Elspeth Cooper is more than likely to become a very big household name next year and we are very honoured at Authors on Show, that she agreed to, not only an article for us explaining how it all happened for her, but also to an interview. We usually archive our author interviews, but this time, we decided to add article, interview and sneak preview of her first chapter all together. We are very grateful to her publisher for allowing us to show a chapter of her book and I'm sure you all join with us at AOS in wishing her well with her future writing and sales.
GUEST AUTHOR ARTICLE
About Elspeth Cooper
Elspeth Cooper is a British fantasy writer, author of The Wild Hunt series. Book 1, Songs of the Earth, is due to be published by Gollancz in late spring 2011. She is married and lives in Northumberland with her husband and two cats in a house full of books.
Remember when you were at school, and there was that annoying speccy kid in your class that the teachers loved because at eight she had a reading age of about 35 and three-quarters and her “What I Did On My Holidays” stories were seven or eight pages long, when you were struggling to reach a page and a half?
That was me. Sorry.
I’ve been fascinated by the written word since, well, forever. I was a heroic reader as a child, devouring books at an astonishing rate, and punching well above my weight too. Lord of the Rings at 11, Homer at 12 (it was raining and there was nothing in the house I hadn’t read except my Dad’s Penguin Classics) Wilkie Collins, Alan Garner, you name it. So it came as no surprise to anyone who knew me that I ended up a writer.
Since I was asked for this piece I’ve been trying to remember how my epic fantasy series came into being, and I can’t. It’s like it’s always been there, a part of me. I have early drafts on the computer that go back to 1995 or even earlier, but they’re fragments, glimpses into the story. Nothing cohesive. Back then, it didn’t even have a title.
In late 1997, my personal life took a turn in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. I broke up with my fiancé, and spent a week sitting up all night wrestling with some pretty dark emotions. I started writing as a form of therapy, and what I wrote was about a young man, locked in the dark, with a seductive, terrifying music inside him that he didn’t understand and couldn’t control. That young man was Gair, and though I didn’t know it then, I’d just written the opening scene of Songs.
Over the next few years Gair wouldn’t leave me alone and I kept writing in fits and starts around the interruptions of daily life. In 2006 I suddenly realised I could see the finish line, and was compelled to complete the story. The following year I put the opening chapters up on YouWriteOn for some feedback, and people liked what I wrote. Wow, what a rush.
I then heard about Authonomy, and having got frustrated with YWO I switched my allegiance in 2008. More feedback followed, and I made some crit buddies who are still my friends to this day. After a year or so sharpening my skills by seeing examples of what worked (and what didn’t) I realised my book needed a damn hard edit and a new title.
Songs of the Earth it became. It slimmed down from 205k to a svelte 144k and for the first time, it felt right. Finished. I didn’t want to tinker with it any more, and in summer 2009, I decided the time had come to see if I had what it took to be a real writer.
I picked 8 agencies from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, bought a jumbo-sized box of BBEs (Big Brown Envelopes) and prepared submissions, following each agency’s guidelines to the letter. Then I waited.
The first of my BBEs plopped through the letterbox a couple of weeks later. Rejection, but what a rejection! “Well-written, but my list is full”, hand-written on a compliments slip.
Gair was still yammering away in a corner of my mind, and he’d brought some friends along. It was getting quite noisy in there. Rejection or no rejection, I had to keep writing, finish the series. It was the only way to get the voices in my head to shut up.
A few days later, my mobile rang at work. Unknown number. Normally I don’t answer these, but this time I did.
‘Hello, is that Elspeth?’
‘Good afternoon, my name’s Ian Drury and I’m a literary agent with Sheil Land Associates in London.’
The rest of that day is a bit of a blur. Ian told me how much he’d enjoyed reading my submission—refreshingly free of elves, he said. Could he see the rest of the book, please?
Holy cow. A reputable literary agency just requested a full. Aren’t I supposed to go through 57 rejections before this happens?
I emailed it to him straight away and two days later I got another phone call to see if I’d got the agency agreement in the post.
Waitaminute. The reputable literary agent wants to represent me now? Is this a joke?
