Check out Blood and Iron, the first installment in Jon Sprunk’s new epic fantasy series The Book of The Black Earth, available March 11th from Prometheus Books!
It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn’t even begin to understand.
Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn’t last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen’s court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire’s caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both.
Lightning split the night sky above the masts of the Bantu Ray. Thunder boomed amid the driving wind, shaking the carrack’s timbers, and then darkness returned to smother everything.
Horace Delrosa braced himself against the bulkhead of the staircase as the ship heaved portside. As the ship righted, he hauled himself up the last steps to the hatchway. Mountains of black water surged around the ship and poured over the gunwales to wash across the deck. Sailors clung to their posts, with two brave souls aloft in the rigging trying to secure a loose topsail. Up on the sterncastle, Captain Petras shouted commands into the winds.
Horace had signed on with the Ray as her master carpenter three months ago. Joining the war effort had seemed like an ideal way to flee from the ruins of his old life and start anew, but it hadn’t worked out that way.
He flinched as a large hand clamped on his shoulder. Andrega, the bosun’s mate, was bare-chested and soaked to the bone. “How do you like the squall, landsman?” he asked. His broad smile revealed orange-stained teeth and gums.
Horace shoved the bosun’s hand away and shouted over the wind. “I’ve got every hand below on a bilge pump, but Belais says we have trouble.”
“Trouble, aye. We picked up an admirer.”
He followed Andrega’s pointing finger with his eyes but couldn’t see any-thing following them, although he knew other ships were out there. The Ray was part of a six-vessel flotilla transporting soldiers from Avice to the crusader state of Etonia, from there to take the fight to the unholy heathens of the East. They had risked a late passage across the Midland Sea to join the Great Crusade before winter.
They both jumped as another fork of lightning sizzled across the sky and a huge shape materialized a hundred fathoms behind the carrack.
What in the name of the Hell… ?
The unfamiliar vessel was at least twice the size of the Bantu Ray and rigged for battle.
Dark faces framed in ruddy lantern light peered down from her forecastle amid points of gleaming steel.
Andrega chuckled. “Aye, you see. We’re running with the wind now, but soon we’ll be fighting for our lives. Best make sure you’re ready.”
Horace looked again to the Ray’s rigging. Several of her sails were torn away, flapping like angry wings as the crew worked to take them in. A tall wave crashed against the hull, and the carrack listed onto her side, every board groaning with the strain. Lightning flashed, and a burning sensation rippled down the center of his chest. Horace sagged against the open hatch as the afterimage of dancing lights faded from his vision. That last flash of lightning had been a ghastly green shade. He’d never seen anything like it. He rubbed his chest as the sudden urge to hit something came over him.
The captain’s cry lifted Horace to his feet. He ducked back through the hatch and stumbled down the steps. A sickening odor assaulted him as he reached the main hold, which the crusaders had converted into a barracks. His gaze went immediately to the seams, checking for leaks. A gray-haired sergeant sat on a footlocker near the front of the long deck, drawing a whet-stone across the edge of his infantry sword. He glanced up as Horace entered. “How’s it look topside?”
“Not good. There’s an enemy ship closing on us. The captain wants everyone on deck.”
“Can we outrun it?”
“Maybe on a calm sea if the ship was in top condition. But we’ve been taking a drubbing from the storm, and I’d say we’re barely making four knots.”
The sergeant spat on the floor where his sputum joined the mélange of bilge water, vomit, and urine covering the planked deck. “Most of these men can’t even stand up without loosing their bowels, much less fight.”
Horace looked through the forest of swinging hammocks where men tried to sleep amid the groaning wind. Many soldiers clutched wooden buckets as the ship heaved and rolled. A young priest stood in their midst, chanting a prayer in Old Nimean.
“Those are some scars for a carpenter.” The sergeant pointed at Horace’s hands with his whetstone. “They might make it hard to hold onto a blade when the sweat and blood start running. You’ll want to find some gloves before the fighting begins. If it comes to that.”
