THE RIGHTEOUS by David Wragg (EXCERPT)
We’re super excited today to share with you an excerpt from THE RIGHTEOUS, the second part of David Wragg’s Articles of Faith duology, ahead of its release on 10th June.
Firstly here’s a quick recap of book one THE BLACK HAWKS, given to you by none other than Lemon!
Be warned, there are spoilers for book one ahead!
PREVIOUSLY . . .
Aye, right, where were we? So our boys Rennic (aka boss) and Chel (aka wee bear, cub, dipstick) have got themselves locked in the dungeons below the old royal citadel, along with a whole bunch of hapless folk who thought they were on the verge of liberating the kingdom from your good old-fashioned tyrannical regime. I’d say execution at the hands of the murderous red confessors is imminent, on account of the steady procession of corpses that’s been rolling out of said citadel in the time since, often in stages.
How did it come to this, dear Lemon, I hear you ask? Ah, well, it all started back in Denirnas Port, where the Black Hawks (the greatest mercenary company the world has yet to recognize) – the boss Rennic, the big lad Foss, the tart Loveless, the tireless Whisper, the tiresome Spider and the wise and scintillating Lemon – were engaged in the blameless act of unregulated commerce. Then out of the clear blue morning, in come the whopping black ships of the Norts from over the sea, blockade the bay and blast the fuck out of the port’s various edifices strategic with their heathen witchfire.
It’s fair to say some chaos and bedlam ensued. Being attentive and charitable souls, we snatched a prince from the melee: Tarfel, the runt prince, the spare heir. Chel, his sworn man, came too – not my fault, the boss insisted. Plan was we’d shop said wee prince over to the Rau Rel, the great partisan underground, who were gathering their strength to overthrow the hated church.
Course, like any good plan it’s fucked sideways from the off. Seems the wee bear has made it his sworn mission to drop a bollock at every opportunity, and boss has to relocate one of his arms to knock off his aggro. We’re forced cross-country, chased by a steaming stack of confessors, Mawnish mercenaries, cannibals and toothy wolves. Fucken wolves, man. At least we saw the last of that prick Brother Hurkel – Loveless took a hand off him and we left him to die on a mountain. No chance he made it back from that, no chance at all.
Anyway, all’s grand in the end. We get princeling to the Rau Rel, they arrange a meetup with his big bro, the dim Crown Prince Mendel, and we’re all set for taking the citadel. Off we dutifully march, with nary a pause to renegotiate our fee, and set up guard in the courtyard while the others bust in. Now I don’t know exactly what happened next, but friend Spider came steaming out in short order and bellowed a morsel as he passed, to wit: the ‘regime’ we’d come all that way to perform said overthrowing upon is our bosom pal the fucken crown prince. Except he’s not the dim one, Mendel the thickie. He’s the dead one, Corvel the bastard – who offed his own twin to lay a trap for the churchy buggers years ago, and has been ruling from the shadows in times since.
Boss and the wee bear didn’t have friend Spider’s luck, hence their predicament. But where there’s life there’s hope. Did I mention the wee bear has a sister? Aye, and she’s a fuck-sight craftier than he is . . .
If you’d like to read a more in-depth recap, David Wragg has written one on his website here.
Without further ado, here’s chapter one of THE RIGHTEOUS.
The crack on the ceiling was patterned with frost, frozen tendrils spidering the length of the cell. Chel stared up at it in the dull light, watching his breath plume in the frigid air.
The wind blew through the narrow cell window and he hunched into the thin blanket wrapped around him. The noise it made was eerie through the dungeon, moaning down the hallway. Snow lay piled beneath the narrow windows, small drifts resting undisturbed on the broken flagstones beyond the cell’s bars. The vast bulk of the gaoler blocked what thin light and warmth spread from the brazier by the stairs, her infrequent shuffles, farts and mutterings the only reminder that another soul dwelt alongside them.
Chel sat up on the pallet and opened his mouth to speak. His cellmate was already staring at him from the opposite pallet, glaring from beneath thunderous dark brows, bearded jaw set hard.
Chel closed his mouth. Today would not be a talking day.
The clatter and jingle of armoured footsteps from the stairwell roused the dungeon’s denizens and the gaoler knocked over her stool in her haste to stand. She slapped at the cell bars with the brazier’s poker, her wordless command to stand and look presentable, and a moment later the procession reached the foot of the stairs. Armoured confessors tramped around the corner and out of sight, away from the cells, spears tightly angled against the low ceilings. Chel couldn’t see who marched at their centre. The gaoler sagged back to her righted stool as they disappeared, the clang of a distant iron door reverberating down the cold stone hall from the block’s far end.
