Read Iron Axe Online

Authors: Steven Harper

Iron Axe

BOOK: Iron Axe

“If you love your Victorian adventure filled with zombies, amazing automatons, steampunk flare, and an impeccable eye for detail, you'll love the fascinating (and fantastical)
Doomsday Vault

My Bookish Ways

“Harper creates a fascinating world of devices, conspiracies, and personalities.”


“Inventive and fun . . . a fantastic amount of action. . . . If you are looking to jump into steampunk for the first time, I would recommend these books.”

Paranormal Haven

“The technology is present throughout the story, making it as much a character as any of the people Harper writes about.”

That's What I'm Talking About

“Steven Harper seemed to have this magical way of taking this crazy, awesome, complex idea and describing it in a way that anyone could follow.”

A Book Obsession

“A fun and thrilling, fast-paced adventure full of engaging characters and plenty of surprises.”

—SFF Chat

“The Clockwork Empire books are changing what we know as Steampunk! . . . An exuberant novel that takes the reader on an action-packed adventurous thrill

—Nocturne Romance Reads



Iron Axe



The Doomsday Vault

The Impossible Cube

The Dragon Men

The Havoc


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Copyright © Steven Piziks, 2015

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.


ISBN 978-0-698-14629-7


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.





Title page

Copyright page


Author's Note
























About the Author

To Darwin, forever and


The people of Erda don't much go in for silent letters in their names. Aisa's name is therefore pronounced with three syllables and rhymes with “Lisa.” Most vowels have a European flavor, so the A in “Danr” is more like the one in “wander” than in


he stable door creaked open and threw a painful square of sunshine on the dirt floor. Danr automatically flung up his free hand to shield his eyes. His other hand wielded a manure fork. A lone cow, kept in from pasture because of an injured leg, lowed nervously and shifted in her stall.

“Trollboy.” Norbert Alfgeirson crossed heavy arms in the doorway. His patchy brown beard stuck out short and prickly, like last year's wheat stubble. “Get out here. Calf fell down the new well.”

He left without waiting for a reply, leaving the stable door standing open, showing a large tree inexpertly carved on the outside of it. The square of morning sunlight hung there like a sharp-edged shield. Danr set the manure fork down with a grimace. He was tall enough that his head rapped the ceiling beams if he didn't take care, and his large hands bore the calluses of heavy work. His bare feet shuffled across the dirt floor, avoiding the bright square, though he was only putting off the inevitable. At the door, he lifted a battered straw hat from a peg and clapped it over wiry black hair, then screwed up his face, touched the tree, and stepped outside.

Sunlight slapped him hard. A dull ache settled into the
back of his wide brown eyes despite the shading brim of the straw hat, and he squinted down at the ground, unable to give the clear spring sky even a glance. His wide-set toes clenched at the bare earth of the barnyard. The stories said sunlight turned the Stane to stone. Danr didn't quite believe that, but if the sun caused this much discomfort to someone whose mother was Kin and whose father was Stane, he could understand why the Stane supposedly hid under the mountain during the day.

“Over here, Trollboy!” Norbert called. He was the eldest son of Alfgeir Oxbreeder, the enormously successful herder of cattle and sheep who owned the farm where Danr was currently a thrall. “Move! I don't want this calf to break something because you dawdle.”

Danr straightened his back and strode across the barnyard, away from the cool, inviting depths of the stable. Outside, the crisp, fresh air of spring rolled down the western mountains, bringing with it smells of flowers and new leaves and just a hint of snow from the heights. Alfgeir's generous herds lowed in stone-bound pastures in the distance, side by side with recently planted fields. The farm was in the lull of late spring, when calving, plowing, and planting were over and the season's first haying had not yet begun, so there was time for other work, such as repairing thatch, reinforcing fences, and digging a new well for the cattle. Norbert was standing at the latter, hands on hips. So far the well was nothing but a hole in the ground. A formidable pile of earth and rocks stood nearby, and Danr knew it would be his eventual job to move it. From below came a faint bawl.

Danr sidled up to the well, slumping his shoulders and hunching over out of long habit, though it did little to disguise the fact that he had a full head of height on Norbert. His shoulders were broader, his legs sturdier, and his skin swarthier than anyone else's on the farm. Danr's long jaw
jutted forward, giving him a pugnacious look, and his lower canines were just a little too long. He had no beard, but wiry hair was making progress over his chest and back. Although he had just turned sixteen, he already had a barrel chest and heavy hands with thick fingernails. He quickly outgrew the castoffs Alfgeir's wife deigned to hand him, and his clothing was always patched and bursting at the seams. Compared to the fine wool tunics and well-cut trousers Norbert and his brothers wore, Danr was a shambling ragbag. His eyes, however, were wide and brown and liquid, and Danr's mother always said they were his best feature, but they were always hidden under his battered hat. In any case, no one seemed to notice his eyes. They only noticed he was that troll boy.

