Out today in e-formats from Ragnarok Publications, publisher of my forthcoming novella collection With Sword And Pistol this August, is Blackguards, a dark fantasy fiction anthology centered around the exploits of rogues, assassins, and general do-badders.
The book features –
CAROL BERG, “Seeds”
RICHARD LEE BYERS, “Troll Trouble”
DAVID DALGLISH, “Take You Home”
JAMES ENGE, “Thieves at the Gate”
JOHN GWYNNE, “Better to Live than to Die”
LIAN HEARN, “His Kikuta Hands”
SNORRI KRISTJANSSON, “A Kingdom and a Horse”
JOSEPH LALLO, “Seeking the Shadow”
MARK LAWRENCE, “The Secret”
TIM MARQUITZ, “A Taste of Agony”
PETER ORULLIAN, “A Length of Cherrywood”
CAT RAMBO, “The Subtler Art”
LAURA RESNICK, “Friendship”
MARK SMYLIE, “Manhunt”
KENNY SOWARD, “Jancy’s Justice”
SHAWN SPEAKMAN, “The White Rose Thief”
JON SPRUNK, “Sun and Steel”
ANTON STROUT, “Scream”
MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN, “Professional Integrity”
DJANGO WEXLER, “The First Kill”
ANTHONY RYAN, “The Lord Collector”
PAUL S. KEMP, “A Better Man”
JAMES A. MOORE, “What Gods Demand”
JEAN RABE, “Mainon”
BRADLEY P. BEAULIEU, “Irindai”
S.R. CAMBRIDGE, “”The Magus and the Betyar”
CLAY SANGER, “The Long Kiss”
It features an introduction by Glen Cook, author of the infamous Black Company.
As a companion to the e-release, readers also get Blacklist, a compendium of eleven bonus stories –
ROB J. HAYES, “To the End”
REBECCA LOVATT, “To Steal the Moon”
ANTHONY LOWE, “The Lonesome Dark”
LINDA ROBERTSON, “Comeuppance”
SAM KNIGHT, “The Assassination of Poppy Smithswife”
S.M. WHITE, “Telhinsol’s Shadow”
NOAH HEINRICH, “The Laughing Wind”
MIKE THEODORSSON, “Bloody Gratitude”
BRENDA CARRE, “Gret”
ERIK SCOTT DE BIE, “Angel of Tears”
and finally my own Ork-centric tale The Muttwhelp, about a half-Ork bandit chief, master and reluctant protector of a gang of bloodthirsty goblins, who is recruited into a dark Ork army and unexpectedly reunites with his long estranged father. Think of it as A Boy Named Sue with Orks.
Readers of my usual fare may think of this as a departure story, but in truth, fantasy fiction was probably the first I ever wrote. After discovering Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien almost in the same summer of ’88 or ’89, I immediately set about creating my own epic fantasy world, populated with cocky rogues, earnest swordsmen, and a crafty goblin villain named Redshat. I filled notebooks with stories of the land of Wayfar, and scrawled out highly detailed maps that would’ve swelled the heart of any Dungeonmaster worth the title.
I moved onto other projects as my writing progressed, but I guess the smoky towers of Rentellevaire and the crashing waves of the Billow never really left me. It took Dungeons and Dragons to bring me back there.
I think I’ve written here before of my recent return to fantasy roleplaying games after a dry spell of over fifteen years. I was wrapping up another full length fantasy story, an Arthurian novel, The Knight With Two Swords, which will see the light of day at some point next year, and D&D’s latest iteration got my mind moving further in the swords and sorcery direction. The first character I created on a whim to get back into playing, though I didn’t know it then, turned out to be a mixed blood denizen of old Wayfar.
Yeah, this story began as a D&D character.
I know that’s considered a huge no-no, but what the hell, the editors liked the character and the story enough to include it, and I was paid, so I guess not every rule applies every time. Anyway, I think the commandment against writing about your RPG characters is because some people like to play their ideal selves. I see D&D as a fun exercise and I highly recommend it to all my writer friends. I’ve always been more interested in playing (and playing with) cowards, narrow minded fanatics, naive bumpkins, incompetents, layabouts, neurotics, and incurable alcoholics in my D&D sessions because I like to think about how they exist in the world of heroic fantasy. I enjoy seeing them interact with truly heroic or adept characters. Those personality clashes and occasional monkey wrenches are, I think, what makes a game interesting, and turns the static into the dynamic. The Mary Sue, the Munchkin, these have never appealed to me very much as a player.
Anyway, enough about my hobbies.
I’ve read and seen countless epic fantasies where a dark army rises in the south/east/north to threaten the ‘good’ kingdoms of the world. It’s very often a mottled horde of subhuman goblins and orcs led by some charismatic personality, usually a wizard or evil god. There’s an inherent Eurocentrism which I could delve into here, but this writer and his comments section address it pretty well and I encourage you to read about it there if you’re inclined.
