Thorne had ripped the shirt off Tarrin’s back twice now. If he kept it up Tarrin would have no clothing left at all – it was better that Tarrin took it off himself.
Tarrin ran. There was something about the priest Venik that made the blood run cold in his veins. Prathur was a savage and mysterious god. It was rumored that the priests in its service endured strange rituals of transformation as they rose in the ranks. Coming from Thorne’s temple with outcast god’s sigil newly emblazoned on his chest, pulsing with power, Tarrin could not face the priest of Prathur. It was too dangerous. With no other option coming to his mind, he turned and took off like a rabbit from a trap, pounding barefoot and frantic through the narrow streets, twisting and turning through alleys and courtyards. He headed away from his forge. If he was followed, he would not lead Venik there.
He jumped a wall and crouched behind it, trying to quiet his breathing. He could only hope that Venik did not know who he was. Yesterday, Tarrin had been one of hundreds of anonymous supplicants that had passed through Prathur’s temple doors on New Year’s Eve. Surely Venik would not remember him. Besides, Prathur had not helped Min, not even when he had begged. Tarrin owed that formless god nothing at all.
It was nearly dawn before Tarrin felt it was safe enough to wend his way home. He had not heard the sounds of pursuit for hours, and the streets were filling up with the early-rising workers of the city – bakers, market traders and the like. Walking through the market square, he noticed a baker setting up his stall alone and stopped to offer his help. It was only the second day of the new year, plenty of the celebrants would need at least a few days to recover from the feasting, drinking and excess. Tarrin received a loaf of warm bread for his trouble and tore a piece off to eat as he walked the rest of the way. Perhaps his prospects for casual labor were not so bad today, with many young apprentices still nursing their aching heads.
The forge was cold and empty when he arrived. Tarrin sighed and ran his hands though his shaggy hair, surveying the room with gloomy eyes.
What was he supposed to do now? He had no money at all. He had only half the tools he needed to work metal, he had no metal to work. The furnace was out, and he had no coal to heat it. His boots were at his god’s temple along with his metalworking tongs, and Thorne had torn his protective leather apron and his shirt to shreds.
Tarrin slid down the wall and sat on the swept-dirt floor, his head in his hands. He was bone tired. From Min’s sickness to Thorne’s demands, Tarrin had not slept more than a few hours in days. Despite that, he had to work today to ensure Min and her grandmother were fed, and Thorne would expect him back at his temple that night.
A shiver ran down Tarrin’s spine at the memory of Thorne laying him out on his altar. Rough stone and soft feathers against his skin, Thorne’s strength holding him down, ripping his clothes off and spreading his legs. The gods desire had been crystal clear – he intended to use Tarrin for his pleasure. He may be willing to bide his time until he had gathered enough power to ensure Tarrin survived that ritual, but sooner or later Tarrin knew he would be spread out on the black altar, his body given as an offering to his god.
Tarrin gathered himself together, putting such thoughts out of his mind. Breaking down would help no one, least of all Min and her grandmother Josta, who were both Tarrin’s responsibility to provide for. He had half a loaf of bread for them, and he would work for the rest. They would come back from the brink of this almost-tragedy. Tarrin would feed them and take care of them, and he would please his god as well. And when the time came for him to lie down on Thorne’s altar, he would do that too.
Newly determined, Tarrin pushed himself back to his feet. He took off his torn clothes and pulled on spare trousers and an old shirt. He had no other boots to wear. Even the good times had not been so good to him, despite the quality of his work. The sickness that had taken his beloved wife Kina had nearly destroyed them financially, and then Min’s sickness had done the same. Tarrin and his little family lived on a knife edge.
With bare feet and a determined heart, Tarrin took the half-loaf of bread and the bundle of torn clothes and headed out. He went to visit Min first at Josta’s house. He found her still sleeping, bundled in a blanket and exhausted from her sickness. Tarrin rested his large hand on her forehead, her skin warm and flushed from sleep, so unlike the blazing fever that Thorne had saved her from. He put a butterfly kiss on her cheek and went back out to the porch to talk to Josta.
