So it’s one week until I launch the Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of ‘Paper Cuts’, part 2 in the How To Be Dead series of novellas, and it’s action stations at Aim For The Head Towers.
In the meantime, here’s the first – unedited – chapter to give you a taste of what’s in store. My apologies for any spelling mistakes and clunky grammar.
2nd September 1666
London was burning.
A raging firestorm roared and shrieked through the narrow streets, consuming the tinder-dry wooden buildings. Thick, choking clouds of smoke rose into the sky, blocking the sun and plunging the city into a false night. Attempts at extinguishing the fire had been abandoned and people were fleeing the destruction with whatever possessions they could carry; carts and panicking horses filled the roads making it impossible for the firefighters to get through. The turbulence of the boiling air made the wind veer erratically and the flames spread insidiously in all directions. Soon they would creep to the paper warehouses and gunpowder stores on the river front and all hope in saving the city would be lost.
Four horsemen watched the inferno from its very heart. Embers and burning flakes drifted and danced around them like a blizzard in hell. Their cloaks were not singed by the flames, nor their armour tarnished by the smoke. Their steeds remained calm as tongues of flame licked at their hooves. They’d seen this sort of thing before.
Shiny of hair and proud of bearing, Conquest sat sure and true atop his white stallion. On top of the red horse sat he who was known as War. Barrel chested, he looked as if he was made almost entirely of auburn hair and anger. Next to him, Famine shifted in the saddle of his black horse. Horseback riding was uncomfortable for one with a frame as slender as his.
The rider of the pale horse needs no introduction.
‘Is this it, then? The end of days?’ asked Famine in a thin voice.
‘I don’t know,’ Conquest replied. It certainly had an end of the world vibe. He turned to the Pale Rider. ‘Death, is this happening elsewhere?’
Death shook his head solemnly.
A fireball flew over their heads with a high pitched whine and crashed into the thatched roof of a house. It collapsed in on itself and the explosion threw sparks onto the neighbouring properties. These, in turn, caught alight with a hungry crackle and rained down fire.
‘I’m bored,’ bellowed War.
Conquest thought for a moment, came to a decision and tugged on the reins. His horse obediently turned away from the blaze. ‘Come on,’ he said to the others. ‘I’m going to find an ale house. If this is the apocalypse, I’ll be damned if I’m doing it sober.’
The Four Horsemen made their way through the narrow and winding cobbled alleys until they reached London Bridge. The bridge was an haphazard jumble of shops and businesses that precariously balanced over the murky waters of the Thames. The crowds instinctively parted to allow the riders through. As they trotted over, Conquest noticed that the buildings that spanned either side of the road were beginning to smoulder at the edges.
After much delay and many assurances that they did not require any of the goods or services offered by the tradesmen, they finally passed through the Stone Gateway on the opposite bank and crossed into Southwark. They rode along the riverbank for a short while until they found a tavern that would suit them.
They hitched up the horses and ordered the stable boy to bring grain and water. Once the horses’ needs had been met, the Four went in search of their own refreshment. The south bank of the river was congested with onlookers, the fire obviously the entertainment of the day. Despite the inn’s popularity, their armour, weapons and general demeanour meant that the Four found an outside table overlooking the conflagration with little difficulty. The first drink did little to quench their thirst, so Conquest was sent to the bar to see if a second would do any better.
Death looked out over the Thames. It was smeared orange and seemed to burn like the River Styx that he supposedly guarded, if you listened to the more popular poets of the time. On the north side, families wrapped in blankets stood in pathetic huddles as they waited for the usually reasonably priced river taxis which, in a textbook example of supply and demand, had become a lot less reasonably priced overnight. A ragged flotilla of lighters, barges and rowing boats was making its way upriver from the east. Never underestimate a Londoner’s ability to make a quick shilling from someone else’s misfortune.
Conquest returned with four pints of cloudy brown liquid and bags of pork scratchings. Famine grabbed the snacks from the tray before he could even sit down. Conquest placed a glass each in front of his three companions and took a large gulp from his own. War eyed his glass’s contents with suspicion.
‘What’s this?’ he growled.
After his swig of the drink, Conquest was now having trouble breathing. He wheezed, ‘The innkeeper informed me that this was favoured by his most discerning clientele.’
‘You mean the drunkards?’
‘Yes.’ Conquest wiped his eyes on the back of his riding gloves.
War beamed. ‘Excellent!’
Conquest regained his composure. ‘I was talking to a fellow named Samuel at the bar. Apparently, it all started in a bakery on Pudding lane.’
‘Don’t talk about pudding,’ Famine moaned, wiping crumbs from his tunic. ‘I could really go for some pudding.’
The Four settled in and sampled several more of the ales that the tavern had to offer. They all agreed that the beer was excellent and there was little chance that the world would end today, but tomorrow’s hangovers would make them wish that it had.
The afternoon had turned into early evening when a tall, elegant man glided over. He was dressed in a long red coat stitched from the most exquisite material and balanced a wig the size and shape of a substantial bush on his head. He drank from a glass containing the finest claret while his eyes darted around like he was looking for something to steal from somebody. Probably their soul. He tapped the silver tip of his cane on the table in a demand for attention.
‘Good afternoon, gentlemen.’
War jumped clumsily to his feet. His hand grasped for, and missed, the sword at his side. ‘Beezelbub!’
Beelzebub looked hurt. ‘Do none of you have the courtesy to pronounce my name correctly?’
Conquest looked him up and down, his head wobbling. ‘What are you wearing?’
