Mark Smylie, the author of the "The Barrow", gives us a closer look at his newest novel.
The Barrow is my first prose novel. I’ve been working in comics for a reasonably long while, including a stint doing my own fantasy comic, Artesia. That comic book series was epic military fantasy, following a captain’s rise to power in the midst of a ruinous war, full of politics, logistics, tactics. But for The Barrow I wanted to step back and introduce the same setting and world to a new audience in a quieter, smaller, and perhaps darker way.
A lot of different influences and ideas went into the book, but in part The Barrow can be considered an ode to years of fantasy roleplaying, following a disparate and desperate crew of malcontents as they follow a map that they believe will lead them to the barrow of a long-dead evil wizard and within it, a great treasure: Gladringer, the fabled sword of the High Kings of the Middle Kingdoms. Of course, nothing is really as it seems. The book is divided into three parts—meeting the cast of characters in an urban setting, then an overland journey, and then the grim finale in the barrow of the title—as a mirror to the three classic acts of adventure games and films (city/journey/dungeon).
The selection offered to you now follows one Gilgwyr, owner of an infamous brothel in the capital city of Therapoli Magni, as he makes his way to the Forum of said city seeking replacements for several members of their ill-fated crew who have already met an early and unfortunate demise.
FROM CHAPTER TWO OF THE BARROW
In excellent humor he hit the main thoroughfare of the lower city, the Grand Promenade, and blended into its teeming throngs. During the day the wide avenue was a constant stream of people, animals, and wagons, and Gilgwyr stopped looking at the faces of the passing crowds and simply concentrated on moving as quickly and safely as possible through the bustling masses. The Street of Silks deposited him onto the Promenade fairly close to the Forum, his current destination, so he did not have to suffer the jostling and shouting crowds for long before he’d slipped through the outer arches of the Forum and into the quieter inner arcade of the Market. Once inside he relaxed and strolled its shops, pretending to be interested in one stall selling glassware and copperware from Palatia, in another’s fine selection of amethyst jewelry and blancha pearls from Amora and Meretia, and in the heap of furs that the seller swore were Daradjan wolf pelts but that Gilgwyr was certain were the smaller Gray wolf variety dyed black, until he reached a quiet corner meeting house offering strong spiced drinks from the ends of the Known World (Sabuta, to be exact, beyond the Mountains of Gold).
He stepped inside and immediately spotted his quarry, no great feat considering that Guizo the Fat was indeed one of the fattest men in the city, and even seated took up the larger part of the back wall of the small meeting house. Guizo was also an Amoran, with dark brown skin that was almost black and wiry black hair trimmed close to his scalp, and therefore part of a distinct minority in the city. He had not set up shop in the Foreign Quarter of the city, where most of the other Amorans lived and worked, but had chosen this spot in the Forum as his domain, and Gilgwyr could not remember ever seeing him elsewhere. Gilgwyr had wondered before if they simply cut a hole in the seat beneath him so that the obese man could s--t himself without having to move.
Some rough-looking Amoran and Danian toughs occupied the chairs and tables nearest the doorway. Gilgwyr nodded silent greetings to Guizo’s obviously hostile crew as they eyed him over, but as usual none of them tried to stop him as he strode past them to the back, doffed his hat with a small bow, ran a hand through his slicked-back black hair, and slipped into the seat opposite Guizo, briefly upsetting the small flock of sparrows that hopped about the table pecking at the fat man’s crumbs.
“Master Guizo,” he said with a toothy grin. “I trust the Dawn Maiden has welcomed you into this day with open arms.”
“Master Gilgwyr,” Guizo said, barely looking up from the navel orange he was peeling, one of the first of the spring season. The effort involved in the simple task was enough to make him wheeze softly. “I am not used to seeing you so early in the day. Indeed, I am surprised you even know there is a Dawn Maiden.”
“My profession keeps me mostly in the company of her more accommodating sister, I admit,” Gilgwyr said cheerily. “But urgent matters have roused me from slumber and sped me to your noble presence.”
“No,” said Guizo.
“I beg your pardon?” asked Gilgwyr.
“I said no,” said Guizo, before popping a slice of orange into his wide mouth. He chewed it for a long moment, then swallowed, and wheezed. “I cannot help you.”
“You don’t even know what I’m going to ask,” Gilgwyr said, his smile frozen.
