Gratitude, obedience, devotion. Of the three, obedience was easiest. Thorne wanted this service from him, and so Tarrin would give it. He would give more if it were required. He would not resist or refuse. He would not dare.
The next day, work was harder to come by. The new year celebration was thoroughly over, and as people lost their hangovers they returned to their regular employers. The alehouse that Tarrin had worked for the day before turned him away. At the ferry crossing a small group of dejected would-be laborers already waited by the dock, hoping for an opening.
Tarrin walked the streets, fretting and anxious, his mind churning on his worries. The sun was already well up and he had earned nothing. He avoided the square of the corner gods. Despite the chance to pick up work there from wealthy worshipers, he did not want to meet Venik again. The priest of Prathur had an unsettling manner about him, and Tarrin had a feeling he had not given up on trying to ‘free’ him from Thorne’s influence.
On his way to the market square Tarrin passed a woman pushing handcart laden with milk, cheese and butter. Out of nowhere, a raven cawed loudly and launched itself into the air in a flurry of black wings. The woman startled and fell, her leg twisting up under her. She cried out in pain and Tarrin hurried to help her up. Her ankle was already swelling inside her boot, and she could hardly walk. There was nothing for it but for Tarrin to push her cart back to her small dairy while she leaned on his shoulder and limped along beside him. Luckily, it was not far. When they arrived, she fell into a chair with a heartfelt groan, fretting that her milk would spoil, and her customers would find another seller.
Tarrin at once offered his services. “I can deliver everything for you, Miss.”
They struck a hurried deal, and Tarrin was glad he had his boots back as he tramped all over town with the dairy-cart, delivering goods for Yinley’s dairy. At the end of the afternoon he returned the cart filled with now-empty milk-jugs and found Yinley working in her back-room, a makeshift crutch under her arm. She grinned at him, excited, curls of dark hair escaping under her cloth cap.
“Try this, I just made it.” She offered him a taste of herbed butter, and he did not hesitate to declare it delicious. Yinley decided there and then that she would start spending more time on her recipes and less time on deliveries. “I need to expand my business. I can’t be a dairy-maid forever. Can you deliver for me tomorrow as well?”
Tarrin gladly agreed, and left for his home with a lighter heart, a pocket of coins, a jug of creamy milk, a small wheel of cheese and a pat of herbed butter.
Min flew into his arms when he turned down the narrow street where Josta had her little house. She was full of energy, completely recovered from her illness, and chafing at the slow pace of life with her grandmother. Josta took the food from Tarrin but gave him back the coins.
“Keep it for your forge. Your girl needs to get home and start helping you again. She is not a natural needle-woman.” Josta had a fond smile on her face even as she shook her head in mock-despair. Tarrin agreed. Min took after her father, not her fine-boned mother. She would grow up in the forge and learn the black-smithing trade, taking over from Tarrin when he could no longer work metal.
Min bounced on her toes and Tarrin decided he would take her out with him tomorrow for Yinley’s deliveries. It would give Josta a break and give the girl something to do.
When they were done with dinner, Tarrin reluctantly set Min off his lap and declared that he would visit the temple. Josta gave him a dark look, but she didn’t question him. Instead, she rummaged in her sewing basket and produced a long rectangle of cloth embroidered with ivy on the edges.
“For your god.”
Tarrin could feel her eyes on his back as he left.
Tarrin stumbled over his feet when he saw Thorne waiting for him at the temple, sprawled on his black stone throne. The faint light of the ceiling-stars glinted on his golden horns, and his eyes glowed like a cat’s at night. He looked nothing less than godly, and Tarrin was once again reminded that while Thorne’s power may be reduced, he still was as far from mortal as Tarrin himself was from a beetle.
Thorne did not speak. He merely waved his hand for Tarrin to begin his nightly ritual. Tarrin swallowed, clumsy and awkward under the scrutiny of his god. He knelt at the altar and laid out the cloth that Josta had given him. It was beautiful work; tiny stitches in deep green thread on pale yellow silk. Tarrin smoothed it with his hands, feeling a twinge of the loss that his mother-in-law must feel, that she could no longer do such fine embroidery or afford such good quality materials. He would feel the same if he could no longer work metal; it would be as though he had lost one of his limbs.
