An excerpt from NIGHT WORLD
The shambling man had stumbled into a patch of sunlight and Serlo could see that his skin was as light as curdled milk in stark contrast to his eyes that were like twin black tarns. A sack of some description hung below his waist that dragged along the ground as he moved.
The malodorous stench coming from him increased the closer he came. It was like putrid meat.
Osmunt shuddered. ‘Dear God! Look!’
Serlo saw that it was not a sack hanging below his abdomen, but glistening entrails and ribbons of ravaged flesh from where a blade had hewn his belly open. The noise coming from his mouth was a dry clacking sound.
‘He’s . . . he’s still alive . . .’ Osmunt gasped, eyes blank with terror.
Serlo’s gaze fell on what he’d imagined with horror but never believed, and never for a moment thought he would see. There was no horror at the sight or widening of eyes when he gazed upon mutilated flesh and hewn, limbless bodies from a fight. It was a sight he had seen on battlefields, and it looked the same on every different land. Death was death. War was war. He had seen too much of both to be horrified by the sight of the shattered bodies. This was vastly different. This was against all that was holy.
‘No,’ Serlo said in equal shock, knowing that this was so. His mouth was parchment-dry and he felt a cold blade in his heart.
‘By the power of Christ, how is this possible?’ Osmunt said, taking a fearful step back.
Serlo had no answer to give him, only to retreat, fear pricking the base of his neck.
More forms of what had once been men lurched towards them, six, no eight, no nine. Two were wearing mail shirts, helmets and some even carried weapons, but most were semi-naked. They moved awkwardly; stiff and unsteady, reminding him of the two men reeking of foulness they had put down on that rainy afternoon a few days ago.
War is foul. The poets give battle magnificence, eulogising the valiant and rejoicing in victory, and valour is worth their praise that Robert often expressed. Victory too, but the poems, chanted around campfires and mead halls give mere boys ambition to follow their heroes to battle. Status is everything! Even those who have it require more of it. Men die, women die, children die and yet reputation lives on in the poems, and so all men, poor or noble, crave reputation and Serlo knew men looked up to him and he felt no guilt only proudness in his achievements.
Serlo could not blame Osmunt for cursing and quaking with fear, for his skin crawled too. Witnessing the dead walk was terrifying.
‘These aren’t real!’ Osmunt wailed. ‘They can’t be!’
Serlo knew they could not give in to fear. ‘Stay where you are,’ he told him.
‘They’re coming! The dead have risen!’ Osmunt tripped on a tree root, tumbling to the ground. ‘’They are unnatural! Unnat—!’
‘Get up!’ Serlo cut in severely. He spun, bellowing for support as the rousing Normans had still not arrived. ‘To me! To me!’
The first, mottled-blue, reached Serlo and Blacktooth laid the creature from the neck to the breast bone; the skin parted like muslin and a foul liquid sprayed in a horrid gush over Serlo’s mail. The body staggered and its head was turned inwards from the force, but a shriek from its ghastly open mouth that swilled black liquid revealed it was still animated by whatever dark magic still controlled it. Serlo ripped his sword from its corpse-meat and beheaded it in one swift motion. The body toppled to the ground and the head rolled away.
‘Mother of God! What are they?’ said Grimald, behind Serlo. ‘Are they English devils?’
There was no time to answer for the dead fell on the Normans with unexpected alacrity. Twelve Normans formed a ragged shield wall due to haste, but this was where brute strength counted, not finesse. Serlo stepped behind the tight wall. One man faltered and Serlo pushed him back in line.
‘Whatever foul sorcery commands them,’ Serlo said, to rally his men, ‘they must be destroyed!’
‘Christ in His Heaven! They stink!’
‘Dex aie!’ Serlo roared. ‘Dex aie!’
One creature made a noise like a strangulated howl and the Norman who had wavered laughed hysterically.
Serlo made the sign of the cross and readied himself. He had fought men who had howled like wolves, snarled like rabid dogs or gave incoherent screams. The mad ones seemed careless of danger and were savage, but madmen do not fight well. They slash and yell, chop and scream, but the man who has practised for many years with a sword, lance and shield will beat madmen, no matter how fierce they look or sound. Serlo had fought men who charged ale-drunk, foaming at the mouth, eyes glazed and screaming like fiends, but they had died like other men and were the first to die.
But these were something else.
There was a thump and scrape against shields and long blades rising and falling. The Normans were hit by a wall of decomposition that turned their stomachs and made them retch. Serlo saw a dead-skin with a slit for a nose, two dark shrivelled eye sockets, and a huge slash across his neck that had killed it, attack Grimald. He cut off an arm and then drove his sword through the dead man’s blood-drained face. Osmunt, screaming from fear more than a war cry, slammed his shield into one creature to send it flying and pushed his sword hard down into an open mouth so that his hand and wrist disappeared. The sword blade burst through the corpse-walker’s neck in a spray of putrid gore. One of Serlo’s men stabbed a foe through the belly and ripped it sideways, but the dead man seemed to ignore the wound that spilled its guts to swipe a bony claw at his face. The Norman pushed his shield up against its body and tugged his sword free. The creature let out a chilling shriek as it swung both limbs to hook an eye or his mouth. Serlo watched as Grimald slashed his blade at a dead man with a beard glistening with liquid and who was wearing the remnants of a byrnie. Serlo saw the sword leave a scar across the rusty and soiled mail. The creature rumbled, unharmed, and Serlo stepped forward and chopped down through its head like an axe splitting a log. The dead eyes showed nothing, but it hung there, held up by the others behind. A series of yells and grunts to Serlo’s left showed that there were more of the cadavers attacking there.
Then chaos, Serlo saw Osmunt be pushed back as two of the foul things swarmed the end of the wall. One was clumsily stabbing Osmunt in the guts with a small blade, but it was unable to penetrate his mail. The second, a creature with no discernible facial features, just a smear of rotting flesh, congealed blood, bone and oozing filth, had clamped its hands over the knight’s face, trying to crush the life from him. Osmunt gave a high-pitched scream, muffled by cold rotting fingers. Another revenant staggered forward, grey-yellow stippled skin, long matted hair and a vicious wound to his jaw that made the mandible hang low below his Adam’s apple. It saw Serlo and threw up its arms to attack him. Steel sheared through sleeve, flesh and bone. Both hands tumbled to the ground. The thing still came on and Serlo, horror-struck at its dogged persistence, whipped his blade back to slice across its throat. The stroke was powerful enough to knock the dead man over, and as it collapsed its nearly-severed head flopped on one side. For a moment it twitched before Blacktooth slashed down through the flap of skin and the walking corpse went still at last.
NIGHT WORLD introduces us to a new and compelling hero - courageous, loyal, ferocious - in a historical novel with elements of horror and fantasy by an author who brings the history and fighting of the time vividly alive. An absolute must-read for fans of Bernard Cornwell and George R.R. Martin.