If you've been waiting for the new Markhat book, your wait is nearly over.
Editing is done. A bit of formatting remains, but not much -- I expect to release the new book, WAY OUT WEST, in a few weeks. Maybe just a couple.
This will be the tenth entry in the series. For anyone unfamiliar with the previous titles, they are, in order, as follows:
And now, WAY OUT WEST.
(To read this blog in a large print edition, click here).
Markhat has enjoyed quite a career, one I never saw coming the first time he walked onto the page and started cracking wise to all and sundry. He's faced murderous magics, grappled with sinister sorcereries, tackled mad magicians and phantom murderers and flat beers with equal aplomb.
So I'm thrilled to offer this latest adventure, and it's one I truly hope you enjoy.
I will tell you this much -- this one is set on a train. Specifically, a steam locomotive, bound for the wastelands left empty and in ruin by the War. The wastes are slowly repopulating, with towns springing back to life along the railroad, and Markhat's new case takes him to the end of the line.
Darla is a full partner in this story. I've come to enjoy writing her as much as I do Markhat. I've even toyed with the idea of a spin-off series featuring Darla'a own adventures, told by her (The Darla Diaries?). If someone can please provide me with an extra three to five hours a day, I'll get started at once.
Next week, I'll reveal the cover for WAY OUT WEST here in the blog.
Today, though, I'll provide you with an excerpt from the book. No spoilers, no secrets revealed -- just a single scene, to give you a taste until the whole book is available.
The scene takes place shortly after the Western Star leaves Rannit. They've just entered the plains, when the locomotive comes to a screeching unscheduled halt.
FROM WAY OUT WEST:
The bar car was pandemonium.
Shattered glass and spilled booze covered the floor. Half the occupants had their faces pressed to the windows while the other half made for the door.
Darla and Gertriss, bless them, were back to back by the door, pistols drawn.
“We didn’t do it,” I yelled, over the din. “Evis. Follow the crowd. Keep an eye out for long thin knives or people sneaking into sleeping compartments. Gertriss. Watch Evis. Darla. With me.”
Evis nodded and charged the door, Gertriss on his heels. Darla took my hand and we followed, shouldering our way through the crowd.
By the time we reached the platform between cars, the Western Star was stopped. Her steam engine still chugged, and her funnel still belched smoke, so I was at least reassured we hadn’t exploded. Yet.
I shoved a pair of hesitant riders aside and put boots on the gravel track bed. Darla hopped down after, and together we sprinted past the stopped cars, watched the whole time by rows of worried faces.
Gravel crunched behind us. I turned to see a small mob of brave souls following in our wake, led by the stumbling clown. He saw me turn and honked his red nose at me, nearly tripping from the effort.
The Western Star was nineteen cars, not counting the tender and the locomotive. I was huffing and puffing by the time we drew even with the engine, and unable to cuss when I saw what lay ahead.
“What the hell?” said Darla, who wasn’t even panting.
A mastodon, the biggest one I’d ever seen, was sitting on the tracks, waving its hairy trunk back and forth between its monstrous yellow tusks. And I do mean sitting—its back legs, all forty tons of them, were folded so that the beast’s wide ass was planted across the tracks.
The mastodon’s musk was so powerful my eyes began to burn, and I had to struggle not to gag. Horseflies buzzed thick about us.
“Those are Trolls,” said Darla, lowering her revolver and hiding it behind her skirt.
I nodded. Flanking the mastodon was a pair of Trolls, also seated, remaining still and silent in what I understood to be a Trollish gesture of friendly respect.
Huddled in a nervous mob at the locomotive’s blunt prow was Engineer Stoddard and a pair of sooty toughs I assumed were coal shovelers.
“Trolls and their horse,” I said.
“Why would they park their horse on the tracks?” Darla asked.
“Because they can park it anywhere they damn well please, I suppose,” I said. Engineer Stoddard turned, saw me, and smiled the kind of smile one reserves for delivering bad news to people you don’t like.
“Well, there he is,” he barked, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve already sent for the basket of apples. You get to deliver it. That’s the Watchman’s job, dealing with Trolls.”
His burly fire-men snorted until Darla let them see her revolver.
“Apples?” I asked. “Why apples?”
Stoddard shrugged. “Because they like apples. How the hell should I know? They’re Trolls, they don’t make no sense. They stop the train. You give them apples, let them talk Troll bullshit until they get done. They move their Troll horse, and we waste a half a damned day getting back up to speed. That’s the job, fancy man. Now it’s your job. Here’s the apples.”
