Nether Light

Take a journey through a world punished by a dark, imprisoned magic.
A world where children are given poison.
A world where your talent is decided by the state.


When refugee Guyen washes up in the land of his enemy, he knows he will fight, but soon finds himself falling down a well of wonder and improbability.

Can he survive a system designed to oppress him? Can he tame his anger to unleash his potential? Can he see his enemy for what they truly are?

Nether Light is a gritty, heart-wrenching tale of high magic and high stakes, loves lost and friendships gained, set in an oil-lit, 18th century world. Epic fantasy filled with plotting, scheming, and racy, jaw-dropping, immersive adventure.

Please note: This book contains mature themes.spfbo20-finalist

Also available on Audio Book

Chapter 1 Preview


A Lust for Life

In a clearing, in a wood, stood a cottage more hovel than home. Outside, under the gaze of two tethered horses, a lizard crept along in the shade of a sea of purple lilies quite tall enough to hide a crouching man. The scents were of sweet herbs and nectar, jasmine and elderflower recently opened. The day was hot.

Inside the cottage, a blonde woman, Livia, tended to newborn twins laid out on the parlour table. One slept, his tiny fist covering his mouth as if stifling a yawn. The other kicked inside his blanket. A ruddy-faced midwife hovered over them, a vial of blue liquid, a quill syringe and a knife in hand. She noticed Livia’s wet cheek. “Don’t fret,” she said. “Soon be done.”

Two men in brown robes looked on. The Chief Overseer perched on a stool, half-bald, greying beard tapered to a point. He drank a mug of black tea. The Junior Overseer, a much younger man, lingered next to the open window, a hand on his shortsword, his expression tense. “He’s coming,” he said.

The Chief Overseer sank his brew and stood.

The door opened. The boys’ father appeared, sweat dripping down his forehead. Matted black hair hung over one half of his face, obscuring an eye. He stared poison at the unwelcome visitors.

The Chief Overseer regarded him, unmoved. “Do forgive the intrusion, paysan. Olvar, is it not?”

“Yes,” Olvar said.

“Please, take a seat.”

“I’d rather stand.”

“We insist,” the Junior Overseer hissed. He nodded at the rocking chair beside the hearth.

Olvar exchanged a look with his wife, raising his palms. “As you wish, sir.” He pulled the door closed and took the seat, breathing heavily.

“Do you know who I am?” the Chief Overseer asked.

“You are Scalth Pukht,” Olvar said. Everyone in these parts knew Pukht by reputation. A zealot of the highest order, one of the honoured amongst the Brothers of Nor.

“And know you my area of expertise, paysan?”

“You oversee the Binding, sir.”

“Yes. Good.” Pukht smiled, the effect cheerless. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

“I do not, sir.”

He produced a tabac tin and began to pack his pipe. “I have a busy schedule, paysan, and many grave responsibilities. Yet I find myself in the middle of nowhere, two hours ride from Novgora. And I am not a well man.”

Olvar grunted. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Pukht raised an eyebrow. “Yet, here I am.” He produced a taper and motioned towards the hearth, on which bubbled a cauldron of broth. “Do you mind?”

“My house is your house, sir.”

Pukht nodded approvingly and walked over, bending down to touch the taper to the flame. The tallow caught in a fizz of yellow fire, and he lit the pipe, inhaling a lungful of smoke. He shook out the flame and looked down at the twins. “How old are they?”

“Three months.”

“Bonnie lads. You must be proud.”

“We are.” Something in Pukht’s tone made Olvar’s skin crawl, like a bully noting how delicious an apple looked, right before they snatched it away. “They have not been well,” Olvar added, “otherwise I would have brought them to you.”

“And yet you have not. And now my day is wasted and my back is wrecked.” Pukht scanned the cottage. “My duties, paysan, are many. Not only must I enforce the Binding, but also identify those families who would subvert it, those whose cases stand out, those who do not fit the pattern.” His eyes rested on Livia, clearly a foreigner. “You are an uncommon union, are you not?”

“I do not believe so, sir,” Olvar said.

Pukht turned back to the table. “One might hardly guess these two are born of the same mother.”

“I have the scars to prove they are, sir,” Livia said.

Pukht met her eyes. “I shall have to take your word for that.” He took another lungful of smoke. “By rights, of course, I should arrest you both for harbouring Unbound.”

“We are but a few weeks late,” Olvar said carefully.

“Sadly, weeks turn to months, paysan, which turn to years. And before you know it, your bonnie lads are crazed madmen savaging good folk in their beds.” Olvar caught the midwife’s eye. She stared back, judging. “Do you know what they call me?” Pukht asked. Olvar hesitated. Pukht tapped his pipe. “Please, I shall not take offence.”

“They call you the Rat Catcher, Chief Overseer.”

“Indeed. Ridiculous, is it not? Such crassness belies the nature of our foe. Rats are instinctual, they strive merely to survive, whereas the Unbound and their sympathisers are cunning, some would say wicked. One cannot say that of vermin.”

Olvar shifted uncomfortably. “Indeed not, sir.”

“No, whereas a family of rats cares only to feather its nest, those families which take up my time hide their nests from view. Which sort are you, I wonder? Unorganised, neglectful, honest creatures trying to survive, or something more dangerous?”

“We are but a normal family, sir. I fear that on this occasion, your time is wasted.”

“Ah, but it is mine to waste, paysan. As I said, patterns are what interest me. And yours…” He took another puff. “A foreign wife, a garden full of strange plants, a secluded cottage in the woods—why, some would say they were grounds on which to suspect witchery.”

