Finalists will be announced early next year. Cross your fingers that The Time Seller makes the cut.
If you haven't have a chance to read this genre-bending novel, you can read the first three chapters here.
Finalists will be announced early next year. Cross your fingers that The Time Seller makes the cut.
If you haven't have a chance to read this genre-bending novel, you can read the first three chapters here.
Want to start at the beginning? Read Chapter 1.
They arrived at the farm just as the sky in the east was turning gray. With his last bit of strength, Simeon set his wife under the sprawling branches of the oak next to their home. In the light, Simeon did a quick examination of her. She had a fever, and her face was paler than usual, making the fist-sized, spider-looking birthmark on the side of her neck more prominent than usual. More than anything, he wanted to rest, but he didn’t have that luxury. The giant knew where he lived and would probably come looking for them. Simeon needed to get his family to safety.
Irina turned her head looked around like she didn’t know where she was. Then her brown eyes focused on their house and grew wide in recognition.
“Cyril,” she said, trying to sit. “Where’s Cyril?”
“I’ll get him.” Simeon pushed his wife back to a lying position. “You need some water first.”
She lay back down but stretched her arms toward their home and repeated the name of their son.
Simeon entered the hut. It was still warm inside. Cyril was sleeping on the bed, his tiny chest moving up and down with regular breaths. Relief washed through Simeon—Cyril was safe. Simeon put his hand on the child’s head and said a silent prayer of gratitude that his son was all right. Now he just needed to get them to Sredets.
Leaving his son sleeping on the bed, Simeon grabbed a bucket and hurried to the well. He pulled up a pail of cold water and took it to his wife. He raised her head with one hand and pressed the bucket to her lips. She swallowed and coughed. He tried again. This time, she was able to keep the water down. He repeated until the color returned to her face and her eyes could focus. He lowered her head to the ground. As he stood to get the cart, she reached out for him.
“Don’t leave me,” she said.
“I won’t be far,” he said, stroking her hair. “I’m going to prepare the donkey so I can take you and Cyril to safety.”
She pleaded with him not to go, but he hushed her and went to retrieve the donkey. They needed to get on the road as fast as possible. The animal brayed as Simeon led him to the gate, seemingly annoyed that he had to work so early, but Simeon ignored the noise and hooked the animal to the cart. When everything was ready, Simeon went to retrieve Cyril and gather some food for the baby and his wife.
He grabbed the half-eaten loaf of bread and a bunch of grapes and put them in a sack. Then he turned to pick up the baby.
The bed was empty.
At first, he thought his son had rolled onto the floor, but the child was nowhere in the hut. Then he heard his son crying loudly from somewhere outside. Thinking that Irina must have retrieved the baby while he was getting the cart ready, Simeon hurried outside.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We don’t—”
Simeon came to a sudden stop. The giant stood between him and his wife. He held Cyril by the legs in one hand. In the other, he held a sword. The baby was crying, his face bright red. Tears ran from his eyes to his forehead and onto the dew-covered grass. Irina was crawling through the grass toward the devil, screaming hoarsely at the giant to put down her son.
Morning light spilled over the horizon, illuminating the giant. He took Simeon’s breath away. He was at least eight feet tall. He wore an iron breastplate and round shoulder armor. The arm that held Simeon’s son was adorned with a gold bracelet with an eight-pointed star on it. A red tunic overlaid with leather pteruges went down to his knees. Brown boots that came up to the calves were strapped high on his legs. He wore a one-piece helmet with a slight point at the top and a nose guard. He had dark eyes and a long, full beard. A shield four feet in diameter lay on the ground next to him.
Simeon instinctively drew his sword. He had been in many fierce battles—some where he had been outnumbered and out-armed—but looking at his son being held by the giant, he had never been more terrified than he was at that moment.
“Put him down!” Simeon yelled, hoping he sounded braver than he felt.
The giant said something in a language Simeon didn’t understand. It wasn’t Latin or Greek or any of the other tongues he had come across. It sounded like a series of clicks and guttural noises—some sort of savage language. The giant raised Cyril high in the air.
Simeon’s heart skipped a beat, thinking the devil was going to drop the baby on his head. He repeated his command, and when the giant didn’t respond, he repeated the command in Greek and again in Latin, moving forward with his sword pointing at the giant’s heart. The devil responded with the same clicks and noises, then held his sword up to the child. The tip of the sword scratched Cyril’s cheek, sending a trickle of blood down his side and a howl from his mouth.