Rowdy came charging up, dragging one side of a bushel basket of apples while another conductor dragged the other.
“I’ll go with you, Captain,” Rowdy said.
“Hell you will,” snarled Stoddard. “That’s a Watch job. You’re with the C&E. Get back to your car.”
“Go on, kid,” I said softly. “I can manage.”
Darla stepped up and shot a killing glare at the engineer. “I’ll take this side, dear,” she said. Her revolver had vanished as quickly as a magician’s trick rabbit. “We wouldn’t want to impose upon the C&E by asking them to do a man’s job, now would we?”
I grinned and grabbed the other handle. Engineer Stoddard’s face turned the vibrant red of a ripe tomato.
“No indeed, wife,” I replied. “I’m sure they’ve got a full day of cowering to do.” I tipped my hat to the railroad men as we passed them. “Mind you don’t soil your underbritches, gentlemen.”
If they had any retort, the Western Star herself rendered it inaudible with a long billowing discharge of compressed steam.
Gravel crunched behind us, as the clown raced to catch up. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “Don’t worry about the Trolls, either. They’re friendly.”
“How do you know that?” asked Darla.
“Because we ain’t dead,” he replied. “Here, I’ll go first.”
And he did, charging up to the larger of the two Trolls before breaking into a clumsy, bumbling dance.
“That is either the drunkest man I’ve ever seen, or the bravest,” said Darla.
“Both,” I replied. The apple basket was heavy. We took our time, so I got a good look at both Trolls before stepping within smiting distance.
The rightmost was typical Troll—a towering mass of muscle and fur decorated with foot-long talons and piercing Troll eyes. He was naked, save for a cargo belt and an ornamental necklace made from weathered human skulls, each missing the lower jaw and strung together through ragged holes on each side of the cranium.
The Troll on the left was half the size of the other. His fur was dark, almost black, and though his eyes were every bit Troll warrior, they darted about constantly and something like a grin shaped his toothy maw.
“Is that a child?” whispered Darla.
“I think so,” I replied. “Unusual. They’re shy about bringing their youngsters around humans.”
The adult Troll started clapping in time to the clown’s ridiculous dance. “Ho, ho, ho,” it boomed, followed by a string of wet Troll words that might have been a cheerful greeting or a graphic description of the dismemberment to come.
We dragged the bushel of apples as close as I dared. “Greetings, Walking Stone,” I said, taking off my hat. “May your shadow fall tall and your soul grow to meet it.”
The Troll nodded but kept clapping. The railroad clown danced gamely on, gasping for breath but, by the Angels, keeping his too-large shoes shuffling in the gravel.
“Show him an apple before I have a stroke,” muttered the clown. “I can’t keep this up all damned day.”
Darla snatched up a ripe red apple. “For you and yours, Walking Stone,” she said, holding the fruit aloft. “A gift, given in friendship.”
The Troll ended his claps with a bellow and a laugh.
The clown dropped to his knees and vomited. Both Trolls erupted into fresh gales of laughter.
“It is good to be greeted with mirth,” boomed the adult Troll, in passable Kingdom. “We accept your gifts.” He switched back to a Trollish gargle, and the smaller of the pair marched forward, careful to keep his mouth closed and his fangs hidden.
“We are indeed a mirthful folk,” I said, as the Troll youngster approached. “Mirthful, friendly, and mostly unarmed. My name is Markhat. This is my wife, Darla.”
“I’m Jiggles,” said the clown, still mopping his chin with his filthy sleeve. “Pleased to meet you all, yer lordships.” He gave his false nose a desultory honk.
The elder Troll nodded. “We saw the wounded sky, and knew a hurried iron horse approached,” he said. “My son Iron-in-Legs wished to see his namesake, before we quit these lands.”
The Troll kid took the basket from Darla with a wink. He shoved a handful of apples in his maw and started chewing them before he turned and took the basket back to papa.
“Named after a train, is he?” I replied. “Well, that’s a first. Tell you what, Walking Stone. Why not bring your son on the train, let him have a closer look? He could even blow the whistle. Would he like that?”
The Troll tilted his head at me, and for an awful moment I was afraid I’d unwittingly delivered some dire insult. But then the Troll laughed and exchanged a few words with his son, whose responses were somewhat hampered by his mouthful of half-chewed apples.
“That would indeed be an honor,” the adult Troll replied at last. “Although our agreement with the iron road men does not extend to such liberties.”
