Servant of a Dark God - By John Brown



alen sat at the wooden table in nothing but his underwear because he had no pants. Somehow, during the middle of the night, they had walked off the peg where he’d hung them. And he’d searched high and low. The last of their cheese was missing as well.

The cheese he could explain: if you were hungry and a thief, then cheese would be a handy meal to take. But it was not the regular poverty-stricken thief who roamed miles off the main roads, risked entering a house, and passed up many other fine and more expensive goods to steal a pair of boy’s dirty trousers hanging on a peg in the loft.

No, there wasn’t a thief in the world that would do that. But there was an older brother and sister.

Talen had two pair of pants to his name. And he wasn’t about to ruin his good pair by working in them. He needed his work pants. And to get those, he needed leverage. The good news was that he knew exactly which items would provide that leverage.

It only took a few moments to find and hide them. Then he went back to the house, cut three slices of dark bread, and put them on a plate in the middle of the table next to the salted lard.

River, his sister, came in first from outside carrying a massive armload of rose stems clustered with fat rose hips. Talen sighed. She already had fifteen bushels of the stuff in the back. Were they going to make rose hip syrup for the whole district? And he knew he’d be the one that would have to cut each and every hip and remove the seeds so her syrup didn’t end up tasting like chalk. It was a thorny business, even if he did wear gloves.

River walked to the back room to deposit her load and returned. Blood spattered her apron. A thick spray ran from her cheek to throat.

“What happened to you?”

“Black Jun,” she said. “The cow that was bred by that rogue bull, her water broke last night, but the calf was too big for a normal birth.” She shook her head. “Jun’s brother-in-law from Bain cut into the cow this morning and made a mess of it.”

“Did she die?” asked Talen.

“Not yet,” said River, “but such a wound, even with old Nan’s poultice, would take a Divine’s hand to keep it from corruption.” River had been apprenticed to Nan, who had midwifed as many cattle as she had humans. That’s where River learned how to take a calf that couldn’t be pulled, by cutting in from the side. That’s where she’d learned about the virtues of everything from pennyroyal to seeding by moonlight. She could have learned far more, but old Nan went out late in a rainstorm one night and tumbled down a steep slope to her death. Even so, as unfinished apprentice, if River said the wound was bad, it was bad.

“And the calf?” asked Talen.

“Saved,” she said. “For now.” She took off her bloody apron and hung it on a peg on the wall.

Under the apron, River was wearing her work pants, which would have been a much easier mark for a clothing thief since River’s room was on the first floor of the house. Of course, she’d only point out that nobody would look for pants in a girl’s room. Which was true for most women, but River wasn’t most women. She wore pants to everything but the dances and festivals, and even then she threatened to do so. Skirts were a bother in the fields, she said. A bother on a horse, and a bother when hunting. And nobody was going to tell River otherwise.

Talen gave his bloody sister his most pleasant smile.

She looked at his bare chest and legs. “Where are your clothes?”

“That’s a good question,” said Talen.

River shook her head and went to the cupboard to get her pot of honey. She searched about and then turned around, looking as if she’d lost something.

Surprise, surprise.

There was nothing like her cinnamon honey. It was not the thick amber that most of the honey-crafters sold. This honey was thin and clear and tasted like moonlight. River got it from a lovesick dyer who lived on the far side of the settlements and liked her despite her pants. He said the honey came from bees that made their hives in the cliffs there. He had also said that his love for her flowed like the nectar of the