Excerpt: THE IRON JACKAL by Chris Wooding
Out this week from Titan Books is The Iron Jackal by Chris Wooding and SF Signal brings you an exciting excerpt!
Here’s what the book is about:
A big slice of non-stop, action-packed, wise-cracking fun from the Ketty Jay, and Captain Darien Frey.
Things are finally looking good for Captain Frey and his crew. The Ketty Jay has been fixed up good as new.
They’ve got their first taste of fortune and fame. And, just for once, nobody is trying to kill them.
In fact, she’s offered them a job – one that will take them deep into the desert heart of Samarla, the land of their ancient enemies. To a place where the secrets of the past lie in wait for the unwary. Even Trinica Dracken, Frey’s ex-fiancée and long-time nemesis, has given up her quest for revenge.
Secrets that might very well cost Frey everything.
Join the crew of the Ketty Jay on their greatest adventure yet: a story of mayhem and mischief, roof-top chases and death-defying races, murderous daemons, psychopathic golems and a particularly cranky cat.
This time, Frey’s in a race against the clock for the ultimate prize: to save his own life.
Following is an excerpt from The Iron Jackal…
A Needless Gunfight – Rooftops – His Final Words – Frey Gets Kicked in the Face a Lot – A Little Misunderstanding
‘On reflection,’ Crake said to Frey, as they huddled behind an upturned table, ‘this wasn’t one of your better plans.’
‘It’s hardly the bloody time, Crake!’ Frey snapped back. He ducked as a shotgun blast chewed away the edge of the stone-topped table, peppering his face with grit. Blinking and wiping his eyes, he checked on his crew. Malvery and Jez were pressed up against some pillars, which were decorated with an increasingly bullet-ridden snakes-and-lizards motif. Pinn crouched near a small ornamental fountain that trickled with water.
‘I’m just saying,’ Crake continued, as he reloaded his pistol, ‘that maybe walking into a den of drug addicts while brandishing weapons and shouting wasn’t the best way to go about things.’
‘Tell you what, Crake. If I’m still alive in ten minutes, you can head up the inquiry. How’s that?’
‘My point is…’ Crake replied, then cringed as another volley of bullets chipped along the tiles and turned a nearby cushion into a cloud of feathers. ‘My point is, I’ve noticed a certain lack of healthy cowardice in you recently, Cap’n. And I’m concerned it’s going to get someone killed before long. Specifically, me.’
‘Well, we can’t have that, can we?’ said Frey. ‘Can we talk about this later, though? I’m trying not to die.’
There was a lull in the gunfire. Frey took the opportunity to snatch a quick look at the room. The den was like a cross between an exotic temple and a whore’s bedroom. Pillars and statues gave the place a certain serene gravity that was ruined by the overstuffed settees and gaudy decor. Complex pipes sat in the centre of round stone-topped tables, which had thankfully turned out to be bulletproof. Patterned screens separated off private areas. The air was fogged with sweet smoke, which was making Frey feel a little dizzy and ever so slightly euphoric. Most of the smokers and den attendants had fled when the gunfire started, but there were still some Samarlan addicts huddled in the corners of the room, saucer-eyed and gibbering. Their evening had gone seriously wrong.
Ashua Vode was on the far side of the den, shooting at them from cover and being generally uncooperative. There were four men with her, all Vards. Mercs, Frey reckoned. Two were with Ashua behind the drinks bar, one behind an upturned settee, one behind a pillar.
‘We just want to talk, Miss Vode!’ he called. ‘No one has to get hurt!’
She gave a cynical laugh. ‘You can talk to my revolver, if you like.’
‘We’re not here to kill you!’
‘Sure you’re not! And I suppose Jakeley Screed didn’t send you, either.’
‘I don’t even know who-’ he began, then ducked as the man behind the pillar took a shot at him. Malvery fired his lever-action shotgun and the merc’s outstretched hand exploded in a red splash of blood and gristle. He lurched back into cover, screaming at the top of his lungs.
