Compared to Glen Cook's the Black Company series, Jeff Salyards' Scourge of the Betrayer piqued my curiosity. So I invited the author and the folks at Night Shade Books to post an excerpt here on the Hotlist. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
A gritty new fantasy saga begins . . .
Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies–or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon’s dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he’s about to find out for himself.
Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men’s enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he’s killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe . . . and Arki might be next.
Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe. As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience!
A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire–and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man’s soul.
To learn more about Jeff Salyards and his work, check out his official website.
Braylar ordered me to remove the body from the wagon. I balked, but he insisted, claiming I was lucky that was the full extent of my punishment, given my incompetence during the battle and foolishness after. There wasn’t much I could say to that.
After steeling myself to the task, I unlatched the back gate of the wagon. The dead soldier was slumped in a pile, the floorboards stained a dark red all around, nearly black. I took hold of his belt and the one ankle I could reach, closed my eyes and tried unsuccessfully to pretend I was moving something other than a body, and pulled until I felt the weight slide free of the gate and fall in the grass. Forcing myself not to look at the body or its awful wounds, I quickly walked to the front. Braylar was standing next to the horses. He moved from one to the next, rubbing their necks, wiping them down with handfuls of grass, and though it was difficult to reconcile coming from a man who’d shot two men today and struck down two more, he was apologizing to the horses for having to endure such an ordeal.
I stood there, looking at the spear that was still lodged in the seat. My eyes traveled up to the canvas flap, and the small spray of blood, the handiwork of Braylar’s buckler. Looking away, I noticed he was walking into the grass. His back was stiff, arms at his sides, feet heavy and halting as if his balance were off.
Wondering if he was hurt, I called after him, but he didn’t respond. I
started after him.
His eyes were closed, face pale in the fading light. He braced one arm on his knee and turned his back to me. His shoulders shook, and for a mo- ment I thought he might be weeping, but then he suddenly turned to the side and vomited, doubled over. He wiped his mouth with his forearm, started to straighten, and then took several steps forward before heaving violently again, almost falling to his knees with the force of it.
Staring, I wondering at this oddity, when he compounded it further. Hands on his knees, he cursed and muttered something to himself. Al- though it was still little more than a rough whisper, I heard him say, “Are you not appeased? Have I not sacrificed enough? Leave me.” And then he trailed off, repeating himself, “Leave me be.”
I walked back to the wagon. Not long after, he returned. He grabbed
the spear with both hands, pulled it free from the seat, and threw it in the covered section. “Get in.”
He waited a moment, and when I didn’t reply, flicked the reins and the wagon creaked into motion. I stumbled alongside awkwardly, trying and failing to get a good handhold to pull myself up.
He stopped the horses, looked down, and said, “I tell you to load, you load, I tell you to get in, you get in, I tell you to shit, you shit. This is our arrangement. As you’ve seen already, our lives, mine and yours, may depend on you doing what I say when I say it. Do you understand? This is our arrangement.”
I nodded and he allowed me to climb on. I didn’t want to sit next to him and made my way inside the wagon again. The sight of the large bloodstain on the floor sent my stomach fluttering, so I sat down, leaned against the side panel, and positioned a barrel to block the view as much as possible. And recorded these events to the best of my abilities, which admittedly, was somewhat suspect, given that my hands were still shaking and mind racing from the battle and its aftermath. That said, it was the best that I could muster.
* * *
We traveled some miles from the site of the attack in the dark before mak- ing camp with only the dimmest of moonlight to light our work.
When I finally crawled back in the wagon and tried to sleep, careful to stay far from the stain at the rear, my mind kept revisiting moments of the battle, a chaotic jumble… the spearhead coming at me like a striking serpent, or that same soldier’s body pumping his last lifeblood onto the wagon floor after Braylar had struck him repeatedly with the vicious flail; the Hornman captain gently stroking the fletching of the bolt that barely protruded from his chest, as if touching the wing of an injured bird; the soldier with the ruined mouth pleading for his life, bubbles of spit and blood dancing on his torn lips.
