The infamous eleventh-century warrior Hexen Sabbath is plucked from death and certain damnation by a being claiming to be an angel of the Lord, and finds himself dropped into contemporary Manhattan with no clothes, no weapons, no resources, and one mission—to track down and kill the living personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins before they bring about Armageddon.
With time running out and his only ally a destitute art gallery owner, Sabbath must fight his way through New York’s elite and challenge the world’s most powerful man, or an eternity of suffering will be his, and our, only reward.
Sabbath by Nick Mamatas will be available on November 19. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles; Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up.
Hell, thought Duke Richard II. This is Hell.
That’s what it was. All of it. The invasion of the Vikings, who were more beasts than men. More brutal even than the Great Heathen Army of Duke Richard II’s grandfather’s time. The conduct of the war, which had led Richard here, his whore sister and quaking idiot brother-in-law— Æthelred the Unready!—begging Richard to travel to this godforsaken hole. The horrid marriage he arranged between them in the first place, which is what brought him to this peat bog of an island, far from his beloved Normandy. The dull mud-brown glare of his sister’s eye as he indulged her husband, who had just a lovely idea to save them all from the ravishment and pillaging of the Danes. Pay them not to invade! Pay pillagers in pillage! And then Æthelred died, leaving his third son, Edmund II, to rule and fight the war. And oh, did Edmund II, called Ironside by his friends and Ironhead by Richard, have a lovely idea to save England.
The lovely idea—send his dearest ally, Richard, to the ass-end of England to recruit the land’s most talented warrior, who was himself a talent of piss filling his armor like it was a barrel latrine. Sans retinue, sans horse, as every available body and beast was needed to enforce the shield wall. Send Richard to Hell, this place, Assandun.
And speaking of Hell . . . Hexen Sabbath, who flaunted hell in his very name. He would be easy to find. Richard II just had to find the tavern with the cheapest ale and the loosest whores.
Truth be told, Richard’s own plan was to nail the door to the tavern shut if he could, then chuck a torch into the thatching and kill everyone in it. Then he’d throw in with the Danes, who were surely in need of an intelligent polyglot fellow like himself, given that they were hell-spawn pagans who wouldn’t understand God’s word even were it whipped letter by letter onto their backs by Richard’s own hand.
But the Danes would probably kill him as soon as parley with him, especially now that he was alone, on foot, his clothing stained rags, his beard unkempt.
Hexen Sabbath might not believe him either, truth be told. The damned knight, the son of a witch and a pervert, might run the duke through as soon as look at him. If it came to that, Richard just hoped that the last thing he’d smell would be his own lifeblood pouring from his guts, and not Sabbath’s foul breath or his own bowels giving way.
He stumbled and took a knee into a mud puddle. In the distance, a pair of peasant children pointed and laughed. Richard had half a mind to run them through and leave their bodies for their parents to discover later, but something about the skeletal pair touched his heart. What would their lives be like under pagan rule, divorced from the Word of God and the protection of God’s chosen king? These poor imbeciles just needed to understand that the nobility truly cared for them, and were ready to sacrifice all for their lives.
“Hallo, children,” said Duke Richard II, unsheathing his sword and waving it jauntily at the poor rag-dressed kids. “It is I, the Duke of Normandy, brother to your queen Emma. I am on a mission from the king to save—”
“Papa says we’re all going to die today!” shouted one of the children—a girl, from her voice.
“What does your father know?” Richard spat.
“He’s just come from the Royal Standard tavern!” said the boy. “Your own knights have retreated there to whore and drink. They’ve given up the battle!”
“Well, it was only one knight,” said the girl. “But only because most of the others have already abandoned the field.”
“Or are decorating it with their innards,” said the boy. He cackled madly, his face like a half-sliced gourd. He had probably been brought to the front to scavenge arrows and driven mad by the scene.
Better just to address the girl, Richard thought. She looked as if she might still be sane. “The tavern, you say . . . Is it there?” Richard pointed.
“Yes, right up Shite Hill, and down the other side,” said the girl.
“Shite Hill . . . ,” Richard said to himself. “I suppose they named it that to differentiate it from all the other mounds of shite around here.” Then to the children, “Thank you! God bless! The Lord will reward you for your service to King and Crown!”
