Sundering the Gods

Come Heavens or come Hells,
upon the Eve of Snows,
war will rage.

Chapter Four
Third Son of the Second Son

Upon the Creation of the World, the First Dragons cast their seed 
in the light of a Sun and a Thousand Suns,
beneath the Moon and a Thousand Moons,
on a World and a Thousand Worlds.

—Tomes of the Touched

Seventeen Days to the Eve of Snows

The body of Ivin Choerkin’s mother lay reposed in the burning logs of the great hearth’s morning fire, her golden hair and pale skin untouched by flame, flawless in all the ways only a memory achieved perfection. It had been twelve years since Peneluple’s soul strode the Road of Living Stars and her body turned to ash on Pyre Rock, and still the images haunted his wakened eyes.

Ivin figured it was a sign of weakness, a flaw that an old pain could still bring sorrow, but some days, her vision didn’t force him to fight tears. On rare days like today he could gaze upon her face in the fire, and if not smile, at least recall some pleasant memory. Hints of lilac amidst the musk of her perfume, imported from the Crown Islands of the Luxuns, cracked his lips with a smile this morning, but he knew not to linger long else sorrow would follow.

He shut his lids and took a breath to dissolve the illusions, and trained his gaze elsewhere when again they opened.

The great hall of Herald’s Keep stood fifty paces long and thirty wide, capable of entertaining great parties beneath hand-hewn beams of a girth to have served as masts on mighty ships. Seven candelabras hung from the ceiling, great oak wheels carved with fanciful hunting scenes, but dust covered their candles and hoods since the lady of the tower strode the Road of Living Stars. Light here was no longer to accentuate detailed moldings and other millwork, it was for heat; any beauty hid in shadow.

His father sat at the end of an oak table suited to seat thirty, but today there were only three, the old man and two of his boys. Lord Kotin squinted as he perused a vellum scroll, shifting it in his fingers as he read by the dim light of the hall’s hearth, but any message from Kaludor these days was worthy of strained eyes. 

Ivin asked, “Any helpful word?”

Kotin might as well have been an island away. Ivin glanced past the hearth and its roaring fire to his brother, Rikis, who sat hunched and silent. “You’ve lost your tongue as well?”

Rikis snorted and smirked, dipped a spoon in his stew without a word. The eldest son wasn’t just the spitting image of their father, with dark eyes and unkempt beard, he’d spent his entire life perfecting the same gnarled attitude.

Ivin fidgeted in his seat, gazed at the great hall’s ceiling, and drummed his fingers on the table. It was his day to be off this rock of an island, but he was as far from the docks as he could get without climbing the highest tower of Herald’s Watch. And if that damned note pertained to him—

Vellum crumpled louder than the crackle of the fire, and Ivin’s eyes drifted back to his father.

Kotin said, “Burn this damned thing.” The balled scroll sailed through the air, hitting a bumbling scullery boy square in the nose.

Joslin scrambled under a chair for the message like a kitten for a ball of string and bounced to his feet with prize in hand. “Aye, my lord.” A boy of ten, whose parents both worked in the kitchens of the main keep, he was used to the Choerkin lord and his tempers.

Ivin grinned. “Don’t punish the boy for another man’s words. Is there trouble at the Fost?”

Kotin snarled through his beard, his feet rocking the table as he kicked them up for repose. “A man might as well yap with an oracle, if you want to take blind shots at interpreting blather. No word on help from Istinjoln, not sure if the messages aren’t reaching the lord priest, or if they’re gouging our eyes. Godsdamned lord priest’s always got his nuts in a clamp over somethin’ we done or said. A score of souls might well walk the stars with him dragging his toes.”

They’d gotten word of a cave-in at the Ihomjo mine five days past, trapping at least twenty miners. In times past the priests of Istinjoln were quick to help, but the Ihomjo was a new and rich vein of gold on ground Istinjoln claimed holy. By both tradition and law, the claim was dubious; if nearby ruins ever belonged to the church they were centuries removed from use. A legitimate claim would’ve given mining rights to the church, or at least, they’d have been due a share of gold, but the Choerkin denied the claim outright and reaped the benefits of taxes. There was no doubt in Ivin’s mind why the lord priest ignored their demands, it was one part pride, and one part greed. Lord Priest Ulrikt would dance around every excuse to make a point.

“If you’d listened to me and had the miners pay a tiny stipend to ease the egos in Istinjoln, we might save those men.”

Kotin’s right eye squinted with a glare that made Ivin swallow. “Lovar heads the Clan Choerkin, not me.”

“Your brother, and he listens to you.”

“Your uncle, and he makes his mind on clan matters without my word or yours. All the best, on the latter.”

“A failing of both brothers, never listening.”

Rikis guffawed but choked his humor back as the other men stared. “My pardons, choked on a tater in my stew.”

