“An offering,” came a dark voice, a deep purr, echoing all around the temple. Every hair on Tarrin’s neck stood up, the instinctive reaction of the prey to the sound of a predator.
Enjoy, and Happy New Year!
Tarrin Smith clutched his daughter in his arms and fought his way through the crowd. Min’s feverish head rested on her father’s shoulder, and he could not tell if she was unconscious or merely sleeping. It was the eve of the New Year, and the whole city was headed for the main square to celebrate, to drink, carouse and make offerings at the four Corner temples. Everyone wanted the blessing of the Corners at New Year, and the priests were overworked, sleep-deprived, and greedy.
Tarrin, however, was going in the other direction. He was finished with those gods. He had prayed to them all, and his daughter had only gotten sicker. He had made offerings – wine, incense, silver – the best he could afford, but Min had received no blessing, no healing. He had even given his best hammer to Styri, and as a blacksmith, that hammer was one of his most precious possessions. Nonetheless, Tarrin had put it on Styri’s altar, he had knelt and prayed, begged for mercy for his daughter, but her fever had only risen. That morning, the girl’s grandmother, his late wife’s mother, had shaken her head and gone to sew a shroud.
That day, from dawn to dusk, Tarrin had prayed at the four Corners – the temples of Ligo of fire, Haf of the breaking wave, Styri of the mountain, and the multi-headed Prathur that bound them together. He had emptied his pockets, argued and pleaded with the priests, and begged the altar attendants. They had not helped him, but Tarrin had not given up hope. There was another. The fifth god: a misfit, a dark, shadowed creature, cast out from the Corners. That was where Tarrin was going now, Min in his arms. She would not last the night, and the girl was all he had left. Tarrin could not lose her. If she died, he would lie down in the grave with her small body and let them bury him, too.
The fifth temple was not on the main square. It was buried in the dirty warren of streets behind the market, and everyone knew where it was, even if no one admitted to going there. Only the most desperate ever went, and some of those who begged for the outcast god’s favor did not come back.
Despite the raucous New Year celebrations happening all around them, the street of the fifth temple was silent and still. The massive stone door bore the outcast god’s sigil – a horned raven, its beak razor-sharp, its eyes bright and knowing. The stonework had been vandalized years ago, and one of the wings was partially chipped off. Tarrin shivered at the sight of the cold puddle of metal on the flagstones under that wing. Legend told that it was the melted mallet and chisel of the vandal, struck to molten liquid by the outcast god’s rage. Of the vandal himself, nothing was known.
Tarrin kissed Min’s forehead for courage, feeling once again the crackling heat of fever radiating from her. This was her only chance. Tarrin touched the door, and it swung open, soundless and slow, as though something had been waiting for him.
He stepped inside.
The temple of the outcast god had no priests, no attendants, no choirs, and no processions. It was still and silent, but the interior was clean and dry, the black marble floor gleamed, and the high, narrow windows were unmarred by dust.
Tarrin’s feet echoed on the stone as he walked. The temple was so dark that the far walls faded from his sight. The room felt as large as a cavern, and Tarrin had no candle or lamp to light the way. Only the last rays of the old year’s sun illuminated the room, sinking and fading, falling on the low stone altar as Tarrin approached.
Behind the stone slab, a magnificent jeweled mosaic showed the god towering over the empty temple; black hair and amber eyes, horns that spiraled up from his head, dark wings spread. Tarrin swallowed. He had no other choice, he reminded himself. If the outcast god would not help Min, no one would.
Tarrin knelt at the altar and bowed his head. He did not know what manner of prayer the outcast god wanted – words of praise or of fear, songs and music, or perhaps only silent supplication. The desperate few who sought him out did not tell of their experience in his temple, and Tarrin had nothing to go on.
“I bring you an offering,” Tarrin ventured, his voice small and lost in the shadows of the vast temple. He had one thing left to give, one thing that he had kept back from the Corners, perhaps knowing that he would need it. It was his late wife’s wedding ring, a gold band with an amethyst stone. It had been her most precious possession. Before she had died two years ago, of the same fever that now threatened their daughter, she had given it to Tarrin and told him to keep it for Min’s wedding. He had promised her that he would, but he broke that promise now. There would be no wedding if Min did not last the night, and so Tarrin hefted her in his arms and tried to reach into his pocket to bring out the jewel. He would lay it on the outcast god’s altar and beg for Min’s life. That was all he had left, it was all that he could do.
Tarrin shifted on his knees, the awkward weight of his daughter making it hard for him to maneuver. He could not find the ring. Perhaps it was in his other pocket. He was sweating under his shirt, tension ratcheting higher, and he moved Min to his other arm and dug into that pocket.
