Here's an extract from Jon Sprunk's Blood and Iron, compliments of the folks at Pyr. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn’t even begin to understand. Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn’t last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen’s court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire’s caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both.
The wagon rumbled down the hard-beaten roadway. Jirom picked at the scabs on his arms as he looked out through the iron bars. The rattle of chains and the clop of hooves drowned out the breeze and the buzzing insects flying past his cage. The sun was only halfway to its zenith, but already the day was sweltering. Not so hot as the desert, yet still enough to drive a man mad.
His scalp itched, too, where the hair was growing in. He’d kept it shaved for years, but he didn’t think anyone was going to give him a razor after what he’d done. Breaking the jaw of a smart-mouthed drover on the first day of the journey had been satisfying, but now they kept him in the cage night and day. He ate in the cage, slept inside it, and shit and pissed through the hole in the floor. He’d long since gone nose-deaf to his own smell.
Standing up, he met the gaze of Umgaia in the next cage. Their wagons were linked together and pulled by the same train of oxen. Umgaia smoothed her luxurious hair over her shoulder and winked at him with the single eye in the center of her forehead. “It’s soon time for another show.”
Beyond her wagon, the brick walls of a settlement emerged from the dusty savannah. Another village, another show. Chief Proctor Mituban was, among other things, a procurer for his master, Lord Isiratu. The wagon train held tribute from a dozen holdmasters, as well as some curiosities that Mituban had encountered during his trek around the territory. At every stop along the road to Sekhatun, the caravan displayed its oddities to the common people.
Jirom leaned against the bars of his cage as the wagon train rolled past the fields and pastures surrounding the village. The smell of manure clung to the air. He had seen hundreds of settlements like this in his soldiering days. Akeshia was said to be the world’s breadbasket for good reason. Every year shipments of wheat were sent to nations near and far, and Akeshian merchants brought back a wealth of cotton, timber, and gold. It wasn’t difficult to believe that someday her armies would march to the far corners of the earth. Long ago, that notion had inspired Jirom to take up a spear and seek his fortune, but a series of misadventures, and some poor choices on the part of his employers, had set him on another path.
He settled back onto the floor and rested his back against the bars. The gladiator circuit was renowned for its brutality. If he was fortunate, he’d get put against a few young bucks like the Lion with more muscles than sense, but eventually he would be pitted against someone better. It was just a matter of time.
When the caravan reached the village, a crowd had gathered. Looking out over their brown faces, Jirom remembered his childhood and the bubbling excitement he’d felt whenever someone new came to his tribe’s remote corner of the world. That same excitement was reflected in the eyes watching him pass.
The wagons stopped at the village center and pulled into a semicircle. Caravan guards went around, watering and feeding the animals. The doors of the lead wagon opened, and Chief Proctor Mituban appeared, wearing a long robe of ivory-white with a crimson sash around the middle. The village elders kept their distance until Mituban beckoned them closer.
“Come and see,” Mituban said for everyone to hear, “the wonders I have collected for our lord and master!”
Jirom didn’t move as Mituban walked past his cage, introducing him as “the cannibal gladiator from the dark heart of Abyssia!” even though he’d never been to that land. Umgaia was billed as “the fabled cyclops of Sidon.” People gawked as they passed by, pointing and laughing. Jirom suppressed the desire to reach out and strangle the first person to stray within arm’s reach. Instead, he sat back and closed his eyes, and tried not to dwell on the humilia-tion. He had been a soldier and a warrior, but now he was an animal in a cage. Something hit him in the shoulder and rolled off. He looked down at the dry turd on the floor beside him and clenched his hands into fists.
Don’t give them what they want. Just sit back and think of something else.
After a meal of hard bread and a cup of water, the menagerie packed up. The oxen were re-hitched, and the wagons rolled out past the crowd of watching villagers. Jirom chewed on his crust and simmered.
The sounds of pipes and laughter floated through the camp. The oxen murmured in their roped enclosure. Wagon drivers and guards sat around the fires, passing skins of beer back and forth.
