Here is a sample of my novel, Ars Mechanicum Genesis, which is the result of a poll I conducted a while ago on the subject. Around 64% of visitors wanted to read a sample, so here it is. (This is the first draft of the opening chapter after the Prologue, so there are inevitable spelling and typographical mistakes, which will be ironed out, of course, in the final draft.) Novel completion and publication dates are unknown as yet.

Nothing mattered to him any more, except for the calming, numbing relief bestowed upon him by mead. He wanted to die, but refused to die by his own hand. Suicide was the coward’s way out and he was certainly no coward.

He would rather die in a vicious street fight or a tavern brawl and he would often seek them out, sometimes instigating them himself just to get slashed by a knife blade or broken bottle. He didn’t care how he died, although deep down he harboured a secret desire to die honourably on the battlefield, where long after his death minstrels would regale their bardic tales of victory and glory. There was no greater honour for a warrior – even a luckless, rundown one like him – than to die fighting alongside his comrade-in-arms, fighting for something more worthy than a vagabond’s life.

Nothing was worth fighting for any more though; he had given up on that. He had lost it all, stripped of anything of value and of everything he had once held dear, including the only woman he had ever truly loved. Despite his losses, however, he was still defiantly proud as he clung to the dwindling shreds of his tattered honour and dignity. And even they were fading; every day that went by, it was becoming increasingly more difficult to hold onto.

“Suma Fenix!” a voice penetrated through his reverie. Suma thought he recognised it, a vaguely familiar voice coming from somewhere in the murky depths of his past. He looked up, bleary-eyed, at the broad-shouldered figure in front of him, trying to wade through the watery mizmaze of his mead-fogged mind until he could unblur his vision and focus on the newcomer.

“Stefa!” he slurred, struggling to grab the last name from memories long-buried and half-forgotten. He willed the information forwards and finally recognition flooded into his consciousness. “Stephanus Cantonius!”

Stephanus chuckled. “I haven’t heard the nickname ‘Stefa’ in a long time.” He had been Suma’s biggest rival at school, especially when it came to swordfighting. Old Rufus, their trainer, often paired them up and their fiercely competitive, combative spirits meant that neither would yield to the other. They would fight until exhausted, bathed in sweat, and they would draw on their last reserves of energy to succeed. But neither would really gain an advantage over the other. Suma would frequently resort to his “dirty” tactics, a streetfighter’s kicks and punches, whereas Stephanus would stick to his own duck-and-weave, feign-and-lunge methods before finally delivering a coup de main that would send Suma flying.

Seeing his former rival after only the gods cared how long made the old resentments flare and bubble beneath the surface. He realised that perhaps he had never fully recovered from the humiliation he had felt each time Stephanus had knocked him down and he harboured a deep-seated rage because of it.

“Mind if I sit?” Stephanus asked politely, a soldier’s formality. (The “old” Stephanus would not have asked; he would have dragged the chair noisily across the floor and perched arrogantly on it with no consideration for anyone else.)

Suma shrugged and needlessly gestured to the empty seat opposite him. Stephanus sat heavily. His light armour chinked like coins and the wooden chair groaned under the weight of his muscular bulk. “How long’s it been? Three? Four years?”

“Must be ‘bout that long, yeah,” Suma replied, draining the rest of his mead and summoning the barmaid for a refill. Stephanus offered to pay – “my treat for a long-lost friend” – and when the barmaid arrived at the table ordered a stout ale for himself and another mead for Suma.

In truth, Suma couldn’t remember how long ago the two of them had trained nor did he particularly care to. That had happened to a different person in a different time. The only thing he cared about was getting drunk and drowning his sorrows away. Or drowning in my sorrows, he thought humorously. They had never really been friends; the two of them did have a mutual respect for one another’s stamina and fighting prowess, but that was about the extent of it. Perhaps they might have become friends, particularly if Suma had followed Stephanus’s path and his own dreams to pursue a military career. If circumstances had been different, more favourable, they might well have fought side by side as brothers.

