Note: I'm posting the first several chapters of The Time Seller before it's official release. To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1.
The Time Seller
As the donkey approached the tarkan’s house, Simeon realized that something was amiss. The horses Kamen and his fellow soldiers had ridden were tied to posts in front, still sweating and pawing at the ground in thirst. No one had watered them or taken them to the stables. The cavalry was the backbone of the army, and not caring for military horses during a time of war was punishable by death. Aside from an imminent attack, Simeon could think of nothing that could excuse the soldiers’ neglecting their animals in such a manner.
Not seeing a guard in front of the house, Simeon tied the donkey to a post and approached the horses. They were breathing hard and biting at their bridles. Simeon looked up and down the road for soldiers who could care for the animals. Seeing none, he called for two boys who were sword fighting with sticks in front of a home nearby and took the last two coins from his purse. His wife would disapprove of giving away their money where they were just scraping by, but Simeon couldn’t stand seeing the horses suffer.
The older of the two boys looked about ten. Simeon held one of the coins between his thumb and forefinger. They boy’s eyes lit up at the sight of it.
“Grab a bucket from your home, go to the well, and water these horses. If you do a good job, this will be yours,” Simeon said.
As the first boy scampered off, the second boy looked at Simeon expectantly. He had large brown eyes and shoulder-length hair, and Simeon thought he looked to be about seven. Simeon squatted down so he could look the boy straight in the eyes.
“Do you know how to watch horses?”
“Yes,” the boy said, nodding his head.
“Good,” Simeon said, holding up the other coin for the boy to see. “While your brother fetches water, I need you to keep an eye on these animals and my grapes. Can you do that?”
The boy nodded and tried to grab the coin from Simeon’s fingers.
Simeon moved his hand out of reach. “Watch the animals and my crops, and if both are in good condition when I return, this is yours.”
The boy moved to the horses and started petting their noses, talking to them. Satisfied that things were under control, Simeon looked at the door of the tarkan’s house, which also served as an informal gathering place for soldiers. It had been just over three years since Simeon had last passed through these doors, and standing in front of them brought back memories of laughing and drinking with his soldiers, planning battle strategies, and catching his men trying to sneak girls to the upstairs rooms. It felt both comforting and odd to return.
He entered and heard the sound of men talking in the large room to the left—one that was used as a resting area for soldiers on break. The room was pretty much as Simeon remembered— a few scattered chairs and a large table in the middle. Nine soldiers crowded around the table. Kamen stood on the far side. It took him a moment to notice Simeon standing in the door.
“Come in, Simeon,” he said, motioning for Simeon to enter.
The soldiers turned and looked.
“Tarkan,” one of the soldiers said, his voice full of shock.
Some of the soldiers’ eyes grew wide in surprise, but the other men said nothing. A few nodded in recognition.
“Make room for our guest,” Kamen commanded.
Two soldiers at the foot of the table moved aside, giving Simeon an unobstructed view. Simeon looked down and gasped. The old man he had seen on horseback earlier lay on his back, his arms at his sides. A blue-and-white striped blanket covered the man from his stomach to mid-thigh. What Simeon could see of the man’s body was skeletal, the skin wrapped so tightly around the bones that Simeon wondered if that was what held the man together. The man’s ribs and breastbone stuck out from his chest, which barely moved up and down with each shallow breath. His legs and arms looked like long, straight sticks, and his skin was splotched with dirt and sores. The old man’s eyes were sunk deep into his head; one was closed, the other half-open and listless. A pungent smell wafted up from the body, and Simeon had to pinch his nose and breathe through his mouth to avoid gaging.
The old man reminded Simeon of soldiers who had spent a good deal of time in a Byzantine prison being fed nothing but water and the occasional scrap of bread. Maybe he had been recently rescued. But even if that was true, Simeon didn’t understand why Kamen and his men were so interested in him. It was only then that he noticed that the soldiers around the table were standing at least three feet from the edge, as if they were afraid that getting too close to the old man might bring a similar fate upon them.
“Thank you for coming,” Kamen said.
“Is this why you’ve brought me here?” Simeon asked, motioning toward the table.
Confused, Simeon took another look at the body. “What for? The man needs a physician.”
“We’ve sent for one, but that’s not why you’re here. Tell me, do you recognize him?”
Simeon stared at the man’s gaunt face. There was something familiar about his features, but Simeon couldn’t remember seeing him before.
“No, I don’t believe so.”
“Are you sure?” Kamen said. “Look closer.”
Simeon took another long look. In his mind, he added some weight to the cheeks and life to the eyes. He trimmed up the beard and combed back the hair. He had the feeling he should know the man but still couldn’t match him up with anyone.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I know him,” Simeon finally said.
“The man you’re looking at is Gavril. You served together at Kreta.”
Simeon looked at Kamen in disbelief, then back down to the white hair, long beard, and taut face. The old man did resemble Gavril, but this couldn’t be him. Gavril was a strong young man of about twenty years.
“You must mean this is Gavril’s grandfather,” Simeon said.
Kamen shook his head. “I wish it was so, Simeon, but this is Gavril.”
“Do you take me for a fool, Kamen? This man is at least three times Gavril’s age.”
“Believe me when I tell you this is Gavril,” Kamen said. “We’ve served side by side at Tarnovo for the last year.”
“This is some kind of trick,” Simeon said. “How can he be so old?”
“I’m hoping to get an answer to that and many other questions,” Kamen said, “but as you can tell, he’s not in any condition to talk.”
“What happened to him?”
