On the Horns of Death

On the Horns of Death by Eleanor Kuhns Banner 



by Eleanor Kuhns

May 20 - June 14, 2024 Virtual Book Tour


An Ancient Crete Mystery


Ancient Crete, 1450 BC. When young bull leaper Martis finds Duzi, the newest member of the bull leaping team, dead in the bull pen early one morning. Made to look like he met his end on the horns of the bull, it's clear to Martis that this was no accident . . .

Martis once again finds herself thrown into a dangerous game of hunting down a murderer as the deaths start to mount. An old friend of Martis' sister, and possible lover to Duzi, is the next person to be found dead, and Martis' investigations lead her to believe love and jealousy are at the heart of these crimes against the Goddess.

Is someone targeting the bull leaping community? Or is there something else at play? With only the Shade of her sister Arge to confide in, Martis struggles to untangle the growing web of secrets which stretch around her.

Praise for On the Horns of Death:

"A clever, feisty, likable heroine, vivid descriptions of life in ancient Crete, and a complex murder make this a good pick for historical-mystery fans"
~ Booklist

"A wealth of historical detail"
~ Kirkus Reviews

Book Details:

Genre: Historical Mystery
Published by: Severn House
Publication Date: April 2, 2024
Number of Pages: 224
ISBN: 9781448310890 (ISBN10: 144831089X)
Series: An Ancient Crete Mystery #2
Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | BookShop.org | Goodreads | Severn House

Enjoy an excerpt:


Late again, I hurried down the stony slope into the caves under Knossos. Even from the top of the twisty path, I could hear the grunting and the nervous kicking of cage walls by agitated bulls. I increased my pace despite the slippery footing. I could smell the thick coppery scent of blood, far more intense than the usual odor of damp rock. Why was there blood? Something terrible was happening.

The oil lamps in the center of the cave cast a dim smoky light, but there were several, enough to see by. Although all the bulls were restless, most of the bull leapers were crowded around the foremost pen. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked Arphaia and Obelix as I reached the stone floor. Arphaia and Obelix had helped fill the hole left by the loss of my sisters.

Arphaia rolled her eyes at me and shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’ A short, sturdy girl, her skin was the color of ripe figs. Obelix was taller and paler and so slim she looked like a boy from the back. Like me, they’d tied their hair back into braids. ‘I’m busy here,’ Arphaia continued. She was helping Obelix pull her skirt over her loincloth, and I guessed the older girl had unexpectedly gotten her monthly. It was always an inconvenience for us women on the team.

‘Can I help?’

Arphaia shook her head. Glad to be excused – I was burning with curiosity – I hurried across the stone floor toward the cluster of older bull dancers by the cage. Ready for the upcoming ceremony, they wore only loincloths and boots.

‘Something upset the bulls,’ Geos said with a frown, running a hand over his bald head. He had trained all of us.

‘Especially the bull chosen for sacrifice . . .’ Elemon glanced anxiously at the pen. He was the most experienced of us but a recent injury had left him skittish.

I dropped my metal belt on the floor with a clatter and went to join the team. The bull in the pen was white – a pure white like the foam that came ashore from the sea. The largest and strongest of them all, he’d been chosen for our performance at the Harvest Festival today. After the six days of the celebration, he would be sacrificed to the Goddess. Other sacrifices would be made through out to the Dying God to thank him for the grape harvest, and the wine he’d taught us how to make. But this bull, the greatest of all, would be sacrificed last.

I approached the pen. The strikes against the wooden planks had loosened several. I tried to squeeze into the throng at the front, but no one would move away to let me through. I went around to the side and peered through a crack.

The white bull was trotting around the pen, lashing his tail, kicking up his front feet and grunting angrily. But he did not come near this side. Hmm. Why not? I crouched down to peer through a larger gap at the bottom.

And there, right in front of me, was the body of a man. I gasped and fell back. ‘Geos,’ I said in a trembling voice. When he did not hear me, I raised my voice. ‘Geos.’

‘What, Martis?’ He sounded harried.

‘Come here. There is a body inside the pen.’

‘What? Who is it?’

‘I don’t know.’ I shook my head. I hadn’t wanted to look. The body appeared to have been both gored and trampled by the bull. ‘I think this is why the bull is so nervous . . .’

Geos came around the corner. Although, at sixteen, I stood taller than him by several inches, now he stared down at me sitting on the rock floor.

‘Are you sure?’ He sounded disbelieving. ‘Why would anyone join a bull in the pen? These are not tame animals.’

‘I don’t know.’ I scooted backwards so he could crouch down beside me. Groaning, he lowered himself first to one knee and then to the other. Cautiously, using both hands, he collapsed to a sitting position. From there, he looked through the breach between the weathered wooden boards.

