About The Time Seller
The year is 1017. A mysterious giant terrorizes small villages near the city of Sredets, the last remaining stronghold of the First Bulgarian Empire. Disgraced solider Simeon Exarch is reluctantly drawn into the fight and manages to slay the giant. But his victory comes at a price—the deaths of his wife, Irina, and son, Cyril.
A thousand years later, Simeon lives on, having harnessed the giant’s powers to prolong his life and those of his friends. Then one evening, he notices a woman who looks exactly like Irina. From the sun-shaped birthmark on her neck to the smell of her body and the fact that she and his late wife share the same name, Simeon becomes convinced that the woman is his late wife and holds the key to eternal life.
Kidnapped on her wedding night, Irina has no memories of the past. Her husband, Miles, will do anything to rescue her from her captor. Soon, they will both learn just how deep their love for each other goes, as well as what happens when one crosses the threshold from life to death.
Part I: The Byzantine Devil
Sredets, First Bulgarian Empire
August 1017 A.D.
The road to Sredets was muddy and quiet, black and empty.
Normally, the road bustled with the traffic of traders, soldiers, travelers, and peasants heading to or from Sredets and the fortress that protected it. But today, as far as Simeon could see, the road was barren. The hoofprints, wheel tracks, and footprints that normally scarred the road were also missing. It was as if no one had journeyed to or from the city since the morning rain. Even the forest on either side of the road was strangely silent. The normal cacophony of insects and birds was absent. The only sound was the trudge, trudge, trudge of the donkey pulling the cart through the muck.
The silence made Simeon wary. An empty road meant people were afraid to travel. The latest Byzantine siege of Sredets had ended unsuccessfully a few weeks earlier, and Simeon hadn’t heard of any other reason to avoid the area. Still, he found himself turning his head to his right more often than usual to check his blind spot. If a bandit or robber hiding in the forest noticed his missing eye, they would sneak up on that side. He touched the intricate crossguard of his sword, his fingers tracing the lion heads at each end, then flicked the reins, urging his donkey forward at a faster clip.
His nerves eased when Sredets came into view. Men were scattered atop a scaffolding, repairing and patching the walls that had been damaged in the siege. Others were dismantling the abandoned Byzantine catapults scattered nearby. Soldiers stood guard on the tops of walls, watching. The air smelled like charred wood.
The guards at the south gate recognized Simeon and waved him through. Just inside the entrance, two blind men sat cross-legged on the side of the road. Each man held a bowl in his lap. Their heads turned at the same time when they heard the soft clop of hooves.
“Can the brave traveler spare something extra for a soldier blinded by the Byzantine monsters?” one of them cried out, raising the bowl high above his head and waving it in the air.
Simeon brought his cart to a stop. “I always have something for a fellow soldier, Bozhidar.”
The blind man stopped waving his bowl and smiled. “Simeon, is that you?”
“It is, old friend.” Simeon got down from the cart and approached the two men. Their clothes and beards were caked with dust. In place of eyes, each had dark slits that sank deep into their skulls. “How are my two friends this morning?”
“Blind as ever, but alive,” Bozhidar said. “The priest says my lack of sight is a blessing, but I think if he was missing both eyes, he’d feel differently.”
“When I stop in the church to pray, I’ll be sure to ask God to send a more understanding servant to the city,” Simeon said.
Bozhidar elbowed the man sitting next to him. “Miroslav, it’s Simeon.”
“I may be blind, but I’m not deaf,” Miroslav barked. He held out a scarred hand in Simeon’s direction. “It’s good to hear your voice again. It’s been months since you’ve come to town.”
Simeon took the man’s hand in his. “I’ve been busy with the harvest. It’s been a good year for just about everything we’ve grown. Which reminds me—I have something for both of you.” He grabbed two large clusters of grapes from the wagon and gave one to each man.
Bozhidar took one of the clusters. He held the grapes to his nose and sniffed them, touching several with his fingers.
“Oh, grapes,” he said, his smile widening. He popped one in his mouth. “They’re delicious. I can’t believe you’re selling them, let alone sharing them.”
“It’s my best harvest yet. I have more grapes than I can turn into wine.”
“Delicious grapes make delicious wine, and one can never have too much wine,” Bozhidar said, spitting out a seed and putting another grape in his mouth.
