E.C. Ambrose's gritty, sharp historical fantasy series, The Dark Apostle, follows Elisha Barber through a magical reimagining of 14th-century England
Elisha was a skillful barber-surgeon, cutting hair and stitching wounds for poor peasants like himself in 14th century London. But that was before catastrophe ruined his family. Before he was falsely accused of murder, and sent to die in an unjust war. Before he discovered his exceptional potential for a singularly deadly magic, and was forced to embrace his gifts and end that war...by using his newfound abilities to kill the tyrannical king.
Elisha is no longer the lowly barber he was, but it is hard to tell exactly who he is now. The beautiful witch Brigit, his former mentor, claims him for the magi, all those who have grasped the secrets of affinity and knowledge to manipulate mind and matter, and who are persecuted for it. Duke Randall, the man who first rose against the mad King Hugh, has accepted him as a comrade and ally in the perilous schemes of the nobility. Somehow, he has even become a friend to Thomas, both the rightful king and, something rarer, a good man.
But he is still a regicide, and in order to solidify Thomas’s authority among the restive barons, he had to let the new king sentence him to a horrific public execution. With Thomas’s covert aid, Elisha faked his death and went into hiding, but the peasants of London are beginning to call it a martyrdom, as legends of Elisha’s spectacular “miracles” in the service of his country have spread. Yet Elisha is finally beginning to understand the dreadful power within him, and he has never felt less holy—or more terrified.
Because there is another force at work in the world, a shadowy cabal beyond the might of kings and nobles, that sees its opportunity in the chaos of war and political turmoil—and sees its mirror in Elisha’s indivisible connection with Death. For these necromancers, Elisha is the ultimate prize, and the perfect tool.
When the necromancers’ secret plans begin to bear black fruit, England teeters on the brink of a hellish anarchy that could make the previous war look like a pleasant memory, and it appears Elisha is the only man who can stop it. But if he steps forward and takes on the authority he is offered to save his nation once again, is he playing right into the mancers’ hands?
Why does it seem like his enemies are the ones most keen to call him Elisha Rex?
About the Author
E. C. Ambrose is a fantasy author, history buff, and accidental scholar. She lives with her family and a very friendly dog in New Hampshire. Author websites: ecambrose.com; twitter.com/ecambrose
Read an Excerpt
In the manor house on the Isle of Wight, where he had been exiled for too bloody long, Elisha sat hunched at a dining table cluttered with books, practicing skills that most of his friends learned when they were children. He carved a few painstaking letters, then cursed under his breath. He smoothed out his wax tablet and started over, squinting at the page his teacher prepared with questions he was to answer in the wax. That “o” should have been an “e.” Elisha rubbed his temple. He was not meant for such labor.
Mordecai pushed back his chair, went to a chest, and pulled out a slim codex. “Here, try this instead.” He slid it across the table.
Grateful, he dropped the stylus, stretched his hands, and opened the book. The pages held dense blocks of words alongside grotesque illustrations of people being tortured—tongues pulled by tongs, burns applied, racks of instruments not so different from his own medical tools, a woman bound to a stake, flames licking up around her. Elisha shuddered. “What is this thing?”
“An inquisitorial manual,” Mordecai said drily. “Not merely to remind you of the consequences of our being discovered. There may be references among the testimony that would be of use in future confrontations with the necromancers.”
“Do I really need to know this?”
“You tell me, Elisha. What will it take to survive the next time?”
Elisha thought of Morag, the least of his enemies, who had nearly slain him more than once, and Elisha’s stomach curled. When Morag’s master came, what then? When Elisha met another magus, or two, or three who knew death so much better than he? He had been eager to get out of here, to find his enemies, and do what—die more quickly this time?
Elisha’s eyes fell upon a passage, and he painstakingly worked through the Latin. “The Devil grants to witches a great influx of power upon dying, and thus the witch must either be dispatched quickly and without foreknowledge, or in such a manner that the flesh is ex—excoriated,” he sounded out the word aloud, “thus preventing the witch from mastering his diabolical aspect.”
“That is why witches are dunked—drowned—because the body’s need to survive distracts the witch from any magic he or she might prepare,” Mordecai said with a meaningful glance.
“When he asked me to leave his lodge and come here, Thomas told me a story about an old blind woman who lived in the chapel at the back—she was there when his wife and daughter were killed. When the townsfolk came, this woman was raving, covered in blood and holding a bloody bit of Alfleda’s hair. They dunked her for a witch, but she got away.”
“A magus, do you think?”
“Or a mancer, taking a talisman from the dead princess. Thomas said Alfleda had been so mutilated she could be identified only by her nightgown.” He should never have pressed for information about a crime two years gone. Even the pursuit of the mancers should allow his friend, his king, to grieve in peace.
Elisha flipped a few pages of the text, through one appalling image after another, then he shoved the book away, recalling the discussion of how to kill him in order to secure Thomas’s crown, and how narrowly he had avoided the stake. “This is what Brigit’s always railing about; the laws about torture don’t apply to witches.”