He knew he had it! He had taken it from behind the loose stone in his forge that morning, wrapped it in a clean cloth, and put in his pocket. Alarmed, on the verge of panic, he set Min down on the flat stone in front of him and shoved both his hands into the pockets, pulling out anything he could find, desperate for the ring. Without an offering, the god would not even hear his prayer, never mind grant it; everyone knew that. The richer the offering, the more kindly the gods looked upon you. Haf was sometimes rumored to take pity on the tears of parents and children, but she had not done so for Tarrin and Min.
Tarrin’s pockets were empty. He realized with an empty sob that his quest was over. Some thief in the crush of the new year crowd had stolen the ring from his pocket, and his daughter’s life was forfeit. The girl lay sprawled out on the stone, and a helpless tear dripped from Tarrin’s face as he leaned forward to pick her up. He would take her home and sit up with her, ensure her last hours were as comfortable as they could be.
Tarrin could not lift her.
His heart lurched in his chest, and he gasped, horrified. He tried again. He could hold her, he would feel her, but when he tried to lift the child, it was as though she was carved from the stone itself. “No,” Tarrin whispered, “No, no, no.” He tried to wrench her off the stone, off the altar. But she did not move.
“An offering,” came a dark voice, a deep purr, echoing all around the temple. Every hair on Tarrin’s neck stood up, the instinctive reaction of prey to the sound of a predator. “It has been some time since anyone gave me their own child.”
“No!” Tarrin cried, wrapping his arms around Min’s still form, “No, not her! I have an offering for you, a ring, an amethyst set in gold.”
“Hmm,” came the reply, the sound was almost in Tarrin’s ear that time and Tarrin tried to put himself between the voice and his daughter. “I think I will take the girl.”
Tarrin shuddered, terror thudding through his veins. He should never have come here. The outcast god was not to be trifled with, but perhaps there was still a chance…. “She’s sick,” Tarrin said, his voice breaking, “She’s sick. If you heal her, I will give you the ring.”
“Show me this ring,” hissed the voice, the mocking tone of the god well aware that his supplicant did not have it. Tarrin glimpsed dark wings from the corner of his eye. He spun around but saw nothing. The sun was gone, and the temple should have been black, but a strange sprinkling of lights shone into life on the ceiling, like distant stars, casting a faint glow over the place.
“I will find the ring, I will give you anything,” Tarrin sobbed. His desperation and exhaustion flooded out of him in a wave; his days of futile prayers and expensive offerings, his nights of sitting by his daughter’s bed, endlessly wetting the cloths that could not cool her blazing fever.
A figure stepped out of the blackness, tall and fearsome. The light of the ceiling-stars flared and shimmered on black wings, on gold-bound horns, on the double-glint of amber gold where eyes shone, as bright as jewels. “Anything?” the god said, standing on the other side of the altar, towering over Tarrin where he knelt with Min. “You have already given me your daughter, what do you have that is more precious than her?”
“Please,” Tarrin said, frantic and begging, desperate to undo his mistake, “Please, don’t take her away from me. I have nothing else to give you, the four Corners took everything I had and they did not help her! You’re my only hope. I beg you.” His voice sank to a low whisper, his tears thick in his throat.
The god sneered at the mention of the Corners and turned away, pacing through the shadows, a whisper of wings, a glint of gold, a flash of bright eyes. “So, you wish me to heal your dying child, and your offer to me is nothing?”
“I don’t have anything,” Tarrin whispered, bowing his head and touching his forehead to the altar.
“You have courage,” the god said, thoughtful. The chilling purr of his words fading to something less terrifying. The voice was still not human in tone, but it did not trigger Tarrin’s flight response quite so intensely. “You came to me. Few do. Even those as desperate as you will accept the judgment of the Corners rather than risk coming here. Do you know why?”
Tarrin shook his head, “They are afraid of you,” he guessed, and the god laughed, cold and harsh.
“Yes,” he hissed, delighted at Tarrin’s honest response, “They are afraid of me. But is it because I do not keep my promises? Or because I do?”
Tarrin did not know what to say to that. It hinted at dark secrets, perhaps something that had happened during the holy conflict centuries before. The history of that war was only taught in whispers. The priests of the Corners never mentioned now that there had once been a fifth god.
The god glared, and Tarrin ducked his head, gripping the altar-stone with one hand and his daughter’s arm with the other. He was afraid that if he let her go, the god would take her, and Tarrin would never see her again. The god leaned down, his black hair falling forward, the horns that crowned his head gleaming in the dim light. He looked Min over, and Tarrin could do nothing but tremble before him.
