Date of Publication: 31st October 2015
Number of pages: 304
Word Count: 115,747
Cover Artist: Amalia Chitulescu
Dead or alive. Good or evil. Hero or fugitive.
Valo needs a specific solution to a grave problem. The human Claimfold and prigon Torzsi draw apart. War is promised in the West. Worst of all, the magi of Nagyevo are meddling with the dead.
Perin is an apprentice Gravedigger: uneducated, unwanted, unsure. He may be the answer Valo needs, if he doesn’t get killed before he works out what’s going on. But of course there’s the chance that fate hasn’t called him after all. The gods are nameless and silent and the best laid plans have a way of going badly wrong.
Enter the spade and sorcery world of Valo.
Gravedigger subverts the expectations of that oldest of foes in fantasy, the dead that walk, in a fast-paced adventure through a world of culture, intrigue, magic and blood.
Michael-Israel Jarvis was born in Cambridge, brought up in Bishop’s Stortford and moved to Great Yarmouth in his teens. He got his degree in Creative Writing at the University of Northampton and returned to Great Yarmouth with his wife, Katie.
Michael-Israel writes principally for Young Adults, which is what he intends to be until he’s very, very old. Further explorations of the genres he prefers to write in throw up fantasy, adventure, coming of age stories and more. If possible, he prefers to write in a way that bends the distinction between different genres. Why shouldn’t the superhero trope take place within a fantasy novel? And however serious a book is, shouldn’t humour weave its way in?
Michael-Israel chose to go the route of Independent Publishing after observing the increase in sales of eBooks and a move towards indie expression in general culture. In early 2015, after self-publishing three books through Amazon, Michael-Israel was accepted by Booktrope Publishing, an international publishing company with a unique model.
Booktrope offered the expertise and structure he needed (much like a traditional publisher) but also offered a system with far more creative control and better royalties, as well as a system of cooperation at the heart of the professional team. This was the perfect middle ground that Michael-Israel had been dreaming of, and he was delighted to sign with them to republish his previously independent work.
“Gravedigger” republished on 31st October 2015, with both “Osric Fingerbone and the Boy Murderer” and “Land Rising” to be republished within the following months.
Sequels to all will follow.
They didn’t have to wait long. Fully visible under the abundantly full moon, the bulky figure of Kesairl emerged from the trees. He strode toward them, jumping down the sandy bank into the graveyard. A figure followed him slowly, moving with awkward heistancy. He was swathed in a great deal of loose cloth.
Kesairl halted beside the grave that Graves had dug unaided earlier that day, much to the concern of Perin, who had not been there to meticulously edge the hole with his sharp new edging spade.
“Greetings by moonlight, Master Graves, young Master Perin. I hope you are both well.” Kesairl’s voice rolled out above the subtle noises of the night.
“Oh, aye, and yourselves, too, we ‘ope,” said Graves, peering at the cloaked stranger beside the prigon, “I imagine you two’ve got the recently departed in the woods. Well, if it wants burying, we may as well get started, as you don’t want peepers.”
Kesairl hesitated for a moment, brow furrowed. “Well, I’m afraid the one that wants burying, as you accurately put it, is not so recently departed.”
“Ah. Fine. S’to be expected I suppose, if you’ve travelled far. S’all right, Master Kesairl. Me and the boy aren’t unaccustomed to a bit of decay.”
“You misunderstand me, good man Graves. The one I speak of has been dead for a very long time, indeed. He was born that way—if birth is the right way to put it. Allow me to introduce—nay—to present my companion.”
The prigon smiled, white teeth gleaming in the dark to match the moon. His arm gestured to the shrouded figure beside him. With a strange, jerking motion, the figure unwrapped the main cloak from his body, revealing himself to be exceedingly thin. He was, in fact, skeletal. Skin clung to his frame, close as a glove, undamaged but as pale as the prigon’s teeth.
As pale as the full moon.
His wan, skull-like face stared mournfully at them. His head was devoid of hair of any sort, though it was crowned with a circlet of silver. His eyes were pale, but not empty or decayed, and Graves and Perin both knew the eyes were the first thing to go. Soulful meaning radiated behind the orbs, proof somehow of the creature’s being. Aside from that, and the wonderful preservation of the body, he was quite dead.