Simeon stopped. “If it’s a fight you want, come and get me. But leave my son alone.”
The giant laughed, then tossed Cyril high in the air.
Simeon’s world slowed down. He could see the look of surprise on his son’s face as he spun head over heels, his arms and legs flailing in the air. Then he saw what the giant had planned. He bolted toward the devil, screaming at the top of his lungs. He felt as though he were up to his knees in water, and no matter how much he told his legs to move, it wasn’t going to be enough.
With utter helplessness, he watched as his son was impaled on the giant’s sword. Cyril’s arms and legs stiffened in shock. Blood came out of his mouth, and a brief wail escaped his lips before he died.
A roar shot from Simeon’s throat. He had seen hundreds of acts of savagery on the battlefield, but nothing like this. His veins filled with adrenaline, and he swung his sword at the giant as hard as he could. The giant easily dodged the blow. Then, with one sweep of his arm, the devil hit Simeon full in the face. Simeon felt his nose break as he was knocked on his back. He jumped to his feet just as the giant slid Cyril’s body off his sword and picked up his shield from the ground. He made another run at the devil, ready to strike him dead, but just as he swung his sword, the giant vanished.
The weight of the sword spun Simeon around. At his feet was the bloodied body of his son. Irina reached the body and held it to her breast. A howling Simeon would never forget escaped his wife’s lips, animalistic in its anguish and intensity.
Out of the corner of his eye, Simeon caught movement. He turned just as the giant’s shield slammed into his side. Simeon tumbled to the ground. Looking up, he saw the giant standing above him, his sword raised, ready to plunge it into Simeon’s chest. Simeon started to roll to the side even though he knew he couldn’t move fast enough to dodge the fatal blow.
An arrow flew through the air and bounced off the giant’s armor. He turned toward the source, giving Simeon just enough time to roll to safety.
Scrambling to his feet, he saw the giant’s back to him. Kamen and two other soldiers burst through the trees thirty yards away, their swords drawn. Another soldier stepped from between two trees and let a second arrow fly. The giant raised his shield, and the arrow broke upon contact.
Sensing his chance to strike, Simeon attacked the giant from behind. But as he raised his sword, the giant disappeared again. Simeon stopped in his tracks in surprise. An arrow intended for the giant whistled inches past his head.
“Spread out five paces!” Kamen yelled.
The two men with him started to put distance between each other. They turned their heads and their bodies, looking in every direction as if they expected an attack to come from everywhere. Simeon didn’t understand what Kamen was doing. It was the opposite of what soldiers were trained to do.
“Simeon, keep your sword at the ready!” Kamen yelled. “He could be anywhere!”
Before Simeon could reply, there was a cry from the tree line. He spun around and saw the archer with the tip of a sword through his chest. In the shadow of the trees, Simeon could just make out the large figure of the giant. How had he appeared over there? Using his sword as leverage, the giant marched the gasping archer into the clearing. He withdrew the sword, and with one swing decapitated the archer.
His shock gone, Simeon snapped back into battle mode. He ran as fast as he could toward his enemy.
“Stop, Simeon!” Kamen yelled. “Stay near us.”
Simeon ignored him and quickly closed the distance. Just as he reached the giant, the devil smiled broadly and disappeared.
If there hadn’t been a headless, bloody body at his feet, Simeon would have sworn he was going mad. In that moment, he understood how the giant could defeat twenty soldiers. It wasn’t his skill with the sword or his brute strength, but some dark art that allowed him to appear and disappear at will. They weren’t fighting just a giant—they were fighting a sorcerer or a god.
“Come here!” Kamen called to Simeon.
Simeon hurried over to the others.
“Spread out, but not so far that you can’t help the man next to you if he’s attacked,” Kamen said as he glanced over his shoulder. “Keep your eyes open.”
Simeon took up a position fifteen feet from Kamen, sword at the ready. He found his head turning to the right every other second to check his blind spot. If he was the giant, that’s the side he’d attack.
The giant appeared behind the soldier on the far end of the line.
Kamen called, and the soldier jumped to his left just as the giant thrust with his sword. The sword hit the soldier on his arm. The blade didn’t pierce his armor, but Simeon could see from the way the soldier’s weapon fell from his hands that his shoulder or arm had been broken.
In an instant, Simeon and the others were attacking the giant. Seemingly satisfied that the soldier near him was no threat, the giant started toward his enemies. Simeon took a circular route, hoping to attack the giant’s left side. So long as he didn’t disappear again, they might have a chance at defeating him.
