Black Wind is a new dark fantasy experiment of mine. It tells the story of a group of travellers who seek refuge in a world haunted by a mysterious plague.
New chapters are posted first on Wattpad. Starting today, previous chapters will become available directly through jessemcminn.com.
Enjoy the first chapter of Black Wind, Meeting, below.
Bar your doors and lock your windows when the black wind blows from the north, for he who opens his heart to that wind will surely be taken by the plague.
–Words of a wise man
It was as foul a night as any man living had seen, and Tranton, for its size, was clinging yet to handful of men whose lives had not been strangled short by the plague.
The sky was as dark as the mind of a lunatic, and lightning danced from cloud to cloud. Rain sleeted, bloating the earth and turning the town’s beaten roads into quagmires of slime.
The wayhouse had no name – it was known by the townsfolk as Jorge’s place and by travellers by no name at all, for it had been many months since a single soul had passed through Tranton’s decrepit gate. It clung to the side of a hill like a frightened animal. Each howling gust of wind caused the whole building to shiver, and its wooden supports to groan as if in pain. Presently a shutter burst open and slammed loudly against the outer wall, until a grasping arm reached out, drew it around, and pulled it fast.
The owner of the arm reclaimed his seat, flicking droplets of rain from his fingers. Each was wrapped tightly in black cloth, as was the arm beyond them. From the elbow up this arm disappeared into a flowing coat buttoned tight against the cold. Around the coat was draped a tattered and threadbare cloth mantle. Light and gauzy, it fluttered in the air disturbed by the storm.
The man’s face was hidden behind a mask with a wickedly curved beak. Above the mask was a wide-brimmed hat that in looks sat somewhere between foreboding and ridiculous.
The regulars at Jorge’s place certainly did not take kindly to the stranger, or to his even stranger companion. The place was packed full, and would remain so for the night – any man who had taken refuge under this creaking roof would not step outside again until sunrise. They knew, as surely as mice knew the shadow of an eagle passing overhead, that tonight was a night that did not belong to them. Those who had an appetite sat hunched over their food and drink, and those that did not sat as closely to their fellows as possible, huddling together for warmth. They cringed when the foul wind blew the house’s shutters open, and cast mean, furtive glances at the man who had barred them once more.
Now the man was looking across the table at his companion. He was dressed much the same way as the hatted man, though he wore a deep-set hood instead of a hat, and his mantle was large enough that it would brush the grimy floor if he were to stand. He sat with it wrapped around and around himself, looking like a bedraggled raven.
The hatted man had ordered a cup of ale, from which he now drank. His companion had no taste for it, and had in front of him only a bowl of cold cooked eggs. He picked at them incessantly, shelling them with small, sharp movements of his fingers, then thrusting gobbets of white and yellow flesh into his mouth as if expecting them to be stolen even as he touched them.
The men of Jorge’s place watched all this with knitted brows and darkness in their eyes. None of them would approach the two men – all they wanted from this night was to live and see their wives and children in the morning sun – but if the horrible cloaked one were to choke on one of his thrice-damned eggs, not one of them would lift a finger to help.
The hatted one, sensing their hatred as easily as one could sense a cold draft in a warm room, leaned back in his seat and addressed his companion.
“They don’t much care for us,” he said.
His companion hissed, an animal sound that made a few nearby men grind their teeth together.
“And I don’t care for them.” He spat a piece of unshelled egg into his hand and dropped it into the bowl. “Foolish, ungrateful creatures, to the last.”
The hatted man tittered. “If a dog’s master chains it in the yard with no food or water, is it the dog’s fault that it must break the chain in order to survive?”
That earned him a hateful look from under his companion’s cowl. “Are we at fault for anything that has happened here?”
“No; I only reflect that men are scarce more intelligent than dogs, and will behave in much the same way when chained.”
The wayhouse had a single serving girl – Jorge’s daughter, employed under his watchful eye. She was young, of a flowering age, and her pale cheeks were as of yet untouched by the plague. In a different time or place Jorge might have feared for her, but the men who stayed in his wayhouse were stolid and honest, and the plague had sapped them of even the most gnawing of their hungers.
She approached the table of the two men, stepping lightly. Her eyes were wide with fear, but despite all, these men were customers, sitting under Jorge’s roof and paying for his food and drink. She bit the inside of her lip before speaking.
“May I get you-” she began.
A hand shot out from under the companion’s cloak and gripped her forearm. She broke out in gooseflesh and tried to draw back, but the black-wrapped hand held her close.
“More eggs,” came a low hiss from under the hood.
“I – begging your pardon, sir, but all that’s been gathered for the day’s been eaten. There may be more, but the hens are outside around back, and…”
Now a hand alighted on her other forearm. This one’s touch was much kinder, but she liked it little better than the first.
“That’s quite all right, young miss,” the hatted man said. “My friend will have to find something else to satisfy his hunger. Is anything else cooking?”
Both arms were withdrawn, and with relief came a clearing of the girl’s mind. “Stew,” she said, “made with salted beef from last year.”
