Here is a free short story from the world of my new fantasy series “Age of Bronze.” The first book, Against All Gods, launches on June 23rd, and will be available in print, ebook, and Audiobook (narrated by the great Peter Noble!). I think it’s pretty great. Pretty sure you will, too.
So click the button to learn more and then read this free story!
Story One of Spear Carriers, Tales from an Age of Bronze
They were probably all dead. Her brothers, her father…
All her dogs.
All dead, out in the darkness.
She waited by the low hut’s single door and listened to the creature outside ravage her family’s flocks. She hadn’t known that goats scream when they’re in pain, and she knew a great deal about goats.
She was afraid. Deeply afraid.
The thing had come in the night, and the first she’d known was her father awakening her brothers with his shouts; they’d grabbed their spears and pushed out the door…
And her father had stopped her from joining them, a hand on her chest.
‘Men’s work, honey,’ he said with his damnable smile.
The last words he’d ever speak to her, she guessed. So she stood there, pinning her chiton, as if her nakedness might offend the monster, and she hesitated, and they were gone.
She didn’t even know what in all the hells was out there; a gidiamu, perhaps, some undead thing that hated life, slipped from its bonds, or a monster…
Or just a hungry lion. Or Dry Ones. Or Jekers.
Oh, Goddess protect, not Jekers.
Here at the desert’s edge, all the horrors were close.
There was a terrible thrashing, and a low, gurgling noise that she feared was someone she loved. The thrashing was terrible, fierce and feral, and reminded her of the sound of her cat killing a bird, and the bird’s final agonies…
She was deeply afraid, but mostly what she felt, under the fear and over it and woven into it like a weft thread of twisted yarn, was anger. Anger that her father had denied her ability to wield that spear alongside her brothers. Anger that some twisted thing was stealing their lives together. Anger that the goats she’d spent her youth protecting were being massacred by something.
‘Fuck it,’ she said. She had a spear. It was Pater’s second best spear, with a good bronze head, long and sharp, but a slightly bent shaft so that it didn’t throw for shit. She could outrun her brothers, and match them in wrestling, and yet she’d always gotten the worst spear.
And none of them could weave.
And she loved them all, damn it.
Her father’s big old fleece cape was lying over his bed, and she picked it up and flung it over her left arm. She didn’t have a shield. None of them owned a helmet or armour; that was for warriors. They were shepherds on the very edge of the frontier.
She shook her head to clear it. She wasn’t expecting to defeat whatever had killed her father and brothers.
She went to die with them.
# # #
She put out the oil lamp her eldest brother had lit, and let her eyes adjust for a little while. The gurgling noise had stopped. The thrashing stopped and then started again. She assumed the monster was snapping the neck of a goat by whipping his head from side to side like a dog with a rat. And the noise was right against the hut, along the south wall farthest from the door. Their hut had no windows; that was life at the edge of the desert. So, really, there was no escape for her anyway, except through the door.
She put her hand atop her own head and pressed down, her father’s trick for improving night vision.
Took two deep breaths.
And opened the door. She turned immediately to the right, towards the sound.
Her foot dragged in something wet and squelchy. She ignored it; goat, dog, kin, it made no difference now.
The thing, whatever in Kur it was, towered over the edge of the byre. It had ripped the roof right off the low shed where the goats and sheep spent dangerous nights.
It was huge, and she still didn’t know what it was, and she threw her spear anyway, right for the center of the darkness. And then she moved to her left in a skittering run, something she did when she fought with her brothers, because she was fast.
It had more than one head.
By starlight and the light of two waning moons, she saw it as it turned; fangs, a lion’s head…
Another head. Something bestial. And a spear, a long black line against the night-dark sky. Someone had scored a hit before her.
The tail went for where she’d been. It was longer than an ox cart and it had its own fangs.
She kept moving. She now had no weapon, but she was out of the cursed hut, and she got her back against the high byre wall and rolled, kicking her legs for momentum; up, and over, the wall hard against her back; her bare feet firm on her landing.
