A Priest, a Plague, and a Prophecy chapter 1
Good morning lovely readers! Please enjoy the first chapter of my upcoming mm sweet romance between a man who likes food and an orc who just wants to be his bestest friend!
Due out May 9, 2023
“Orcs are the answer but what is the question?”
Elias is a priest at the Temple of the Divine Sibyl. When he becomes lost in the woods after his brother’s hunting party abandons him, it’s just his luck that he’d stumble upon an angry orc caught in a trap. Unable to stomach the suffering of others, Elias throws self-preservation to the wind and frees the orc. Then Gurrkk—that’s a name?—ends up leading him to safety.
Gurrkk finds himself rather smitten by the sweet, awkward human. He’s always been fascinated with his people’s sworn enemy, and now he has a life debt to fulfill to maintain his honor.
Hiding an orc among the temple’s crypts wouldn’t have been Elias’s first choice but Gurrkk is stubborn about leaving. As they learn each other’s languages and spend more time together, Elias realizes they’ve become friends… and maybe more. And when the dying sibyl gives her last prophecy, Elias knows it wasn’t chance that brought them together, it was the gods. But why?
*This is a sweet, ace romance, so no sexy times, but plenty of snuggles and cuddles!
He was lost.
Elias huffed in irritation and kicked a clog of dirt. He didn’t just blame himself, oh no. This was also the fault of his stupid brother who’d insisted he join the hunt. The only reason he’d agreed was to collect samples from the plants that grew in the forest. They were his passion and this seemed like a good opportunity to explore safely. One minute he’d been following closely behind his brother and the hunting party. Then they’d agreed on a break, and he’d halted his horse when the others did before poking around the thick foliage, looking for a private place to relieve himself. It took a bit to find a place with no eyes on him, human or animal, and once finished, he’d become distracted by some unfamiliar flowers. He must have been so immersed that he didn’t notice everyone packing up and leaving. When he finally made his way back to the trail, he’d realized he was alone.
Even his horse had deserted him.
If he survived this he was going to yell at his brother, and if Filip thought he was getting apples any time soon, he had another thing coming.
Unfortunately, he didn’t only have a long trek ahead of him to get back to the temple—if he could even determine the correct direction—no, he had to worry about the dreaded orcs. He was smack in the middle of contested lands, so the fact he was stumbling around alone in dense greenery didn’t bode well for his future.
Elias scowled and tried to remember elements of tracking his brother had tried to teach him. He scanned the ground and did his best to follow the hoof prints. But then he became distracted by mushrooms growing on the barks of the trees and found himself turned around. No more hoof prints. No sounds other than the songs of birds. All right then, maybe if he tried to determine the direction of the sun…. He shielded his eyes and stared at the sky. The sun was partially behind clouds and didn’t appear to be moving. So how the hell was he supposed to figure out its path to determine what direction he should move in? For that matter, how would knowing that help him when he didn’t even know what direction the temple was from his location?
He was just a priest. An insignificant priest despite, or perhaps because, he was the younger brother of both the future sibyl and the captain of the guards. He might be the son of the current Divine Sibyl but that didn’t mean he knew squat about survival outside his cushy temple. He read books. He translated tomes in the temple library. He liked food. He sighed heavily. He was useless.
His sister often said he needed a keeper. Right now, he couldn’t argue with that. When would Attius figure out that he was down one brother? There were only twenty soldiers in their party, after all, so surely Attius would look behind, at the back of the line, and notice Filip’s empty saddle, right?
So… should he wait? Stand still and hope the party returned? Knowing Attius, the brash idiot wouldn’t notice Elias’s absence until he’d defeated the boar and attempted to show off his victory. Who knew how long that would take?
Was it getting dark? Elias shivered and hunched his shoulders. What time was it? He was hungry. He munched on an apple as he wandered down the trail. Maybe if he stuck to the dirt path, he’d find his way home. There weren’t too many forks in the road… were there? He couldn’t remember.
Elias sent a silent prayer to the gods to protect him from his own ineptitude. More stumbling and spiderwebs in his face plus a bowel-loosening sighting of a mountain lion had him hating everything and everyone and wishing he was ensconced in the temple with all his books, quills, and parchment.