“Well?” Norbert said.

Danr peered down into the well and was just able to make out the form of the calf at the bottom, some fifteen feet down. It was up to its knees in muck. Danr glanced at the calf pen, where the young cattle were kept apart from the rest of the herd during the day so they wouldn't be injured by the larger animals, and knew what had happened. It had come to Norbert that morning to separate the calves from their mothers. He'd been careless and let one run after its mother, whereupon it had fallen into the well.

“It got away from the pen, then?” Danr asked, his voice low and quiet. Mother always said,
“Be gentle, be soft-spoken, and people won't think you a monster.”

“None of your business, Trollboy,” Norbert snapped, confirming Danr's suspicions. “I should shove you down that well to join the calf and bury you with the rest of your filthy kind.”

The insults stabbed his gut. He'd been hearing them for sixteen years, and it seemed he should be used to them, but like the sunlight that pounded at his eyes, he never adjusted. Each one was a pinprick, or a knife cut, or a spear thrust, and some days it felt as if he were bleeding to death. Other
days, the wounds turned his blood to lava, and he felt he might burst out of his clothes from the anger. Anger he could never show, not even once. Thralls didn't get angry, no, they didn't. It wasn't fair or right, but when had the world ever been either, especially to his kind? His clothes felt tight and he worked his jaw.

“I'm sorry, Norbert,” Danr said, eyes down.

Norbert punched him in the gut. The air burst from Danr's lungs, and white-hot pain slammed his stomach. He staggered, gasping. Anger flashed.

“I'm sorry, what?” Norbert snapped.

Danr had forgotten—Norbert had recently reached his majority. Danr forced himself to straighten, but not too much. Not so he was taller than Norbert. His gut ached. The monster inside him growled. He would have loved to punch back, but of course he did not. “Yes,

“What is it? What is happening now?” Alfgeir Oxbreeder hurried over. He was an older version of his son, with thinning brown hair, a bushier beard, and a heavy nose. His fine leather overtunic and thick wool breeches bespoke his success as a farmer, as did the silver buckles on his boots and at his waist.

“This fool let one of the new calves fall down the well,” Norbert said.

“What's this, what's this?” Alfgeir peered down the well. “Trollboy, if that calf is injured or killed, I'll add more time to your bonding.”

“I—” Danr began, but Norbert made another fist behind Alfgeir's back, and the words died. Norbert smirked. Anger beat a war drum inside Danr, and he ached to smash that smirk. He clutched with shaking hand at the small pouch with two splinters in it that he wore on a thong around his neck. Both pouch and splinters had belonged to Danr's mother, the only legacy she had left him.

“They expect you to be a monster,”
Mother said.
“Don't give them satisfaction.”

Danr closed his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to make the anger and resentment disappear. His father was a troll, his mother a human, and for that terrible crime, both he and his mother had been banished to the edges of village society.
Alfgeir Oxbreeder had reluctantly agreed to accept Mother as a servant in his hall, but caring for Danr had brought expenses that had quickly put her in Alfgeir's debt. Before Danr's fifth birthday, he and Mother had both become thralls to the Oxbreeder farm, one step above slaves. No amount of hard work kept them fed and clothed without more debt, thanks to Danr's enormous appetite. Danr continued his grip on pouch and thong. It was unfair, but that was how the Nine ran the world. It didn't matter what a thrall thought. He told himself that over and over, trying to make himself believe it.

“I'm sorry,
Oxbreeder,” he said at last.

“You'll have to pull it out,” Alfgeir said. “As the saying goes, ‘The price of foolishness is hard work.'”

“I can't do it alone, sir,” Danr pointed out. “Norbert will have to help.”

Norbert's face grew red and he drew back his fist again, but Alfgeir stepped between them. “Let's just get that calf out.” Alfgeir turned to Norbert. “So, how
it fall in, then?”

He had already asked that, and it was clear he was giving Norbert another chance to come clean. Danr looked sideways at the young man. At eighteen, Norbert was only two years older than Danr, and when they were kinderlings, Danr had followed Norbert around like an oversize puppy. They had played Troll-in-the-Wood (Danr was always the troll) and fished in the brook and built a castle out of logs and stones. People called Danr Norbert's pet, and they chuckled indulgently. But as they grew, Norbert became less
interested in games and more aware of Danr's status as a thrall—and a troll. These days it was as if they had never been friends and were instead a breath away from a blood feud.

Norbert ran his tongue around the inside of his cheek, and Danr held his breath. It would be such a fine thing if Norbert, just this once, would be his friend again, like when they were boys.