Tarrin set the incense cones at the front of the stone, away from the cloth so they would not scorch it. At once he saw that the altar was incomplete – the cloth should hold an offering as well. Tarrin had made it into an altar-cloth, a place to put gifts to the gods, not a gift of itself. He glanced up at Thorne, unsure if he had made a mistake, but the god had not moved.
With shaking hands, Tarrin lit the first cone. He had chosen the same scents as the day before; yarrow, juniper, and sandalwood. Gratitude, obedience, and devotion.
They waited in the quiet temple together, the seated god and his kneeling priest, as the incense smoldered. The faint crackle and pop of the embers was the only sound. Tarrin felt the weight of his god’s eyes on him, and with a start he realized that he had forgotten something. Without hesitation, he pulled his shirt over his head and bared the sigil on his chest. The next time he looked up, Thorne was watching him the way the wolf watches the deer. Tarrin shivered and told himself it was cold in the temple.
When all three incense cones were lit, Thorne finally spoke, his voice a low rumble in the still air.
Obediently, Tarrin got to his feet and rounded the altar, approaching the throne. The great seat was underneath the huge mosaic showing Thorne in all his terrible glory – wings spread, eyes blazing, power crackling from his fingertips. It was intimidating, to say the least, but Tarrin was summoned and so he answered. Gods did not care to wait, or to be disobeyed.
“Here,” Thorne ordered, crooking his finger. Tarrin climbed the steps to the throne and stood between his god’s feet in their heavy scaled boots.
Thorne hooked one finger in the waist of Tarrin’s trousers, dragging him forward the final few steps until he stood between his spread knees. Tarrin steeled himself – he knew what Thorne wanted from him. If he was ordered to kneel, he would do it. He would serve in whatever manner his god wanted.
Gratitude, obedience, devotion.
Thorne did not give him any such order. Instead, he seemed hypnotized by the sigil on Tarrin’s chest. It glowed like a beacon between them, flush with Tarrin’s skin, melded to his flesh as though it were painted on. Thorne stroked it with his rough fingertips, tracing the outline with his black nails. The reflection of it glowed in the depths of his eyes, a reversed image of the horned raven, wings outstretched. Tarrin could not look away from the sight, and when Thorne looked up at him, their eyes locked, bright gold staring into deep brown for a long, silent moment.
Thorne looked away first. He released his hold on Tarrin’s clothes and leaned back on his throne. “Tell me, priest, did you find your prayers well answered today?”
Tarrin stared blankly.
Thorne bared his teeth in what could have been a smile. “That woman with the milk-cart, she gave you the coins you wanted, yes?”
“She didn’t give them to me, I worked for them…” Tarrin started to protest before he realized what Thorne was implying. “Wait, how did you know that? Did you … what did you do?” Tarrin stared at his god, mouth open, his understanding of the world unravelling and remaking as he stood there. The raven had come out of nowhere and caused Yinley to fall, which had caused her to give Tarrin a day’s work. Tomorrow he would work for her again and have enough money to start restocking his forge.
Thorne did smile then, the corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement at Tarrin’s surprise. “Did you think I would not hear your prayers, priest? Your heart was full of them.”
Tarrin thought back to that morning – worry and stress over money and food for his family was all that had been on his mind. He would hardly have called it a prayer, but still his god had heard it, and answered it. He shook himself, trying to right his thoughts. “I did not know you were listening,” he confessed.
Thorne leaned forward, the smile gone from his face. “You are my priest,” he said, dark and low. He licked his lips. “You belong to me and no others. I will always hear your prayers.”
The force of Thorne’s possessive words triggered something inside Tarrin, something that quickened his pulse and made the breath catch in his chest. He was only now beginning to realize what it meant to be a priest of the outcast god; it was a lot more than these nightly visits to his temple. It was the offering of his whole life.
There was only one thing Tarrin could say. “Thank you, Thorne.”
