The Jack of Souls
by Stephen C. Merlino
Publisher: Tortoise Rampant Books
Genre: YA Fantasy
About the book:
An outcast rogue named Harric must break a curse laid on his fate or die by his nineteenth birthday.
As his dead-day approaches, nightmares from the spirit world stalk him and tear at his sanity; sorcery eats at his soul.
To survive, he’ll need more than his usual tricks. He’ll need help—and a lot of it—but on the kingdom’s lawless frontier, his only allies are other outcasts. One of these outcasts is Caris, a mysterious, horse-whispering runaway, intent upon becoming the Queen’s first female knight. The other is Sir Willard—ex-immortal, ex-champion, now addicted to pain-killing herbs and banished from the court.
With their help, Harric might keep his curse at bay. But for how long?
And both companions bring perils and secrets of their own: Caris bears the scars of a troubled past that still hunts her; Willard is at war with the Old Ones, an order of insane immortal knights who once enslaved the kingdom. The Old Ones have returned to murder Willard and seize the throne from his queen. Willard is both on the run from them, and on one final, desperate quest to save her.
Together, Harric and his companions must overcome fanatical armies, murderous sorcerers, and powerful supernatural foes.
Alone, Harric must face the temptation of a forbidden magic that could break his curse, but cost him the only woman he’s ever loved.
For More Information
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• Read Chapter One here.
Someone shouted the words in Harric’s ear over the din of the crowded barroom. He turned from the group of knights and house-girls he stood with, and found the brewer, Mags, leaning across the bar behind him. The old man fixed him with a look, drunk and earnest, and indicated the winch-clock on the bar. Five minutes to midnight. Five minutes left of Harric’s nineteenth year, and his last full day of life. “You’d best write it quick,” Mags said, “or Rudy’ll snatch up your things before your corpse is cold.”
Harric’s throat tightened. He clenched his jaw against a rising rage—rage at the unfairness of his fate, at the madness that spawned it, and—
He shook it off. He would not end like the others, howling or blubbering for mercy.
He tipped his cup back and took a deep drink from his wine. “The night is still young.”
“Don’t make light of it, son. This is the day.”
“You think I don’t remember?”
“Just trying to help.”
“You’re trying to clear me out before my death spoils the party.”
The old man scratched his stubbled chin. “Well, it would cramp the mood considerable…”
Harric managed a wry smile. He pointed to the winch-clock that towered above him, a column of woodwork on the bar, like a coffin on end. “When the twelfth chime sounds at midnight, my precious doom has till sunset tomorrow to find me. Plenty of time to write a will.”
The brewer nodded, and grimaced as if struggling with emotion. He drew Harric close, old eyes glistening with unshed tears. “You know there isn’t a one of us here who wouldn’t have stopped your mother if we’d known. I’d have killed her if I had to. I swear it.”
Unable to speak, Harric downed the last of his wine. “You’re right about one thing,” he said, pulling away. “It’s time to leave the celebration to my guests.” Before Mags could object, Harric stepped on a chair and onto the bar beside the winch-clock. From the back of the clock case he drew out the crowbar he'd hidden inside, and in two quick moves he wrenched out the mainspring to the accompaniment of cracking wood and outraged chimes.
“Wha—?” Mags choked. “Who’s gonna pay for that?”
“Keep your hair on.” Harric dropped his purse of coins on the bar, and steadied himself against the clock, forever stopped at one minute to midnight.
The clamor drew all eyes to the bar. A few present could read clocks and understood his joke; most simply saw him on the bar and fell silent, expecting a speech from their host.
Harric looked out into the smoky hall at the sea of upturned faces. In the gloom at the back of the hall, orange embers of ragleaf pipes pulsed like fireflies, and the place had fallen so silent he imagined he could hear the embers crackle with each pulse. Among the expectant faces he saw mostly locals of Gallows Ferry, familiars with whom he’d grown to manhood. Others were strangers passing through the outpost on the way to the Free Lands. He’d invited them all, and not a single enemy stood among them, for he’d drugged Rudy and his crew and left them sleeping with the hogs. A double pleasure, that.
“Almost time,” he called, with a room-filling bravado he did not feel. “And it’s going to stay that way for the rest of the night!” He raised the mainspring in mock triumph, to a roar of applause.
