26 December 2010

#SampleSunday 3: Torc of Moonlight SE - Chapter 1(part 1)

 If you are following #SampleSunday you'll know the drill. If this is your first time, writers are posting samples of their work each Sunday and Tweeting the new upload. If you like what you read, please leave a comment and ReTweet. Many thanks.

Thought I'd start this offering with a couple of review snippets. Read more at http://tinyurl.com/39jpmlf

…Fast-paced and thrilling, the novel captures the reader from start to finish. The language that Acaster uses is full of vivid imagery and rich descriptions that are sure to engage the reader; painting either a beautiful image of the various landscapes or of the chilling moments filled with tension.
HullFire, Feb 2010 issue Student Magazine, University of Hull (the main setting in the book)

The historical detail is immaculate, as is the authentic detail of modern student-life, the whole suffused with a rich pagan sexuality… Superbly gripping

After last week’s Prologue – read it first as it is pertinent – here’s part of the opening chapter. Be advised that it contains some swearing, normal to late teen blokes. Part 2 will be posted next Sunday. Enjoy!

Chapter 1 – Part 1

His lungs were on fire and his legs felt like lead. If he had not been able to see the wall looming towards him, Nick would have thrown in the towel and collapsed on the grass. But Murray was behind him, stomping on his heels with the power of a raging bull elephant, the same height as himself but twenty kilos heavier, and Nick knew that he should have burned him off the park, should have been standing at the finish with his usual quip about the beer growing warm and the girls all being taken. But he wasn’t. Was nowhere near it. Murray was gaining on him. Was going to catch him and pass him. And there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.
Summoning his last reserves, Nick willed himself another half metre. Too late he realised he had misjudged the distance to the wall. It had jumped forward to meet him, its stark geometric pattern filling his vision, offering no route of escape. He tried to lift his arms, to turn aside his head, but he had not left himself enough time, enough space. His shoulder connected with the rough red brick with such force that his feet left the ground and he was propelled through the air to land in a heap on the grass. Murray’s booming voice filtered through his daze.
‘Fuck me, Blaketon! I nearly had you!’
Nick tried to drag his sprawling limbs into some semblance of order, but the initial numbness was fast transforming into throbbing pain. At the very least he had dislocated his shoulder and broken his collarbone; at the very worst he was not long for this world.
‘Christ, look at you. This is what happens after a summer of licentious debauchery.’ Murray breathed hard, catching his wind. ‘I, on the other hand, am reaping the benefits of a temperate and soul-enriching sabbatical.’
‘Wanker.’
The profanity was meant to convey all the emotions of a first fifteen battle song, but it left Nick’s lips a damp gasp. Murray guffawed. Nick couldn’t understand where his friend was drawing his energy from. He’d felt better after being dragged semi-conscious from beneath a collapsed rugby scrum.
Murray was on his feet again, pumping his arms and jogging on the spot. The ground beneath Nick reverberated with each footfall, sending an oddly undulating spasm down his spine and along his ribs. At first it felt curiously soothing, how he imagined riding a water bed, and then came the realisation that the sloshing was inside him, and a prickle of perspiration erupted over his body. He rolled himself over to watch the remains of his breakfast spread across the grass beneath his nose.
Strong hands raised him to his knees.
‘Any more where that came from?’
Nick thought about it and shook his head. His senses swam. He hoped Murray wasn’t going to let go of him. Without support he would end nose first in the lumpy slime seeping into the earth.
‘I’m going to sit you back. Ready?’
An arm slid round his ribs, and Nick felt as though he were floating in some dreamscape where actions were un-coordinated and strangely out of time. Was he passing out?
‘You look like shit.’
‘Feel it.’
Murray’s fingers gripped the back of his neck. ‘Drop your head between your knees.’
‘No!’ He had not meant to sound so panicked, but at least it stilled the insistent pressure of Murray’s hand.
‘Is he okay?’
The voice was unrecognised. Nick saw a pair of neatly creased denims move into his line of vision. That was all he needed: a spectator.
‘Will be soon,’ Murray was saying. ‘Do me a favour: watch him, will you, two minutes, while I grab our gear from the changing room?’
Murray stood and Nick started after him, to be forced back on to his haunches by a hand on his shoulder.
‘Don’t move or I’ll bounce you.’ Murray left, trotting along the side of the Sports Centre to its entrance.
The spectator didn’t say anything. Nick didn’t look up at him. The seconds ticked by. Two minutes came and went. The spectator moved his weight from one foot to the other. Not a sportsman, Nick concluded. He wished he would just leave.
‘A bit hard on the ale last night, were you?’
The voice was full of forced camaraderie bordering, Nick felt, on scorn. He let his gaze rise up the ironed denims until it reached a clutch of volumes carried uncomfortably by a thin-fingered hand. Although it was partly obscured, the silver print of the facing title screamed its worth at him. The spectator was a Sciences student. Nick had fallen foul of those supercilious bastards the previous semester when they had played an inter-faculty friendly.
His vision cleared. The world was moving in real time again, but when Nick looked up he squinted at the face of the spectator as if he were having trouble focusing.