Sleep was elusive, to say the least.
I woke in the morning when the wagon lurched into motion. There
was some jerky by my side, a hard heel of bread, and a flask of water. I hadn’t heard him harness the horses, or move inside the wagon, but he’d obviously done them.
After eating what I could, I rejoined Braylar on the bench. We sat in silence. I wondered if this was a normal reaction among the soldiering kind—did they need time to put their violent deeds in order or to forget them? Was he filled with thoughts of guilt? Triumph? Regret? I couldn’t say, and doubted my companion would if I asked, so I didn’t.
Instead, I said, “You don’t seem to have an especially good relationship with these Hornmen, do you?”
“I don’t have a good relationship with anyone, Arki. I would’ve thought that much obvious by now.”
“What were they doing out here in the Green Sea?”
He looked at me and shook his head, “I would’ve thought that obvious as well. Road tolls only go so far. Hornmen are opportunists like anyone else. Only with swords.”
“Meaning, you quivering dullard, there’s profit to be had in the grass. Smugglers, sly merchants attempting to slide past the toll stations, pil- grims, anyone else who can be bullied and—”
He broke off suddenly, closing his eyes. After a moment, his head snapped forward. He pulled the scarf loose and touched the back of his neck, and his hand came away bright with blood. He dabbed at his neck a few more times, looked at his hand again, swore quietly, and then casually wiped the blood on my pants. I jumped and attempted to move away, but it was too late.
I looked at his neck. “You’re wounded?”
He nodded slowly, voice strangely flat, like he’d woken from a deep slumber and wasn’t sure of his whereabouts. “A wound, yes.”
“From the attack?” I asked.
“From the attack?” he said, suddenly far away. “You could say that. Yes.”
“Do you need… that is, do you need any help? Assistance cleaning it
He paused a long time before answering. “No need to clean it. I wouldn’t trust you to do so if there were. But it will bleed no more. The wound has closed.”
Having seen how much blood coated his hands, I didn’t believe him. Realizing it was impudent and possibly dangerous but unable to restrain myself, I leaned over and looked at his neck. There was no wound at all. Only a scar. An old, white, long-healed scar.
He saw me inspecting and pulled the scarf up higher, covering his neck. “Begone, nurse-mother.”
I looked at the blood he’d smeared on me and said, “But scars don’t bleed.”
“You’re correct. The wound isn’t mine.” He mistook my confused silence for skepticism and added, “I’m many things, but charlatan isn’t one of them. The wound isn’t my own. It was inflicted on another, by my hand.” He closed his eyes and ignored my slew of questions. Receiving no an- swers, I relented and waited. Braylar rubbed his temple with the knuckle of his thumb, eyes still closed, scowling. Unsure if I wanted to truly know
the answer, I asked if he was well.
He didn’t respond, didn’t even move.
I waited and waited, uncertain what to do, when he finally opened his eyes again and blinked several times, like a man coming out of a darkened room into bright sunlight. “No conversation. We’re done. Go inside the wagon. Walk alongside. I don’t care what you do, so long as you’re silent.” I started to say something, but he said, “Don’t make me tell you again.
If I must silence you myself, I will.”
That’s all it took. I returned to the interior of the wagon. The bleeding scar would’ve been strange enough on its own, but Braylar’s behavior only compounded it. Every time I started to think I’d seen the oddest thing on this journey, I was proven wrong.
I looked at the red smear on my leg and then glanced at the much larger bloody stain near the gate. So much blood. Front to rear, the wagon was marked with it.
I rolled a barrel over the stain, nearly covering it, but not quite. I pushed a box over the remainder, and resolved not to think on the things that happened in the wagon yesterday. It was a hollow resolution.
