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The Steel Prince by V. E. Schwab
 

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Excerpt from ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ – A short story from Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

There are very few authors that Fantasy-Faction forum users and Facebook group members talk about more than Joe Abercrombie. There are many reasons for this, but in addition to truly enjoying his books, there is a feeling amongst the community that Joe Abercrombie is at least part responsible for the favourable direction that our genre has headed in recent years: a deeper, darker, grittier, more grown up and realistic one.

Sharp-Ends-FC2-3For this reason, whenever Lord Grimdark releases a novel we all get more than a little excited. Within Joe’s work are complex characters who are almost impossible to write off as either just and noble or completely evil; fantastical situations so comparable to real life that they often refresh our views; and generally just damned good, enjoyable tales that we won’t be forgetting any time soon.

Joe’s latest project, however, isn’t a novel at all: it is a collection of new and previously published short stories called Sharp Ends (get it?). What do we feel about this? Well, having read a few stories already: we can confirm that Joe is just as much a master of the short form as he is the full length novel. He may have less words in which to do it, but the characters, situations and stories have just as much impact.

Need proof? Well, today Joe and Gollancz (UK Publisher of Sharp Ends) have provided us with an excerpt from a short story called ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ (which I feel is a title you could attribute to most of Joe’s characters most of the time, right?). Check it out:

'Wrong Place, Wrong Time' by Joe Abercrombie

‘There’ll be a place for us still, I reckon.’ And Mazarine leaned over and clapped Predo on the knee with his great scarred hand. ‘And if there’s a place for me, there’ll be a place for all of you. Plague took my wife and my daughter, but the Fates sent me a new family, and I don’t plan on losing that one.’

‘A family.’ Made Predo feel warm all over, that did, to have someone looking out for him. Someone so tough and solid. Never had anyone looking out for him before. ‘Soldiering’s a good life, I reckon.’ He glanced nervously into the darkness beyond the firelight, towards the faint lights of Ospria. Towards the fords of the Sulva where they’d fight tomorrow. ‘Apart from the battles, maybe.’

‘Battles ain’t so bad,’ said Franchi.

Mazarine leaned back onto one elbow, grinning. ‘Long as you’re on the winning side.’

‘It hurts,’ snarled Sculia through his red teeth. ‘Shit, it hurts.’

‘What do I do?’ There was blood everywhere. Blood all over Predo’s hands. Blood bubbling from around the shaft of the bolt and from the joints in Sculia’s armour and washing off in the frothing river. The white cross of Talins on his surcoat had turned red with it.

‘What the hell do I do?’ Predo screeched, but no one was listening, even if he could’ve been heard.

The noise was deafening. The sound of hell. Everyone shouting over each other. All questions and no answers. Howling, hardly like people at all. Men floundering past through the river, showering water over each other, falling, getting up, wounded screaming as they were dragged back the other way, arrows and bolts flitting from the blue sky without warning. Predo could see men sitting above the crowd. Riders. Metal twinkling as they hacked from their saddles with sword and axe. Predo wasn’t sure whether they were friends or enemies. Didn’t look like things could possibly be going to plan. Didn’t look like there could be a plan.

He knelt there, icy water babbling around his legs, soaked with spray as men splashed past, just staring. Sculia wasn’t saying it hurt any more.

He wasn’t saying anything.

‘What do I do?’ Predo whispered, and he felt someone grab him under the arm.

‘He’s dead.’ Sergeant Mazarine, calm and steady as ever, a rock in this storm-tossed sea of men, pointing the way with his spear. ‘Forward!’ he roared over his shoulder. ‘Forward!’ Dragging Predo after him, sloshing in the cold river. Good thing he knew which way forward was, ’cause Predo had no notion, the breath wheezing and rattling in his throat as he scrambled on. Over the top of the blur of struggling men and mounts Ospria jerked and wobbled on its hill.

Something spattered in his face and he gasped. Touched his cheek, stared at his trembling hand. Blood, red-black on his water-wrinkled fingertips. A horse reared and kicked and sent a man flopping into Predo’s side, nearly knocked him over.

Mazarine was up ahead, wading forward with his spear in his fists. Predo staggered back as a horse fell near him, pitching its rider down into the river. An axe rose and fell. Metal shrieked. Men screamed. He scraped the wet hair out of his eyes and blinked. He saw a woman crouched in the river ahead. A woman in bright armour with black hair plastered across her pale face.