But all that was in the past, an area that Suma tried desperately to forget. Time had been unkind to him; it was a renegade, fleeing the injustices of the world and the vicissitudes of life. One day had flowed into the next, months had become years, and he had lost track of it altogether. On those rare occasions where he did see his reflection, he balked at the face staring back at him; he barely recognised it as his own. He was twenty years old now, although he looked and often felt twice that amount. His face was haggard, sporting a wiry beard; his long, lanky hair was unkempt; and his eyes were puffy and sunken. Bruises adorned his body most of the time and a latticework of scars crisscrossed his upper torso and limbs, obtained through all the fights he had become embroiled with.

“…can remember when we’d train together,” Stephanus was saying. “I often thought that wily old fox, Old Rufus, purposefully put us together because he enjoyed watching us fight. We were so evenly matched…”

“But you’d still beat me hands down – literally – each and every time,” Suma murmured with more than a little rancor in his voice. “I was the butt of many a fine joke!”

“Regrettably, that was the nescience of youth. Half of those belligerent oafs never made it past puberty, succumbing to their own stupidity and ignorance.” He paused to take a sip of his own drink. “You, on the other hand, kept me on my toes with those cheap shots and underhand manoeuvres you pulled. I have-expected that one day the tables would be turned and you’d beat me. But your downfall was that you overextended yourself, leaving yourself exposed, so I was able to exploit it and best you.”

“And humiliate me in the process,” Suma snarled. “Time after time!” He took several long quaffs of his mead, slammed the quarter-full tankard onto the table and wiped his mouth on his grubby sleeve. He sighed in satisfaction and let out a long, noisy burp.

The other winced, but countered: “A little humility is a good thing for a soldier. It can demonstrate where his weaknesses lie, something you couldn’t learn…”

“Hmph! Yeah, whatever!” Suma shrugged. “And, of course, you would know. Look at you!” He stabbed an accusing finger at Stephanus; his upper lip curled into a fierce snarl. “Dressed in all your finery, and an officer’s garb no less. You think you’re someone special. You always have…And you’ve certainly done very well for yourself!”

Suma realised that he was drunk – beyond drunk – but he was past caring. His voice was thick, his words slurred, his vision swam and his head spun. But he didn’t care. His life comprised getting hammered to block out the pain and to forget how shitty life was. While everyone else seemed to land on their feet, lapping up the luxurious, high-profile lifestyles, Suma could barely scrape enough pennies together for a roof over his head, and even that consisted of bunking with someone else in cheap inns or seedy bedrooms. He continued with his tirade. “You get to play the hero now, fighting in other people’s wars. I bet that inflates your ego and feeds that annoying hubris of yours. You can look down on everyone below your rank…”

On and on he continued, his voice becoming louder until he lapsed into a morose silence. Stephanus let him rant stoically; his stony face betrayed no emotion at Suma’s malicious words, directed at him. He was silent for a long time thereafter before he finally spoke quietly. His voice was barely above a whisper, but it was tinged with a deep sadness. “What in al-Ethra’s name happened to you, Suma?”
But the only response he received was a series of stentorian snores. And Suma slouched over the table, tankard still in hand.

* * * * *

His head felt as though a half-dozen trolls had pulverised it with their clubs, with each swinging blow accentuating the pain. It wasn’t the first time and probably wouldn’t be the last time he felt this way. He kept his eyes closed, screwing them up tightly, as he tried unsuccessfully to rid himself of the constant thudding and the attached vertigo.

When he finally opened them, the room seemed to lurch and spin and purposefully aim at his body. Unsteadily, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, willing his body to cooperate and the dizziness to subside. For how long he sat thus he didn’t know; it seemed like an age before he could finally stand, using the edge of the bed as a support.