A cruel root tripped him, and he fell flat on his face. With the wind knocked out of him, Elias cursed the gods for their trickery. They must be laughing their divine arses off right now. He pushed to his feet and resituated his bag over his girth before straightening and brushing off his courtly tunic and trousers. If he survived this unwanted adventure, he knew he should take up his brother’s constant offers to help train him. Maybe he would shed a bit of his size. But no matter how hard he trained, he knew his love of food wouldn’t disappear, and his favorite pastime was reading a good book for hours on end with wine and white cake.
Mmmm, white cake.
Elias stopped at a fork in the road. One option stretched to his right, the other to his left. He wanted to cry. He could only see so far into the distance before everything was swallowed up by trees or obscured by mountains and the rise and fall of the land.
He closed his eyes and clasped his hands under his chin, sending a fervent prayer to the gods, asking for a sign. Any sign that would lead him home. Seconds passed. Minutes. He cracked open one eye to look around. Seeing nothing, he glared and set his fists on his hips.
So much for divine intervention.
“I’m one of your priests, and you don’t give me the time of day,” he mumbled as he set off down the left-hand path.
He was hungry again.
Even as he was contemplating the pros and cons of eating one of his last apples, he stumbled around a thick tree before halting in shock.
An orc sat on the ground, his greenish-gold skin glistening with sweat and his coal-black eyes glaring with menace. He was almost bald, except for a spiky strip of green hair running from his forehead to the back of his skull. The lack of hair accentuated his large ears that moved independently of each other. Two pronounced fangs jutted up from his lower jaw, which was square and blunt, and more sharp teeth showed when he growled.
Elias stayed frozen, taking in the long black tunic cinched at the waist by a gold cord. The short sleeves were trimmed with gold thread, baring muscled arms. The stately garb struck Elias, making him wonder as to the status of the orc. Did they have hierarchy as humans did? The tunic ended around his knees, leaving the rest of his muscled legs bare. Also, this orc wasn’t of monstrous size, so he couldn’t be of the mountain variety. He was certainly taller and broader than Elias, but also leaner, corded with muscle, like that big cat Elias had spotted earlier. And his face was… not horrible. Brutish and sharp but not hideous or even ugly. Those illustrators of tomes really set out to depict orcs as the most horrific creatures ever to grace the earth.
The urge to run made his palms grow damp and his breath to quicken. Not that he could run for more than a few steps before wheezing because he was so damn out of shape, and why the hell didn’t he train with his brother? I’m going to die, I’m going to die….
Then his gaze traveled down to the reason the orc was sitting on the ground and not eating his face. Vicious steel jaws had the orc by the ankle, piercing deeply into his flesh. The jaws were attached to a chain that was buried into to the earth. The fact the orc hadn’t freed himself meant this was one of the trick jaws. One specifically made for capturing orcs. The scoured earth around the chain proved that the orc had tried to dig himself free but clearly hadn’t succeeded. His ankle was a mess of torn flesh and caked blood, and only then did Elias notice the buzz of flies.
How long had he been sitting there, in pain? In fear?
Sympathy rose with anger not far behind. Elias and the orc stared at each other, and Elias found himself stepping closer without consciously deciding his actions. The orc growled deeper, eyes narrowed in warning. Elias stopped again, wondering what he was doing. This was an orc! The enemy! The beasts that kept trying to take their lands. Attius’s tirades whirled through his mind even as the battle songs about marauding orcs jangled in his memory.
He’d never joined in. He’d never had anything personal against orcs. He never thought one way or another about them. Fighting them wasn’t a part of his world. Most of his life had been spent ensconced in the Temple of the Divine Sibyl, which was safely behind fortified stone walls and separated from the general populace of the city.
He was sheltered and he knew it. To see such ugly pain in another living creature struck him to the core. That was one of the reasons he didn’t eat meat. He couldn’t reconcile killing just to feed himself when there were plenty of other things to consume if he simply looked.
At that moment, this orc was no different than any other wild animal caught in a trap. And would he let such a creature die so horribly? No, he would not.
Taking a deep breath, and with more courage than he would profess to have, Elias crouched before slowly pushing off his pack. He kept his eyes on the orc and opened the top flap before tilting it to show the orc that it only held medicines, plant samples, parchment, and ink.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said gently. “Can you understand me?”
The orc made no indication either way. He continued to growl and glare.