Chel’s heart fluttered. He felt an electric surge of hope and fear every time the confessors appeared. Their visits were less frequent, the prince coming weekly now that most of the cells had been emptied, sometimes stopping at their cell, sometimes going only to the iron door. Every time, Chel tried to scrutinize his escort without staring, looking for signs that his sister survived, that she hid still within their ranks. That she could still free them, before their cell, too, was emptied.
He slid back from the bars, back to the pallet, lost in melancholy, as the red procession swept back past the cell in a tumult. Gold flashed amid the red, then Prince Corvel Merimonsun was there, standing to address the occupants of the last two cells. Chel risked a look at the escort, but the forms were hooded and dim, their rust-coloured robes murky in the gloom.
‘Here we are again.’ The crown prince, now king-in-waiting, sounded cordial, even cheerful. ‘This really is your last chance. I’ve waited as long as I can.’
Silence came in answer from both cells. Chel began to edge forward, but a confessor’s hood twitched in his direction and he shrank back.
‘I’m offering you a way to survive. I’m a man of my word. Tell me all you have, confirm what I already know, and you live out your days. All of you, saved from confession.’
He paused, waiting for an answer that would not come. He began to move away, footsteps echoing off the stone walls, hesitated, and turned back.
‘I could have tortured you, you know? I could have had you ripped into pieces, but I wanted to keep this civil. I wanted to set an example. Well, you’ve done me no favours there, have you? Now Brother Hurkel will tell me he was right all along.’
The prince took a long breath. The gaoler shuffled in the lull.
‘Enough is enough. My mercy is not inexhaustible. Prepare the court. These two can go today. In fact, they can go now.’
Something stirred within the cell. A moaning cry, a wordless expulsion of woe and denial. A pair of confessors peeled off from the escort, running back up the stairs with their gear jangling. The gaoler was sitting up straight now, keys in her blistered hand. Chel felt numb, even the cold in his fingers was distant.
‘Oh, you have something to say, do you?’
The crying continued, becoming a repeating syllable, no, no, no, no, no. Shifting, becoming hoarse, pleading screams. ‘Take them! Take the others! They’re to blame! It wasn’t me!’
Dalim, the erstwhile glaive-wielding mercenary, had spoken little since Brother Hurkel had crushed him against the wall of the Primarch’s tower, and what he’d said had been indistinct. This was the most vocal he’d been since the cells had welcomed them.
Corvel addressed the cell’s other occupant. ‘You see, Palo? You could have saved them all, every soul in this place. What kind of monster are you?’
Without another word, Corvel swept back past Chel’s cell, a flowing wave of golden hair and robes. The clank of the cell door opening was followed by the grunting and cursing of the confessors as they extracted the kicking and wailing Dalim. His screams echoed down the stairwell as they carried him up, weakened but struggling, out of the light and out of sight.
‘It’s their fault! Their fault! They did this!’
Ayla Palo, last survivor of the Rau Rel leadership, emerged from the cell and followed at her own slow pace, a confessor on either side. Chel hadn’t seen her since they’d been confined, countless weeks before. She looked thin, colourless, diminished, but her expression was resolute.
She paused as she passed their cell, the confessors stopping alongside. Chel started to find his cellmate at his elbow, his gaze locked on Palo’s.
‘He’s right, you know.’
Her first words in weeks. Chel tried to puzzle out who she meant.
Beside him, Rennic nodded.
‘Should have listened to me.’
She nodded, eyes blank, then turned to follow Dalim up the stairs.
Rennic called after her, and she paused. His fingers were wrapped around the freezing bars, but he wasn’t letting go.
‘Be seeing you.’
The gaoler was roasting something over the brazier and greasy fat drops were sizzling on the glowing coals. The smell reached Chel’s nostrils, making his mouth water, despite his growing unease at the cries and creaks from the courtyard beyond the narrow window. The sounds of a gathering crowd.
Chel leaned against the freezing bars. His mind drifted, thoughts blurry, indistinct, whirling like a leaf in a gale.
Rennic called from across the cell, past where Chel was slumped. The founder and chief executive of the Black Hawk Company was upside-down, feet against the back wall, pushing himself slowly up and down on his hands. Chel’s shoulder ached to look at him.
