Sins of the Angels is out on 30 October 2020. Read on for the first sample chapter, and if you like what you read then pre-order the e-book via the Universal Book Link. (From 30 October, the same link will also allow you to purchase hardcover and paperback editions.)
A clearing. The smell of burning oil filled the air, distant but still thick and pungent. A yak raised its head, half-chewed cud sitting in its open mouth, as a woman wrapped in an old cloak, torn and muddy, sprinted past it towards the tree line. There was a bundle cradled in her arms, a squalling cry coming from it to pierce the peaceful quiet of the open space. Once the woman had passed the yak lowered its head to carry on eating. It never noticed the two men in red cloaks who followed, making far less noise, sometime later.
It was impossible to run within the trees. At every step, the ground crunched and cracked beneath her, while thick logs or hidden sink holes conspired to make her stumble if she didn’t watch her step. The trees themselves were pressed too thickly together, branches interlocking like fingers to bridge the gaps between the branches. It was the thinnest ones which were the worst; never any wider than her finger and often all but invisible in the dense under-brush, they were barbed and always waiting to scratch at her bare skin. Stumbling through the forest at a rush would have been a daunting prospect if she were on her own, but with the baby in her arms it was unthinkable.
The baby was the reason that Lisea was here at all, being pursued by the Red Cloaks. Her son. The father had suggested calling him Ausiul, but she was disinclined to give him a name at all yet. It was unfair when it wasn’t yet even clear if he would survive. She hoped as much, of course, but she was also well aware of her own situation. Besides which, there was no reason to take the father’s opinion into account when he had abandoned her to face this peril alone.
She reduced her pace to a quick walk, but she altered her course so that she was coming at her destination in a wide arc. Hopefully, it would be enough to keep the Red Cloaks from gaining ground on her. That and the fact that they would have to slow down as much as her in here; no matter how much they sometimes seemed inhuman they weren’t immune to the physical limitations presented by the landscape. Or so she hoped.
She held the baby tight. He was secured tightly in his bundle, and by a harness strapped under the outer layer of her dress so that he sat tightly against her chest even if she had to lower her arms. This was normally comfortable enough, and now that he was no longer being bounced around by her running, he quietened some.
The path she forged through the forest was long and slow going. The whole way, with the barbs scratching at her hair, her cheeks, her hands, she kept her eyes down on the child. Having calmed down, he looked up at her with bright eyes, occasionally gurgling or giggling. Her brow was soaked through with sweat, a sticky heat enveloping the forest. Her stomach hurt, the cramp in her muscles from running so hard and the fact that she hadn’t eaten for at least a day both nagging at her to stop and curl up in a ball. But instead she pushed on.
Every so often something would rustle, snap or crunch nearby and her heart would leap into her throat. This was it, the moment that the Red Cloaks caught up with her and her baby. But it never was, of course. Just a small animal moving through its natural habitat, though that realisation didn’t dampen down her fear any less.
Finally, the forest ended. She almost fell with the suddenness of it, the tree line opening out upon a wide, straight dirt road which led to the walls of Jeurnicát. It was just after midday, the sun high in the sky, and stepping out from the trees offered no relief but only seemed to make the heat press in tighter upon her.
Further along in the direction of the city walls, she found herself at the back of a heavy, slow-moving press of people. The main way past the city walls was an iron portcullis, currently raised. Above, on the battlements, men with crossbows stood watch. A man in a full suit of armour stood on either side of the raised gate, holding a halberd upright which was as tall as them and then half as tall again. Ahead of them men in lighter armour, boiled leather padding and swords slung casually at their hips, moved along the line to talk to those coming in, inspect papers and scrutinise cargo. It was here that the hold-up lay.
Lisea was stuck behind a merchant’s wagon, with silk coverings on the windows but very old and weary-looking grey beasts pulling it, struggling against the broken axle at the back which made the back-left wheel wobble precariously. Ahead of them, she could see more wagons, lone riders, travellers on foot with either their own backs or a pack animal laden with heavy bags. There were some beggars, who were turned away without hesitation, and some men and women in rich clothing who were waved through with only a cursory glance at papers.