Er, no. It’s so much not a joke that I got an email from Ian just as he’s dashing out to the airport to go on holiday, giving me his personal email address. Less than two weeks later, before he’s even back in the country, he emailed me again to say he’d just received a very handsome offer to publish the first three books of The Wild Hunt…
Yes, it happened that fast. Six weeks from posting the submission to Sheil Land to an offer on the table. So it can happen. Books over 100,000 words do not get rejected automatically. Debut novelists are getting picked up. You don’t have to be a celebrity or write a misery memoir to attract a publisher’s attention. You just have to land on the right desk at the right moment, and then the magic happens.
I’m still waiting to wake up from this dream.
Since Gollancz picked up my books, I have given up work to be a full-time writer. I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis in 2004, and by 2009 I could no longer handle the four hours a day I spent commuting. I am now working hard to finish book 2 of The Wild Hunt, Trinity Moon, ready for publication in 2012.
My website: http://www.elspethcooper.com, where I also have a blog.
My Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Elspeth-Cooper/165158454985
Follow me on Twitter @ElspethCooper
Is The Wild Hunt a series?
Yes, it is. Songs of the Earth is Book 1. I expected it to be a trilogy when I got my agent, but once I started working seriously on Book 2, Trinity Moon, I realised it had done a Topsy on me and just growed. I'm hoping it will stop at four books, and be The Wild Hunt Quartet, although I do have plans for a standalone book, called Madrigal, set in the same universe.
What's it about? Can we have a blurb?
It's epic fantasy, but there's no ancient heroes reborn, no prophecy, no Dark Lord. And no elves. At all. Unless you count some sea-elves, but there's no pointy ears.
Gair is a
Knight awaiting trial on charges of witchcraft. He can hear the music of the songs of the earth, and in the novice Church , that can only mean one thing: death by fire. No exceptions, not even for one of their own. Holy City
Escaping the stake, but not the witch-mark branded into his left palm, he goes on the run. He struggles with the power of the Song building inside him as he tries to stay one step ahead of the Church's witchfinder. The Guardians of the Veil could teach him how to control his gift before it rips him apart, except thanks to the Knights there aren't many of them left, and they have problems of their own. A renegade Guardian is threatening to tear down the Veil between worlds, and literally, all hell is about to break loose.
So, is Gair the main character?
Yes, although there are other point-of-view characters and a sub-plot revolving around the Knights.
Is the book mainly for adults, or could younger people enjoy it?
It was written for adults, so there's some adult themes covered such as sexual relationships, physical abuse/torture and the horrors of war. The language is not explicit but not wussy either, so I see no reason why a younger reader with a mature attitude wouldn't enjoy it. Although I had an adult reading age from about 9 so I may not be the best person to judge!
Have you always been interested in fantasy? Ever felt tempted to try another genre?
I have been a fantasy fan since I was big enough to see over the top of Lord of the Rings. My parents read me Ivanhoe as a bed-time story, and it all sort of went downhill from there!
As for other genres, I have some ideas for contemporary women's fiction, which if I ever get time to write them will probably come out under yet another pseudonym, but fantasy is my bread and butter.
This is your first published book, but I bet you have many more beneath your bed! So, how many books have you written?
How much are you willing to bet? Cos you'd lose--Songs is the first book I ever felt compelled to finish. I have no "trunk novels" gathering dust in a corner, although I do have a pile of reporter's notebooks filled with scribbled ideas, scenes, fragments of dialogue etc which may or may not come in handy some time in the future. I'm a terrible hoarder.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Now don't laugh, but I can't give you a straight answer to this one. You'll have to bear with me whilst I explain!
Songs existed as an as-yet-unnamed agglomeration of chapters as far back as, oh, 1992 or so, but only really acquired a life of its own in December 1997 when my fiancé broke up with me and I sat up all night wrestling with all kinds of horrible emotions (and, yes, bawling my eyes out) and started writing as a form of therapy.
I wrote about a young man, locked in the dark, with a monstrous power inside him that he couldn't control that was both exquisitely beautiful and incredibly destructive. That was Gair, and Songs was born.
