LIVE BAIT by Jim Hawkey

2 04 2018

Again, it was the vomit-making stench that alerted me.

I peered in through the gate. A vegetable garden and a yard, and beyond, the back door of a two-storey house. It was lying on the ground in the yard.

It may be shamming, but I was faster.

I went in, crept closer, poised to fly at the slightest movement. Nothing. Just black blood – blood was the wrong word – black ichor seeping from its chest.

It knew I was there, though.

Knew I was just a girl, a whore and harmless. Prey, not a predator.

Then it spoke. ‘Tell the other I’ve got his scent.’ An unvoiced rasp, but quite comprehensible. It moved and I jumped back, but it was only shifting slightly, onto its side. Perhaps it could speak easier, breathe easier, like that. ‘I’ll tear him apart.’

Did they breathe? I needed to know much, much more about the Undead.

‘You are dying. Again.’

‘I heal. By tomorrow I will be healed.’

I had no doubt that what it claimed was true.

‘Are you Harold Turner, Jocelyn’s husband?’ I asked, trying to occupy his mind while I searched the yard, tried the door. It was open.

It laughed. I think.

‘No?’ I said from the door. The way it was lying now, it could not see what I was doing.

‘I’m Alfwin. Alfwin Host-thief.’

Host-thief? ‘You stole the Host from a church?’ Even I was shocked. ‘When? While you were still alive?’

‘For that they killed me. That and other things. But I have overcome their death.’

‘Their death?’ I went in and left him talking to himself. The kitchen was as Jocelyn must have left it. I picked up a cleaver and walked back out.

‘ … they had my body. I didn’t need it. I knew this one awaited me.’

‘Why do you seek out priests?’

‘They’ve always been my enemy.’

Well, we had something in common.

‘I stole the Host for the witches.’

‘The witches were your friends?’

There might be something else we shared.

‘They told me how to – ‘

I brought the cleaver down on the side of its neck with all my strength.

It sprang to its feet.

I fled. A hundred yards up the alley, I realised it was not following me. I walked slowly back. Stopped at the gate and peeped in. It was still on its feet, but its head was hanging sideways, resting on its shoulder. Then as I watched, the head slid forward dangling over its chest. It fell to its knees, then flat on its face with a thud that shook the ground.

Only it wasn’t flat on its face exactly, it was flat on its head.

I waited a few moments. There was no sign of life – or undeath – at all.

A pitch-fork caught my eye. I went and picked it up, hefted it. Yes, that would do nicely.

I went back to the thing and thrust both prongs deep into its buttock.

No reaction. And when I pulled it out, just more black ichor following the prongs slowly up out of each hole.

I dug the prongs into its side and turned it over.

It was dead. Or at least, this body was.

I threw down the pitch-fork, retrieved the cleaver from where I had dropped it when I fled, and proceeded to hack away at what was left of its neck until the head came free.

But what to do with it? One thing I knew, I must not leave it near the rest of the body.

Time to go. Time I was back at the Shag!

But the head …?

The Abbey. I would throw it over the gate and run! Leave it there for that gate-keeper or the prior to find. On hallowed ground!

I didn’t get a chance to write a review of Live Bait after I read it the first time, so, as it is a long book with a large cast of characters and a lot happening, I re-read it before putting pen to paper (literally – I always prefer to write everything out longhand first.) I remembered thinking the first time that this was the best description of life in a medieval brothel I had ever come across. In fact it is a realistic and vivid description of life in a brothel at any time, ancient or in modern, in any less than civilised setting– and I do know the brothels of Delhi and Bangkok, the former well, the latter less so.

There are two brothels involved in this story, the Green Unicorn in Southwark, and the Shag which once stood outside the old Roman wall of Colchester in Essex. (By the way, a shag is a kind of cormorant! – there is a painting of one of these birds on the sign outside apparently.) I suspect that the one in Southwark will play a greater part in the next story as the present story unfolds during the years 1379 and 1380, and 1381 is the year of the great Peasants’ Revolt when the peasants marched out of Kent and Essex and stormed London. Most of this book is set in Essex, but it is not the looming rebellion that concerns us here, it is the all-too-visible revenants, night-walkers and wraiths which Mariana faces in Colchester and out on the Essex Marshes, not to metion the invisible cloud of Undeparted Dead that surrounds us at all times,

The book opens with Mariana paying a disastrous visit to the Savoy Palace in London, home of the Lord Regent, John of Gaunt, where she has an appointment with Gaunt’s sister, Princess Isabella. That chapter has been posted HERE on the “A Tudor Writing Circle” site, and it was noticing this that prompted me to get this review posted. Please do visit that site to get another taste of this story.

Soon after that catastrophic visit, Mariana is recruited by ex-Queen Blanche of France to the Arcane Net, a network of spies and secret agents set up by the late Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV to keep track of all practitioners of the Dark Arts, indeed of all arcane activities. It is as Blanche’s agent that she is sent to Colchester to trap and kill (re-kill) one or both of the undead serial killers operating in the area: the first is a revenant, a corpse up out of the grave tearing priests and monks apart, and the other a wraith tearing the throats out of “green-eyed sluts” (“like you” Blanche tells Mariana).

Mariana soon comes to realise (a) that it is not her cover as a local prostitute which is in danger of being blown, but her identity as Lady Marian MacElpin, her real self – everyone believes that she really is and always has been a prostitute – and (b) that she is there not so much to entrap and decapitate the Undead as to be the live bait in a plot of which she knows little or nothing.

Don’t miss this story! But I have to say that it is not a stand-alone. You really do need to have read Mariana de la Mar 1 (Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists) first, and perhaps also the prequel to the series, Mermaid out of Water (which I haven’t reviewed here yet, but will soon, I promise).

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THE MIDNIGHT SEA by Kat Ross

14 03 2017

FREE TODAY ON AMAZON

Nazafareen’s sister Ashraf was killed by the Druj (Undead things with iron swords and shadows whose touch meant death) when Nazafareen was twelve and Ashraf was seven. Now, all she lives for is revenge.

When the authorities-that-be discover she has the power to link with a daeva she willingly agrees to do so if this means that together she and the daeva will be a match for the Druj and able to hunt and destroy them. At first, she distrusts the daeva, whose name is Darius, thinking of him only as another kind of Druj but tamed and under her control – litle more than a sentient weapon. But living together, linked like that, she and Darius find themselves growing too close for her comfort in other ways.

This is an alternative version of ancient Persia and features a form of the dualistic Zoroastrian religion, in which two Gods fight an endless war, and people have to choose which side they are on, the Good or the Evil. (I have always found this form of dualism much more philosophically tenable than strict monotheism.) It also features both the prophet Zoroaster, the founder of this religion, and Alexander the Great, though here in this book they remain in the background; in Book 2, Blood of the Prophet, which I have already started reading, they both move into the foreground.

 

Extremely well written and highly recommended.