“She is not always wrong.” Mordecai regarded him evenly. “Still, it’s a good thing she’s not with the mancers.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Still has the hanging rope, doesn’t she? And maybe your hair from when the hangman cut it. If your enemies had those, only the ocean would stop them finding you.”
Which was why they had come to Wight to begin with: the watery border that prevented Elisha from searching for his enemies prevented them from finding him as well. Elisha slumped into his seat. “Morag met her. At the grave. She came to mourn over me.” He scrubbed his hands over his face, feeling the tendrils of Mordecai’s concern.
“You did not mention this.”
“It didn’t seem important.”
“Everything is important,” said Mordecai carefully. “You still want to believe she would not hurt you.”
“She won’t—unless I get in her way. She wants justice for our people; it’s hard to argue against that.”
“Most of those people would not count a Jew among their number.”
“They don’t know any better.”
Mordecai’s presence felt infinitely deep and sad. “We have been trying to tell them a thousand years and more, Elisha.” For a moment, it seemed the shades of his slaughtered family hovered near. “Does she fight for freedom, or for the chance to be the new oppressor?”
A knock at the door gave Elisha the excuse to break away. If Morag had communicated about Brigit to any of the others; if they learned what she was capable of, how could Elisha stop them?
Mordecai conversed with the woman in the passage beyond, and returned unrolling a cloth bundle with a couple of books and a folded parchment.
“A letter for you.” Mordecai offered the parchment, dangling a ribbon with a red wax seal bearing the stamp of the king’s ring, Elisha’s false name written out in Thomas’s clear, careful hand.
With the back of his Damascene knife, Elisha broke the seal and opened it. His lips moved along with his finger as he found the letters, the words, the spaces which showed where one thing ended and another began.
• • •
My dear Elisha,
I hardly know how to address you. How long should my greeting be? In comparative rank, my titles should cover the page. We are not companions of rank or kinship, except in the kinship of battle.
Allow me to apologize for my anger on the day we parted. You sought only the knowledge of our enemies, the better to fight them, but the death of a child, especially in such a brutal manner, can drive a man near to madness. When I came to the lodge to confront you, I felt you had betrayed me in turning your funeral into a circus, then took this mockery yet further in opening up the past. Of course, you needed to know about the princesses, the better to pursue our enemies, and I hope that you can forgive my reaction. With all you have done for me, I should have more trust. Trust is not an easy thing for either of us, I warrant.
While I should have liked for you to remain close by, being reminded of the terrible events at the lodge has made me ever more determined to keep those I care for far from the perils of the crown.
In happier news, I believe that Rosie is already with child. Though she does not wish me to suspect until the pregnancy is well along, I have seen the signs before. Also, she manifests the skills of the magi now, because of it. I wish that you could be here for the birth. She has her mother and a flock of ladies more flattering than useful, I fear.
There has been no further incident regarding our enemies. I wonder now if they spoke so broadly about their conquests merely to impress my brother with their power when, in fact, they have little. In any case, their absence is a relief. The Londoners remain restless in spite of my lifting my father’s poll tax. There have been riots in London over your death, and, when the priests raised your coffin to find it empty—well, it has made the rumors fly. The clergy are hunting for you, while the peasants are making of you a new saint. Why did they not support you in your life, I want to ask. Some of the barons urge action against them and I must intercede for patience and mercy. Truly, if I were to take up again the Scottish cause or to make war in France, I think that Gloucester and a few others would take arms against our own people in my absence. Over my protest, the bishop of London has summoned a papal legate to investigate the rumors surrounding your death, and the mayor fears outright revolt. It is hard to know how I shall gather all these forces once more beneath the crown. I pray that distance shall keep you safe—and keep me from your condemnation. A king cannot always afford to be merciful.
In the hopes of placating his allies, I have held a funeral for my brother. I think there is no need for his treachery to be broadcast, though Dunbury has had some misgivings.
I trust your own work goes well, and I am sorry I have no better for you. I would I could be there to feel the breeze off of the ocean, for London is a very nest of vipers. This is a land in need of healers, and I have exiled my best.
And after that, the word, “Rex” with a line drawn through it, as if the writer had thought better of it.
It took Elisha a long time to puzzle through the words, even with all the care that Thomas had taken in forming his letters. Alaric buried, Rosalynn pregnant, Thomas trapped in a nest of vipers, and Elisha far away and helpless. He shoved back from the table. “I’m leaving.”
Mordecai’s head snapped up from his new books, his eyes flaring. “What news?”
With a calming gesture, Elisha said, “For a walk, that’s all.”
He stalked down the passage and out into the twilight. Most times, he crossed the manor’s dry moat and headed for town, to market or to listen to a passing bard. Today, he turned away from people and moved steadily upward, crossing a stile. His attunement was instant after the last several weeks of practice: He knew these trees and stones and sheep. He cast his deflection, using the Law of Opposites to project a sense of his own absence, thick and complete, and the sheep did not even stir as he passed nor the crows fly from their trees to keep an eye on him. Lucky the mancers didn’t know about the crow woman, either—her searching messengers were not blocked by water. Mist rolled along the rills and valleys, enveloping him, and letting him pass to the other side.