I only really got a wriggle on to finish it in late 2006, and it took me until the end of July 2009, working around a full-time job with a four-hour daily commute, on top of some health problems (I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis in 2004).
The second book I got a year to finish, which runs out at the end of September 2010, so the answer to your question is somewhere between one and fifteen years!
Did you ever wonder if it would be published when you first started writing it? It must be wonderful to realise that fifteen years hard work has paid off!
I've always had a dream about being a published writer, since I started writing novel-length fiction when I was a young teenager, but I never really had a rock-solid belief that I was good enough to do it. I was also a realist, and knew that it would not be easy to achieve, but that wasn't going to stop me writing. So you can imagine my reaction when a real live literary agent rang me up and said he wanted to represent me, it fair blew my socks off.
However, even if he hadn't, I would still be writing the rest of the series, because the story in my head keeps on unrolling and it is not going away. I have to find out what happens next.
Talk us through Gair and be honest. Is he your dream man?
Hey, I'm married, I have to be careful how I answer this one!
Physically, Gair's not described very much in the book beyond long-boned and fair-haired. He's physically imposing but completely unaware of it: coming from a tall race, he's never slouched or stood round-shouldered, and all that weapons training with the Knights has given him plenty of muscle. He has grey eyes, oh and hasn't had his hair cut since he was 10 because he was afraid the Knights' barber would tonsure him when he wasn't looking.
As a personality, he's a bit of a solitary creature, happiest in the mountains and wide open spaces, or lost in a book. He prefers the company of horses to most people he knows, and wouldn't know how to flirt with a girl if his life depended on it. My dream man? Well, I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating toast...
Not many writers have been lucky enough to know what happens after a book has been accepted. Can you take us through the process?
This is what happened to me. Feel free to trim this down; I've just realised how long it's got!
In August 2009 I got a phone call from Ian Drury at Sheil Land Associates, one of the 8 agents I'd submitted Songs to, requesting the full manuscript. I was at work at the time, and have no clue what happened the rest of that day. The rest of that month is pretty hazy as well. Two days later, I had an offer of representation.
Two weeks later, I got an email from Ian that opened with "Are you sitting down?" He had received a pre-emptive offer from Gollancz for world rights, and it was big.
How big? Can you share?
The initial offer was for £100,000, as reported in the Bookseller.
I had to sit on this news until the end of the month, when the press release would go out, but in the meantime I engaged in long email chats with Ian on the arcane nature of publishing contracts, and the lovely Jo Fletcher, the Associate Publisher. She and I discussed what my pen-name should be, how publishing works so far in advance, the importance of the big buyers like Waterstones, the perceptions of male and female writers in different genres etc. This was my first taste of what it's like behind the scenes at a big publishing house.
Oh, the “perceptions of male and female writers in different genres” that really exists then?
Apparently so. After talking to the buyer for Waterstones Jo had some concerns about launching a female fantasy writer into a male-dominated genre with a largely male readership, because there was evidence that boys won't buy books written by girls, and this could have an effect of as much as 10% on sales. So we talked for a time about giving me a gender-neutral name like Alex, or just using my initials a la Rowling, but in the end she decided that the likes of Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer had rewritten the rules and Elspeth Cooper I would be. Plus the foreign publishers loved such an unusual name.
In the late autumn we put together the Advance Information sheet, which is the basic book info, summary, author bio etc which goes out to the big buyers like Amazon. Your book is starting to take shape. I also had to submit a synopsis for book 2, which could be shown to the foreign publishers to tempt them. Rights in five countries were very quickly snapped up. Having an agent is invaluable for this sort of thing.
In November 2009 I travelled down to
to meet Ian for the first time, then I went out for lunch with Jo and pretty much the entire team from Gollancz, plus the Deputy CEO and publishing director of Orion Group. We talked about the acquisitions process, and how there's a frightening number of people who all have to say they love it before a book is picked up. Everyone has to agree--it just takes one person to say "I'm not quite sure..." and a fine book can be turned down. London
In the current economic client, even big publishing groups like Orion have to be *sure* it will be commercially viable, and that the author is more than just a one-trick-pony before they'll splash the cash. But when they are sure, they will go into bat for you.