There was the clash of metal as Kamen engaged the giant with his sword. With the enemy distracted, Simeon reached the giant. He raised his sword but just as he was about to strike, the giant swung his shield back and hit Simeon on the side of the head. Simeon crumpled to the ground. The last thing he saw before everything went black was Kamen swinging his sword at the giant yet again.
Simeon awoke with the sun high in the sky, shining directly on his face. Over the top of the long grass, he could see the thatched roof of his home and the branches of the oak tree. A breeze blew through the grass and brought with it the smell of flowers and earth. A crow alighted on the lower branch of the tree, looked down at Simeon, and cawed.
Simeon sat up and held his head in his hands. It hurt like hell, and there was a big lump where he’d been hit. He tried to stand but was overwhelmed by nausea. He waited for the feeling to pass before he picked up the sword in the grass next to him and shoved it in the earth, then grabbed the hilt and pulled himself to his feet. He swayed uneasily and leaned on his sword for support.
As he got his balance, he looked around. The grass near him was flattened and bloodied, but from where he stood, the only body he could see was that of the archer—a fact that surprised him somewhat, considering the giant’s skill, strength, and magic. There were no signs of anyone else. His gaze followed the trail of smashed grass and blood to the edge of the forest.
He turned his attention to the farm. The donkey stood in the shade of the tree.
His throat was parched, and his tongue felt twice its normal size. It sounded like his voice barely carried at all. He called her name a second time, and again was met by silence.
He started toward the house and spotted Cyril’s body in the tall grass. He walked to his son on unsteady legs. Flies crawled and buzzed around the dead child’s face. Simeon winced as he bent down and brushed them away. He cradled his son’s body in one arm and straightened. Tears fell from his cheeks and splashed on the tiny, cold form. He staggered back to his home. Inside, he found some cloth and wrapped it around his son’s stiff body. He fell to the bed exhausted, holding Cyril close.
He remembered the priests speaking of another life—one that was free of suffering, sorrow, and pain, but there was little comfort in those words. What he wanted was to bring his son back to life, but he knew that was impossible. Once you died, you never came back. For the first time since he was a young boy, he felt utterly helpless and alone. He lay holding his son tightly in his arms and sobbed.
When the tears wouldn’t fall anymore, Simeon’s thoughts turned to the giant. He could see the attacker’s sneering face as he tossed his son in the air. He had seen similar faces in battle over the years on soldiers who grew to enjoy killing. For those men, inflicting death wasn’t a matter of self-defense or fighting for the empire—it was pleasure. They enjoyed watching people die. They enjoyed killing them. They were fearsome and effective fighters, but Simeon knew that when it came down to it, his orders meant nothing to these men. Eventually, before they could spin out of control, he would assign them to the front lines—a task they never refused—and hope they’d die in battle.
As his mind went from these soldiers to the giant, the sorrow inside gave way to intense anger. The giant wasn’t simply an obstacle to freeing his wife—he needed to die. In his mind, Simeon pictured himself taking a sword and cutting off the giant’s head with one swing. No, that death was too clean and quick. The giant wouldn’t feel anything. He needed to feel pain. Instead of beheading him, Simeon would disable the giant by breaking his legs, then would stand above him and thrust his sword through his torso again and again, over and over until his body was nothing more than a mess of shredded flesh. Just the thought of doing that was enough to push most of the sorrow from his mind and replace it with anger.
Then he thought of a third way to kill the giant. He’d cut off the giant’s hands and feet one at a time and cauterize the wounds so he wouldn’t bleed out. Then he’d take the body and hang him in a tree by the arms. The scent would be enough to attract wolves, and Simeon would hang the giant just low enough that the wolves would feast on his calves. When they were devoured, he’d lower the giant just enough that they would dine on his thighs, followed by his torso. It would take three or four days for the giant to die, and Simeon would find a place where he could watch and relish every moment of the anguish.
He sat up, rage filling his breast, and placed his son’s body in the middle of the bed. He could do nothing for his son, but there was still a chance that he could save his wife and take vengeance on the monster who had slain his only child. He gathered some cheese and wine and moved to the table, where he sat in front of the stale, half-eaten loaf of bread. He broke off chunks of bread, dipped them in the wine, and ate. Strength returned with every bite. When he had eaten his fill, he changed into thick clothing and put on his breastplate and helmet.
