A Different Kingdom
by Paul Kearney
£7.99 (UK) ISBN 978-1-78108-187-7
$7.99/$9.99 (US & CAN) ISBN 978-1-78108-186-0
Available in paperback and ebook on Amazon.co.uk
Available in paperback and ebook on Amazon.com
Available in ebook from the Rebellion Publishing online store and for Kobo
“An utterly splendid piece” – Interzone
“Paul Kearney remains one of the most criminally underrated authors working in the genre today.” – Tor.com
Paul Kearney is one of the most vital voices in fantasy and now the master of the genre returns with his masterpiece – A Different Kingdom.
Michael Fay is a normal boy, living with his grandparents on their family farm. In the woods—once thought safe and well-explored—there are wolves; and other, stranger things. Then one day he finds himself in the Other Place. There are wild people, and terrible monsters, and a girl called Cat.
When the wolves follow him from the Other Place to his family’s doorstep, Michael must choose between locking the doors and looking away—or following Cat on an adventure that may take an entire lifetime in the Other Place. He will become a man, and a warrior, and confront the Devil himself: the terrible Dark Horseman…
Set in rural Ireland, A Different Kingdom is an incredible novel about the thin lines between this world and the next. A unique and stunning tour de force that will reinvigorate your love of the fantasy genre.
And as it arrives in book stores today, we’re very pleased to be able to offer you the chance to read the first two chapters for free!
When he had been very young, he had told people of the things he saw. His aunt, his grandparents; anyone who would listen. And they had smiled that peculiar adult smile which was not so much amusement as uneasiness, as if to say; what an imagination.
There was no one else to tell; there would not be for quite a while. And even when that someone appeared she would be as unbelievable as the other things. So he spoke to no one.
How could he make them believe that there were wolves in the woods surrounding his grandparents’ farm, that when he stood on the brim of the stream there he could hear the sound of voices, people speaking in an unknown tongue, harsh and savage? Voices from the Other Place. And he could not tell them, for his tongue stiffened in terror when he tried, that he had seen a werewolf padding silently in the back yard in the dead of night, sniffing at the locked doors with its eyes reflecting back the light of a gibbous moon.
No. There was nothing he could say to make them believe, so he said nothing. And they never remarked on the fact that he always kept his window shut at nights.
To an adult, with the weariness of the world in his veins, the land is as detailed and defined as a ship in a bottle. Ireland is a small country, its northern province smaller still. Sea surrounds it and from the highest of its hills a man can see half its breadth at a glance.
But to a child the land is amorphous, vast, huge beyond measure—if anyone should need to do anything as absurd as measure it. It is a horizon of blue mountains on all sides, looming woods deep with secrets and running streams pouring out of ken to a distant and guessed-at sea. For the child a trip three fields away is an expedition, following a mile of stream akin to paddling the Amazon. A small land, then, but not for children. It is wide enough for fairy tales.
Deep as the peat, the history lies in layers. There are arms caches in desolate places, some forgotten for half a century, some slick with preserving grease and ripe for future murder. A flickering warfare has tilted to and fro across the meadows and woods, the streams and villages, for years beyond count. It is as ritualistic as the turning of the earth, a bloody libation to old, unsatisfied gods. It is a way of life.
Dredging the rivers turns up pale, Celtic gold or, even older, shaped flint, flaked to fit a hand gone to dust ten thousand years before. It is an old country, this Isle of Emerald, millennia in the shaping. War, famine and religion have marked it irrevocably, staining the minds of the people, filling the shadow of the standing stones, seeping into the peat for future fuel. It is his home.
He lives amid the acres his family has occupied for generations. They have multiplied through the years, growing from a single unit into a clan, a tribe. Sons have built houses and scraped together farms in their fathers’ shadows. Daughters have married neighbours. Exiles have been and gone, have sailed away and returned to die where they were born. His family has roots here as old as the hill fort nestled on the highest of the pastures. They have possessed the land, raped it, nurtured it, cursed it and been enslaved by it.