A contract followed, and so from December I was officially a Gollancz author. Of course, once you sign on the dotted line you get the first tranches of your advance: the on-signature part, plus the on-delivery part for the first book. Yes, it comes in chunks. You don't just get the whole lot at once, and I have to produce something i.e. book 2 before I get any more.
Doesn’t it make you feel pressurized to produce though?
A little bit. Once you've banked your first advance cheque you're on the company dime, as it were. You have a deadline, and people counting on you, which does ramp up the pressure compared to just scribbling away for your own amusement. There's also the perception that the next book has to be at least as good if not better than the first. But no-one's putting that pressure on me harder than I'm applying it to myself. This is my job now.
In the last few months, things have started to get alarmingly real. At the end of May Jo and I thrashed out the cover copy, i.e. what goes on the inside flap of the book jacket, and she told me she'd briefed the design department on the cover spec. The publication date also began to firm up. I should see some rough cover designs shortly, and Jo, who's also my editor, will be starting her edits soon.
And that's the story so far.
How many rejections had you suffered for The Wild Hunt?
You'll hate me for this, but the answer is one (or seven; six of them came in after I'd already secured representation so I'm not sure if they really count). "Well-written, but my list is full", hand-written on a compliments slip, which was about as encouraging as they come, rejection-wise. The second agent to respond was Ian.
I have been incredibly, indescribably lucky.
It must have been a surreal year for you – and it’s not over yet! Has everyone been amazingly supportive?
Yes. Completely surreal--it's the only word to describe it. Even now I occasionally find myself wondering: "Is this really happening to me?" My family has been supportive since I was fifteen years old, when it became apparent that writing was going to be a big part of my life--mum and dad have been waiting patiently for a farmhouse in the Dordogne off the proceeds of my writing ever since. My husband is constantly supportive, and was nagging me to start submitting to agents as soon as I'd typed "End" at the foot of the last page.
Is Ian your agent?
Yes, Iam Drury, of
Associates. Very few publishers in the Sheil Land take unsolicited submissions, and certainly none of the big ones. UK
You seem very clued up on the submission/writing process, is this all from writing Songs?
I'm a long-time subscriber to Writers' News & Writing Magazine, so I had quite a bit of background knowledge long before I ever thought I would get Songs published. There's so many myths about publilshing and so much misinformation around, I think it behooves every novice writer to educate themselves about the process. I learned a lot from talking to Jo and Ian that enabled me to join together all the snippets and get a rounded picture of what's involved in bringing a new writer to market.
Any last words?
It may sound trite, but don't give up. Don't give up reading, don't give up learning how to improve your craft, and don't give up chasing your dream. If you've got sufficient talent, the rest is often down to timing, hitting the right desk at the right moment, so keep trying.
It may sound trite, but don't give up. Don't give up reading, don't give up learning how to improve your craft, and don't give up chasing your dream. If you've got sufficient talent, the rest is often down to timing, hitting the right desk at the right moment, so keep trying.
Below is an excerpt from Ellie's book
chapter 1: condemned
The magic was breaking free again.
Its music sang along Gair’s nerves as if they were harp-strings, a promise of power thrumming through his fingers. All he had to do was embrace it, if he dared. He pressed his face into his knees and prayed.
‘Hail, Mother, full of grace, light and life of all the world. Blessed are the meek, for they shall find strength in you. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find justice in you. Blessed are the lost, for they shall find salvation in you. Amen.’
Line by line, verse by verse, the devotion tumbled from his cracked lips. His fingers twitched for the familiar shapes of rosary beads to keep the count, but he had lost his place long ago. When the words faltered, he hugged his knees tighter to his chest and began again.
‘Now I am lost in a place of darkness O Mother I am fallen from thy path guide me once more...’
Music still whispered in his ears. Nothing drowned it out. Not prayers, not pleas, not even the few hymns he could still remember. It was everywhere. In the rusted iron walls of his cell, in the rank sweat on his skin, in the colours he saw in the dark. With every breath he took, it grew a little louder.
Silvery chimes rang in the air. Gair opened his eyes and they were seared by a light so bright, so white, he had to shield his face with his hands. Through his fingers he saw two figures, clothed in brilliance. Angels. Holy Mother, angels sent to carry him home.