He handed over the bread, ashamed to give her food that he had already eaten from. Josta didn’t say anything about it, just took it with a weary nod. She knew how things were. Min’s grandmother had seen too much loss in her life, and Kina’s passing had nearly broken her. If it had not been for Min, Tarrin doubted that Josta would have found the will to live much beyond her daughter’s funeral.
Josta had been a skilled seamstress in her younger days, before her eyesight had faded. She had taught Kina the art and recently she has started to teach Min. Now, just like Tarrin, Josta had sold much of her materials and supplies to try to save her granddaughter’s life. She sat on her rickety porch, squinting unhappily as she sewed undyed cloth with rough thread. The pockets and neckerchiefs she could make would bring a few more coins to their family, and it was better than nothing. In this manner, they held themselves together one day at a time.
Josta took Tarrin’s shredded shirt from his hands and shook it out. It looked as though he had been mauled by a wild cat. She looked at him quizzically.
“Do not ask me to explain, good-mother,” he said with a shake of his head. “Can you repair it?”
“Aye, well, I can try.” Josta sounded defeated before she even started, but Tarrin knew she would do her best on the shirt with what poor thread she had.
Tarrin did not linger. The sun was up, and he needed to work. He peeked in on Min one last time, and then walked back to the center of the city.
The rest of the day Tarrin worked. He moved barrels for an alehouse all morning, which garnered him a few coins and a hearty midday meal. The meal set him up for the long afternoon at the river crossing, loading and unloading the ferries that plied backwards and forward over the deep, slow-moving river. By the time the last ferry was docked and unloaded, Tarrin had enough money for food for a few days, if they ate frugally. He walked back to his mother-in-law’s house, his bare feet aching on the cold stones of the street. His day was not over yet. Dusk was gathering and Tarrin still had to visit the temple.
Min was up and alert when her father arrived. The girl sat on the low porch with her grandmother, doing her best to sew a fold of thick cloth with her clumsy little fingers. Despite her obvious frustration, her cheeks were pink, and her eyes were bright. Tarrin’s heart lifted to see her looking so well, when she had been at the door of the afterlife only two days before.
“I’ll come with you daddy,” she declared, eagerly setting her sewing down when Tarrin said that he had to go to the temple. He didn’t say which temple, and Josta gave him a sharp look. Tarrin shook his head, avoiding Josta’s unspoken question. She did not need to know that the outcast god had claimed him, nor that he made an enemy of the chief priest of Prathur. She had enough to worry about.
Min, he answered out loud. “Not this time, my little darling.”
He would not take Min back to that dark place. He would not tempt the god to change their bargain.
“Next time, daddy?”
“Maybe. I’ll be back before morning,” he evaded, kissing her brow. Behind her back he gave Josta the money he had earned, holding back a few small coins. He could not visit his god empty handed, after all.
What was a suitable offering for a god?
Tarrin pondered the question as he walked. He had little idea what might please Thorne. Thorne’s temple was bare apart from the mosaic; no others had left offerings there that Tarrin could tell. It was already gathering dark and the market traders were packing up their stalls, so Tarrin had little chance to agonize over his decision. He used his few coins to buy a bundle of incense, and then stayed to help the trader pack up his cart in exchange for a small flint as well.
By the time he turned the corner that led to the temple, Tarrin was exhausted. He had not slept the previous night, and he had worked all day long. His feet were sore, and his body ached all over. If not for Thorne and his demand of daily worship, Tarrin could be resting his bones in Josta’s little house with his daughter on his lap.
Tarrin’s guilty thought caught him a moment later. If not for Thorne, you would be weeping over your daughter’s grave. You owe him everything.
He pushed the door of the temple open, soundless and heavy. Inside the door he saw his boots set by the wall, and his metalworking tongs resting neatly beside them. Despite his tiredness, Tarrin smiled at that. Thorne was a god, it was true, careless of mortal lives and cares, but he was not all bad. Pausing to pull his boots on, he walked the long, echoing path to the altar.