“Yeah?” said the girl. “Reward us with what?” “A quick death, I hope . . . ,” muttered Richard.
Were he in a better mood, Duke Richard might have called the Royal Standard unassuming, or perhaps even quaint. There is something about having knowledge of the sure and imminent death of not only oneself but of one’s whole world that allows one to gaze upon the universe as it truly is, and not as one wishes it to be. The Standard was, in fact, a lopsided hovel he wouldn’t stable a donkey in. Perhaps the name was a prophecy. England would fall, the kingdom reduced to nothing more than a place to rot one’s guts with hops and loins with whores. With some regret, Richard noted that the walls and thatched roof were so filthy that even were he to take a torch to it, the dirt would extinguish the flame before it did any damage.
“Ah, it is this for which we are all eager to lay down our lives; this is what the dark-haired Danes struggle so mercilessly for,” he muttered. He should simply offer to parley with Cnut himself, invite the Danish warlord over to the Royal Standard for the drink, and let the fleas and vermin do an assassin’s work. Then Duke Richard II would be the hero of the day, not that execrable . . .
The patrons of the crowded, squalid pub turned to stare at him. There was no steward to speak of, or even proper chairs. Just ragged, bleary-eyed people, some with still-open wounds, hunched on barrels and loose bales of hay, with planks for tabletops. Except in the very rear of the establishment, where in the shadows far from the candlelight, a certain jovial squealing emanated.
“You, Sabbath!” Richard said as he strode across the tiny, crowded room. “You’re needed at the battlefront—now.” Sabbath didn’t even care to look up from the bosom his face was pressed against. He was barely visible beneath the tangle of limbs and yards of fabric from the rawboned women who were crawling all over him, fondling him. The knight’s mail and armor lay nearby in a heap. Richard was aghast.
“Pardon me,” said one of the women. All three turned to glare at the duke. “You’re interrupting something.”
“I know,” said Richard.
Sabbath smiled and said cheerfully, “Ho, Dick! How goes the war?”
Duke Richard II, his tunic and leggings and cape still splattered with mud and filth, held his arms out wide and said, “Please, Sir Hexen, I beseech thee. Accompany me to the lines. You could turn the tide of the battle.” This was not a moment for sarcasm or japery; Richard knew that much. For all the travail it had meant, his mission was crucial, sacred. “As you wear the most Holy Cross round your neck, come and repel the pagan horde from our motherland, in the name of the King, and Christ!”
Sabbath touched the rounded cross hanging over his tunic. “I suppose I could win the war for you. Or I could stay here and catch up on my consumption . . . and fornication!” He casually fondled the woman nearest him. “Right, girls?” They cheered. “Right, everyone?!” The whole tavern roared in approval.
“Do any of you care who rules you?” Richard demanded, turning on his heel to sneer at the patrons. “Would you live in pagan darkness, under the rule of the foreign Danes?”
“Where’s your accent from, bright-eyed Norman?” shouted a man behind a plank between two barrels that served as a makeshift bar top. Perhaps he was the steward, though he was as drunk as everyone else. “Unless Danes are teetotalers, I couldn’t give a fig who sends out a man twice a year to rob me, and thrice a year to relieve my custom of their little wealth.”
“Oh, Dick, you do have a knack for speaking with the commoners,” said Sabbath, rising. “They’re not educated in the ways of statecraft like you and I. You cannot simply demand their obedience, especially not in those rags.”
“Sir Hexen, simply demanding obedience is literally what our kingdom is based on! God rules over king, king over noble, noble over knight! It is what you were trained to uphold since the day we took you from your blasted parents,” said Richard.
“I’m just saying you need a gentle touch,” Sabbath explained as he demonstrated by palming the bottom of one of the women. She flashed a near-toothless smile. “And your appeals to the Lord, well . . . as I was telling Margaret here, it was the blessed Augustine of Hippo who said, Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, deus meus sed noli modo.”
Richard grimaced. “‘Give me chastity and continence, my God . . . but not yet.’ But, Sabbath, the moment has arrived. You are to accompany me to the field of battle, now, even if I must bring you to heel myself and lead you there like a dog.”