‘...bless me now and take me to your side let me be forgiven of all my sins...’
On his knees, Gair waited for the blessing. A backhanded blow across his face sent him sprawling.
‘Save your chants, hidderling!’
Another blow flung him hard against the iron-plate wall. Pain exploded in his temple and the music shivered into silence.
‘Gently, now. He has no power to harm you here.’
No. He had no power. The magic was too wild, too unpredictable to belong to anyone for long. He didn’t need iron walls to be helpless. Slumped on the floor, Gair clutched his pounding head. Blessed are the lost.
Silver-spurred boots crossed his line of sight, rowels chiming. Not bells. No robes of light, just the white wool surcoats of the Lord Provost’s marshals. Iron manacles snicked round Gair’s wrists and the marshals hauled him up by the chains. He fell back to his knees as the cell wheeled crazily around him.
Cursing, a marshal drove his boot into Gair’s rump. The other marshal clicked his tongue.
‘It’s a sin to take Her name in vain, you know that.’
‘Heh. You swore yourself to the wrong House, my friend. You preach like a lector.’ Another kick. ‘Up, witch! Walk to your judgement, or we’ll drag you!’
Gair lurched to his feet. Out in the stone-flagged corridor, sunlight lancing through high windows blinded him again. The marshals took position either side of him with their hands under his arms, half steering him, half supporting him when he stumbled. Scabbards slapped and spurs rang as more marshals fell in step behind.
Endless blurry corridors. Stairs that tripped him and tore at his bare toes. No time to rest or catch his breath; he had to walk or fall, and he had fallen so far already. Out of the Goddess’ grace, out of Her hearing, no matter how many fragments of prayers still skittered through the void the magic had left inside him.
‘...be a light and comfort to me now and in the hour of my death...’
A gauntleted hand cuffed the side of Gair’s head and a yank on his chains pulled him on. Wider hallways now, panelled in wood. Marble tiles underfoot instead of bare dressed stone, and hangings on the walls. One final turn and the marshals halted. Dark doors towered ahead, flanked by smudgy figures carrying long banners. A breath of air stirred the fabric, and Holy Oaks flamed as thread of gold embroidery caught the sun.
Recognition sank like a stone into Gair’s gut. Those doors led to the Rede-hall, where the Knights held their councils and ceremonies. Where the Order gave its judgements. His knees buckled. Chains clattered as he put out his hands to stop himself sprawling on the polished floor. Inside him, a whisper of music stirred and was still.
Judgement. Too late to hope he might be spared; too late to hope for anything but forgiveness.
Oh Goddess, look kindly on me now.
Ahead, the massive doors swung noiselessly inwards.
From the curtained alcove above the doors Alderan could see the length of the Rede-hall, from surcoated sentries to the many-leaved bronze Oak above the Preceptor’s chair, glowing in the sun streaming through the tall windows. His perch was high enough above everyone’s eyeline to be safe, provided he did nothing to attract attention to himself, but it was still a risk being there. Should he be discovered, he would have risked everything in vain.
The benches either side of the hall were crowded with hierarchs, magnificent in their formal scarlet—a full house, as close as he could count. Full of rosy cheeks and well-padded arses, gossiping and nodding and fluffing their feathers. Alderan’s lip curled.
These are the inheritors of Endirion? The First Knight must be weeping in his grave.
From a side door came a pair of clerks, sober as ravens in their black robes. They took their seats at desks facing each other across the hall before the Preceptor’s chair on its dais, the prosecutor sorting his papers, the scribe setting out pens and ink to record the day’s proceedings for the archives. A moment later, the Preceptor himself entered the hall.
Ansel’s angular frame was as upright as ever, but his thick hair matched his white robes for hue. The hand that held his staff of office was knobbed and twisted by arthritis.
So at last he’s met a foe he cannot vanquish. The hero of Samarak, finally brought low by time.
