A standout adventure fantasy debut that’s down, dirty and damn good fun – perfect for fans of Joe Abercombie, Mark Lawrence, Markus Heitz’s Dwarves series and Stan Nicholl’s Orcs series
Jackal was about to wake the girls for another tumble when he heard Oats bellow for him through the thin walls of the brothel. Ugly, early sunlight speared through the missing slats in the decrepit shutters. Jackal jumped from the bed, shaking off the entangling limbs of the whores and the last clouds of wine swimming in his head. The new girl slept right through, but Delia groaned at the disturbance, raising her tousled red locks off the cushions to squint at him with naked disapproval.
“The fuck, Jack?” she said.
Laughing quietly, Jackal hopped into his breeches. “There is a large bowl of porridge calling my name.”
Delia rolled her bleary eyes. “Tell that big thrice to hush. And come back to bed.”
“Would that I could, darlin’,” Jackal said, sitting on the bed to pull on his boots. “Would that I could.”
He stood just as Delia’s fingers began to coax at his back. Not bothering to find his brigand, Jackal snatched his belt from amongst the girls’ discarded garments on the floor, buckled it on, and adjusted the fall of his tulwar. He could feel Delia’s eyes on him.
“Hells, you are a pretty half- breed!” she said. The sleepiness was gone from her eyes, replaced by a well- practiced look of hunger.
Jackal played along, purposefully flexing as he gathered his hair back and tied it with a leather thong. Giving Delia a parting wink, he threw open the door and hurried from the room.
The corridor was dim and abandoned, still clinging to the bleak stillness of dawn. Jackal walked through to the common room, not breaking stride as he stepped around the pitted tables and overturned chairs. The sour stink of spilled wine and sweat were all that remained of the night’s revels. The door leading outside was cracked, the bright, intruding light already promising a sweltering day. Jackal stepped into the morning glare, clenching his jaw and eyelids against the assault of the sun.
Oats stood by the well in the center of the yard, the slabs of muscle on his broad back shining with water. Jackal jogged up and stood be-side his friend.
“Trouble?”Oats lifted his chin slightly, pointing with his spade- shaped beard down the dusty track leading to the grounds. Jackal followed his gaze and saw the shimmering shapes of horses approaching. Putting a hand at his brow to shield his eyes from the sun, he looked for riders and was relieved to find them.
“Not horse-cocks.”“No,” Oats agreed. “Cavalry.”
Jackal relaxed a little. Human soldiers they could handle. Centaurs might have meant their deaths.
“Ignacio?” he mused. “I swear that pit- faced old drunk can smell his payment from all the way at the castile.”
His friend said nothing, continuing to scowl at the approaching cavalcade. Jackal counted eight men, one clutching a banner that no doubt bore the crest of the king of Hispartha. That blowing bit of silk meant little in the Lot Lands and Jackal kept his gaze fixed on the man up front.“It’s Bermudo,” Oats said, a second before Jackal picked out the captain’s identity through the dust.
Jackal found himself wishing he had not left his stockbow under Delia’s bed. Glancing over, he noticed Oats was completely unarmed, the half-full bucket from the well still clutched in his meaty hands. Still, the brute’s appearance was often enough to discourage a fight. As was said amongst the members of the hoof, Oats had muscles in his shit.
Jackal was no stripling, but his friend was a full head taller. With his bald head, ash-colored skin, corded frame, and protruding lower fangs, Oats could pass for a full-blood orc as long as he hid the Bastard tattoos that adorned his powerful arms and back. Only his beard marked him for a half- breed, a trait Jackal had not received from his human half.
As the riders fanned out around the well, Jackal grinned. He might not be able to pass for a thick, but he was big enough to give these human whelps pause. Their clean crimson sashes, brightly polished helmets, and petulantly brave faces marked them as fresh arrivals. Mustachios must have been in fashion in the courts of Hispartha, for drooping from every upper lip was something akin to a furry horseshoe. Every lip except Bermudo’s. He looked like one of those long-dead tyrants found on the old Imperium coins, all long nose and close-cropped hair.
The captain reined up.
