Blood and Iron, the first book in the epic fantasy series The Book of the Black Earth, is like a sword-and-sorcery Spartacus set in a richly-imagined world.
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.
Jirom reeled back with blood pouring into his right eye. He blinked it away as he retreated. He blocked a hard jab and grimaced as the iron spikes protruding from his opponent’s gloves gouged long furrows down his forearm.
Boos rained down from the stands where workaday freemen of the empire stomped and swilled from clay mugs. Their betters sat in shaded wooden boxes along the top of the tiny arena, fanned by slaves and served wine from silver chalices. Jirom would’ve killed for a flagon of beer right now.
A blow to the ribs knocked the air from his lungs and left stinging gashes along his side. Jirom covered up and circled away, and the crowd continued to make its displeasure known. His opponent was called the Lion. He was ferocious, young, and as strong as his namesake. With his light complexion and proud, hawkish nose, he could have passed for a member of the upper caste except for his iron collar and the sigil—three diamonds joined in a triangular pattern—branded on the right side of his face which marked him as a permanent slave, unable to ever regain his freedom again. It was possible his family had sold him into slavery as a child, or he’d insulted the wrong person. There were many ways to end up a slave in Akeshia, as Jirom well knew. Most gladiator bouts—whether fought with sword, spear, or bare-handed—didn’t last long because the fighters were criminals or slaves who had sinned against their masters. They usually died their first time out, fed to the more experienced gladiators. But the Lion was a different breed. Jirom didn’t know his story, save that he’d been brought down from Chiresh for these games. That meant money had been invested in him—a lot of it.
Jirom blocked a right hook which would have caved in his head, and more blood poured down his arms. As he stepped back from a straight-armed jab, his shoulders hit the rough boards of the arena’s eight-foot-high partition. A hard punch to the gut nearly forced him to drop his guard, but he saw the follow-up to the head and slipped away. Something wet and sticky struck his back. Rotten pomegranates and oranges landed around him, making pulpy divots in the sand. Jirom looked into the stands. In one of the private boxes, a portly, middle-aged man with deep brown skin was talking to an equally portly, slightly older patrician. The first man was Jirom’s owner, Thraxes, so engrossed in conversation that he wasn’t even watching the bout.
A grunt warned Jirom in time to cover up before a powerful clout smashed against his temple. He staggered, his vision fading into black and white spots, before righting himself. Through the speckled haze, he saw the Lion drawing back for another blow. Jirom slipped past a punch aimed at his chin and pushed off to make some space between them. More jeers rocked the arena.
“Come on, you dog!” someone in the stands taunted. “Fight!”
Jirom slapped away another punch and continued his slow retreat around the pit. The familiar twinge in his lower back from an old injury climbed up his spine, making every movement that much more painful. He glanced up to the private boxes at the wrong moment, and his opponent charged with a hoarse bellow. Jirom covered his face as he backpedalled, but a couple punches got through, drawing more blood. His feet got tangled up and he fell hard on his backside. A kick to the back as he rolled over sent jangling shocks of pain down his legs. His opponent stood over him with arms raised to the crowd, and the onlookers showered him with adoration. Thraxes was still engrossed in his discussion.
Jirom crawled to his knees as the Lion paraded around the arena. His opponent didn’t give him time to fully recover before charging at him again. Jirom circled away to his left, always the left, and more boos came down from the stands. The people wanted to see death.
His or mine, it doesn’t matter whose.
Another hard blow almost knocked Jirom down again, but he kept his footing. The Lion came after him, relentless and seemingly inexhaustible. If anything, his attacks were getting stronger and more confident. Jirom glanced up. Thraxes was now standing in front of his seat. With a bored expression, the slave owner yawned and scratched his ample belly. That was the signal.
About time, you fat bastard.
The Lion unleashed another straight punch with a growl. His eyes widened as Jirom caught the fist with an open hand. Air exploded from the Lion’s mouth as Jirom drove his other fist into the younger man’s ribs. A punch to the back of the ear dropped the Lion to his knees, and the next one laid him out flat with blood trickling down his branded cheek.
Jirom felt the rage churning inside him like an ill wind. Breathing through his mouth because his nose was clogged with blood, he knelt down and wrapped both arms around the Lion’s neck. With a heave, he twisted until he heard the spine snap with a sharp pop. The crowd roared with approval.
Cheers and a few copper coins fell from the audience as Jirom walked to the gate, but he ignored them. As he traveled down the dark tunnel to the slave cells, scores of feet pounded on the boards above his head.