In honor of the upcoming “Great American Eclipse” August 21st, I thought I’d offer an excerpt from my book The Wounded King (blurb below) where – surprise surprise – there’s a total eclipse! And in ancient Uruk one thousand years before Christ, if the sun disappeared during the day, it was never, ever a good thing.
Certainly wasn’t for the Wounded King.
There was no crown.
They surrounded the city, their swords raised, their shields ready.
They kneeled in the streets, young and old, their hands clasped in prayer, the words, the pleas, the begging, the cries, spilling from their lips.
High above, I sat, surrounded by Priests, an orphan.
And soon the day would grow dark as the Gods ate our sun.
I was told there were stories.
It was said my mother, the Queen, had flown down the countless steps of the Temple that day, her gown in flames.
It was said my mother, the Queen, was herself in flames, her arms, her legs, her head and lovely hair, all on fire as she ran through the streets that day surrounded by screams.
There were even those who said they heard my mother, the Queen, call to the Darkness to save her that day, the words lost in the terror of her torment.
And then it was said she, my mother, the Queen, had stopped in the marketplace, a great torch alight with massive flames, and simply fallen, crumbled to ash before the winds lifted the pile and scattered it to the sky, a delicate cloud of grey carried far from the city and deep into the mountains.
Yes, there were stories.
Those barbarians in the streets also said the Old Woman, the Ancient in the Temple, had called on those Gods older than the Dark Gods. Willed Them with secret words to do her bidding, her power so strong, so deep, that it conjured a Great Thunder which rattled the stones of the city and shook the very ground itself.
And there were those who had lived long and seen much who said she, this Ancient, had shouted prayers not heard since the Time Before the Moon, her power so fearful it made my mother burn. So ancient it called the deadly flames from deep within the poor Queen’s soul.
Then she had grown wings and flown away, this Old Woman, escaping the Elder yet again.
Yes, that’s what they said.
But then there were those who insisted that, no, she had not grown wings. The Old Woman had instead called a great daemon, a lesser Dark God perhaps, who had stood behind her, looking like a man, quite like a man, yes, but who then unfurled his wings, great feathered wings, which rose high to arch above his head, the tips meeting in the air.
It was he, this winged daemon, who had lifted her out of the Elder’s grasp. Who flew her out of the courtyard, away from the Temple, and into the sky.
That’s what was said in the streets of this great city.
None of it mattered.
I was now King.
I was now alone.
And the Gods were going to eat our sun.
They stood near, the Priests, the Elder watching me.
The Army had not supported his desire to rule. They had loved my father, the First King, a warrior like them. They had respected my brother, the Dead King, a man who had fought alongside them in many a battle. With more power than mere Guards, and less likely to do the bidding of the Priests, these true warriors, this Army, would ultimately decide who ruled.
And it was to be me.
The Elder’s victory had been short lived.
A din rose from the streets outside.
The Priests turned to the open walls, a rustle of expensive fabric as they peered below.
Incense choked the air as the prayers grew, the day growing dark. From the walls, swords beat shields and warriors screamed and shouted and cried and bellowed as the light dimmed, the sun in a celestial war with the approaching darkness.
Of course, It was here.
Were I to close my eyes, I could smell It, sense It, feel It, the moist heat now gentle as It stroked my arm.
Beneath the feet of those many men in red and gold, It waited. It moved when they moved, stopped when they stopped. Waited, Its knowledge secure, trusting Its victory was near.
They surrounded me, they did, this prison of red and gold.
I glanced at the wine in my hand.
The skin on my arm grew warm as it blushed. A small red blister appeared, wept, and then disappeared, the tender, round wound sinking into the flesh.
I am here …
I have always been here …
The shrieks, the cries, the prayers, screams and shouts from below swallowed us while swords clanked and warriors bellowed and day turned to night.
The Elder watched me.
I will never leave …
I thought of my father then, his eyes sunken and bleeding. Not even a great warrior like him could win this fight.
And of my brother, a greater warrior still, his tongue thick, his teeth blackened, his eyes sealed shut with dried puss as he sobbed, his hand on mine.
And I thought of my mother at one with the Darkness. Robbed of her health, her sanity, her soul. Haunted by the regret that was her life as she ran, burning.
What could I, an Almost King, a Pretend King, do?
The barbarians below erupted in a full-throated panic as the dark deepened.
I was no warrior.
Those on the wall shouted and threatened, swords raised high.
I could not fight.
The Priests calmly waited.
I put the cup to my lips.
You are mine …
And the whole world screamed as the sun went out.
A sacrifice. A dying King. Bones in the stone, blood in the wine. A Queen consumed by the Darkness.
From ancient Uruk, The Almost King tells his tale. Of The Elder and his cunning Priests in their robes of red and gold. Of an Old Woman who can call the power of the Dark Gods. Of his mother, the Queen, and his dying brother, the King.
And of the Darkness, an evil from before the Time of the Moon. Inescapable, its hunger never-ending, its shadow fed by the Priests, slowly overwhelming his family.
Drowning in a sea of red and gold, the Almost King battles an unwinnable war as he navigates the wreckage towards his fate as … The Wounded King.
The Wounded King is the first in The Martuk Series, a collection of Short Fiction based on characters from the full-length novel Martuk … The Holy.