It had to be her. Murcatto. The Butcher of Caprile. Smaller than he’d imagined, but who else could it be?

She swung at someone with a mace but missed, staggered after it. It was Franchi, and he shoved her with his shield, knocked her off balance, lifting his sword. As he stepped close, someone stepped close to him from behind. A great big bastard, stripped to the waist. A Northman, maybe, all blood-speckled head to toe like some death-drunk madman from a story. He swung his axe whistling down before Franchi could swing his sword and it thudded deep into his shoulder, cleaved him open like a butcher might cleave a side of beef.

Franchi made a hideous squeal, blood spraying out of him and into the woman’s face. She reeled back, spitting, blinded, and Mazarine was on her, growling with fury. He stabbed at her with his spear and it shrieked down her breastplate, sending her toppling back into the water with a cry.

Predo started forward to help but his boot caught on something on the riverbed and he fell, coughed out a mouthful of water as he struggled up. A fallen battle flag. White cross on black cloth.

He raised his head to see Murcatto floundering to her knees as Mazarine raised his spear over her. She twisted around, a flash of metal as she drove a knife into the side of his leg and he bent forward, eyes bulging.

‘No,’ whispered Predo, tearing the clutching cloth from his ankle, but too late.

He saw the woman’s teeth gritted through her tangle of bloody hair as she burst up, swinging the mace in a spray of shining water. There was a fountain of blood and teeth as it crunched into Mazarine’s jaw and sent him tottering back.

She snarled as she lifted her mace high and clubbed him in the throat, knocked him limp on his back in the river and fell across him, rolled hissing and snapping through the water and up.

Predo stared numbly around, sword limp in his hand, half-expecting that someone would be charging at him with murder in their eyes, but all of a sudden the fighting seemed to be done. Men stood and stared, just like he did. They sank into the river, clutching at wounds. They reeled about in confusion. Then a rider not far away stood tall in his stirrups, ripping off his helmet, and screamed out, ‘Victory!’

Sergeant Mazarine lay over a rock, arms spread wide. He was dead. They were all dead. Battles aren’t so bad. Long as you’re on the winning side.

Others began to cheer, and others. Osprians, clearly. Predo stared at the woman. She took a tottering step forward and flopped into the arms of the half-naked monster, her mace-head, still sticky with Sergeant Mazarine’s blood, dangling against his bare back.

They were no more than three paces off in an exhausted embrace, and Predo was quick. He could’ve charged up and split the back of her head with his sword. Right then, he could’ve put an end to the infamous Serpent of Talins.

But at that moment the Northman looked right at him, and Predo felt a great weight of icy fear settle on him. There was a mighty scar across his blood-dotted face, and in the midst of it a bright ball of dead metal, glinting with wet as the sun broke through the clouds.

That was the moment Predo decided soldiering weren’t really the life for him. He swallowed, then thrust his sword up high in the air.

‘Victory!’ he screamed out, along with everyone else.

It was all chaos down there, after all, and there was nothing to show whether he stood with Talins or Ospria. Just another lad in a leather jerkin. Just one of the lucky ones who’d lived through it.

‘Victory!’ he shouted again in a cracking voice, trying to make out they were tears of happiness on his cheeks as he looked down at Sergeant Mazarine’s broken corpse, draped over a rock with the river foaming around it.

Just life, ain’t it? You make the best of what you’re offered.

Seemed a lucky chance now he didn’t have a surcoat.

Sharp-EndsAs promised, that was pretty great, wasn’t it?

‘Battles ain’t so bad,’ said Franchi.
Mazarine leaned back onto one elbow, grinning. ‘Long as you’re on the winning side.’

Those lines – the ones that make you nod, smile and contemplate – are what makes Joe Abercrombie’s work so damned readable and memorable.

If you want some more (and how could you not), there’s the rest of ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ and 12 more stories waiting for you in Sharp Ends, which hits stores today. You can pick it up here!

And finally, as if that isn’t enough Joe Abercrombie excitement for a single post, this Friday we will be hanging out with Gollancz and Joe in both Bristol and Bath.

The Bristol event will be held at Waterstones (1pm until 2pm) and will be a great chance for you to say hi to Joe and get some books signed. The Bath event, which I truly can’t wait for, starts at 7:30pm and is a discussion-based event in Topping Book Shop. Do come say hello if you can make it!

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