They're lazy. They're unskilled. And now the fate of the Kingdom is in their hands. Tam, Kern, and Merrik are all failing at life: a homeless thief, a disgraced baker's apprentice, and an incompetent smith. But witnessing a strange ritual in the middle of the night sets them on a collision course with destiny—and with each other. Accused of crimes they did not commit, the boys must band together to clear their names. And in the process, they just might have to do something useful, like battle monsters and save the city. But frankly, that sounds a lot like work.
For me as a writer, premise is everything. If I can't find an interesting situation to explore, I can't stay interested in the project long enough to write it. But for Brotherhood, I wanted to do more than just tackle an intriguing premise. I also wanted to tackle a challenging audience—one that most authors have given up on as a focus: teenage boys.
When I was really young, I read things like The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Danny Dunn, and The Three Investigators. But once I'd reached my teens, it seemed that those sorts of buddy-based adventure stories had all dried up. There certainly weren't any in the fantasy genre. What had happened to the stories full of mystery and sleuthing, secret tunnels, codes, and boys being smarter than the adults around them? Those had been the hallmarks of boyish fascination that had made a die-hard reader of me, but as a teen I couldn't find them anywhere. Eventually I moved on to more grown-up stories, but in the back of my mind, that vacuum has always stood out as a beacon to me. Fantasy adventure buddy-fiction for teen boys. All I had to do was find a way to take all the stuff I'd loved as a kid, put it all together, and then flip the conventions upside down.
Thus was born the premise for Brotherhood of Delinquents. Take a group of boys who don't know or like each other, and who are generally perceived as useless wastrels by the adults around them, and put them in the middle of a mystery that the adults aren't even aware of yet. Add in a dash of secret clubs, hidden passages, and a sense of swash-buckling adventure, and we're off to the races.
I can't point you at what other people have said about it yet, because Brotherhood is making its publishing debut in this StoryBundle. But all the fancy punditry in the world means little to me on this one. If there's a boy in your life who hasn't been able to find books that hold his interest, show him Brotherhood of Delinquents. I'll be happy to stand by his judgment. After all, I wrote it for him.– Jefferson Smith
This book is being debuted here in the StoryBundle, so there are no reviews yet.
The man who stepped out of the wall was impossible.
Merrik sat up and blinked, trying to focus on the twisted blue figure now standing on the end of his bed, but everything about the man seemed... wrong. He was too tall, too thin, too old, and too blue. One arm hung limp at his side and the opposite leg twisted at a strange angle, surely unable to support any weight. His clothes had been shredded to tassels of gray and white that flapped and fluttered around him as though driven by a raging wind-—the same wind that apparently drove his wild shocks of silver-white hair. But for all that commotion, the tiny storage room was utterly silent.
Confused and still half asleep, Merrik blinked again as he tried to work out what was happening. Who...? Why was he...? Blue skin? But the boy's thoughts tangled themselves together on their way to his tongue and the question he finally managed to croak out was a total disaster.
Before he could regroup and try again, the blue man cocked his head. An invitation? Then he stepped off the mattress and made toward the room's only door. His twisted leg dragged behind him, but he paid it no mind. On his third step, he vanished. Right through the tightly closed door.
"Hey! Where are you-—?" Merrik leapt out of bed, pausing only long enough to jam his feet into his boots. As his father's only apprentice, it was his job to sleep in the smithy and defend it from thieves. Even the impossible blue ones. Throwing the door open with a bang, Merrik charged out into the workshop in pursuit. Normally, a pale orange glow from the banked forge would have provided a meager light, but tonight the intruder himself supplied it, casting his cold blue tint over the entire room.
The ghostly figure paused in mid-limp on the far side of the room and looked back, with his dead leg extended behind him. Seeing that Merrik had followed, he repeated his inviting nod and then turned away to resume his awkward progress toward the outer door.
All Merrik could hear was the pounding of his own heart. In the back of his mind, a story echoed-—the one about ghostly robbers. The Hero Jax and the Spectral Pirate. Was this ghost trying to lure him away to a life at sea?
With a dry swallow that now tasted of fear, Merrik stepped around the forge and snatched up a heavy bar of iron as he passed the stock shelf. He might not be much of an apprentice, but he would do his duty and defend his da's smithy. That much at least he would get right.
Wary against any tricks, Merrik crept slowly forward with the bar raised high above his head, gripped tightly in two meaty fists. At the door, the ghost glanced back again and then cocked his head curiously, as though confused by Merrik's reaction. He shook his head tightly, dismissing the boy's fears and then turned back toward the door. In two more dragging steps, he was through it and gone.
