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 Two of Spear Carriers, Tales from an Age of Bronze
Six years of brutal training came down to this; five young men and one young woman, standing naked in a line on the ceramic tiles of the Great Hallway to the central courtyard of the great palace of Mykoax, waiting to face the bulls.
They stood in rank order, based on rigorous testing, and so Parsay stood at the head of the line. In every contest, he had been best. He’d run the fastest, the longest, jumped the highest, balanced, danced, fought…
And the young man behind him had been second best.
And he didn’t try hard.
Parsay tried to shrug those thoughts off. He didn’t hate the other boy – Zos. He didn’t hate Zos. He just didn’t understand him. Parsay through himself into every exercise. He sought only to be the best. Zos…
Zos was always angry. And he acted as if the exercises were beneath him. And he was still standing second in the line. Yanos, standing third, was good but not gifted, and Silla, standing fourth, could leap over almost anything but was slower in endurance contests and weaker in fights.
Parsay allowed himself to glance back at her. His eyes crossed those of Zos, and the other man, darker skinned, smiled, but Parsay would not be distracted. He found Silla’s eyes.
Silla had pale yellow eyes. Her short, muscular body was on display, as was his; her face was painted crimson for the bull, but she was otherwise naked. And beautiful, at least to him. Like him, she had a bull’s head tattooed on her chest. Zos had declined the tattoo.
She smiled. He grinned, and looked back.
The sacrifice of the Bull was complex; a ritual evolved over a thousand years. Since the great bull was the avatar of Enkul-Anu, God of Gods, Storm God, he must be appeased before he was sacrificed. So the leapers were trained to jump over the bull; the best might do a handstand on his back, the very best might land between the horns and leap again.
They had no weapons. The weapons awaited on the other side of the courtyard. You made your first leap, and if you did it well enough, you got a weapon; a long sword or a spear.
And then you and your mates killed the bull.
The crowd roared. It was loud, even down the corridor.
‘Move forward into the courtyard,’ ordered their keeper.
A slim figure waited, backlit by the strong light of the noonday sun in the courtyard.
Parsay stopped before her, and she raised her arms. The priestess of Great Goddess Sypa, consort of Enkul-Anu. Her face was painted bright red, and she wore a cloak of magnificent scarlet, and held a gold two-handled cup full of wine mixed with water and sacred herbs.
‘Leap high,’ she said. ‘Or wear the collar and be a slave.’
Parsay didn’t know her name, but he knew she’d leapt her bull. By her age, perhaps ten years ago.
He took the cup and drank. ‘I will leap for the Gods,’ he said.
‘In the name of the Great Goddess and the Storm God, Leap high.’ She said, and made a sign over his head.
Parsay stepped forward and passed her. The open end of the corridor was very close, the crowd louder with every step.
‘Leap high,’ the priestess said to Zos, behind him. ‘Or wear the collar and be a slave.’
‘Oh, I’ll leap,’ Zos said with a condescension that made Parsay’s fists clench. Parsay willed him to say no more; to keep his tongue between his teeth and not let slip those nasty words…
You’re a fool, Parsay. The Bull isn’t the sacrifice! We are!
That’s what he had said, last night. Parsay couldn’t clear it out of his mind.
He stepped up, onto the smooth tiles of the great courtyard, surely one of the wonders of the world.
As soon as they saw him, the crowd roared like all the monsters of the Pit of Kur. The sound hit him like a fist in the gut. He’d never seen so many people in all his life.
He’d been to the courtyard a hundred times; some weeks, every day. It was a big open space, tiled at the edges, with giant flagstones in the middle where the bulls ran. The open space was bigger than a farm field and was surrounded by arcaded corridors that hid hallways into the four massive wings of the great Palace of Mykoax. Across the courtyard was the temple wing, at the top of a stepped portico of black basalt. And above the squat columns of the temple façade was a massive representation of the gods, all in painted marble; Bull-Headed Enkul-Anu, and his lush consort Sypa; Ara, God of War, and Druku, God (and Goddess) of Lust and Drunkenness. And Tyka, all Lapis Blue with her golden horns, and Temis, the Huntress, all onyx black with golden eyes.
He made the sign of worship, raising his hands over his head and then crossing them over his heart. He bowed.
The crowd roared at his display of piety.
He felt Zos step up behind him. Zos was older, and still bitter.
Persay understood that. The God-King of Mykoax had taken Zos’s city, Trin. And killed his father. And taken his mother for the harem.
But Mykoax had done the same to Hergos, Parsay’s city.
You’re a fool, Parsay. The Bull isn’t the sacrifice! We are!
Parsay glanced back. The other man’s fear shone in his eyes.
Parsay wasn’t afraid. He’d waited his whole life for this. If I make my leap, I’ll be a noble. A warrior. The Gods will it!
Trumpets sounded; deep bronze trumpets, tuned to harmony. The God-King entered his box, high above them, with due ceremony. Yanos moved up to join them, and then Silla. They’d drunk the cup. They were committed.
‘I hate waiting,’ Zos said.
Yanos smiled a desperate smile. ‘Me too,’ he said.
‘In an hour, we will dance with the warriors and the priests,’ Silla said. ‘All of us.’
Parsay loved her then. But he already loved her.
‘Where’s Liva?’ Zos asked.
Silla looked back. ‘He chose slavery,’ she said.
Liva had been fifth of five. But that was unfair, as there were nine others who were already dead or slaves, and hadn’t made it to here.
‘Keeper said he could leap,’ Yanos said.
‘Keeper is paid to see there’s blood on the stone,’ Zos said.
The crowd roared. It was, if anything, even louder.
They were moving the bull into the courtyard, up the great ramp, and it was…
Every instructor had warned them of this moment; of the sheer size of the sacrificial bulls.
Parsay turned to face the bull. It was huge, so big that he couldn’t breathe for a moment. It was a glossy black, with horns gilded, shining gold, and a magnificent diadem of roses hung on its head.
It was much bigger than the practice bulls.
Zos leaned forward until his lips almost touched Parsay’s ear.
‘Just remember that we’ve met a dozen or more who made their leaps and lived,’ he said. ‘And you’re better than any of them.’
Parsay breathed in and out. In six years, it was the first encouraging thing Zos had ever said to him.
‘Leap high,’ he said.
‘Leap high,’ Zos said.
‘Leap high,’ Yanos said.
‘Leap high,’ Silla said.
He took three deep breaths, to calm himself.
The crowd fell silent. High above him, the God-King of Mykoax, Great Atrios, leaned out, holding his golden sceptre. And then he looked back and laughed, his attention diverted.
The Bull tossed his head. The God-King had drawn the beast’s attention with his scarlet cloak, and the big men holding the beast were taken by surprise. One lost his grip.
Instantly, the great bull turned, and slashed at the man opposite, using the slack in the one chain to get space to attack. The off-side man went down, intestines spilling as the gilded horns gutted him. The near side man flinched away and died.
The bull was loose, and in the wrong place.
Nothing Parsay had ever been taught covered this.
‘Back! Back in the corridor!’ Zos said.
Parsay glanced back. Silla was frozen in place; Yanos shaking his head.
‘It’s not our problem,’ Zos said.
‘It’s loose,’ Parsay said. ‘Let’s do it.’
Silla nodded soberly. ‘It’s our duty,’ she said.
Zos’s eyes narrowed. ‘I have no ‘duty’ to the God King of Mykoax except vengeance,’ he said.
Parsay ignored him and turned to face the bull. It had killed both of its handlers and trampled them, and was now moving slowly, head turning, looking for more victims.
‘We have to save the priests,’ Silla said behind him. The priestess of Sypa and four priests of Enkul-Anu were the only people down at ground level in the vast Courtyard. Despite their attempts at dignity, and their status as veteran leapers, they were clearly terrified.
Parsay whispered a prayer to Enkul-Anu and started his run. It was all wrong; the giant bull was half turned away, eyeing the priestess with its tiny black eyes. He couldn’t leap it sideways.
It was supposed to be head on.
Don’t hesitate. Never hesitate. That was the first rule, the rule they beat into you from the first day.
You’re a fool, Parsay. The Bull isn’t the sacrifice! We are! The words rang in his ears, and the delighted roar of the crowd did nothing to make him feel better. They were not worshippers of the Gods; they were jackals baying for blood.
Five paces and he was at his full stride. The bull hadn’t turned; possible hadn’t noticed him, but he was fully committed. He allowed himself a single off-step to the left, to get a little closer to the head. He was hoping the animal would see him and turn.
It was fixated on the priestess. She had backed to the fresco-painted wall, and she stood with courage, awaiting death.
Parsay leaped. It was harder to judge the distance when he was coming at the flank; he’d never practiced it. But he’d leapt any number of logs and sacks of grain.
He went up, and tumbled, fully in control; got his hands down on the bull’s back…
The bull exploded, and the spine vanished between his hands before he’d fully pushed off. Still, he was very well trained; his hips did as they were ordered, and he got his feet down, and stuck his landing, sinking to one knee, his leap done…
The bull hit him in the side, its head low, so that he had a flash of the gold horns sweeping up, the thing’s black forehead under him…
He had the strangest feeling, as he flew through the air; a leap he hadn’t intended. He tried to move his hips to make a tumble on his landing, but something was very wrong. Still, he tucked his head, and threw out his forearm, training locking him into performance, and he tumbled once on his landing, didn’t hit his head, and the pain that blew through his torso was like thunder and lightning in a high place, like the wrath of the Gods and the World Serpent all together, and he screamed.
He lay on his side. The pain was incredible, and yet he was fully awake; alive. Breathing hurt, and he knew enough to guess that many ribs were broken.
I am dead, he thought. And yet, he was alive.
He couldn’t see the bull, but he could hear it, and feel it as it came.
It was going to trample him.
He couldn’t see it coming, but he could see Silla, her mouth open; was she screaming? And Zos, a look of…he knew that look. That arrogant look of annoyance.
And then Zos began to run, straight at him.
So this is what we look like when we leap? Parsay thought. We look like gods.
Zos came on; three paces, four. He was at full sprint. He was close, and the bull was close, too.
Parsay had time to think Zos is making his leap to save me and then the arrogant boy was gone. He’d leapt.
The crowd roared so that the ground shook, and no hooves came to pound him into the stone of the courtyard floor.
He saw Silla edge out off the tiles and onto the paving stones. She is going to make her leap too. Would Zos be able to turn the beast so that Silla had a fair leap?
She began to run, and he made his head turn by force of will alone, despite the pain. The bull was off to his left, and by chance he’d landed with his head turned a little that way; he got his neck to move, and saw her whole leap; over the lowered head between the horns, a full handstand on the animal’s back, and she was gone. The bull turned, trying to follow her.
And Zos was there with a long bronze sword. He leapt, and at the top of his leap he cut, and the bull spouted blood and turned to follow Zos as he landed, but the cut had been accurate and now the beast was blind in its left eye. The arrogant boy stumbled on his landing and then rolled, a beautiful direction change out of bad landing, and came up sword in hand, rising to his knees…
And Yanos ran. His first strides were long and excellent, but somewhere in the fourth stride, the bull whirled, and Yanos…
…hesitated. He just didn’t commit fully to his next stride, and so, as he landed his foot and began to leap, he was low and slow and the bull caught him and tossed him…
The crowd roared. They bayed for blood. They screamed. Yanos had taken a whole gilded horn through his belly so that it came out his back like a vast sword or spearhead. It was obscene, and even desperately injured, it made Parsay angry to see it. Yanos deserved better. He’d only been unlucky.
I’m already dead Parsay thought. I was unlucky too.
Yanos whole body sagged over the bull’s head in death, but the horn had gone in so deeply that the vast beast couldn’t clear it, and began to back, head down, tossing side to side, desperate to get the dead wait off its horn.
Silla plunged a spear into its side, and pushed with all her might, and then as the bull turned, slower now, she let go the spear and leaped, magnificent at the top of the jump, turning in the air. She cleared the beast’s back and landed close to Parsay, erect, dignified, beautiful.
The bull followed her. It tossed its head again, and again, and this time the corpse of Yanos flew off to land with a dull wet sound behind Parsay.
Silla stood between Parsay and the bull. The bull roared, angry and terrified, an animal in pain and confusion, terror and frustration. The roses were gone, and one horn had snapped off short where the weight of Yano’s corpse had broken it, and Silla’s spear in his side, deep in his entrails, and a massive sword cut across his left eye.
And then it lowered its head.
‘Turn it to me!’ Zos called.
Silla nodded, and began her run. She ran right out of his frame of vision; he lacked the strength to turn his head any further.
But the crowd’s roar was like an avalanche of rock in one of the high passes above Hergos. She’d done something great. He smiled.
And the bull burst past him, so close that he was spattered with chips of stone from the courtyard’s floor as it turned. It had charged her, missed and was trying to turn, neck fully outstretched, black sides glossy with sweat…
Zos leapt into the turn, from the animal’s blind side. He landed feet first on the animal’s shoulders, and the long sword was driven into the bull’s neck between the shoulder blades by the power of his landing.
The bull took a single step, slumped, and fell, dead.
The crowd paid the bull leapers the tribute of two breaths of complete silence.
And then the priestess began to walk across the courtyard, with the cup of freedom in her hands, and darkness covered his eyes at last, and he went down…
When he awoke, he was heavily bandaged, and in chains. A slave.
Zos, of course, is a major character, but Parsay appears late in book 1. I wanted to write this scene from the beginning, but I couldn’t figure out where to put it in the book as it is 16 years before the main action. So… here it is.
Hope you enjoy these!
Miles Cameron, Toronto