“Who do you think you are talking to?” breathed the fat man. “Do you think you are the only man in this city to deal in knowledge?” He leaned forward to rest his heavy elbows on the table, almost tipping it over, and sending several sparrows to flutter in the air before coming to rest again. “Rumor has already visited my table many times this morning, since before the first fishing boats set sail to ply the waters of the bay. She whispered to me that the spring thaw had come early, and that the first Daradj merchants were already being hosted in the halls of An-Andria, with a batch of wyvern eggs intended for market. She whispered to me that a fine pearl necklace had gone missing from the city house of the Baron of Chesterton during the night. She whispered to me that the King’s Shadow had woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, and had already signed the secret death warrants of ten men before breakfast. She whispered to me that the Lady Freya of Caes Coryd had arrived at first light with an entourage, ostensibly to commission a set of fine new dresses in the latest style for use in the Tourney circuit this summer, but secretly in the hopes of cuckolding her husband, Lord Oslac. That last one I extend to you for free, as Rumor also says that Lady Freya is quite beautiful,” he said with a weak smile. “And Rumor set down at my table this very morning and whispered to me that Stjepan Black-Heart had returned to the city not more than an hour ago, fresh from leading eight men to their deaths in a hidden temple to the Nameless Cults of the Damned, somewhere in the blasted heaths of the Manon Mole.”
“Yes, well,” said Gilgwyr with a shrug and a sigh. “Rumor. I mean, you can’t believe everything she tells you. In fact I have it on good authority that the Lady Freya looks like a baboon.”
Guizo laughed, his jowls and neck quivering. “Regardless, the answer to whatever Black-Heart wants will be no.”
“My dear Guizo, I am at a loss,” Gilgwyr said, genuinely puzzled. “I admit that I am indeed here on behalf of Stjepan Black-Heart, and I know things didn’t work out entirely the way we expected the last time we all did business together, but due to unfortunate circumstance we find ourselves in need of a crew of hard men willing to take great risks for great reward with as few questions as possible. And I have never known you to not at least listen to the proposition.”
“Did you not know?” Guizo asked. “Guilford of Vesslos was a Marked Man.” Gilgwyr went pale, and suddenly he heard the words of the fortunetellers in his head: death, much death, and blood, much blood, and much trouble ahead.
“But . . . Stjepan recruited Guilford from Vesslos; they knew each other from serving with the Grand Duke in last summer’s campaign against the Earl of Orliac, when Guilford was serving as the levy proxy for some country lordling. They’d fought in the hills together . . .” Gilgwyr said faintly, trying to piece it together.
“Aye, Guilford was from Vesslos, but his father Guy was originally from this city and had gained his Mark before retiring to Vesslos to serve as the Guild’s man there,” Guizo said, smiling sweetly. “Ah, the infamous Gilgwyr does not know everything, then. But then Guy’s time in Therapoli was long before you arrived in the city, and Guilford only spent a few years here to prove his worth in inheriting his father’s Mark before returning home, so you shouldn’t feel too bad.”
“I’m afraid that Stjepan failed to mention this small set of details,” Gilgwyr said, idly wondering if there was any way he could get the Inquisition to accept an Athairi man for use in their secret rite.
“That is the third Marked Man in whose death Black-Heart has had a hand,” Guizo said quietly. “Siobras Faine was the first, who died in a brawl started during the War of the False Book, when he followed Black-Heart into battle against the men of Highwall College. The second was Mud Street Maris, who died on Black-Heart’s sword after Black-Heart interrupted Maris raping a young boy. And now Guilford, son of Guy, dying at the hands of the Nameless. Black-Heart is still alive now only because the Princes of the Guild have found him useful in the past and expect to do so in the future; because two of those deaths were of men who willingly followed him; and because the third was richly deserved. Any other man not of the Guild responsible for the deaths of three of the Marked would be a dead man and cursed, bound for Limbo.”
“Surely . . . surely Black-Heart will be allowed to speak in his defense to the entire Court of Princes,” said Gilgwyr, thinking furiously.
“The Princes consider this a purely administrative matter,” said Guizo. “It is not a matter of the Court’s Judgment, requiring a hearing. Black- Heart had not been condemned; he has simply been . . . black-listed.” A small smirk played over Guizo’s fat lips, and Gilgwyr considered stabbing the fat man, but then thought better of it.
Gilgwyr licked his lips. “But . . . if you were to simply hear him out; there are riches beyond measure at stake, and I think you know I not a man to exaggerate . . .” Gilgwyr said, barely able to contain himself. He felt like screaming out it’s the Barrow of Azharad, you fat fool! It’s f--king Gladringer that Black-Heart is after! But the truth was that if the Guild were to turn its back on them then the fewer people that knew their intent, the better.
