This is Chapter 3 of The Priestess, the Protector wherein we meet Jerok. He is the second viewpoint character in the story.
Wind gusted through the alley, blowing my hair into my eyes. I raked my fingers through the black tangle to push it back, then pulled the hood of my cloak forward. Flecks of moonlight danced across the stone walls and dirt path of the alley, filtering through the leaves of the oak tree looming over me. I frowned. Hopefully a cloud would roll in and blot out the moon.
I poked my head around the barrel separating me from the back door of the Rusted Blade. Laughter combined with occasional shouts and skidding tables. As the wind swirled and shifted, it carried the scent of sour ale, roasted pig, and vomit drifting back from the kitchen door. A bent latch kept it from closing completely and nobody had repaired it yet. Not surprising, since I had just bent it this afternoon.
The door burst open and one of the barmaids, the heavyset one, threw out a pail of dish water. I jerked back behind the barrel as water splashed to the ground on both sides. I tried to remember her name as she turned back inside, but it escaped me. No matter. She would emerge in a moment from the other kitchen door to fill her buckets at the well. The kitchen would be empty for the few minutes she was out.
As if on cue, the shadows deepened. A cloud slid into place across the moon. I kept low and glided across the path; my tattered black cloak blended in with the shadows already drifting across the alley. I pressed my eye against the crack between the door and frame. The nameless barmaid stood at the counter wiping it with a grungy rag. Her eyes stared off into the distance. I glanced around to make sure nobody was coming. When I looked back, she was still wiping.
“Damn,” I grumbled under my breath. “No counter needs to be that clean. Go get the water, wench.”
If she didn’t go soon, one of the others would come back to the kitchen. Or worse, drunk patrons would start spilling onto the street. A loud cheer erupted from the main hall. Bellagre’s – that was her name – attention snapped back. She dropped the rag, scooped up three large buckets, and squeezed herself through the door on the far side of the kitchen.
As the far door swung shut, I pulled the handle beside me. The instant Bellagre’s door closed, I was inside. The kitchen was unoccupied. Dirty dishes balanced in the sink. Animal blood pooled on the floor, mixed with spilled ale and specks of something to make a sickish brown soup.
I stole across the floor, working my way along the spotlessly clean counter top toward the fire pit. My target hung from a skewer over the dying embers. I grabbed the rear leg and haunch of the roasted pig, grinning at my good fortune. As I moved back toward the door, my night got even better. A bulging wineskin hung from a hook on the wall. I took it as well, imagining the meal I would enjoy that night.
The swinging, double doors to the main hall burst open. I dropped to the floor behind the counter. Adirok, the old blacksmith that owned the tavern, shouted over the crowd, “…or I’ll let Beranar’s wife knock you upside the head for me. Haw, haw, haw!”
Blast! This oaf threatened to ruin my feast. As he came around the end of the counter, I mirrored his moves. I kept the counter between us, working my way toward freedom as he wandered through the kitchen. His legs stopped. I froze in place. A few more steps, and I could get to the door unseen. Something wet soaked my knee. The stench from the muck I was kneeling in made me gag.
I crouched, waiting. One hand balanced my weight while the other clutched the wineskin. My elbow hooked over the foot of the pig, keeping the meat centered on my back.
“Bellagre?” Adirok whispered. “Where are you, my love?” He walked over to the door and stuck his head out. “There you are. Will you be coming over tonight?”
He was far enough from the counter. My heart pounded. I crawled for the door. Safety was six feet away. Then four. The slimy muck on my pants slipped against the stone floor. My leg shot out from under me. The pig and wineskin hit the floor along with my face.
“What was that?” Adirok barreled around the counter. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
So much for stealth. I snatched up the meat and wine and bolted out the door. The alley blurred past as I rounded the edge of the smithy. People stumbled out the front of the tavern. I turned back, running for the stables. A tall pine tree grew behind the back wall of the building. I dropped my meal at its foot. Jumping, I caught a branch in my fingertips. My feet scrabbled at the bark as I pulled myself from branch to branch. Fifteen feet from the ground I leaned against the trunk and sat on a large branch.
I slid my dagger out of its sheath and scraped the congealed muck out from under my fingernails, while keeping an eye on the crowd outside the tavern. Adirock’s voice rumbled as he shouted at the bystanders. Soon they split into groups and staggered off in different directions.
Four men wove their way down the road toward me. They stopped in front of the stables. One of the men hunched forward, staring at the ground. I couldn’t believe any of them would be sober enough to see the ground, let alone track my foot prints. I wiped the tip of the dagger against my leg and shifted my grip on the handle from grooming to weapon. I waited as the man studied the dirt. If he did find my trail, there was nowhere for me to go. I shouldn’t have climbed the tree. I should have just kept running past the —
His head jerked forward, and he retched onto the road. I clamped my lips together, biting back the laugh that threatened to give me away. Tracking me, indeed. They stumbled away, grumbling about their conscription. Soon, they made their way back toward the tavern. The one who threw up stepped in his mess without noticing.