“That will do nicely,” the hatted man said. “We’ll have two bowls, please.”
“And there’s something else you can do for me, as well.”
The hatted man could practically see the girl’s blood rushing more quickly through the wrist he had just touched. “Yes, sir?” she said.
“Let your father know that we’re expecting one more tonight. A Stoorish man, dressed as a swordsman. He is of good character and I will vouch for his honor. Your father is to let him in when he comes calling. Do you understand?”
The girl did, but also knew that the request would not be well received. “I’ll tell da,” was her half-promise.
The man nodded and patted her wrist. “Off you go, then,” he said. And she did, eager to be away from these two strangers, even the kind one with the bird’s face.
Another snort from the companion. “If anything, your words will make that cowardly innkeeper bar his doors all the tighter.”
As it so happened, they had little time to wait before they found out. The girl had only just brought the stew to their table when there came a terrible banging at the door. Necks snapped, drinks were spilled, oaths were muttered. First and second fingers were thrust upward, facing the thumb from across the palm, in the symbol of the goddesses and their messenger.
Jorge, from behind the bar, looked at the door in suspicion, a frown settling into his face.
“That would be our companion,” the hatted man called to him from across the room. Jorge made no indication that he’d heard, though the room had grown completely silent. There was no sound but the howling of the wind outside, the patter of rain against the roof – and then another banging at the door, terrifically loud.
“Hi-yo!” A voice called from outside. “I am Cray of Stooria! I have travelled far this night and would shake the rain from my cloak. Are there men inside?“
“Open the door, do,” the hatted man urged. “Cray is a loyal friend of mine. You have naught to fear from him.”
But Jorge was frozen in place, and made no movement for the door. It was obvious that what the companion had said was true; the hatted man’s words harmed as much as they helped. The man on the other side of the door sounded sane enough, but everyone in Jorge’s place knew what trick winds could blow down from the north.
The voice came again, booming and furious. “Is this a house of the living, or has the plague taken your lives, but left the locks on your doors and the lights in your windows? I am Cray of Stooria, and I am hale of body and mind! In the name of God, open this door!“
“Don’t do it,” someone growled into his mug. The hatted man could not see who it had been; such was always the case with words like these.
“I am begging you,” he said instead to Jorge, “take this man at his word, and let him inside. If you don’t, he’s liable to break the door down.”
Suddenly Jorge was decided. He strode to the door and flipped the latch. It burst open at once, and for a moment the horrible storm rushed inside, clawing at the walls and licking at any exposed flesh.
A man of enormous stature was framed in the doorway; he shouldered his way inside, reached, grabbed the door and slammed it shut, as if locking a snarling animal in its cage.
Turning, he put his back to the door, and the men of Jorge’s place beheld Cray of Stooria. He was, as the hatted man had promised, dressed as a swordsman; his chest and arms were plated in iron, and on one hip was scabbarded a sword of Castan make – its blade, fully a foot longer than most, was unmistakable even in this part of the world. A short-handled woodcutter’s axe sat on the other hip.
Cray had the roan hair of the quintessential Stoor, and the rusty color of his eyes matched the patches of decay that had bitten at his iron armor. His hair was cropped short, and his hard jaw was clean-shaven. His brow jutted downwards, lending his face a harsh, displeased look. On his back was a cloak of dark red, soaked through with water, and on his feet were heavy, serviceable travelling boots, completely caked with mud.
His eyes, disapproving and suspicious, scanned the room, counting the men, marking their faces and the set of their bodies. Those who met his eyes looked away, or down into their food.
“I thought this was a place where a man could be welcomed, and taken into the warm. Where his hunger could be satisfied and his thirst could be quenched. Perhaps I was mistaken?” he said.
Jorge, his manner completely overturned, reached out to take the newcomer’s cloak. “My apologies, good master,” he said. “We are mistrustful of strangers of late.”
Cray fixed him with a glare that made him shrink back like a creeper in the sunlight. “And of those who invoke the name of God, as well, it seems.”
“My apologies,” Jorge repeated. “But any man can utter the name of God.”
Cray ground his teeth, as if rankled by the truth of these words. He unclasped his cloak and handed it to Jorge.
“I was to meet two men here. Setka and Dazi of Fees. Have they arrived, or have you turned them aside, as well?”
“Seated by the window, sir,” Jorge said, pointing with his eyes.
Cray looked over his shoulder, and the man pinched the brim of his hat in greeting as Cray caught sight of him.
“Good. Send your serving girl over. I will want food and drink.”
Jorge’s daughter, of course, was already at the Fees’ table, and was watching Cray in rapture as he approached. She was thinking the she had never seen a man so handsome, with his heavy muscles and stern brow. His flinty eyes and harsh voice did little to deter her; if anything, they only added to her personal fantasies of being pinned helpless beneath him.
She stepped to one side as Cray came to the table and sat down next to the hooded man. She stepped smartly back in place and said,
“May I get you anything, sir?”
Cray eyed the steaming bowls on the table. “I’ll have some stew. And a cup of water.”