She pulled up her peplos skirt, wrapped it around her waist and tucked the end through the wrap so that she was free to run. On the flat, she was faster than any man she’d raced. A lion might be something else. And this thing…
I can outrun it. The snake tail won’t help it run.
Do I want to outrun it? Everything I ever had is here.
‘Pater!’ she called. She moved cautiously along the byre wall. ‘Alkaios!’ she called out to her oldest brother.
Was that a gurgle?
By the Gods… was Alkaios still alive? Her eldest brother, and her favourite.
That decided her. She wasn’t running. And if she had no spear…
There were always rocks. Rocks were deadly.
She was a very strong young woman. She moved along the byre wall, all laid up dry stone, until her searching hand found the rock she wanted; the size of a small melon.
The thing roared. She’d been unwise, and allowed it to see her.
She didn’t think. She just threw the rock. She was accurate, but she couldn’t throw as hard as Alkaios, and it took the blow to one of it’s heads and kept coming.
It hit her, hard, and she was down, on her back and it pounced. Raking her chest with its claws.
Instead of letting it kill her, something unleashed her anger, and she grappled with one heavy clawed foot, her two hands against its one, and moved it.
A head snapped at her face, and she took most of the blow on her forehead, as she’d learned fighting her brothers, but gods it hurt. By then, she’d pulled one of the pins that held her peplos at the shoulders. By the immemorial custom of her people, free women wore pins heavy and long enough to be used in a fight.
She slammed one into the thing’s face and got lucky, piercing an eye.
The whole head and neck snapped back and screamed.
It leapt back and away, flinging her free, and her face impacted the stone wall of the byre, cracking teeth.
The monster crouched like a wolf or a hyaena, perhaps five paces away. One bound, and it would be back on her.
She could see its outline against the stars. One neck drooped.
She couldn’t see much of her own body, which was good, because the pain in her chest and the blood and the peculiar mix of pain and sticky she felt when she moved indicated that the creature had opened her chest. And her face was on fire.
Dead, and didn’t know it yet. That’s what she was.
She’d left one of her long pins in the thing, and she wriggled to get at the other.
‘I guess I’m hurt pretty bad,’ she said out loud.
Her vision tunneled, and then she was alert again. Had she been out?
Why wasn’t she dead?
She raised her head, and the world spun.
Was it lighter?
She called all their names. All three brothers. Alkaios; Megakles, little Diodi. Even the three dogs. Pleops, Lessa, Hekkate. Loving playmates all.
She wished she had some water. Some wine.
She wished she’d had a little more life. Gone somewhere. Done something.
The thing looked a little smaller in light. It was bigger and heavier than she was, but not by much. And it was watching her with one head, while it occasionally licked the other head and made a terrible sound, like a woman keening.
She had an hour to work out that she’d killed one of its heads, and like any animal who’d lost its mate, it was puzzled. Sad, even.
Gods. She loved animals. She was very close to feeling sorry for it when it rose on its haunches, the blood matted fur brown and black in the new light, and began very cautiously to move along the byre wall.
It kept its dead head against the wall, the other head sniffing at her; the head of a lion.
Her anger was gone. She had a long pin in her hand, but she wasn’t going to use it. She was just going to lie there and hope the damned beast was quick.
It was difficult to care. She was just so tired…
It was so cautious.
‘Get on with it, Kur-beast!’ she spat, and gave it the curse-sign.
It stopped and regarded her. The lion head went up, down, up… sniffed…
A spear caught it in the side of the neck. It had been thrown with enormous force, and the spear went in the neck and came out the top of the skull.
The whole monster fell, all its limbs suddenly unbound, ungainly in death.
She tried to turn her head, and that was a mistake. Everything spun.
‘Huh,’ said a very deep voice. ‘You alive?’
A filthy bare foot prodded her. It wasn’t just filthy; it was enormous.
She looked up.
Above her stood the ugliest man she’d ever seen. He had a beard, which probably hid further horrors. His forehead looked like a mountain crag; his eyes were deeply sunk in sockets like caves; his nose was gigantic.