“It does today,” I said, while Darla tried to shush me. “The iron road men will do as I say. Isn’t that right, dear?”
“I sincerely hope it is,” Darla said.
I made a sweeping gesture toward the Western Star. “Please, be my guests,” I said. “Bring your horse, if you wish. Our tender car has great big water tanks. He may drink from those.”
Darla bit back a snort.
“That is indeed most generous,” replied the Troll. He turned, and bellowed to the mammoth. It replied with a loud, clearly annoyed sigh and rose from its haunches to lumber up behind the Trolls.
I turned. “Follow us, friends,” I said, and I set off at a good clip.
“Mister, you should have been a clown,” said Jiggles. “You’ve got the damned mouth for it.”
“Never got the hang of juggling,” I replied.
“That engineer is going to be livid,” Darla whispered. “No wonder we’re never invited to parties.”
“Merely doing my part to establish trust and cooperation with our Trollish brethren,” I replied. Indeed, as the thunderous tromping of the mammoth and the Troll’s happy booming conversation reached the Western Star, dozens of faces turned our way. Most of the crowd milling about outside the train cars made their way hurriedly back inside.
Stoddard was the only man standing by the time my impromptu parade reached the locomotive.
“This is Engineer Stoddard,” I said, turning to face the Trolls. “He drives the hurried iron horses. He is delighted to meet you both, and he welcomes you aboard his train with open arms and a smiling, eager heart. Isn’t that right?”
“What the hell—” Stoddard began.
“Furthermore,” I added, “he invites your mighty horse to slake his thirst from the C&E’s complimentary and no doubt sparkling water. See that the tank car’s water cover is removed, Engineer Stoddard, that’s a good man.” I pushed the sputtering engineer aside and gestured for the Trolls to climb aboard. I’ve not spent much time around mastodons, but this one either knew the word water or his snout functioned as an exceptionally keen nose, because he was already pacing beside the locomotive, exploring its intricate workings with his trunk. “Follow me, gentlemen. Mind your heads. The opening may be a bit low for Trollish persons.”
Stoddard cussed but barked out orders. The mastodon eased tensions by lifting its tail and depositing a steaming ten-bushel heap of dung damned nearly in Stoddard’s face.
I swung myself up on the locomotive’s step and offered Darla my hand. I moved quickly inside to make room as a furry Troll foot came down on a locomotive’s iron bones for the first time in history, I guessed.
The pounding of human feet charging for the back cars sounded over the steady chugging of the steam pistons.
“It stinks,” opined the adult Troll, squeezing his nostrils shut. Even stooped and huddled as best he could, the adult Troll could barely fit his massive frame through the Western Star’s cramped locomotive gangway.
The younger Troll, though, managed to sidle his way all the way to the front of the engine. He gurgled out words that I’m sure meant ‘Look, Papa, shiny machines!’ before he charged directly into the engineer’s cab.
Stoddard, his face the color of burning coal, managed to squeeze himself past the Troll and plant himself firmly in front of the brass levers and wheels that operated the train. “If Trolls wreck this train, I swear I’ll see you pay for it,” he growled at me.
“Show him the whistle,” I replied. “The kid wants to blow it.”
Stoddard’s eyes bulged, but he reached up and pulled hard at a worn iron lever.
The Western Star’s steam whistle blew, three short blasts. “Tell him not to tear it out of the works,” said the engineer.
The kid didn’t need any prompting. His furry Troll paw closed on the lever and he yanked and let the whistle sound until Poppa Troll muttered something in Troll.
The kid let go. My ears rang, but I kept my smile.
“You can tell everyone you made the hurried iron horses sing,” I said. The elder Troll translated for me, and the kid responded finally with a single solemn Trollish nod.
“You do us honor,” said the elder Troll. He clambered down from the train and stretched, his briefly extended claws flashing bright and white in the sun. “Walk with me, as we depart.”
We walked. The kid took up the rear, stealing glances at the train and munching down apple after apple.
Darla came too, and didn’t bat an eye when the mastodon’s massive trunk, still dripping from his drink at the tank car, took a curious sniff at her hat.
“The hurried iron horse stank of more than the coal,” said the adult Troll as soon as we were well away from the train. “It stank of the magic your folk employ. The dark magic. You have a special word for such stinking magics…”
“Sorcery?” I asked.
“Yes. That word. Be warned. Such a stench alone is cause for alarm, for turning, for seeking a new path. But your peril is threefold. The radiant child approaches from the east. The gray fate from the west, drawn by the dark. This thing you call the train, it is to be a meeting place. You would do well to come with us. My horse may bear the happy burden of many friends.”
