Classic fantasy with a modern twist, this is a gritty, fresh and fun novel set in the world of Nicholas Eames’s acclaimed debut, Kings of the Wyld.
The Monster Market
Tam’s mother used to say she had a Wyld Heart. “It means you’re a dreamer,” she’d told her daughter. “A wanderer, like me.”
“It means you ought to be careful,” her father had added. “A Wyld Heart needs a wise mind to temper it, and a strong arm to keep it safe.”
Her mother had smiled at that. “You’re my strong arm, Tuck. And Bran is my wise mind.”
“Branigan? You know I love him, Lil, but your brother would eat yellow snow if you told him it tasted like whiskey.”
Tam remembered her mother’s laughter as a kind of music. Had her father laughed? Probably not. Tuck Hashford had never been much for laughing. Not before his wife’s Wyld Heart got her killed, and never once after.
“Girl! Hey, girl!”
Tam blinked. A merchant with whiskered jowls and a fringe of yellowed hair was sizing her up.
“Little young for a wrangler, ain’t ya?”
She straightened, as if being taller meant seeming older. “So?”
“So . . .” He scratched a scab on the bald crown of his head. “What brings you to the Monster Market? You in a band or something?”
Tam wasn’t a mercenary. She couldn’t fight to save her life. Oh, she could fire a bow with passing skill, but anyone with two arms and an arrow to spare could do the same. And besides, Tuck Hashford had a hard-and-fast rule when it came to his only daughter becoming a mercenary and joining a band: “No fucking way.”
“Yeah,” she lied. “I’m in a band.”
The man cast a suspicious eye at the tall, skinny girl standing weaponless before him. “Oh yeah? What’s it called?”
“Rat Salad?” The man’s face lit up like a brothel at dusk. “That’s a bloody good name for a band! You fighting in the arena tomorrow?”
“Of course.” Another lie. But lies, as her uncle Bran was fond of saying, were like a cup of Kaskar whiskey: If you’re in for one, you’re in for a dozen. “I’m here to decide what to fight.”
“A hands‑on sort of woman, eh? Most bands send their bookers to handle the finer details.” The merchant nodded appreciatively. “I like your edge! Well, look no further! I’ve got a beast on hand that’ll wow the crowd and have Rat Salad on the tongue of every bard between here and the Summer Souk!” The man shuffled over to a cloth-shrouded cage and tore its sheet off with a flourish. “Behold! The fearsome cockatrice!”
Tam had never seen a cockatrice, but she knew enough about them to know that the thing in the cage was not a cockatrice.
The thing in the cage was a chicken.
“A chicken!?” The merchant looked affronted when Tam told him so. “Girl, are you blind? Look at the size of that thing!”
It was a big chicken, no doubt. Its feathers had been daubed in black paint, and its beak was smeared with blood to make it look feral, but Tam wasn’t convinced. “A cockatrice can turn flesh into stone with its gaze,” she pointed out.
The merchant grinned, a hunter whose quarry had charged headlong into the trap. “Only when it wants to, lass! Any bee can sting, right? But they only sting when they’re angry. A skunk always stinks, but it only sprays when you startle it! Ah, but look at this!” He reached into the chicken’s cage and brandished a crude stone carving that vaguely resembled a squirrel. Tam decided not to point out the price written in chalk on the bottom. “It’s already claimed one victim today! Beware, the—”
“Bwok,” said the chicken, dismayed by the abduction of its only friend.
An awkward silence stretched between Tam and the merchant.
“I should go,” she said.
“Glif’s Grace to you,” he replied curtly, already throwing the sheet back over the chicken’s cage.
Tam wandered farther into the Monster Market, which had been called Bathstone Street before arenas started blooming like mushrooms all over the north and the scale-merchants arrived to set up shop. It was broad and straight, like almost every street in Ardburg, and hedged on either side by wooden pens, iron cages, and dugouts fenced by barbed wire. Most days it wasn’t especially crowded, but there were fights in the arena tomorrow, and some of the biggest mercenary bands in Grandual were coming to town.
Tuck Hashford also had a rule about his only daughter going anywhere near the Monster Market, or the arena, or associating with mercenaries in general: “No fucking way.”
Despite that, Tam often took this route on her way to work—not because it was quicker, but because it quickened something inside of her. It scared her. Thrilled her. Reminded her of the stories her mother used to tell, of daring quests and wild adventure, of fearsome beasts and valiant heroes like her father and Uncle Bran.
Also, since Tam would likely spend her whole life slinging drinks and playing lute for coppers here in wintry Ardburg, a stroll through the Monster Market was the closest she’d ever come to adventure.
“Look here!” called a heavily tattooed Narmeeri woman as Tam passed by. “You want ogres? I’ve got ogres! Fresh from the hills of Westspring! Fierce as they come!”
“Manticoooooooore!” shouted a northerner with a shaved head and savage scars marring his face. “Manticoooooooore!” There was, indeed, a real live manticore behind him. Its batlike wings were bound by chains, its barbed tail trapped inside a leather sack. A muzzle was clamped over its leonine jaw, but despite its captivity the creature still managed to look terrifying.
