Here’s a short extract from Hane & the Hunter, my new fantasy novel. It’s in its final pre-publication stages and should be out soon.
I got caught filching panacaenium chips. I waited till the others were asleep, curled up or stretched out in the bunkhouse of Parlourbone Station, snatched up my empty sacks and tiptoed out into the dark.
The little engine creaked and groaned as it cooled, the ground around it lit faintly by the dying fire. Lamplight glowed in the windows of the Hunter’s private compartment, but all was still. I picked up spilled chips from the ground and filled one of the bags before I needed to clamber up the side of the tender and scoop them into the second. A sudden sound warned me too late that I wasn’t alone — a brief exclamation, words that would have earned me a mouthful of soap.
“Get the hell down from there!”
I jumped down to the ground almost onto his foot. He studied me for a moment and I found it hard to keep my head up, let alone meet his gaze.
“Come with me,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Might as well do it now.”
He waited at the door of the train and I followed, my sacks of panacaenium banging against my knees.
“Leave them here,” the Hunter said. “You can pick them up when I’m finished with you.”
I followed him up the steps and into his compartment. He turned the lamp up and sat down, waving me into a chair opposite.
“Tell me, are you a maiden?”
“That’s a rather personal question, sir.”
“Yes. But it’s relevant.”
“No. I’m not.”
My face grew hot and I tilted my chin up, to show him I wasn’t ashamed. Last night, it might have been Brock, one of the knights, both of so affected by beer we hardly knew what we we did. Hurried, up against a wall. Not that I was in the habit of such things. It wasn’t my first time, but I was hardly a girl of vast experience.
“Their spell can be strong,” he said. “You’ll need to remember yourself.”
“If it’s a poldereng.”
I looked at him in astonishment. There’d been no talk of such things on the journey. Most people didn’t believe they were real, just tales to quell naughty children. And particularly fond of virgins, if those tales were true.
“Do you know what you are, Haine?”
“There’s nothing I can tell you. Sigrid thought she saw something. You might care to find out what that could be.” He took something from around his neck, holding it for a moment before handing it to me. “The beast will know you – if there’s anything to know – even if you don’t. This might help.”
I took it in my hand, a scrap of cloth twisted into a bag. I sniffed it cautiously. It smelled of herbs and sweat.
“What’s it for, sir?”
“Won’t you need it?”
“I’m a long way from her. I can get another.”
I slipped the amulet around my neck, tucking it inside my shirt. If he wasn’t going to give me explanations, I’d stop asking for them. Let tomorrow tell its own story, my mother used to say.
He was troubled. The crowsfeet around his eyes were etched deep and he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. I’d never been this close to him before. I wouldn’t have said he was a handsome man. Tall but not overpowering; solid rather than thin. He moved with a quiet grace and surprising speed when he needed to. He had a strength about him, contained most of the time, but ready to be unleashed. Like a cat, pretending to sleep while unsuspecting birds fed just out of reach.
“Fetch me some wine.” He nodded towards a small cabinet tucked into a corner. “And one for you. It’s not a night for drinking alone.”
A flask of wine sat on top of the cupboard and I filled two cups. I handed him his and sat down again.
“Your Parsifal Haine’s granddaughter,” he said. “Which of his sons was your father — the worthless drunk or the knight?”
“Gwillam,” I said. “And he wasn’t worthless. Just brokenhearted.”
“Didn’t he take in a foundling? Brought her up. Left her his goods and title.”
“Not a foundling, sir. My mother brought me with her when they married. I don’t know my real father.”
The Hunter grunted and drank his wine. “Heard that story. Some say she was a prostitute he lost his heart to. Left him to go back to her trade.”
I’d heard that before as well. Not from anyone who knew me or cared. “She wasn’t.”
“No, I don’t suppose it would stand you in good stead, to be the fatherless child of a whore.”
He drank his wine, still looking at me, his gaze unsettling.
“I don’t know anything about her, sir,” I said. “Except she was a good woman.”
He closed his eyes, his head falling back. “Well, whatever she was hardly matters. It’s you that counts.”
“You should get some sleep, sir.”
“I’m not the only one. And I haven’t been creeping about in the night, climbing onto trains and stealing honest men’s panacaenium.”
“Left mine behind. And it’s all yours, in the end.”
He looked at me through narrowed eyes, drained his cup and set it down. “Out! Unless you plan to stay the night.”
“No, sir,” I said.
He didn’t press the point and didn’t see me out.
I picked up my sacks and went back to the bunkhouse. No-one stirred as I slipped off my jacket and boots and got into bed. Sleep, I told myself firmly. Don’t even think about it.
But there was too much to think about. I couldn’t begin to imagine what Sigrid thought she saw in me. I’d never once spoken to her and only ever saw her at mealtimes, sitting beside her sister, impatient to be somewhere else. How either of the Hunter’s daughters could have noticed me, let alone recognised anything, was beyond me. His two worlds – domestic and military – didn’t tend to coincide.
Then there was the small matter of a poldereng. No-one I knew had ever seen one, their trails of death and destruction were left in the dark of night, far from towns and villages. Far from well lit crowded castles like Huntershall. And people drew deep breaths and spoke of logical explanations, though few were ever forthcoming.
Everyone knew the stories. Children lay awake in the night, pale and sweating with terror, the sounds outside their windows calling to mind the tales their grandmothers told. Things like poldereng didn’t belong in our world. They slipped in through the cracks, called by mischievous minds. If there was one at Gaunt’s Fell, it was either the runaway slave of a hedge wizard, or it had made its own way, cut off from its kind and living by its wits and sharp claws. Even kelpies, they said, feared poldereng.
The Hunter’s amulet pressed into my collarbone and I shifted. I didn’t like the idea of being recognised by a monster, and wondered why the Hunter would even suggest it. Sigrid couldn’t have seen anything in me. There was nothing to see.
My eyes closed and my thoughts blurred. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered what it was the Hunter must remember that required an amulet.