Horace looked down at the masses of scar tissue across both his palms and up the undersides of his fingers. They were a constant reminder of a day he wished he could forget, of a life he would never get back. “Not for me. I’ll be below, keeping us afloat.”
A sick feeling fluttered in Horace’s stomach as he said that. He’d spent a lifetime living on and beside the water, but this was the first time he’d ever felt like he might die at sea.
“You believe all those things they say about ’Keshian warlocks?” the sergeant asked as he went back to sharpening with a brisk whisk whisk of stone across steel. “’Bout how they’re all eunuchs and the first thing they do when they capture a man is shear off his marbles? I’ll tell you one thing. They won’t take me alive. Not a chance.”
Horace thought of the green lightning flashing across the sky and the hulk of the enemy ship closing in. He had to get these men topside if they were going to survive. “Get them moving, Sergeant. We don’t have much ti—”
The deck bucked under their feet. The sergeant stumbled, and Horace caught him by the arm. “Much obliged, son. Tell the captain I’ll gather the men, but he needs to buy us more time.”
Horace started back up the staircase. The upper hatch swung open before he got halfway up, and a river of water sluiced down the steps, drenching him to the waist and getting into his boots. Cursing, he barely managed to hold onto the railing without getting swept away. The hatchway above him was a black hole without starlight or a lantern’s gleam to guide him. Then Horace’s stomach dropped through the floor as the stairs tilted under his feet. The carrack was tipping backward like a fish balancing on its tail. His arms were almost yanked from their sockets as he held onto the railing with a death-grip. Hand over hand, he pulled himself up to the hatch.
The waist deck was empty except for two sailors huddled against the starboard capstan. The captain and both mates stood at the helm, staring into the storm. Horace looked past them to the great black leviathan rising behind them. The enemy ship was close enough to exchange arrow fire, though none was offered. Any minute it would be close enough to board.
Another bolt of ghoulish green lightning slashed across the sky. Flames rose fifty yards off the port side as another ship in the flotilla caught fire. Its sails went up like paper, billowing black smoke. Horace couldn’t make out the name on the side, but he thought it might be the Albatross. Then something snapped above his head with a violent crack. Horace turned as the smell of burning cloth engulfed him. Then an explosion of light and sound hurled him off his feet. Pain burst inside his head like a thousand knives carving into his skull. He tried to yell, but a fist of water slammed into his face. The tide lifted him up and plunged him down into a bath of icy blackness.
Stunned, he tried to swim to the surface, but he had no idea which way was up, and his limbs were slow to respond. He kicked until something hard rammed into his back. His mouth popped open, and seawater rushed in. As he fought against the darkness that threatened to descend over him, memories flashed before his eyes. Images of fire and blood twisted his insides into painful knots as the faces of his wife and son floated before him.
Horace reached out to them as a quiet calm washed over him. The pain was soothing. The storm raged somewhere beyond his senses, but it couldn’t touch him anymore. As he sank down in the darkness, the pain in his head dwindled to a dull ache that flowed down to encompass his entire body. He heard a distant sound like the words of a prayer echoing in his mind.
His last sensation was the current pulling him along, just another piece of jetsam in the cold of the deep.
Horace dreamed he was back in his old home in Tines. He was lying in the bedroom he shared with his wife on the second floor of the narrow townhouse.
If he was lucky, Josef would sleep late and allow him some time alone with Sari. Horace reached out beside him with a smile. Reality seized him as his fingers encountered only hard-packed earth and not the warm body he’d expected. He sat up, heart hammering in his chest, as the memories came crashing back—the storm, the enemy ship, and then washing overboard.
But I’m alive.
Sweat soaked him under a thin white sheet, which was the only thing concealing his nakedness. He sat on a pallet on the floor in a small room about the same size as a ship’s galley. The walls and ceiling were dried mud. There was a door near his feet and a slatted window over his head through which entered a balmy sea breeze and the faint rumble of crashing waves. His clothes were folded beside him—the navy-blue shirt and black breeches of his uniform. His boots had been cleaned of salt and spray.