His parents have been killed by it. He was orphaned by a bomb meant for someone else. A shopping trip to Belfast in the car his father had just bought and was so proud of…
He lives with his grandparents now, the memory a mere blur in his young mind. He does know that outside this world of his the larger world is growing darker, and in the discussions of grown-ups there is talk of rights, of equality. He does not know—nor does anyone—that in the next decade this quiet world will explode.
For the present, however, his grandparents’ farm is the star his life circles. The farm is a scattered square of buildings, white-washed and red-roofed, thatch only recently replaced by the scarlet corrugated iron. There are small, forgotten sheds filled with fascinating rubbish, the jetsam of past seasons. There are lost corners, hidden nests, sudden smells, the stink of decay and fermentation, dung and hay, animals and humans.
The farm is a city in miniature, the citizens everything from the field mice in the dairy to the pigeons in the stables. There are chickens pecking in the stone-paved back yard, sly felines sleepy by day and psychopathic at night, barking collies trying to appear busy, calm-eyed horses unaware that their time of pulling and ploughing is over and that they are kept out of sentiment (though this is never admitted). There are sheep in the lower meadows, a rancid goat in the top paddock that was once a lawn, a heavily pregnant sow grunting happily to herself among the oaks and acorns of the bottom inch, and half a dozen kittens that no one has yet had the heart to drown.
But that is not all. Down by the river that cradles the farm there are water rats and voles by the score. Foxes slink across the fields at night, unnerving the chickens, and there are badger setts in the woods at the bottom of the hills. At least one kingfisher darts for stickleback, and minnow from the alders that overlook the riverbank, and curlews call constantly, arcing over the hills like arrows into the heart of the mountains in the west. The world is a busy place, thriving and writhing with activity, but for all that it is a quiet one. Horses on the roads are not yet uncommon, and cars are still a means to an end. The roads themselves are bad, potholed and crumbling, water-riven in winter and dust-baked in summer. It is two miles along them to the nearest village, which is itself nothing more than a hamlet with a public house and three churches. The town with the market that is visited once a week is eleven miles away.
Between the blunt peaks of the Sperrin mountains where the sun always sets, and the stony, gorse-ridden heights of the Antrim plateau to the east, the wide river valley of the Bann opens out for twenty miles, encompassing two counties. It is dark with woods and intaglioed with fields of barley and potato, kale and turnip, and the rich rolling pastures and meadows with their attendant hedges. Villages are spattered over all, islands in the green mantle of the world. There are no towns worth speaking of, and the sprawl of housing estates will not infect the land for another twenty years. It is a last breathing space, a final look around at the soon-to-be-felled woods, the rush-choked bottom meadows, the fields with the wild flowers that have seeded for a thousand years and which knew the feet of the Druids.
But this is beyond his knowledge. The village, the market town, these are to him immense distances away, and beyond them he knows only rumours of America, land of exiles. The farm, the river, and the fields and woods about his home; these are his kingdom.
Even then Michael’s grandmother seemed old, older than his grandfather whom she would one day outlive. She was a big woman with large hands and mop of white hair that escaped every clip and band she installed to imprison it. Inclined to stoutness, she called herself ‘big-boned’, and would glare round when she said it, as if daring anyone to contradict her. Her eyes were a bright blue, the whites of them slowly yellowing with the weight of years, but she kept her own chickens and milked her own goat and darned endless socks with complacent skill. She cooked huge meals effortlessly, bringing in vegetables from the garden with the mud clinging to them and bullying anyone who was near to carry in wood for the big range that shouted with heat at one end of the kitchen, taking up almost the entire wall. Its top plate was never cold and there was always a villainous pot of tea stewing there that would be as dark as clay in the cup and which Michael’s grandfather downed daily by the gallon. Coffee was unheard of, and breakfasts were massive affairs of spitting bacon and fried eggs and soda bread. The men—family and hired workers—would congregate in the stone-flagged kitchen and eat mounds of steaming food before turning out to the fields and stables while mist was rising up out of the meadow bottoms and the last star was considering quitting the sky. There were cold mornings, stiff with winter and dark as pitch, when the men took swinging lanterns out with them, electricity not yet having been wired to the byre and the stables. And there were soft summer dawns when the sun would be a ball of molten fire inching its way up a flawless sky and pouring flaxen light over the waking land like a benison.