‘By the Goddess,’ he muttered, ‘you’re right. How could this happen!’ He struggled to rise. ‘We’ve got to get that body out of there. None of the bulls will settle . . .’

Turning, Geos shouted at the other bull dancers. ‘One of you, go find Tinos.’

As the High Priestess’s consort and the wanax who served as the chief administrator of Knossos and its environs, Tinos would be responsible for investigating this tragedy.

I rose shakily to my feet and peered into the pen next to the one occupied by the white auroch. This one was empty. Glad to have a problem to focus on, I said, ‘Maybe we can put the bull in here. And this wall’ – I gestured to the partition we’d been looking through – ‘is already damaged.’

Geos glanced into the empty pen and then turned his gaze on the battered fence. ‘Perhaps. But first we need to pull the body out. Once that is gone, maybe the bull will settle down.’

By now, the other bull dancers had joined us. Elemon shouldered me out of the way. ‘The boards are already damaged,’ he said. ‘Maybe we can pull them away and slide the body through.’

Geos nodded and his eyes shifted to the pen behind me. ‘We can take some of those pieces and use them to barricade the hole afterwards.’ As Elemon wrenched the boards away from the cage bottom, Tryphone grabbed the victim’s arm to pull him through. After a few seconds of futile struggle, Thaos, one of the other men, knelt down to help him. The body awkwardly inched forward.

I could barely watch. I could see that several bones were shattered and his arms flopped limply behind him.

Once he was free, we bustled around gathering wooden planks to place over the gap. I didn’t believe the bull could escape through the narrow opening at the bottom, but we covered it, nonetheless. No one wanted an angry animal charging around the caves, and he was still not settling down. Of course, the smell of blood hung heavily in the air.

‘What happened?’ Arphaia asked as she and Obelix approached us.

Before Geos could reply, excited chatter from the youngest of our team – all still congregated at the entrance to the arena – distracted us. Geos hurried around the pen, the rest of us following. Tinos had arrived. He was clad in a long robe banded with diagonal stripes of red and blue and wore his ceremonial knife on the belt around his waist. Apparently, he’d been pulled away from an important ritual. ‘What happened?’ he asked. ‘He’ – gesturing to Curgis – ‘told me you discovered a body in the bull’s pen?’

‘That’s right,’ Geos said. ‘I sent him to you.’

In his formal clothing, Tinos seemed older and much more serious than the man I knew and liked. ‘Show me,’ he said.

Geos glared at the kids. ‘Stay here,’ he said firmly. ‘This is not something any of you should see.’

Thirteen-year-old Costi curled his lip mutinously but didn’t argue.

‘I’ll watch them,’ Obelix offered. She was quite pale.

Arphaia glanced at her. ‘We both will,’ she said.

I did not offer. Although I did not want to look at the body, I did want to be near Tinos. I quickly joined the line of bull dancers following him and Geos to the side of the bull pen.

Tinos stared at the battered and bloodied remains on the floor for several seconds and heaved a sigh. ‘Who discovered the body?’ he asked.

‘Martis,’ Geos said.

Tinos shot me a look from under his thick black eyebrows. This was not the first time I had witnessed a violent death. ‘Of course, it would be,’ he said.

‘I could smell the blood when I got here,’ I said, rushing into speech. ‘And the bull was angry and upset. They’ – and I gestured to Elemon and Tryphone – ‘were here by the pen.’

Tinos glanced at the bull dancers, and then his gaze flicked to the pen where the white bull could be heard snorting and shuffling. ‘I see.’ He turned to Geos. ‘That white bull can’t be used in the ceremonies now.’

‘I know,’ Geos agreed. ‘He’s been tainted. But we have a few others.’ He pointed to the pens at the back of the cave. ‘Backups. The second choice is black, though. Not white.’

Tinos nodded. ‘He will have to be the one. A bull that murdered a man is no fit sacrifice to the Goddess.’

I thought of all the bull leapers who’d been gored or trampled by a bull during the ceremony and wondered why a wounding or a death in the course of a performance was acceptable to the Goddess. Because this had not happened during the Goddess-sanctioned ritual?

‘What possessed him to enter the cage?’ Tinos wondered aloud, pushing his hair to the back. When no one replied to what was clearly a question without an answer, he asked, ‘Does anyone recognize him?’

‘I don’t think any of us really examined him,’ Geos admitted apologetically.

Tinos raised his brows and looked around at us. Thaos and Curgis, the newer bull dancers, shook their heads and backed away. I refused to show such weakness in front of Tinos – I did not want him to think less of me – so I steeled myself and stared down at the body. Elemon cut through the crowd and joined me.