With each person waved through, or turned away grumbling or in tears, the line shuffled that bit further forwards. She could have crawled to the gate faster than this, she suspected, but at least it had the effect of calming the baby. He was looking about his surroundings now with eyes and mouth alike wide open. Even with all the fatigue and fear that weighed her down, she couldn’t help but smile. She wiggled a finger at him, and he grabbed it, expressing his delight with a gurgle.
The inspector who came up to her looked bored. “Have you got papers?” He asked, with little interest in what the answer was as long as it allowed him to move on.
“Yes.” She said.
She fumbled inside her clothes and produced a folded, yellowed scrap of paper which confirmed her name, the date of her birth and the town she resided in. The inspector read over it quickly before handing it back to her.
“You’re from Galhren?” He asked. “A long way to travel.”
Too long a way, were she not running. Near a month of walking, hitching rides, and looking over her shoulder while trying to keep her baby fed and watered. “Yes. But I have family here who are eager to see their newest relative.” She lied.
The inspector looked at the child, gave him the briefest of smiles, and then nodded his head towards the gate to indicate that she could pass. No more words were said, and he moved on to the next person in line.
Getting into the city was the easy part, however. She could see the towers of the Capitol in the distance, flags of white star on black fluttering above. Closer, the roofs of a number of smaller but still grand municipal buildings. If her destination was any of these, then getting there would be easy. Even finding one among the neat rows of uniform wooden houses radiating out from the centre of the city like the spokes of a wheel wouldn’t be too arduous. Instead, she would have to navigate through the maze of narrow streets between mismatched houses built from whatever materials the occupants could find, sloping against each other and away from each other at a thousand different angles. There was a safe distance between the walls and the slums, and yet even from here she could smell it; the stench of too many people crammed too close together with too few resources.
She made her way across to it, having to cut away from the procession into the city to do so. The merchants and wealthy travellers all followed the central road, which took them towards the heart of the city and kept them well clear of the slums. Nobody wanted to go there, perhaps not even the occupants, and yet she pressed straight towards them.
The baby was asleep now, thankfully. As she entered the slums, having picked a street entirely at random, the world all of a sudden appeared far darker and more oppressive. The misshapen houses appeared to loom over her, watching her pass. The streets were broken and uneven, so that she had to take great care when passing down them. She felt eyes on her, staring from windows and doorways. Children ran about up ahead, shouting and squealing in play. There were shop fronts here too, bakers and butchers selling wares which looked varying degrees less than palatable. Everybody looked hostile, faced with a stranger in their midst.
Halfway down the street, she decided that there was nothing else for it except to ask somebody. She approached a woman who was leaving a baker with a hot pie. The woman frowned at her, but still stopped.
“You look very lost, my love.” The woman said.
Lisea nodded. “I’m looking for an inn called The Pauper’s Throne?”
The woman pointed and gave some directions. It wasn’t very far away. Then she looked down at the baby, now sleeping soundly as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “It’s no place for a little one, though.” She said.
“No. But there’s nowhere else I can take him.” Lisea said.
The expression on the woman’s face before she carried on about her business was one of absolute pity.
Once she got there, she saw why. Taller and wider than the buildings around it, it was just as dark and twice as drab. There were no windows and the heavy metal door was an imposing presence all on its own. The sign announcing the place carried an image of a crown on top of a hill of dirt. After taking several deep breaths, she walked up and tried the door. When it wouldn’t budge, she knocked.
There was a wait of a little shy of half a minute before a grille on the door slid back to reveal a peep hole with a pair of eyes behind it. “What do you want?” A voice asked.
“I…” Her voice cracked. “I’m here to see Belial.”
A pause. The eyes studied her closely. “Wait.” The grille slid shut.
She waited. In the time that passed, she became aware of every sound. Every shout in the distance, every hard footstep on the broken road, the rush of the wind down the narrow streets. Her son stirred and coughed, before slipping back to sleep.
The grille reopened. The eyes reappeared. “Okay, come in.”