At Ansel’s side, the Chaplain was unchanged, if a little greyer than when Alderan had last seen him. Leonine head bent to whisper a word for Ansel’s ear alone, Danilar frowned at the response, then folded his massive hands in his sleeves and walked to his seat on the front row of benches. Ansel squared his shoulders, then climbed the steps onto the dais and turned to face the hall. The hierarchs fell silent.
‘I call this Rede to order,’ he announced. ‘Let us begin.’
A twitch of Ansel’s fingers signalled the sentries to open the doors. Every hierarch leaned forward, the better to watch the entrance of the accused. In his lap, Alderan’s fists clenched. These were the Order’s most senior officers, subservient only to the Preceptor, himself second only to the Lector of Dremen.
And yet look at them! Gawking like yokels at the fair, waiting for the showman to bring out his painted lady or a two-headed calf. I hope the Goddess is watching what Her anointed few are about to do in Her name.
Through the doors came a pair of marshals, their prisoner stumbling between them. Long lank hair and many days’ growth of beard hid the captive’s face, but nothing hid what had been done to him. His naked body was patterned with bruises. Scabs from the lash crusted his back, and one foot left bloody smears on the black and white floor with each step. When the marshals chained him to the mahogany rail of the witness stand he crashed to his knees, too weak to stand.
As one, the Curia caught their breath. Some of the hierarchs made a show of holding handkerchiefs to their faces as they stared.
Was this how far the Suvaeon had fallen from the tenets of Diamondhelm? Returning to the question and the tawse that had been outlawed for centuries? Anger uncoiled in Alderan’s belly like a serpent rearing to strike. Was this what they called justice?
Pain stabbed Gair’s foot as he fell. Buzzing darkness swarmed into his vision from all sides and the Rede-hall became a vortex of scarlet and sunlight sucking him down to the chequered floor.
His stomach clenched to spew. He swallowed the nausea down hard and shut his eyes until the dizziness passed. The hierarchs were staring at him. Their revulsion, their awful fascination, prickled over the back of his neck. Their silence rang as loud as a shout.
He had no answer for them. How could he deny the truth? His skin crawled with guilt.
Stand up, novice. Whatever comes, face it on your feet.
Selenas, the Master of Swords, hard brown hand extended to help a boy up from the dirt of a sun-soaked practice yard, what felt like a century ago. Helping him up to fight again.
Gair opened his eyes. Black and white tiles under him. Smells of floor polish and incense and—merciful Mother!—his own unwashed body. On the periphery of his vision, dark wood, red robes. Let the Curia stare. They would not see him mewling on the floor like a pup.
Slowly, chains heavy on his wrists, he took hold of the mahogany rail and pulled himself to his feet.
Alderan let out a breath he had not even realised he held. They had not broken him. The boy was unsteady but he was standing, head up to meet the Preceptor’s gaze full on. Exultation punched up from Alderan’s gut. There was hope yet.
The Preceptor raised his steel-shod staff and struck the dais three times, measured as a heartbeat. Around the hall, the hierarchs stilled. Motes flared in the sunlight from the long windows. The sun had moved westwards; now the dais lay in shadow and the witness stand stood full in the glare.
‘Who stands before the Rede?’ Ansel’s voice was worn thin by the years but still had a snap to it.
‘One who stands accused,’ responded the prosecutor, warrant in his hands. He did not look at the prisoner.
‘Of what is he accused?’
‘My lord, he is charged with foully desecrating the house of the Goddess, sinning against Her commandments and violating the sternest precepts of our faith.’
‘By what means?’
A hiss of indrawn breath rippled through the crowded benches. Just the word was enough to have them reaching for their rosaries. Alderan’s fists clenched again; he made himself fold his hands in his lap. He was not there to tear the Rede-hall apart brick by brick. Not today.
‘Why does he stand here?’
‘To receive the judgement of the Rede.’
Silence, apart from the scritch of the scribe’s quill, then even that ceased. Despite the weight of the stares on him the lad held his head up, kept his eyes fixed on the place in the shadows where Ansel’s face should be. He did not squint, though his eyes must surely be watering. The sun cut through his overgrown beard, revealing the hard angles of the face beneath. Typical Leahn, from the ruler-level brows and long straight nose to the set of his jaw. Not even a hint that he was perturbed to stand in front of the Rede in naught but his own sweat. Or if he was, he would damned well not let it show.
