Read a sample from THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES by Anna Smith Spark

Chapter One: Knives

Knives everywhere. Coming down like rain.

Down to close work like that, men wrestling in the mud, jabbing at each other, too tired to care any more. Just die and get it over with. Half of them fighting with their guts hanging out of their stomachs, stinking of shit, oozing pink and red and white. Half-dead men lying in the filth. Screaming. A whole lot of things screaming.

Impossible to tell who’s who any more. Mud and blood and shadows and that’s it. Kill them! Kill them all! Keep killing until we’re all dead. The knife jabs and twists and the man he’s fighting falls sideways, all the breath going out of him with a sigh of relief. Another there behind. Gods, his arms ache. His head aches. Blood in his eyes. He twists the knife again and thrusts with a broken-off sword and that man too dies. Fire explodes somewhere over to the left. White as maggots. Silent as maggots. Then shrieks as men burn.

He swings the stub of the sword and catches a man on the leg, not hard but hard enough so the man stumbles and he’s on him quick with the knife. A good lot of blood and the man’s down and dead, still flapping about like a fish but you can see in his eyes that he’s finished, his legs just haven’t quite caught up yet.

The sun is setting, casting long shadows. Oh beautiful evening! Stars rising in a sky the color of rotting wounds. The Dragon’s Mouth. The White Lady. The Dog. A good star, the Dog. Brings plagues and fevers and inflames desire. Its rising marks the coming of summer. So maybe no more campaigning in the sodding rain. Wet leather stinks. Mud stinks. Shit stinks, when the latrine trench overflows.

Another burst of white fire. He hates the way it’s silent. Unnatural. Unnerving. Screams again. Screams so bad your ears ring for days. The sky weeps and howls and it’s difficult to know what’s screaming. You, or the enemy, or the other things.

Men are fighting in great clotted knots like milk curds. He sprints a little to where two men are struggling together. Leaps at one from behind, pulls him down, skewers him. Hard crack of bone, soft lovely yield of fat and innards. Suety. The other yells hoarsely and swings a punch at him. Lost his knife, even. Bare knuckles. He ducks and kicks out hard, overbalances and almost falls. The man kicks back, tries to get him in a wrestling grip. Up close together, two pairs of teeth gritted at each other. A hand smashes his face, gets his nose, digs in. He bites at it. Dirty. Calloused. Iron taste of blood bright in his mouth. But the hand won’t let up, crushing his face into his skull. He swallows and almost chokes on the blood pouring from the wound he’s made. Blood and snot and shreds of cracked dry human skin. Manages to get his knife in and stabs hard into the back of the man’s thigh. Not enough to kill, but the hand jerks out from his face. Lashes out and gets his opponent in the soft part of the throat, pulls his knife out and gazes around the battlefield at the figures hacking at each other while the earth rots beneath them. All eternity, they’ve been fighting. All the edges blunted. Sword edges and knife edges and the edges in the mind. Keep killing. Keep killing. Keep killing till we’re all dead.

And then he’s dead. A blade gets him in the side, in the weak point under the shoulder where his armor has to give to let the joint move. Far in, twisting. Aiming down. Killing wound. He hears his body rip. Oh gods. Oh gods and demons. Oh gods and demons and fuck. He swings round, strikes at the man who’s stabbed him. The figure facing him is a wraith, scarlet with blood, head open oozing out brain stuff. You’re dying, he thinks. You’re dying and you’ve killed me. Not fair.

Shadows twist round them. We’re all dying, he thinks, one way or another. Just some of us quicker than others. You fight and you die. And always another twenty men queuing up behind you.

Why we march and why we die,

And what life means… it’s all a lie.

Death! Death! Death!

Understands that better than he’s ever understood anything, even his own name.

But suddenly, for a moment, he’s not sure he wants to die.

The battlefield falls silent. He blinks and sees light.

A figure in silver armor. White, shining, blazing with light like the sun. A red cloak billowing in the wind. Moves through the ranks of the dead and the dying and the light beats onto them, pure and clean.

“Amrath! Amrath!” Voices whispering like the wind blowing across salt marsh. Voices calling like birds. Here, walking among us, bright as summer dew.

“Amrath! Amrath!” The shadows fall away as the figure passes. Everything is light.

“Amrath! Amrath!” The men cheer with one voice. No longer one side or the other, just men gazing and cheering as the figure passes. He cheers until his throat aches. Feels restored, seeing it. No longer tired and wounded and dying. Healed. Strong.

“Amrath! Amrath!”

The figure halts. Gazes around. Searching. Finds. A dark-clad man leaps forward, swaying into the light. Poised across from the shining figure, yearning toward it. Draws a sword burning with blue flame.

“Amrath! Amrath!” Harsh voice like crows, challenging. “Amrath!”

He watches joyfully. So beautiful! Watches and nothing in the world matters, except to behold the radiance of his god.

The bright figure draws a sword that shines like all the stars and the moon and the sun. A single dark ruby in its hilt. The dark figure rushes onwards, screeching something. Meets the bright figure with a clash. White light and blue fire. Blue fire and white light. His eyes hurt almost as he watches. But he cannot bear to look away. The two struggle together. Like a candle flame flickering. Like the dawn sun on the sea. The silver sword comes up, throws the dark figure back. Blue fire blazes, engulfing everything, the shining silver armor running with flame. Crash of metal, sparks like a blacksmith’s anvil. The shining figure takes a step back defensively, parries, strikes out. The other blocks it. Roars. Howls. Laughs. The mage blade swings again, slicing, trailing blue fire. Blue arcs in the evening gloom. Shapes and words, written on the air. Death words. Pain words. Words of hope and fear and despair. The shining figure parries again, the silver sword rippling beneath the impact of the other’s blade. So brilliant with light that rainbows dance on the ground around it. Like a woman’s hair throwing out drops of water, tossing back her head in summer rain. Like snow falling. Like colored stars. The two fighters shifting, stepping in each other’s footprints. Stepping in each other’s shadows. Circling like birds.

The silver sword flashes out and up and downwards and the other falls back, bleeding from the throat. Great spreading gush of red. The blue flame dies.

He cheers and his heart is almost aching, it’s so full of joy.

The shining figure turns. Looks at the men watching. Looks at him. Screams. Things shriek back that make the world tremble. The silver sword rises and falls. Five men. Ten. Twenty. A pile of corpses. He stares mesmerized at the dying. The beauty of it. The most beautiful thing in the world. Killing and killing and such perfect joy. His heart overflowing. His heart singing. This, oh indeed, oh, for this, all men are born. He screams in answer, dying, throws himself against his god’s enemies with knife and sword and nails and teeth.

Why we march and why we die,

And what life means… it’s all a lie.

Death! Death! Death!