“There’s a giant roaming around the forest. Gavril was captured by the giant about three weeks ago while on patrol.”
“I was told this morning that a Byzantine mercenary is causing problems.”
“It’s not some rogue soldier,” Kamen said. “This man, if you want to call him that, is something else. He’s faster and stronger than anyone I’ve fought against. I . . . I wouldn’t be here telling you this if it wasn’t for three of my men sacrificing themselves so we could rescue Gavril.”
Simeon thought back to what Bozhidar and Miroslav had told him. He had inwardly doubted their story, but with Kamen telling it . . .
“How many men went out with you?” Simeon asked.
“Twenty on horseback, with enough provisions to last us a week.”
Simeon raised his eyebrows. “What happened to the rest of your men?”
Kamen looked at the floor. “Dead or missing,” he said quietly.
There was silence in the room as the words sank in.
“One man stood against twenty?” Simeon tried to hide the skepticism in his voice, but it came out anyway.
“He appeared out of thin air a few minutes after we found Gavril. It was as if . . .”
“As if what?”
“As if he was waiting for us. Like the entire thing was a trap.”
Simeon thought, trying to figure out how a single man could successfully fight against twenty soldiers. He had never seen a soldier or anyone else—no matter how tall or strong— stand against that many men. “Where did you find him?”
“In the foothills of the Black Peak,” Kamen said.
Simeon felt his throat tighten. His home was in that area. His vineyard was secluded and far away from both the main road and the many hunting trails that crisscrossed the foot of the mountain, but there was always a chance that someone could stumble upon it by accident. His thoughts immediately went to his wife, Irina, and their infant son, Cyril. Simeon wished he was back there with them. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He wanted to believe his home was safe and secluded. During the recent siege of Sredets, the Byzantine army hadn’t come across it, but something in the back of his mind told him this giant was a greater threat. His gut told him to get back in the cart and drive his donkey back home as fast as he could, but he couldn’t come home empty-handed. He had promised the last of his money to the boys to watch the horses. His family needed the money that would come from selling the grapes. He couldn’t look his wife in the eye if he came home with nothing in his purse.
“Simeon, may we talk alone?” Kamen’s words brought him out of his thoughts.
Simeon nodded and followed Kamen out to the street, glad to be away from Gavril’s smell. He was pleased to see that the horses had been watered and that they were being tended to by the younger boy. A quick glance down the street showed the older boy hurrying toward them, water sloshing out the top of his bucket.
They stood by the donkey, and Kamen patted the beast’s nose. “You seem to have done well for yourself.”
“Farming is good for me. I’m finding it more enjoyable to create life than to take it.”
“We miss your leadership. We could use more of it.”
“You held Sredets.”
“That was luck. The Byzantines brought their catapults too close to the walls, and we destroyed them. They’ll be back next year, and when they come . . . I don’t know if we can withstand another siege.”
Simeon stood in quiet contemplation as he thought how fast the empire was crumbling. In the three years since Kleidion, most of the southern lands had fallen into enemy hands.
Kamen looked around, then said quietly, “I’d like you to lead a select group of men to go after whatever is out there.”
Kamen looked around, then said quietly, “I’d like you to lead a select group of men to go after whatever it is that’s out there.”
Simeon raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t realize you had the authority to organize such a mission.”
“I don’t, but it doesn’t have to be official. When word reaches Boril that this mission was a failure, he’ll berate the men, then try to round up more soldiers. I’ll volunteer to lead and spread the word that you’ll help us. You can meet us just outside the city tonight. I’ll have a horse and supplies for you. You can keep your donkey in the stables.”
Simeon thought the offer over. The tarkan in him was curious to see the giant, or whatever it was, that could defeat twenty soldiers. But another part of him still bristled at how the nobility had dismissed him after Kleidion. He was a hero to his solders, but not to the tsar. He was loath to give a hand to the power that had treated him so poorly.
Simeon shook his head. “I need to sell my grapes and get home before nightfall.”
“Now isn’t the right time, Kamen. I can’t afford to spend the day running around when I have crops to sell.”
“I’ll find a way to compensate you for the grapes.”
“It’s not about the money,” Simeon said. “I have a wife and child now. I can’t just be going off on missions whenever I feel like it.”
“You have a child?”
“Yes, a son. Eight months old. His name is Cyril.”
Kamen put a hand on Simeon’s shoulder. “Congratulations are in order, then. When things settle down here, I would like to meet him and see my cousin again.”
“After the harvest.”
“After we defeat the giant.”
Simeon sighed. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I have different priorities now. Besides, Tsar Ivan and the nobility made it very clear that they don’t want me anywhere near their soldiers. I posed a risk to you and all the men in that room just by crossing that door.”
“Did you not see the faces of the soldiers standing around that table, Simeon?” Kamen said. “They’re terrified. I doubt Boril could round up more than three soldiers to go find whatever’s out there. But if they knew you were ready to lead them, I could get fifty men.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” Simeon called to the two boys and handed them the last of his coins. Then he untied his donkey and climbed into the cart. He flicked the reins, but Kamen grabbed the donkey by the bridle.
“I led twenty men out and came back with four. This monster poses danger to everyone within a two-day journey of the city— including your wife and son. If you won’t do it for the empire or the soldiers, do it for your family.”
“I am thinking of my family, Kamen. They need a husband and father, not a soldier. Now, I have crops to sell. Let me go on my way.”
Kamen gave Simeon a long look, then let go of the donkey.
Simeon flicked the reins again, and the donkey started down the street.