“I want to help you.” Elias took the one weapon he had, a long dagger, and showed the orc the blade before tossing it away. The orc stopped growling and blinked in apparent surprise. Elias shuffled closer on his knees, keeping his demeanor as non-threatening as possible. He almost snorted—as if a soft priest like him could be threatening. He kept speaking in low tones as he would to a frightened animal. He kept his pack held out in front of him, hoping the harmless items would convince the orc he wasn’t a hunter.
The orc’s large nostrils flared, and he squinted into the bag. He must have smelled the remaining apples, the plant samples, and the few healing ointments Elias carried with him everywhere. Elias set the bag within easy reach of the orc just in case he wanted to investigate. Then he took a good look at the steel jaws and winced.
The orc didn’t wear shoes, his sturdy, rough feet tough enough not to need them. His nails were more like claws, almost identical to those on his fingers. The trap would have been covered, and he’d stepped directly onto the triggering mechanism. The blades had barely missed his foot to cut into his ankle, probably scraping against the bones and tendons.
Elias took a moment to fight nausea.
“Damn. Once I free your leg it’s going to bleed profusely. I have to wrap it fast and tight.” He glanced up and met the orc’s eyes. Grim determination stared back at him and Elias blinked. “You do understand me.”
The orc merely grunted and grabbed the bag to riffle through it. With apparent satisfaction, he handed Elias the cloth wrap and dug his claws into the ground, jaw clenched, body braced. Elias took a moment to spread a thick blue herb mash on the cloth so everything would be ready when the orc’s leg was free.
Elias huffed and fiddled with the trap, remembering what Attius had told him. Once he found the small, hidden latch, he gripped the jaws and nodded to the orc. The orc grunted again and nodded back. Elias took both sides of the jaw and shoved them down, freeing the orc’s ankle. With a sound akin to a yelp, the orc yanked his foot away, and Elias let go, letting the teeth clash together. He tossed the jaws with disgust before wrapping the orc’s ankle, since he’d been right, and the blood did, indeed, gush. Elias managed to wrap the ankle tightly without much fumbling and tied the ends together, making sure it was secure. The herb mash should stop the bleeding and prevent infection as well as numb the area for as long as he kept it on. It was one of Elias’s own inventions.
While he wouldn’t call himself a healer, he enjoyed experimenting with all sorts of plants, and more often than not, he found success that the official temple healers eagerly accepted. The trick was remembering what he’d put into his concoctions in the first place. Hence the parchment and ink he carried with him all the time.
With a sigh of relief, Elias sat back on his heels. Then it struck him that the orc was free, and he had no clue if the orc would attack or spare his life in repayment. He caught his breath and wished he hadn’t tossed away his dagger, for what good it would do.
He could always try running. The orc might spare him if he proved he wasn’t worth the effort. He looked stupid when he ran.
As Elias was gibbering mentally, the orc was scrutinizing the wrap on his ankle and snarling at the steel jaws. He gingerly wiggled his wounded foot before staring at Elias.
“Well, that was… I mean. You’re welcome. I think I’ll just… you know. Um.” Elias slowly reached out and grabbed his bag, sliding it closer. He pushed to his feet, keeping an eye on the orc and tried to back away casually. He was sweating now, trembling with the grim reality of his situation. He didn’t quite regret helping the orc but wouldn’t his face be red if the creature attacked him, and his brother stumbled upon his corpse days later?
He tried to keep an eye on the orc while also retrieving his dagger. Unfortunately, his feet hated him, and he tripped and tumbled backward. He lost his grip on his bag and struggled to sit up, imagining the orc bearing down on him, fangs flashing, jaws gnashing. Instead, the orc continued to sit on the ground, staring at him with puzzlement. The orc probably thought he was the village idiot. He wouldn’t be wrong.
By the gods, at least he wasn’t laughing.
That was when their gazes met again, and there was only exhaustion in those black eyes, not a trace of the earlier hostility. The fact he wasn’t bounding away further drove home his fatigue.
“How long were you trapped in that thing?” Elias asked, wondering how much he understood. “You must be hungry. Hell, you must be starving.”
Elias pushed to his knees and rummaged through his bag. He took out one of his last precious apples and held it up. The orc made a face. Elias frowned.
“Hey, this is a perfectly good apple. But fine. Let’s see what else… jerky?” Elias pulled out several large strips. “How the hell did jerky get into… Attius. That jerk.”
