Read a sample from THE CRIMSON CAMPAIGN by Brian McClellan
The second novel in this explosive new epic fantasy series for fans of George R. R. Martin and Brent Weeks, with action and intrigue on every page . . .
Adamat stood perfectly still in the middle of a deep hedgerow outside of his own summer house and stared through the windows at the men in the dining room. The house was a two-story, three-bedroom affair sitting by itself in the woods at the end of a dirt path. It was a twenty-minute walk into town from here. Unlikely anyone would hear gunshots.
Four of Lord Vetas’s men milled about in the dining room, drinking and playing cards. Two of them were large and well-muscled as draft horses. A third was of middling height, with a heavy gut hanging out of his shirt and a thick black beard.
The final man was the only one Adamat recognized. He had a square face and a head that was almost comically small. His name was Roja the Fox, and he was the smallest boxer in the bareknuckle-boxing circuit run by the Proprietor back in Adopest. He could move faster than most boxers, by necessity, but he wasn’t popular with the crowds and did not fight often. What he was doing here, Adamat had no idea.
What he did know was that he feared for the safety of his children—especially his daughters—with a group of malcontents like this.
“Sergeant,” Adamat whispered.
The hedgerow rustled, and Adamat caught a glimpse of Sergeant Oldrich’s face. He had a sharp jawline, and the dim moonlight betrayed the bulge of tobacco in one cheek. “My men are in place,” Oldrich responded. “Are they all in the dining room?”
“Yes.” Adamat had observed the house for three days now. All that time he’d stood by and watched these men yell at his children and smoke cigars in his house, dropping ash and spilling beer on Faye’s good tablecloth. He knew their habits.
He knew that the fat, bearded one stayed upstairs, keeping an eye on the children all day. He knew the two big thugs escorted the children to the outhouse while Roja the Fox kept watch. He knew the four of them wouldn’t leave the children by themselves until after dark, when they’d set up their nightly card game on the dining room table.
He also knew that in three days, he’d seen no sign of his wife or his oldest son.
Sergeant Oldrich pressed a loaded pistol into Adamat’s hand. “Are you sure you want to lead on this? My men are good. They’ll get the children out unharmed.”
“I’m sure,” Adamat said. “They’re my family. My responsibility.”
“Don’t hesitate to pull the trigger if they head toward the stairs,” Oldrich said. “We don’t want them to take hostages.”
The children were already hostages, Adamat wanted to say. He bit back his words and smoothed the front of his shirt with one hand. The sky was cloudy, and now that the sun had set there would be no light to betray his presence to those inside. He stepped out of the hedgerow and was suddenly reminded of the night he’d been summoned to Skyline Palace. That was the night all this had begun: the coup, then the traitor, then Lord Vetas. Silently, he cursed Field Marshal Tamas for drawing him and his family into this.
Sergeant Oldrich’s soldiers crept out across the worn dirt path with Adamat, heading toward the front of the house. Adamat knew there were another eight behind the house. Sixteen men in total. They had the numbers. They had the element of surprise.
Lord Vetas’s goons had Adamat’s children.
Adamat paused at the front door. Adran soldiers, their dark-blue uniforms almost impossible to see in the darkness, took up spots beneath the dining room windows, their muskets at the ready. Adamat looked down at the door. Faye had chosen this house, instead of one closer to town, in part because of the door. It was a sturdy oak door with iron hinges. She felt that a strong door made her family safer.
He’d never had the heart to tell her the door frame was riddled with termites. In fact, Adamat had always meant to have it replaced. Adamat stepped back and kicked right next to the doorknob.
The rotten wood exploded with the impact. Adamat ducked into the front hall and brought his pistol up as he rounded the corner.
All four of the goons burst into action. One of the big men leapt toward the back doorway leading to the staircase. Adamat held his pistol steady and fired and the man dropped.
“Don’t move,” Adamat said. “You’re surrounded!”
The remaining three goons stared back at him, frozen in place. He saw their eyes go to his spent pistol, and then they all went for him at once.
The volley of musket balls from the soldiers outside burst the window and glass showered the room like frost. The remaining goons went down, except for Roja the Fox. He stumbled toward Adamat with a knife drawn, blood soaking the sleeve of one arm.
Adamat reversed the grip on his pistol and brought the butt down on Roja’s head.
Just like that, it was over.
Soldiers spilled into the dining room. Adamat pushed past them and bolted up the stairs. He checked the children’s rooms first: all empty. Finally, the master bedroom. He flung the door open with such force it nearly flew off the hinges.