He took a moment to survey the yard, his attention lingering on the stables Sancho maintained for his guests.
Jackal lifted his chin in greeting. “Bermudo. Breaking in some new boys, I see. What, did they demand proof that a man can still get some quim in the badlands?”
“How many are with you, Bastards?”
It was an offhand, almost lazy question, but Jackal did not miss Bermudo’s concern.
“Not here to ambush you, Captain.”
“That is not an answer.”
“Certain it is.”
Bermudo turned to catch the eye of one of his riders and flicked a finger at the stables. The chosen cavalero hesitated.
“Go check the stables,” Bermudo said, as if instructing an idiot child.
The man snapped out of his puzzlement and spurred his horse to the west side of the yard. His compatriots watched his progress. Jackal watched them. All held demi- lances and round steel shields, with scale coats for further protection. Five of them had grown tense, betrayed by the tautness in their reins. The last one looked bored and produced an overwrought yawn. The errand runner had dismounted, tied his horse to the post, and now strode into the stables. A moment later, Sancho’s stableboy stumbled sleepily into the glare. The cavalero followed not long after.
“Three hogs and a mule team,” he reported when he rode back.
“The team belongs to three miners,” Jackal told Bermudo. “From Traedria, I think. They’re not here to ambush you either.”
“No,” Bermudo said. “They have dispensation to prospect in the Amphora Mountains. I know because I issued them the writ. You, however, have no such dispensation.”
Jackal looked at the empty surrounding sky with awe. “Oats? Did Sancho’s place get spirited into the Amphoras while we slept?”
“The peaks look smaller than I remember,” Oats said. “Invisible, even.”
Bermudo remained humorless. “You damn well know my meaning.”
“We do,” Jackal said. “And you damn well know Captain Ignacio allows our presence here.”
“Did he assure you of that before leaving here last night?”
Oats’s face clenched. “Ignacio wasn’t here last night.”
It was true, but Jackal would have preferred not to give that away just yet. The captains hated each other, but that didn’t explain Bermudo biting at Ignacio’s name as if it were bait. It also didn’t explain his presence at the brothel. The noble captain did not employ Sancho’s girls and was rarely seen this far from the castile.
Jackal attempted fresh bait. “Don’t let us stall you from getting inside. Sure you’re all eager to relieve some spend.”
Bermudo sniffed.“Observe, men,” he said, his gaze resting on Jackal and Oats while also ignoring them, a skill only noble-born humans could master. “A pair of half- breed riders. From the Grey Bastards hoof. You will learn to distinguish them by their hideous body markings. Some you will come to know by their absurd names. Despite the allotments, they all think this entire land belongs to them, so you will find them in places they do not belong, like this establishment, blatantly ignoring the fact that it rests on Crown land. It is within your power to expel them in such instances. Though it is often best to allow them to sate themselves and move on. Unlike a pair of rutting dogs, it takes more than a bucket of water to discourage half- orcs in heat. They are . . . slaves to their base natures.”
Jackal ignored the insults. He looked beyond Bermudo and smiled at the cavaleros arrayed behind him. “We do love whores. Pardon. We enjoy seeking our ease with willing company. Reckon that’s how you’d say it up north. Either way, Sancho and his girls are always hospitable.”
Bermudo curled his mouth with distaste, but it was the yawning cavalero who spoke, his mouth now settled into a comfortable sneer.
“I would never pay for a woman willing to lay with half-orcs.”
“Then you best start fucking your horse,” Oats rumbled.
Jackal smiled as the eyes of the new cavalero grew wide. “He’s right. You won’t find a whore in the Lot Lands who hasn’t been spoiled by us. I’m sure they would take your coin, but don’t be offended, lad, if they fail to notice your pink little prick is even in.”
The man visibly bristled. Looking closer, Jackal noticed his mustachio could not quite conceal a harelip. The other six were casting uncertain looks at the back of Bermudo’s head, searching for guidance. The captain’s helmet was hanging from his saddle, and he carried no lance, but his hand had drifted to the grip of his sword.
“Make trouble,” Bermudo said, his face turning flinty, “and I will drag you behind my horse all the way back to your lot, whatever arrangements you have with Ignacio be damned.”