“A dead girl is no use to me,” The god said eventually. “I will heal her, and she will be my priest. She will stay in my temple and serve me.”
Tarrin closed his eyes, tried to imagine Min waking up in this dark place, her father and grandmother gone, alone except for the shadowy god. She would be terrified. She would cry for her father, and Tarrin would not be there to hear her. She would think herself abandoned. He looked up at the god, an unspoken plea in his eyes, and to his surprise the god’s fierce face softened.
“It is not the life you imagined for her, perhaps, but it is still life. Better than a cold grave, is it not?”
Tarrin should know better than to try the mercy of a god, but as his late wife had often said, he may be smart with metal, but he could be stupid with people. Min had already lost her mother. If Tarrin could prevent her from losing her only other living relatives as well, he would.
He looked up into the amber eyes of the outcast god. “Take me,” he said. “I’ll be your priest. If you heal my daughter and let her go, I will do whatever you want for the rest of my days. My daughter can live with her grandmother, she can live a normal life, she can play and learn and be free.” She will not be a bound priest to a dark god, Tarrin thought, desperate, not if there is any other option.
There was a long silence, the outcast god towering over the kneeling man, the girl unconscious on the altar between them. “You do have courage,” the god mused, “You are a blacksmith, I can smell the iron on you. Take off your shirt.”
Tarrin gaped at the god, the abrupt shift making him think he had misheard the order. “What?” he said, dumbfounded.
“Take it off!” the god growled, his wings spreading behind him, the left side misshapen and foreshortened. Tarrin stared at it, sickened. The flight feathers were missing. The legend is true, Tarrin thought; the Corners had pinioned the god’s wing before they cast him out. Tarrin shut his eyes; there were some things that a wise man should not see. He ripped off his shirt and tossed it onto the altar.
The god hummed, calmer now, and when Tarrin dared to look, his wings were folded again, the amber eyes thoughtful as they swept over Tarrin’s bare chest. “You are strong,” the god said, and Tarrin could not help the relief that swept through him. He was strong. He worked hard at his forge, wielding his own hammer and stoking his own furnace. He was in his late twenties now and in the prime of his strength. He could work, and the god could see that. The god was considering his offer, and Tarrin began to feel the first creeping thread of hope that perhaps Min may live.
“Take me,” Tarrin offered again, eager now. “I am a blacksmith, a good one. I’ll dedicate my forge to you, I’ll carve your sigil in my anvil and hammer, every piece I create will be a prayer to you. I’ll bring offerings to your temple every night. I’ll tattoo your name over my heart. I’ll be devoted to you. I’ll be your priest.”
The god licked his lips, and Tarrin knew he had him. “All I ask for,” Tarrin confirmed, “is my daughter’s life.”
“Stand,” the god ordered, and Tarrin scrambled to his feet, eager to show how obedient he could be. Footsteps circled him, and Tarrin’s neck prickled as the god moved behind him, close, his wings almost brushing the blacksmith’s broad shoulders.
“Very well,” the god said, returning to the altar, his inspection complete. The dark purr of satisfaction was back in his voice as he said, “I accept your offering. You will be my priest and I will heal the child. Swear yourself to me.” He held out one hand, curved black nails glinting against pale skin, and Tarrin instinctively knew what was required. He climbed onto the altar, presenting himself on his knees next to his daughter. The outcast god was a dark presence before him, growing as he watched, his wings opening, eyes brightening, the ceiling-stars flickering and flaring far in the distance. Tarrin took the offered hand in both of his, the touch of the god vibrating with power, with trapped energy. He bowed his head, pressing the cool, firm flesh of the god to his forehead as he made his promise.
“I swear myself to your service,” Tarrin said, his voice hoarse, “I belong to you from this moment until the moment of my death. On my daughter’s life I make this oath.” Next to him, Min sighed and relaxed, the fever falling away from her, the bright flush leaving her face. She was merely sleeping now; the natural sleep of healing and not the dangerous unconsciousness of sickness. Tarrin pressed a fervent kiss to the god’s hand, tears of relief and gratitude threatening to overwhelm him.
The god stared down at him, his eyes so bright now that they almost glowed, golden and hypnotic. His mismatched wings spread behind him, as vast as the night sky, and his horns twisted and writhed on his head, towering almost to the distant ceiling. “Say my name,” the god ordered in a harsh whisper, and Tarrin met his eyes, fearless now before his god, his deity, his master.
Thorne,” Tarrin said, the god’s name like honey on his tongue, “I belong to you now, Thorne of the air and sky.”
The god Thorne smiled. Throughout the city, bells rang, and crowds cheered as the new year began.
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