A quick excerpt from RED AND GOLD, the third book in The Martuk Series, Vol. 1, A Collection of Short Fiction (available now for pre-order):
Do not lose your soul …
In the quiet of my mind, the whisper came.
I held my breath, silencing my thoughts.
He waited, the young man, kneeling before the fire, his head bowed, his shoulders wrapped in the coveted red and gold robes of a Priest.
We waited, kneeling, priests, acolytes, initiates, all of us knowing what was to come.
He stood, the older man. Somber, focused, perhaps even sad as he gripped the blade in his hand, the light of the flame dancing in the polished metal.
Wordlessly, he stepped forward, his small eyes lost in the shade of his heavy brow.
Wordlessly, the young man tensed, his slender hands tightening into fists.
Wordlessly, we held our collective breath.
The blade met flesh.
The whisper quiet, I looked at the stone floor beneath my knees. Focused on my hands, my long fingers. The glow of the flames warming the flesh of my knuckles. How even though I kneeled some distance from the fire, I could feel the heat, watch the heat, allow myself to be distracted by the heat, my heart refusing to acknowledge the sacrifice before me.
A moment later, the blade moved again, slicing, cutting, sawing, the blade wounding the tender skin.
A moment after that, the whisper returned.
The weeping …
Again, it was ignored.
The man kneeling next to me, an older man, an elder, the two of us shoulder to shoulder, sighed, his breath heavy.
My eyes glanced up.
It was not he, the old man, who spoke, who whispered. And the young man who kneeled remained still, the old man above him working in silence.
And the blade still cut and scraped and sawed, the dark locks falling free from the shocking pale scalp of his bowed head.
These silent whispers could not distract me, my feelings more focused on my jealousy, my impatience, my long simmering rage.
Soon that would be me, I promised myself, my eyes now refusing the kneeling acolyte who was almost a priest.
Soon I would kneel, feel the cold metal as it chopped from me my own thick hair. My innocence, my youth, my powerlessness falling away with my own dark curls.
Soon I would move beyond being a mere initiate. A lowly servant. A someone Those in Power never saw.
Soon I would move from here, where I kneeled in subjugation, to there, where I would kneel at the altar and then rise to take the next step into power.
The air shifted. I could sense it, the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. From somewhere in these dark, secret rooms beneath the Temple, something had changed. Something I could feel. A knowing not driven by whispers only I could hear.
This was a gift given to me by the gods. Or at least that’s what I’d decided. It was a silent knowing. An understanding of words not spoken, of thoughts unsaid. A look, sometimes brief, sometimes not, into the hearts of those who stood before me, their words landing in my ears, their truth singing to my heart.
There were even times, like now, when this truth spoke actual words. Words I would hear in my head, like secrets whispered in the darkest dark from the farthest corner of the world. Like the whispers surrounding me now.
This is what I felt when I speak now of the shift, of this change, in the air.
This is what I felt before we smelled the acrid scent of thick, black smoke.
Heads turned. A wave of whispers, these spoken and calm and urgent, rippled through those of us who continued to kneel. And the old man with the blade paused, the supplicant’s head still bowed, a ring of dark hair remaining ’round the edge of his skull, the scalp bleeding delicate beads of red where the knife had gently nicked and cut and wounded.
The older ones rose and, their robes gathered from the floor, the red and gold held in their hands, rushed, calm and quick, to the door.
Those of us who were younger waited and then rose to follow.
The initiate, now priest, waited, kneeling, his head still bowed low.
And there we stood, elders and initiates, priests and acolytes, in the low-ceilinged hall, noses in the smoke-filled air, calm and desperate to find the source and extinguish the flames.
From the hidden corner at the end of the dark, a door opened.
He stepped forward.
Older than most, more powerful than all, he was the beating heart of the mightiest Temple in Uruk, the most glorious city on earth.
One was to bow when The Elder passed. One was not to look at The Elder when he passed. To do so would incur the wrath of The Elder. A wrath both venomous and vengeful. An anger infamous in its volcanic cruelty.
It was best, when faced with the presence of The Elder, to avert one’s eyes and bow one’s head and even hold one’s breath.
He drew near, The Elder.
I held my breath, my eyes on my bare feet, my hands behind my back, the fingers laced, the knuckles white.
The Elder was not alone.
Young Priest …
This stranger walked behind him.
You can hear me …
He smelled of places foreign and strange.
You know me …
The robe around his shoulders was hemmed in bones. Delicate bones taken from tiny children. Slender toes and tiny fingers and small, square teeth that dragged along the ground behind him as he moved calm and slow down the hall.
Listen well, young priest …
I could hear him, yes. In my heart, my soul, he whispered.
And I will tell you all …
The Elder was now passing in front of me.
I exhaled, deep and slow, inhaled, deep and slow, and then held the breath. I felt I would weep, so great was my fear of this tall, skeletal Priest who had worn the red and gold long before I had taken my first breath as a new babe in the mountains.
That’s where I had been found, my life offered to the Temple when I was but a boy. But my memories of my father, my mother, whatever brothers and sisters I had left behind, they mattered little now.
Listen well …
The voice, the whisper, came again.
The Elder was passing me. He moved by, calm and quick. I did not exist to him. I was no one. A stranger to ignore. An initiate who had yet to earn the priesthood, my thick hair damning me to ignominy on sight.
Ah, but this stranger, the one with the cloak ringed with the dull white of bone, he was not one to ignore. I could sense fear in the old man, The Elder. I could feel the air thick with secrets and shame and an utter sense of powerlessness.
The Elder stopped.
I glanced at his bare feet.
They were covered in blood. And bits of flesh? Yes, that’s what it looked like, his long toes smeared in discarded shards of torn flesh. And the hem of his red and gold robe, it, too, was covered in blood. It was dripping, small drops of blood staining the stone beneath his feet.
The blood was fresh.
And they, the two of them, The Elder and this stranger who could whisper to the darkest depths of my soul, both smelled of smoke and raging fire and torn flesh.
But The Elder had stopped. Could he hear my thoughts? Could he read my soul? Did he know I had linked his name, his greatness, with words like shame and powerlessness?
If so, I would incur his wrath.
The stranger grew close. Looked at me. He, too, was covered in blood. His robe dripping fresh blood. His feet stained red. More so than The Elder’s. As if this stranger, whose toes almost squished with fresh blood, had waded through an ocean of red to stand before me.
I raised my eyes, slowly, so, so slowly.
His chest was bare. It was covered in blood.
His head was shaved smooth. It was covered in blood.
His eyes, peering from beneath a layer of red, were looking at mine.
A small smile grew on his thin lips.
Young priest …
came the whisper.
Listen well and I will give you the world.