QSFer Rowan McAllister has a new MM fantasy book out: “The Priest.”
Brother Tasnerek, one of the infamous Thirty-Six stone bearers, is facing a dangerous crisis of faith after uncovering a secret that could shake the foundations of the Brotherhood of Harot. When Tas is sent to protect a tiny village on the edge of Rassa’s borders from Riftspawn, he struggles to resume his duties, risking his life and the lives of those around him.
Girik has always been an outsider, but to help his sick mother, he agrees to be the village’s offering in a painful ritual deemed necessary by the Brotherhood. But when the priest has a crisis of conscience, Girik offers his help to untangle a web of lies—even if it means getting closer than he ever imagined and committing sacrilege in the process.
With a monster lurking in the forest, a wandering mage mysteriously appearing, and more secrets awakening to unravel the truths of their world, Tas and Girik must make grave decisions. A life without danger seems a far-off hope, but love just might be theirs… if they survive.
THE DREAM was always the same. Tas wandered the empty corridors of Blagos Keep. The clack of his booted heels echoed loudly off the bare stone walls, but the sound was not enough to drown out the screams, sobbing, and whimpering coming from beyond dozens of thick wooden doors. The stench of stale sweat, rank with fear and anguish—and other things he’d rather not think about—formed a thick fog, enveloping him as he walked, choking him and blotting out the light from the few lamps mounted to the walls.
He didn’t panic anymore. He recognized the nightmare for what it was. This place was not the home he knew and loved, but some twisted, tainted shadow of it. All he had to do was suppress his fear and discomfort, center himself as he’d been taught, and sing. The stone around his neck would answer his call, as it always did. The drone of the sacred bowls would join in soon after from somewhere above him. And all of the unpleasantness would vanish. When he woke, he would be filled with warmth and a sense of purpose and rightness again.
All he had to do was sing.
Except, finding his center proved more difficult than it should have, and the screams seemed louder than before. Squeezing his eyes tight and clenching his teeth, he tried again and finally locked on to his center.
A flood of relief made him almost weak as he gripped Tasnerek—the crystal pendant that was his constant companion—with both hands. He opened his mouth to begin the most basic of Harotian hymns, and… nothing came out.
Pushing aside the ripple of unease that threatened to knock him from his center, he drew more of the fetid air into his lungs and tried again, concentrating hard. The haze around him had thickened, making his russet robes feel heavy with damp, and no matter how hard he strained, no sound issued from his throat. A twist of real fear tightened his belly as the screams and moans grew louder and the sickly light from the lamps weakened. He sucked in another breath, only to choke on the miasma. Coughing and gagging, he released his death grip on Tasnerek and clamped his hands over his ears as he struggled for air. He was drowning in a flood of fear and pain and misery, and Tasnerek had abandoned him.
Icy fingers clamped painfully around his wrists, trying to wrench his hands from his ears, and he fought against them. A harsh voice hissed at him, but he couldn’t understand it over the screams, cries, and pounding of his heart. The bruising grip on his wrists released, and he thought at least one of his torments had eased until an explosion of pain cracked across his cheek. He was still reeling from the blow when another came hard and fast after it.
“Brother Tasnerek! Wake up, you fool! The entire village will hear you!” a voice hissed angrily.
Tas struggled against the last oily cobwebs of the nightmare, gasping for breath.
“Stop this nonsense at once and get hold of yourself!”
Brother Saldus’s wrinkled and sour face filled his vision, and Tas flinched away from it. Rolling out of bed, he stumbled to the wall and leaned heavily against it while he filled his lungs with cool, clean air.
As reason and calm returned, he could feel Brother Saldus’s mud-brown eyes on him, heavy with judgment and suspicion.
“Are you quite finished?” the brother asked snidely.
Ignoring his burning cheeks, the still-panicked fluttering of his heart, and his shaking limbs, Tas lifted his head and squared his shoulders. “Yes, Brother. My apologies for waking you.”
He must have hidden the tremor in his voice well enough, because Brother Saldus only sniffed. “Good. Then I should like to get back to my bed for what little time we have left before sunrise.”
He spun on his heel and strode toward the door, his coarse gray linen sleeping shirt flapping against his pale, spindly legs. At the door, he stopped and threw a narrow-eyed scowl over his shoulder. “There will be no more outbursts like this. Do you understand? You’re supposed to be the golden child, a favorite of the Inner Circle, the brother village girls and boys swoon over and farmers sing forbidden country ballads about behind our backs. I’d suggest you remember that and act accordingly before Tasnerek is forced to find a new master.”
With that, the aged brother stepped into the shadowed hall and closed the door behind him.
Tas clutched at the crystal pendant whose name he shared and slid down the wall to land in an awkward pile on the rough plank floor. Drawing his knees to his chest, he closed his eyes and waited for his body to stop shaking. Tasnerek was a reassuring weight in his fist, and Tas squeezed it tight enough to leave the imprint of its angled edges in his flesh, adding to the marks that were already there from his dream.
