He was sitting in The Oasis, the bar at the centre of the trading town, contemplating a mug of the thick, grainy beer they served there. He scratched at the stubble of his recently shaved head with his thick fingers. It was remarkable how a few small changes made all the difference: shaving his head, leaving his hood back, standing to his full height and walking with his arms loose by his sides instead of clasping his hands... people saw him merely as a big stranger and not as a missionary of the High.
His lower arms and palms were bound with rags of cloth, hiding the tattoo on his right wrist - the two overlapping circles of the true religion, Heaven and Earth converging.
The man who walked into the bar was hiding nothing, though. He was a priest and proud of it, nothing wrong with that but these city preachers were so supercilious, so arrogant. Jacob had quickly realised the people in this town were suspicious and mistrustful of the High, some to the point of hatred. The burble of conversation around the bar petered to a pregnant quiet. Jacob couldn’t believe a local preacher would come here alone.
“Wayward children, I have some work that might help you towards a reward in Heaven.”
He couldn’t believe a local preacher would be so damned foolish.
As Jacob stood he loosened the bandaging on his arm but made sure to keep his tattoo out of sight, a subtle flash when he was closer should be enough to make the fool listen to some sense. To his left he heard a glass tankard smash, a handy makeshift weapon. He really had to get this idiot out of here before someone decided to make his trip to Heaven all the sooner.
“Well? Do I have any volunteers or do you all wish to remain forever Earthbound?”
A bottle flipped through the air from somewhere in the shadows at the rear of the bar. It smacked into the preacher’s forehead and ricocheted into the wooden doorframe. The bottle shattered and the man staggered back a step, clutching his head. A rattling wave of cruel laughter swept the room, almost covering the sound of footsteps thumping across the ceiling and down the back stairs. The girl on the watchtower above them must have seen the preacher coming, must have guessed what might happen; if it was something more serious she would surely have rung the warning bell.
“Another donation for you, Brother.”
This time it was a tin mug that span out of a rough, working man’s hand and the preacher flinched as it whipped past his face. Another round of raucous laughter filled the room, but distracted this time, Jacob was moving through the tables, drawing some of the attention.
The girl from the watch tower reached the bottom of the stairs then, quickly scanning the room, assessing the situation. Jacob’s eyes met hers and he could tell she was trying to work out whether he meant to help or harm. Years of farming difficult fields had built him big as a bullhorn, he abhorred violence but he looked dangerous.
More missiles were being readied and he felt the restlessness in the room, held in fragile check only by his passage and the girl’s arrival. He reached for the priest’s shoulder and flashed his tattoo with a quick twist of the wrist, hoping the man would notice it, praying no one else would.
“It’s time for you to leave, I think.” Jacob said in a firm, low voice. “Suicide will not open Heaven’s gates.”
Jacob recognised the stubbornness in the set of the man’s face and his heart sank.
He was about to take a step towards the doorway, pushing the priest with him, when something came in the other way. A lithe, rough-looking girl, her dark skin crawling with scratchy black tattoos, burst through the door and careened into the back of the preacher.
The surprised priest thudded into Jacob’s chest and the girl span away into a crouch. She yelled something at them in a language Jacob didn’t understand, though from the tone it didn’t sound polite. The girl’s alarmed eyes flicked back and forth between the bright doorway and the dim interior, as if she couldn’t decide which held the worse fate.