Back outside, he found his sword, knelt next to it, and said a prayer like he did before every battle. He prayed that he could track the giant, find his wife, and that vengeance would be his. As he prayed, he replayed the various ways he wanted to kill the giant. By the time he said amen, his heart was again filled with rage. He pulled his sword from the ground and swung it through the air. It felt good. Gripping it tightly in his hand, he took one last look at his home, then started off toward the cave.
Join the millions (or is it billions?) of people who are calling in to work sick, telling their children to watch TV all day, and putting their plans for world domination on hold because they can’t put down The Time Seller.
For those who are wondering what the big deal is, the first five chapters are available online. Start reading it here. But before you do, cancel any appointments and be prepared to shirk all your responsibilities because once you start reading, you won’t stop until the last page is read.
You’ve been warned.
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.
I was hoping to get the book out in August but there have been some small delays. All the writing and editing has been done for weeks but the talented person who is laying them out for print is swamped with work and it’s taken her longer than anticipated to get the book galleys to me for review. She did get them to me earlier this week and they look awesome! (See photo above.)
I finished the galley reviews today and sent them back to with a few minor changes to make. Hopefully that means I’ll have the book available in the next week or two. Thanks for your patience as I make the final product as awesome as possible. It will be worth the wait, I promise.
Also, if you want to know the second it’s released, sign up for my newsletter. Newsletter subscribers will be the first to know as soon as it’s available to read.
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.
Note: I'm posting the first several chapters of The Time Seller before its official release. To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1.
Business in the market was brisk. Simeon’s reputation for growing grapes, combined with the fact that few people from surrounding villages had dared to bring goods into town, meant he was able to sell his crop quickly and at a premium. By midday, his purse was full, and most of his grapes had been sold. Under normal circumstances, he would have been thrilled with the money and the prospect of an early trip home, but today, his mind kept drifting back to the dejected look on Kamen’s face. Simeon had let his friend down, and it didn’t sit well with his sense of honor.
As he weighed some grapes for a woman, he noticed three soldiers enter the far side of the market. They looked around, spotted Simeon, and headed straight for him. Their hurried walk told Simeon they weren’t there to buy what he was selling. As they drew closer, Simeon realized that the lead soldier was Boril. His stomach turned sour at the sight of the man’s narrow face and pointed nose. The only thing different about Boril from the last time Simeon had seen him was that Boril’s black hair was shoulder-length. His face was still bare, having never been able to grow a beard. Simeon completed his transaction with the customer, grabbed the hilt of his sword, and turned and faced the approaching soldiers.
“Word reached me that you were in the city today,” Boril said, offering his hand.
Simeon didn’t take Boril’s hand or even look down at it. Instead, he glanced at the other two soldiers, realizing for the first time that Kamen was one of them. The second soldier he recognized as an archer named Rade. Simeon gave Kamen an inquisitive look. Kamen shook his head, telling Simeon that he hadn’t spoken to Boril about the earlier visit.
“If you came to buy some grapes, you’re just in time,” Simeon said. “They’re just about gone.”
“I have more important matters to discuss,” Boril said. “Military matters.”
“I’m just a poor farmer. What would I know about such things?”
“Don’t play stupid, Simeon. I know you talked to the two blind fools at the gate and paid a visit to the tarkan’s house. You know what I’m here to discuss.”
Simeon said nothing. He was impressed that Boril’s spy network was up and running so quickly, considering that he’d been stationed in Sredets for less than a month. He made a mental note to be more careful about where he went and whom he talked to in the future.
“I need—the empire needs—your skills to take care of a threat to the city,” Boril said.
“I’m not a soldier anymore. Tsar Samuil stripped that title from me, and I don’t think the current emperor plans on changing that.”
“I’m not here to make you a soldier. I want to buy your services. I need you to lead a group of men to dispose of a rogue Byzantine soldier.”
Simeon laughed loudly. “Oh, you think you can just buy my services?”
“I’m willing to pay you handsomely for your time and the inconvenience,” Boril said, pulling a bag from his purse.
Simeon noted the size of the purse. It was bigger and fuller than his. Still, no amount of money was a temptation when coming from Boril. “My services aren’t for sale,” Simeon said.
“This is more than most mercenaries make in an entire year defending our empire, and I know you don’t have much,” Boril said. He cast his eyes at the donkey. “This could go a long way toward improving your circumstances.” He shook the bag, letting the jangle of coins fill the air.
Simeon didn’t give the bag a second look, just faced Boril more squarely. “After all I’ve lost, you think that money can buy it all back?”
