A quick excerpt from THE WOUNDED KING, the first book in The Martuk Series, Vol. 1, A Collection of Short Fiction (available now for pre-order):
“Yes, soon,” she said, her ample flesh shining with oils and unguents beneath a thin layer of cloth as she sat back on a low chair of polished wood.
“A king, a great king, is dying. So, yes, the Gods will come forward and swallow our sun. And the Dark Gods, those who obey me, those who listen when I call, will come and fight and return it to us. As they always do.
“You’ve seen this how many times?” she asked as she turned to me.
A young girl with dark hair and even darker eyes kneeled in front of Mother, cradling the woman’s large feet and, a small knife in hand, set to work.
I shrugged, unable to respond.
She watched me, waiting for an answer.
“But the Priest,” I said, my clumsy tongue reaching for words it couldn’t find. “The Elder. He said the Dark Gods come when he calls, when the sun is swallowed, and –”
The girl waited as Mother shook with laughter.
“That silly old fool.” Tears ran down her cheeks as she fought to catch her breath. “As if the Gods would listen to a barbarian from the mountains.”
She snapped her fingers, the girl returning to her work, the knife cutting the delicate nails, the polished stone beneath littered with the slender shards.
“Do you believe he has more power than me, a God? He is old now, yes, and with that comes some power, of course, perhaps. But do you believe he could rule over one who is supreme? One who cannot die?”
Her eyes had narrowed, challenging me to disagree, to doubt.
I simply shook my head.
“What can he do?” she asked.
“Call the Rain, or so he says. Foretell the futures of worthless strangers. Maybe he can make a potion to bring you love or give you health or, I don’t know, make you a great warrior. Does it matter?
“The Gods, the Dark Gods, mind you, listen to me, one of their own. They come when I call. They rule when I say they can rule. And they, at this moment, are taking the King as their own.”
“The wine is poisoned.” The words came from me, careful and quiet.
“The wine is blessed,” came her own words, wrapped in dangerous delusion. “He is healthy and strong. A fighter. But the sun will soon disappear and the Gods, the Dark Gods, will demand a gift for its return.
“Is he not the greatest gift we can give? Greater than any of those nameless souls who stumble through the city?
“Even if we were to bleed them, all of them, and offer an ocean’s worth of blood, there is nothing greater than a King. It is his time to pass Beyond the Veil. His time to leave this life and his time to join the others in giving us what we need to rule, as Kings and Gods.”
“And the gifts we give …”
I hesitated, not sure how to say what needed to be said.
“During those quiet times, those secret times, in the night, the dark …”
I stopped again.
The girl, her head still bowed, ignored us, the fragile bones falling as they were sliced away, one by one.
Mother watched me, a small smile at her lips.
“In front of the fire, with the Priests …” Another pause as I glanced at the girl.
“Why?” I suddenly asked, the word tumbling out before I could catch it.
“Why what, Almost King?”
I held my tongue, my eyes on the unwilling witness to what we said.
Realizing this, Mother leaned forward and snapped her fingers in the girl’s face.
The young beauty looked up and, with a signal from her Master, moved the hair back from the side of her face.
Her ears had been cut off, the gaping wounds stuffed with linen and wax.
And with another snap of the fingers, she returned to her work.
I felt sick, then, the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Why must it be me?” I asked as I blinked, and then blinked again. “Why must I be there?”
“Becoming a God is a gift.” She gave a deep sigh as she laid back. “A great and very rare gift, yes. But a gift. And there’s a price, as there is with anything given. Power that great demands something in return. Something to be paid first.
“The path to becoming a God is not an easy one, nor should it be.” Her eyes once again watched mine.
“And what price did you pay?”
“To become a God?” She grew silent as she watched the wounded girl’s hands skillfully wield the knife, the bones trimmed and sliced and discarded by the sharp edge.
“There were others before you,” she said, her voice quiet. “Other boys, other girls. Babies. Children. Others, unlike you, who gave themselves. Who gave their lives, their essence, who they were, so that we, you and I, would be who we are.
“The first, a girl, a beauty who had only breathed three, maybe four moons. She was taken ill, this girl, her flesh red and blistered, her breathing thick, her tiny chin stained with blood as she coughed and coughed. Her eyes swollen shut as she cried. Only three or four moons.
“There was no hope, they said. There was only one thing to do, they said.
“And they lit a great fire and handed me a knife and then gave to me this precious bundle, her eyes not yet opened.
She stopped. The girl now massaged her feet, the nails cut, a flat stone having smoothed the rough edges of her heel and the soles of her feet.
“Her blood blessed me, her gift in the wine. She still lived with me as long as the wine lived. And sip by sip she was there with me, still. A comfort.
“She’s a part of everything now, you know.” She took my hand in hers, a small smile again on her lips.
“Yes, they burned away her flesh, they did, in the great fire, and took the bones, the tiny bones burned black, and broke them, smashed them, and then ground them to dust, and gathered them in the finest linen and brought them to the Temple.”
“To the Temple,” I said.
A nod from her. “She still lives there, in the stone, between the stone, the bones broken and ground into dust and added to the stone, the space between the stones, her blood, that blood not in the wine, pressed between the stones with her bones, her Spirit not Beyond the Veil but here still, with me, in my heart, still.”
Sitting back, she closed her eyes as the girl gathered the clippings from the floor.
“In the stone, in my body, her blood in my blood, in the wine, still with me. She was the first, but others followed. Others not from my flesh. Not from the flesh of the King, the First King.
“But some were, of course. Yes. Those who seemed healthy at first, but then wouldn’t sleep. Or coughed. Those who were fitful, unhappy. Who cried and cried and cried, as if begging for release. She was the first, my daughter, the first to offer a gift, but others followed.
“And they always agreed, they did. Urging me to act, urging me to move forward. To bring their crying bodies, their little bones, to the great fire and release them, release their blood, give themselves to the power of the Temple, to me.”
“They?” Though I knew what she would say, I feared her response.
“The Priests. The Elder. They always agreed, always said ‘Oh yes, absolutely, yes’ And I trusted them. I still do, though my power is greater, much greater. The power of a God, not a mere Priest or Elder.”
The girl returned, the clippings at the bottom of a heavy stone bowl, a blunt stone on its rim.
Taking it, Mother balanced the bowl on her lap, the delicate slivers soon ground to dust.
“But you?” she asked as she scooped the fine powder from the bowl and, her fingers stained dusty pale, washed them in a glass of wine. “You were silent, you were healthy, you lived. The Priests, they insisted, but you, no, you I kept. You I loved. You, I knew, would rule and rule well.”
She paused, the wine in hand as the girl wiped her fingers clean.
And then she drank.
“I released their tiny souls,” she said as she passed the empty cup to the girl, “so that, together, you and I, we would sit with the Dark Gods.
“I burned them so their power would be trapped, feeding us, their strength now ours. The Elder promised that, with their bones forever in the stone, they would always be at our mercy to help us live, help us rule. Life Everlasting ours so that we’ll never need to join those useless ones Beyond the Veil.
“His barbaric magic from the hills trapped those in the stone, the ancient prayers guiding them to their fate, their power ours.
“But now you need to pay. If you’re to become a God, to rule, then you, too, will need to burn the flesh and grind the bones and give to the Dark Gods what they hunger for.”
She paused, her hand on mine, comforting me.
“The first …”
“Oh, my beautiful boy, you don’t forget the first. It lives with you always. A shadow on your heart, in your soul. But it gets easier after that.