of invisibility.

“You want us to work fire magic on water? Hah! You have no idea what an undertaking that would be,” the old man protested. “We've no time for such absurdities.”

The prince looked about ready to explode at this, so I stepped forward. “This sounds like something I could help with.”