It was difficult to recognize the victim through the blood and the bruising. I thought his skin was naturally darker than the fair Elemon, but I couldn’t be sure. Finally, Elemon shook his head and stepped away to join the others. I continued staring at the body a few seconds longer – not at the face, but at the kilt around his hips. We all wore loincloths during the bull dancing. It was necessary to move freely, and we did not wear clothing like a long skirt that would catch on the horns. The victim’s garment was subtly different, longer and decorated with blue stripes.

‘I know who that is,’ I said, my voice breaking. ‘It’s Duzi.’


‘Duzi?’ Geos said, staring at me in shock. ‘Are you sure?’ He too spoke softly so the others could not hear.

I nodded, too shaken to speak. I’d first seen Duzi a few weeks ago. Although my mother did not want me visiting the docks, insisting it was too dangerous, I still occasionally went. I counted Tetis, an Egyptian prostitute who worked there, as my friend. That time, as we were talking, Tetis stopped mid-word and stared over my shoulder. I turned to look.

Several Cretan sailors manhandled a prisoner off one of the slim naval ships. His heavy black beard, stretching all the way down his chest, and the battered bronze helmet with a spike in the center marked him as a foreigner. ‘A pirate,’ Tetis said with dislike. ‘More and more of them harass Egypt.’

By the time Duzi joined the bull leapers a week later, the helmet was gone and the beard shaved away. But the kilt girding his hips was the same one he wore now.

‘Who’s Duzi?’ Tinos asked, keeping his voice low so he could not be overheard.

‘A volunteer for the bull leapers—’ Geos began.

‘The navy brought him here,’ I said at the same time. ‘I saw them take him off a ship.’ My voice trembled, and Tinos raised his eyebrows at my emotion.

‘Ah. The pirate,’ he said. He knew my mother did not want me visiting the docks. But he didn’t scold me. Not this time anyway. ‘Did you know him well?’ I shook my head.

‘A pirate?’ Geos repeated incredulously, staring at Tinos. Crete had probably the best navy in the world; our cities and towns suffered little from the depredations of pirates.

‘Egypt asked for our help,’ Tinos explained. ‘The seafarers from the east – they target those rich cities of the Black Lands, and the cargo ships that trade with us.’

‘But they don’t dare attack us,’ Geos said in satisfaction.

‘Only once in a while,’ Tinos agreed with a smile. He turned and looked at the tunnel that led to the arena. Although he couldn’t see anything in the gloom, he said, ‘It must be time for the bull dancing and time for me to meet the High Priestess. On the way, I’ll tell the bull handlers that we won’t be using the white bull and they should take out the black one instead.’ He glanced first at Geos and then at the rest of us. ‘Please, don’t gossip about this tragedy. We don’t know what happened . . .’

I sneaked a look at Elemon and the others. They didn’t seem to realize the victim was Duzi – one of us.

Geos nodded. ‘I don’t want the kids to know either,’ he agreed. ‘Not until after the performance, at least. It’s dangerous enough as it is, without distraction. What possessed the young fool to go into the pen?’

‘And please, can we cover him up?’ Tinos added as he turned away.

‘Cover him with what?’ Geos muttered as Tinos disappeared into the tunnel. I looked around. All the bull leapers except for Obelix and me were clad in loincloths, and I was the only one wearing a jacket and a linen blouse as well as a skirt. At sixteen, I felt awkward running through the town half-naked so I covered my loincloth with street clothes. I slipped off the skirt and held it out to Geos. Although the skirt was an old one, and both faded and shabby, I wore it often. I would not be happy if Duzi’s blood stained it and made it unwearable. But right now, I didn’t see what else I could do.

Geos nodded his thanks and draped the garment over Duzi’s face. ‘And what am I supposed to do about bull leapers,’ the old man grumbled. ‘Half the team is too young and untried – still basically children.’

I knew Geos did not like sending me in. Geos and my grandfather had been close friends and although we honored the Goddess with the dance, it was dangerous. Injuries and, yes, deaths were common. Geos didn’t want to see me hurt. That was why he had been so ready to accept Duzi into our ranks. The barbarian was untried but also strong and lithe. He learned the acrobatics quickly. Geos had had high hopes for him.

I guessed today I would leap over the bull’s back more than a few times. Although we numbered thirteen without Duzi, we were only nine once the youngest – Costi, Nub and the twins – were taken out.

I dropped my linen blouse and jacket on the belt, stripped the bangles from my arms and ran my fingers through my hair to remove the hair clips and ropes of beads. Automatically, I dropped them on my clothing. But I did not join the line of bull dancers waiting to parade into the arena. Instead, I returned to the body. Poor Duzi. At least the protection of my skirt offered him some dignity. I shifted it to cover his face more thoroughly and saw to my dismay that the cloth was already stained. I doubted the marks would ever wash out. But with the blood wiped away, the wounds on Duzi’s face and chest were now more easily seen. There was something odd . . . As I bent over the body to get a closer look, Geos shouted at me.