Most of him was gigantic.
And even at the very gate of death, she thought that he stank.
‘You a Jeker?’ she asked. Curious that this far down, she didn’t really give a goat’s piss whether he ate her or not. Jekers ate their kills. That was something everyone knew.
His huge nose wrinkled in distasted. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘You’re hurt bad.’
‘Dyin’’ she said.
He nodded. ‘Ah, well,’ he said. He walked over to the body of the monster and pulled his spear out of the dead thing’s neck and head with a single slick, sticky pull.
‘Anything I can do?’ he asked. His voice was so low that she had to work to understand.
‘Mouthful of wine?’ she asked. ‘There’s plenty inside.’
‘That’s good,’ he said cheerfully and moved off.
She lay there, waiting to die. The sunrise was glorious, which made her strangely happy.
It occurred to her after a bit that he wasn’t coming back; he was going to loot her families few belongings and be on his way.
Fair. That was life at the edge of the desert.
She wished she’d gotten to travel.
She was surprised that waiting to die was so boring, especially as it hurt so much and was boring anyway.
But the sunrise was nice. It was going to be terrible later, of course; the sun would fry her, and she hoped she’d passed before that.
And then he was back. She smelled him coming, but he had a full wine skin and a clay cup.
‘You lived here,’ he said heavily.
‘Yep,’ she admitted.
‘Four dead men,’ he said. ‘Three dead men an’ a boy.’
‘Yep, she said, again. ‘My father. An’ brothers. Probably three dogs.’
He looked away. He was so tall he was looking over the wall.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If’n you raise your head, I’ll give you some wine. If I spill it on yer neck, it’s goin’ hurt like all the demons in Kur.’
‘That bad?’ she asked.
He shrugged. ‘You ought to be dead,’ he said.
She tasted the wine. It went well with the sunrise.
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘You’re a good man.’
He grinned, quite spontaneously. ‘Never heard that before,’ he said slowly. ‘Good means pretty, an’ I ain’t pretty.’
“No,’ she agreed. ‘You ain’t.’
They sat a bit in companionable silence.
‘I’m goin’ to move on,’ he said. ‘I filled my water gourd. I left you the wine; it makes me crazy.’
She got the feeling these were long sentences for him.
He hesitated. ‘You want I should kill you?’ he asked. ‘I can make it real quick.’
‘Sit with me a minute while I think that over. I take it kindly that you offered.’ She coughed a bit, and sat up a little, and didn’t die. So she drank a little more wine.
‘Damn,’ he said suddenly. ‘I ought to have gone on.’
‘What?’ she asked.
‘Visitors,’ he said. He had his spear in his hand and her father’s fleece over his arm.
‘I don’t want no trouble,’ he called out.
She wriggled, and there was a mighty tide of pain in her chest.
But when it passed, she still wasn’t dead. She thought for a moment she was dreaming.
She saw them so clearly in the early morning light. She’d seen them before, terrifying even at a distance, but never a dozen of them; almost an army. And never so close.
Bright People. The Dry Ones. Both descriptions were accurate; they had bright blue bodies and wings, and long, back-hinged legs like grasshoppers, some a particular scarlet colour, others orange; one with beautifully striped legs. All of them had long heads like mantis heads, and all of them had golden antennae.
They smelled like spices from across the Ocean; expensive spices. Spices her mother had cooked with before she died.
I’m dying, she thought. I wonder if I’ll find mum. Probably not. No one will bury me or pay my fee into Kur.
She coughed. There was blood.
The big, ugly man was still there, spear up in a position he’d clearly practiced, left arm outstretched with the fleece covering his side.
The Dry One with the striped legs came and crouched by her.
She was out of terror. She couldn’t be bothered.
‘Hello,’ she said.
Its eyes were enormous; multi-faceted, brilliant, as if a light burned inside a complex lantern.
She couldn’t read anything on its face. Utterly alien.