Sabbath turned his back on Richard and fetched his large stein from the table. He lazily spun back around on one heel and sipped his ale carefully, peering at Richard from over the rim. “Oh?” he said finally. “I think we’d all like to see that.”
Richard could tolerate not another moment. He took a step back and moved to draw his sword, but before it was unsheathed, a great wave of beer slammed against his face. He struck out, blind, his blade finding only air. Sabbath swung his stein hard against Richard’s wrist. The sword clattered to the floor. Sabbath’s foot caught Richard’s ankle, and the duke fell flat onto the hard-packed dirt. In the course of three blinks, Sabbath had his right foot planted on Richard’s groin and was holding out his stein for a refill from a pitcher handled by one of his lady friends.
“You are a fucking worm,” said Sabbath. “If you’re an exemplar of our mettle, perhaps you do need me after all. Unfortunately, I have a problem. My armor.”
“What of it?” Richard’s voice was an octave higher than usual. Sabbath settled the weight of his boot on the duke’s groin. “It’s right there!”
“My squire is dead. My page is . . . indisposed,” said Sabbath. He nodded to the opposite corner of the room, where a young man had fallen asleep in a puddle of . . . something. “You know we mustn’t let a commoner handle a knight’s armor. I am nothing if not a stickler for the rules.”
“Put it on yourself,” Richard squeaked.
“I could do that . . . ,” said Sabbath. “Save for the codpiece. You must do that for me. Your noble blood makes this most delicate task suitable for your fine fingers.”
“You wear a codpiece into battle? Like a pagan Roman? But why?”
Sabbath ground his heel. “You know why . . . now.” He took his foot off Richard’s crotch and planted it on the sword. “Fetch . . . Your Grace.” Richard got to his knees, but before he could pick himself up, Sabbath added, “Crawl to it. Like a dog.”
“Your Grace!” added the woman with the pitcher. “Your Grace,” Sabbath repeated.
Richard made his way on his hands and knees to the pile of mail, and found the codpiece. “I’ll do it,” he said. “For England, I do this! For all of you, I do this!”
“Hip hip hooray,” said the steward unenthusiastically.
Sabbath loomed over Richard, his legs thick and bowed, his hands raising the hem of his tunic. “Give it a little tickle while you’re down there.”
“You disgust me. Is there no sin you’ll not commit?” Sabbath shrugged. “Not as of yet,” he said.
Richard fastened the codpiece and tightened the straps. “Your parents named you well. It’s a wonder you were ever baptized, Hexen Sabbath,” Richard said through clenched teeth.
“The village priest was very fond of my mother,” said Sabbath. He winked. “Right, off to kill some Danes!” He reached for his mail and his broadsword.
The shield wall had already broken by the time Hexen Sabbath arrived, on foot and alone, at the scene of the battle. Duke Richard had merely pointed Sabbath toward the direction of the battle, then took the knight’s place at the table with the women. Cnut’s raven banners, symbols of the all-seeing Odin, overwhelmed the battlefield. The English were in a rout, screaming and choking on blood as Viking axes ate into their backs. If there was anything that separated Sabbath from his fellows, it wasn’t his good sword arm, though it was excellent, nor his strong back, though he could put a horse across his shoulders like a sack of wheat; it was something inside him.
His mother, a witch, told him when he was a young boy that he would die on a Sunday. And today was Friday. Knowing this, Hexen Sabbath feared for nothing, worried for nothing, thought for nothing. Men who feared death fought differently. Some hid behind their shields, jabbing with their blades and hoping that their archers launched a fusillade that vanquished the enemy for them. Or they went mad and ran screaming toward their foes, limbs exposed, breath hot, overcommitted. The first type succumbed to the fear of death; the second hoped to defeat fear by embodying it.
One Dane came running toward him now, his face red and eyes wild. Sabbath simply drew his sword, sidestepped, and stuck it in the man’s ribs. He then pulled it out and with a great swing tore apart the shield of another. That Viking hefted his axe high with both hands, leaving his torso exposed. Sabbath slashed open the man’s belly, letting intestines fall free like bloody scarves.