“I am aware that I am quite troublesome to look upon.” The creature spoke in a voice that made Perin think of the way fallen leaves whispered across the ground underfoot. He watched the dry mouth speak, in shocked fascination. It moved very little, yet produced the words distinctly. “I am not…conventionally alive; but please, I am not to be feared.”
Graves seemed to think otherwise. “Undead!” He growled, hands gripping the handle of his spade, knuckles almost as white as the dead man’s.
The undead man nodded uncertainly and then bowed. Graves considered for a moment, fear and amazement clashing.
Kesairl watched, not speaking a word.
“All right. So. What’s you wanting on your stone, then?” Graves muttered at last, shifting his stance.
Kesairl smiled, seeming to appreciate the human’s return to composure.
The undead man spoke. “A marker stone? How thoughtful! I am Medrivar, if you need a name to engrave.”
“King Medrivar,” Kesairl corrected his companion in a soft tone.
“Just because that is who I am, it does not mean I need always to announce it,” the undead man returned with a sharp reprimand.
Graves coughed. “What do you want under the name, Your Majesty?”
“I would very much enjoy the phrase, ‘At rest’, as it will be no falsehood.”
“Sort of, ‘Back in a little while’, then?”
Both the undead king and the prigon chuckled at Graves’s joke. The old gravedigger smiled. Here was a person who had qualities Perin knew Graves admired, in particular the complete lack of a heartbeat. In some ways, this was familiar ground. Graves often talked to the dead. They’d never spoken back.
“I will need the plot for a year. It is, of course, important that I am interred and raised at full moon. Kesairl will serve me very well in performing the rites, I am sure.”
“They are not difficult,” the prigon said. He winked at Perin, who found he could no longer keep his silence.
“This is…amazing! Where did you come from?”
The undead king gave a crooked smile. “I am from the North. But I get the sense that your question meant more than that. You have an inquiring mind. Very good. You would know the secrets of the undead, young man of breath and blood?”
“I would.” Perin said, still trying to grasp the reality of the situation.
The emaciated king folded into a sitting position and closed his blank eyes for a moment. His eyelids were thin and papery.
Perin leaned on his edging spade, feeling it sink into the frost-hardened earth.
Medrivar smiled again. “I will be brief, but this is an important story, so listen closely.”
“Where are we going?” Sudar asked after a few minutes of seemingly random turns down narrow, twisting corridors. The path ran between sloping, overhanging timber buildings of a much older design than the richer Lower East or the sophisticated Upper City. Perin didn’t know either, having been driven to follow his feet by nothing more than his love of walking.
A couple of barefooted and tatter-clothed children ran out of a broader alley, their heads down and legs flying behind them as they came around the corner. As Perin opened his mouth in a soundless question, dodging up against a crumbling wall, the shortest boy glanced up and yelled back as he passed, “Oh-gees, pal! Pick another path!”
Sudar glanced at Perin. As Borderers, no matter how bad the reputation of the Observatory Guards, surely they were safe?
“Come on.” On an impulse, Perin nodded and led the way down the alley from which the children had come. Two corners later, with Medrivar cautioning alertness from within, Perin stopped, listening to the clearer sounds that he and Sudar had been trying to make out since the departure of the escaping children.
“No need to take this one back. He’s a troublemaker already. City’d be glad to be rid…”
“…can’t just decide that fast, man. Put some thought into it. We’ve got nothing in the way of reason…”
“Come on, boss.” This voice was different, indicating at least three people. All the voices were audible over an occasional muffled groan. “Give us a chance. Haven’t put my boot in something for a while, and I missed out on that last riot.”
“Look, here’s how we do it,” the lead voice said, sounding bored. “I’ve nothing to file him for. So far as I’m concerned, we leave him here to catch something nasty. But you two enjoy yourselves. You dropped behind to…investigate something and caught up with us later. All right?”
The second voice sniggered. “We hear you, boss. See you back at the guardrooms.”
“Don’t take too long.”
Perin turned to see Sudar with an ugly expression on his face. The normally calm and neutral Borderman clenched his fists, wincing at the sound of a whimper. Whatever the scene was, it was taking place on the other side of a cluster of communal privies.
The tramp of three or four pairs of feet moving away was followed shortly by one of the two subordinate voices rising again. “Nice bruise we gave you yesterday, ratfilth.”