His surroundings suddenly came into sharp focus. The room he was in was rather spartan, with its austere flagstone floor and alabaster walls; in places the plaster had crumbled to reveal the wooden struts and rough stonework behind it. A single hardwood board with a thin palliasse and an equally thin worsted blanket on top, was chained to the wall. Opposite was a rickety-looking chair and table, tucked away in a corner. The only other feature was a filthy wooden pail, clearly used for a latrine judging by the stale, acrid smells of urine and shit wafting from it.

He had no recollection of how he had arrived here – wherever her actually was – but could only remember snatches, tantalisingly beyond his grasp. The last thing he remembered was him vociferating at Stephanus Cantonius…

As though plucking the thought directly from his mind, the man himself stood at the doorway, seemingly materialising from nowhere. “How’re you feeling?” his deep, sonorous voice drifted out of the shadows. “As if I need ask!”

“No better or worse than yesterday,” Suma replied groggily, although he realised that might have been a lie. He was certain he felt much worse. “Where am I? How’d I get here?”

Stephanus strode into the room and perched on the bed. “You’re in the Corianus Barracks,” he answered. “I brought you here, carrying you through the streets until you passed out.”

Suma growled. “You should have left me be. I’d have woken up…”

“In a gutter somewhere with your throat slit, no doubt!”

Suma sat heavily on the bed, waiting for the vestiges of last night’s mead to settle. “Well, thanks, I guess,” he muttered.

Stephanus’s armour creaked as he shifted position and Suma noticed that it was meticulously well-kept and polished. If the red and black leather had been metal he’d have seen his reflection in it. When he compared it with his own tattered, scuffed and filthy garb, he suddenly felt ashamed at the vagabond he had become.
“I brought you here,” Stephanus explained, “because I figured you could do better for yourself…”

“While I am grateful,” Suma snapped, more harshly than he had intended, “I don’t need anyone’s help. I don’t need rescuing and I don’t need better. Who are you to decide that for me? I’m happy the way things are.”

“But are you? Are you truly that happy where, somewhere along the way, you lost control and became a miserable, drunken forget-it-all?”

Suma lowered his head and said nothing. He knew that if he were to deny it he would be lying. The words hit home quickly. The worst part, though, was not in the actual words, but in the way they had been delivered. As a master swordsman, Stephanus had observed any weaknesses and exploited to them, pushing the blade forward when his opponent’s guard was down and once again he had struck the coup de main. But he had spoken calmly, almost conversationally, with no trace of anger or condescension, only a deep concern for a friend. His rich timbre only added to its impact. “You really should’ve left me at the tavern,” Suma muttered defensively, ostensibly finding something interesting to glare at on the floor.

“I should have, but I didn’t. Be thankful for that at least.” Stephanus stood up and walked briskly towards the door. Halfway there, he turned and, as an afterthought, added, “You know, Suma, despite our differences at the Academy and whatever you may think of me, I did consider you as my friend. I still do. And I did what I did because, as a friend, I don’t want to see you get hurt or worse.” He paused to allow his words to sink in. “You have the potential to be a great warrior – you always have – but you lack discipline and you second-guess yourself. You harbour a lot of raw anger, which surely would be better channelled into something worth fighting for, instead of fighting yourself.”

He turned to leave, but at the doorway, added, “You’re under no obligation to stay here. I didn’t want to see you make more of an ass than you already did and endanger yourself. you can walk out of here and go back to your old life, the way things were, or you can start anew and join us and our cause and have a more worthwhile life. It’s up to you.”

Suma regarded him levelly but remained silent.

“If you choose to stay,” Stephanus continued, “the balneary is down the hallway at the end. Clean yourself up. There should also be a uniform that fits you in the locker room.”

Then he strode through the door and was gone, leaving Suma to his thoughts. He remained stockstill and listened to Stephanus’s bootfalls thudding echoically on the flagstone floor before they died away altogether and silenced descended. Hiis throat was parched and he desperately wanted a long, cool, refreshing swig of mead, yet he made no effort to move and sat on the palliase with his head bowed and his mind swimming.

Just a few more minutes, he thought, and then I’m heading to the nearest tavern to get uttlerly hammered. And laid.