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 made his way through the trees, stopping occasionally to listen and get his bearings. The screams rang out occasionally, shattering the darkness. Sometimes they were close, other times far away. They always seemed to come from different directions. After a while, Simeon felt like he was walking in circles.
When he had been gone about two hours, he considered returning home—assuming he could find his way back. At night, everything in the forest looked the same. This far into the woods, the trees were thick and tall enough that they obscured his view of the mountains and the stars. If he couldn’t get his bearings, he might not get home before Cyril woke up.
Another scream rang out in the dark. It was close, and it was female. Irina. It took all his self-control not to go running toward the sound. It wouldn’t do any good to raise an alarm that he was coming. He needed to save his wife, then dish out vengeance to whomever had taken her.
Simeon pulled his sword from its sheath and moved through the trees as fast as he dared. After a few minutes, he stopped, wondering if he was headed in the right direction. The scream had sounded close enough that he thought he would have an easy time finding the source, but if the camp was well concealed, he could have easily walked right past it.
The faint sound of sobbing came from somewhere nearby. Simeon cocked his head and closed his eye, unsure if he had imagined it. He stood still for a minute, straining his ears to filter out the nighttime noises of the forest before he caught it again. It was faint, but it sounded like it was coming from the left. Opening his eye he followed the sound, praying that it would lead him to his wife.
It wasn’t long before he saw the orange flicker of a fire through the trees. Simeon froze. The light disappeared, then reappeared a moment later. He crept forward until he came to a small clearing bounded by an outcropping of rock about a hundred feet away. A flash of firelight came from an opening in the rock. Just as he was about to move from the cover of the trees, a large figure emerged from the opening. Even in the dark, Simeon could tell that the man was very tall—quite possibly the biggest man he had ever seen.
The giant stood motionless in the cave entrance. Simeon stayed partially concealed behind the trunk of a tree, his gaze riveted on the figure. Finally, the giant turned and walked across the clearing. As he moved away from the cave, Simeon saw that he carried something over his shoulder. At first, Simeon thought it was a large sack, but then he discerned an arm flopping with the rhythm of the giant’s gait. It was a human body. Simeon almost called out, thinking it was Irina, but the crying sound he had heard before floated from the cave. He recognized the sobs as hers.
The giant disappeared into the forest, and Simeon ran to the opening of the cave and looked inside. Four torches set into the stone provided just enough light to make out seven figures against the far wall. They were all slouched forward, their arms bound at the wrists and tied to iron spikes embedded into the cave. As his eye adjusted to the flames, he recognized the closest figure as Irina.
He rushed into the cave and knelt by his wife.
“Irina,” he said, brushing her hair out of her eyes.”
Her brown eyes fluttered open. Usually large and soft, they now looked bloodshot and tired. “Simeon?” Her voice was hoarse and just above a whisper. “Help me.”
With his sword, Simeon slit the ropes that bound her wrists. Her arms fell limply to her sides, and her body fell forward into his arms.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said as he stood and picked her up.
She tried to say something, but her words were slurred, and he couldn’t understand what she said. He didn’t bother asking. He would take her home, raise the alarm with the soldiers at Sredets, and gather enough men to slay the giant.
The man next to her groaned.
“Kamen?” Simeon said, recognizing his friend.
“Don’t leave us,” Kamen pled.
Simeon’s mind flooded with questions, but there was no time to ask them now. He looked back at the cave entrance, then set his wife down. He cut Kamen’s bands and then cut the cords of the others tied to the wall. Most of them were soldiers, but there were a few older people at the end who had the same emaciated look as Gavril. It wasn’t until he cut the last band that Simeon realized Boril wasn’t among the prisoners.
The old man at the end raised a bony arm toward Simeon.
“Help me,” he said, his voice just above a whisper. “I’m too weak to stand.”
Simeon called out to Kamen, who was helping his men to their feet.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
“Take your men and help this man and the two others out of the cave. Can you find your way back to your camp?”
“We have no camp. The giant attacked soon after we stopped to rest.”
“Then gather your men, and help these others out of here,” Simeon said. “Split up and head to Sredets. With Godspeed, we’ll rendezvous back there in the morning.”
“Shouldn’t we stay together?”
“Numbers don’t matter against whatever this is. We’re safer in smaller groups. Split up into units of two or three and head toward the city.”
“Where are you going?”
“Home. I have to get my son.”
With that, he picked up Irina in his arms and walked out of the cave and into the warm night air. The light from the torches had ruined his night vision, and he needed a few minutes to get it back. He could barely make out the tree line. He hurried to the edge of the forest and waited behind a tree, hoping the giant would take his time before coming back.
“Do you have the strength to walk?” he asked his wife.
Irina nodded. “I think so.”
He set her down, but her legs gave out from under her. She leaned against him for support and started to apologize.
“Don’t talk,” Simeon said, hoping his words covered the worry that filled his body. “I’ll have you home soon. Just let me get my bearings, and I’ll carry you.”
He picked her up and gave her a kiss on the forehead. He held her tightly in his arms while he waited for his night vision to return. Behind him, he could hear Kamen and his men leaving the cave and entering the forest somewhere off to his right.
When he could make out the ground and the spaces through the trees, Simeon started through the forest. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was lost. All he had was a general idea of the direction they should head. He thought about stopping and making camp for the night, but he knew in his gut that waiting for morning wasn’t an option. He wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the cave as possible. Besides, his son lay in their home alone. He had to get both Irina and Cyril to safety.
He moved forward, trusting luck and his instincts to guide him. Progress was slow.
Some time after he felt they were a safe distance from the cave, a man’s scream ripped through the forest.