‘Real friendly,’ called Ashua from her hiding place. ‘Quite the pacifist, aren’t you?’
‘Oh, piss off,’ Frey said. ‘He shot first.’
‘Kedley! You okay? Kedley, mate?’ someone was shouting. The man who had just lost his hand could only howl.
‘You rotting bastards!’ A merc popped up from behind the bar, a revolver in both hands, firing wildly. Frey kept his head down, waiting for him to run out of bullets. The moment he did, there was a sharp crack from Jez’s rifle. Frey peeped out in time to see him stumble back against the shelves behind the bar, a ragged hole just under his nose. He collapsed in a noisy avalanche of smashing bottles.
‘You’re not doing much to change my mind, here!’ Ashua called.
Frey didn’t bother to answer. Ashua was on edge, possibly high and, despite her bravado, she was clearly terrified. Why else had she surrounded herself with hired guns? She was expecting someone to come after her. Nothing Frey said would make a difference.
Maybe he should have been a bit more subtle. Getting into a needless gunfight wasn’t the smartest thing he’d done today. He’d just wanted to make an entrance. He’d planned to stride in there at the head of his crew and awe the room. But the mere sight of them had sent Ashua and her men reaching for their guns, and they’d opened fire before Frey could say a word.
He took a moment to size up his opponents, looking for an advantage. He’d only caught a glimpse of Ashua before the gunfight began. Despite having plenty of attitude, she didn’t look like much. She was slight and boyish and surprisingly young, with short hair that was a muddy shade of ginger. She wore shabby mechanic’s trousers covered in pockets, and a pair of battered boots. There was an elaborate tattoo surrounding her left eye, a swirling, branching pattern that spread along her upper cheek and curled onto her brow. The tattoo and her accent pegged her as a street rat from the bombed-out slums of Rabban. What he couldn’t understand was what she was doing here, in the back streets of Shasiith, a city in the Free Trade Zone of Samarla.
Then again, he was beginning to wonder what he was doing here himself.
The mercs were easier to figure out. They hadn’t been in Samarla long: they weren’t tanned enough to be expatriates. She’d probably found them in a bar, drinking away the profits of their last assignment. The way they fought marked them as enthusiastic rookies, not hardened pros. They were low-lifes. And Frey could deal with low-lifes.
‘Hey!’ he shouted from behind his table. ‘Fellers! One of you is dead, and there’s another who’ll have to scratch his arse left-handed for the rest of his life. That leaves two of you who can shoot. There’s five of us. And we’re better with our guns.’ He paused for them to digest the situation, and so they could listen to their friend sobbing from behind the pillar. ‘You’re not gonna be able to spend that girl’s money when you’re dead.’
‘You shut your mouth!’ Ashua shouted back, before yelling at the mercs: ‘He’ll kill us all if he gets the chance!’ But nobody was firing any more, and Frey knew he had her companions’ attention.
‘My name’s Captain Darian Frey,’ he said. ‘You might have heard of me.’
He waited. Just when the silence was becoming embarrassing, a gruff voice spoke up from behind the bar. ‘I heard of you. Captain of the Ketty Jay. Recognised you from the broadsheets.’
Frey felt a glow as his ego warmed up.
‘Don’t talk to him!’ Ashua snapped. ‘He’s out to trick you!’
‘I heard of ‘im too,’ said the merc behind the settee. ‘He took on the Manes at Sakkan. And that fat one with the walrus moustache is the crazy doctor.’
There was the boom of a shotgun, and the edge of the settee blew off. The merc squeaked and crushed himself into a ball.
‘Malvery! Settle down!’ Frey barked.
‘Sorry, Cap’n,’ Malvery said. ‘Accident. Must be these fat fingers of mine.’
‘Now, everyone be nice!’ said Frey. ‘Here’s the deal, fellers. You can put down your guns and walk out of here. Maybe you’ll give up your payday, but ask your friend there without the hand if it’s worth it. We just want to talk to Miss Vode.’