It had not been the king’s intent to make him restless. Thomas fell prey to the assumptions of the rich: the princes’ boyhood would have been taken up with tutors, their manhood with writs and courts and training. Either Thomas imagined Elisha would enjoy that life, or merely that it would make for a pleasant change from battle. Instead, his eyes felt dry, his head ached, his shoulders hunched from too long at the table. Even the lessons in sorcery became rote with repetition, and there was no hint of threat, in spite of their fears. He might live for decades here without ever meeting another mancer.
But he did not believe the mancers had abandoned their fight for the throne—they had spent too long in search of it. To Elisha, it seemed only a piece of an even larger plan. Elisha slipped his hand into his pouch and touched the lock of Thomas’s hair he always carried, but it held no warmth and gave him no sense of the man as it used to do. The water, perhaps, or the distance between them, prevented his awareness.
He came beneath the trees, to the great elm where crows congregated, cackling with unpleasant glee. The sensation caused Elisha a moment’s pause. Nothing made crows happy but a corpse-strewn battlefield, or the promise of it. Focusing his awareness, he reached up toward the birds. A few of them fluttered and ruffled their feathers. Something fell, tinkling as it tapped the branches on the way down until it landed a few feet away.
Elisha picked it up: a low-relief lead badge, like the ones given out to pilgrims at the shrine of St. Thomas in Canterbury. He made out the image of a man on horseback, an unkempt man reaching up toward him. The horseman had his sword in hand, using it to sever his rich cloak: St. Martin of Tours, one of the patrons of France. The image made him think of the French magus who had died in his arms—and it also decorated the sign that hung over Martin Draper’s shop in London. Martin, another friend he could not see again. Elisha tried to shake off his melancholia, rubbing his fingers over the medal. A French saint, on English soil. Interesting.
A few crows hopped lower, peering at him from the branches and from other nearby trees.
“What do you want?” he asked them aloud, their black eyes and sharp beaks reminding him of his burial day.
They tipped their heads, bobbed and croaked, then one of them swooped at him. “Shit!” he yelped, dodging the blow. He covered his head, cloaking himself in an instinctive deflection, but the crows already knew he was there and could not be deflected.
They swooped down, diving at him, and more of their treasures pinged his arms and head. St. Martin of Tours rained to the ground around him, along with a few others. So many? A handful of French medals, he could imagine, would be found around here, but a hundred? He scooped up a few and ran.
Thankfully, the crows did not want to fly far at night, and contented themselves with shrieking bird insults at his back and collecting their stolen trinkets from the ground.
Torches burned before the manor house, awaiting his return, but three horses stood in the yard, and Elisha hesitated. They’d never before had visitors, yet he sensed no great distress from Mordecai—and found a familiar presence along with him. He stepped up to the door and ducked inside. Three armed men stood in the dining hall, with Mordecai still seated before them.
“Good Lord, you are alive!” said Lord Robert, one of Duke Randall of Dunbury’s companions. Robert’s expression moved from dismay, to delight, to anger—a frown that looked out of place on his pleasant, oval face.
“Sorry, my lord, I’m sure you know why it had to be secret.”
“Absolutely.” Robert thrust out his hand and clasped Elisha’s. “Hate to be the last to know—but I’m certainly glad of the truth! By the Cross, that funeral was dreadful to see.”
“If you’ve come to berate me for my death, the king’s done that a month ago.”
“The king—that’s what I’ve come to you about.” Robert took a breath. “The king’s vanished, Elisha, and Queen Rosalynn with him. They’re gone.”
Excerpted from "Elisha Rex"
Copyright © 2015 E.C. Ambrose.
Excerpted by permission of DAW.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This review was first published on Kurt's Frontier. Synopsis: Elisha was a barber-surgeon of some skill in 14th Century London. He is also a master of a magic based on death and dangerously close to becoming a necromancer. When his friend, King Thomas, was forced to sentence him to death, Elisha escaped with the King’s covert help. He has been in hiding ever since and learning about his power. Now his friends, King Thomas and Queen Rosalynn have vanished, and England is close to anarchy. He returns to London to initiate a search for his friends and finds that the necromancers have been at work. He is remembered as a saint by the peasants he has helped. Brigit, who mentored him when he first learned of his powers, seems to be in league with them. Elisha is offered the crown. Is this an opportunity to save the kingdom from dark forces, or is it a trap set so he plays into the necromancers’ hands. Review: The third book in E. C. Ambrose’s Dark Apostle series, sees the one time barber-surgeon continue his battle against the deadly necromancers. Betrayal and treachery are always a heartbeat away in the 14th Century politics of the time. Add in the period’s paranoia when it comes to magic, and it becomes clear why any practitioner of magic must tread lightly. Elisha Rex continues the story with the kidnapping of Elisha’s friend the king. As a death magus, Elisha draws power from death. He kills only with great reluctance, where the necromancers kill for power. The story tends to be a dark one when you consider the type of magic that is most prominently featured. Magic duels come alive in E. C.’s story as a magus must reach for their affinity and make connections with their enemies. All this is set against the grim backdrop of 14th Century England as it recovers from civil war. While E. C. catches the flavor of the period, the language is graspable, and the story is well paced. The ending leaves the reader eager to see what happens next.