The Curse of Balar is nearly here. While it was originally scheduled for 31 August 2023 (today), I have decided to delay it slightly for quality purposes. The new date is 13 September 2023 and is available here for a special pre-order price! Don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to-read” list!
So, what is it about? As I have previously mentioned, it is a collection of thirteen interconnected short stories. While each story deals with a self-contained element or character, each story reveals something about the spooky town of Balar and the secrets it holds.
As I previously mentioned, this is the first of four installments in the Balar series (three short story collections, and a final novel-length story). Hopefully, there is enough in the first installment for you to stick with the series.
I am rather bad at marketing – at least I think so. I could make strange promises and tiktoks or whatever the trends are now. Things like that put a bad taste in my mouth. No, instead, I will merely place you in proximity to the first story and see if anything happens. That’s how I select books to buy or borrow.
Without further nonsense, I present a sneak peek at the first story in the Curse of Balar!
Preview: The Sharpest Shadows
They buried her deep. They dug for an hour spurred on by their guilt and shame — the two gentleman and their two manservants. The former were unaccustomed to such labour, but still they shovelled out the soil and helped pack it back down over the makeshift casket. No headstone would adorn this spot. Out here in the woods, the snow and pine-needles would help them all forget. In the moonlight they worked, their breath steaming in clouds of effort, for the ground was hard. These were the only prayers that were said for the girl — grunts and the slice and scrape of the shovel. They were men of the Light, of course, zealously devout — a prayer would not have been strange to them. But not this time. The Light Lord would not forgive them for what they had done this cold autumn night. All the more reason to hide their sin.
They buried her deep, but not deep enough.
“She was still warm,” said one of the manservants as they watched sparse bits of snow began to settle on the mound of earth.
“I told you not to speak of it,” said his master. He was in his late twenties and the boyishness of his features were giving way to the hereditarily sharp angles of nose and chin. His long golden hair was normally and immaculate, but at the moment it was tangled and marred with pine needles and flecks of dirt. His fine linen shirt and neck cloth were hopelessly stained by mud and his waistcoat was practically ruined. Blood had left dark stains on the blue wool.
His manservant — a man called Campbell, if the names of servants were important — cast down his eyes and nodded dutifully.
“There’s nothing to speak of,” said the other noble. He was some way clear of fifty, yet few grey hairs plagued his broad, toadish face. Normally a hungry smile would stretch his flabby jowls and extra chins, but on this night, his visage was beaded with sombre sweat. He moved about in a jittery fashion, perhaps a sign of his anxiety. He attempted to cover this with a smile or an occasional wide gesture with his great bread-loaf arms whenever he felt his young peer glancing at him. There was little point in these concealing mannerisms, as any observer could see the torn collar and missing buttons of his fine silk shirt. Four neat lines of red ran across his barrel chest, perhaps the truest sign of what had occurred this evening. “And none of us shall speak of it. This, my good sirs, is a night that never occurred. By the Light we are cleansed.”
“By the Light we are cleansed,” they echoed in unison.
The younger noble searched the play of shadows and moonlight that mottled the ground. “Find a branch or similar and disrupt the dirt. Our tracks are too conspicuous,” he said to the manservants. He pulled his noble friend aside. “No one will know of this? You are certain?” he asked.
The larger man laughed — a deep, booming sound loud enough to wake the dead. “Nikolai, my dear young friend, cast these spectres from your mind. Young ladies disappear all the time. No one questions why they might run from a place like Balar.” His fingers followed the red lines down his chest. “Especially one as feisty as this one. No one will miss her.” He tried to correct his torn collar, but there was no hiding the damage.
“But she had a brother who…” the man named Nikolai began. The other man waved him into silence.
“As do I,” he proclaimed. “A brother who is the Bishop of our fair Valley, no less. This,” here he shot a disdainful glance at the disturbed earth, “does not have kin worthy of the same honour. Come now, how is this brother named?” He patted Nikolai heavily on the shoulder. It nearly made him lose his balance.
“I believe she said his name is Edgar,” said Nikolai softly. He could still hear the girl’s screams in his mind.
“There we are,” the older man beamed. “It will all be put right in the morning. Now, I shall take my horse and be abed before my own household grows suspicious.” He glanced up at the silver disc of the moon visible through the gap in the branches of the tall pines. His exhalation made a cloud around his large face. “You too, my friend. Have the men cover the tracks then race back to town. My man can leave with you. Weigh down both of their coin-purses with as much silver as needed. I will reimburse you…”
“That will not be necessary,” said Nikolai, a hint of pride trickling into his otherwise subdued manner.
“Good man,” said the older gentleman. He waved a fat finger under Nikolai’s nose. “We shall conclude our business another night. I am sure you will understand that the stipulations of our contract need amending — now that we share a secret, that is.” He laughed as he trudged away to where they had hitched the horses. “Do not tarry,” he said over his shoulder.
Somewhere in the vast wood, an animal howled, and a twig snapped.
“Ride fast, my friend,” said the older man. He did not even pause to look back. Instead, his rotund form wobbled with haste. “You do not want to catch your death in the snow. Especially out here. You never know what monsters are lurking.”