“I have no gloomy speech for you,” he assured them. “We’ve said our farewells, and this night is for celebration. I leave you now to finish the wine and continue as if this night would never end. For you I bought up all the wine in Gallows Ferry, so it will be a great affront to my memory if a drop remains at daybreak.”
Applause shook the timbered walls. Gentlemen and free men saluted with swords or raised cups. House-girls and maids threw flowers and other favors on the bar. In their faces he saw affection and curiosity and pity.
For that moment, Harric was a hero. He bowed, savoring the feeling for a single, aching heartbeat, then flung the mainspring to the crowd and departed for his chambers through the service door behind the bar.
Caris waited for him in the passage, illumined by a single candle near the door. Like all horse-touched, she was even bigger than the average man, so she filled the narrow servant’s corridor, hair touching the ceiling and elbows brushing walls. If Harric hadn’t expected her, he might have stepped back to give way, mistaking her in the dim light for one of the knights rooming at the inn, who sometimes got lost in its passages.
As the roar of the bar washed through the open door and past Harric, Caris flinched and clapped her hands to her ears.
He shut the door quickly and flashed a reassuring smile. “Ready? I expect they’ll be on my heels.”
She lowered her hands, but kept her stare on the floor between them, rocking from foot to foot. Even with the door closed, the bar’s clamor distressed her horse-touched senses, so it wouldn’t have surprised him if she turned and fled or—worse—curled in a ball with her hands to her ears. He’d seen it before, but he could never predict when she’d collapse and when she’d stand firm.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” she murmured.
Shrill voices rose in the bar, and her eyes jumped to the door behind him.
“This here’s private, folks,” said Mags, on the other side. “Harric’s done said his farewells.”
“Aw, we can’t leave him alone tonight,” said a voice Harric recognized as Ana. “You know he’s writing his will.”
“Yes, and you aim to kiss your way into it,” said Mags, “but I ain’t letting you. So get!”
“He ain’t slept alone all summer,” Ana said. “Who’s he got up there? Ain’t that simple Lady Horse-touched, is it?”
“I said get! I got drink to pour!”
Caris’s jaw clenched. She turned sideways and gestured for Harric to pass, pressing her back to the side of the passage. It made little space for him to slip by, and since she was almost two heads taller, her breasts stood level with his nose. She blushed, for though she tried to hide her feminine parts in loose-fitting men’s gear, there was no denying their presence.
His skin tingled at the thought of brushing front to front, and the notion summoned the void back to his chest and a sting to his eyes. He bit the inside of his lip and turned sideways to sidle past. Before he took a step, she grasped his arms below the shoulders and lifted until his feet left the ground and his head bumped the ceiling.
“Or you could just lift me,” he said.
Face dark with embarrassment, she rotated him past, set him at the foot of the stairs, and turned back to the door.
“Let me through, Magsy,” said a male voice beyond it. “I’ll be sure you get a share.”
“Magsy?” The brewer snorted. “I said get!”
Caris glanced over her shoulder and frowned when she saw Harric still standing at the bottom of the stairs. “If they get by Mags, they won’t get by me. You can thank me in the morning.”
“You’re the only one I haven’t bid farewell.”
“I won’t let you. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Harric gave a weak smile. “You still think I’m crazy. You think all this fuss about my curse is for nothing?”
“I never said crazy. Just mistaken. We make our own fate.”
“Ah. And all the people I grew up with here—all the people who knew my mother and her curses—they’re mistaken too?”
She shrugged. “I’ve only been here two months. I can’t say I know you or your mother like they do. But maybe that makes me see more clearly.”
Harric rubbed his eyes. He knew he should go. He’d kept the boil of grief and rage well bottled all night, and he mustn’t let them leak now. Of all people, Caris would know least how to receive a torrent of emotion. But she surprised him, turning toward him and lifting her gaze from the floor to meet his, a task surely harder for her horse-touched sensibilities than lifting a donkey.
“No mother would kill her child,” she said, voice low, eyes bright with tears. “Not even my mother, the mother of a—” Her gaze faltered, then rose, defiant. “I’m proof. No mother could hate her child like that.”
“In the two months I’ve known you, I’ve never heard you mention your mother.”