Oh, he’s going to be a handful.
In the hall below, the silence grew heavier. The prosecutor shuffled his paperwork irritably, stealing a glance at the Preceptor. Even the dust in the air seemed to pause, suspended like flies in amber. On the benches, hierarchs leaned forward.
Ansel stepped into the light. His pale hair flared halo-like around his head as he took the charge sheet from the prosecutor. The Curia stood up with a creak of benches and a rustle of robes.
‘You have been charged with numerous acts of witchcraft, the details of which have been discussed at length by this assembly,’ Ansel said, glancing at the parchment in his hand. ‘The Rede has heard the evidence presented to it, including the sworn statement lodged by Elder Goran. We have also heard the testimony of other witnesses, given under oath in this chamber, and the reports concerning your confession.’
He looked straight at Gair. To his credit, the lad did not flinch.
‘The Rede has reached a verdict. Are you prepared to hear our judgement, my son?’
‘I am, my lord.’
Alderan shook his head. Goddess love the boy, he stares damnation in the eye!
The preceptor paused, the attention of the room locked upon him.
‘Hear now the judgement of the Rede.’ Ansel’s words were flat and cold as stone. ‘We find the accused guilty of all charges. The sentence is death by burning.’
Gair gripped the railing tight and locked his knees. He would not go down again. He would not! But still the verdict roared in his ears.
Be a light and comfort to me now and in the hour of my death oh Mother if You can still hear me I don’t want to die.
Ansel crumpled the parchment between his hands. The prosecutor blinked; opposite him, Brother Chronicler goggled up at the Preceptor, wet lips slack as the ball of paper dropped onto his desk and pattered across it to the floor.
‘An appeal for clemency has been entered into the record, citing your previous good character and conduct. The Rede must take this into account, therefore the sentence will be commuted to branding, excommunication from the Eadorian faith and banishment from this parish on pain of death. You have until dusk today to comply. May the Goddess have mercy on your soul.’
Ansel’s staff struck the dais three times. Gair stared. Reprieve? How? Surely he had misheard, his ears still filled with the sizzle of flames.
‘Preposterous!’ Elder Goran strode down the tiers from the upper benches on the left side of the hall. Angry purple suffused his meaty face. ‘This is outrageous, Ansel! I demand to know who entered this plea!’
‘I cannot tell you, Goran. You know that. It was entered as a sealed plea and as such is anonymous. Consistorial law is quite clear on the point.’
‘The punishment for witchcraft is death,’ Goran insisted. ‘There can be no commuting it, no appeal. It is stated in the Book of Eador: “Suffer ye not the life of a witch and shun ye all works of evil lest they imperil thy soul.” This is not justice. This is an insult to the Goddess Herself!’
‘Peace, Goran.’ Ansel lifted his hand as angry mutters of support rose from the benches. ‘All of you. We have argued this out before. It serves no purpose to do so again. This Rede is concluded.’
‘I must protest, Preceptor! This creature has turned his face from the one true Goddess. He has besmirched the sanctity of the Suvaeon Order, instigated who knows what corruption and depravity amongst us. He has performed acts of witchcraft here, on holy ground. He must be punished!’
The sun was too hot on Gair’s face. His head spun and he clung to the wooden railing for support. Across the chamber, Danilar leaned forward from his seat.
‘Don’t you think the boy is being punished enough, Goran?’ the Chaplain asked mildly. ‘He will never be welcome in a place of worship again, once he wears a witchmark. Never able to wed, never have his children blessed and taken into the faith. It will go with him to his grave, along with the hatred and suspicion of his neighbours. Is that not enough?’
‘The punishment for witchcraft is death.’ Goran smacked a plump fist into his other hand to mark out the words. ‘We cannot flinch from it because the accused comes from our own ranks. Whosoever commits Corlainn’s sin shares Corlainn’s punishment. He must be burned.’
Angry voices shouted support for Goran. Hands waved and faces twisted into ugliness. Hate-filled words stabbed at Gair’s ears, but he kept his eyes fixed on the Preceptor whose intervention was all that kept him from the fire.