‘Malaria,’ he said quietly. ‘Sometimes there just isn’t the warning.’ He watched the youth’s expression cloud. ‘Damned debilitating,’ he added.
‘Oh. Yes. Er, I can imagine.’
Nick dropped his head to chortle low in his throat, and chalked one up for the Arts.
The ensuing silence was broken by the return of Murray who threw down his sports bag and proceeded to wrap Nick’s tracksuit top round his shoulders. The spectator sidled away and Nick rose to his feet, waving aside Murray’s help.
‘Feeling better, are we?’
‘Much.’
‘Good. For one awful moment I thought I was going to have to resort to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.’
‘Spare me.’
‘Just what I thought. That’s why I left you with him. If you were going to infect anybody it wasn’t going to be me.’
They grinned at each other, sharing the relief of the moment.
‘Feel strong enough to walk to the Med Centre?’
‘I’m not going to the Med Centre.’
Picking up his sports bag, Murray took a step towards him. He didn’t have the height to tower over most people, but his bulk could blot out the sun.
‘Read my lips, lover: you are going to the Med Centre.’
Nick shook his head and started walking towards the complex of buildings at the further side of the sports field. ‘Don’t do a number on me, Murray. I’ve had it all fucking summer.’
They fell into step.
‘I guessed things hadn’t run quite according to plan when I saw the suntan Louise is sporting. What did she tell you?’
The muscles in Nick’s neck began to tighten. ‘I haven’t seen her.’
He nipped across the access road in front of a group of cyclists. One swore at him, but he paid no attention. The paved walkway between Staff House and the Sciences block had seen none of the early October sun, and the breeze which had seemed almost summer-like on the playing field tunnelled between the buildings with an edge that spoke of frost. Murray was at his shoulder before he reached the square.
‘Well, you can certainly step it out now, but what about tonight? The posters are up, y’know. There’ll be a lot of young blood wanting to show off their talent. After last season Hodgson has a scent for glory, and he’ll want only the best. You put in a replay of that little stunt and he won’t just shunt you off to the Med Centre, he’ll call an ambulance.’
‘I feel fine now.’
‘All I’m saying is it might be an idea to put a word in his ear. Y’know, immune system fighting a virus, not able to put in a peak performance, going to dose yourself up and get an early night, etc, etc. Then if you do shit out your place is covered. And if you end up with ’flu you can go sneeze all over him to prove it.’
‘I told you, I’m fine.’
They made their way through the people funnelling beneath the arch of the main Science building. Most seemed to be coming in the opposite direction, and half of them were pushing bicycles. Murray exchanged greetings with students he knew, and back out in the sunshine he drew level with Nick.
‘I would have thought you would have hoped to go down with something like ’flu, just to put your mind at rest that it’s nothing more serious.’
‘I really worried you, didn’t I?’
‘Let’s just say that I had this thought of dropping Law and taking up Medicine.’
‘I’m fine. Honest.’
‘Yeah, sure. Do us both a favour, eh? Get a shower and climb into bed for the rest of the day.’
Nick shook his head. ‘I’ve a seminar at 11.15.’
‘Give it a miss.’
‘I missed too many last year.’
Murray kicked out at an empty crisp packet on the flagstones and didn’t answer. As they cornered the Chemistry building Nick glanced at his wristwatch.
‘Look, I’ve not got long. I’ll see you tonight.’
‘And if you start feeling weird again you’ll go to the Med Centre, right?’
‘What is this? Are you trying to imitate my mother?’
They laughed and parted company. Nick had only gone a few paces when a theatrically falsetto voice pierced the general hubbub.
‘And change your underclothes. They’re dis-gusting.’
Waving two fingers in the air, Nick kept walking.
Leaving the ivy-covered walls of the older buildings, he passed alongside the grey concrete rear of the Law block and on to the narrow path that wound through the thin scrub birch separating the campus proper from the first of the public roads.
When he’d come to Hull he’d been pleased that the original blood-red brick buildings, with their small-paned windows and incongruously peaked attic rooms, had made up such a small proportion of the university’s campus. A year on he was grateful for the trees, and for the forethought of those who had planted them in every conceivable nook and cranny. In spring the squares were ankle deep in pink and white blossoms. Now, on breezy days, leaves sang out their death rattle as they clung to swaying branches, or ran before him, crisp and golden, to be caught in a root and crushed underfoot. Concrete, no matter the style, was concrete, stark and uncompromising. Ivy would never grow up the walls of the Law block, but the birds sang in the trees below it, and the hedgehogs grubbed in their roots to scurry across to the gardens opposite as soon as the traffic quietened.
He was becoming sentimental, there was no denying it. Emotional even. Perhaps Murray was right, perhaps he was sickening for something. Or perhaps he was just wallowing in his own self-pity. No matter how he tried to keep his thoughts in check, Murray’s voice was in his head telling him of the tan Louise was sporting, and the memory of that never-changing, ever-cheerful voicemail message kept kicking into play, laughing at him.
The gate was stuck again. He released the latch and pushed at it with his thigh, managing only to reinforce the bruise he had been cultivating since taking up residence at the house. He freed the latch, this time lifting the gate clear of the sneck. It swung easily on freshly greased hinges.