“It will not matter what the proposition is, my dear Gilgwyr,” said Guizo with a sad sigh. “No man of the Guild will help you, or Black- Heart, in this matter.” Guizo leaned forward even more. “Indeed, from me, you can tell Black-Heart to go to the Hell of his f--king choosing.” Gilgwyr heard the finality in Guizo’s tone, and despite his desperation he knew that there was nothing he could say that would get him a different answer. Anger burned in him, that his fine mood of the morning was now so thoroughly and rudely spoiled, and he stood.
“My dear Guizo,” said Gilgwyr with a dangerous smile as he slipped his tricorn back on his head. “Let me repay the sharing of your Rumorhoard with some of mine own from last night. The men come down early from Daradja are not merchants, but brigands of the Bloody Hundred, their wyvern eggs the eggs of condors painted to fool those none the wiser. Before the day is out they will have committed murder in An-Andria, avenging the death of their brethren at the hands of Baron Avant’s knights last fall. The pearl necklace from the house of Chesterton can be found for sale in the back room of Ginty’s Tavern on the Street of Sails; knock three times and say you’re looking for Pellas the Quick. Lady Freya is indeed very beautiful, and quite eager to be laid, but Lord Oslac is well aware of her intentions. He slipped incognito into the city last night ahead of his wife, not to stop her, but to arrange to watch her debauchery in secret, and even now he conspires with the owners of the Gabled Inn to make his voyeurism possible.” Finally he leaned in a bit more closely, his voice barely a whisper. “And my dear Guizo, the King’s Shadow did not sign ten death warrants this morning, he signed eleven; but the reason your contact told you it was ten was because the eleventh warrant is for you. You’ll be dead within the week.”
At that he straightened, and saluted Guizo with a touch to the brim of his tricorn. “All that I have just told you is true, save for one thing. I’ll let you guess which one was the lie,” he said, and turned and walked out of the meeting house.
Behind him, Guizo wheezed and laughed.
Gilgwyr stood beneath the arches of the Forum’s arcade, breathing heavily and watching the sea of people flow past. By the gods we’re f--ked, he thought. He thought of turning to another Prince of the Guild, perhaps to Bad Mowbray or the Gilded Lady, to see if there was a way he could appeal to the entire Court, but in his heart he knew there was no way around it.
He wondered when the decision had been made, and why no one had told him directly, and he grew even angrier; they’ve been watching and waiting, waiting for me to come to them, just to see me twist in the wind. He toyed with the notion that Guizo might have just been spinning the tale out of spite because of that last botched job, but he knew that was just false hope, as no sane man would ever lie about the rulings of the Princes and expect to live, not even one of the Princes themselves. No, better to abandon any thought of a Guild crew on this barrow run, he knew, and instead start thinking of the independents that worked in the margins of the city, scratching their living out on the scraps and leavings of the Guild. Better that way anyway, he rationalized; less quality, but more control. He’d have to move fast, however. Now that he’d been told, word would start to trickle down that the Guild had blacklisted Black-Heart, and then everyone would want to say no.
And so Gilgwyr launched himself into the flowing crowds on the Promenade, trying in his mind to sort out whom to ask first. Their old friend Jonas the Grey and his crew would probably say yes, but Harvald didn’t like Jonas very much, too much history there. Tyrius and his Hooded Men had broken up the month before, squabbling over the spoils of a minor robbery. The Temple Street Irregulars had just been jailed, the entire lot of them, for raping the daughter of a minor spice merchant; since the merchant was not particularly wealthy and had no noble patron, Gilgwyr wondered if perhaps a few coins in the right hands at the City Watch could get them sprung. There was that Amoran crew over in the Foreign Quarter that did good work, under Rafaelas Huelas, but they’d never been outside the city before. Pellas, perhaps, fresh from his robbery of the Baron of Chesterton? The gutter rats that belonged to Jon Deering down by Old South Road? Red Rob Asprin’s men, themselves already blacklisted by the Guild? As the honor roll of the city’s worst ran through Gilgwyr’s head, he pressed through the jostling throng, his mind divided between finding just the right name and gleefully devising ways to murder Stjepan Black-Heart. He thought of the beautiful dreams he’d been having, and the feeling of a young Templar’s sweet lips on his c--k. Today is a great day, a blessed day, he thought to himself, and soon will come the best day of all.
And he whistled jauntily while he walked, his codpiece bright red and bulging.