I nodded, choosing my next words carefully. “I am honored, Walking Stone, to be named among your friends. I must remain with the train, though, as my own friends are bound to it, and I am determined to see them safe.”
The Troll shrugged. He reached into one of the pouches attached to his belt, and produced a small bundle of weeds and sticks bound together with twine.
“Take this,” he said, tossing me the bundle. It smelled of sage and Troll. Mostly Troll. “You gave Iron-in-Legs a boon. I give a boon to you. This was blessed by a word from the Wise. Burn it in an hour of need. The smoke will bear the power of the word. May it serve you well.”
I nodded gravely. “I thank you, Walking Stone. You do me and mine honor.”
The Troll blinked, and we set out again, still meandering through the tall plains grass.
“You said earlier you are quitting these lands, Walking Stone,” said Darla, after a time. “Might I ask why?”
The Troll swiveled his big dark eyes about, and his voice fell to a hoarse Troll whisper. “Many things, dark and light, are awakening,” he said. “Waking, to walk. More join their number with every sunrise. The day is approaching when the old tales will be flesh, the old terrors born anew.” The Troll turned to look at me. “Do your folk not see this too?”
“We’ve seen,” I said, thinking of river monsters and the Slilth. “But what are we to do?”
“My folk seek our old lands, the lands of the low sun, the lands of ice and the skies of the cold fire,” said the Troll.
His son spit out a gob of apple-seeds and the elder Troll batted him casually on the back of his head.
“Just how far north are you heading?” I asked.
“As far as there is land underfoot,” he replied. His voice fell even further. “Though the wise among us say that may not be far enough. Even the face of the Moon is troubled, friend. This is a new thing that even the Wise have not seen.”
Darla’s hand closed on mine.
“We wish you well,” I said, when the mastodon halted, and the Trolls gathered by its side. “Safe travels, and warm beds.”
“It is a brave man who chooses to walk with death,” the Troll replied. “A brave wife who walks beside him. May your shadows fall tall and your souls grow to meet them.”
Darla gasped. She knew enough about Trollish etiquette to realize what a profound gesture the Troll just made by speaking the traditional blessing to us.
Both Trolls made flat-footed flying leaps from the dirt to the mastodon’s furry shoulders. The elder Troll bellowed, and the mastodon turned and trundled away north, trailing horseflies and stink.
Darla and I watched them go.
I didn’t realize for a moment she was shivering. It wasn’t cold.
“Look, that was all a lot of frontier hooey,” I said. “Trolls are worse than Mama Hog when it comes to seeing boogeymen behind every bush.”
“That’s absolutely factual,” said Darla. “But you know damned well everything he said was true. Every word of it.”
I frowned. “Radiant children? Gray dooms? Sorcery on the train? Someone knifed a Watchman, sure, but that’s just plain old murder.”
She turned to face me. “Even Bel Loit won’t be far enough, will it?” she asked. I could see her eyes moving, see her taking in the empty grassy plain, the wide blue skies, the retreating mammoth and its riders.
“Nothing coming but tomorrow, hon,” I said. “It’ll be just another day. Only difference is that I’ll be slightly more distinguished, and therefore irresistible.”
She kicked me in the shins, but her heart wasn’t in it. I grabbed her up in a fierce hug about the time the Western Star’s whistle began to blow.
“That man is furious,” Darla said as we put our backs to the retreating Troll horse and made for the train.
“Railroad men,” I said with a dramatic sigh. “Always angry, always in a hurry. They’re not serene like us.”
The mammoth bellowed in a long, sonorous reply to the train whistle. We marched on, the grass whipping about our knees.
A pale gray disk of moon rode high in the cloudless sky. If the face of it was troubled, I couldn’t discern it. I did wonder if Stitches was still up there, cataloging her trove of wonders, all alone.
The whistle sounded again, three short blasts, and then the Star’s steam engine groaned and roared. Great billows of steam shot from her undercarriage. A fat plume of black coal smoke began to pour from her funnel, and as we watched the mighty pistons stirred and the great iron wheels squealed as they turned.
We had to run to catch up and haul ourselves aboard. Darla was laughing, and I suppose I was too, and we stood there on the steps for a long time just watching the endless plains quickly pass us by.
....continued in WAY OUT WEST!
That's just a very small excerpt from the book. I do hope you'll come along for the ride.