Men grunted or yelled when they threw javelins, a peculiar breathless exhalation that Sabbath’s sharp senses could hear under the clash of sword and axe. Sabbath moved to the left when he heard that sound and kept swinging, not looking to see where the projectiles landed. A tall Viking deflected the blade with his shield and ran the head of his axe along the shield’s rim, parrying Sabbath’s sword and pushing the knight back onto his heels.
“Hey, you’re pretty good!” Sabbath said. The Viking crouched behind his shield and jabbed with it, seeking an opening for his axe. Sabbath smiled. The enemy was fearful, despite his skill.
The Viking swung his shield, rolling the axe around its edge, at Sabbath’s head. Sabbath’s sword battered uselessly against the shield, and the axe blade nearly nipped him. Sabbath scuttled back and readied his sword with a two-handed grip.
“Fine,” he said. He rolled his hands around the hilt of the sword and stabbed the Viking through his lead foot, staking him to the ground. The Viking howled, and Sabbath punched the man’s teeth down his throat, then freed the sword, slashing the Viking open from groin to gullet.
“It’s Sir Hexen!” cried an Englishman. “Form a wedge behind him. Push the Danes back to the River Crouch!”
“Yes!” called Sabbath over his shoulder. He heard another distant grunt. “Just beware—” A knight hit the ground hard, a sapling sprouting from his chest. “—javelins.”
Another clever Viking met Sabbath’s blade with an underhand swing of his axe, hooking the sword. Sabbath caught a glimpse of gritted teeth, then smiled again and let go of the hilt. The sword went sailing into the face of another Dane, and the one who’d snagged the sword fell onto his back. Sabbath rushed over him, jumped on his skull, reclaimed his sword from the head of the other, and swatted an incoming javelin out of the air.
“Spearmen!” a banner-wielder called out, waving a raven flag. A trio of men holding long lances at their hips converged on Sabbath, jabbing and thrusting, looking to surround him.
“Well,” said Sabbath, “any coward could use numbers”— he deflected a spearhead—“and strategy”—barely dodged another—“if they’re weak.” He winced as a point found his thigh. The men stayed at the end of their spears. These men were confident, assured that close cooperation would see them through. Sabbath didn’t have the reach to use his foot trick again. He planted himself, struck a simpleton’s expression on his face, lowered his sword, and let himself be surrounded.
“Oh Lord, oh Lord,” he cried, whipping up a few tears and sniffling loudly. “Sweet Christ Jesus, accept my soul in Heaven tonight!” He dropped his sword. The spearman behind him moved. Sabbath threw himself to the ground. The spearpoint thrust right where Sabbath had been standing and found the sternum of the Viking opposite him. Sabbath rolled onto his back, upsetting the third spearman. Then he was up, with a borrowed spear, and pierced the neck of the Viking who was still struggling to pull his weapon from the chest of his countryman. The third spearman got up and tackled Sabbath, but couldn’t hold him down. Sabbath scrambled and took the mount. He pulled the helmet from the spearman’s head and turned it in his hands, holding it high, ready to bash in the enemy’s face.
“Wuh-we’re Christian too,” said the spearman. His tears, the snot running down his nose, were real. He was a child, a fair one whose face burned with blood.
“Your king, your banners . . .”
“We Danes have been Christian for generations . . . the banner . . . we do not worship the old gods anymore. . . .”
Sabbath peered down at the bloody face he was about to ruin in the name of the Lord. He saw that his enemy was a youth, unbearded and sniveling. He had perhaps never made war before, never killed a man, never even lain with a woman. Sabbath put the helmet down beside the youth and clambered to his feet.
He clutched at the cross medallion around his neck and wiped a tear from his eye. “I’m sorry,” he said, but the youth at his feet didn’t hear him. “I’m sorry!” he bellowed, louder. “The world is fallen; men like us should not be butchering one another like animals!” He cast his gaze about the battle. His presence had for a moment served to rally his people, but dozens of Danes had also regrouped behind their shields and recommenced their march.
“Danes! Come collect this youth and take him back behind your lines! He does not belong here, in this field of blood! In the name of Christ, come and save your man!”
The Danes answered with a storm of javelins.
Copyright © 2019 by Nick Mamatas
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