Nikolai watched him vanish into the gloom. The hiss of scraping filled the woods as the two servants brushed their tracks from the ground. Nikolai knelt next to the mound. He glanced around. This displacement would surely be visible to anyone foolish enough to walk these woods. “We need to hide this better,” he said. “The last thing we need is some wolf or jackal digging her up. She does not deserve that.”
Campbell, Nikolai’s man, dropped his branch and shot him an accusatory look. He was in his mid-twenties like his master. He was stocky and moustachioed and his black hair — which was normally slicked back and tidy — was standing at angles from the evening’s exertions.
“Something to say, Campbell?” asked Nikolai.
“No, my lord,” he said through gritted teeth. He seemed to shake himself. “Stones,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “There are large ones just over the ridge to the east. Not far. Mitchell and I will…”
“Make it so,” said Nikolai. “Mind you do not break a leg in the dark. Quickly man.”
The two servants trudged off deeper into the woods. Nikolai spat at their backs, for he knew they judged him a fool. Perhaps he judged himself similarly. How did the evening get so out of hand? He examined the unsanctified grave. The girl had been so young, so innocent, so beautiful. Why did he ask her to join them? He knew what his friend was like around the fairer sex. Why was she so kind to him? His friend said that peasants had no right to be so dazzling. Nikolai remembered how his friend laughed as the girl screamed. That deep, booming laugh. The only sound that was more chilling was the hollow silence that came after.
He placed his head in his hands. Now the contract would be altered — certainly not favourably — all he had built would be signed over to the owner of that laugh. To his ‘friend’. His father’s fiercest rival. He — Nikolai — would be disowned. How easily life can change.
In the dark and the cold, the snow stopped falling. The wind died and an owl screeched in the distance. In the dark and the cold, a young nobleman said a prayer for the kitchen maid who was doomed to be forgotten.
“Oh, Holy Light, shine upon this poor soul. Guide her to the Hereafter. May You find it in your Grace to shine brightly upon her. She was pure of heart, and I know that she had a soul — despite only being a woman. She inspired love in my heart and…”
A noise broke his orison. Something was scratching in the dark. He cast about, trying to find the source. There was nothing but empty moonlight and the grey trunks of pine trees standing around him like silent sentinels.
“Campbell? Mitchell?” he called. Nothing came as answer save the distant call of some nocturnal animal. Still, the scratching persisted. Soft, incessant, close. Nikolai scanned the branches above, but there was no wind to cause them to claw and catch one another. The sound did not come from above, however. In came from the mound of earth. Part of it moved and formed an indentation in the soil. The sound grew louder. Nikolai found himself backing away. There was more than scratching — there was something else. Whispers. Soft voices hissing words in a foreign tongue. Voices that came from everywhere, all at once. They pressed against his mind. Not his ears — no. He was distantly aware of the stillness of the night and his solitude. No, these unintelligible sounds invaded his thoughts like a predator springing an ambush amid a flock of livestock. It stunned him. He hardly even noticed that he was clutching at his skull. In a blind backwards step, his foot caught a protruding root and he fell. The ground — hard with the winter chill — knocked the wind out of him.
He stared up at the night sky in a daze. A thick clump of clouds crept across the sky. Soon, the bright moon would be covered, and they would be in utter darkness. They? Where were his men with the stones? He would be alone with…
He shook himself and tried to regain his feet. As he got to his knees, however, a new sound gave him pause. Gone was the scratching. Gone were the disembodied voices. All was still save for a desperate, rasping breath. A figure crouched at the edge of where the mound had been. He could see her dishevelled hair and her fine clothes in the receding moonlight. The best dress she had — the best she ever wore, now torn, tattered, and caked in dirt. She was bent forward, and her face was in shadow, but he knew it was her — the girl they spent the last hour interring.
“By the Light,” he said as he dropped back to his knees. “A miracle.” His words left fog in the still air.
She turned her head towards him. There was something uncanny in her movements — deliberate, careful, and sure. Gone was her tentative shyness. Perhaps he was mistaken, perhaps it was not the same girl after all. He had been sure that the life had been throttled out of her. And now he saw this apparition’s eyes. The girl’s eyes were as blue as a summer sky — even when they were bloodshot. These eyes before him now… They shone with a strange animal brightness. A wolf’s eyes. Her rasping breath made jagged clouds about her face. In fact, her entire body seemed to steam. She began crawling towards him on all fours like some feral beast.
He fell backwards and tried to scramble away, but she was faster than he expected. Within a heartbeat she was on top of him…
[End of Preview]
Pre-Order Balar Now!
That is the end of the preview for now. Find out what happens to Nikolai in the full version, available in eBook, Paperback, and Hardcover on the 13th of September 2023! Or, if you are like me, you’ll be more interested to see what happens with the girl.
Please let me know if this is the kind of thing that would interest you in the comment below. If it’s tricky to leave a comment (there has been some issues with spam lately), you can find me on whatever Twitter is called when you read this, my author page, Bookbub, Goodreads, or just stay tuned to this blog.