Merrik lunged for the doors and tried to fling them open, but Da had closed up tight the previous night, setting the latch from the outside, as he always did. It took several frustrating moments for Merrik to work the catch, especially now that he'd been plunged back into darkness. When he finally got it open, he threw the large double doors back and raced out into the night.
Then he stopped. Where did...?
The moon was high tonight, in three-quarter phase, and its pale crescent bathed the street with a calm, other-worldly light. It made the glowing fugitive harder to see, but not impossible. After a moment of casting around, Merrik spotted him. Apparently none the slower for his deformity, the pale blue figure was now limping madly down the lane, with his dead leg still dragging behind and his dead arm swinging like a pendulum from his shoulder. Beyond him, the massive outer wall of the Keep loomed against the sky, blotting out the lower stars. But before the strange intruder disappeared around the next turn, he paused yet again to glance back.
Was he checking to see if Merrik would follow? What did he want? And why should Merrik care? The smithy was safe now, wasn't it? Merrik pushed one of the heavy doors shut and was about to go back inside, but then a stray thought occurred to him. What if the ghost _had_ taken something? There had been a moment there-—when Merrik had stopped to put on his boots. Could that have been enough time? There was certainly plenty enough of value in a smithy. Hammers, tongs, or any of the work pieces left behind by patrons, waiting to be repaired. But there had been no time to check. Or could the ghost have somehow known about the cache of decorative metals Da kept hidden in the floor? The bars of copper, brass, and silver?
Uncertain what to do now, Merrik turned back to peer down the Metalway, but the figure had dragged himself beyond the turn, and whatever blue glow might still be visible was drowned out by the stronger wash of moonlight. If he waited any longer, the ghost would turn a second corner and be gone for good.
Merrik hated fast decisions. He needed time. It's not that he was any dumber than other boys his age, it just took him longer to think things through. Always had. But time to think was the one thing he did not have tonight. If he told his da that he'd caught some stranger in the smithy but had not given chase...
With a grumble of frustration, Merrik set the latch on the smithy doors, slung the heavy iron bar over his shoulder, and trotted off in pursuit.
This was one task that he would not allow himself to fumble.
The Metalway was a stretch of lane that ran through the Stains district. From Da's smithy at one end, it ran straight back to the wall, with armorers, tinkers, engravers, cutlers, and the like occupying the workshops and craft yards on either side. Merrik had known these people and this street his entire life. But in the middle of the night, with a crippled ghost leading him on a merry chase, everything looked different.
Tonight it looked haunted.
Deneigh had once been a thriving center, a last outpost of civilization on the borderland with chaos. But it was clear to any who looked that the Keep's best days lay behind it. Each year, another family or three pulled out, making for the storied riches of the inner Realm. And each defection left another vacancy yawning behind them, like teeth abandoning a crooked smile. Empty homes, boarded workshops, vacant sheds. Fully half the buildings Merrik passed as he ran down the lane gaped back at him with black and silent shadows.
Up ahead, the ghost had come to a stop at the base of the wall, where the Metalway ended at the Gap Road. By standing order of the Reeve, no structure was permitted within ten strides of the outer walls, and that decree had created a lane of sorts, encircling the town, just inside the wall. The shimmering blue man stood there at the intersection, looking back at Merrik as though he'd been waiting, then he set off again, turning right and hobbling along the Gap Road toward Fist Gate.
Now that they were into the deeper shadows of the wall, Merrik could see the ghost more clearly again. There still wasn't even a breath of wind on the air, but his ragged blue clothes and hair continued their frantic fluttering around him. He looked like a crop man standing in a summer storm. Merrik wanted to get close enough to see what might be causing it, but now that the ghost had opened a lead, he seemed intent on keeping it. Every time Merrik seemed to get close, the blue figure ahead simply winked out, and then reappeared a little further up the road, keeping a steady gap between them.
Clearly the figure was leading him somewhere, but where? And why now? Merrik shifted the weight of the iron bar to his other shoulder and sighed. For now, there was nothing more he could do but follow, so that's what he did. Hopefully, answers would come when they reached their destination.