Kotin’s eyes returned to his youngest boy with a smug smile. “It’s thinking like yours that got us here, boy. It’s the Choerkin who command these lands and tolerate the church’s holdings, not the other way ‘round. I’ll take orders from the gods when I’m good and dead, not a flicker before. Every time we loosen the reins the further those holies stray.”

“Everyone knows who rules, but whether we rule with an open hand or a balled fist is our choice. The price of peace is generosity, and the price of gold is blood.” Ivin knew those last words were a mistake before they finished from his tongue; a religious quote from the Book of Leds would set a fire, not put one out. It didn’t help one spit that the book specialized in how a mortal’s soul earned its way into the hells.

“You’d see your old man to the Hoarder’s Hell, would you? The price of letting your enemy regain his feet is steel in the belly. Fairness and blood, what the hells does a boy know of these things?” His face turned red through his beard as he laughed. Kotin snatched the goblet in front of him to find it empty. He shot a glare at Joslin and the youngster scrambled to refill. “Any further wise words for your poor deaf father before you sail?”

Ivin’s cheeks burned, and he stood, the feet of his chair squawking on the maple floor. He kept his voice flat, but his words held an edge. “I’ll head for Skywatch to consult with the oracle.”

“Breaking bones with that whore-witch? I forbid it!”

“I sail for Kaludor to ride with the Estertok Wardens, by your biddings, and you forbid me the oracle of the gods?” Ivin met his father’s wide-eyed snarl the best he could, then turned to leave. He reached the door and snagged his heavy cloak, wrapping the bearskin over his shoulders as he wandered into the hall.

Pounding steps echoed in pursuit behind him and Ivin hurried to the tower’s exit. He hadn’t planned on breaking bones with the old priestess before traveling north, but he sure as hells was going to now.

Winds whipped the door from his grip and slapped icy rain in his face as he stepped from Herald’s Keep. He squinted into the tempest as he pulled his hood tight to his face and descended granite steps to the cobbled street where a cart rattled past. It was petty and childish, and he’d feel guilty later, but he left the tower door open and predicted the count: One, two, three.

A gust banged the oak door against the tower wall. His father huffed and slammed the door shut, snarling a curse familiar to any of Kotin’s three sons. “Godsdamned boy.”

Ivin turned, locking eyes with his father’s glower. Taunts and curses tempted his tongue, but Kotin thrived on bickering, egging his boys into fights; escalation into a shouting match meant an argument lost. For years, every time Ivin had mentioned visiting the oracles, he’d allowed his father to shame him into not going, disrespecting Ivin’s faith.

Ivin kept his tone tame and recited a line he’d practiced a hundred times. “The right of divination may be denied by the gods, not men.”

Kotin loomed on the high step with fists struck to his hips. He was a grizzly of a man with ominous eyes. Wrapped in thick furs and fog clouding every angry breath, it was easy to see how a blooded warrior might piss his britches. “To have your head filled with lies? What’s the point, boy? The only truth the priests ever spoke to me was that forward is the path to everywhere, but no bones will show the path to you. A truth they withheld until your mother’s pyre burned.”

Ivin’s heart pounded. The child inside wanted to surrender to the imposing gaze, but today he used his most barbed weapon. “I will honor my mother, in whatever heaven she may reside. Hate the priests all you like, but I will honor her memory and her faith today.”

The old man’s shoulders slumped and his iron jaw softened. Everyone on the island knew the Lady Pineluple was the old man’s weakness, but few dared use her against him.

Ivin’s victory wasn’t sweet, but still, better than walking away as a kicked cur. He turned into the wind with a steady gait. A grunt of disgust and soggy footsteps proved his father followed. “Stubborn about all the wrong things, that’s your mother’s blood.”

Ivin trudged on. No argument ever convinced his father a trip to Skywatch was better than a waste of time. Kotin was by clan-right Lord of Herald’s Watch and by self-proclamation Lord of his Own Opinion, and only death would relieve him of either title.

The island of Herald’s Watch was Kotin’s kingdom, a barren rise of stone in Purdonis Bay transformed into a fortress by forgotten generations and tended by the Clan Choerkin for the past five hundred years. Miles of steep roads crawled from the sea to the towers high above, winding like drunken snakes between gray stone buildings.

They passed through the gate of the inner bailey, entering the holy ward where the path split in twain. He chose the short route, skipping the temptation to torture his father with an extra thousand strides past the Shrine of Nameless Slaves.

The streets grew broader and more traveled as they approached town. Ivin had run on these roads with abandon as a boy, learning every in and out, and meeting more than a few bricks nose to stone as uneven pavers caught his toe and sent him sprawling. As Skywatch came into sight, he recalled one such run: Seven years of age and scared witless by his first fortune. His legs carried him all the way to the tower, chased by his father’s echoing laughter. His mother died not long after. He remembered how the priestess had intimated such a thing happening. Ivin took on his mother’s faith in the gods, while Kotin blamed them and their priests.

The squat, domed building known as Skywatch stood out from the plain gray granite of other buildings on the island, a polished marble bubble in the midst of gray corners. He stepped to the building’s single door, took a breath as if about to fish for pearls, and stepped into perfect night with his father on his heels.