Please don’t let me die.
Ansel raised his hand for silence and was ignored. Demands tossed down from the benches to either side of the hall thickened the air. Frowning, he drove the heel of his staff onto the dais so hard it rang like the Sacristy bell.
‘I have passed sentence!’ he barked. ‘It is the task of the Rede to determine a verdict. It is mine to set the sentence and I have set it. Now that isenough!’
The Curia subsided into vengeful muttering and finally a silence of vast disapproval. Goran remained in front of the lowest tier, glaring.
‘Goddess in glory.’ Ansel planted his staff between his feet. ‘You are disciples of Endirion, my brothers, not a pack of unruly schoolboys. Now go with the Goddess. The Rede is over.’
A few stubborn murmurs of protest caused the Preceptor to lean forward into the sunlight. His lined face drew down the corners of his mouth, and his blue eyes flashed.
‘No more, I tell you!’
‘This is not the end, Ansel.’ Goran levelled a finger at Gair. ‘You will hear of this again.’
He stalked away towards the doors, his supporters clustered around him. Rustling and shuffling, the remainder of the hierarchs descended from their benches and followed. Gair sagged against the railing. It was over, and he still had his life. Somehow. Before he had more than a moment to savour it, the marshals unchained him and marched him across the marble-tiled floor. He looked back over his shoulder, but Ansel had already turned away.
Out in the vestibule, his escort prodded him through a side door and down a sloping windowless corridor. It opened onto a circular, chimney-like courtyard floored with cracked and blackened stones around the deep socket for the stake.
Traitor’s Court, where Corlainn the heretic had paid for his sins in the Founding Wars. Where the citizens of Dremen would have come to see another witch burn. The tiers of galleries stood empty, looking down on nothing more than a scarred wooden block with leather straps nailed to it. A brazier stood next to it, tended by a squat, shirtless man in a farrier’s apron. Above the brazier the air danced with heat. The iron pushed deep into the coals was cherry-red half-way to the handle. Despair yawned in Gair’s belly as he was shoved out into the sun.
A few feet from the farrier stood a slim, upright figure in marshals’ mail and surcoat. Gold thread outlined the gauntlet badge on his breast and he wore the golden cords of Provost on his upper arm.
The marshals stamped to attention. Bredon acknowledged their salutes with a nod. Dark, hooded eyes looked Gair over without emotion.
‘Please, my lord…’ Don’t do this.
The lines that ran from hooked nose to mouth deepened a fraction.
‘Is the prisoner fit to stand sentence?’ Bredon asked.
The farrier grasped Gair’s head between calloused hands to thumb back his eyelids. He jerked his head away as the sunlight stung his eyes. Then the farrier pinched up the skin on his upper arm, hard enough to hurt.
‘Seen better,’ the man grunted. ‘But he’s got the will.’
Gair’s escort dragged him towards the block. A kick in the back of his knees forced him to kneel whilst the manacle on his left wrist was unlocked. Desperately he lashed out with the dangling chain and missed. The butt of a marshal’s mace connected with the side of his head.
‘Be still, hidderling,’ the marshal snarled. ‘Face your punishment like a man, if not a Knight!’
The noon sun was too bright, its shadows black and sharp as daggers. Pounding into Gair’s skull. He couldn’t focus, had no strength to resist as his left arm was forced onto the block, the other twisted up tight between his shoulder-blades by the chain. His fingers were shoved under a broad iron staple and leather straps hauled tight around his elbow and wrist. Blood dripped from his face, pocking the dusty stones like summer rain.
At the brazier, the farrier wrapped a scrap of leather around the iron’s handle and lifted it from the coals. The straw-coloured heel of the branding-iron smoked, the air around it roiling. Oh Goddess no.
Gair struggled to tug his hand free, but the straps held him fast.
‘No,’ he managed. His breath whistled through clenched teeth. ‘Goddess, please! No!’
The throbbing heat of the iron struck like a blow as it was aligned carefully, almost delicately, above the centre of his palm. Sweat burst from his skin. The farrier’s eyes slid briefly in Bredon’s direction, seeking approval. Then the brand pressed down.