Beelzebub pirouetted so that everybody had a good view of his marvellous garments. ‘Oh, these rags?’ he said with false modesty. ‘Just a little something I threw together.’
‘You look ridic-ridic-. You look like a tit,’ War said, falling back into his seat.
‘You were all wearing those same clothes the last time I saw you,’ Beelzebub said with disdain. ‘After the Battle of Bosworth.’
‘Ah, yeah.’ Conquest turned to Famine. ‘How did we do in that one?’
‘I don’t know. I stopped counting after Agincourt,’ Famine slurred.
‘Look at you. It’s like the Restoration never happened,’ Beelzebub said. ‘Everyone at court is wearing this style. In fact, I’ve just come directly from Whitehall. His Majesty has ordered the destruction of all the buildings in the fire’s path. Travelling south of the river usually gives me a nosebleed, but this has the best view.’ He gave a smile that War wanted to punch into the Thames.
‘You did this, didn’t you?’ Conquest tried a dramatic sweep of his arm, but only managed to slap Famine in the face.
‘Just passing the time. I really thought we were getting somewhere with that plague, but it seemed to just peter out. Most disappointing.’ Beelzebub looked down the table. ‘You’re being very quiet, Death. I thought this would be your kind of thing.’
Conquest answered. ‘He’s sulking. It’s been twenty years.’
‘Twenty three years, to be exact, and it’s starting to get on my bloody nerves,’ said War.
‘Famine ate the last of his biscuits,’ Conquest continued.
Famine stared at the ground. ‘I bought him some new ones.’
‘He’s never been the same since he made that vow to never kill,’ said War.
‘How’s that going?’ asked Beelzebub. Death rocked his flattened hand. So-so.
Beelzebub looked at the empty pint pots that covered the tabletop. ‘What’s the cause for celebration?’
‘The world made it through another day. That’s reason enough.’ Conquest raised his glass and the other three clinked theirs against it.
‘But the end of everything is your raison d’être.’
‘Don’t mention bloody raisins. You’ll set Famine off again. You know what he thinks about health food.’ War laughed loudly at his own joke.
‘Is it, though?’ Famine asked quietly. ‘Is it our responsibility? The end of the world, I mean.’
‘It is our destiny,’ War replied.
‘Because they say so? Just because they believe it’s going to happen doesn’t mean it should. We don’t bow to them on any other topic. We don’t know why we’re here. We’ve heard nothing.’
Beelzebub’s face turned as red as his coat. ‘He said so!’
‘Did He?’ replied Famine.
‘There were burning bushes and prophets and all sorts.’
‘Have you spoken to Him personally?’
‘I’ve been thinking about this for a while. We’ve been abandoned,’ Famine said. ‘If He put us here at all. Perhaps we only exist because they want us to. “Don’t blame us,” they’ll say. “We didn’t break the world. It was those Horsemen”.’
Conquest thought this over. He had been leading them for millennia, but where was he leading them to? His memories of the early days were hazy now. He remembered the excitement, though. A whole world, new and green, that was their’s to explore at their leisure. They had crossed continents and navigated oceans. They had been privileged to witness the rise of humanity, though they had stumbled many times on the way. They had watched the construction of the pyramids of Giza and the destruction of Babylon. The were instrumental in the rise of the Roman Empire and, after they had switched sides, had brought it to its knees. There would be more great achievements and, no doubt, great failures in the future. This wasn’t the first city they had seen burn to the ground and he was certain it wouldn’t be the last.
A scuffle broke out between two drunkards further along the towpath. Conquest said, ‘They seem to do a pretty good job of breaking things on their own. I don’t see why they need any help from us.’
‘What about that volcano in Sumatra? The ash cloud that killed off almost every living thing?’ Beelzebub said. ‘We didn’t think they’d make it. They’re a resilient bunch. They’ll need a push.’
‘I’ve kind of got used to having them around the place,’ Famine replied. ‘Think of everything we’d lose. Art. Music. Ale.’
There was a general murmur of approval at the mention of the ale. Conquest winked at a buxom serving wench and said, ‘And the women. I’d certainly miss them.’
War rattled his scabbard. ‘So this flaming sword is just for show, is it?’
Conquest patted him on the arm. ‘I’m sure there’ll still be plenty for you to do. Their wars will grow bigger and they’ll think of more imaginative ways to be unpleasant to each other.’
War relaxed a little. If previous behaviour was an indicator of future action, then Conquest was right. Humanity had evolved from simply hitting each other over the head with blunt objects to intricate instruments of warfare with breathtaking speed. They really had a knack for it. Now that he’d had a few beers, the end of the world seemed like an awful lot of hard work.
Two thin wisps of smoke snaked their way out of Beelzebub’s nostrils. ‘I want my thousand years of glorious rule! I was promised!’
People were beginning to look over to see what the commotion was all about. Witnessing a bar brawl would be an excellent way to round off the day’s excitement.
‘Be a poppet and keep your voice down,’ Conquest said.
‘That’s it, then?’ Beelzebub asked in a more measured tone. ‘Death. Talk some sense into them.’
Death merely shrugged and waved his empty glass. It was time for another round.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Beelzebub hissed.
Conquest looked back towards the city. Against the bruised sky, London Bridge was an arrow of fire pointing to a future that was no longer clear. He gave one of his smiles that, in a few hours, would persuade the barmaid to accompany him to his chambers.
“I think we’re retiring.’
Hope that works for ya and you want to read more when the campaign launches on 1st May.
If you want to know how all this started, you can get hold of the first part, ‘How To Be Dead’, from the interweb: