Thanks to the generosity of the author and the folks at Skyhorse Publishing, here's an extract from Jeff Salyards' Chains of the Heretic for you to read. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Men are more easily broken than myths. Emperor Cynead has usurped command of the Memoridons—Tower-controlled memory witches—and consolidated his reign over the Syldoonian Empire. After escaping the capital city of Sunwrack, Captain Braylar Killcoin and his Jackal company evade pursuit across Urglovia, tasked with reaching deposed emperor Thumaar and helping him recapture the throne. Braylar’s sister, Soffjian, rejoins the Jackals and reveals that Commander Darzaak promised her freedom if she agreed to aid them in breaking Cynead’s grip on the other Memoridons and ousting him. Imperial forces attempt to intercept Braylar’s company before they can reach Thumaar. The Jackals fight through Cynead’s battalions but find themselves trapped along the Godveil. Outmaneuvered and outnumbered, Braylar gambles on some obscure passages that Arki has translated and uses his cursed flail, Bloodsounder, to part the Godveil, leading the Jackals to the other side. There, they encounter the ruins of human civilization, but they also learn that the Deserters who abandoned humanity a millennium ago and created the Veil in their wake are still very much alive. But are they gods? Demons? Monsters? What Braylar, Soffjian, Arki, and the Jackals discover beyond the Godveil will shake an empire, reshape a map, and irrevocably alter the course of history.
The gambeson was a simple thing, a thick quilted linen coat that laced together at the front. It wasn’t a terrible fit, but part of me wished it had been, as I could have put a dead animal on my shoulder and it would have stunk less. It smelled like a thousand soldiers had worn it before, and was stained with sweat of the ages. I wondered if the stench drove off fleas and lice, but I suspected not. Still, so long as I rode with the captain, there were bound to be arrows flying in our direction and men trying to kill us, so it was a foul comfort. The helm was little better, as the padded lining was stained with the sweat and oils of more men than I cared to think about. No blood at least. That was something.
After belting Lloi’s curved blade at my waist, I rejoined Braylar on the bench, rather clumsily, unused to armor and weapons.
The captain inspected me briefly and nodded curtly. “I don’t want you deluding yourself into believing you are fit for combat—you should still hang near the rear and do your best not to attract attention—but those might just save your life when that proves impossible. As it likely will.”
We crossed some dry gulches and gullies, short grass beneath the horses’ hooves, with strange rock formations that seemed to burst out of the harsh landscape like stone fountains, something dreamed up by a drunken sculptor. Larger copper and salmon colored rock layers seemed precariously balanced on smaller ones, or leaning crazily but somehow still not falling. Some striated stones formed asymmetrical arches and miniature towers for reasons that perhaps only the rocks understood. Perhaps these were the leftover dreams of mad gods. Had the Deserters Gods left these behind as some signal or warning?
Our team struggled as we ascended a hill after passing through another ravine. I thought Braylar was going to have to turn us around to find a different route, but we continued climbing and climbing.
When we reached the top, I felt my breath catch. The other side of the ridge descended into a small valley, with the Godveil winding its way across the floor, warping everything that lay beyond. What I hoped lay beyond. Our options were limited, but if this gamble failed, we would be well and truly trapped, and I had no illusions about Azmorgon sparing me a second time. A padded jacket would certainly not stop his wrath if the captain lost his life on this venture, and I didn’t imagine any of his retinue would be especially interested in protecting me a second time.
I looked up, and it was as if two disparate skies had been stitched together. Almost directly above and stretching to the west, it was dark blue with fluffy white clouds scattered about, unmoving as if pinned there. To the east the clouds gathered together, dark gray and dense like wet clay, blocking out the sky and growing darker still until they were nearly black and then obscured entirely by the warp of the Godveil.
Those storm clouds didn’t seem especially fortuitous. But with the Syldoon it was hard to gauge—perhaps a black and heavy sky was actually a good portent.
Braylar called a halt, and his retinue rode up alongside us.
Vendurro tipped the broad iron brim of his pot helm back. “Well, plague me, this would be a pretty sight, wouldn’t it? That were, if that forsaken Godveil weren’t running right through the middle of it like that and our enemies weren’t closing in to crush us.”
Braylar asked Mulldoos, “How many miles away are the Urglovians?”
“Main body is a ways out, still. A few miles. Their war wagons are keeping them slow, but guessing their scouts are close. Don’t have much time.”
“Any,” Azmorgon amended, towering over everyone. “Don’t have any plaguing time. We’re pinned down here, Cap. Pinned. Out to make a break for it and ride right into the Urglovian bastards right now, before we got no chance at all.”
“Your opinion is duly noted, Lieutenant,” Braylar replied. He turned to Hewspear. “And how far back are the Imperials?”
The older lieutenant had a distant look in his eyes, and it took him a moment to realize he’d been asked the question. “Several miles still, Captain. But they have no wagons, so they will close soon now that we’ve stopped. We ought to make our play now.”
The captain said, “I’ll ride down to the Godveil. This hill is as good a place as any to make a stand. Block as much of the pass with the wagons as you can. We’ll be leaving them behind, either way. Unload whatever supplies and provisions are absolutely necessary, and distribute the weight on spare horses. When I return, I’ll start leading the men with me, as many as we can manage at a time. We will need to hold this position until we have crossed the company through.”
Azmorgon spit a phlegmy mass at a thorny bush. “And if you fall down dead at the Godveil? Which seems real plaguing likely. Almost a surety, really. What then?”
“Then,” Braylar said very slowly, “you will have your foolish charge into overwhelming forces after all, and you can gloat in the afterlife when you see me anon.”
The captain jumped off the wagon, his mail and plate harness clinking and slithering, and mounted Scorn. The officers were shouting orders at the men behind us, ordering them into position, and I felt the wagon rock as several climbed in the back and began unloading.
Braylar rode next to the bench and turned his helmet in my direction, the aventail obscuring his face. There was a beat before he said, “Of all the archivists who have ridden with this company, you annoyed me the least.”
He started down the hill and I called after him, “I’m coming with you.”
The captain reined up and spun his horse around to face me as I jumped off the wagon and ran to the rear. When I returned on my irascible mount, Braylar said, “Going to throw yourself into the Veil if this gambit fails?”
“It won’t fail,” I replied, not entirely believing it. “I am so confident, in fact, that once you return, I will be the first you lead over. To prove to the others it can be done.”
Braylar titled his head slightly, regarding me for a moment. I couldn’t read his expression and could barely see his eyes, so I wasn’t sure if they were hot with anger, wide with surprise, or implacable as usual. “Very well,” he said. “Let us put your theory to the test.”
He rode down the hill and I nudged my horse to follow. It wasn’t nearly as steep as the hill the men had hurtled down at the temple ruins the last time I’d seen the Veil, but I still felt myself clutching my reins tight and leaning back as we descended, trusting my horse not to kill either of us.
As the ground leveled out and we closed in on the Godveil, I felt its ceaseless tug, even from fifty yards away. The compulsion to keep going, to approach the Veil, was almost overwhelming. I looked at the captain and asked, “Do you feel it? The draw?”
He dismounted, Bloodsounder in his hand. After a beat he said, “I feel nothing.”
I swung my leg over and dropped down. “Good. That’s a good sign.” I didn’t have any idea if that was true. It could have been an awful sign.
I heard Braylar laugh. “You really ought not to lie, Arki. Being the most ingenuous creature alive, you truly haven’t the slightest skill at it.”
“Well,” said, “I hope it’s a good sign at least.”
“As do I. Now, did the manuscripts describe how this was done with any specificity?”
I was tempted to try to dissemble but it was pointless. “No, not really. They did all seem to agree that the Sentries approached the Veil with weapons in hand. One or two alluded to the fact that the weapon and man were of the same name now—the man who wielded Grieftongue was known as Grieftongue, the man wielding Wrathedge was known—”
“Yes, I think I have it. So did the man say the weapon’s name or—”
“His name as well.”
“Did this Grieftongue absurdly say ‘Grieftongue,’ or announce his presence before entering the Veil?”
“I don’t know. The records made no mention of it. But it couldn’t hurt.”
“Couldn’t it? Even if this isn’t just the fabrication of legend and someone actually passed through, I could still very well die by failing to know exactly how it was done, yes? So, you know of nothing else said or done, no incantations or bizarre gestures, nothing mentioned at all, besides the twice-naming?”
“No,” I admitted. “Not that I encountered.”
“Very well,” he replied, as he started walking forward. “If I should die because you simply didn’t translate far enough to learn a magic word, my wrathful wraith will hunt you.”
I looked back up the hill and said, “Azmorgon would crush my skull right after. So you’d have to hunt in a hurry. Captain Bloodsounder.” I forced a laugh, but it felt even hollower than it sounded.
The captain walked forward, holding Bloodsounder at his side, the twin chains and Deserter God heads swinging alongside his leg, not quite hitting the ground. It was a purposeful stride, as if marching forward to engage a foe, though this one was a millennium old, created by inscrutable gods, and deadly without reprieve. Even if the manuscripts were correct and someone had managed to pass through unmolested, that was centuries ago. What if the gods had changed the locks, as it were, or whatever latent powers were in weapons like Bloodsounder no longer functioned? What if I had just convinced the man to walk to his death, on nothing more substantial than my powers of translation and interpretation?
I nearly rushed forward, shouted for him to stop, but forced myself not to. We had no choice. It was this way or Azmorgon’s, and at least this option had the possibility of us surviving.
Braylar didn’t slow his pace at all. He might have gripped his weapon tighter, might have felt his cold heart beat faster, but none of that showed in his stride, and I respected him enormously for it—whatever else his faults, he was decisive and brave. I held my breath, praying that Braylar didn’t simply crumple into a heap as he closed in on the Godveil.
But he did not. He walked straight ahead, slowly raising Bloodsounder as he did, and though it was difficult to tell from that distance, it seemed like the warping bent and shifted faster, and then it wove around him and he was gone. Well, not truly—his watery silhouette remained, but he must have continued walking, as even that disappeared.
I waited. The moments ticked by, and I found myself jogging towards the Godveil before realizing how deadly foolish I was being. I hadn’t taken more than fifteen steps when the draw turned into a compulsion. I knew I needed to halt, to move back, but all I wanted to do was move closer, to reach out and touch the Veil, become part of it, join some small portion of myself to the immeasurable immensity of it. I tried to stop, but my feet carried me forward, and it was so beautiful ahead, the heat-wave intensity, the urgent tang of vinegar, the hum and thrum growing, that single final note of a harpist hanging in the air, but now louder, every step, louder, and then there were more notes, overlapping notes, and I raised my hand as I walked, outstretched, wanting to even graze it, and I felt my body respond as I closed in, vibrating as well, as if my very bones shook my flesh and tried to throw it off, as if my skull wanted to slough off my own skin, and it should have terrified me, but it was amazing.
Every step brought me closer to something wondrous, miraculous, sublime, and—
Braylar grabbed my wrist and suddenly the thousands of thrumming notes were gone, and so was the urge to walk towards total oblivion. There was only the wildly warping Godveil twenty paces in front of me, extending in all directions.
I shook my head, but was careful not to pull away from the captain. “Was I—”
“About to have your life snuffed out? Yes, I imagine you were very close.”
“You survived. I mean, of course you did, you’re standing here. Unless you are a wrathful wraith,” I tried to smile, as it was better than nearly vomiting. “What did you see? On the other side? How—”
“The stolen memories are gone. As to the other. . . come along. See for yourself. Let’s test your second part of your theory and find out, yes?”
I nodded once, quickly. Now that I was no longer under the Godveil’s spell, I wanted nothing more than to run off in the opposite direction. But I forced myself forward, and then had to keep his pace to avoid him losing his grip on my arm.
He stopped right before the Veil. If I reached out I would have touched it. I did not reach out.
Braylar turned his face in my direction, his eyes in shadow, his face behind the mail curtain. “Are you ready, archivist?”
“Yes, I think—”
He pulled me through and I gasped. But I didn’t feel anything. One moment, the pulsing Veil was in front of me, and the next, it was simply behind. And directly ahead was. . . terrain exactly like that on the other side, dry, scrubby, russet stones. While the physical details were utterly lacking in drama, I still shouted, “It worked! I told you it would!” My voice broke with relief.
Braylar held onto my wrist and led me another forty paces forward. Then he let go.
I resisted the urge to grab him, like a drowning man clutching at debris in the sea. While I felt the tug of the Veil behind me, it wasn’t irresistible. Aside from being dizzy, there were no aftereffects at all.
He looked down at Bloodsounder and shook his head. “I was sure one of us would die. I’ve never been more happy to have been proven wrong.” Then he grabbed my wrist tight and we started back towards the Godveil. “Come. I have a small army to bring across.”
Braylar led me back through to the other side, and besides another bout of dizziness and nausea, the small trek did no harm. When we were far enough away from the Godveil that I wouldn’t succumb to its song again, he mounted Scorn and said, “A battle half won is no victory at all.”
“What does that—?”
Braylar had mounted Scorn and was racing past me up the hill. Glancing up, I saw the Jackals looking down at us. Soffjian stood out among them, a slash of scarlet like a wound.
By the time I’d mounted my own horse and scaled the hill, Braylar had already dispatched orders and summoned his officers, who were all on horseback around him.
Then the Syldoon began arranging into an orderly column. Their efficiency truly was a marvel. Sometimes disturbing and terrifying, but never less than a marvel.
Braylar and his retinue were off to one side, out of earshot. As usual, it sounded as if there was an argument brewing. Hewspear had his slashing spear across his saddle. “The scouts reported their outriders close. We are running out of time. There are surely other routes into this little valley, but most are goat trails that are nearly impassible to horse. They will come this way.”
Mulldoos nodded vigorously. “Aye, time’s slipping quick now. And it will take some time to get the boys through. How many did you say you could take at a time, Cap? Five? Ten maybe?”
Braylar nodded. “Arki confirmed a handful. We will try to exceed that, of course—I suspect if someone isn’t protected in the chain, we will know immediately without losing life.”
Soffjian had the hint of a smile on her face. “Well met, Bloodsounder. You are shorter than expected.”
Vendurro was looking down the hill at the Godveil. “Still can’t believe you made it, Cap. The both of you. I mean, I watched it, my own two eyes and everything, but still hard to fathom. What did it feel like? Was—?”
“You shall know very shortly. Our primary concern is making sure the Imperials do not run us to ground before we are through. Fire alone won’t do.”
Vendurro replied, “I could throw some caltrops down. Sure, they won’t come riding over them like idiot Hornfuckers, but even taking time to clean them up will slow them some.”
Mulldoos nodded. “Couldn’t hurt. See to it, Sergeant.”
Vendurro rode off and tasked a few men with returning to the wagons with him.
Rumbling as usual, Azmorgon said, “I’ll hang back, Cap. Need twenty or so men. Rearguard. Hold the pass. Prick any of those pricks if they try to close, keep them at bay until you clear out of here. Light the wagons behind us. Sound good?”
Hewspear interjected before the captain had a chance to respond. “It is a sound plan. But—and I do hate to pull seniority—but it should be me who commands the men.”
Azmorgon leaned forward in his saddle, his lamellar clattering. “Jealous of anyone stealing your glory, you old wrinkled twat? That it?”
“Mind your tongue, Ogre,” Mulldoos said.
The stout lieutenant’s normal intimidation tactics were lost on the giant, who laughed. “Or what, Mushrooms?”
Braylar clapped his hands together. “Enough. I am heading down to start leading troops over. Azmorgon, Soffjian, accompany me—the men need protection on the other side.”
Soffjian said, “Brother, I can do more at the rearguard here to protect your men. You—”
“We have no idea what truly awaits us on the other side of that cursed Veil. You will go in the initial group.” He turned to his other lieutenants. “Mulldoos, Hewspear, hold the line here at the base. When it’s clear the majority are safe on the other side, light the wagons and ride hard to join us.” Then he turned to me. “Your supplies are likely still in the wagon. Get your gear and then meet me at the base, yes?”
I nodded. “And the manuscripts?”
“The men spread out the remaining scrolls and parchments among the horses already. The pages you translated will be burnt.”
He threw his hands in the air. “Why is it no one understands how fire seems to work? Yes, Arki. We ensure it doesn’t fall into the Emperor’s hands, in case his researchers see something in them you missed.”
“I missed nothing.”
“Very good. Then you won’t cry when they are burnt.” Then he turned and started riding down the hill.
He might have been wrong about the crying. It seemed a tragic waste—all the ancient knowledge and records, turned to ash and lost to the wind. But it couldn’t be helped. Still, it ran counter to everything I had spent my life doing—compiling, recording, and now translating accounts intended to be read and read again.
Shaking my head, I earned a curse from a passing Syldoon as I rode too close, and his horse snapped at mine as well. I moved away, leaned over my horse’s neck and apologized for being a poor rider, and then we headed towards the wagons. They were positioned front to end across the pass to block as much of it as they could. The Syldoon had stripped the wagons of most of the necessary supplies and tools they could carry, with only a few soldiers checking the remains to be sure nothing vital was left behind before dousing most of them in oil.
Vendurro was heading back with the handful of soldiers he had taken to spread the caltrops across the trail further up. He said, “Got to say, Arki, maddest plaguing thing in the world, crossing the Godveil. Like thumbing your noses at the gods, ain’t it?” He shook his head, a melancholy smile on his face. “Wish Gless could have seen this. He would have shit himself.”
Then he laughed and kept riding.
Rudgi was rolling a barrel of oil past and looked up at me. “Best get done whatever it is you’re doing here, scribe. We’ve got orders to get these alight right quick. Unless you want to stand around and scribble something down for posterity. Then by all means, hang back, watch the wagons burn, maybe take a plaguing nap.”
“Posterity can wait,” I said, as I dismounted and then climbed up onto the captain’s abandoned wagon. The interior looked well and truly looted, the bed littered with nails, a half-empty torn sack and a trail of grain from the hole torn in the canvas. The crate that had contained the scrolls I hadn’t gotten to was thrown open and completely empty.
It was truly sad that this wagon felt like more of a home than any city I’d visited or even lived in. But there was no denying the pang of loss I suddenly felt. It was nothing but wood and canvas, cramped and uncomfortable, filled with stenches known and mysterious, and generally sweltering, but I was loath to leave it. I sighed, and grabbed my brass writing case from the corner of the wagon, slipped the strap over my helm and shoulder, and started towards the front again.
I stepped onto the bench when I heard hooves. A galloping horse. A Syldoon sped past, riding hard, and headed down the hill towards the Godveil.
Rudgi ran up to the wagon and ordered me out. “Get down there with the others, Arki. Burning time.”