‘Sodding thing,’ Nick muttered, and he pressed it back further, catching it securely in the rose bushes which separated the small front garden from its neighbour.
Gaining a house on Salmon Grove had been the finest coup of his entire first year. The hall of residence he had been allocated had been no dump, of course. With its park-like gardens and in-house entertainment committee it had been all he had imagined university life to be. The problem was that it was situated two miles from the main campus, and, as the year progressed, those two miles had lengthened into twenty and then into two hundred. At Salmon Grove he could fall out of bed straight into a lecture and be back before the sheets had cooled.
Closing the door behind him, he waited for his vision to become accustomed to the gloom. The only window in the hallway was above the solid front door, and the mature trees growing out of the pavement restricted the light as well as screening the concrete edifices across the road. Walking into the handlebars of Maureen’s bicycle had been an incident he did not wish to repeat, though why she insisted on having a bicycle when she was less than a stone’s throw from the campus was beyond him.
Her bike wasn’t there, only a bulging black dustbin liner which he purposely ignored. Both downstairs doors were closed, and there seemed to be no movement coming from above. Hopefully the other occupants were out and he had the house to himself. Separating his room key on the ring, he laid a hand on the banister and dragged himself up the stairs.
The door swung back revealing his front bedroom exactly as he had left it earlier that morning, hardly changed from the Saturday before when he’d double-parked the rental and heaved the contents of his life up the stairs. He would have to empty the boxes soon; he could hardly remember what was in them.
The unmade bed beneath the window looked inviting, and if he was going down with something it made sense to get it out of his system with as little hassle as possible. It also made sense not to rock the boat, especially after the one-to-one he’d endured at the end of the previous semester, and the lies he’d told back home.
‘So how did Murray do? Is he struggling, too?’
His parents had sat together on the sofa. He couldn’t remember them ever sitting together on the sofa before. The sofa had always been for him and his sisters.
‘Everybody has found it hard. It’s just so different. You think it’s simply going to be an extension of ‘A’ levels, but it’s not.’
His father had remained tight-lipped, his mother quietly understanding. He would have felt better if it had dissolved into a row. And then, of course, had come the bombshell.
‘You said that you hadn’t much studying to do over the summer. Your father’s managed to get you a job, holiday relief at the plant.’
All he’d said was, ‘Oh.’
What the hell could he have said? His mother had taken on extra hours to help with his student loan, and his sisters had made it perfectly plain that they held him responsible for their not having a holiday. To cap it all Louise had dropped him like a steaming turd and was now sporting a suntan that had made Murray’s eyes water.
Stripping off his running gear, he grabbed a still-damp towel and walked on to the landing and into the shower room.
It was good to have a shower with an uninterrupted flow of water. No one filling kettles or flushing toilets. No sudden spikes in the temperature, freezing one moment, scalding the next. He rested his forehead against the cool tiles, letting the water play directly on to his neck and shoulder. He had jarred them badly when he had collided with the wall, but had not realised how stiff the muscles had grown. The particles of red brick embedded in his skin were a surprise, too. He must have hit the wall with the power of an express.
Water poured on to his head, fanning his hair, running along his cheekbones and down his nose. He opened his mouth to breathe, and his breathing became slower as the warmth of the water lulled him. The building steam felt damp in his lungs, but soothing, the noise of the jet hypnotic in its unending hiss.
He snapped round the dial and the water shut off. How long had he been standing there? His fingertips looked like gnarled tree bark. He pushed his hair from his face and blinked. He was supposed to be at a seminar.
Towelling himself as he went, he dripped his way back across the landing to probe the discarded paper cups on his study table for his wristwatch. Five minutes. Shit.
The clothes he’d discarded the night before still lay at the foot of the bed and he dragged them on, regardless of how they looked. His socks were stiff, but he had no idea of where a clean pair was and no time to search one out. The orange wallet file shrieked at him from across the room like a well wound alarm clock. There wasn’t much in it: some paper and a pen, a few notices he’d picked up, a copy of his timetable, but it looked good, looked as if he’d got his act together. He laid a hand on it, grabbed his keys and slammed the door behind him.

‘So nice of you to join us, number 28. I hope we haven’t dragged you away from anything interesting.’
Nick stood in the doorway looking across the heads of the students to the lecturer, one hand on her hip, the other knuckles down on the table beside her. It didn’t seem like a good idea to answer, especially as he couldn’t remember her name. The door behind him opened with a groan of its spring and the lecturer’s gaze realigned on a point beyond his shoulder.
‘Number 29! Well, hello there.’
Jesus, was she really counting them in?
~~
Thanks for reading. There'll be more next week. If you can't wait, right-click on the cover, or download a free sample from your chosen retailer.

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