‘No one’s giving up! We’ll die first! Right, boys?’ said Ashua.
In response, a pair of pistols skidded across the floor from behind the settee. The remaining merc lifted a shotgun into sight and lobbed it over the counter of the bar.
‘You bunch of chicken-arse traitors!’ Ashua screamed, close to hysteria. Then she sprinted towards a door at the back of the den. Pinn sprang up and aimed his pistol, but Jez lunged over and grabbed his arm.
‘We want her alive, remember?’ Jez said. ‘She can’t talk when she’s dead.’
‘You talk and you’re dead,’ Pinn sulked, which, Frey had to concede, was a fair point.
‘Cap’n,’ said Malvery. ‘She’s getting awa-’
‘I know!’ he yelled. He’d been torn between chasing after her and the fear of running out into the open, in case the mercs had more guns. Malvery’s prompt was the spur he needed. His pride wouldn’t let him cower; not after they’d recognised him from the broadsheets.
‘Cover me!’ he shouted, and came out from behind the table at a run.
Malvery bellowed at the mercs. ‘Keep your damn heads down if you don’t want ‘em blown off your shoulders!’
The mercs obeyed. Not many people argued with Malvery at full volume.
Frey pursued Ashua through the door, and found himself at the bottom of a square stairwell, warm and dim. He could hear Ashua’s boots echoing above him as she ascended.
The stairwell was tight, built around a hollow centre. Several storeys above, evening light filtered down from a squat, open-sided tower. Frey caught glimpses of movement above him: a bare arm, a flash of ginger hair. At one point, Ashua stopped, having heard his footsteps. She looked down the stairwell.
‘Bugger off and stop following me!’ she shouted, and fired a few shots into the gloom. Frey pressed himself against the wall until he heard her boots tapping upwards again.
By the time he got to the top he was out of breath, and the heat had increased noticeably. The tower was little more than a cap for the stairwell, with an arched doorway leading out onto the flat roof of the building. Ashua was already some distance away.
‘Hey!’ Frey called. ‘I need to talk to you!’
She swung around with a sarcastic and slightly desperate chuckle. ‘I told you,’ she said, ‘you can talk to this!’ Backing away, she raised her revolver, and squeezed off two more shots. The third time she pulled the trigger, the hammer fell on an empty chamber.
Frey waited a moment in the shelter of the stairwell, suspecting a trick. She pulled the trigger a few more times, more in hope than expectation, then shoved the revolver back into the waistband of her trousers. She looked around for a way to escape. There wasn’t one.
Frey stepped slowly out into the open. The sun was low in the foreign sky, painting the horizon in seething shades of red and yellow and purple. A landscape of rooftops spread out around him, a massive, stunning clutter of balconies and spires. Domes shone gold in the evening light. In the distance, a hexagonal stadium reared above its surroundings, rising from a sea of tumbledown apartment buildings. Most of the roofs were flat and strewn with junk: weary chairs, bits of boxes and washing lines. The one he was standing on had a chicken coop built from wood and strips of beaten metal. Long shadows reached through the surly heat, stretching across a scene of grubby magnificence.
The city of Shasiith.
Ashua was backing away towards the edge of the roof. Frey advanced, one hand held out to calm her, the other holding his pistol by his side.
‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said. ‘I just need some information.’
‘Right,’ said Ashua, almost to herself. ‘Information.’ Then, suddenly, she turned on her heel, ran, and jumped.
‘Damn it!’ he snarled, and sprinted after her. Half of him hoped she’d lobbed herself off the roof to the street below – it would save him a chase – but she didn’t seem the sort for suicide. There had been purpose in her jump. She’d landed somewhere out of sight.
As he got closer to the edge the adjacent building came into view, its roof lower than the one he was on. He saw Ashua racing away, and accelerated. He had the bit between his teeth now. He was going to catch her.