We traveled the rest of the day in silence. Like a hound that had been kicked but couldn’t help itself, I kept one ear perked, waiting for Braylar to call me back to his side, but that never happened, and I was reluctant to approach.
He pinched his nose or knuckled his temple on more than one occasion, and if his face was any indication, he was sorely grieved by something.
I wondered if this was the result of the blow he received from the haft of the soldier’s axe, but while I’m no expert in judging such things, the helm seemed to absorb the brunt of it, and he had only a mild abrasion on his scalp and no apparent swelling. Still, this was all exceedingly peculiar, even for him.
The second day after the attack began much as the previous day ended, with Braylar uninterested in anything, even mundane conversation. A few directives to be silent, some clipped orders, and a handful of threats, though lacking the usual venom or verve.
I was riding inside when he quietly announced, “The boy is dead. I felt it coming since yesterday, but… he’s dead now.”
I immediately moved to the front, sat next to him, and asked, “Who? What boy?”
He looked at me like I was the one behaving strangely. “The soldier boy. I struck him across the neck as he passed, do you recall? The back of the head. The neck. Do you see?” He locked eyes with me, waiting. I glanced at his neck and the dried blood on his scarf. He nodded. “There you go. Now you have it.”
I was absolutely positive I didn’t. And almost as sure I didn’t want it.
“He lingered for a time,” he said. “But now he’s dead for a certainty.” With a shiver crossing my shoulders, I asked, whispering without mean-
ing to, “How do you know?”
He pulled the flail off his hip again, and I reflexively scanned the ho- rizon for approaching horses. Seeing nothing, I looked back to him. He held one of the Deserters on a level with his own, rubbing the edge of his thumb across a spike as he stared into the small contorted face.
“Bloodsounder.” He twisted the head quickly and the chain jingled.
I was awash in confusion. “The boy’s name was Bloodsounder?”
“No, you idiot. The flail.” Eyes narrowing when I still didn’t comprehend, he added, “You asked how I know, yes? His death? Well, I’m telling you. Bloodsounder. Bloodsounder; the flail. The flail; Bloodsounder. It isn’t so very complicated.”
Sure the question would come out wrong no matter how I phrased it, I
asked, “How does Bloodsounder… tell you these things?”
His lip twitched, and the twin scars with it. “I wouldn’t use that word. Tell. That implies voices, where there are none. Unless you mean in the sense of signs. Tracks in the earth can tell you what made them, how many travel, what direction they go, if you know how to read them. If that’s your meaning, then yes, Bloodsounder tells me he’s dead. In so many signs.” He closed his eyes and said, “I now know several things about the man-child I struck down. Things I’d much sooner not know.”
He inhaled deeply through his nose, nostrils flaring, and closed his eyes. “He loved pears. The smell of their blossoms in the spring, an invisible cloud. The texture of their skin, when perfectly ripe. But especially the taste. And the fact that he first bedded a lass in no bed at all, but underneath the pear tree on his farm. In their rutting, they rolled over the overripe pears that had fallen, soiled their clothes in the juice as the bees buzzed around them.”
I watched his face, eyes still pressed shut, and he looked pained as he spoke. “That same girl whose purity he stole among the pears, he married. Under the very same tree. And they had some small life together, happy, as far as small lives go. But it didn’t last long. He was recruited by the Hornmen and quartered in a castle, far from the farm, the pears, and his new ripe wife. His duties kept him on the road for most of the next year. When he was finally allowed to return, he discovered she’d been struck a mortal blow defending the farm from bandits. An arrow… ” His forehead wrinkled. “No… not an arrow, a spear, a spear thrust. Spear or sword, but most likely spear—the wound was too large to be made by an arrow. But by the time our boy had returned a Hornman, it was too late. She was alive, but there was no forestalling the end, as the wound had festered.
