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Nor, when the war is over, is it peace; Nor will the vanquished bull his claim release: But feeding in his breast his ancient fires And cursing fate, from his proud foe retires. -Vergil, Georgics
The crooked man rode out of the dead lands on a black horse with gray sarcastic eyes.
Winter was awaiting him, as he expected. In the dead lands it never rained or snowed, and the nearness to the sea kept the lifeless air mild. But it was the month of Brenting, late in winter, and as they crossed into the living lands the air took on a deadly chill and the snowdrifts soon became knee-high on his horse.
Morlock Ambrosius dismounted awkwardly and took the reins in his hand. "Sorry about this, Velox," he said to the horse.
Velox looked at him and made a rude noise with his lips.
"Eh," Morlock replied, "the same to you," and floundered forward through the snowdrifts, leading the beast. He was a pedestrian by temperament and had spent much of his long life walking from one place to another. He knew little about the care of horses, and what little he knew was not especially useful, as Velox was unusual in a number of ways. But, although he had considered it, he found he could not simply abandon Velox or trade him to some farmer for a basket of flatbread.
But Velox wanted food in alarming horse-sized amounts. Morlock had tried feeding him dried seaweed from the coastline, and Velox had eaten it, since there was little else. But Morlock suspected it wasn't enough for the grumpy beast, and he was going to have to go to a farm or even a town to buy some horse feed.
This was a problem, as Morlock was a criminal in the eyes of imperial law. He had reason to suppose the Emperor was not interested in seeing him dead, but no local Keeper of the Peace was likely to know this. It was dangerous for him to be seen, to be recognized.
On the other hand, his horse was hungry.
Nearly as grumpy as Velox, Morlock led the beast eastward through the bitter white fields until they reached the black muddy line of the Sar river, running south from the Kirach Kund. Alongside the river ran a hardly less muddy road; at intervals on the road were stations of the Imperial Post; clustering around some of these stations were towns where one could buy amenities like hay and oats.
Morlock mounted his horse and rode north toward Sarkunden. Presently he came, not to a town, but (even better for his purposes) to a barn. The doors of the barn were open and several dispirited farm workers were carrying pails of dung out of the barn and dumping it in a dark steaming heap that contrasted strangely with the recent snow.
Morlock reined in and said, "Good day. Can I buy some oats or something?"
The workers stopped their work and stared at him. Others came out of the barn, and also stopped and stared. After a while, one who seemed to be their leader (or thought he was), said, "Not from us, Crookback."
"Do you own this place?" Morlock asked.
"No, but we'll keep him from selling to you."
"Unlikely," Morlock replied, and dismounted. The men were gripping their dungforks and shovels and whatnot more like weapons now. If there was going to be a fight he wanted to be on his own feet, for a number of reasons.
"Know who I am, Crookback?" the leader of the workmen asked.
"This help?" He brushed some muck off his darkish outer garment. Morlock saw it was embroidered with a red lion.
"Not much," Morlock said.
"My name is Vost. I was Lord Urdhven's right-hand man. His closest friend. You killed him. Destroyed him. And now you come here. And ask me for oats."
"The man was dead before I met him," Morlock said. "We've no quarrel."
"You lie," Vost said, sort of, through clenched teeth.
"Then," Morlock replied. He drew the sword strapped to his crooked shoulders. The crystalline blade, black entwined with white, glittered in the thin winter sunlight.
"I hate you," Vost hissed, raising the dungfork in his hands like a stabbing spear. "I hate you. Nothing will stop me from trying to kill you until you're dead."
Morlock believed him. He was beginning to remember this Vost a little: a fanatical devotee of the late unlamented Lord Protector Urdhven; he had lived and died by his master's expressions of favor or disfavor. His life had lost its meaning when he had lost his master, and he had to blame someone for his freedom. Evidently he had settled on Morlock.
Morlock extended his sword arm and lunged, stabbing the man through his ribs. Vost's face stretched in surprise, then went slack with death. Morlock felt the horror of his dissolution through the medium of his sword, which was also a focus of power, very dangerous to use as a mundane weapon. A dying soul wants to carry others with it, and Morlock had to free himself of Vost's death shock and the dead soul's death grip before he was free to shake the corpse off the end of his sword and face Vost's companions.
They must have made some move toward attacking him, because Velox was in amongst them, rearing and kicking. One man already lay still in the dirty snow, a dark hoofmark on his forehead. As Morlock turned toward them, his sword dripping with Vost's blood and his face clenched in something not far removed from death agony, they took one look and fled, running up the road past the barn.
"Hey!" shouted a man coming out of the farmhouse with an axe in his hand. He was a prosperous gray-haired man with darkish skin, and he carried the axe like he knew how to use it. "Why are you killing my workmen?"
Morlock was cleaning his blade with some snow; he wiped it on his sleeve and sheathed it.
"The man annoyed me," he said at last.
"And the other one?"
"Annoyed my horse."
"You know what annoys me? People who come into my barnyard and leave dead bodies lying all over the place. I find that annoying."
"I was going to dump them into the river. Unless you have some strong objection."
The farmer blew out his cheeks and thought it over. "No, I guess not. They were no friends of mine, just some tramps working for the day."
"Then." Morlock hauled Vost's corpse out of the yard, across the road, and threw it face down into the muddy water of the Sar. The corpse sank almost out of sight; the sluggish waters tugged it away from the bank and it floated downstream. The last casualty in Protector Urdhven's civil war, or so Morlock hoped.