The width of the street between the buildings only became apparent at the very last moment. It was narrow by Vardic standards, but it still seemed way too far to jump. Below him, people were crammed into a dirty and colourful market. They seemed very small, and very far away.
In that moment he almost faltered. His instincts howled at him to brake. He ignored them.
For a single horrible second, he was flying and falling at the same time. Then he hit the rooftop, harder than expected. His legs half-buckled, but he stumbled forward and somehow managed to keep his feet.
‘Just gonna hurt her a little bit,’ he promised himself.
There was a sturdy plank bridge linking this rooftop to its neighbour. Ashua scampered across it and stopped at the far end. Frey saw her struggling to prise the planks away. Sensing the opportunity to make up ground, he ran harder, lungs stinging and his scalp wet with perspiration. She wasted precious seconds before giving up and fleeing again.
Frey reached the plank bridge and crossed before he could think better of it. He couldn’t help looking down as he did so, and caught another terrifying glimpse of the crooked market lanes, people and animals far below. But it was only a glimpse, and then he was back on safe ground again.
There was a tumbledown shed ahead of him. A goat was poking its head out through a gap, chewing on a thin plant that had taken root in the cracks of the rooftop. Ashua was just vanishing round the corner. He put on a burst of speed and pursued her.
When he turned the corner, she was waiting for him.
He skidded and ducked as she swung a broken length of wood at his head. It crashed into the side of the shed, bounced out of her hands and fell across his back.
It took both of them a moment to realise that she’d missed. She reacted faster than he did, and slipped away just before he could grab her. He followed, close on her heels, as she raced towards another rooftop. This time the building was pressed flush against its neighbour, its edge a metre higher. Ashua sprang up at it and began to scramble over. Frey caught her legs before she could.
‘Get off me!’ she cried, as Frey tried to drag her back down from the ledge. She thrashed like a cat in a bag. He tried to keep hold of her, but he was only using one hand, since the other was holding a gun. She got a foot free. Frey knew what was coming next. The inevitability of it was disheartening.
‘I just-’ he began, but was interrupted by a boot being driven into the side of his head.
The third kick dislodged him, and she was gone in a scrabble.
He staggered away, dizzy, blinking to clear the stars from his eyes.
‘What is it with women and kicking me in the face?’ he asked himself. He wiped his lips with his sleeve and spat blood. ‘Oi!’ he yelled at Ashua. ‘Get back here!’
She gave a little scream of exasperation as she saw him clambering over the ledge. ‘I’m not going to talk to you! Haven’t you taken the hint yet?’
He stood up, sweaty and soaked and in a considerable amount of pain, but doing his best to look defiant anyway. ‘I’m a slow learner,’ he said.
Ashua’s eyes went wide. ‘Amazing,’ she said. ‘Is that your comeback? You’re stupider than I thought.’
‘How stupid did you think I was?’
‘Slightly less stupid than I do now.’
Frey couldn’t think of an adequate response to that. ‘Look,’ he said, catching his breath, ‘how long is it gonna take you to realise that I’m not trying to hurt you?’
‘But you make such a convincing case, having shot two of my bodyguards. You’re still carrying a pistol, I notice. And there’s another pistol and a cutlass in your belt.’
‘How about I put them on the floor? Would you stop being so bloody skittish if I did?’
‘I might. Try it and see.’
Frey took out his weapons and laid them down. It was all he could do to keep his temper under control. His lip was swelling, and his face was going to bruise. That meant he was going to look ridiculous for the next few days, and Frey was a man who didn’t like to look ridiculous. It pricked his vanity. His good looks were the one thing he’d been able to rely on all his life. The thought of having them marred, even temporarily, scared him. And besides, his face was really starting to hurt.
When he was done, Ashua eyed the weapons. ‘Now take three steps back,’ she said, shooing him away.
He took three steps back. She nodded in satisfaction, turned and bolted.