“And I have plenty of both. Better to share and sell than to let the excess spoil. Maybe I can finally earn enough to buy a horse.”
“I thank you,” Miroslav said. “It’s not often that we’re given something so fresh. Most people think they can give us something half spoiled just because we can’t see.”
“I’ll stop on my way out with some coins for the two of you, but first I have to sell the grapes.” Simeon looked around, then squatted next to the two men and spoke quietly. “The road to the city is empty. Why are people afraid to travel outside these walls?”
“You haven’t heard?” Miroslav said.
“Quiet, you fool.” Bozhidar tried to cover Miroslav’s mouth with his hand. “Don’t listen to what he says, Simeon. He wants to share the stories passed down from soldiers who are too afraid to do their job.”
Miroslav brushed Bozhidar’s hand from his face. “Don’t hush me. Simeon’s home is far outside these walls. He needs to know.”
“Know what?” Simeon asked.
“People have gone missing recently—soldiers, men, and women.” Miroslav spoke in a tone just above a whisper, and Simeon had to move closer to hear his words. “Peasants have run through these gates telling stories of a giant dressed as a Byzantine soldier who uses magic to appear and disappear out of thin air, snatching whomever he wants. They call him the Byzantine Devil.”
Simeon’s first inclination was to laugh out loud, but the earnestness in Miroslav’s voice stopped him. “I would think you’d be smarter than to listen to peasant gossip,” he said, stroking his beard.
“It’s not just the peasants telling these stories,” Miroslav said. “Soldiers have gone missing too. Most refuse to stray far from the walls unless they’re in large groups. Yesterday, it took Boril all day to round up a dozen soldiers to go find this creature.”
Simeon felt the blood rise to his face and his heart pound at the mention of Boril. Even though he was standing in the shade of the walls, it felt like the summer sun was shining directly on him.
“Boril is in Sredets?”
“Yes, he’s the tarkan of the garrison. Didn’t you know?” Bozhidar asked.
Simeon shook his head, then remembered that his friends couldn’t see what he was doing. “The news hasn’t made it out to where I live.”
“He was recently sent with some troops from Tarnavo—just before the siege,” Bozhidar said.
“Then it’s a miracle we managed to hold off the enemy,” Simeon replied.
Both of the blind men laughed.
“He’s half the reason they haven’t caught whatever’s out there,” Miroslav said, his tone serious again. “The men don’t respect him.”
“He’s not the problem,” Bozhidar replied. “The men here are weak and scared. They’re poor excuses for soldiers.”
Simeon clicked his tongue. “Don’t speak of our soldiers in that way, Bozhidar. They’re the only thing keeping us from becoming Byzantine slaves.”
“You know I mean no disrespect,” Bozhidar said, “but you also know how easy it is for leaderless men to let fear get the best of them. When Boril sent them out to track the giant down yesterday, he had to threaten them with death before they would go.”
“Fear. That was something I never had to worry about from you, old friend,” Simeon said, putting his hand on top of Bozhidar’s head. “You were never one to cower, even when the odds were stacked against us.”
Bozhidar smiled. “Thank you. If I could only see, I’d be out there hunting whatever is responsible for these stories.”
“I know you would,” Simeon said. “Thank you both for the information. I will be cautious on the journey home.”
“Simeon,” Miroslav said, reaching out.
Simeon took the man’s hand and held it in his. “What is it?”
“We’ve been through a lot together, have we not?”
“We’ve been through hell and back, then back to hell,” Simeon replied.
“I owe you my life, as does Bozhidar, so please listen to me. This isn’t just some story the soldiers are telling to shirk their duty. I cannot see, but I hear a fear in their voices. You remember Kleidion, don’t you?”
Simeon instinctively touched the spot where his right eye should have been. “How can I forget it?”
“Even when the Byzantines were overrunning our positions, the men under your command stood their ground. They fought even though we were outnumbered and there was nothing left to fight for.”
Simeon nodded. “There was much bravery that day. Many good men died.”
“Even the bravest soldiers are terrified to go outside the walls. Traders and villagers have been hesitant to walk the road in broad daylight. Even if the stories are exaggerated, there is something out there taking people. Bring your family to Sredets for protection until it’s taken care of. They’re not safe.”
Before Simeon could answer, there was a commotion at the gate. He turned and saw four solders ride in on horses.
“Make way! Make way!” the lead soldier shouted, even though the street leading from the gate was practically empty.