“Wargs of the Winter Forests!” another merchant announced above a chorus of deep growls. “Wyld born, farm raised!”
“Goblins!” an old lady hollered from atop an iron-barred wagon. “Get your goblins here! One courtmark apiece, or a dozen for ten!”
Tam peered into the cage upon which the old woman stood. It was crammed with the filthy little creatures, most of which looked scrawny and malnourished. She doubted even a dozen of them would give a band of half-decent mercenaries a run for their money.
“Hey!” the woman hollered down at her. “This ain’t a dress shop, girl. Now buy a bloody goblin or get on with ya!”
Tam tried to imagine what her father would say if she came home with a pet goblin in tow, and couldn’t help but grin. “No fucking way,” she muttered.
She walked on, weaving through the throng of bookers and local wranglers as they bartered and bargained with scale-merchants and rugged Kaskar huntsmen. She did her best not to gawk openly at the varied monsters or the merchants peddling them. There were gangly trolls whose severed limbs were capped with silver to prevent them regenerating, and a massive, muscled ettin that was missing one of its two heads. She passed a snake-headed gorgon chained by her neck to brackets in the wall behind her, and a black horse that breathed fire into the face of someone fool enough to inspect its teeth.
“Willow!” She trotted over to her friend’s stall. Willow was an islander from the Silk Coast, bronze-skinned and big for his kind. She’d remarked when they first met that Willow was a curious name for a guy his size, and he’d said it was because a willow tree provided shade to everything around it—which made a lot of sense when he put it that way.
Willow’s black curls bounced as he shook his head. “Cutting through the Monster Market again? What would old Tuck say if he found out?”
“I think we both know the answer to that,” she said witha grin. “How’s business?”
“Booming!” He gestured to his wares, a variety of winged serpents in wicker cages behind him. “Before long every home in Ardburg will have their very own zanto! They make excellent pets, you know. Great with kids, provided those kids don’t mind having corrosive acid spat in their faces from time to time. Also, they can’t stand the cold up here and will very probably be dead inside a month. Next time I go home I’m bringing back lobsters instead. I could sell lobsters, easy.”
Tam nodded, despite having no idea what sort of monster a lobster was.
Willow toyed idly with one of several shell necklaces he was wearing. “Hey, did you hear the news? There’s another Horde, apparently. North of Cragmoor, in the Brumal Wastes. Fifty thousand monsters hell-bent on invading Grandual. They say the leader is a giant by the name of—”
“Brontide,” Tam finished. “I know. I work in a tavern, remember? If there’s a rumour to be heard, I’ve heard it. Did you know the Sultana of Narmeer is actually a boy wearing a woman’s mask?”
“That can’t be true.”
“Or that a seamstress who killed her husband down in Rutherford is claiming to be the Winter Queen herself?”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“How about the one where—”
The sound of cheering interrupted her. Both of them turned to see a commotion at the nearest cross street, and a smile split Tam’s face from ear to ear.
“Looks like the party’s come to town,” said Willow. Tam shot him a pleading glance and the islander sighed dramatically. “Go,” he told her. “Say hi to Bloody Rose for me.”
Tam spared her friend a smile before bolting away. She ducked around the bulk of a shaggy yethik, then slipped between a shouting huntsman and a barking wrangler an instant before the huntsman launched a punch that put the wrangler on his ass. She reached the next street as the first argosy was approaching and wormed her way to the front of the crowd.
“Hey, watch where—” A boy her age with a hawkish nose and limp blond hair turned his affronted scowl into what he probably thought was a charming smile. “Ah, sorry. A pretty girl like you can stand wherever she’d like, of course.”
Ugh, she thought. “Thanks,” she said, choosing a falsely bright smile over an exaggerated eye roll.
“You came to see the mercenaries?” he asked.
No, I came to watch the horses shit, dumbass. “I did,” she answered.
“Me too,” he said, and then tapped the lute slung over his shoulder. “I’m a bard.”
“Oh? With what band?”
“Well, I don’t have one yet,” he said defensively. “But it’s only matter of time.”
She nodded distractedly as the lead argosy rolled up. The massive war wagon was bigger than the house Tam shared with her father. It was draped in leather skins and drawn by a pair of woolly white mammoths with streamers tied to their tusks. The mercenaries to whom it belonged stood around a stout siege tower built on top, waving their weapons at the crowd massed along either side of the avenue.
“That’s Giantsbane,” said the boy next to her, as if the north’s favoured sons required an introduction. The mercenaries—all of them big, bearded Kaskars—were regulars at the tavern where Tam worked, and their leader gave her a wave as the argosy went by. The self-styled bard glanced over, bewildered. “You know Alkain Tor?”
Tam did her best to ignore his tone and shrugged. “Sure.”
The boy frowned, but said nothing further.