And if Michael’s grandfather, all six feet five inches of him, was lord of the farm and the fields, the labourers and the crops, then his grandmother was mistress of the house, provider of meals and stem guardian of manners. Hands were washed before meals with the strong carbolic soap whose reek would haunt Michael the whole of his life, and boots were scrubbed free of mud. The house and the farm seemed all of a bustle in those days, with people coming and going, boots clumping in the hall, his grandmother calling out in the yard for the men to come for their dinner—or if they were too far away then Michael would be sent scurrying out to the fields where they would be scattered at their jobs, sweat on their faces, scythes or halters or buckets or shovels or sacks or pitchforks in their hands. He remembered evenings like that, haymaking evenings, when there were clouds of midges floating like gauze in the air and a cow’s low would carry for miles in the stillness, and he would be plastered with hayseeds and specked with liquid dung from his pelter through the meadows to fetch them in.
‘You’ve shit on your nose,’ he would be told calmly. ‘What have you been doing, snowballing with it? Go on with you. Get in and scrub, or your gran will have your hide.’ And he would not see the grin they threw at his running back.
Michael Fay, with shit on his nose, had been running back like that one day in the middle of a waning summer when he tripped, and fell down, and slipped, and slid, and had his life picked up and thrown around and put down again in a different place. In another world.
He could smell the rich earth as he slipped along it, tumbling down a steep incline with his short limbs flailing. He smelled wild garlic and river mud, and when the world had stopped turning he found that he was on the slope leading to the stream at the foot of the bottom meadow, had cartwheeled down twenty feet of steep, hazel-covered bank and had left the sunset-lit evening behind, up in the meadow. Here it was gloomier, with the trees-alder and willow—edging close to the water like animals come to drink, and the twilight already deepening in their shadow.
He sat up, dusting himself off with stubby hands. He could feel twigs lodged in his hair and beetling around inside his shirt, and his clothes were green and black with mud and mould. He grimaced, peering at his black palms then at the river hollow, loud with water noise, swamped with an early dusk. He trolled for minnow here often during the long afternoons when his grandmother released him from the swarm of jobs she found for him every day. He knew this river—for to him it was a river, though barely ten feet wide and shallow enough to wade. If he followed it for a few hundred yards upstream he would come to the old bridge; where a seldom-used road crossed it and the heavy masonry was sunk in the water like the wall of a castle, with nothing but black darkness and skipping water rats under its arch.
Michael shivered, and then froze like a startled rabbit. For there was something different about the river this evening, something strange. The trees seemed thicker, bigger. The willows seemed older, their hair dipping lower into the bickering water. And there were no longer any stumps on the slope he had just fallen down.
He looked behind him. It was true. His grandfather had thinned out the hazel there so the sheep could make their way to the river and drink. Cattle would never have made it down the steep slope without slipping, but sheep could. There had been stumps there to trip the unwary, tangled with ivy and covered with moss, but not one had interrupted Michael’s downward slide, and he could see none now. Odd.
But it flitted out of his mind as quickly as it had come. In the grown-up world there would be an explanation as there always was. Here it did not matter. He sat for a moment, listening to the river and half smiling to himself. Above him the evening star climbed unnoticed over the heads of the trees. All thought of dinner and his errands was leached out of his head. He sat as if waiting for something.
There was a movement in the trees on the other bank of the river. He sat still, though his heart began to beat an audible tattoo in his head.
Branches swung back and forth; something heavy was blundering through them. He stared, but could make out nothing in the fading light. Of themselves, his muscles began to tense under him and his hands gripped fistfuls of leaf mould, dirt grinding in under his nails.
He heard a snatch of talk—a voice, and then another answering. He could not understand the words. They sounded deep, snarling, guttural; but rhythmic as a song. He got upon his haunches, ready for flight.