Perin and Sudar’s eyes widened in horror, and as one, they began to move swiftly and quietly along the battered fence. In moments, they were looking out and down into a small, scrubby square designed as some kind of playground. A child’s ball was lying against the far brick wall of a converted tannery, and some kind of goal had been painted sloppily on the near wall of another unidentified building. Also lying in the dust, his hands over his face and his legs pulled up to protect his groin and stomach, was Aranyo.
“We did his dad, wasn’t it, weeks ago?” One of the two Observatory Guards realised aloud, turning to his partner, a taller, broader man with a similar expression of vacant cruelty. “Same hair, same build, I could swear…oy, ratfilth! Your dad’s a criminal, right?”
“They’re all criminals in here, pal.”
“Well, certainly. All right. Your dad—we done him before, didn’t we? Hey, ratfilth, answer when I ask!” He kicked out and caught Aranyo across his shin. As if suddenly motivated by his friend’s violence, the larger man put his foot on Aranyo’s neck.
“We did do his dad. Taking stolen stuff—black market stuff. Seven City stuff. Stabbing our city in the guts to put food on his table. Selfish bastard.”
Sudar looked up at Perin, his eyes filled with a mixture of fear and rage. Borderers had no authority as lawkeepers inside the city. And never over the Observatory Guards who often superseded the City Guard.
“You’re doin’ better than your dad did,” the smaller of the two sneered, crouching next to Aranyo as his friend put a little more weight on the boy’s neck. He reached out and grabbed the shirt Aranyo wore, slowly tearing it for no apparent reason as he spoke.
“Your dad, he wet himself by the time we put him on the floor. But then, we’d hit him ‘arder than you. So you’re lucky, really.”
“Hey…” The big one stepped off Aranyo, cracking his knuckles. “How about we take a piss on this one…”
Perin had had enough, and so had Medrivar. He stepped forward all the way into the small yard, walking with purpose. After a momentary hesitation, Sudar forced himself to follow. Both Oh-gees looked up in surprise. Their reaction was annoyance, not guilt.
“Clear off, lads. This is none of yours.”
“It is now,” Perin answered clearly, with barely a tremble in his voice.
Sudar said nothing.
The Observatory Guards both had swords at their belts. Sudar and Perin were not even dressed in their Borderer uniforms. They had no weapons.
“Tell me,” Perin started, swallowing hard, “how did they work out what bits to put armour on, after you rolled down off the shiteheap?”
“More like dropped out of a pig’s arse,” Sudar growled fiercely. His fists were raised in the stance of someone who not only knew how to fight according to the Borderer manner, but had been trained previously how to use his fists. No wonder he made a good spearman. His tradesman father had obviously paid for more than just academic tutelage.
The Observatory Guards were not men who extended arguments. The big one took two steps forward, received Sudar’s punch with a grunt, and then laid the boy flat and unconscious with a swing of his own. The short Oh-gee drew his sword and pointed it at Perin, grinning maliciously.
“If you need to go, Szagu, feel free to use this privy.” He caught Aranyo with a back kick. “In the meantime, mate, I’ll put some scars on this one’s face.” He leered pointedly at Perin.
“If you can!” Perin fired off, overcome by some mad confidence. Don’t slip and fall on it. “And you, the big bastard, if you dirty that pal of mine, I’ll cut off whatever first comes to mind and then hit you with it!” Perin tensed, ready, watching for the first sign of movement from the short man. Medrivar ran memories of disarming techniques through Perin’s mind at an alarming rate, unfortunately forgetting to leave out the ones where the one doing the disarming ended up horribly impaled.
“Who in a whore’s bed do you think you are?” Szagu roared, coming to stand next to his companion, drawing his own short sword. Behind them, Aranyo immediately began to crawl away, glancing up only once. All he could see of his rescuer was Perin’s legs, seen through the legs of the short guard.
Perin swallowed. Well, it hardly mattered now, considering he was probably about to be spitted by two swords simultaneously. So much for it being safer for a fugitive in the Borderers. Or maybe his mistake had been to challenge two armed men with nothing but his fists and hasty insults…
But there was no way he could have let Aranyo suffer while he hid.
Oh, well, then. In for a fel, in for a menel.
“I’m the Gravedigger. And…and…you’re both about to die!”