“Think of it as a first step toward restoring your name,” Boril said. “Once I send word that you helped take care of this menace, it could help reclaim what you’ve lost—you could gain your family, your livelihood, your honor, and the empire’s respect again.”
Simeon spat on the ground. “I don’t want a coward vouching for me.”
Boril lowered the purse, and his free hand went to the hilt of his sword. “You dare insult me?” he snarled.
Simeon tightened his grip on his own sword, but even as he grasped the weapon, he regretted his rash words. He wasn’t worried about fighting Boril— he could best the man with any weapon, or with his bare hands if necessary. However, getting on Boril’s bad side could cause other problems. As a tarkan, Boril had the legal authority to throw Simeon in prison, banish him from the city, or do almost anything short of killing him. Simeon had sold most of his grapes and made good money. His best option at this point was to take it and go home to his family.
“I apologize for my words,” Simeon said. “You defended Sredets from the Byzantines, and we are all grateful.”
Boril’s grip on his sword loosened. “Thank you, but despite my great victory, I still need your help.”
Simeon wanted to laugh at Boril thinking of his defense of the city as a great victory. But he kept his feelings to himself. “My services are not for sale, to you or anyone else.”
“If you refuse to obey, I’ll have you arrested. I’ll seize your purse, your crops, and the sad little ass that pulls your cart.”
“I won’t stop you. Do what you want. But that won’t convince a single soldier to venture outside these walls to fight a rogue Byzantine soldier.” Part of Simeon couldn’t believe he was saying these words. But Boril was a coward, and Simeon was nearly sure he would try to find a way to save face once his bullying tactics didn’t work.
Boril turned to Kamen and Rade. “There have been reports of thieves in the market. Walk around and look for suspicious activity while I finish up here.”
Kamen and Rade gave each other a knowing look, then started toward the far side of the market. When they were out of earshot, Boril turned and faced Simeon.
“I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye on things, but the empire needs you. I’ll pay you the full purse now and the same amount again if you eliminate the threat.”
Simeon chuckled. “The empire. The way the war is going, the Bulgarian empire will cease to exist in a year or two.”
“I promise to put in a good word with the emperor when I send him a report of the success.”
“That won’t help restore my good name,” Simeon said.
“How can you possibly think that?”
“Don’t act so naive. You served in the emperor’s house.”
Kamen opened his mouth to speak but Simeon continued, the words rushing out of him all at once. “You of all people should know the emperor is happy to blame me for his uncle’s death. I could slay a thousand Byzantine soldiers with my bare hands, and it would do nothing to move him. My actions gave him the throne. Easier for him to justify his reign if I remain the villain. Besides, I’ve already proven my bravery many times over. I don’t need to do it again.”
“Simeon,” Boril said, “the men in this city look up to you. The stories about your heroic efforts at Kleidion are legendary. If you get on a horse and go out the gates, you’ll have the whole legion behind you.”
“Why don’t you get on a horse and let them follow you out the gates?”
Boril stared at Simeon incredulously. “I need to supervise things here. There are walls that need repair and supplies that need to be restocked.”
Simeon stifled a laugh at Boril’s weak excuses. “Men will not follow someone who won’t obey his own commands. Instead of acting like one of the nobility, volunteer to lead them out the gate. Show them your courage and your bravery.””
Boril’s face turned red. Simeon tightened his grip on his sword in case Boril pulled his. They stared at each other for what seemed like a long minute before a normal color returned to Boril’s face.
“You may have most of the soldiers in Sredets on your side, Simeon, but you have no support among the nobility. If you refuse to help me, I swear that one day you will regret your inaction.”
Simeon just smiled bitterly. “You and the nobility are welcome to everything I no longer have.”
Boril turned and left the market. He called out to Kamen and Rade to follow him. Rade immediately turned and fell into line behind Boril. Kamen cast a long, pleading gaze at Simeon.
Simeon shook his head. If Kamen had come alone to the market and entreated Simeon a second time, he might have been persuaded to take him up on the offer. But he couldn’t bring himself to help Boril. Not after Kleidion.
Kamen turned and followed Boril and Rade out of the market.
It wasn’t until someone came to purchase the last of his grapes that Simeon realized he was still clutching the hilt of his sword tightly in his hands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here's a first look at the cover for my next novel The Time Seller
Isn’t it delightfully creepy?
Details of the book and an exact release date will be coming soon. In the meantime, I’m looking for readers who would be interested in writing a review of the book when it comes out. In exchange for a review you’ll get a free paper copy or eBook of The Time Seller. If you’re interested, click the button below to sign up.