When he returned, he found the farmer had laid down his weapon and was crouching over the workman Velox had struck down. "This one's still breathing," the farmer said. "Your horse is hurt, though."
Morlock saw this was true: blood was dripping off Velox's neck and running down his left foreleg, staining the dirty snow. Morlock grabbed some snow from a clean patch and held it to the ragged wound on the horse's neck. It was already healing, but Morlock thought the cold might help counter the pain. If Velox felt pain: that was one of the things Morlock wasn't sure about.
Presently he turned away and grabbed a bagful of herbs from the pack strapped behind the saddle. He knelt down in the snow next to the fallen man and examined the wound on his head.
"The skull doesn't seem to be broken," Morlock said. "The man may wake up, or not. If he doesn't, he'll be dead in a few days; toss him in the river. If he does wake, give him tea made with this, once a day for a few days." He tossed the bag to the farmer. "It will help him heal."
"What is it?"
"Uh. All right. Wait a moment, I'm supposed to look after this tramp? I've got a farm to run."
Morlock reached into a pocket and tossed him a gold coin. "It's on me."
The farmer's eyes opened wide as he looked at the coin, weighed it in his hand. "All right," he said.
Morlock pointed at the red lion, faintly visible on the supine man's dirty surcoat. "You should get rid of this, in case an imperial patrol comes by. This man must be one of Lord Urdhven's soldiers, the dead-enders who wouldn't accept the new Emperor's amnesty."
"I didn't know."
"It's better if they don't know. Better for you. For him."
"I'll get rid of it. Let's carry this poor virp into the barn; it's a bit warmer there. And I don't want him in the house."
They bedded the fallen workman down in the loft, and then the farmer said, "It occurs to me that you came into my yard for some reason."
"I need some food for my horse, something I can carry with me. Oats or something."
"Not a horsey type, are you? That horse isn't going anywhere for a while. It's wounded pretty bad."
"He'll be fine by now."
The farmer shook his head and said, "You may be a murderous son-of-a-bitch, but you don't strike me as cruel. And I tell you it'd be cruel to expect him to carry you and your baggage for a while. Leave him with me; I'll take care of him. Or sell him to me, if you don't plan to be back this way. I'll give you a fair price."
"Just sell me some oats."
The farmer wanted to haggle over the price, but Morlock just handed him another gold coin and said, "As much as this will buy."
The farmer sputtered. "You and the horse couldn't carry that much."
"As much as he can carry, then."
"It shouldn't be carrying anything!"
Morlock went with the farmer down to look at Velox, who was quietly stealing some hay and hiding it inside himself. The wound had closed and a scar was forming.
"There's something weird about this," the farmer said.
"He's an unusual beast," Morlock conceded.
They bagged up some oats and strapped them across Velox's back. Morlock took the pack off, strapped it to his own back, and they threw more bags of oats onto Velox.
"That's thirsty work," the farmer remarked. "You want a mug of beer before you go?"
Morlock considered it and, when he realized he was considering it, said, "No."
"We've got a jar or two of wine from foreign parts-" the farmer continued, doubtful of his ground but willing to be sociable.
"If you offer me a drink again," Morlock said evenly, "I'll kill you."
The farmer did not offer him a drink again. He said nothing at all as Morlock led Velox out of the yard and away, northward up the road to Sarkunden.
Excerpted from This Crooked Way by James Enge Copyright © 2009 by James Enge. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 7, 2010
I have picked this book up after reading the blood of ambrose, didnt really see anything else that grabed my attention at the time ( i guess) but after trying to read it after putting it down time and again I keep coming back and checking amazons review's on this book.... I just dont see the stars and good ratings this book is getting, has a great plot and character but just dose not follow any path i like to follow, the writing I find is somehow lacking in every way, I still have not finished this book but only because I keep putting it down bored ,an again wondering why people are liking this writing, the storys are bland, the magic is ...I dont have any idea where the magic comes from its just there' maybe I have just read too many great books in my opinion that this one just falls so short in compairison that I cant give it a far chance but as far I have read... well I dont think I will ever finish it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 9, 2009
After his failures and defeat (see BLOOD OF AMBROSE) enchanter Morlock Ambosius flees on his horse Velox; he hopes to buy time to regroup and try again. Instead a stone beast attacks the enchanter and his steed. Morlock survives, but Velox vanishes.
Morlock searches for his horse while heading to Sarkunden where he runs into the Sorcerer Slash who says to call him Charis before pleadings with Morlock to help him; the enchanter reluctantly agrees to do so. On his quest he meets new allies, who initially fear the legend, but as they get to know him befriend him.
This is an exciting fantasy that focuses on the meandering travels and dialogue of an exiled enchanter and the associates he meets on his crooked trek towards and into the Kirach Kund where the Khroi rule by killing outsiders. Those people the protagonist meets on his dangerous journey tell much of the tale as they relate their initial fear and dread of the aloof unflustered enchanter but become friends with him once they discover his human flaws make him more like them than the frightening superior being they expected to encounter. Thus his quest is clearly humanized by the secondary cast. Although the climax is relatively smaller and much diminished in comparison to the roar of THE BLOOD OF AMBROSE, fans will relish the second saga as the well written character driven THIS CROOKED WAY comes across as a deeper look into the lives of wizards, sorcerers, and one particular enchanter.
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Posted July 18, 2013
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