I’ve never personally read a story told from the point of view of a front line soldier in one of those bad guy legions.
That’s what attracted me to the call for Blacklist. I saw in it a way to do one of those POV stories of a ground level soldier in an epic war, as ambivalent to the higher machinations of his lofty, power hungry commanders as perhaps the average grunt in some far flung war is now to the politicos running it. What kind of a person enlists in an army of darkness, and for what reasons do such people band together? They can’t all be deceived as the Haridrim of Middle Earth, or simply evil.
I also conceived of the idea of seeing how the actions of one man can precipitate a shift in history, sometimes unintentionally, as in the assassination of Duke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Pincrip, and I like the concept of inadvertent and often unwelcome heroism, as portrayed in the Flashman stories of George MacDonald Fraser.
Finally, I’ve been a fan of orcs and goblins probably since my Games Workshop days. I have never actually played the complicated and expensive wargames that spawned all those amazingly detailed little figures, but I did play Blood Bowl, and appreciated the personality that came forth in the writing and sculpting of those kinds of characters.
Anyway, here’s a bit from The Muttwhelp. Please check it out.
Mogarth had fallen into the leadership of the Bellygashers by happenstance.
As a muttwhelp, the son of some nameless ork raider who had ravaged his human mother and left her hanging half-dead and bleeding from an oak tree on his grandfather’s farm outside Glean, he had never quite fit in anywhere. Most muttwhelps never made it to the birthing, or were hacked to death in their cradles or drowned. His tenderhearted mother had suckled him, even though his tusk nubs had scarred her nipples. She had raised him, even though it had isolated her from her own family and neighbors, and educated him by the hearth light when the scowling master at the Glean schoolhouse had turned him away, an ugly, green skinned babe snuffling snot and bitter tears into her apron.
He had worked down in those golden fields till one winter when his mother had caught a deep chill in her chest and sickened past caring, wasting to death when the robins returned. He had tried to keep the old farm going after that, but none of the merchants in Glean would buy his yield, or sell him seed, and he couldn’t afford any intermediary agent.
He had burned the farm to the ground and salted the fields to ensure none of the hateful pinkskins could use it in his wake.
He rubbed his rough hand over his stubbled head. He could still see the bare patch of land down in the valley where his home had once stood.
Mogarth had departed for Crossbow Hollow, the eastern gateway to the Golden Lap Valley and its most populous city, taking only the old blue shirt his mother had woven for him and the silver handled whip his father had left tied around her scarred throat.
The whip. His only heirloom. A cruel black thing with a barbed popper and a gnashing jackal’s head wrought in tarnished silver encasing the knotted handle.
“Home again, eh, boss?” Redshat said, having noticed Mogarth’s eyes, staring down at the valley waiting to be crushed flat and burned by the Black Army.
“No home of mine,” Mogarth grumbled.
In truth, the closest thing he had to home after his mother’s death had been with the Bellygashers, though he’d never admit it to Redshat.
The people in Crossbow Hollow hadn’t treated him any better than the humans of Glean. No one would hire him, not even the stableyard master. Unable to secure work he’d taken to making money any way he could. Naturally large, he had earned a meager living fighting in the sawdust pits for a time, when a scheming promoter had convinced him it was possible to retire on a brawler’s winnings. But the crowds, most of them missing limbs or loved ones from the frequent ork raids, had hated him, and when it had been suggested he begin losing to please them, he turned to cutpursing and bashing the skulls of drunks late at night.
When the Hartslayers had brought in the Bellygasher Gang one night and left them locked in the jail wagon out in front of Bintu’s Tavern while they threw themselves a congratulatory celebration, he had gathered with the rest of the drunken crowd and watched them jeer and pitch dog shit and beer at the five little sable skinned goblins gripping the bars and gnashing their black needle teeth within.
The Bellygashers already had a reputation for waylaying travelers. Their leader, Picknose’s brother Pickscab, had thought it a great joke to tie travelers alive to trees, cut their stomachs open, then fasten their intestines to the saddle horns of their own horses and lash them down the road to town.
The Hartslayers, unappreciative of his humor but savoring irony, had done the same for Pickscab. They’d slit him open and tied his guts to the back of the prison wagon. They’d made him march behind until he’d died and then dragged his carcass the rest of the way to town. Picknose had tried to cut his brother loose, but his claws couldn’t reach through the bars. He had still bore the gray scars of his effort on his skinny arms.
Something in the cruelty of the Hartslayers had rankled Mogarth, even though he’d known well it was deserved punishment. The sight of the town dogs tearing Pickscab’s corpse apart as the squealing little pink children fetched up the goblin’s cast off genitals and flung them back and forth at each other had boiled his blood.