They raced past, each horse glistening beneath a slick sheen of sweat. The second horse bore both a rider and a passenger, but all Simeon could see of the latter was a puff of white hair and the long beard of a man bent with age, his head resting on the neck of the horse.
The man on the last horse glanced in Simeon’s direction as he rode past, then pulled the reins up tightly. The horse neighed and reared up on its hind legs. The rider brought the horse to the ground and turned it around so its nose was pointing directly at Simeon.
“Simeon, is that you?” the man on horseback said.
Simeon cocked his head. The voice sounded familiar, but all he could see of the man’s face was a bushy brown beard. The rest was obscured by a helmet and nose guard.
“Surely you haven’t forgotten me,” the man said. He removed his helmet, revealing large brown eyes and a high forehead.
“Kamen!” Simeon said, breaking into a grin. He pressed the donkey’s reins into Bozhidar’s hands, then hurried to greet his friend.
Kamen dismounted from his horse. “It’s good to see you again.”
“It’s been years,” Simeon replied, putting both hands on Kamen’s shoulders. “I didn’t know you were stationed here.”
“I arrived just a few weeks ago. We were sent from Tarnovo to help reinforce the city.”
“How goes the war?”
Kamen shook his head. “Not good. For every battle we win, we lose two. I received word yesterday that the enemy is moving toward Setina. If we fall there . . .”
“Then Sredets is the last stronghold left,” Simeon said, surprised by the sad tone of his voice.
“Tarkan, I was wondering—”
“Do not call me by that title,” Simeon said. “I’m not a soldier anymore.”
“No matter what the nobles think, you’ll always be tarkan to me and to many of the men here,” Kamen said.
“Thank you for the kind words.” Then, lowing his voice, Simeon added, “But be careful how loudly you speak them. There are many who would consider what you said to be treasonous.”
“I’m not worried about Boril,” Kamen said. Then, looking from side to side, he lowered his voice as well. “Your presence in Sredets comes at an opportune time. I might have a way by which you can restore your honor—at least in the eyes of those who feel you have none.”
“I couldn’t care less what the tsar thinks of me,” Simeon said.
“I wasn’t talking about him. I was talking about your family and former clan.”
Simeon raised his eyebrows. “I’m listening.”
Kamen glanced around the courtyard. “I’d rather show you than try to explain. Do you have time to come to the tarkan’s home?”
Simeon felt his heart hammer at the mention of the house. It was given to the captain who commanded the soldiers in the city. It had been his for a time, until the tsar stripped his honor and title.
“What about Boril?”
“I doubt he’ll be there,” Kamen said, disdain dripping from his voice. “If he’s not bedding a stable maid, he’s over at the governor’s house yapping about how his inspired leadership saved the city.”
“Still, if he’s there . . .” Simeon’s voice trailed off.
“If he is, I’ll post a guard outside the door. If you see one, head straight to the market.”
“Very well,” Simeon said. “I’ll meet you there.”
“Thank you. Gather your cart and come as quickly as your donkey will permit.”
Simeon watched Kamen get on his horse and ride off. He then returned to his cart and took the reins from Bozhidar.
“That sounded like Kamen,” Bozhidar said.
“It was,” Simeon said, realizing that Bozhidar and Miroslav had probably overheard the entire conversation.
“Kamen led the troops out to find the giant yesterday,” Bozhidar said. “He was the only one who didn’t have to be coerced to leave.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Simeon replied.
“How many men did he just return with? I heard only a handful of horses return.”
“Three soldiers and an old man rode in with him. From the looks of their horses, they rode them hard over many miles.”
“Kamen led four times that many men on horseback yesterday,” Miroslav said. “What do you think happened to the rest of them?”
Simeon looked through the open gate down the black, muddy road, hoping to see more men riding toward the city. Though he wasn’t going to admit it, his gut told him anyone who hadn’t returned was probably dead. “Don’t assume the worst, my friends,” he said instead. “The others will return soon.”
“I hope you’re right,” Miroslav said.
Simeon climbed into his cart. “I’ll see you before the sun goes down.”
“Be careful, Simeon,” Bozhidar called out.
“Thank you, my friends. I’ll stay safe. In the meantime, keep your ears open.”
Simeon took one last look down the empty road, then flicked the reins and guided the donkey down the city’s narrow streets.
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