“I can assure you, Chief Overseer, we are a very traditional, very usual family.”

“Is that so?” Sunbeams danced in the cloud of white hazelnut smoke. Pukht regarded Olvar sombrely. “I am a merciful man, paysan, I will not condemn a child to die and I do not send those who consort with the Unbound to the rope unless I have to, but if there is one thing I cannot abide, it is the unnecessary harm which those who would refuse the Binding bring upon us all.”

There was no reasoning with this man, no point telling him it was a likely death sentence if either child received the injection. But Olvar was not a man of violence, this could all still be settled peaceably.

“Sir, we are but honest folk who only wish the best for our boys. But they should be at their strongest to do well with the Binding. Just another week, then once I’m sure they are over their sickness, I shall bring them to Kal Tenkha myself.”

“A week will make no difference, paysan. We shall do it now, then I can close your case.” Pukht signalled the midwife. Olvar’s lip twitched, knuckles turning white on the armrests.

The midwife offered Livia a flat smile. “They’ll feel but a scratch. Hundreds I have done, and yet not lost one.” She uncorked the vial, pouring the blue contents into a small bladder. The Binding agent, the concoction.

Olvar and Livia exchanged a desperate look. One of the twins had a crop of black hair. The midwife took his tiny thigh in hand, pressing down, looking for a vein. The boy screamed, a terrible sound of the kind only a bairn can make. Pukht’s face wrinkled with disgust.

The midwife frowned at Livia. “Please control your child, girl. It is a delicate procedure.”

Livia placed a hand on the table. “You said it would be but a scratch.” She masked her anger well, assisted by her poor command of the local dialect and a delicate manner.

“Just shut it up,” Pukht snapped.

Olvar jumped up. The Junior Overseer pulled his sword. Olvar raised a placating hand. “Let me, I have a way with him.” The man nodded slowly, so Olvar picked the boy up. Bouncing him in his arms, he went to the window, taking down the green glass bottle which sat on the sill. The Junior Overseer regarded him suspiciously. “He likes this,” Olvar said. He held the bottle in front of the boy who quietened, mesmerised, reaching out to touch the magical substance. Olvar laid him back down on the table and stepped away.

Something flashed through the window. The Junior Overseer grunted, hands going to his neck. An arrow shaft protruded from it. He buckled. Pukht went for his sword. Olvar dived for the cauldron. Boiling broth sprayed the zealot’s face. Pukht roared, lashing out half-blinded, catching Olvar in the gut. Olvar cried out, the pan crashing to the floor. Pukht raised his blade.

“No!” screeched the midwife.

Pukht took a sharp breath, eyes wide. His sword clattered to the floor and he stumbled into Olvar, holding onto him like a sagging boxer. Olvar pushed back, and both men slumped, landing beside each other on the quarry tiles. Livia stood over them, the midwife’s knife in hand, the blade dripping claret where she’d stabbed Pukht in the back. He lay wheezing, choking, blood filling his lungs. A few seconds later, his eyes rolled back. He went limp.

Livia gasped, letting the knife fall to join sword, pan, and pooling broth. “Oh gods, Olvar, you’re hurt.”

“Don’t worry, woman, it’s just a scratch.”

Livia whirled round, scooping up her boys as the door burst open. A squat-faced man appeared there, crossbow slung over his shoulder. He stalked up to the injured Junior Overseer, still emitting rasping, gurgling breaths, and buried his knife in the base of his skull. The breaths stopped. He went to Olvar, rolling the dead Pukht over with his boot. “You all right?”

“I’ll live,” Olvar winced, gritting his teeth against the pain.

The midwife backed up against the wall, muttering prayers. She looked like she might be sick at any moment. “They must be bound,” she stammered.

Olvar snarled. “You know not of what you talk, woman.”

She looked between them, eyes wild. “How can you be so cruel?”

Livia rounded on her, both babes now crying in her arms. “You are mistaken,” she sobbed. “To Bind them would mean their deaths.”

The midwife could manage only a horrified stare. “Your mind is weary by rose and blossom, girl. What have you done?”

Olvar turned his face to the light, pulling back his hair to reveal a shrivelled eye as dead as a rock. “See this, midwife? How many of my brothers do you think survived the Binding?”

She stared, revolted. “I would not know, sir.”

“None, that’s how many. Concoction does not take well with my blood.”

She grimaced at the red pool spreading out around the Chief Overseer. “And yet you lived? Was your disfigurement not a price worth paying?”

Olvar groaned, holding his side. “My sons will do better than live, hag. Leave my house. There be no welcome here for sympathisers.” He paused. “Unless you would have the same welcome as your brothers?”

She shrank back. Livia shot Olvar a warning look and turned to the midwife. “Let us pay you for your time.”

The midwife’s eyes flicked between the two dead men. “I should just go.”

“Nonsense,” Olvar grunted. “It must have been a three-hour walk for you.”

She nodded uncertainly. “About that, sir.”

“In that case, you deserve recompense for your trouble.”

Livia went to a shelf, withdrawing a silver coin from a pot next to some dried herbs. “Here.” She pressed it into the woman’s hand.

The midwife pocketed it, her face distracted, and quickly gathered her potions up, avoiding looking at the deceased overseers. She fastened her bag and made to leave.

Olvar grabbed her ankle, rooting her to the floor. “If anyone should hear about this, I shall know where to locate that loose tongue of yours to cut it out.”

The midwife paled, her colour not returning all the while she hurried away down the dirt track and out of sight past the old oak tree.


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