“I told you,” Norbert growled. “It's Trollboy's fault.”

Alfgeir sighed. Danr could see that he knew the truth, but he wasn't going to side with a troll. “All right. On your head be it, Trollboy, if the creature's injured.”

The calf bawled again, its voice barely audible above ground. Alfgeir took up a coil of heavy rope. “Climb on down.”

“Me, sir?” Danr said in surprise. “I thought you wanted me to pull it up.”

“I'm not climbing down there,” Norbert scoffed. “It's muck to the knees, and these boots are almost new.”

Danr didn't bother to protest. There was no point. Instead he squatted at the edge of the well and lowered himself into darkness, where he hung by one hand for a moment with easy strength before he let go.

The floor of the well and the bawling calf rushed up at him. Danr managed to twist and land beside the calf with a great splat in the mud at the bottom, though his jaw came down across the calf's back. His teeth crashed together and he saw stars.

“You didn't hurt the calf, did you?” Alfgeir demanded from above.

Oxbreeder.” Danr spat out a mouthful of blood, then pushed himself upright in the cool darkness. The wild-eyed calf bawled, and the sound boomed against the earthen sides of the well. It was actually nicer down here, despite the
mud. Danr felt more at ease when he was surrounded by earth or in an enclosed space. He supposed it was his troll half speaking. The pain in his jaw faded somewhat. He scratched the calf's neck and ears.

“You're a pretty one,” he murmured. “Everything's fine now. We'll get you out, no need to worry.”

The calf calmed. It was covered in mud. Danr sniffed the air. The only way to clear cow manure out of a well was to let the water sit untouched for several months, and that would be disastrous, especially if Alfgeir took it into his head to add the time to dig yet another well to Danr's bonding. But he smelled nothing. That was a small blessing, thanks be to the Nine. He looked up. Even when it was full day above, the sky always looked velvet dark from the bottom of a well. Danr had no idea why. He could even see stars. The fleck of brightness that was one half of Urko shone directly above him. The star that was Urko's other half had moved just into the well's horizon, ready to join with its opposite. Urko, the traitor Stane who joined the Nine Gods in Lumenhame, and had then been sliced in two by his brother Stane for his trouble. Now his right half lived in Lumenhame with the Nine and the left half lived in Gloomenhame with the Stane, and each side thought the other half spied for it. Only once every hundred years did they rejoin, and the two stars showed it in the sky.

“Where does Urko really live?” Danr asked when Mother had first told him that story. “With the Stane or with the Nine?”

“The story doesn't say,” she had replied. “I suppose you have to decide for yourself.”

The knotted end of a rope hit him in the face. “Let us know when you're ready, Trollboy,” Alfgeir called.

With a sigh, Danr set to work tying the rope in a harness
around the calf. It wasn't easy in the narrow, wet space. Mud squished up to Danr's shins, slowing him further. The calf struggled, and more than once Danr had to stop work to calm it.

“What's taking so long?” Norbert shouted down at him. “You're dawdling on purpose to get out of real work.”

Danr ground his teeth and kept at it. The knots had to be done just right. If they came undone, the calf might fall on Danr and injure itself. His hands, soaked in muddy water, grew cold, and the rope became stubborn beneath his fingers. The calf continued its restlessness. At last, however, Danr had it in a rough harness.

“Ready!” he called, and tugged on the rope. It tightened, and the calf came free of the mud with a sucking sound. A surprised expression crossed its face as it rose toward the stars like a strange sacrifice. It reached the top, where Alfgeir and Norbert hauled it to safety.

Danr waited a moment, and when nothing was forthcoming, he called up, “Could I have the rope?”

Norbert poked his head over the edge. “We're undoing these stupid knots you tied. Anyway, you're too heavy. Climb up yourself.”

The monster snarled inside him again. Danr clutched the pouch at his neck. His mother's soft voice always came back to him better when he did.
“Don't give in. Don't give them an excuse to hurt you. Don't let the monster out.”

“Yes, Mother,” he whispered.

He dug hands and feet into the sides of the well, his stony fingers biting into the stiff earth, and climbed toward the upper world. It was hard work. All his strength was in his arms and legs, but this used his wrists, and fiery aches burned in his hands by the time he reached the top. Gasping, he grabbed the rim of the well to haul himself over the top.

“I'll teach the troll some respect, Father.” Norbert stamped
on Danr's fingers. More pain lanced through Danr's hand. He let go with a yelp and landed heavily in the cold mud.

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Villa Triste by Lucretia Grindle
Forever and Almost Always by Bennett, Amanda
Espadas de Marte by Edgar Rice Burroughs
WEBCAM by Jack Kilborn
Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball
The black invader by Stratton, Rebecca