Jackal hooked his thumbs in his belt, getting his hand closer to his own blade. He could posture as well as the captain. “There is no quarrel here.”
“Not unless you make one,” Oats put in.
Bermudo’s eyes flicked between Jackal and Oats. Was he actually considering spilling blood? Would this arrogant ass risk a feud just to save face in front of a gaggle of outcast nobility with new saddles and wet dreams of heroism?
Bermudo’s jaw bulged as he chewed on his pride, but before he came to a decision the harelip rode up to the well.
“You there,” he said to Oats, gesturing with his lance. “Fill yonder trough.”
Jackal let out a snort of derision and watched as a ripple of uncertainty passed through the recruits, every eye on their outspoken comrade.
Bermudo shot the man a warning look. “Cavalero Garcia—”
The youth waved him off. “It is all right, Captain. We have half-orc servants at my father’s villa. They have to be kept well in hand or they turn mulish. Clearly these two have gone undisciplined for too long. A lack of humility that is quickly remedied. It is all in how you address them.” He looked languidly down at Oats. “I said fill the trough. Step to it, mongrel.”
Jackal heard the strained creaking of wood as Oats’s knuckles paled against the bucket. This was heartbeats from coming to blood.
“You want to get your new arrival in hand, Captain,” Jackal said. It was not a suggestion. “He might not know what an angry thrice-blood can do to a man.”
Bermudo’s haughty manner was showing cracks at the edges. He saw the situation turning ill, same as Jackal. But he set his jaw and allowed the insubordination.
Nothing to do but control whose blood was spilled, and how much.
“So, Captain,” Jackal said, “what did this fop do to be banished here? Gambling debts? Or, no, Oats had it before, didn’t he? Your man got caught with his father’s favorite stallion. Riding it without a saddle. Inside the stable.”
The smug cavalero stamped the butt of his lance into Jackal’s face. He did it so casually, so lazily, that Jackal had plenty of time to avoid the blow, but he let it land. Pain overtook his vision and he reeled back a step, snapping a hand to his throbbing nose. He heard Oats snarl, but Jackal reached out blindly and laid his free hand on his friend’s trunk of an arm, stopping any retaliation. Spitting, Jackal waited for his head to clear before straightening.
“You will keep a civil tongue,” Cavalero Garcia told him. “Speak with such impudence again and I shall have you horsewhipped in the name of the king.”
Jackal looked directly at Bermudo and found nervousness infecting his face. But there was also a creeping look of satisfaction.
“King?” Jackal said, sucking the last film of blood from his teeth. “Oats? Do you know the name of the king?”
“Such-and-Such the First,” Oats replied.
Jackal shook his head. “No, he died. It’s So-and-So the Fat.”
Oats gave him a dubious squint. “That don’t sound right.”
“Wretched soot-skins!” Garcia exclaimed.
Jackal ignored him, throwing his arms wide in a mock flummox. “The name escapes us. Anyway, he’s some inbred, overstuffed sack of shit that weds his cousins, fucks his sisters, and has small boys attach leeches to his tiny, tiny prick.”
This time, Jackal caught Garcia’s lance as the man thrust and used it to yank him from his mount, angling him to collide with the well’s roof on the way down. The horse shied away, whinnying. Garcia floundered in the dirt, sputtering wordless rage as he tried to stand. Jackal grabbed the cavalero’s cloak, pulled it over his head, and punched his face through the dusty cloth. He fell flat.
The horses were balking at the disturbance, but the men were stilled by shock. Bermudo had visibly paled.
Jackal motioned at the fallen Garcia. “I think that’s a good lesson for these virgins, Captain. You agree?”
Bermudo was no fool. He saw the chance being offered. With a curt nod, he took it.
Garcia, however, was still conscious. And less wise. Sitting up, he yanked the cloak from his head, revealing a mouth dripping blood and venom.
“Captain,” he seethed, an accusing finger sweeping between Jackal and Oats. “I demand these two be brought back to the castile and hanged.”