Something burst into view in the brambles opposite, on the other side of the river. It was the grinning mask of a fox, the eyes alight and the teeth shining, but under it two more eyes glittered and there was a streak of teeth set in a wide grin. Shock took the air out of Michael’s lungs and he fell backwards, scrabbling through the twigs and leaves. There was a bark of something like laughter, and more movement along the riverbank; a dark flickering of shadow. Something plashed into the water, and he caught a glimpse of a prick-eared shape wading the stream upright. There was more talk, more of the song-like chanting and another rattle of hard laughter, like the sound of a woodpecker at work.
‘God!’ he squeaked, kicking soil and leaves into the air as, without thought, he propelled himself up the slope with his backside dragging in the earth. There were more shapes crowding the stream now, though none had yet reached his bank. They were man-like, crouched, wrapped in furs, their limbs gleaming with sweat or paint and the fox faces on their heads. Two of them bore a long pole on their shoulders, a dark shape swinging from it. Something like a hat rack was bound up to the pole. Antlers. And as the air moved out of the river, pushed by a stray breeze, he could smell them. They stank of urine, of rotten meat, of woodsmoke. Their dripping burden reeked of blood and offal.
His nerve broke. He turned his back to the river with the air whooping in and out of his lungs and tears of terror flashing unnoticed on his face. His feet slipped in the muck and mould, his fingers gouging the soil for grip. He clawed his way up to where the trees thinned and the light grew, up to the meadow where he had left his world behind. And as he did, he stubbed his groping fingers agonizingly on a moss-covered tree stump and fell to one side, crying, waiting for the shapes in the river to pounce on him, for that evil stink to surround him. He shut his eyes.
But nothing happened.
He opened them a slit, saw nothing in the gloom, and then stared wide-eyed down the bank.
There was nothing in the river. A bird sang evensong to itself and the brightness of the water was unbroken. The trees were quiet, undisturbed. He sniffed, stifling sobs, and heard across the fields the sounds of the men walking to the house for their dinner. He looked out and saw their shapes walking dark across the dimming fields, the sudden glow of a cigarette, like a tiny eye, winking at him. He crawled out of the well of shadow that was the river course and lay there on the edge of the meadow a moment, spent, his chest heaving in the slow air of the evening. A wood pigeon was talking softly to itself somewhere. One of the men laughed at something—a wholesome, safe sound. He heard the metallic clink of a gate and knew they were entering the back yard, where the lights of the house would be yellow in the windows though it was not yet dark. He got up unsteadily, glancing behind him, and limped away wiping his eyes, blowing his nose on his sleeve. He could feel the mud caking on his cheeks, stiffening under his nails. His grandmother would certainly tan his hide for coming in like this.
And she did. And afterwards she scrubbed him from head to foot at the kitchen sink until his ears were glowing, his cheeks shining and the smell of soap stinging his nose. He sat, in his nightshirt and slippers, at the table with the rest of the household, the remembered contact of her hard palm making him treat his seat gingerly. But he had not cried. The memory of what he had seen at the river was still merry-go-rounding in his head and his crying had been done there, when he had thought himself lost.
He ate his food ravenously, wolfing down potatoes and carrots and lamb lashed with thick gravy, moustaching his upper lip with great gulps of milk. His grandmother darted sharp glances at him now and then in a mixture of disapproval, affection and worry. Michael never noticed. His nose was buried in his glass and behind it his thoughts were whirring like a Catherine wheel. Were those things he had seen at the river what his grandparents called ‘terrorists’—the sort of things that had killed his mammy and daddy? He paused in his swallowing at the thought. He had a vague picture of a terrorist as a mask-wearing, night-loving monster which killed people for fun. And they probably smelled, too. Maybe he had better tell…
He looked around the table, feeling strangely guilty. His grandfather had pushed back his plate and was now lighting his pipe in a flare of match flame, its light throwing into relief his big, roman nose and the chiselled lines: of his face, like a sea cliff that has weathered many storms. The hair on his head, though pure white, was as thick as it had been thirty years before, and his back was still poker-straight. The hand that held the pipe was as huge as a spade, brown and liver-spotted. The hired hands called him ‘The Captain’ because he habitually wore a pair of old cavalry breeches and leather leggings. His boots struck sparks off stones when he walked, a thing which never failed to fascinate Michael.
