The Island (extract) by Tim Lebbon

EXTRACT FROM THE ISLAND
by TIM LEBBON (out now in hardback)

The tavern door opened, conversation stopped and Kel joined with everyone else in looking at the newcomer. Namior Feeron entered, slamming the door behind her and shaking water from her long hair. She spied Kel immediately and smiled. As she came across to them she swapped greetings with most of the tavern’s patrons, and Kel looked away. Seeing how well she knew this place sometimes stung him, because he also knew how much she wanted to get away. She was desperate for travel, exploration and adventure. She craved to see Noreela City, Pengulfin Heights, the islands of The Spine that curved out from the north of Noreela, and she even dreamt of a journey far enough south to see the dangerous mountain ranges of Kang Kang. But every time she mentioned this, Kel Boon told her no. He was staying here. I’ve had my adventure, he would say, and however much she pressed, he could tell her no more. That was the dark space between them – a gap which seemed, at present, unfordable.

"The harbour’s mad," Namior said even before taking a seat. "Boats are crashing about, and some of those waves are breaking over the mole."

"There’s been worse," Mell said. She had been a fisherwoman for almost eighteen years. She’d been involved in three wrecks, seen two friends drowned and one taken by sea creatures, and nothing seemed to disturb her anymore. At almost forty – just younger than Kel, and two decades older than Namior – Mell had lived enough to fill many lives. We’d have such tales to tell each other, Kel sometimes thought. But if he wanted to stay here in Pavmouth Breaks, he could never speak of his past. Not if he wanted to stay alive.

"And what do you say, young witch?" Trakis asked Namior.

Namior’s eyes darkened for a beat, then she smiled. It lit up her face. "My mother says there’s to be a waterspout just along the coast." She glanced at Kel, the smile slipping so slightly that he thought he was the only one who noticed.

"I’ll drink to that!" Trakis said. He raised his mug, and the rest of them joined him in toasting the storm.

Namior sat on a bench close to Kel, and it only took one mug of ale before she pressed herself against him. He slung his right arm loosely around her shoulders and drank with his left. She looked at him frequently, her ale-tainted laughter a welcome addition to the tavern’s underlying noise. Kel drank slowly; he had never enjoyed the sensation of being drunk, and the loss of control it brought on. But he had always enjoyed watching Trakis and Mell drink together, and tonight both of them were truly on form. Conversations turned to bickering, bickering to full-blown arguments, and then they would hug each other, laughing and swearing undying friendship. Kel supposed this was a tavern filled with such people, but these
were special because they were his friends.

The door opened occasionally, letting a sample of the storm inside to blow out candles and spatter the wooden floor with rain. Whoever stumbled in was subject of the tavern’s appraisal, and more often than not they would have stories of how the storm was progressing. Waves fifteen steps high, they said, battering the mole and smashing boats against the harbour wall. Rain so heavy that some of the paths up to Drakeman’s Hill had turned into impassable torrents. "Looks like I’m definitely
staying with you tonight," Kel said at this, and Namior’s hand squeezed his thigh, remaining there afterwards.

The evening turned to night, though daylight had been stolen long ago by the thundering clouds. Lightning flashed at the tavern’s windows, followed soon after by the rumbles of thunder. The heart of the tempest was almost upon them. Kel knew that Namior saw this as an adventure. Whatever had troubled her earlier had been melted away by the Wanderlust ale and fine Ventgorian wine, and her smile was a pleasure, her laughter a welcome song.

But with each flash of lightning, as though the space between blinks was another world, Kel was taken back to that night in Noreela City.

***

"One day you’ll learn to pack your fucking weapons properly," O’Peeria says, grabbing Kel Boon’s belt and tugging him to her. The Shantasi woman runs her hands across his body, beneath his cloak, around his belt, loosening and tightening straps and webbing, shifting knife sheaths a finger’s width, lengthening the string on throwing star strings. Kel raises his arms from his sides and watches her, enjoying the opportunity to examine her face while her attention is elsewhere. She’s beautiful, in a harsh way, her pale skin set off against her long dark hair
like day against night. He looks down at her own weapon-clad body, lithe and strong.