The gaoler glared over one meaty shoulder. ‘What?’
‘When are we eating?’
The gaoler stirred, pushing herself to her feet. The keys jangled at her belt as she lumbered forward, the poker back in her hand. She came to rest before the bars, a fraction beyond arm’s reach. A sickly grin spread across her bulbous features, revealing an excellent set of teeth.
‘No food for you today, fuckers. No food ever again.’ She chuckled, her robes shuddering in waves.
Rennic took one foot off the wall, then the other. He maintained the handstand for a breath, then lowered his head to the floor, raised it again, and rolled down into a crouch. Flushed and panting, he fixed a fearsome glare on the gaoler.
‘No last meal? We die hungry? Prince Dick-head decree that, did he? Or is this your initiative, you pearl-grinned fuck-fountain?’
The poker slammed against the bars. ‘You die hungry,’ the gaoler growled, and turned to waddle back toward the brazier.
Torchlight flickered in the stairwell. Someone was coming.
The gaoler brandished the poker again, grunting them back from the bars, then straightened her stool and stood tall beside the brazier. Footsteps echoed from the stairwell, less numerous than usual, less weighty. A moment later, a bright torched flared into the dungeon, held aloft by a skinny but well-tailored arm. The gaoler dropped to one knee.
Prince Tarfel Merimonsun stumbled into the dungeon, keeping the torch overhead, blinking in its dancing light. A hooded confessor followed at his heel. Tarfel cleared his throat, eyes scanning the now-empty cells, the unease growing on his face. He looked healthy, at least, whole and well-fed, although his sunless pallor had returned.
‘I . . . I need to speak to the prisoners. Alone.’
The gaoler frowned. She was still on her knees, the poker still in her hand.
‘Alone, highness? I can’t leave them unattended. You understand, these are dangerous, vile men. Damned criminals and traitors.’
Tarfel nodded, distracted. Despite the cold, he appeared to be sweating. ‘Yes, yes, indeed. Indeed. That’s why I brought protection,’ he added, with a wave toward the accompanying confessor. ‘Open the cell, please?’
The gaoler’s frown deepened, and she raised her gaze a fraction, narrow eyes moving from the prince to his escort and back. ‘I cannot, your highness.’
Tarfel turned back to the confessor with a helpless look, a shrug forming. The confessor’s hood gave a firm nod, one hand reaching for the thin mace dangling from the rope belt. The gaoler caught the movement, shifting her focus from the hapless prince to the confessor, her furry brow now lowered in bullish suspicion. Chel edged closer to the bars. The light was weak, his view blocked, but the confessor looked small to his eye. His pulse quickened.
The gaoler had risen to a half-crouch. ‘Is there something else I can help you with, highness? Perhaps you’d like me to call for someone?’ The dungeon bell was two paces away, the far side of the brazier.
Tarfel swallowed. His torch arm was beginning to tremble.
‘Give me the keys. Please.’
‘I don’t think that would be appropriate, highness.’
‘I’m a prince!’ His voice rose in panic. ‘You have to do what I say!’
‘Perhaps I should check with the duty prelate. I’ll call for him.’
The gaoler stood, already lurching toward the bell. The confessor pushed past the prince, mace in hand, blocking the gaoler’s path, dwarfed by her.
‘Are you lost, brother?’ the gaoler sneered. ‘Stand aside.’
Tarfel had his free hand out in desperate placation. ‘Now there’s really no need for—’
The gaoler swung, the poker whistling in an arc and smashing shards from the stone beside the stumbling confessor’s head. The mace swung back, pinging from the poker as it came back around. It flew from the confessor’s grip and skittered across the icy flagstones.
With a gleeful chuckle, the gaoler advanced on the confessor, who scuttled and dodged back and around the bleating prince. The gaoler followed, the bell forgotten, swiping with the poker like a butcher swatting flies. The confessor scrambled around, kicking snow, before standing before Chel’s cell, back pressed to the bars.
The gaoler lunged, the confessor ducked, and something shunted Chel aside. A ringing clang filled the hallway, a muffled grunting in its echoes. Chel looked back to see the gaoler’s beefy arm dragged through the bars, held fast at a punishing angle in Rennic’s unyielding grip. His other arm was through the bars in the other direction, wrapped around the wide-eyed gaoler’s neck, jamming her back against the rusty iron. The poker dropped with a clatter.
Rennic’s eyes shone white in the gloom. ‘Get. The. Keys.’