The children were huddled together in the narrow space between the bed and the wall. The older siblings embraced the younger ones, shielding them in their arms as best they could. Seven frightened faces stared up at Adamat. One of the twins was crying, no doubt from the crack of the muskets. Silent tears streamed down his chubby cheeks. The other poked his head out timidly from his hiding place beneath the bed.
Adamat breathed a sigh of relief and fell to his knees. They were alive. His children. He felt the tears come unbidden as he was mobbed by small bodies. Tiny hands reached out and touched his face. He threw his arms wide, grabbing as many of them as possible and pulling them closer.
Adamat wiped the tears from his cheeks. It wasn’t seemly to cry in front of the children. He took a great breath to compose himself and said, “I’m here. You’re safe. I’ve come with Field Marshal Tamas’s men.”
Another round of happy sobs and hugs followed before Adamat was able to restore order.
“Where is your mother? Where’s Josep?”
Fanish, his second oldest, helped to shush the other children. “They took Astrit a few weeks ago,” she said, pulling at her long black braid with shaking fingers. “Just last week they came and took Mama and Josep.”
“Astrit is safe,” Adamat said. “Don’t worry. Did they say where they were taking Mama and Josep?”
Fanish shook her head.
Adamat felt his heart fall, but he didn’t let it show on his face. “Did they hurt you? Any of you?” He was most concerned for Fanish. She was fourteen, practically a woman. Her shoulders were bare beneath her thin nightgown. Adamat searched for bruises and breathed a word of thanks there were none.
“No, Papa,” Fanish said. “I heard the men talking. They wanted to, but . . .”
“A man came when they took away Mama and Josep. I didn’t hear his name, but he was dressed as a gentleman and he spoke very quietly. He told them that if they touched us before he gave them permission, he’d . . .” She trailed off and her face went pale.
Adamat patted her on the cheek. “You’ve been very brave,” he reassured her gently. Inside, Adamat fumed. Once Adamat was no longer any use to him, Vetas no doubt would have turned those goons loose on the children without a second thought.
“I’m going to find them,” he said. He patted Fanish on the cheek again and stood up. One of the twins grabbed his hand.
“Don’t go,” he begged.
Adamat wiped the little one’s tears. “I’ll be right back. Stay with Fanish.” Adamat wrenched himself away. There was still one more child and his wife to save—more battles to win before they were all safely reunited.
He found Sergeant Oldrich just outside the upstairs bedroom, waiting respectfully with his hat in his hands.
“They took Faye and my oldest son,” Adamat said. “The rest of the children are safe. Are any of those animals alive?”
Oldrich kept his voice low so the children wouldn’t overhear. “One of them took a bullet to the eye. Another, the heart. It was a lucky volley.” He scratched the back of his head. Oldrich wasn’t old by any means, but his hair was already graying just above his ears. His cheeks were flushed from the storm of violence. His voice, though, was even.
“Too lucky,” Adamat said. “I needed one of them alive.”
“One’s alive,” Oldrich said.
When Adamat reached the kitchen, he found Roja sitting in one of the chairs, his hands tied behind his back, bleeding from bullet wounds to the shoulder and hip.
Adamat retrieved a cane from the umbrella stand beside the front door. Roja stared balefully at the floor. He was a boxer, a fighter. He wouldn’t go down easy.
“You’re lucky, Roja,” Adamat said, pointing to the bullet wounds with the tip of his cane. “You might survive these. If you receive medical attention quickly enough.”
“I know you?” Roja said, snorting. Blood speckled his dirty linen shirt.
“No, you don’t. But I know you. I’ve watched you fight. Where’s Vetas?”
Roja turned his neck to the side and popped it. His eyes held a challenge. “Vetas? Don’t know him.”
Beneath the feigned ignorance, Adamat thought he caught a note of recognition in the boxer’s voice.
Adamat placed the tip of his cane against Roja’s shoulder, right next to the bullet wound. “Your employer.”
“Eat shit,” Roja said.
Adamat pressed on his cane. He could feel the ball still in there, up against the bone. Roja squirmed. To his credit, he didn’t make a sound. A bareknuckle boxer, if he was any good, learned to embrace pain.
Roja didn’t respond. Adamat stepped closer. “You want to live through the night, don’t you?”
“He’ll do worse to me than you ever could,” Roja said. “Besides, I don’t know nothin’.”
Adamat stepped away from Roja, turning his back. He heard Oldrich step forward, followed by the heavy thump of a musket butt slamming into Roja’s gut. He let the beating continue for a few moments before turning back and waving Oldrich away.