Maybe it was because somewhere back in his own cursed heritage, gobbos were kin to orks. Maybe it was just the ugliness on display that night. He didn’t know.
He’d set fire to the Hartslayers’ constabulary and, while everybody had gone off with buckets to fight the blaze, he’d picked the lock of the cage and gone running off into the dark with the tumbling, chittering goblins.
It hadn’t been easy leading that bunch at first. Gobbos weren’t bright, and they were disgusting. A few times that first night he’d woken to find one of them gnawing at his toes, or two of them trying to tie his hands and feet, but after giving them a respectable thrashing, they’d relented to his company. Once he’d made them understand there was more to be gained from robbing travelers of their gold than in simply torturing them, they’d even accepted him as their boss.
He had maintained his innocuous presence in town, but he used the money from their subsequent robberies to build a cabin in the foothills on the outskirts where he pretended to raise sheep. In actuality, he bred them for the Bellygashers, who exchanged live mutton for gold and jewelry. Picknose still insisted on honoring his late brother’s memory with the occasional disembowelment, but Mogarth was able to keep them informed as to the Hartslayer’s movements. They charted the forest and even the sewer tunnels beneath the town so they always had a place to hide.
It could not be called happiness. It was never quite a family, but it was contentment.
Then one night the scouts of the Black Army had come to Mogarth’s cabin, three muttwhelps, like him. He had never seen so many altogether, and one, Bashka, was a female.
Odius Khan had emerged at the head of the united ork tribes from somewhere past the Broken Tooth Mountains, and allied his people with the Witch Queen and her numerous retainers among the dark folk of Wayphar. The animosity with which the five tribes regarded each other was legendary, and so this alliance under the great Odius was unprecedented. Combined with the might of the Witch Queen, it meant the end for the humans and the dwarves and even the elves and the fairies. It meant a new world for folk like him.
So Bashka and the other muttwhelps had told him.
He didn’t know now quite why he had bought into it so readily. Maybe it was the sight of Bashka. She had been no prize, certainly, with her too-broad hips and pendulous chest, her dripping snout and ornamented tusks, but nevertheless, she’d been female and willing. Maybe it was the thought of not having to live in isolation, or to pay well above the market price for the touch of some pinkskin woman.
So he and the Bellygashers had joined the Black Army. Orks, goblins, ogres, and trolls, all under the command of Odius Khan and the Ork Lords. They had skulked and scouted, fought and died, and he and Bashka had rolled and bucked to his content for a time.
But for what?
The orks treated them no better than the humans had. The muttwhelps were worse than servants in camp, bullied and ordered about like slaves, as hated for their human blood as he had been by the valley dwellers for his father’s. Bashka was expected to present herself to any rank and file ork or ogre in the host, and did so readily, submissively, until the perennially drunken orks raucously encouraged her coupling with an overeager crag troll and she was killed, torn nearly asunder.
The gobbos fared no better. They were kicked around by the larger soldiers when they were noticed at all, and driven in the forefront of the fighting always, to die by the scores. The trolls dipped them in barrels of pitch and hurtled them over the walls of castles on fire. They were instructed to roll across the thatch roofs or run through the enemy stables for as long as they could, if they landed alive.
Mogarth and his Bellygashers avoided such treatment after Mogarth himself had set a precedent.
One day, not long after the death of Bashka, a burly Broken Tooth Clan sergeant had tried to bend him over a cask of bilemead. The Bellygashers had scurried out from nowhere and swarmed the offender, biting, clawing, stabbing, and digging in with their hooked iron ankle and elbow spurs all at once. The sergeant’s shrieking had brought his orks, and Mogarth had taken up his big iron cleaver and stood over the gobbos while they did their bloody work.
Of the score ork soldiers he faced down, four had tried to come through him to the aid of their superior. One he cut from the top of his head to the middle of his neck. The second he sheared off below the knees. The third he swept both eyes from, and the fourth died in a tug of war over his own innards with one of the ravenous camp wolves.
After that day the word spread through the orks that the muttwhelp called Mogarth and his goblins were not to be touched.
As a reminder, he stuck the sergeant’s gaping head on a pole outside their mule hide tents.
The gobbos had swatted the flies away every morning and picked the meat from the face by increments to chew on the march. It was just a grinning black skull now. Mogarth had carved designs into the tusks in his off time, and he wore them from a necklace, along with the claws of a werebear champion he had slain at the Battle of Kantrivone Grove.
The Black Army was relentless. They had scoured the eastern half of the continent in a bloody, four month campaign before returning west where Mogarth’s own journey had begun, here at the edge of the Valley of The Golden Lap.
Though he hated to admit it, Redshat was right. It was like coming home.
Except now, it was just the two of them…