Well, it would prove fortuitous. The orc perked up, ears and all, and he sniffed the air like an eager puppy. Elias swallowed a laugh at the image. He tossed the strips underhand and barely half made it to where the orc was sitting. Gods, he was pathetic.
The orc ate with gusto, not at all perturbed that most of them ended up on the ground. He tore, chomped, swallowed, inhaling all of it, not ashamed to scoot over the grass to snatch the rest. All the while, he made sounds of appreciation. Elias proceeded to eat his perfectly good apple.
He took a large swig of water from his waterskin before tossing that as well. If it wasn’t for the orc’s reflexes, he would have smashed the poor guy’s face. Once again, the orc didn’t appear phased by his ungainly throws and chugged the rest of the water.
Elias sighed. No good deed goes unpunished. Hopefully there was a river nearby. Or better yet, home.
Then the orc shoved to his feet, hopping slightly to keep the weight off his injury. Elias’s heart jumped, and his stomach tightened as he also stood, braced for anything, yet knowing he was a dead man if the orc chose violence. The orc stared at him intently before limping closer. Elias’s palms were sweaty again.
First, the orc handed back his waterskin, then he smacked his fist against his chest a few times before saying, “Gurrkk.”
Elias blinked. “‘Gurrkk’?”
The orc nodded before pointing to Elias with a lifted eyebrow.
Oh. Right. Names.
Gurrkk was a name? It sounded like the sound someone would make when choking on a too-big piece of white cake. Not that he’d know. Ahem.
Elias mimicked Gurrkk’s chest-pounding and said, “Elias.”
Gurrkk squinted. “El-i-as.”
Elias smiled at the heavily accented voice, appreciating the effort. “Eli. You can call me Eli.”
“E-li.” Gurrkk nodded.
Then Gurrkk lowered to all fours and tucked his wounded leg close to the other. The tunic stretched over his back and his… err… posterior. He looked over his shoulder and met Elias’s eyes before jerking his chin in the direction he was facing. Then he trotted off, as comfortable on all fours as if he was a dog or bear. Elias contemplated his miniscule options. Gurrkk hadn’t shown any aggression since they first met and had even introduced himself. By the gods, he might just get out of this damn forest in one piece.
Elias frowned before squinting at the sky. “Was this my sign? Seriously?”
Well, he hadn’t been specific.
Gods and their strange humor.
He shrugged on his bag and sheathed his dagger as he hurried after Gurrkk. Elias suspected that Gurrkk could go faster if he wanted to but he kept a steady pace for Elias’s sake. Elias wasn’t sure if he should be ashamed or grateful. Sweat made his curly brown hair stick to his face, and he was panting by the time the gushing and burbling of a river met his ears. The trees thinned, and Gurrkk led him to the Sun River. If he followed it south, he would eventually arrive home. He sighed in relief. Gurrkk hobbled right up to the river and shoved his face into the water. Elias snickered and knelt to fill his waterskin.
The orc would be all right. They were hardy folk.
“Keep your wound clean,” Elias said despite the language barrier. “Don’t take off the bandage for the next two days, at least, and keep it dry.”
Gurrkk lifted his head and stared at Elias, dripping water. His ears flicked back and forth. Then his gaze shifted to something beyond Elias and he growled. Elias spun around at the same time the blare of a horn echoed over the area, followed by the shrill barking of dogs. He knew that horn. He knew those dogs. His heart leapt.
“Attius.” Gods be praised, he was saved! Then his stomach dropped, and he spun back around to look at Gurrkk. “You need to leave. Now. That’s my brother’s hunting party, and he won’t stop to ask questions. Go!”
He pointed to the forest before standing. Gurrkk pushed to his feet, keeping weight off his wounded leg. He gripped the cord of a necklace Elias hadn’t noticed before and pulled it over his head. Without a word, Gurrkk slipped the cord over Elias’s neck. At the end was a good-sized tooth of, what must have been, a large mountain lion.
“What…?” Elias tried to take it off but Gurrkk stilled his hand. His palm was rough and cool. Elias froze and their eyes met once again.
Then Gurrkk spoke, slowly and firmly. “Debt.”
Elias’s eyes widened, not only at the concept but at the fact that he knew the word.
“No, you don’t owe me anything.”
Gurrkk placed his other hand over Elias’s mouth. His eyes widened at the clear message. Stop arguing and take it.
