Note: I'm posting the first several chapters of The Time Seller before its official release. To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1.
Simeon was a mile outside the city when he heard the thunder of hooves behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw ten horses barreling down the road. He guided the donkey as far off the road as possible, then stopped the cart. As the horses raced past, Simeon recognized Boril as the lead soldier. Seeing Boril out in front would normally have given Simeon a sense of satisfaction, but today, it only made his doubt and second-guessing worse. Boril had good political instincts but almost no sense of leadership or battle tactics.
He watched the men and horses disappear around the bend in the road and felt as if he was watching them ride to their deaths. As Simeon urged the donkey back onto the road, he thought about setting out in the morning to find the men and help them take down whatever was roaming the countryside, but he immediately rejected the idea. He had other priorities in his life now.
The sun was low in the sky when Simeon guided the donkey off the main road and through the forest on a path he had cleared the previous year. The path just wide enough for his cart to pass and was difficult to spot unless one was looking for it. After half a mile, the forest broke into a wide clearing. In the gathering dusk, Simeon could just make out his home, a small, one-room hut with a thatched roof. The sight of it warmed his heart, and he was glad his journey had come to an end. The donkey must have felt the same way, because it picked up the pace as they cleared the trees.
As he drew closer, Simeon realized that something was amiss. No smoke filtered through the thatched roof, and he couldn’t smell his wife’s cooking. The wooden shutters of the lone window were open—at this time of day, they should be closed. Then, through the open window came the wail of a child—his son, Cyril. The baby’s cry was hard and intense, as though the boy was somehow in pain. Simeon hopped off the cart, tied the donkey to an oak tree next to the house, and ran inside.
The interior of the home was dark and cool. The fire that was constantly kept lit had gone cold. Simeon spotted his son’s arms and legs flailing on the straw bed. He rushed over to Cyril, picked him up, and held him close. His son’s face was bright red from crying. He wore an overshirt that was open at the bottom, and his legs and buttocks were covered in feces.
“Irina!” Simeon yelled. “Where are you?” Worry welled up inside him. Irina took Cyril everywhere with her. There was no reason she’d leave him alone on a bed or lying in his own excretion.
He took his crying son outside with him and called for his wife again. Aside from his son’s screams, the farm was dark and quiet. He took Cyril over to the well, drew up a bucket of water, and sloshed it over the lower half of his son’s body. The shock from the cold water stopped Cyril’s cries for an instant, but then he cried even harder as Simeon washed him.
Simeon dried off his son with the hem of his tunic and carried the child back into the house. In the gloom, he could just make out a half-eaten loaf of bread that had been left on the table. The outside was hard, but the inside was still soft and moist. He broke off a chunk of the bread and went back outside. Balancing the baby on his hip, he took the piece of bread and dipped it in a bucket of clean water to soften it, then fed the wet bread to his son. At first, Cyril was too upset to eat, but after a minute of prodding, he finally quieted down and accepted the meal.
With his son now calm, Simeon tried to figure out where his wife might have gone. Everything in the house was in its place, and nothing of value had been touched. There were no signs that robbers or anyone else had come through. It was as if she had been in the middle of her daily routine and had suddenly left. That wasn’t like her. She was eighteen, and a responsible woman. It was one of her finest qualities—Simeon never worried when he had to go to Sredets for a day or two. He wanted to look for her, but he had to tend to his son first.
Simeon finished feeding Cyril, then wrapped him in a blanket. He went back inside and laid Cyril on the bed. Then he took some kindling and wood from beside the door and dug through the ashes in the hearth, hoping to find some hot coals at the bottom. He was in luck, and in a few minutes, orange and yellow flames licked the wood. He closed the wooden shutters and let the fire’s heat fill the home. Once he was satisfied that his son was warm and safe, he stepped outside and closed the door behind him.
In the last of the light, Simeon untied the donkey from the tree, unhitched it from the cart, and let it into the pasture. Then he checked to make sure his sword was securely girded around his waist and walked around his farm, searching for any sign of his wife or clue to explain her disappearance.
He found the first sign at the garden. Most of the melons were smashed as though several men and horses had run through them. It was getting too dark to see much, but it looked like the path of destruction continued through his vineyard. He rushed to the broken plants to examine the damage. Most of the melons they were planning to store for winter had been destroyed. Without them, they would have a difficult time surviving. He followed the path of devastation to his vineyard. Half the vines had been smashed or uprooted. It would take years before his vineyard would be productive again.
As he walked through the devastation, he nearly tripped over a body in an imperial uniform lying face down between the second and third rows of grapes. Simeon grabbed the body by the shoulders and turned it over, noting that it was still warm to the touch. Two lifeless eyes stared back at him. It was Rade. Simeon stood and drew his sword, his eyes scanning his surroundings for any sign of danger. Simeon walked through the smashed and uprooted vines to edge of the forest. There he found a second body— also warm. He didn’t recognize the man’s face, but he wore the same imperial uniform. The ground around the body was dark with blood.
Simeon stood and stared at the black trunks of the trees. He could just make out a path where soldiers had made their way into the forest. For a moment, he wondered if Boril had stumbled upon his farm and taken his wife and destroyed his crops as an act of revenge. But that wouldn’t explain the two dead bodies or the fact that his son had been left untouched. Something had happened, and he had just missed it. Irina was out in the forest somewhere—he was sure of it.
Just as he was about to step into the forest, he heard a scream. It was so distant and faint that he wasn’t sure if it was human or animal, and he couldn’t decide exactly where it had come from. He stood dead still for several moments, but heard nothing besides the chirping of crickets and the hoot of an owl.
Then, from somewhere deep inside the forest, he heard the scream again. The shriek sent chills through his entire body, despite the warm night air. This time he sure that it was human and that it was coming from someone in great agony. It reminded Simeon of cries made by soldiers being tortured by a red-hot poker.
Gripping his sword, Simeon started running toward the sound.