In what seemed no time at all, the last workshops of the Stains had slipped by and Merrik could see the flicker of torches ahead that lit the Fist Gate. There would be Watchstanders on duty, but they were probably asleep in the gatehouse. After all, what was there to guard? The wall itself was thirty paces thick, with a narrow passage running through it, and that was closed by a heavy portcullis at each end. Beyond that, there was nothing but a few crop fields and the dreary road to Fist. Even now, during Festival, no one would approach the gates at night. It was widely known that anyone who found themselves outside the Keep come darkfall would well and truly stay there until morning. So yes, the guards were likely asleep.
But Merrik's quarry took no chances, and before he reached the torch light at the guard station, the ghost man simply blinked out again, and then reappeared fifty strides further along, on the far side of the gate mouth, where the Gap Road resumed.
Merrik, however, came to a halt and looked around nervously. It was bad enough for an apprentice to be out wandering the Stains at night. But venturing beyond the gate was more of a problem. On that side, a thin strip of merchant shops was all that stood between him and the Plums. And the Watchstanders patrolling _there_ would most definitely not be sleeping. What would Da say if he got caught? Working folk didn't go into that lofty district without an invitation. And even then, they went with hat in hand and eyes down.
To shine a little truth on it, Merrik had fully expected this chase to have ended by now. When ghosts showed up in a story, they usually came in, waved their arms around, gave a wail or a shriek, and then vanished. But this one behaved nothing at all like story ghosts. Not only was he totally silent, but more than that, he seemed almost purposeful too, limping confidently along, making a straight run from the smithy to wherever it was he was going. No, this was nothing like a story ghost at all.
And maybe that's what made the wayward smith's apprentice do it-—the sheer strange curiosity of it all. Because when the ghost looked back and waved his single good arm, beckoning Merrik to hurry, that's exactly what he did.
Sparing only a quick glance for the big gate and the guard house door set into the wall beside it, Merrik ran across the worn dirt track with his iron bar bouncing uncomfortably against his collar. Both door and gate were closed. No Watchstanders stood on duty, and none peered out from the guard house, either. So he swallowed his fear and kept his feet moving, not daring to breathe again until he had been swallowed up by the shadows on the other side.
Meanwhile, the ghost had not waited for him, and had limped on past the shops. Merrik's heart sank a little lower when the fluttering blue glow angled away from the Gap Road and made toward a dark alleyway that knifed between two of the large walled estates.
He was heading straight into the Plums.
This time, however, Merrik didn't pause to consider, because catching a burglar here was about the most profitable thing a Watchstander could do for himself. Some said that they had even been known to drag vagrants here from other parts of the Keep, and then claim to have foiled them in the act, just to pick up a bit of reward from the "victimized" estate-holders.
So when Merrik reached the darkened slit of the alley, he darted into it without a moment's hesitation, rather than risk being caught in the open. His only protection now would be the deep darkness of shadow.
Panting from his exertion, Merrik pressed on up the alley, on the heels of his glowing guide, but he hung back a ways, not wanting to get close enough to be illuminated by that blue light. And with a bit more leisure to his stride now, Merrik was surprised to note that even here in the Plums, the signs of Deneigh's diminishing population were still evident. Some of the garden walls he passed were badly overgrown, and more than a few of the estate houses themselves gave off the unmistakable cold, dark aura of total emptiness.
As they approached the next corner, the ghost paused, waving a hand back at Merrik. The sound of voices echoed from the walls ahead and then the ghost blinked out just as two men appeared beyond him, walking this way.
Merrik pressed himself back into the shadows and held his breath, waiting for them to pass. It took several long beats, but the two Watchstanders were talking loudly about some unclaimed debt and seemed completely disinterested in actually looking for any skulkers or thieves. To Merrik's relief, they strode right past, never even glancing his way.
When they had gone around the next turn and Merrik could dare to breathe again, a flicker of light caught his eye up ahead, from the middle of a garden wall that was heavily carpeted with vines. The ghost had returned, and was now standing at an open gate in that wall, beckoning Merrik forward. It was another abandoned garden by the look of it. But the figure didn't wait long, and as soon as Merrik stepped out into the moonlight, the blue shimmer stepped through the gate, disappearing into a tangle of bushes and fruit trees on the estate grounds.
"Can't I get a moment to catch my air?" Merrik muttered to himself, but he forged on, ducking under the heavy vines that draped across the open gate. Not being as slender as the blue man, Merrik had to force his way through the close-hanging branches and leaves of the inner garden. A little further ahead, he could make out an open lawn in the moonlight, standing between himself and the house. But before he could break from cover, a hand shot out of the darkness to clamp over his mouth, and a voice hissed in his ear.
"Not a word, or your liver is mine!"