The Red King


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A sample of Chapter 1 of my new novel 'The Red King' is set out below.

THE RED KING

1

The Queen is dead.
Long live the King.

The Red King smiled at the contorted corpse of his wife on the floor. It was such a relief, after all this time, to finally do the deed. The blood oozing from the stab wound through her heart barely showed against her dark red gown. It was a good kill: he had spared the Queen too much suffering, just a quick thrust with the Bandersnatch knife. Best to do the deed quickly; he at least owed her that.

Behind him, through the narrow tower window, from out of the Forest of Forget, came the sound of the Knights hurrying towards the castle.

Curse them! They would know, of course, about the Queen’s death. They had long suspected the King’s intentions, and all the Land would tremble at her passing. The animals in the forest would know, the creatures on the river would know, as would the people in the towns scattered across the chessboard fields. They would know the King had awoken. But he was ahead of them all; his escape was ready.

He left the corpse where it was, crossed the room to a thick tapestry on one wall and quickly pulled it aside. Behind was a disused fireplace with a Looking-Glass hung above it. He gripped the edges of the Looking-Glass, long scarlet fingers wrapped far around the wooden frame, and stared at himself in the glass for a moment, smiling. He had been asleep so long. Too long. This was a good day, the best day. No more sharing the throne, no more chess game. No more Queen.

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, waiting for the last few seconds of the last ten years to run out. The timing was so delicate, so fine…

Under his fingers, the Looking-Glass’s wooden frame shivered for a moment, and was still. Perfect.

The King opened his eyes and looked deeply into the Looking-Glass. His reflection blurred and faded, colours swirled and shifted, and coalesced to form the drawing room of a comfortable house. His image was nowhere to be seen; neither did the glass reflect the throne room, nor the tapestries on the walls. The Looking-Glass’s surface was cold, very cold – there were only a few moments to act. The other side of the Looking-Glass waited, but it would not wait for long.

Something behind him – a flash of light? He turned his head, but there was no one else in the room. Nerves; fear; nothing more. Fear was irrational, for weaklings. The King smiled and faced the Looking-Glass again.

Yet still he paused: was this right? Was it the way? While the Knights were in the forest surrounding the castle all was safe, for there they could not remember anything. The forest sucked away memory as the morning sun sucked dew from the grass. While they were under its eaves, even their own names were lost. But they would eventually emerge, and remember, and continue their pursuit. They would show no mercy.

He glanced back at the body of the Queen, at her open, staring eyes. But she was quite, quite dead. Yes, this was the right thing, the only thing. There was no ruling this Land now. The Knights would come and rip out his heart for what had been done to the Queen.

But they would be too late: the Looking-Glass was ready, and once he passed through, the Knights could not follow. Let the silly creatures hunt all they liked – their former ruler would be beyond their reach, and would live forever. Now, he was free, and ready to begin again.

He climbed onto the mantel-piece of the large fireplace over which the Looking-Glass hung, took a deep breath, and stepped through. A moment of darkness as realities collided, a moment of disorientation as his body adjusted to being in a new universe, and he was there. No problem at all – a child could do it.

Once, long ago, a child had.

The room surrounded him now instead of the castle: a room in a house. Richly furnished, with dark blue wallpaper; a fireplace filled with black, cold ashes; a heavy panelled door, ornately carved. Early dawn peeked through the curtains. So this was the world on the other side of the Looking-Glass. The King climbed down from the mantel-piece into the room.

Sudden weakness hit him. His legs were unable to support his weight. Somehow, power vanished here. He grabbed the corner of the fireplace and rocked slightly. An effect of the transition between worlds, perhaps. Life-force drained away.

He looked at his hands. They were transparent. He was becoming a ghost, fading away to nothing. Panic hit him. He turned back to the Looking-Glass, but it was already too late; its power was gone in the transference. There was no return that way, not yet, not until the power built up again in ten years’ time.

The King’s body faded, washed out, until he was just a shadow, an outline of darkness on the carpet, the wan sunlight through the window the only illumination to give any sign of his reality. Was this to be his form in the new world? This was not right, not the way it should be.

Then, on the other side of the door, a sudden noise. Someone was coming. He glanced about, instinctively seeking a place to hide. Footsteps approached over wooden boards.

The door opened. He swung to face it, snarling, white teeth bared. One hand reached for the long knife in his belt. If whoever it was did not immediately flee in fear, they might be his first victim. But his snarl turned to open-mouthed astonishment.

It was her! Older, taller, but it was her – the same long blond hair, the same pale face: the girl in his dreams, the Yellow Child, the one who had dared to become a queen. She stopped with one hand on the door handle, the other hand holding a lighted candle, looking into the room.

The knife made no sound as the King drew it from its sheath – it, too, was just a thing of shadow, the blade that just a few minutes ago had sliced between the ribs of the Red Queen. It could do this woman no harm. He groped backwards towards a small table on which a heavy vase sat, but his fingers went through it. Like the rest of him, like the knife, they were as inconsequential as a shadow.

The woman stood, peering into the room, the candle held high. Then she saw his faint ghostly outline, made more definite by the candlelight. She could see him: a dim, blurred shape. But the face and the robes and the crown on his head were familiar, coming back to her memory after many years.

Their eyes met for a fraction of a second, and she nodded slowly.

‘You,’ she said quietly, and glanced at the Looking-Glass behind him. She looked, too, at the drawn knife in his hand, but still did not move or try to protect herself.

But there was no time. He was too weak now, a mere phantom. The world was waiting, and he could take what he wanted from it, could build in strength and power. But not the Yellow Child, not yet. Not the False Queen.

He screamed, a howl of anger and frustration and defiance, but no sound reached the woman. His mist-like body could not distort the air enough to be heard. The Yellow Child just stood and glared back at his mutely howling face. He rushed towards her, and at the last moment she flinched, holding the candle up between them. As his face came closer to hers, he took on a more solid form. There was a moment when he might have been corporeal enough to grab her, hands reaching for her throat…


…Alice woke, her body twisted under the bedclothes, one arm held up as if to ward off a blow. The bedroom was in darkness, just a thin stream of moonlight leaking through the thick curtains. On the dressing table, a clock ticked loudly: four o’clock in the morning.

She sat up, the last shreds of the nightmare falling away, ran a hand through her long blonde hair and sighed out a breath. Then she rose and crossed to the window, drawing the curtains open. Outside, London lay in the quiet of dawn, still asleep, unaware. Alice remembered her vision.

He was here, the Red King. But why? Why, after all these years, could the Land not remain just a dream? The time would be right: ten years. Ten years since the Looking-Glass had last spat out something from the ragged edges of the mind…

Softly, in the darkness of the bedroom, Alice began to cry.


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