The confessor pushed out from beneath the gaoler’s shadow and stood, a touch unsteady. A quick hand snapped the keys from the gaoler’s belt, another beckoned Tarfel and his torch over to find the right key. A moment later, the door clanked open and swung wide. The gaoler looked around with wild eyes, her every attempt to speak or cry choked by Rennic’s grip.
Rennic peered over her at the confessor. ‘Lemon, is that you in there? How the fuck did you get in?’
The confessor pulled back her hood. Straight black hair, pulled tight, tumbled out from within. Defiant grey eyes glowed in the torchlight.
Chel’s heart burst. ‘Sab!’
‘Hello, Brother Bear. I told you I’d be back for you, didn’t I?’
Rennic looked from one to the other. ‘Fuck me, this is your sister?’
‘Rennic, this is Sab—’
‘Don’t care. We need to get the fuck out of here. I assume you have a plan for what’s next, Chel’s sister?’
Sab nodded. ‘There’s a way out, while everyone’s distracted by the confession.’
‘Then let’s go.’
Sab looked around the dungeon, the barred cells stretching off either side of the hallway.
‘What about the others?’
Chel shook his head. ‘There are no others.’
‘Oh. I’m . . . I’m sorry. I came as soon as I could . . .’
‘You’re here now.’
The gaoler struggled in Rennic’s grip, and he clamped down with a growl.
‘Either of you got a knife?’
Tarfel wiped at his face, smudging his cold sweat with torch soot. ‘Can we just lock her away? The cell’s open.’
The gaoler struggled again, fighting against his grip, her muffled cries rising in pitch.
Rennic’s voice was grave-flat.
The muscles of his arm bulged like the gaoler’s eyes as he began to crush the life from her. Chel turned away, reaching out an instinctive arm to steer Sab with him, but she stood firm, expression fixed. He tugged at her shoulder.
‘I can take it.’
‘I’m sure you can, but we need to go, remember?’
She relaxed and turned with him, and he nodded to Tarfel to lead the way out.
‘Good to see you, highness.’
Tarfel sniffed, a small smile tweaking his mouth. His trembling had almost subsided. ‘How about a thank you?’
‘How about we get out of here first?’
Chel had his foot on the bottom step when he heard the sound, this time clear enough to make him pause. It was coming from the opposite end of the dungeon hallway, the darkened end, the end with the iron door. It sounded like a cry.
Rennic bumped into his back. ‘Get moving, fuck-stick.’
‘I think there’s someone in there.’
‘You can pity them later.’
Chel stepped back from the winding stairwell. He walked quickly to the iron door, Rennic’s exasperation at his back palpable, the weak light from the fading brazier picking out only the scores and divots from the shadows. A small, barred grille was cut from the door’s mass. From it, a pair of wide, frightened eyes peered, glimmering tearful.
Chel stared into deep wells of the eyes, locked in pleading entreaty. The face was small, dark, dirty, young.
‘Who are you?’
Chel yelled for the keys. ‘Fuck it, you’re coming with us.’
Rennic’s hand was rough on his shoulder, spinning him. Behind them, Sab’s approaching footsteps jingled.
‘––the fuck are you doing, boy? You think we have eternity to bolt?’
Chel reached past him, snatching the keys from Sab’s outstretched hand and rummaging in the half-light.
‘I’m getting this boy out.’
‘Please,’ came again from the grille.
‘This is not one of ours! There’s none of us left!’
‘He’s trapped here just the same. We can’t leave him – my father would have called it a sin to leave an unfortunate in peril.’
‘We’re pretty unfortunate by any measure, and our peril is not in dispute!’
Chel fumbled with cold, rusty iron, trying one of the keys to no avail. ‘You can either stand there and shout at me while I ignore you and do the right thing anyway, or you can fucking help. We’d all get out sooner.’
Rennic’s nostrils flared, and his mouth shaped to speak, but he held his tongue. Finally, he snatched the ring from Chel’s hand, flicking it around before seizing one from the mass.
‘Here you go, merciful sister. Keyhole’s a different shape from the cells.’ He sighed. ‘Sooner or later, your fucking sanctimony will be our deaths.’
The lock sprang, and the great dark door swung open with a clang and an alchemical waft.
A shrivelled creature looked up at them, rag-clad and hunched.
‘Fuck me,’ Rennic said, head tilted. ‘A Nort.’
THE RIGHTEOUS is available for pre-order from: