the clattering clank of tiny bones

Since Amazon cut off the sample before it got to the text, I’ve included an excerpt here from The Tall Priest:

One

I was blood.

The taste of it raced ‘round my teeth and flooded my throat. The warmth of it fell from my eyes and stained my cheeks. The red of it dripped off my chin to wander along my neck and down my chest.

I’ll give you my son, she’d said, the Seer from the Mountains. Leave me here to do what must be done and I’ll give you my son.

Her words the darkest of shadows clouding my calm, I’d returned to Uruk that morning, the Seer’s son, an unexpected charge, in hand. Soon I’d stood in the Temple, my explanations useless, The Elder’s rage quiet and terrifying. Moments later, I, a powerful priest in a land of powerful priests, had been dragged across the stone to face my fate.

Now I kneeled, a powerless man in a prison of wood and stone, broken and bloodied in the dead of night.

By morning I’d be a corpse.

I’ll give you my son.

Those words, heavy with heartbreak, had come from the Water first.

Days ago in a small room hidden far beneath the Temple, I’d stood with my beloved, The Elder, as the shimmering pool had whispered

Blinded…

Silent…

Bleeding…

“Don’t. Please,” The Elder said as I’d waited, gripping the edge of hollowed stone, my face dipped low as I silently called to the Gods.

The Veil…

The Darkness…

It comes…

the Water whispered, answering me, the words caressing my cheeks.

He’d begged and pleaded, the Elder, this most powerful man in a city of powerful men. Implored me to turn away. Allow the Water to hold its tongue. Keep its secrets. “It’s dangerous and I can’t bear to lose you,” he said, his voice thick.

“I need to speak with the Gods,” I said, braced with uncommon courage. And I’d ignored him, leaning forward, blade in hand, to slice, to watch, to see. To listen and hear, the blood dripping from my wrist the key unlocking my fate.

And the Seer from the Mountains had appeared in the shallow bowl, the words

Take my son

falling from her lips.

These words, these three syllables, soon to be spoken a three nights walk from Uruk where she, the Seer, and I would stand, watching, under the shade of trees.

Take my son

Hearing her, I’d pause.

For that the guards put me in chains.

More words would be spoken on that path a three nights’ walk from Uruk, a darkening sky above. Of dangerous shadows and ravenous demons. Of monsters and magic. Of battles being fought and wars being lost. Here. Now. Unseen yet all around.

My heart, my gut, trusting her, I’d listen.

For that I lost my eyes.

Days later, now days ago, the tears wetting her cheeks as she stood, silent and waiting, her story at an end, my heart heard

…my son

And, against logic and reason and rules, braced with yet more uncommon courage, I’d relent.

For that the guards cut out my tongue.

Learning I’d heard and listened and trusted, my secret beloved, The Elder, had grown dangerously quiet. Discovering I’d acted against logic and reason and his rules, he betrayed me. In response to my misplaced courage, he ripped out my tongue, robbing me of my words, my knowledge, my secrets. And then, my eyes dug out and tossed to the hounds, those two words

…my son

finally took from me the pleasure of seeing the sun, the moon. The once-adored face of the love who betrayed me.

The Water in a small, secret room far below the Temple had spoken of that, too.

As had the sky, the earth, the forest, the stones…

Days ago.

Now I turned. My long legs tucked under, I rested on my knees, the cold stone of the cell burning my shins. In the dark of blindness, I heard them. Other prisoners. Their sighs and whimpers, tears and whispers. Heard the shuffling of thin fabric and the shivering of bare flesh. Felt the Silent Other, a stranger to me, waiting, watching. Drawing near, slow and patient, from the other end of the earthen hall.

A Silent Other I’d glimpsed when my eyes could still see, though I stood in the shade of trees under the gathering grey of relentless clouds. He haunted me still, this Silent Other, this stranger. His dishonest smile cutting through the terrifying darkness. The leather cloak falling from his shoulders hemmed with the clattering clank of tiny bones.

I swallowed the memory away, the blood from the still-bleeding root creeping down my throat. It still stung, that stolen tongue, though the burn in my missing eyes had given way to an exhausted thump, thump, thump.

Had I tears, I would have wept. For all I’d lost. All I’d never have. For mistakes and regrets. Lies. Betrayal. The ache of a broken spirit.

For my stupid willingness to abandon reason and peer into an endless wall of black.

But I’d been warned.

Days ago.

Silence

the earth had whispered.

Darkness

the trees had echoed.

Death

the sky had promised.

I’d been warned.

 

TWO

“It’s said she Called the Rain,” the Fat Priest said. He leaned, red-faced and sweating, against a boulder. “And that she battled a demon or something.”

I’d grinned, willing him silent, eager for the sound of the breeze snaking through the branches or skimming over the grass. The blessed silence of a bright sun warming my skin. The private joy of crisp air in every breath.

“A darkness,” I said instead.

“A what?”

“A darkness,” I said again, my voice louder and perhaps too harsh. “She battled a darkness, not a demon.”

“Stupid peasants.” The Fat Priest said. The rolls of flesh circling his neck jiggled as he chuckled before stopping to choke on a fit of sudden coughs.

I looked away. Ignored my travel companion, still resenting this pairing forced on me for this most important of tasks.

“Six days,” the Elder had promised. “In six days you will be home.”

And so the Fat Priest and I left when the moon was still high, walking into the shade of the thick trees outside Uruk. Stumbled up the trails into the deeper dark of the hills where the stars could no longer light our way. Struggled past the boulders and the stones. Angled past the vines and climbed over the immense roots of massive trees. Made our way, step by lumbering step, into the ancient mystery of the mountains as night relented and morning came.

All for him, The Elder.

And for her.

The mother of this young man who could speak with Those Beyond the Veil was coveted and desired. “Do you think she Called the Rain?” the Fat Priest said as his pudgy paw mopped the sweat from his brow. “Probably not,” he then said, answering his own question. He wiped his hand on his robe. “All this work, all this walking, hot sun, steep hills, bugs and who knows what watching from the trees, and all for nothing.”

“And if you’re wrong?” I said, my eyes on the distant hills awaiting us.

He grunted, the sound not quite a laugh, but not daring to be disrespectful.

“I do know this,” I said, keeping my temper in check as I refused his gaze. “It is said by those who know of such things, travelers and traders, those who’ve sat and supped and broken bread with her, that this woman speaks with Those Beyond the Veil.” I looked to him. “She has a rare and powerful gift given by the Gods.”

The Fat Priest watched me, his hand rising to shield his small eyes from the sun. “Is that so?”

I nodded. “If this is, in fact, true…” I stopped.

I took a breath. Steadied myself. Willed myself not to smile, the desperate ambition of this simple man an instrument almost too easy to play. “If this is true,” I then said, “think of the glory that awaits. The eager affection of those painted women in those dark alleys known only by a select few. The ample reward, the coin, the respect, that’ll be showered on you from the most powerful of priests.”

He watched me, the small eyes narrowing to mere slits atop the rounded, reddened cheeks. “Who are you?” he said. “The Elder favors you. Why?”

Pushing forward from the stone, he rose with a grunt to take a lumbering step toward me. “It’s said you have access to him that others don’t.” He paused, the hand again rising to block the sun. “How did you get that?” Another step, the eyes still narrow. “Tell me.”

“I serve the Gods, the king.” My heart was racing, my throat dry. “I do as you do, my friend.” I offered an easy smile. One that was ignored. “I cannot say why the Gods, or the Elder, favor me, if, in fact, as you say, they do.”

Feeling the Fat Priest’s jealousy, perhaps even anger, I could not tell him the truth. Could not share the beginning.

How The Elder and I came to be was my secret to keep.

***

The Tall Priest 2.1-FINAL-COVER

available now

And pick up The Wounded King, the first installment, for FREE

(March 10th thru March 12th)

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It begins with a whisper …

From the blood drenched depravity of The Wounded King and the ancient curses of The Elder, we now follow a young man in his journey to the coveted red and gold robes of a Priest in Red and Gold, the third installment in The Martuk Series, Jonathan Winn’s ongoing collection of short fiction inspired by his award-winning novel Martuk … the Holy.

It begins with a whisper.

The words a warning, silently spoken to the heart of this innocent kneeling in the mighty Temple of Uruk one thousand years before the birth of Christ. A young one who dreams of being wrapped in the red and gold robes of a priest.

But this warning whispered by a mysterious Magi leads to doubt. And then to fear. This stranger who wields magic from the anonymity of shadow forcing this initiate to look beyond the power of the Temple into the frightening black hearts of those who rule.

Haunted by the cries of those Bones in the Stones, his kindness stumbling under the weight of a young boy he leads to slaughter, all while trapped in this life he’s chosen and now can never escape, this is the story of how horrible truths and bloody betrayals destroy the dreams of innocent hearts.

This is … Red and Gold.

— available now —

Crimson tears

from my book, The Wounded King:

He took a breath, the words coming, swollen and thick and carried on the stench of impending death.

“Beyond the Veil, they suffer, brother. The King, my mother, the Darkness around them, trapping them. It waits for me. It’s here –”

“No,” I interrupted. “I’m here with you.”

“No, no,” he insisted. “Here in the Temple, in the palace, outside in the city, in the night, in the sky, in the air, the wind, the sun. In the dark.”

“You’re safe,” I assured him, my hand once more on his, the square cloth still on his eyes blinding him. “I’m here and you’re safe.”

He released me, pushing me away. His hands reached to remove the cloth.

He opened his eyes.

They were unseeing globes of wounded white.

He spoke, crimson tears staining his scarred and bloody cheeks as he blinked.

“The Darkness, it’s here with us.”

Behind me, the Old Man bowed, the rustle of his garments distracting me.

“It’s here,” my brother, the King, repeated, the wounded globes now closed.

I turned.

Eyes rimmed red, sallow skin the color of sun-bleached sand, holes where healthy teeth had been only hours ago, each heavy step a great effort, she approached.

Mother.

Oceans of blood

How about an excerpt from my book Martuk … The Holy?

Pen at rest, she sat back, looking at me, her fingers fondling the silk scarf tied beneath her chin.

I had stumbled upon her speaking in a bookstore on Boulevard Saint Germain. An American author and PhD, she had written a slender, earnest tome on ancient religion, a popular work weaving archaic beliefs and myths with those principles we hold in our modern world.

Intrigued, I stopped to listen. Learning of her second life as a psychologist, I requested her card.

And now here I sat, fighting the urge to lunge at her, lift her by her slender neck and slam her against the wall, the back of her skull smashing against the diploma, shards of glass raining to the floor.

Of ripping the expensive cloth protecting her tender flesh, tearing the skin between her breasts, cracking open her rib cage and stealing her heart, that feeble ball of cold, uncaring muscle. Void of compassion. Of understanding. The glistening lump now anemically beating in my monstrous red paw.

My fingers puncturing those delicate sockets above her nose to pluck out the slimy dark nuggets of judgment. Of disapproval. The fantasy of spiriting them from their safe little caves to roll about in my palm now obsessing me.

“I feel your frustration,” she lied, staining the white with more scribbling.

I suppressed the urge to smile.

“But it’s important to understand as much as I can,” she continued, her pen again at rest. “About you. Your experiences. Your life. From there we begin the real work of dealing with this feeling of powerlessness. With these dreams. Your nightmares.

“Your demons.”

The pen began its destruction of a new page, the first tossed aside and lying face down. Exhausted by the scratching, no doubt.

I shifted in my chair.

Demons, she said. I didn’t want to deal with demons. Demons were dangerous. I turned my back on demons long ago. That wasn’t me anymore.

“So, you can’t die,” she suddenly said.

“Yes. I mean, no, I can’t.”

“How so?”

“I just can’t.”

“Okay,” agreed She of the Hyperactive Pen, “you’re invincible.”

“Of course not. I didn’t say that. I’m just like you. Normal. Just normal, you know? Nothing special. I just can’t die.”

“Normal?”

“Yes.”

“Yet you claim immortality. Is that normal?” Her eyes glared at me from beneath a curtain of black bangs.

“How?” she then asked, her tone softening. “How did you achieve this immortality?”

Glimpses of an altar piercing the stars clouded my vision. The chanting of Priests. An unseen crowd cheering far below. Oceans of blood for everlasting life, an Old Woman whispered. Bloody footprints on polished stone. The cloying scent of decaying flesh and the splitting of blistered skin as it roasted under an unforgiving sun.

Lips kissing mine and linen dripping red. Weeping, lying, bleeding, dying, the blade in His hand as He straddled me, both of us lost in the roar of the Darkness.

No.

Proseuche

So, yes, I have Red and Gold (the third in The Martuk Series) to write. That’s next on the list and, quite honestly, I’m looking forward to it. Definitely has the potential to be a strong continuation of the story started in The Wounded King and The Elder (TBR — To Be Released — today). It also promises to be a very good read. It’s chapter mapped, so I know. (^D

(fyi, the above emoticon, to me, looks like a man wearing sunglasses and smiling. I think it’s cute.)

That being said, I can’t escape 5th Century Constantinople. The rise of Antioch. The slow sinking of that desperate, fumbling power-that-was Rome. My mind drawn again and again to cemeteries and magic and Bishops killing Bishops and Priests slaughtering Priests and Christianity quite literally breaking in two, a chasm that exists to this day. I woke up this morning with them, their arguments becoming screams before exploding into violence.

And my immortal Martuk, still stumbling through immortality as the world around him spins into violent chaos. (If you know anything about the Church Councils of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about)

In other words, Martuk … The Holy: Proseuche (ancient Greek for “place of prayer” or “prayer house”), the full-length sequel to Martuk … The Holy is currently obsessing me. Ob-sess-ing me.

And that’s good. Really good.

But first, I want to pound out Red and Gold, keep the Series going, and then I’ll make the shift into Proseuche.

It promises to be a great ride.

(^D