He wanted to stand but didn’t think he had the strength. He was wrung out like he’d gone ninety rounds with Iron-Belly Friedmon. He couldn’t remember anything after the storm. Where was he? Etonia?
Smells of food rose from a tray beside his bed. He lifted the cloth cover to find a small loaf of brown bread and a clay cup. Horace lifted the cup and sniffed. The amber liquid inside had an earthy smell. Too thirsty to care what it was, he drank, spilling some down his chin. The taste was bitter and malty, almost like ale but heavier. He drained the cup in two long swallows.
He was wolfing down the bread when the door opened and an old woman entered. She was so thin and bent over that he almost took her for a child at first. She picked up the tray and carried it away without a glance at him. He was reaching for his shirt when she returned a few moments later with a broom which she used to sweep the narrow space of floor with brisk motions.
“Pardon me,” Horace said. “Can you tell me where… ?”
But the old woman left again without looking at him and closed the door behind her.
Horace pulled on his breeches. He was starting to suspect he wasn’t in Etonia but somewhere south along the Akeshian shore, and that meant he was in trouble. He didn’t need to recall the chilling tales of the soldiers onboard the Bantu Ray to know he couldn’t expect to live long in enemy custody. His hands shook as he slipped on his boots. He had been a fool to join the crusade, even as a ship’s crewman. He knew nothing of fighting. His life before had been filled with books and building plans. Yet even as hopelessness threatened to overwhelm him, he felt the old familiar pain—the loss of his family— enclosing his heart like steel armor. He clung to the grief like a lifeline because it was the only thing he had left.
Steeling himself, Horace tried to stand up. First he climbed to one knee and then slowly straightened up. His stomach clenched a little, but the discomfort went away once he was fully upright. He expected the door to be locked or otherwise secured, but it opened at his touch.
In the larger room beyond, three people glanced up from seats around a low table. Like the cell where he had awakened, this room also had mud walls and ceiling, but the floor was covered in overlapping carpets woven in beautiful designs and colors, including a rich indigo purple that was difficult to obtain and highly prized in Arnos. To see these works of art used to cover the floor of such a mean home was jarring. The people around the table included a man about Horace’s age, a woman who might have been his wife, and a boy about eight or nine years old. All three had the same dusky complexion and curly black hair. The woman and boy wore undyed homespun clothing. The man was bare-chested, showing off a lean, wiry frame. He had an imposing black beard and deep-set eyes.
Horace stood there looking at the people, and they stared back at him. Then a curtain of beads parted, and the old woman came into the room. She carried a large clay bowl from which came an appetizing aroma both sweet and spicy. She stopped when she saw Horace, and the man stood up. “Sar alakti,” he said and beckoned with a curt sweep of his hand. He wore a white linen skirt.
The old woman shuffled to the table. As she sat down, the man motioned for Horace to come as well. Horace hesitated. The suspicion that this was an elaborate setup lurked in the back of his mind. There was another door to his left, made of dark wood and inset with a shuttered peephole. It could be a way out, though he had no idea what he would do if he got free. In his weakened condition, he didn’t think he could outrun even the old woman. The smells coming from the bowl convinced him to stay, at least for now.
The table was lower than he was used to and surrounded by plush cushions instead of chairs, but once he was settled, he found it quite comfort-able. The boy said something to his mother that sounded like a question. She shushed him as she uncovered the serving bowl and began ladling out portions. The man was served first, and the next bowl was set before Horace. He leaned down to inhale the steam rising from a soupy yellow concoction. He could identify rice and chunks of white meat, possibly some kind of fowl, but the spices didn’t smell like anything he’d ever encountered. He looked around for a fork, but there was nothing in front of him. The others held the bowls to their mouths and used their right hands like spoons. After watching them for a few seconds, Horace fell in with gusto.
His tongue exploded with the first bite. It tasted like a combination of savory and hot spices much stronger than the usual cumin or cloves found in Arnossi food. He wanted to take the time to savor it but found himself eating as fast as he could shovel it in, devouring the entire bowl in moments. He licked his fingers before noticing the others were staring at him. Embarrassed, he put down the bowl and wiped his hand on his shirt. He watched them eat, trying to learn as much as he could about them. They spoke little during the meal, and, of course, he couldn’t understand a word of it. Their language was completely unlike Arnossi or Nimean, or the smattering of Altaian he spoke.