Frey swore the foulest oath he could think of, started to run after her, then stopped. He wasn’t leaving his cutlass behind, that was for damn sure. It was his most precious possession after the Ketty Jay: a daemon-thralled blade given to him by Crake, which fought with a mind of its own. He gathered up his weapons as fast as he could, jammed them in his belt, and set off again.
By now Ashua had sprung across to the next rooftop. As he got closer he saw there was a set of zigzagging stone steps cut into the side of the building. Ashua began scampering down them. If she got to street level, he’d lose her in the market.
He reached the edge of the building and jumped.
The moment his feet left the roof, he knew he was going to fall short. Heat and fatigue had robbed his legs of their strength. ‘Oh, shiiiit!’ he wailed. He’d always suspected they would be his final words, but he’d imagined himself delivering them in a slightly more masculine fashion.
He crashed into the edge of the rooftop, bounced off, and plunged towards the street. There was an instant of tumbling, of rushing air and overwhelming terror. Then he collided with something soft which wrapped around him, folding him in bright colours. It only held him for a heartbeat before something snapped and he was dropping again. He fell onto a second soft barrier, which snapped in turn, and then he hit the ground with an almighty crash, although happily with a lot less force than he’d expected.
He lay where he’d landed, stunned. He was enveloped in a cocoon of tough fabric. Everything hurt. He couldn’t quite believe he was still alive to enjoy the pain.
Voices in a foreign tongue were hissing and shouting all around him. Hands reached in, pulling away the fabric. An awning. He’d been caught by a couple of them on the way down. Enough to slow his fall. Enough to save his life.
Lucky, lucky bastard.
People crowded in on him, some angry, some concerned. Dakkadians, with their broad, pale faces, light hair and narrow eyes. Samarlans, with elegant features and skin black as pitch. He tried to untangle himself from the awning. The onlookers helped him up. Some were rougher than others.
Piles of earthenware pots surrounded him. Many of them were smashed. He ran his hand through his hair and looked about in a daze. He’d landed in the middle of a stall. The narrow strip of sky above him was almost closed out by awnings, but despite the shade the market was stiflingly hot. The air was heavy with churned-up dust and the babble of traders and customers.
An old, thin Samarlan – presumably the owner – began to berate him, wagging a finger in his face. Other people started arguing amongst themselves. None of it was in Frey’s language, so he didn’t pay much attention. He was still getting over the shock of the fall.
Then his gaze found Ashua, and he remembered his purpose.
She was running down the last flight of stairs to the ground, a dozen metres away. As if she sensed that she’d been spotted, she looked over her shoulder, directly at him. His mind sharpened to a hot, angry point. She’d nearly killed him. Her expression turned fearful as she saw the look on his face.
Suddenly the pain didn’t matter. The exhaustion and the shock fell away. He was going to get her.
The store owner grabbed his arm to stop him escaping. He had his cutlass out in a flash, holding it to the old man’s throat.
‘I’m not in the mood,’ he said.
The old man glared at him hatefully, but Frey’s eyes were harder still and the old man let him go. The crowd backed away, seeing he was dangerous. He retreated a few steps to make sure no one was going to come for him, then turned and headed off after Ashua.
He pushed his way through the swelter, shoving people aside when they weren’t quick enough to get out of his way. His body twinged and protested with every step as new bruises made themselves known. Roaming chickens scattered at his feet. Robed Dakkadians and finely-clad Samarlans passed by in a lurid blur. He almost tripped over a blind man of the untouchable caste, who raised a gnarled hand and a white-patterned face towards him as he passed.
Ashua was ahead of him, her ginger hair drawing his eye among the black and blond of the locals.
They turned into a lane which had been roofed with rough planks, creating a gloomy tunnel lined with stalls. Sharp sunlight beamed between the gaps in the planks, striping the citizens that bustled along beneath them. The crowd had thinned out here, to make space for a huge beast of burden. It was a leathery desert monster, all tusks and horns and armour, shambling through the dim world of the market. Two robed handlers, Samarlan nomads, walked in front of it, carrying pointed prods.