Tarrin knelt on the hard floor of the silent temple. The ceiling stars glowed above him, casting a faint light over the black stone of the altar and the meager incense in his hands. Tarrin waited. He let his breath even out, his heart beat slow, his thoughts calm themselves and the cares of the day leak out of his mind. Thorne did not care about any of that. He was a god and he only cared about himself.
When he was ready, Tarrin leaned forward and placed the small cones of incense on the altar. He was careful to place them evenly and symmetrically on the smooth stone, the way he had seen the Corner temple priests do it. He lit the first one and watched the smoke curl up from it, dancing and twisting with the slight movement of the air.
The scent of yarrow permeated the air. Yarrow, for gratitude. Tarrin watched the bright ember at the heart of the burning cone and let his heart fill with gratitude for what Thorne had done for him. He had saved Min’s life, and in doing so he had saved Tarrin and Josta too. Min was all they had; she was the heart of their little family. Thorne had saved them all.
Thorne was there, Tarrin knew, watching from the shadows. Tarrin could feel the amber eyes of his god on the back of his neck, but he seemed content to wait while Tarrin performed this ritual of his own creation.
Hoping his hands did not shake, Tarrin lit the second cone – juniper, the scent of supplication, of obedience, of respect. Tarrin was aware of what Thorne wanted from him, and he tried to tell him through the second cone of incense that he was willing. Tarrin would give his god what he wanted; he would pay the debt that he owed. The scent of juniper tickled his nose, zesty and wakeful, and Tarrin’s eyes watered. He brushed the wetness away, angry at himself for his weakness. There was nothing to cry over: Min was alive.
With shaking hands, Tarrin pulled his shirt off, exposing the bright sigil on his chest. The golden symbol glowed and pulsed in time with the ceiling stars, in time with the beat of Tarrin’s heart. Thorne had ripped the shirt off Tarrin’s back twice now. If he kept it up Tarrin would have no clothing left at all, so it was better that he took it off himself. Juniper, for obedience. If he could not yet lie down for his god, he could have least let him look at what he owned.
Tarrin lit the third cone – sandalwood, for worship. The three scents mingled and combined as Tarrin knelt before his god’s altar. He held them in his heart; gratitude, obedience, and devotion. Slowly, as though unwilling to break the spell he had been forging, Tarrin put his hands flat on the altar and leaned down until his forehead rested on the stone. This was the only way he knew to worship his god. He did not know any of Thorne’s ancient prayers or chants, he did not even know if incense was pleasing to him, but Tarrin held those three prayers in his heart and let them fill him until they overflowed and spilled out.
Gratitude, obedience, devotion. Tarrin’s three gifts, three promises to his God. It was all he had to give.
There was a soft brush of wings behind him. Tarrin did not react as Thorne’s black-nailed hand slipped around the back of his neck. Thorne held him gently but firmly, keeping his head down on the altar. Tarrin swallowed, his prayer losing focus and sputtering out just as the first cone of incense did, burned down the base.
“You are tired, priest.” Thorne’s voice was dark and echoing in the empty temple.
Tarrin nodded, the gesture awkward with his face pressed to the rough stone.
“Yes, Thorne.” Tarrin didn’t explain himself. Gods didn’t care for mortal troubles unless they came with offerings and promises attached. Tarrin could take care of his responsibilities by himself.
Thorne stood in silence for what seemed a long time, his hand heavy on Tarrin’s neck. He seemed to be waiting for Tarrin to say more, but Tarrin had no idea what else he wanted him to say.
To his surprise, when the silence lingered for too long, Thorne stepped back and released him. “Go, then. Go to your home and rest. You have done enough for today.”
When Tarrin turned around there was not even a feather to be seen. Confused, he picked up his shirt and got to his feet. Thorne had been so demanding the night before, and now he was satisfied with only incense and inept prayer? Tarrin resolved not to try and make sense of his god’s whims. Instead, he bowed before the altar and backed away. When he passed through the wide doorway, the massive door swung shut, closing him out of the temple.
On the altar, unseen by any except Thorne himself, the final two cones of incense flickered and burned out, sending the temple back into darkness.
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