A black-nailed hand clamped around Tarrin’s upper arm and pulled him forward until he stumbled and had no choice but to climb onto Thorne throne, sitting astride his lap. Thorne manhandled him easily. Tarrin was confused but he did not resist as he was positioned with his back to his god, looking out over the dark temple.
Thorne slipped one hand around Tarrin’s chest and covered the bright sigil with his palm, pressing Tarrin back against him, holding them together. His other hand gripped Tarrin’s thigh, holding him exactly where he was wanted.
“If you wish to thank me, then pray,” Thorne rumbled in his ear.
Tarrin’s mind was blank. All thoughts of prayer had flown from his head at the clear and present evidence of his god’s arousal under him. Tarrin at least was still wearing trousers, so it seemed that Thorne did not intend to simply impale him atop his own throne.
At least, not yet.
They both knew it would be but the work of a moment for Thorne to rip off Tarrin’s clothes and have him. He did not do it because he chose not to, that was all.
The god tightened his grip, his hands like iron, his breath hot on the back of Tarrin’s neck as he repeated his order.
“Pray, priest. I want to hear you.”
The faint lingering scent of incense-smoke drifted past Tarrin’s nose. It smelled of juniper, and Tarrin’s mind leapt back into life. Juniper, for obedience. Tarrin focused on that as the god behind him started to move, grinding his hips against Tarrin’s backside.
Gratitude, obedience, devotion.
Of the three, obedience was easiest. Thorne wanted this service from him, and so Tarrin would give it. He would give more if it were required. He would not resist or refuse. He would not dare.
The rhythm of the prayer began to move in Tarrin’s blood, and he tried to relax into it. It was not easy, held fast in his god’s lustful arms, with the rhythmic surge of his hard length pressed against his buttocks, but he tried.
Dark shadows curved above them – Thorne’s wings, one longer than the other, were spread and lifted. The glossy feathers trembled as Thorne pleasured himself with Tarrin’s body and drank in Tarrin’s prayers like intoxicating liquor.
“Good,” Thorne purred as he rubbed himself against Tarrin. “Good. More.”
Tarrin tried to give him more, but he was losing focus. He was overwhelmed, manipulated like a doll in his god’s hands, surrounded by his strength, by his power, wrapped in his wings and helpless to do anything but obey. His head fell back on Thorne’s shoulder, his eyes glazed and staring up at Thorne’s godly visage, framed by black wings and crowned by golden horns.
He was a beautiful and terrible god, and Tarrin was his priest.
As though reading his emotions, Thorne looked down at him, taking in his dark eyes, his full lips, his flushed cheeks. He understood, without words, what Tarrin needed. He released Tarrin’s thigh and instead pressed the palm of his hand to Tarrin’s crotch, his hand hard on the eager length he found there. Tarrin moaned out loud, his hand around Thorne’s wrist, whether to encourage him or pull him away he didn’t even know. There was a newly kindled fire in his blood that needed to be answered, growing as Thorne’s golden power flowed through him.
Gratitude, obedience, devotion.
Tarrin’s gratitude was answered with watchfulness, his obedience with protection, his devotion with desire.
Thorne squeezed his hand. It was the wrong side of too hard and Tarrin squirmed, writhing on his god’s lap, his movement exactly what Thorne wanted. Thorne did it again, moving Tarrin’s body as he pleased, one hand around his chest and the other gripping his most tender flesh, making Tarrin dance for him, making him twist and pump his hips against the god’s arousal. Tarrin’s eyes rolled back in his head. His entire body was a prayer to Thorne. He was his god’s creature, his possession, his object to pleasure himself with. But despite that, despite his awareness of his helplessness, he still had not lost his courage.
“Thorne,” Tarrin panted desperately, pleasure and pain washing through his body in waves, a combination he had never felt before. “Thorne, please, please, please.”
Thorne growled and rubbed his palm over Tarrin’s cock, hard and brutally fast. Tarrin convulsed and came with a strangled cry. A moment later Thorne’s teeth pierced his shoulder as the god climaxed too, golden sparks rising from his eyes, from his horns, and from his wide-spread wings.
Like a rainstorm in reverse, a thousand fireflies bloomed throughout the temple, drawn up to the ceiling to become new stars, bright and gold and beautiful.
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