A hundred or so mercenaries on foot and horseback came next, and Tam picked out a few bands she recognized from the Cornerstone commons: the Locksmiths, the Black Puddings, the Boils, and Knightmare—though two of the latter’s members were missing and an arachnian in steel plate armour had taken their place.
“Riffraff,” sneered the boy. He paused, clearly wanting Tam to ask for clarification. When she didn’t, he clarified anyway. “Most of these lesser-knowns will wrestle with trash imps in guildhalls and private arenas tonight. But the bigger bands—Giantsbane, for instance, or Fable—will fight in the Ravine tomorrow, in front of thousands.”
“The Ravine?” Tam asked. She knew damn well what the Ravine was, but if this blowhard was gonna talk, then Tam figured she’d might as well choose the subject.
“It’s Ardburg’s arena,” the boy droned on as a caravan of argosies rumbled past, “though it’s not much to look at, really. Not a real arena, like the ones down south. I was in Fivecourt last summer, you know. Their new arena is the biggest in all the world. They call it—”
“Look!” someone shouted, saving Tam the trouble of ramming her fist down her new friend’s throat in an effort to shut him up. “It’s them! It’s Fable!”
Rolling up next was an argosy drawn by eight big draft horses in draconic bronze-scale barding. The war wagon was a fortress grinding over sixteen stone wheels, with iron slats on the windows and barbed chain screens hung over the side. The roof was ringed by crenellations of rusted iron, and crossbow turrets were mounted on all four corners.
In her periphery Tam saw the boy straighten and puff out his chest like a bullfrog about to bellow a mating call.
“That’s the Rebel’s Redoubt,” Tam said, before this idiot could tell her something else she already knew. “It belongs to Fable, who’ve only been together for four and a half years but are arguably the most famous mercenary band in the world. You see,” she went on, slathering every word in cloying condescension, “most bands only fight in arenas. They tour from town to town, and take on whatever the local wranglers have on hand. Which is great, because everyone, from the wranglers to the bookers to the arena managers—heck, sometimes even the mercs themselves—get paid, and the rest of us get a hell of a show. Mercs is short for mercenaries, by the way.”
The boy gaped. “I know th—”
“But Fable,” Tam cut him off, “well, they do things the old way. They still tour, obviously, but they also take on contracts that most other bands wouldn’t dare. They’ve hunted giants and burned pirate fleets to cinders. They’ve killed sand maws in Dumidia, and once slew a firbolg king right here in Kaskar.”
She pointed to a barrel-chested northerner sitting between two crenellations, his tangle of brown hair obscuring most of his face. “That’s Brune. He’s sort of a local legend. He’s a vargyr.”
“A vargyr . . . ?”
“We call them shamans,” Tam explained. “He can change at will into a great big bear. Now, the one in black with half her head shaved and tattoos all over? She’s a sorceress. A summoner, actually. Her name’s Cura, but people call her the Inkwitch. And see the druin, Freecloud? He’s the tall one with green hair and ears like a rabbit? They say he’s the very last of his kind, and that he’s never made a wager he didn’t win, and that his sword, Madrigal, can cut through steel like it was silk.”
The boy’s face had gone an extremely gratifying shade of scarlet. “Okay, listen,” he said, except Tam was all done listening.
“And that”—she pointed to the woman standing with one boot on the battlement above them—“is Bloody Rose. She’s the leader of Fable, the saviour of the city of Castia, and very probably the most dangerous woman this side of the Heartwyld.”
Tam fell silent as the argosy’s shadow enveloped them. She’d never actually seen Bloody Rose before, but she knew every story, had heard every song, and had seen the warrior’s likeness on walls or sketched on posters around town, though chalk and charcoal hardly did the real thing justice.
Fable’s frontwoman wore a piecemeal suit of dull black plate slashed with red—except her gauntlets, which gleamed like new steel. They were druin-forged (or so the songs alleged) and matched to the scimitars—Thistle and Thorn—she wore in scabbards on either hip. Her hair was dyed a bright, bloody red, and hacked off at the hard line of her chin.
Half the girls in town had the same cut, the same colour. Tam herself had gone so far as to buy a sack of hucknell beans, which bled their crimson coats when soaked in water, but her father had guessed her intent and demanded she eat them one by one in front of him. They’d tasted like lemons with a cinnamon rind, and had left her lips, tongue, and teeth so red it looked as if she’d torn the throat out of a deer. Her hair, for all the trouble she’d gone to, remained the unremarkable brown it had always been.
The argosy passed, leaving Tam to blink like a dreamer roused by the slanting afternoon light.
Beside her, the boy had finally found his voice, though he cleared his throat before trying it out. “Wow, you really know your stuff, huh? Do you want to, uh, grab a drink at the Cornerstone?”
“The Cornerstone . . .”
“Yeah, it’s just—”
Tam was off, sprinting as fast as her legs would carry her. Not only was she hopelessly late for work, but her father, naturally, had yet another rule when it came to his daughter going for drinks with strange boys.
Which suited Tam just fine, since she was into girls, anyway.