It was the fastest way to get the damn orc to leave so he nodded.
Gurrkk lowered his hands.
“Thank you,” Elias said.
Gurrkk crouched and ran off into the forest on all fours. Elias watched him go, hiding the tooth under his tunic. He turned when he heard the thundering of hooves coming closer. The dogs barked and danced around, and Elias prayed harder than ever before that they wouldn’t react to Gurrkk’s scent.
“Elias!” Attius reined in his horse as he reached him. He leapt off and crushed Elias in his arms before lifting him off his feet in his relief. Elias didn’t miss the looks the soldiers shared behind his brother’s back. They thought he was useless as well. And if they found out that he’d helped an orc… the gods wouldn’t be able to protect him.
“Attius. Can’t. Breathe.”
Attius laughed and dropped him to the ground before gripping his shoulders. “You knothead! Where have you been?”
Elias snorted. “Getting lost.”
Attius’s brown eyes glimmered in amusement and concern. “Are you well?”
“I’m perfectly fine. Maybe don’t leave me behind next time. Where’s my horse?”
Elias knew he’d get an earful from Attius once they were in private. Well, he had a bit of his own to spare. He mounted Filip and glanced over his shoulder, back toward the forest, when the hunting band charged off. He didn’t see anything. He hoped Gurrkk had followed his instructions. The tooth was cool against his skin, and he pressed his hand to it. He got the sense the tooth was personal, and he wished he knew orc culture to understand the significance.
Debt, huh? How the hell would Gurrkk make good on his obligation if they never met again?
Gurrkk was intrigued. He had little exposure to humans, restricted to the battlefield or seasonal merchants. Since his clan had lived on these lands, butted up against the humans’ great city, for generations, they had frequent disputes and angry messages and bloody skirmishes. But neither side showed any great desire to either drive the other out of the territory completely or decimate the populace.
And yet the animosity and aggression were real, visceral things. Gurrkk had thought himself fodder for the sword when that human… Eli… stumbled upon him. But what had actually occurred was astonishing.
What was Eli’s occupation? He was no warrior, he was too soft and round. It was clear he liked food, and that was something Gurrkk could understand and heartily agree upon. Food was always a delight. Eli also wasn’t a merchant. His garb was all wrong and merchants always journeyed with large carts pulled by stubborn mules. What other occupations did humans have?
Gurrkk squinted as Eli left with the large hunting party. There was familiarity with the leader of the hunt and a modest resemblance. They must be family of some sort. The leader was obviously a warrior, as were the rest of the band. So what of Eli?
He had understood a word or two of Eli’s speech. Most of the merchants that came to his clan knew the orcs’ native tongue, Nazq, and only with great tenacity could he get them to teach him a dozen or so words in the language of the humans, Terva.
Eli had parchment and quills in his bag. Did he work with books? Was he a… what was it… scholar? Further intrigued by the idea, Gurrkk moved as swiftly as his wounded leg could carry him. And thanks to the medicine Eli had provided, his pain was minimal, more of an aching soreness. Eli was smart. Gurrkk liked intelligence. Before he was aware of his intent, Gurrkk was tracking the hunting party, following their hoofprints, while staying out of sight. Eli had saved his life. Him, an orc. Despite not being a warrior, Eli had earned the mountain lion’s tooth that Gurrkk had won during his rite of passage. He didn’t regret giving it to him. He had every intention on paying back the debt. He wouldn’t be worthy of becoming the next chief if he let such an obligation go unfulfilled.
Despite knowing his sire would be incensed at the danger, Gurrkk panted and strained as he continued to follow the humans. His sire was the current chief of the Moon Axe clan and nearing the end of his reign. Perhaps in a year, maybe two, Gurrkk would be named chief by the council. He needed to be careful, and yet his natural curiosity—an affliction since he was a lad—propelled him forward. And his duty pushed him to ignore all discomfort. Besides, after spending hours in that despicable contraption, a few aches were nothing. Though he was hungry. That salted meat had barely touched his cravings.
Gurrkk trailed the horsemen, right up to the formidable gate that led the way into the walled city. He stayed out of sight as the guards along the battlements shouted and signaled. The gates slowly swung open, the horsemen rode inside, then the gates closed.
Gurrkk narrowed his eyes and sat back, contemplating.
Now… how to get inside?
To be released May 9, 2023