Excerpt from Plague Land by S.D. Sykes, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Plague Land

by S.D. Sykes

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes X
Plague Land by S.D. Sykes
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2015, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2016, 336 pages

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Jennifer G Wilder
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Prologue
Somershill Manor, November 1350

If I preserve but one memory at my own death, it shall be the burning of the dog-headed beast. The fire blazed in the field beside the church – its white smoke rising skyward in a twisted billow. Its odor acrid and choking.

'Let me through.' I shouted to their backs. At first they didn't respond, only turning to look at me when I grabbed at their tunics. Perhaps they had forgotten who I was? A young girl asked me to lift her so she might see the sinner die. A ragged boy tried to sell me a faggot of fat for half a penny.

And then a wail cut through the air. It was thin and piteous and came from within the pyre itself – but pushing my way through to the flames, I found no curling and blackened body tied to a stake. No sooty chains or iron hoops. Only the carcass of a bull, with the fire now licking at the brown and white hair of its coat.

The beast had not been skinned and its mouth was jammed open with a thick metal skewer. I recognized the animal immediately. It was my best Simmental bull, Goliath. But why were they burning such a valuable beast? I couldn't understand. Goliath had sired most of our dairy herd. We could not afford such waste. And then a strange thing caught my eye. Beneath the creature's distended belly something seemed to move about like a rat inside a sack of barley. I tried to look closer, but the heat repelled me. Then the plaintive call came again. A groan, followed by the high-pitched scream of a vixen. I grasped the man standing next to me. It was my reeve, Featherby.

'How can the beast be calling?' I said. 'Is it still alive?'

He regarded me curiously. 'No, sire. I slaughtered him myself.'

'Then what's making such a noise?'

'The dog-headed beast. It calls through the neck of the bull.'

'What?'

'We've sewn it inside, sire.'

I felt nauseated. 'Whilst still living?'

He nodded. 'We hoped to hear it beg for forgiveness as it burns. But it only screams and screeches like a devil.'

I grabbed the fool. 'Put the fire out. Now!'

'But sire? The sacrifice of our best bull will cleanse the demon of sin.'

'Who told you this?'

'The priest.' These words might once have paralyzed me, but no longer.

'Fetch water.' I shouted to those about me. Nobody moved. Instead they stared at the blaze – transfixed by this spectacle of burning flesh. The ragged boy launched his faggot of fat into the fire, boasting that he was helping to cook the sinner's heart. I shook him by the coarse wool of his tunic.

'Water!' I said. 'I command it!' The boy backed away from me and disappeared into the crowd, only to sheepishly return with a bucket of dirty water. And then, after watching me stamp upon the flames, some others began to bring water from the dew pond. At first it was but one or two of them, but soon their numbers grew and suddenly the group became as frenzied about extinguishing the fire as they had been about fanning it.

When the heat had died down to a steam, we dragged the sweating hulk of the bull over the embers of the fire to let it cool upon the muddy grass. As we threw yet more water over its rump, their faces drew in about me, both sickened and thrilled as I cut through the stitches in the beast's belly to release its doomed stuffing. It was a trussed and writhing thing that rolled out in front of us – bound as tightly as a smoked sausage.

As I loosened the ropes, the blackened form shuddered and coughed, before gasping for one last mouthful of air.

Then, as Death claimed his prize, I held the wilting body in my arms and looked about me at these persecutors. I wanted them to see what they had done. But they could only recoil and avert their eyes in shame.

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From Plague Land by S. D. Sykes. Published by Pegasus Books. Reprinted with permission

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