Jaika’s forest training took hold; she stood still, and let the silence grow for a bit, showing them she meant no harm.
“I didn’t intend to disturb you. I was looking for shelter from the rain.”
The man laid the knife on the altar, took a black linen cloth, and daubed the blood away from his chin in a rather elegant motion given the context.
His silver eyes, scorching in their intensity, never left her, as he set the cloth aside.
“Well, you’ve found it.”
Two men moved to block the aisle.
If they closed behind her, she was dead.
She slashed at the closest one, the blade cutting his hand in half, his scream joining the surprised shouts of the others, and as the second man lunged, his right hand landed on her shoulder, his fingers snatching at the vest, but as she passed him she spun, and his hand slipped off.
Pulled off balance, he stumbled into the aisle where the thrown dagger slipped under his raised arm and pierced his chest from the side, and he dropped like a stone.
The demon cleric roared at her to stop.
Caught off guard by Jaika’s swift escape, there was a delayed reaction, and as others rushed forward to chase her, she shoved the front door open, pushing down the panic…
And was out in the downpour, in the gathering dusk.
She kept running, partly to get away from the temple, partly to keep her thoughts from spinning out of control.
Thoroughly soaked, shaking from the adrenaline and fright, out of breath, she began to slow down.
She looked back, but the only signs of disturbance were her own; no one, nothing, pursued her.
The rain began to ease as she continued walking, putting as much distance between her and the temple as she could before she needed to sleep. Somehow she managed to keep focused on walking, on trying to find a place to sleep. If she gave in to the other now, the fear would paralyze her, though she doubted she’d ever forget the heaviness of those silver eyes burning into her soul.
I wonder if I’ll even sleep tonight.
Traveling on fading reserves, she needed a shelter that was dry so she could make a fire, but she’d have to forego hunting. She decided to look for a cave, and made for the low lying hills.
The problem with caves was that other things lived in them; she’d have to make her peace with what was there, or kill it. She was fine with either; killing it would solve her hunting problem, and she’d cook it over her fire.
Stopping to fill her water skin from a small stream, she arrived at the hills just as the clouds were blowing away, and the gibbous moon was rising. Her clothes were still damp, and she was shivering.
A wavering light was coming toward her, and she tensed, having no real fight left, but not willing to die.
It was a man carrying a torch.
Concealing herself as best she could, she listened; he was by himself, and he was singing something incomprehensible. From the sound of it she surmised he was drunk.
The torchlight lit up the wet trail a little distance in front of him, and he was weaving.
Stepping out from behind her cover, Jaika’s knife was at his throat, and in an instant she regretted it; he reeked of vomit and cheap beer and bad perfume.
She managed to hold her gorge, however, and kept her voice low.
“Keep walking. I’m in need of food and shelter, and you’re going to provide it, or die.”
He stopped, burped, and chuckled, his soured breath a cloud of foulness in her nostrils.
“Whazzat cha say, girlie? Y’wanna bed down with ol’ Orliss?”
She pressed the knife harder, and he stiffened, rising up on his toes.
“I said nothing of the kind, and I don’t think you’re as drunk as you’re pretending.”
He swallowed, feeling the chill of the blade in a cool thin line at his throat.
“I’ve pretended t’ be a lot o’ things, missy. Drunk ain’t one of ‘em. If it’s food n’shelter y’need, I’ll provide such without all the threat o’ red violence, if y’please.”
His voice was strained, but audible, and reluctantly, Jaika lowered the knife, and gratefully stepped out of the circumference of his stink.
The threat of red violence, however, sobered Orliss up a bit, and as they walked the road, he gave Jaika the torch in case he stumbled and lost it in the wet grass. He’d taken it from the tavern, and had no way to relight it if it went out.
Jaika realized she must’ve been closer to a town than she thought, if he’d found a tavern. She’d ask him about that later.
On the way, he told Jaika he was a hermit, and lived alone in an old ramshackle cottage that belonged to a hedge witch, now deceased, courtesy of some farmers that had lost some livestock to wolves, which they said worked for her, and they took care of the wolves too, lest she come back through one of them.
He found all that out by way of the tavern where he drank, and had no idea if it was true, since he’d found the cottage empty when he arrived.
“So, is abandoned property normal around here?” Jaika asked.
“Whaddya mean, missy?”
She told him of the abandoned temple, and her adventure there.
His eyes widened, and he sobered up even more when she was finished.
“Yer lucky y’got out o’ there, missy.”
“If they’d managed to block me in, I’m not sure I would have.”
“Aye, good judgment there. Here we are, just up this path.”
She followed him off the main trail to a gravelly path that led to a small cottage in a small clearing.
It looked comfortable enough.