It reached out a taloned hand. It was like a skeletal human hand tipped in razor-sharp nails. This one had talons that were gold, whereas the others had black talons.
Do it, she thought. She could imagine how quickly that talon could open her throat.
It reached out with one claw, and the golden talon, like an enormous gold rose thorn, pricked her shoulder.
<Hello> said her own mouth, without her volition.
Shit, just when you think it can’t get worse.
<It is time for you to leave> she said. Apparently, they were speaking through her.
Ugly man stepped back. ‘Happy to,’ he said.
<We are taking the water> she said.
She found she could speak herself, as long as she didn’t interrupt. ‘It’s our farm!’ she said.
<It was never yours, woman.>
She locked her eyes on the thing. ‘I worked my whole life…’
<It was stolen>
She took a painful breath. And nodded. ‘I’m dying anyway,’ she said. ‘So I guess you can have it back now.’
<Agreed> her mouth said. <You will leave?>
‘She’ll be dead,’ Ugly man said. ‘She can’t leave.’ He took a shaky breath. ‘She won’t last two more hours. Ribs broken into the lung; breast ripped off her body, blood loss. By Druku’s thirst, bug! She ain’t goin’ nowhere.’
<You wish to live?> She asked herself.
She thought about that. ‘Yes,’ she answered.
<You will leave?> it asked her through her voice.
She blinked. ‘I want to bury my people,’ she said.
<You will leave!> she answered herself.
<Open your mouth> it said.
What happened next put all her previous terrors in perspective. The Dry One’s face split in four, and a tongue with teeth and some sort of…sting? Injector? Came out of its ‘mouth’ and plunged between her lips and…
…And this time, she went under.
# # #
When she came to, she was lying by a smoldering fire. The wood smelt like cedar. Someone had set up a cloak, a chlamys of good wool, as a shelter. It was a good dull red. It was her brother’s.
He was dead. Alkaios was dead.
So was Pater, and Megakles, and Diodi. And Pleops the hunting dog, and the two sheep dogs; Lessa and Hekkate.
But she was alive.
She could breathe, too. Much better than…
She shuddered in revulsion as she remembered the feeling of that thing’s probiscus going down into her gut.
Her face hurt. Her chest hurt.
But the terrible sticky pain was gone.
She took a deep breath, waiting for the pain, and then another. Ran her tongue over her broken tooth.
It was whole.
By the time Ugly Man came back, she’d worked out that her right breast was gone, replaced with smooth skin and some scarring, and an odd purple scar like a spiral tattoo. And her right shoulder was… better. Better than it had been since she’d fallen off the roof as a child and broken it.
Ugly man looked at her and grunted. He had a pair of rabbits, skinned.
‘Feeling better?’ he asked.
She thought about it. ‘Yep,’ she admitted cautiously.
He nodded. ‘Never seen anything like that,’ he said. ‘I buried your kin,’ he added.
‘I owe you,’ she said.
‘Huh,’ he said.
‘Why are you… keeping me alive?’ she asked.
He nodded, as if thinking. ‘No reason,’ he said. ‘I won’t sell you as a slave, if that’s what you’re thinkin’.’
‘Thanks,’ she said.
‘I been a slave,’ he admitted. ‘Sucks.’
‘I guess,’ she said.
They were silent for a while. ‘Only,’ she said, ‘Now that I’m not about to die, I don’t… know… what to do.’
‘Uh-huh,’ he said.
‘The farm…’ she took a shuddering breath, and it was suddenly all real, as if some medicine had worn off. She burst into tears, and sobbed and sobbed.
Ugly man spitted the rabbits, played with the fire, and nodded, as if still talking to her. ‘I’ll just go for a walk,’ he said.
She woke again to find him sitting by the fire, his back against a small tree. His snores shook the spear holding up the cloak.
She went back to sleep anyway.
# # #
In the morning, he made up two packs.
‘We need to walk,’ he said.
She obeyed. Her pack was lighter by far. She lifted it with shocking ease.
He grunted. Then he got his pack up. It was made up mostly of her family possessions, including their one bronze oil lamp and all of the spearheads.