Roja’s face looked like he’d been through a few rounds with Sou-Smith. He doubled over, spitting blood.
“Where did they take Faye?” Tell me, Adamat begged silently. For your sake, hers, and mine. Tell me where she is. “The boy, Josep? Where is he?”
Roja spit on the floor. “You’re him, aren’t you? The father of these stupid brats?” He didn’t wait for Adamat to answer. “We were gonna bugger all those kids. Startin’ with the small ones first. Vetas wouldn’t let us. But your wife . . .” Roja ran his tongue along his broken lips. “She was willing. Thought we’d go easy on the babies if she took us all.”
Oldrich stepped forward and slammed the butt of his musket across Roja’s face. Roja jerked to one side and let out a choked groan.
Adamat felt his whole body shaking with rage. Not Faye. Not his beautiful wife, his friend and partner, his confidante and the mother of his children. He held up his hand when Oldrich wound up to hit Roja again.
“No,” Adamat said. “That’s just an average day for this one. Get me a lantern.”
He grabbed Roja by the back of the neck and dragged him out of the chair, pushing him outside through the back door. Roja stumbled into an overgrown rosebush in the garden. Adamat lifted him to his feet, sure to use his wounded shoulder, and shoved him along. Toward the outhouse.
“Keep the children inside,” Adamat said to Oldrich, “and bring a few men.”
The outhouse was wide enough for two seats, a necessity for a household with nine children. Adamat opened the door while two of Oldrich’s soldiers held Roja up between them. He took a lantern from Oldrich and let it illuminate the inside of the outhouse for Roja to see.
Adamat grabbed the board that covered the outhouse hole and tossed it on the ground. The smell was putrid. Even after sundown the walls crawled with flies.
“I dug this hole myself,” Adamat said. “It’s eight feet deep. I should have cut a new one years ago, and the family has been using it a lot lately. They were here all summer.” He shined the lantern into the hole and gave an exaggerated sniff. “Almost full,” he said. “Where is Vetas? Where did they take Faye?”
Roja sneered at Adamat. “Go to the pit.”
“We’re already there,” Adamat said. He grabbed Roja by the back of the neck and forced him into the outhouse. It was barely big enough for the two of them. Roja struggled, but Adamat’s strength was fueled by his rage. He kicked Roja’s knees out from under him and shoved the boxer’s head into the hole.
“Tell me where he is,” Adamat hissed.
“No!” Roja’s voice echoed in the box that formed the outhouse seat.
Adamat pushed on the back of Roja’s head. A few more inches and Roja would get a face full of human waste. Adamat choked back his own disgust. This was cruel. Inhuman. Then again, so was taking a man’s wife and children hostage.
Roja’s forehead touched the top of the shit and he let out a sob.
“Where is Vetas? I won’t ask again!”
“I don’t know! He didn’t tell me anything. Just paid me to keep the kids here.”
“How were you paid?” Adamat heard Roja retch. The boxer’s body shuddered.
“You’re one of the Proprietor’s boxers,” Adamat said. “Does he know about any of this?”
“Vetas said we were recommended. No one hires us for the job unless the Proprietor gives the go‑ahead.”
Adamat gritted his teeth. The Proprietor. The head of the Adran criminal world, and a member of Tamas’s council. He was one of the most powerful men in Adro. If he knew about Lord Vetas, it could mean he’d been a traitor all along.
“What else do you know?”
“I barely spoke twenty words with the guy,” Roja said. His words were coming out in broken gasps as he sputtered through his tears. “Don’t know anything else!”
Adamat struck Roja on the back of the head. He sagged, but he was not unconscious. Adamat lifted him by his belt and shoved his face down into the muck. He lifted him again and pushed. Roja flailed, his legs kicking hard as he tried to breathe through the piss and shit. Adamat grabbed the boxer by the ankles and pushed down, jamming Roja in the hole.
Adamat turned and walked out of the outhouse. He couldn’t think through his fury. He was going to destroy Vetas for putting his wife and children through this.
Oldrich and his men stood by, watching Roja drown in filth. One of them looked ill in the dim lantern light. Another was nodding in approval. The night was quiet now, and Adamat could hear the steady chirp of crickets in the forest.
“Aren’t you going to ask him more questions?” Oldrich said.
“He said himself, he doesn’t know anything else.” Adamat felt his stomach turn and he looked back at Roja’s kicking legs. The mental image of Roja forcing himself on Faye almost stopped Adamat, and then he said to Oldrich, “Pull him out before he dies. Then ship him to the deepest coal mine you can find on the Mountainwatch.”
Adamat swore to do worse to Vetas when he caught him.