Jackal laughed. “Hanged? You’re not dead, frail. A trade of insults, you bust my nose, I smash your teeth. That’s it. It’s done. Now go inside, get your cod wet, and forget it.”
Garcia was deaf to good sense. His vengeful stare shifted up to Bermudo.
“Captain?” He spoke the rank, but it sounded far from the respect due a superior.
Jackal and Oats shared a look. What was this? Certainly not the first time cavaleros and hoof riders had come to blows. It happened at Sancho’s more often than anywhere. It was time for everyone to ride on.
A gem of sweat studded the center of Bermudo’s upper lip. He looked torn, chewing on a choice that was making him angry.
“Bermudo . . .” Jackal tried to get the man’s attention, but was shouted down by Garcia.
“You will languish here forever, Captain!”
It was a threat. And it made up Bermudo’s mind.
“Take them!” he commanded.
Bermudo tried to draw his sword, but the bucket took him in the brow before the blade was half free. Oats had thrown with such force that not a drop of water spilled until the bucket smote the Captain’s skull. He fell from the saddle, unconscious before he even struck the dust of the yard.
Jackal kicked Garcia under the chin, sending him sprawling before he could squeal further. Rather than intimidate the other riders, the violence against their comrade steeled their courage and all six lowered their lances. Jackal drew his sword and tossed it to Oats in one motion, keeping hold of Garcia’s lance and leveling it against the impending charge.
Before the cavaleros could spur their horses forward, their gazes snapped up to stare wide-eyed. A voice rang out from behind Jackal’s head.
“Think twice, you prickly lipped eunuchs!”
Jackal smiled. The voice was ill-humored, commanding, and familiar. The cavaleros were lowering their lances, every mouth agape.
“Perfect timing, Fetch!” Jackal called over his shoulder. He gave the men a gloating smile before turning around. A moment later, his own jaw fell open.
Fetching stood upon the roof of the brothel with a stockbow in each hand, both loaded and trained on the riders. She was stark naked.
“You’re bleeding, Jack.”
Jackal managed a grunt and a nod. He had known Fetching since childhood, but neither of them were children anymore.
Her pale green flesh was flawless, lacking the ashy grey tones found in most half-orcs, and smooth save where it rippled with muscle or swelled with curves. She had both to spare. Her dark brown twistlocks were unbound, falling to her shapely shoulders. She held the heavy stockbows steadily, the points of their quarrels unwavering between the prods. It was an impressive sight. And based upon the stunned silence behind him in the yard, the cavaleros thought so as well.Clever Fetching, always using every advantage, though she needed few.
“You’re bleeding,” Fetch repeated, “and I am awakened very early. Someone is going to die.”
Garcia had managed to stumble toward his fellows and pointed with a quivering finger.
“You filthy ash-coloreds!” he shrieked through his swollen lips. “You will all dangle from a gibbet! Take them, men! Take them!”
“That one,” Oats grunted.
“That one,” Fetching confirmed, and shot Garcia through the eye. He fell backward stiffly, the fletching of the quarrel blossoming from his left socket. The cavaleros cursed and struggled to keep their shying horses under control.
“I got one bolt left,” Fetching announced. “Who would like it?”
There were no volunteers.
Jackal spun on the cavaleros.
“Before any of you say anything fool-ass, like, ‘My father will hear of this!’ remember—no one cares a fig for you back north in whatever civilized jewel you called home. If they did, you wouldn’t be here.”
Jackal swept every man with a steady gaze, noting which ones looked away.
“What are you, third- , fourth-born? At least one of you is likely a bastard. You were all fobbed off here to be forgotten. To patrol the borderlands and watch for orcs. You have no station, you have no privilege.” Jackal tossed Garcia’s lance onto his corpse. “He forgot that. Don’t make the same mistake. If you want to survive your first skirmish with the thicks, you best begin to look kindly on us half-breeds. We are what keep you safe. Bermudo’s right. We claim this land as our own. But we aren’t the only ones. The orcs call this land Ul-wundulas. They think it’s theirs. You won’t prove them wrong by believing you’re better than they are. Your fathers can’t help you here. The king, whatever his name is, can’t help you here. Only we mongrels can help you here. Welcome to the Lot Lands.”