She passes one hand between his thighs and adjusts the straps of his sword scabbard. Pausing, she glances up, her eyes darker than the Black. "If I feel your cock growing hard, I’ll cut it off."

Kel goes to say something, but he’s not entirely sure she’s joking.

O’Peeria stands, grabs his shoulder and shakes. Kel stumbles and leans to the left to avoid falling over. None of his weapons makes a sound.

"Good," the Shantasi says. "A Core agent should know how to wear his weapons, at least." She turns and heads for the door, sweeping her hair over her right shoulder and tying it in place. That way, it won’t interfere when the time comes to fight.

"O’Peeria," Kel says. She turns and stares at him. She’s been his lover, and she swears that she’s his friend, but she’s a hard woman. And with all they’ve been through he’s never found a way to get close.

Kel shakes his head. "Doesn’t matter."

"You ready?" O’Peeria says, raising her eyebrows.

"Yes." Kel’s voice is quiet, and he cannot meet her gaze.

"Sure, Kel? Are you fucking sure? This is killing stuff, tonight. No more fun and games. We’ve been watching him long enough, and the Core wants him dead. So are you ready?"

"Yes," Kel says, more firmly this time. He looks over O’Peeria’s shoulder at the door. Beyond lie the night time streets, alleys, parks, squares and secretive buildings of Noreela City. "I’m ready."

O’Peeria smiles, and not for the first time Kel thinks that he might love her.

By midnight, she will be dead.

***

The thud shattered one of the Dog’s Eyes’ windows, cracked floorboards, and shook the door in its frame. It knocked several wine bottles from the shelf behind the bar to smash at Neak’s feet, struck at Kel’s ears, and sent a heavy shockwave up through his feet and spine.

The rain and wind did not lessen – with the smashed window, the noise from outside increased – but for a few beats after the thud, the interior of the tavern was almost silent. It felt as though the ground itself had moved.

"What in the Black was that?" a soft voice said. The thought spoken, a ripple of surprise ran around the tavern, and a beat later most people were on their feet and heading for the door.

"That wasn’t wind," Namior said.

"And no wave, either," Mell added.

Trakis raised a mug and drained it of ale, then stood and nodded at the door. "Shall we?"

Kel felt a sudden chill of fear – a realisation that nothing was safe. His world – anyone’s world – could be opened up and taken apart at any time. He had liked Pavmouth Breaks when he first arrived, and over the years he had grown to love it, but he always knew that safety and contentment were merely thin veneers camouflaging the random cruelties of the world.

"Kel?" Namior said. She had remained close to him, and now he saw that strange look again, the one the others had not noticed before.

"What is it, Namior?" Mell said.

Namior looked at her two friends, then across at the broken window. Raindrops spat in. A dozen people had gone outside by now, but none of their voices were audible above the storm.

"My mother and great-grandmother… they were worried, that’s all."

"And you?" Kel asked.

She shrugged. "I’m still young. Felt nothing. But if they’re worried…"

"Then so are you," Mell finished for her. Namior nodded.

Trakis placed his mug gently on the table. None of them drank.

Someone burst back into the tavern, her hair made mad by the wind and rain. She wiped water from her face and Kel saw her eyes, the mixture of excitement and fear driving them wide. He’d seen such a look many times, and he knew exactly what it meant: she had seen something she had never seen before.

"Something’s coming!" the woman said. "Out to sea, something out there, dark and big and fast!"

"What is it?" Mell asked.

"Don’t know. Something."

"Come on," Kel said. He grabbed Namior’s hand as the four of them headed for the door, skirting around the woman who evidently no longer wished to see.

"The ground’s still moving," Trakis said as he pulled the door open and stepped outside.

And it was. Kel paused for a beat and felt the vibration entering his feet and transferred up through his bones, and when he pressed his teeth together it felt as if they could shatter. From behind came the musical rattle of wine bottles clanking together. From ahead, the sounds of the storm, and whatever else it had brought. Namior squeezed his hand. She was outside now, arm outstretched, and he was suddenly desperate not to let go of her.

"Come on!" she shouted. "They’ve gone up the hill behind the tavern to see better!’"

Kel realised that, other than Neak and the windswept woman, he was the only one still inside the Dog’s Eyes. He stepped out into the storm.