The door opened just a fraction. Enough for her to get inside without effort but not enough for her to see anything until she was inside. Once she was through the door, it slammed shut and she turned to see a small, stooped over old man with hard eyes behind the door. He gestured into the main room, where a single torch burning on the far wall cast a gloomy glow over a bar staffed by a stout, scarred man and a long table whose few occupants were masked by shadow.
“Which one is Belial?” She asked.
“None of them.”
The old man pointed again, and she realised that he was pointing to a small door at the far end of the room. She nodded and walked over to it; the whole time conscious of the eyes crawling over her as she passed. She looked straight ahead, focusing on the door and the promise of salvation that lay beyond it. When she reached it, she hurriedly stepped through and closed it behind her.
The room was small, the dirty and stained walls looming close. There was a man in the room, his back to her. He was short, only a little taller than her, with grey hair around the back and sides of his head with the top entirely bald. He wore an old, brown leather coat and was bent over something on a table which filled the far end of the room.
“You’re Belial?” Lisea asked.
“No. I’m afraid I’m not. My name is Shamsiel.”
He turned around then, to reveal a kindly smile, bright eyes and a hooked nose. His hands were wet, freshly scrubbed clean. He beckoned her closer and after a moment of hesitation she did as bid, so that she could see a bowl of water and a blanket laid out on the table.
“Is this the little one?” Shamsiel said, peering down at the child wrapped up in his bundle. “Please. Lay him down upon the table.”
“Why?” She clutched the baby tighter.
“We need to make sure he is what the Red Cloaks think he is. If he isn’t, then there is no need for any of this.”
She lifted the baby from the harness, then laid him down on the table. Shamsiel gave her a reassuring smile and nodded. Then he turned and leaned over the baby, unwrapping him from his bindings. His arms and legs free, he waved them about while taking in his new surroundings with wide eyes. Shamsiel pressed a finger to his belly and made a ‘boop’ noise, which made the child giggle. He picked the baby up and turned him so that he could see his back.
At the baby’s shoulder blades, the skin stretched taut over short but sharp protrusions of bone, one on each shoulder. Shamsiel stared at them for several moments, ran his fingers over them and finally turned the baby around again to look at his face. Seemingly satisfied, he lowered the baby back onto the table.
Lisea was no wiser about what was going on. “So?”
“So, he is what the Red Cloaks claim he is. I’m sorry, I truly am. You don’t know how much I was hoping that this child would turn out to be fully human, so that this could all be written off as a misunderstanding and you could go back to your life.”
As he spoke, he changed. He transformed into somebody much taller, with broad shoulders, long blond hair and bright blue eyes. The change was fast, but not so fast that she couldn’t see it happening before her eyes, his body and hair growing and altering in the space of seconds. He shrugged off the coat and beneath it he was wearing silver plate armour over a long leather tunic, with a sword sheathed at his side. On his back were a pair of large, feathery wings.
Fear gripped her, then. He was between her and the baby, and the conflict between an urge to run and the need to try and save her baby held her frozen. The angel reached out and put his hands on her shoulders, making her jump.
“I truly am sorry. But it is decreed that your child cannot be allowed to live. I have no wish to harm you, though, if you renounce your sin and leave me to do this holy work. My servants will know to leave you alone.”
A choice. She had not been expecting that. All she had to do was turn around and walk away, and she was safe. No more running and hiding, and the Red Cloaks would not pursue her any further. But the baby would die, that much was certain. She would be as complicit in the act as if she had driven a knife through its heart herself. Could she live with herself if she did that? Would she want to?
On the other hand, if she tried to save the baby she would surely fail. She could not get past a powerful, armed angel in such a tiny space to reach the child in the first place, let alone get past him again to escape the room. And then what? She had come here because she thought it the means of her escape, and in fact she had simply walked straight into the angel’s trap. There were no other possible ways out even if she did escape the room. She would be running forever, never able to stop, and yet still having to care for and raise the child. Assuming that she even got that far, was that fair on either of them?
She looked into the angel’s eyes. There was sincerity in them. He meant what he said. But there was fervour too. Fanaticism. Nothing would stop him from doing the job that he had come here to do, and whether that meant letting her go or killing her was little more than a detail, a wrinkle. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she made her choice.