Stepping back, Jackal gave Oats a nod. The brute picked the unconscious form of Captain Bermudo off the ground as if he were a child.
“Didn’t take more than a bucket of water for you, ’Mudo,” he said, and slung the man over the back of his horse. He handed the animal’s reins to one of the cavaleros.
“Take him back to the castile,” Jackal told the men. “Tell Captain Ignacio that Cavalero Garcia defied Bermudo’s orders and struck him. He fled on horseback rather than face discipline and was last seen heading into centaur territory. The Grey Bastards have volunteered to go searching for him. But we’re not confident he’ll ever be found. When Bermudo comes around, he will want to remember it that way. You all will. Unless you want a war with the half-orc hoofs.”
No one responded. Each face had gone pale and placid.
“Now is the part where you all nod!” Fetch called down from the roof.
Every helmeted head bobbled up and down.
Jackal extended a guiding arm toward the track. Within minutes, the cavalcade was a shimmering smudge on the horizon.Jackal found Oats staring at him and shaking his head.
“Nice speech, Prince Jackal.”
“Suck a sow’s tit, Oats.”
Jackal probed at his nose while Fetching jumped down from the roof, the well-developed muscles in her long legs absorbing the impact.
“Next time you go out to make pretty words with the frails, don’t forget to bring a thrum,” she said, tossing Jackal the spent stockbow.
“And next time you come to our rescue, you should wear that,” he retorted, sweeping a hand at her nakedness.
“Lick me, Jack!”
“Didn’t one of Sancho’s girls already do that?”
“Yes,” Fetch replied, turning her back to head for the door of the brothel. “But like all the whores, she would rather have had her head between your legs.”
Jackal stared brazenly at the dimples above Fetch’s pert backside until she disappeared into the shadows of the whorehouse.
A cuff from Oats on the back of his head brought him around.
“We need to get back.”
Jackal scratched at his chin. “I know. See to the hogs.”
Before Oats could head for the stables, the same door that had so recently enveloped Fetching now disgorged the brothel’s proprietor. The pleasant swell in Jackal’s cod immediately withered.
Maneuvering his corpulence through the jamb, Sancho came heavy-footed into the yard, his small mouth held in an oval of witless alarm. What little hair the man had left was already soaked with sweat, a slick black stain across his head. Sancho stared at the cavalero’s corpse and shook his head slowly, causing his ill- shaven jowls to jiggle.
Jackal snorted. “Don’t tell me that this is the first man to die here, Sancho.”
“The first cavalero!” the fat man said, his voice sounding choked. “And not even one of Ignacio’s commoners, but a fucking blue blood! What have you done?”
“Rid you of a future troublesome guest,” Jackal told him. “Fair wager, that piece of hogshit would have beaten your girls.”
“That I can handle! But the body of exiled gentry is not so easily managed.”
“It is. Contact the Sludge Man.” Jackal gestured at Garcia’s sprawled carcass. “Let him dispose of our deceased friend.”
The whoremaster’s large, moist face went pale at the mention of the name.
“He and our chief have an understanding,” Jackal said before Sancho’s panic fully took root.
“You sure you want to involve him?” Oats put in, an uneasy look on his bearded face. Jackal wasn’t sure who he meant, their chief or the Sludge Man, but he didn’t bother to clarify. This was the way through.
He kept his attention on giving Sancho instructions. “Send a bird. When he gets here, give him the body and the horse. Tell him it’s for the Grey Bastards.”
“And what about me?” Sancho demanded. “What do I get for being your agent in this?”
Jackal took a deep breath. “What do you want?”
“You know,” Sancho told him.
“I do,” Jackal conceded. “Fine. I’ll tell the chief.”
The whoremaster eyeballed him for a moment, then nodded. Giving the cavalero one final, grudging glance, Sancho stomped back inside.
Oats clenched his jaw. “Claymaster won’t be pleased.”
“Our days of pleasing him are almost over, so he better start getting used to it,” Jackal replied, breathing out hard through his sore nostrils.
“Get ready to ride.”