Dear readers, tonight with me is a bladesman – a master swordsman. He’s here to tell us about a life of training young men bonded to the ancient gods to fight and die in a malign, centuries-old war against the inhuman followers of a fallen ghoul god.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?
They call me lord of the Mountains, lord of the grim, forbidding fortress of Vraymorg which stands as sentinel to the great gorge and the dead cities beyond. But the Lord of Vraymorg is just a name I took when a queen banished me to this dismal outpost of the kingdom of Telor.
In truth, I was born many centuries ago in the sun-drenched lands of the Isles. Once an Isles man, always an Isles man, they say. Though I can hardly remember who I was then, before my life, my position, my wife and son, were all stolen from me.
Now, I am a captive of miserable duty, a captive of my past. I cannot escape it, nor the shameful secret that festers like a wound within.
Did you have any cherished memories?
I grew up under the shadow of defeat, when Telor had been conquered by a sorcerer-king who took the name “Mazart,” or overlord. Even so, life was good. I wed a woman I had been betrothed to since birth. Odd though it sounds, I was content. Until my reputation as a bladesman reached the Mazart. He invited me to compete in the prestigious Contest of Swords. I was nineteen. My life, that life, ended at nineteen.
What do you do now?
My duty is to train young men chosen by the ancient gods to fight and die in a malign, centuries-old war against the inhuman followers of a fallen ghoul god. I can’t afford to care about these young warriors, especially Kaell, the 19th bladesman bonded to the gods. For love means loss.
What can you tell us about your latest adventure?
In the latest book, The Last Seer King, I’m a prisoner in the Icelands, outmatched in a dangerous game with a clever, but cold and ruthless sorceress. The only way I can get to Kaell is to reveal to her a secret that will destroy me. But I’m running out of time. With my unique blood, the rulers of the Icelands intend to auction me to the highest bidder.
What did you first think when… ?
When I first met Heath, fire dancer, spy and bladesman, I despised him. To begin with, he’s a Damadar, the rulers of the Iceland who are holding me prisoner. His sharp tongue and his arrogance irritated me.
But I misunderstood Heath. Knowing him has changed me, just as knowing me forced him to confront his family’s malicious goals—with horrendous consequences. Heath tried to give me a gift. He tried to show me the redemption found in friendship.
What was the scariest thing in your adventures?
Letting my shields down, the ones that protect me. It is easy to risk my body as a warrior—I think sometimes I will welcome death—but hard to risk my heart. I overheard one of Kaell’s captains once say that I fought recklessly, as if I don’t care if I survive. Maybe so. There are worse fates than death.
In The 19th Bladesman, the first in the series, I always knew the words Kaell wanted to hear. But still I didn’t tell him that I loved him like a father, that he never disappointed me.
What is the worst thing about…?
Living for centuries.
There is an old saying in the Mountains: “Who comes in empty night. No, not death. It is I, despair.”
I remember a night in The 19th Bladesman when the wind whispered through torn stonework and a woman came to my bare room. I took her in my arms because she was beautiful and because I was just as lonely as I am tonight, writing these words.
What is the best thing about it?
And yet, there are moments, precious moments, when it is good to be alive. Tiny moments when I do not feel quite so alone.
I remember Kaell as a child of six, waving his wooden sword at the nesting plovers in the ward at Vraymorg. He tore about, shouting, “silly pluckers, shut up, shut up, you silly pluckers.”
I was about to correct him, to call out, “plovers, Kaell.” Instead, I laughed. Pluckers suited the birds just as well. From that day on, that was what they would be. Even now, the memory of the indignant birds with their distinctive cries, and the small child taking them on, unfraid, makes me smile.
Tell us a little about your friends.
There are many who call the fortress of Vraymorg home, but my existence is solitary. I must always be on my guard, for there are those hunting me because of my bloodlines. My servant, Ewen, and his father and his father before him, have kept my secrets.
I am closest to Kaell. I am entrusted not only with his life, but the dangerous truth of who he really is. I have to guard him against that truth. If only there is time for us to be honest with each other.
Any romantic involvement?
There have been women. Rozenn, Queen of Cahir, who wanted something of me that she said would deliver her the throne of Telor. Judith Damadar, a seductress trained in distant Quisnaf, brought me comfort in a tent on a battlefield. I didn’t care that she was there because her brother Heath told her to come.
There was a moment in The 19th Bladesman when Azenor Caelan, a daughter of the Isles, lifted her fingertips to my face and slowly traced my brow, my cheekbones, my lips. I remember a curious intimacy between us, how I wanted something more. But it is dangerous to love. It brings only pain.
Whom (or what) do you really hate?
Because of a vow to a dying queen, I serve a man I hate, Cathmor, King of Telor. He resents me. Perhaps because he recognises he can’t easily bend or break me. To break or bend, a man must have something to lose. His position. His life. I don’t care about either.
Once, centuries ago, I led one thousand men across the gorge to attack a Varee village. The Varee are slavers and murderers, and as the king’s man, it is my duty to deal with them. When they brutally killed a young bonded warrior, I sought a bloody revenge…
But there are others I hate more, who I fear in the empty moments before dawn. Ghouls. The remnants of the fallen Seithin empire. How vast the wildness beyond the gorge seems with its abandoned cities of red stone, with its forests and its mountains where ghouls hunt human prey, and their god plots his return.
What’s your relaxing pastime?
Sometimes, all I long for is that bladesman’s dance of blood. I desire its familiar steps, for the relief of empty rage. Sometimes, I drink alone by the fire, wishing I could breathe with a lightness of spirit, if only for an hour.
What does the future hold for you?
In the third book, The Sword Brotherhood, I make a promise to the “seer king” Roaran Caelan that seals my fate. I would like to think I will find redemption, that I will be able to put aside the past. But in the fourth book, I am far from home, in a city of caves where my wit, my learning, my formidable skill with the blade, means nothing. My only value lies in my precious blood and my physical beauty. I shall come to hate that beauty, for it only brings misery.
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
I remember how I caught Rozenn of Cahir staring at my scarred wrists, how her expression changed as if she wondered why a powerful warrior, a prince of the Isles, a lord of Telor, should surrender to despair. That secret, the secret of what happened in a sunlit room with bars on the windows, is all I have to bargain with. Once it is told, I will be lost.
S.J. Hartland is an emerging epic fantasy writer from Australia. She is a journalist and fencer who spent too many holidays wandering around obscure castles all over the world. After many years in Sydney, she now calls the Darling Downs, Queensland, home.
You can find Val on the pages of The 19th Bladesman, followed by The Last Seer King and the upcoming The Sword Brotherhood.
Keep an eye out for more mid-week SPFBO fantasy specials! Join us on Friday to hear from two sisters who explored the Amazon basin in search of monsters. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right) to be notified when the next interview is posted.
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