“He sat by her side, three days, four, wiping her brow as the wound worked its greasy green magic, burrowing deeper into her flesh, filling her with a raging heat no damp cloth would absolve. It would’ve been awful enough if she’d been screaming. But she whimpered mostly, waiting for the end, which was somehow worse. Whimpered and mewed and called out nonsensical things while the fever burned the life out of her. But one thing she kept repeating wasn’t gibberish. He prayed he heard wrong, but after the tenth repetition, he could no longer pretend he had. A name. His brother’s name. His brother who had stayed behind while he trained as a Hornling.
“While I don’t know if he murdered his brother, I do know he remained with his faithless wife in her last moments as she tossed and turned in the fester dream. I think he hated her, but still he stayed. I would have aban- doned her to murder the brother, but he stayed. And would remember those last days and hours with horrible vividness. Her lying there, sweat- slicked hair plastered to the mattress, face blanched, all the color having gone to the wound and the sick, hot flesh around it. And the choking stench rising off her. Like a thousand rotting pears.”
He opened his eyes, blinking quickly. “And now I remember it as well. As if I’d been standing in that very sickroom with the dying slattern and the heart-wounded soldier. This, Bloodsounder does. Bombards me with memories such as these. Random, horrible, stolen memories. And these signs, this telling? That’s how I know the final thing. That young Horn- man, who stood by his faithless wife and watched her die, and later rode out into the grass with his greedy fat captain… he’s now dead himself. Because the stolen memories only come to me after a man I’ve struck with the flail dies.”
He stared at the flail head with equal parts hate and disgust. After a long pause, he added, “The other I killed with this grotesque little monster and its twin, in the wagon, his stolen memories have been flooding into mine already. Yesterday. Last night. This morning. But the boy’s have just begun.” He dropped the flail head and it clinked off the other. “And if previous experience is any measure, they won’t stop. At least, not until I’m cleansed.”
“Cleansed? What… how—”
He turned and regarded me, “I will either be cleansed or I won’t. If it happens, it will be explained, and if not… not.”
I pressed on, “And if you can’t be… cleansed?”
He rattled the chains. “Difficult to say. Each time is a little different. But one thing is the same—the onslaught of stolen memories will continue. They begin to blot out my own already. How much more, I can’t say. I only killed two men with the flail. It could be worse. But even two…? It will be nothing good, I tell you that. Better to be tormented by ghosts, I think. That must be easier to endure. But these memories… the most heinous grave robbing imaginable. It’s as if I’d killed someone I knew intimately. I learn things about the dead their closest comrades weren’t privy to, secrets and fears and dreams that should’ve died with them and yet live in me. And it fills me with corrosive grief.”
I sat in stunned silence, completely out of questions.
He let out a long sigh and leaned forward, his usual rigid posture broken. “I can see you’re struggling with this. But struggle somewhere else just now.”
I didn’t move right away and he shouted, “I said enough! Leave me!”
When I finally started to rise, he grabbed my wrist and squeezed tighter
than a shackle. “One last thing. I’ve revealed something to you few enough know. Reveal it to anyone else, and I won’t need Bloodsounder to tell me you’re dead. Your spattered brains will be proof enough. Do you understand?”
I nodded quickly and he released me. I climbed inside, sweat coming fast, mind drowning in too many thoughts to name. Stealing memories from the dead? The stuff of dark fairy tales. What else could it be but madness? And yet… what of the bleeding scar? His foreknowledge of the approach of the Hornmen? I saw those. Didn’t I? If not madness, what was it? Was he hounded by demons? Spirits? Something else?
All I knew was, an inanimate object couldn’t do these things.
I began to wonder if the endless steppe sapped a man of his wits. Maybe it was me who was going mad. Perhaps we were losing our minds in tandem.
Nearly getting impaled by a spear had been the most frightening thing I’d ever experienced. And yet, his revelation filled me with a dread far more gripping. And far less temporary.
The wind picked up again, buffeting the wagon, and I sat and listened to it howl. I’d entered the wild with a haunted, cursed, or blighted man, and I prayed I’d find my way back out again.