“I… begging your pardon, sir, but we draw our water as we need from the town well, and, well, you see…”
Cray waved a hand. “Ale, then. But only half a cup.”
That done, Cray leaned back in his seat, and fixed the hatted man across from him with a steady gaze.
“Setka of Fees,” he said. “We’re well met.”
Setka doffed his hat once more. “It warms my heart to hear you say so, Cray of Stooria. Few people can boast such a meeting in this day and age. Your words are eagerly welcomed.”
“And premature,” the hooded man said.
Cray twisted in his seat so he could get the man in his sights. “Is it customary among the necromancers to greet their fellows so rudely? Setka must have neglected that tradition for my sake.”
“Ah, my apologies,” Setka said brightly. “I’ve failed to introduce you. Cray, this is Dazi of Fees, a friend and fellow student of the Spire. Dazi, this is Cray of Stooria, an old friend and formidable ally.”
“Waste not your breath in saying we are well met,” Dazi said. “For that remains to be seen.”
“Indeed it does,” Cray said, his voice flat and his eyes hard. “I am here out of respect for Setka, with whom I’ve had dealings before; I doubt we’ll have time or reason to call each other friends, but if Setka is to be believed then we may yet call each other allies.”
“We may,” Dazi repeated, as if in mockery.
Finished with this for the time being, Cray turned back to Setka.
“Well?” he said. “Shall we talk about why we’re here, or shall we waste time with frivolities first?”
Setka’s laugh sounded like a small bird calling for a mate. “It’s a cold night,” he said, “and it seems that there is little I can do to make it any warmer. So I suppose we may as well talk business.
“Cray, I have called you here, first and foremost, because you are the greatest warrior that I have the pleasure of knowing. Second, because you are my friend, and in these times, more than any other, I believe it of vital importance to keep your friends close while you have the chance.”
“Even those of a foul humor, it seems,” Cray said. Dazi made a sound that might have been a laugh.
“Why, yes, even those. You see, there will be a pilgrimage to make in the near future, and while two can travel more safely than one, three can travel more safely still.”
“A pilgrimage,” Cray said. “To where?”
Setka picked a chunk of meat from his stew and popped it into his mouth. “Jysene,” he said.
“The city of thieves.”
Setka understood that this was all Cray thought of the place, and ever would. “Yes.”
“You would set foot upon the trade road only to stumble into the hornet’s nest.”
“Human hornets, whose stings are familiar and easily treated,” Setka said. “There is nothing in Jysene that I fear half as much as what emerges from the east.”
Setka’s serious tone, so uncommon on his lips, gave Cray pause. The serving girl returned, and placed his food in front of him, but her hope of looking into his rust-colored eyes went unsatisfied. His jaw jutted out, his arms were crossed, and he stared at the table in front of him with vacant eyes.
“You fear the Rel-Tsen?” he said finally.
“As should we all. But all the more for being a Fees. They are us, but bestowed of all the glittering glamour that we spurned for so many years. Their tide is moving westward, and they will crush us under their heel ere long. Cray… I fear this is the end of the necromancers.”
“Then you should die with them,” Cray said at once. “Not hitch your skirts about your waist and flee.”
Dazi hissed, but again said nothing. Setka’s shoulders fell, and the brim of his hat flopped sadly.
“Would that I had your conviction,” he said softly. “But I do not follow your Castan God, and I do not believe that paradise awaits me should I die in His service. I only see the Spire, cold and unyielding in the distance. Its face has grown ever harsher of late, and I fear that it will no longer welcome we necromancers who have served it for so long. It is no longer the place that I – that any of us – once knew.”
Cray shrugged his shoulders as if to say that the condition of the Spire was no concern of his. Setka, sensing this, said,
“Whatever the reason for fleeing the Rel-Tsen, I’m sure you will agree that no better solution presents itself. They come from the east; we cannot go north or south. That leaves the west, and in the west there is Jysene.”
“And when the Rel-Tsen come to Jysene, with their pyres and their flaming cloaks – what then?”
“Then we will have had all the more time to consider our next move,” Setka said.
He could see Cray turning the thought back and forth in his mind. If the man had had anything – anything – on which to set his focus, the proposition would have been strangled in an instant. But Setka knew that there was nothing, that Cray had nothing. His last hope hinged on it.
Cray took a pull from his cup of ale. “I will set the route,” he said. “And you will obey my orders.”
At this, Dazi finally spoke. “There are two of us,” he said, “and only one of you.”
“And I am the one who wears iron on his chest, and holds steel in his hand,” Cray snapped. “I am the one who knows of warfare, and of travelling without being seen. If we are to travel together, you will follow me; or the three of us will surely perish together.”
Dazi hissed and spat in disgust.
“Stoors! Prideful bastards all. This man will be the ruin of us, mark me well.”
Setka bared the palms of his hands. “I’m afraid that I must hope you are proven wrong, my friend. For if there is hope for us, it lies with Cray’s Stoorish pride being well-placed. The three of us must work together – or as Cray so rightly said, we will all perish.”
“A sad company we will make,” Dazi said.
“Yes. But a living one, if the Gods and the Spire are willing.”