Jirom wrapped his shirt around the lock of his cage door. Earlier in the day, while the guards grew lax under the afternoon sun, he’d grasped a fist-sized rock from the ground and hidden it under his shirt. All afternoon he had contemplated what to do. Fight his captors and likely be killed? Perhaps. Dying on his feet had long been his professed ideal, but these past few years he’d come to understand that even a life of degradation was better than death. He’d thought about escaping every day since his capture, but never with much optimism. Anyplace beyond the reach of Akeshian justice seemed too far away. And there was the matter of his brand, which wouldn’t be easy to hide. He couldn’t walk around with his face covered for long without raising suspicions.
He watched the sentries. When they wandered to the far side of the camp, past the chief proctor’s pavilion, its white silk walls glowing in the moonlight, he slammed the rock against the lock. The muffled clang sounded loud to his ears. He hunkered down and waited, but no one came to investigate.
A desert owl hooted somewhere in the darkness.
He struck again. This time his blow glanced off, and he hit his knuckles on a bar. Hissing, he swung again and froze as a metallic snap echoed through his cage. He waited for a dozen pounding heartbeats and then pushed. The cage door swung open.
Still clutching the rock, he hopped down. The feel of solid ground under his feet was a relief. He took a step but halted as he saw Umgaia watching him. She sat near the edge of her cage, wrapped in a blanket. They looked at each other for a moment, and then she flicked her hand toward the darkness beyond the camp. Get away.
He went to her door instead. She watched as he tested the bars. The lock on her cage was older than his, probably because Mituban didn’t think her likely to escape. Jirom hit it before he could talk himself out of it. The lock’s metal face bent on the first blow and cracked open on the second. He opened the door and held out a hand, but she backed away. Jirom heard the footfalls behind him an instant before the whip slashed across his shoulders.
He turned and swung at the sentry standing behind him, not realizing he still held the stone until it collided with the guard’s temple. Bone crunched, and the guardsman crumpled to the ground like an empty sack. Jirom stood over the body, weighing the stone in his hand. It suddenly felt much heavier. He tensed at a touch on his flayed shoulder.
“You must go, gladiator,” Umgaia whispered.
“Come with me.”
“No.” She smiled and was transformed into a true beauty despite her deformity. “Out in the world I would just be a beggar, not even fit for a whore. Mituban feeds me well and his men leave me alone.”
Before he could stop her, she scurried back into her wagon and closed the door.
Fool of a woman.
With a last look at her, he turned toward freedom and stiffened as several shapes emerged from the darkness. The sentries hemmed him in, their spears leveled. Jirom looked over his shoulder. Three guards brandishing stout clubs came around the corner of his wagon.
Jirom hefted the stone. A fierce heat rose in his chest. This was his moment. Fight to the death. Feel his enemies’ blood on his hands. Scream out his rage and loathing as he fell beneath their spears.
Jirom opened his hand and let the rock fall to the ground. He braced himself, but the club striking the middle of his back still drove the wind from his lungs. A spear butt barely missed shattering his kneecap as it knocked him off his feet, and then he was under a pile of pummeling fists and bludgeons. When they hauled him to his feet, blood poured from his face and dripped down onto his bare chest. The guards dragged him back toward this cage, but a voice stopped them.
“Here. Let me see him.”
They held Jirom up by his arms as the chief proctor came out from his pavilion. The top buttons of his robe were undone, revealing a patch of black hair. He sipped from a slender glass as he strode over to them. “What’s all this?”
Two sentries hauled the body of the man Jirom had killed into the light. Mituban’s gaze went from the corpse to Jirom. “How dare you raise your hand to one of my servants, slave? You are the property of Lord Isiratu!”
Jirom said nothing. Mituban stepped closer, peering into his eyes. “I can see you are nothing more than a beast, unfit for the company of men. I would have you executed, but that pleasure belongs to His Lordship. Believe me, before the end you will beg for d—”
The rage exploded inside Jirom. With a violent shudder, he threw off the men holding his arms. A red haze blurred his vision, but through the fog he could see Mituban on the ground, grasping at the large hands clutched around his neck. Jirom wrenched, and the lord’s struggles ceased. His wine glass lay broken in the dirt.
A sharp crack echoed in Jirom’s ears, followed by a red-hot pain at the back of his head. As he slumped forward, the last thing he saw was the chief proctor’s expression of complete surprise.