When the editor of Beyond The Shadows gave the writers some direction for the anthology, he suggested a ‘grimdark’ tone. If you’re new to this term, this is used to denote the relatively recent crop of books whose characters can be described as ‘morally grey or ambiguous’; which forego the traditional good vs evil storylines of fantasy for worlds which are more realistic, or cynical, depending on your outlook. Some of the most well known writers awarded this label are GRR Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence.
While my current series has some elements of grimdark, it sits more squarely with the traditional fantasy blueprint of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. So my story for the anthology, Stiff’s Standoff, introduces an entirely new scenario with new characters. The main character, Lothar ‘Stiff’ Sauer, isn’t trying to save the world. He’s the leader of a small mercenary group (four of them, including himself) trying to make some money, competing against better leaders with bigger crews.
‘Come on, Stiff,’ said Peter. ‘There’s seven of us here. All professionals. We’ve been preparing for days. What have you got? A fat archer, a psychopath, an old man supping too much beer, and you’ve somehow blundered into a score. You’ve always been sensible. Known when to take a risk and when to back off.’
Patronising shit, thought Lothar, feeling himself rile up. Since when do I take advice from him?
‘I’ll give you 50 pieces for your trouble, Stiff,’ said Anke, making it sound generous. ‘You turn a tidy profit for a day’s work, everyone gets to leave with their reputation intact.’
Now she was doing it. Trying to buy him off for spare change. But Lothar knew something was up. He knew Peter and Anke plenty enough to tell that. Both trying a little too hard to appear nonchalant.
Fantasy characters can tend towards the heroic and the invincible. Lothar is neither – he is an ordinary man in an unpleasant world. He’s just trying to survive in it.
‘What a shithole,’ he murmured, looking around.
He saw a collection of wooden shacks, leaning against each other, on either side of the two roads that met here. The only substantial building was the church, set in its own grounds on the north-east edge of the village. He smiled to himself bitterly. Poor fuckers the world over kept themselves poor by giving all the spare money they had to the Church. It was the ultimate long odds gamble of the desperate and the hopeless.
Footsteps behind. He knew them to be Mirko’s.
‘Shithole,’ said a gravelly voice.
Lothar nodded. He considered the wooden shacks and the people who lived inside.
‘What possesses someone to decide to live their life in a place like this?’ he asked.
‘Because the place they’ve left is worse.’
To survive in this world, Lothar has developed a personal motto. Don’t get into something you can’t get out of. When temptation comes his way, will he stick to his motto and survive another day? Or will he get dragged into a situation from which he can’t escape?
Beyond The Shadows is set to be released on 5th January, featuring 15 short to mid-length stories.