Everything about this experience—sitting with this family, eating their food—felt odd. Was it possible they were just trying to make him feel welcome? Why should they? He was a stranger. No, there was some deception at play.
After a few minutes, Horace stood up. Every eye at the table followed him as he went to the door, but no one tried to stop him. Horace pulled on the wrought iron latch, and the door swung inward with a long squeal. He blinked as bright sunlight poured through the doorway. He started to step outside when two men appeared in his way. Both wore their hair cropped down to the scalp, leaving a short mat of black fuzz. They wore simple smocks and skirts, but each man also held a spear and a small, round shield of animal hide stretched over a wooden frame.
“Sekanu ina’bitum!” one of them shouted as he raised his spear.
Horace retreated behind the threshold. Beyond the armed men he saw a village of wooden huts, reminding him of any number of fishing hamlets along the coastline of Arnos, except for the bronze-skinned people walking past. He glimpsed a hill on the far side of the village, topped by a house that was larger than the others. Constructed of brown brick, it appeared to be all one-story with a flat roof and arched windows. One of the guards pulled the door closed.
“Isu ka annu.”
Horace looked down at the old woman standing beside him, holding out a clay cup. The rest of the family watched from the table. Suddenly concerned by what these people must think of him, he took the cup with a nod. The drink was cool and mild-tasting. He was touched by her kind gesture, but he could not help wondering what these people had in mind for him.
Horace followed the old woman back to the table. The wife refilled his bowl and placed it before him. The father continued to watch him with an intense gaze. Horace was reaching for the bowl when a staccato of hard knocks shook the front door. Someone shouted from outside. Horace’s stomach sank as the husband leapt to answer it. Four men wearing burnished steel breastplates and conical helmets tramped into the house and took up positions around the room. Short swords hung from their broad leather belts. Horace started to get up, until the one of the soldiers put a hand on his sword hilt and glowered at him.
The young boy looked at Horace with fearful eyes and shook his head. Horace settled back onto the cushion. He was getting agitated, but there didn’t seem to be much he could do about it. He still felt as weak as a child, and a dull pain had taken up residence behind his forehead.
Then another man entered the house. He wore a leather cuirass chased with silver accents. The pommel and guard of the curved sword at his side were silver, too, which must have cost a fortune, but Horace didn’t think it could be very practical. By the deference shown to him, the new arrival was obviously in charge. The family all bowed to him, the father going down on one knee.
The father and the man in command exchanged a few words. Horace sat, frustrated, while they talked and cast meaningful glances in his direction.
At one point, the old woman made a loud sigh and looked down at her half-empty bowl.
Horace finished his drink and made as if to stand up, but stopped as the soldiers drew their swords. The wife gasped and pulled her son close.
Horace raised his hands, careful not to make any threatening movements. “I can’t understand a word you’re saying. I’m just a sailor shipwrecked on your shore. Do you know what happened to my—?”
The commander drew his sword. The women gasped as he laid the blade alongside the father’s neck. Looking at Horace, he shouted, “Asar ulukur, pur maleb!”
“I don’t know what you want!” Horace yelled back.
The commander grunted and sheathed his weapon. Then he and his soldiers left the dwelling. The two peasant guards peeked inside with wide eyes before closing the door behind them. Murmuring something, the father walked out through another beaded curtain, leaving Horace alone with the women and child. The old woman whispered to the boy and gestured to his food, while the wife stared at the table without making a sound.
With a sigh, Horace got to his feet. He wasn’t hungry anymore. No one paid him any attention as he went back to his small cell. He slammed the door a bit harder than he intended, but the loud thump soothed his temper. He sat down on the thin mat and tried to envision a way out of this place, but after a few minutes the heat and his fatigue lulled him into lying down. Soon he fell asleep.
Blood and Iron © Jon Sprunk, 2014