As Ashua hurried past she snatched a prod from one handler’s grip and shoved it hard into the beast’s hind leg. It bellowed, rearing and stamping, surprised by the pain. People began to scream and flee, piling over themselves in their efforts to get clear. Frey was almost knocked over in the stampede, but he rallied and fought doggedly through the pack. The nomads tried to calm the beast, which snorted and swiped its head at anyone within reach. Two Daks pulled an unconscious Samarlan out of its way before he could be trampled. Frey pressed himself close to the wall and edged along until the danger was behind him.
She’d gained ground on him again, but she was tiring now. He could see it in the set of her shoulders. When she tried to push through the people in the market they pushed back more often than not. She wasn’t as strong or as forceful as he was. The crowd was hampering her more than him.
He found a surge of energy, inspired by fury, and forged on.
Suddenly, the market spat them out into the open, and he found himself on a street that ran alongside a river. The city fell away towards the water in uneven tiers. Temples stood on the banks, their crowded steps descending into the murky flow. People swam among the cows and beasts that waded in the shallows. Women washed their clothes on the shore. Several hulking bridges spanned the river, cluttered with buildings both elaborate and rickety. The sun glittered redly on the wavelets, throwing a dazzling streak across the water.
On another day, Frey might have been impressed with the spectacle. But his whole world had narrowed to a single purpose, a bloody-minded need to catch this damned woman who had caused him so much trouble. Ashua was running along the riverside, with a low wall to her left. She was clutching her ribs, carrying a stitch, and she could barely manage more than a jog. Frey was still riding the adrenaline from his fall, and he renewed his effort, sensing the end was near.
She looked over her shoulder to see how close he was. As she did so, a Samarlan boy wheeling a small cart emerged from the alley ahead of her. She crashed into it, sending fruit and bags of seeds rolling and skidding everywhere. Before she could get back to her feet, Frey was on her. He seized her by the collar, threw her onto her back and pinned her to the ground, his cutlass across her throat. The boy yelped and fled into the alley.
For a long few seconds, they stayed like that, he on top of her, faces inches apart, both of them sweaty and gasping for breath. Frey, still scared and shaken from his brush with death, wanted to exact revenge for what she’d put him through; but now it came to it, he couldn’t think how. He was trembling with exhaustion. He was also aware that there was a young female beneath him, which was a good thing more often than not. The feelings that provoked diluted his anger a little.
She gave him a nervous smile. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘This is nice.’
‘Can we talk now?’ he asked, in carefully measured tones.
‘You’re really not going to kill me?’
‘Jakeley Screed didn’t send you?’
‘Never heard of him.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I feel a bit of an idiot, now.’
‘That’s, er, one man dead and another man maimed because of that little misunderstanding.’
‘Not to mention the fact that I fell off a building!’ Frey was unable to keep a note of strangled rage out of his voice.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You don’t look too bad, though, considering.’
‘It hurts,’ he said. ‘A lot.’
‘Sorry.’ She looked down her nose at the cutlass. ‘Could you get off me? I won’t run away again.’
‘If you do,’ said Frey. ‘I swear I’ll kill you so hard your entire family will die from the shock.’
‘You’re a little late for that,’ she said. ‘But I get the point.’
He released her, stood up and stepped back. She got unsteadily to her feet as he put his cutlass away. He pointed meaningfully at the pistols in his belt.
‘Yeah, yeah. I see ‘em,’ she said. She staggered over to the low wall that separated the street from the river bank, and leaned against it. The Samarlan boy, judging that the danger had passed, scampered out of hiding to collect the spilled fruit and seeds. He loaded them quickly into his cart and wheeled it away.
‘Right, then,’ said Ashua. ‘What was it you wanted?’
[End of excerpt]
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