Jaika found herself beginning to relax.
There was a large fireplace, and he built a fire from wood he had stocked in a neat pile just outside. He lit it expertly, in spite of his bleary demeanor, and heat filled the place and beat back the chill of the night.
And Orliss, it turned out, was a wonderful caretaker.
He provided her a voluminous robe (for he was a voluminous man), and she had to double tighten the belt, and she laid her clothes out flat before the hearth to dry.
“You can hang ‘em after the place heats up, missy. I’ve a rope for that. Sorry to peek at your smallclothes,” he shrugged. “There’s a creek you can wash ‘em at in the mornin’.” They both turned red at the mention of it, and said nothing further.
His cat, it turned out, had a litter of days-old kittens, which he let Jaika tend to as he left her to get himself clean.
When she’d finished with the kittens, he’d returned from his bath and gave her a half loaf of toasted bread and a small wheel of yellow cheese, and made a pot of honeysuckle and ginger tea, sweetened with wild honey and a dash of dandelion brandy.
“Bless you, Orliss.” Jaika cupped the steaming mug in her hands, and inhaled the wonderful aroma, erasing the earlier smells of the evening. “I’m sorry I threatened to kill you.”
Orliss chuckled dryly.
“Happens more often n’ you know, missy.”
“What do you know about the temple?”
He looked at her a moment, and she stopped chewing the big piece of bread she’d just bitten off, her cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s.
“What?” she mumbled around the mouthful.
It was a funny sight, and Orliss wanted to laugh, but the seriousness of what she just asked outweighed the merriment.
“Are y’ sure y’ want to know?”
She downed the bread with a couple of swallows of tea.
“They were going to kill me, Orliss, so yes, I very much want to know, but hurry. This brandy’s beginning to work, and given the day’s events, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be awake.” In spite of those silver eyes…
Orliss gathered himself into the chair on the other side of the fire, his breathing steady now, his eyes more clear of the haze of drink.
He took a small swallow of his own tea, and his gaze grew glassy staring at the fire.
“A’ right then, missy: a fireside tale it shall be.”
It was a typical village, like a thousand others, full of farmers and tradesmen, and the countryside provided them with healthy crops and livestock, and prosperity. Their women were strong and hearty, and their children well cared for and loved.
Close knit, they say, and everyone known and counted as friend or enemy, sometimes depending on the circumstances, until one man’s reach exceeded his grasp, and greed settled like gold dust upon his soul.
What was one farm, when he could own all, one wife, when he could have women, and what were children for, if not labor?
But if discovered, his neighbors would drive him out at best, or have him drawn and quartered at worst, so he kept the smile on his face, and the lust in his heart, until the day a caravan passed.
Full of strange folk, the wagons were. Their women wore jewels and gold and silver around their slender necks, gold studs and chains that ran from their noses to their immodest navels, and between their rounded breasts, and gods-knew-where else. Their bodies were marked with whorls of colored ink, and they bewitched the people, men and women alike, with their bonfire dances.
Their men wore bands of copper and bronze and leather on strong biceps and thick wrists, their calloused and scarred hands carried knives with wavy blades and hooked serrations, strange markings on them, and bejeweled handles, and the blades sharpened keen to where a man wouldn’t know he was cut ‘ til he died.
Among all the finery, there was one dagger, plain, with an onyx handle, a single diamond at the top of the pommel. It had a long, tapered silver blade that never seemed to lose its shine, or its edge, which the leader of the caravan demonstrated, cutting wood, leather and metal alike as if they were melted butter.
Some of the men were drawn to it, but when told the price, weren’t willing to pay, until one night, by the light of a single candle, in the scarlet tent of the caravan’s leader, the price was whispered into the ear of the greedy man.
His eyes widened, his thoughts raced, and his heart raced faster.
Here was the key he’d been looking for, and though everything that was still decent in him railed against it, he sat back in his chair, amazed at the thought that he would soon be plunged into a river of blood that would carry his soul to the underworld, and he would willingly ride its damning current.
And he agreed.
By morning, there was no trace of the caravan.
The day dawned as before, and the villagers, puzzled but relieved, slowly picked up the threads of their lives, and the rhythms and comforts of life resumed for a while.
Until the next full moon.
A lone wagon creaked along the well-traveled path, its bright colors washed out in the bright moonlight.
Four of the caravan’s men came out of the wagon, each bearing one of the long bladed daggers, and met the greedy man at his home.
In an hour, the spell was cast, the villagers in a deep sleep.
By morning, in the middle of the village square, the hearts were burning, the bloody night’s work was finished, and the spell was complete.
The price was paid.
And when the greedy man put the long blade into the fire, his eyes turned silver, his soul was damned, and his flesh became immortal.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr
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