His grandmother was clearing the plates from the table, helped by her two daughters. His Aunt Rose, not much more than a girl herself, winked at him as she left for the scullery balancing a tower of dirty plates. He began to swing his legs under the table, careful to avoid Demon, his grandfather’s bad-tempered, ageing collie, who crept under there at meals in the hope of scraps. It was the only thing he had ever seen his grandparents disagree on: the grey-muzzled dog under the table at mealtimes. Michael disliked the animal. He was coal-black, lean, sharp-nosed, and he worshipped his master and held the rest of humanity in contempt. But though the house was grand-mother’s kingdom, the dog was grandfather’s workmate of a dozen years and so he stayed.
His Uncle Sean was rolling himself a cigarette, humming under his breath. He had the face of a film star, and his sisters doted on him. He popped the finished fag in his mouth and fumbled unhurriedly for his matches, smiling at Michael’s pink face. People said he looked like Clark Gable, with his thick black hair tumbled over his forehead and those sea-grey eyes which were the hallmark of the Fay family. The local girls congregated around him like wasps on a jam pot when he appeared, polished and brushed, at the dances which were held in the church hall at every month’s end. But he seemed never to notice them. He was caught up with the farm, preoccupied with ways of improving it—often in conflict with the views of his father. Michael had heard some of the labourers talking about him one morning. Too much of a bloody gentleman was Sean, they had said, and one had sniggered, saying if he’d been offered as many cunts as Sean his John Thomas would have been worn away to a button by now. Somehow Michael had known that this was not the sort of thing he could bring up at the dinner table, though he had thought of asking Aunt Rose, who often fished with him in the little river and took him into her bed when the thunder was loud.
Chairs were being pushed back and there were a few belches. (His grandmother was still in the scullery or they would not have dared.) Tobacco smoke spun blue tendrils in the light of the lamps. There was an electric bulb dangling forlornly from the ceiling, but it was saved for special occasions. And besides, Michael’s grandparents hated it. It had no soul, they said, and they continued to light the oil lamps at dusk despite the protests of their children. Electricity was saved for visitors.
The hired hands said their good nights and left for home, slapping their caps on their heads as they went out of the door and sniffing at the starlit air outside. One or two would eat a second dinner cooked by their wives, but most were bachelors and were going back to empty cottages or parents’ houses. There were quite a crowd of them around the farm at this time of year, with haymaking and the harvest approaching. Those inside could hear the scrape and tick of bicycles pushing off from the wall of the house, and then the door had been closed again and Aunt Rachel was drawing the curtains on the night. Demon sidled out from under the table and flopped down before the range with a contented sigh. Old Mullan lit his pipe and sat opposite Michael’s grandfather with a leather halter he was soaping. That was his privilege. He had been with the Fays since the Great War, when he had returned from Flanders a young man with one leg shorter than the other.
Clattering plates and women’s voices came from the scullery. Michael felt sleep hovering around his eyes. He would tell someone tomorrow, perhaps—tell them that there were terrorists with fox faces down by the river waiting to blow everyone up. But it seemed less real here in the solid security of the house. Like a dream. He yawned, and his Aunt Rose pounced on him.
‘You’re half-asleep, yawning there in your nightshirt. Bedtime for you, Michael-boy.’
He protested sleepily as she dragged him from his seat and took his hand in hers. His grandfather nodded at him over pipe smoke and the Irish Field, his grandmother kissed his forehead and Uncle Sean waved a hand absent-mindedly whilst old Mullan merely paused in his soaping for a second. Rose tugged him up the stairs, talking all the while. He liked her to talk, especially if it was a thundery night and he had burrowed into her arms in the girl-smelling bed. She would talk then to keep him from fearing the thunder, though she loved it herself. It made her hair crackle, she said.
He realized suddenly that she was asking how he had come to be so dirty that evening, what had happened to him. He told her he had fallen, had slipped and fallen down to the river, which was the truth and so he had not sinned. And she put him to bed with a kiss, tucked him in and told him to say his prayers. But he tumbled off to sleep forgetting them, with the fox faces grinning at him across the river, telling him he was theirs now. Their little boy.