Once the crowd cleared, I lowered myself to the ground. I gathered my dinner once more and made my way across town, slipping from shadow to shadow. Past the edge of town I crossed through the grazing field and settled in front of the small cave I had been living in for the week. The roast pork was still warm and as tender as I ever had, melting in my mouth. Adirock had a real talent for cooking. The sweet wine finished the meal perfectly. That would have been an expensive dinner, had I eaten it at the tavern. I grinned to myself, picking a bit of meat from between my teeth.
Now that they’d seen me, I would have to move on. Maybe I’d follow the river north, see what was upstream. Or south, into the capitol. There was always a good living to be had in the city, even if the competition was fierce. I gathered the meat and tied off the wineskin. In the morning, I could slip back to the village long enough to liberate a few coins from some pockets and be on my way. Down in the cave, I stretched out on the blanket serving as my bed, rolled onto my side, and waited for sleep to overtake me.
* * *
Blackness surrounded me. The thin blanket laid across the dirt floor of the cave had been replaced by a cold stone slab. I counted to three and clamped my eyes closed. Light flared through my closed lids. I cracked my eyes open, letting them adjust to the light.
The dreams started when I was twelve. A large, round room with twenty-three torches in black iron brackets spaced along the wall. No doors, no windows. The first time it happened, I spent the entire night curled into a ball crying. After the dream repeated every night for a week, I began exploring the room.
I stood and ran my finger along the edge of one of the brackets. Without looking, I knew the floor had a star burst pattern carved into it with each point terminating below a torch. The grooves in the floor forming the design were inlaid with a seamless lining of gold. The center of the star had a raised square step about six inches high. Each corner of the pedestal had a green gem set into it. If only there was a way to get all this gold and gems out of here. I’d be rich.
I turned toward the center of the room and froze. Normally the light reflected in the room to create a brightly lit spot in the center over the pedestal. Tonight, the platform was shrouded in a swirling mist of darkness, a veil so thick I couldn’t see through to the other side. Interesting. I walked to the platform and stared into the darkness. It looked like smoke, but it wasn’t rising or falling, just swirling around in one place. At least it was something different. Normally once the torches lit, nothing happened for the rest of the dream.
I reached a hand toward it, hesitating for just a second before reaching in. My hand jerked back reflexively. It was cold. Ice cold. My hand was pale white, the nails already slightly blue.
“I see you,” a deep voice rumbled from the darkness, “and I know who you are.”
My heart skipped a beat. I took a step back and pulled my dagger from its sheath. I glanced back over my shoulder. Nobody there.
“I’ve watched you for years,” the voice continued. “Sadly, your life is about to go in a direction I do not like.”
The dark mist on the pedestal fell to the floor like a velvet cloth falling away, revealing a man on what appeared to be a throne. His hair was black. Not like normal hair, but black like the sky between the stars. Not individual hairs, but darkness consuming the top of the man’s head. I shuddered. Just a dream. Nothing real.
But this was some other creature, not a man. His ears angled back and split into twin points at the tip. His large eyes and flattened nose made it appear his skin didn’t fit his head. It stretched tight across his skull, as if it might split at any moment.
“Still a dream!” My voice wavered.
“That’s right,” the stranger said. He smiled and I felt an icy wave wash through me. Even my bones ached from it. That face couldn’t look colder if he was dead. “You keep reminding yourself of that.” He stood and towered over me. The red sash tied around the top of his black pants was nearly at eye level. His open shirt revealed smooth, pale white skin. His hands hung near his knees.
“Remember this night, Jerok, and who you really are. Don’t try to be something you are not. Choose your paths accordingly.”
What was he talking about? That didn’t even make sense. “Was the wine spoiled? Did I drink too much? I really have no idea what you’re–”
He raised his hands to his side, palms up. He had no weapon, but I felt an urgent sense of danger and raised my dagger and pointed it at him. The air split open above his hands. Silver fire poured out and seared toward me. I stumbled back, but it caught me.
The fire was inside me, boiling my blood. Muscles spasmed. I bit my tongue. Blood pooled, then poured from my mouth. I stared, screaming, as the flesh melted from my hands. My vision blurred. I could smell my own flesh charring from my body. Pain overwhelmed thought. I was slipping away.
I opened my eyes. My little cave dripped overhead. No fire, no pain. A faint smell of burnt meat lingered in the air. A shudder tensed my muscles. That was not a version of the dream I ever wanted to go through again. I looked down at my hand. It was still there. A heavy sigh; just a dream. I climbed out of the cave into the sunlight. My nerves were still jittery. That’s when I heard a voice yelling from around the bend in the river.