Brother Saldus’s threat was largely empty. The man wasn’t a member of the Thirty-Six and merely served as a secretary, and some said spy, for Brother Vienas, High Brother of the Inner Circle. At his age, he would probably never know what it was to be bonded to a stone. Tas would have to die before Tasnerek could bond with another, and no matter what he’d discovered in those gods-damned journals, he couldn’t believe the Brotherhood capable of that—at least he didn’t want to believe it.
“Quanna protect me,” he whispered.
Quanna was the gentlest and most forgiving of all the gods. Tas could only hope she would hear his prayers and the purity of his intentions over the blasphemy of his recent thoughts.
Feeling a sudden surge of queasiness, he lurched to his feet and hurried to the small plain table across from the bed. Without bothering to search for a cup, he brought the water pitcher to his lips and gulped its contents until he had to break away for air. He set the pitcher aside, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and stumbled back to the narrow bed. Slumping onto its thin straw mattress, he pulled the thick Rassan wool blanket across his shoulders against the chill and buried his face in his hands.
“What am I going to do?”
In response to his voice, Tasnerek hummed comfortingly against his breast, and Tas wrapped his hands around it again for reassurance, but the crystal could offer no words of advice.
“I wish I’d never found those damned journals,” he whispered harshly to the bare wood walls around him.
The sleeping chambers of this village temple were as spare and unadorned as any holy place in Rassa, much like his own rooms back at the keep. He should have found comfort in that simplicity. But the walls closed in on him, making him feel trapped instead of safe.
I can’t go on like this.
His hand shook as he released Tasnerek and rubbed his eyes. That dream had been the most terrifying yet, but they’d been getting steadily worse with each passing day. He hadn’t slept a full night in all the weeks since he’d discovered the hidden journals. His nerves were beyond ragged.
The “golden boy.”
He laughed bitterly. Like any brother outside the Thirty-Six, Brother Saldus was jealous. The fact that Tas had risen through the ranks and been bonded to a stone so young had a great many of his brothers bitter and eager for him to fail. Tas had always been able to ignore the glares and muttering among the rank and file. He’d been so focused on climbing the ladder to the Inner Circle, so puffed up by his successes and acclaim, it had been easy to lift his nose above the envious.
Drawing in a shuddering breath, he forced himself to stretch out on the bed. He needed to sleep. He’d never get through the next several days, exhausted as he was.
The thought whispered through his mind, and Tasnerek hummed louder on his chest.
After taking another trembling breath, he opened his mouth, half-afraid no sound would come. But this time it did. His voice cracked on the first notes of the hymn he’d tried in his dream, but it strengthened and warmed to his smooth baritone after a few lines. Tasnerek hummed a little louder, but the response was lackluster at best.
The thought had a melodic quality this time, and the notes struck a chord in his memory that made his chest ache.
Nearly delirious with exhaustion and willing to try anything, he cleared his throat, centered himself, and tried again. But this time, instead of a hymn, the strains of the wordless tune he’d sung at his choosing ceremony shivered in the air. The melody was from a lullaby his mother used to sing. The words were lost to him now, much like her face, but he still remembered the tune. Such secular music was ostensibly forbidden, but only the most severe in the Brotherhood ever attempted to enforce that, and the country songs still persisted, even hundreds of years after the prophet Harot’s ascension.
Tas sang quietly, in case Brother Saldus should overhear, but the more he sang, the more the tightness in his chest eased. Tasnerek hummed louder against his chest and began to emit a soft light like it did during rituals. A tide of warmth and calm washed away the remnants of Tas’s dream and weighted his limbs.
Among the thirty-six shards of Anchor Stone Harot had brought back with him from the Riftlands five hundred years ago, Tasnerek was the smallest and had always been considered a bit of an oddity. Tas had never heard of any of the other stones reacting to a folk song like this. Although, he supposed none of the other brothers would admit it if they did, since it went counter to the teachings of the Brotherhood. The Brother Tasnerek who’d come before him had been the butt of many jokes behind his back for his strangeness, and Tas had been forced to work that much harder to counter that stigma and make a name for himself.
Now all that was probably lost.
Shifting uneasily on the scratchy mattress, he concentrated harder on his song. He couldn’t fix anything tonight, and he’d be in no shape to deal with tomorrow if he didn’t sleep. Clearing his mind of all those wandering thoughts and pushing away the flood of conflicting emotions they conjured, he created a space where only the song and Tasnerek existed. He didn’t know how long they hummed in harmony together before the soothing vibration and warmth on his chest drew him into unconsciousness.
Rowan McAllister is an unapologetically romantic jack of all trades and a sucker for good food, good cocktails, rich fibers, a great beat, and anything else that indulges the senses. In addition to a continuing love affair with words, she likes to play with textiles, metal, wood, stone, and whatever other interesting scraps of life she can get her hands on. She lives in the woods, on the very edge of suburbia—where civilization drops off and nature takes over—sharing her home with her patient, loving, and grounded husband, three furry rescues, and a whole lot of books, booze, and fabric. Her chosen family is a madcap collection of people as diverse as her interests, all of whom act as her muses in so many ways, and she would be lost without them. Whether her stories have a historical, fantasy, or contemporary setting, they always feature characters who still believe in true love, happy endings, and the oft-underappreciated value of sarcasm.
This article was originally posted on Queer SF