‘Martis! What are you doing? Come on. We have to go. We’re late already.’

I jumped. ‘Coming.’ I quickly squeezed in between Arphaia and Thaos. After a growth spurt this past summer, I no longer stood at the front but in the middle.

Although it was not yet raining, the sky was overcast and the air was cool. The hot dry summer had ended, and we were moving into the cooler, wetter autumn. In another week or so, the farmers would begin sowing the wheat and barley in the fields.

But today, and for the next few days, we celebrated the grape harvest.

We were a somber group that paraded around the arena, entertaining the crowd with handstands and somersaults. As we queued up at one end of the space, and I looked at my teammates forcing smiles as they waved at the audience, I wondered how they would behave if they knew who lay dead in the bull’s pen.

With a self-conscious grimace, Obelix removed her skirt.

Flowers rained down upon us – but not the brightly colored blooms of spring. Mostly narcissi and crocus bloomed now, so we were showered in yellow and purple.

A few moments later, the bull handlers released the animal into the arena. The black auroch, although not a small animal, appeared smaller to me than the white bull. But this one also seemed more energetic. He snorted and pawed the ground in the middle of the arena, watching us with his shiny black eyes.

Elemon nervously touched the thick ropy scar that twined around his torso. He’d finally recovered from the wound sustained in a ceremony seven or so months ago, but it had been a difficult convalescence.

Tinos, still in his long robe, leaned forward, his face twisted with sympathy. He was a former bull leaper himself and wore a scar almost identical to Elemon’s around his waist.

Tryphone took up his position. He was two or three years older than I was and almost as dark as Duzi. Tryphone had come to Knossos from a town on the eastern side of Crete. I don’t think any of us knew why he’d left Gortnya and traveled east. But Geos had been overjoyed to discover Tryphone was already an experienced bull leaper.

At Geos’s nod, Arphaia moved around to the rear of the bull where she would catch us as we dismounted. Geos usually chose her as the catcher; a farmer’s girl, she was cautious but not afraid of the beast. But she was graceless as an acrobat. Short and stiff, her flips over the bull’s horns usually dropped her right behind the beast’s head in a clumsy sitting position.

Geos looked up at the High Priestess. As usual, she did not smile, and her expression was as rigid as a statue’s. Her obsidian-dark eyes flicked over us, and then she nodded. Geos gestured at Tryphone. He moved forward.

His bronzed arms reached out to grasp the bull’s horns, and his legs lifted up until I could see the soles of his boots. He used the momentum from the bull’s head toss to flip over, landing easily on the bull’s black back. With a salute and a bow to the High Priestess, Tryphone jumped down, barely touching Arphaia’s hand for balance.

Since Obelix and Thaos would jump after Elemon, who had just stepped forward for his performance, I allowed my mind to wander. Wondering what exactly Duzi had been doing in the bull’s pen was so much easier than imagining his fear as the bull charged. I recalled the drying streaks of blood; he had not died much before the arrival of us bull dancers. Of course, that did not tell me when he might have gone into the bull’s pen. Or how long he had been inside suffering the bull’s attacks.

My mind went reluctantly to my last sight of the body. Something bothered me about the wounds. I knew what the injuries caused by a bull’s horns and hooves looked like; during the last year, I’d seen more than I cared to. The blunted horns left craters and long gashes in human flesh. And the battering left by the monstrous hooves was especially memorable; the power and the weight of the bull resulted in large bruises and broken bones. But there was something—

‘Martis!’ Geos’s voice suddenly interrupted my thoughts. ‘What is the matter with you?’ Coming out of my deep thought, I blinked at him. He gestured at the bull standing in the middle of the arena. I gulped. I usually spent a few minutes mentally preparing myself for the run across the sand, the careful stretch out to grasp the bull’s horns and finally the leap up and over. ‘Go,’ Geos said impatiently.


Excerpt from On the Horns of Death by Eleanor Kuhns. Copyright 2024 by Eleanor Kuhns. Reproduced with permission from Eleanor Kuhns. All rights reserved.



About the Author:

Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is a previous winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition for A Simple Murder. The author of eleven Will Rees mysteries, she is now a full-time writer after a successful career as the Assistant Director at the Goshen Public Library in Orange County, New York.

Catch Up With Eleanor Kuhns:
Instagram - @edl0829
Twitter/X - @EleanorKuhns
Facebook - @writerkuhns



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