“Don’t change the subject. Your mother didn’t hate you.”
Harric sighed. “Who said anything about hate?”
“You’re saying she loved you?”
The ache in his chest deepened. Memories of his earliest years with his mother returned unbidden. Golden scenes of her lucid days, sitting in the sunny window above the river as she read to him, or sang. He swallowed the tightness in his throat. “She’s mad. Her visions showed her that the Queen will fall because of something I do, and only my death can prevent it.”
He nodded. “But her curses are real. I have less than a day.”
The bar door flew open and banged against the wall. With a triumphant squeal, a wave of petitioners swept in, and Caris whirled to face it. Harric retreated up the lowest steps and watched as she grabbed the leader by the arms—it was Gina, the eldest barmaid—and spun her about to face the flood that followed. Pinioning Gina’s arms, Caris used her as a breakwater against the rush.
Second in line was Donnal Bigs, who caught Harric’s eye and waved a debt slip from the card tables. “There you are, Harric! Since you got no use for your coin anymore, be a good lad and float me—”
Donal’s eagerness turned to confusion as Caris put her shoulder to Gina’s back and drove her forward, mashing her into his chest as Ana collided behind. “Hey!” he cried.
“Horse-brained bitch!” Gina spat. “Brute!”
Deaf to their outrage—or perhaps fueled by it—Caris propelled them backwards, picking up speed until she ejected them into the bar, where they fell in a welter of boots and petticoats.
Their expressions as she slammed the door made Harric laugh.
Caris set her back to the door as curses rained against it. She glanced Harric’s direction to be sure he’d seen the action. A rare smile parted her lips, making her quite pretty in spite of her size.
Another throb of loss in his gut. He hadn’t had enough time with her. “Thanks, Caris. You’ve been a good friend—”
“See you in the morning.” She slid down the door till she sat, knees to chest. Refusing to meet his gaze, she clapped her hands to her ears.
“Gods leave me, you can be stubborn,” he said. She gave no sign of hearing, and he wondered for the hundredth time how she came to be horse-touched. Whether a careless maid had used mare’s milk for her mother’s tea, whether she’d been conceived in a saddle, or a dozen other explanations he’d heard, of which none might be right. The only thing anyone knew for certain about it was what could be seen: the massive body, the uncanny sympathy with horses, and the crippling incomprehension of people.
He turned up the stairs before his grief boiled over.
About the Author
Stephen C. Merlino lives in Seattle, WA, where he writes, plays, and teaches high school English. He lives with the world's most talented and desirable woman, two fabulous children, and three attack chickens.
Growing up in Seattle drove Stephen indoors for eight months of the year. Before the age of video games, that meant he read a lot. At the age of eleven he discovered the stories of J.R.R. Tolkein and fell in love with fantasy.
Summers and rare sunny days he spent with friends in wooded ravines or on the beaches of Puget Sound, building worlds in the sand, and fighting orcs and wizards with driftwood swords.
About the time a fifth reading of The Lord of the Rings failed to deliver the old magic, Stephen attended the University of Washington and fell in love with Chaucer and Shakespeare and all things English. Sadly, the closest he got to England back then was The Unicorn Pub on University Way, which wasn't even run by an Englishman: it was run by a Scot named Angus. Still, he studied there, and as he sampled Angus's weird ales, and devoured the Unicorn's steak & kidney pie (with real offal!), he developed a passion for Scotland, too.
In college, he fell in love with writing, and when a kindly professor said of a story he'd written, "You should get that published!" Stephen took the encouragement literally, and spent the next years trying. The story remains unpublished, but the quest to develop it introduced Stephen to the world of agents (the story ultimately had two), and taught him much of craft and the value of what Jay Lake would call, "psychotic persistence."
Add to that his abiding love of nerds--those who, as Sarah Vowel defines it, "go too far and care too much about a subject"--and you have Stephen Merlino in a nutshell.
Stephen is the 2014 PNWA winner for Fantasy.
He is also the 2014 SWW winner for Fantasy.
His novel, The Jack of Souls is in its fourth month in the top ten on Amazon’s Children’s Fantasy Sword & Sorcery Best Seller list, and among the top three in Coming-of-Age.
For More Information
• Visit Stephen C. Merlino’s website.
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• Contact Stephen.