She was ready to be angry, but nothing came, because she was alive.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked.
He shrugged. He was so strong that carrying a huge pack he could still shrug. Easily.
‘I’m going to a war,’ he said.
‘What war?’ she asked.
He waved. ‘The great war,’ he said. ‘Out beyond Dendrowna, there’s people getting’ ready to fight the Gods.’
She looked at him as if he was mad. ‘Fight the gods?’ she asked. ‘Why would anyone…’
‘They’re all pricks,’ Ugly man said.
She nodded. They were plodding east, now, into the rising sun. The coast was supposedly two days walk away. She’d never been.
‘And the Bright People?’ she asked.
‘They’re going to fight the Gods, too.’ He nodded.
‘No, I mean… what happened?’
He looked at her. ‘No fewkin’ idea.’
They walked in silence awhile.
‘I mean,’ he took a deep breath and moved the web of ropes that kept the massive bundle on his back. ‘I mean, the one did that thing to you, and I almost lost my guts. And then…’ he looked at her. ‘And then they moved off. So I carried you away, and went back and took…’ he looked at her. ‘Well, damn near anything worth takin’. Which, beggin’ yer pardon, wasn’ much.’
She nodded. ‘Nope,’ she agreed. ‘So they healed me.’
‘Looks like,’ he admitted.
They walked a bit, in silence. It appeared that they were both good at silence. She’d grown up tending sheep and goats out on the plains of Sala, south of the mighty Danu river that she’d never seen; just her and a dog, and a hundred head of sheep, all day, under the sky.
It made her want to weep, again.
‘Why go to this war, then,’ she said as they started up a long ridge. She’d never been this far from home.
Halfway up they stopped. He had water, in her father’s chipped and ancient Salas military canteen; fired clay, with a black slip. It had once been quite elegant, with an embroidered strap.
He offered it to her and she drank a few mouthfuls.
‘Have all you want,’ he said, and produced a bulging wineskin. ‘Wine and water,’ he said. Shrugged. ‘Yours.’
She nodded. ‘I’d like to carry one of the spears,’ she said.
He raised an eyebrow; a gesture that transformed his face from one of stunning, boneheaded stupidity to one of mature wisdom; a great deal for one eyebrow twitch. But he fetched a spear out of the bundle of four.
It was Alkaios’ spear. A beautiful spearhead, long and well worked, and a straight ash shaft from away north by the river. The head had been polished until it looked like red gold.
‘This was my brother’s,’ she said.
He looked away and grunted.
They walked on.
‘Why this war?’ she asked again.
‘I like war,’ he said after a while. ‘No one cares how ugly you are.’
Unconsciously, she rubbed the smooth skin where her right breast had been. Her peplos was filthy, still full of old blood and crusted dirt. She needed rid of it. She noticed that she had both pins in it.
He was observant, and courteous. He’d found her pins. Among her people, they symbolized that she was a free woman.
But the spear was a better symbol.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
They walked a way.
‘Drakon,’ he said. ‘It’s not really my name. But my name is…gone now.’ He smiled. ‘I chose it.’ He positively grinned. ‘Because I saw a dragon.’
She nodded. ‘I’m Lan,’ she said. ‘You saw a dragon?’
He looked at her. Sometimes, in the right light, he looked much more intelligent than he had at first.
‘I guess we’re going to this war, then,’ she said. ‘How far is Dendrowna?’
He shrugged. ‘Far,’ he said, after some thought. ‘Lan, my throat hurts from all this talking.’
She nodded, and they plodded on in silence; a giant of a man, and a tall woman, each carrying spears, going to the Great War.
Lan and Drakon are minor characters. They first appear (but not by name) in ‘Against All Gods’, and they take on new roles in ‘Storming Heaven.’ ( Age of Bronze Book 2, already completed) Throughout June and July 2022 I’ll be putting out stories about them to tantalize and delight future readers of ‘Against All Gods’ and the other books of the ‘Age of Bronze’ series.