Skywatch greeted them with a cloudless sky full of stars where the ceiling and walls should be, the eternal heavens depicted with precision. The sun never rose here, and turning a circle revealed nothing but standing in the middle of emptiness in an eternal night, except for the faint outlines of the entry. Here, the oracles watched the skies and their passing seasons day and night without cloud nor sun to obscure the view, and gleaned from it glimpses of the future. The Great Forgetting had erased the names of those who erected Skywatch and its enchanted sky, but most folks believed it dated from the Age of God Wars.

Skywatch appeared empty, as it always did.

High Oracle Meris’ voice boomed from the heavens, the tone projecting power. “It has been long years since you graced our hall, Kotin. Your arrival is a welcome surprise. And you, Ivin, you seek the oracle of bones?”

Nerves sent Ivin’s stomach into a twirl. He swallowed and cleared his throat, and still his words came muted and weak. “Yes, servant of Bontore, and his father, the ever-mighty Sol. I seek the oracle of bones.”

Kotin huffed with disgust beside him, but held his tongue.

Footfalls crossed the heavens, each step a ringing chime echoing as they crossed above their heads. Moments later Meris emerged from the dark, walking to them with outstretched arms. The withered old priestess hunched at the shoulders and her feet scraped the floor as she walked, but her face was little different from the woman Ivin remembered from fifteen years ago. 

The oracle clasped Ivin’s hands, and he dropped to his knees. Meris offered her hands to Kotin and received a cold stare. “The unforgiving man shall never be forgiven.”

Kotin snorted. “The unrepentant are unforgivable.”

Ivin bit back his annoyance with the duo. The feud between clans and church dated back to the War of Seven Lies. The church had remained aloof from the warring clans in the chaotic and bloody years following the Great Forgetting, but in the fourth year of Remembered Time, as the clans settled their disputes and stitched their wounds, Lord Priest Imrok Girn and his followers struck while the clans were weak. Thousands more died, and the church came close to wresting power from the clans, but instead of hoisting the crown of a king priest, Imrok found himself burned alive outside of Choerkin Fost a year after starting his holy war.

The clans crushed the holies beneath its collective boot and mandated the Church’s power severed into seven heads. A subtle struggle ensued, flaring now and again into bitter conflicts over souls and gold (mostly gold), but after Peneluple’s passing, Kotin’s animosity grew into bloodshot hatred, and Meris was his focus. Ivin wanted no part in the dispute, whatever its cause, and kept his tongue where it belonged, sealed between his teeth.

Meris grinned at Kotin as she knelt before Ivin. “It is good to see you again, Ivin, son of Kotin, of the Clan Choerkin.” Meris pulled the scapula of a bear from her pack. The cleaned bone bore a multitude of tiny holes on its surface with several carved symbols for each hole. “How might this humble servant of Bontore serve your needs this day?”

The ice in her pale blue stare and the grinding gravel in her voice always injected a mote of terror into the beat of Ivin’s heart. He took a deep breath, reconciled his mind to the possibilities of his future, and relaxed.

“You’ve heard of the Ihomjo mine collapse?”

The old priestess gave a curt nod. “The stars are not without mortal rumors.”

“I will travel north to find aid in Istinjoln. Will we be able to entreat with the priests of Istinjoln for aid? Is there hope for a solution to this disputed territory? Will we find survivors?”

Kotin muttered, “A waste of our time. You dragged me beneath these cursed stars for this?”

Meris ignored the elder Choerkin and stared into Ivin’s eyes. “Much of what you ask relies upon the will of man, and not the gods. Your questions are fulsome with noble intent, but any answers are dangerous if trusted, for they are in flux with the whims of emotion, not set in the stone of holy destiny.”

Ivin nodded. “Those are my questions.”

“So be it. Be still and await the reply of Bontore, the Fatespeaker.”

A slender needle of steel appeared in the priestess’ hand. She laid it flat in her left palm, then covered it with her right. Her eyes closed, and they twitched as if a bug skittered to and fro beneath her lids. Prayers droned from somewhere deep within the priestess as though some creature lent a second voice. The old woman rubbed her palms together until a soft glow emanated from between her fingers.

Opened hands revealed the piece of steel gone from gray to radiant silvery-white, a shiv of star fallen from the sky. Meris raised the metal above her head and plunged it into a small hole in the bone. A crack resounded, more powerful and sonorous than the voice of the oracle when speaking from the stars.

“Bontore has spoken with us, young Choerkin, look as I read to you his words.”

Ivin gazed at the bone. A myriad of cracks stretched from the sliver of metal. He’d never seen so many fractures. He wanted to touch it, to trace the lines passing through his future, but his hand trembled by his side.

“The gods have spoken to you, but I fear they speak little to your concerns.” Meris pointed. “Here a crack runs through the Heart of Januel. Our Goddess of Love will pull your soul to another’s, young Choerkin, but the split at the end foretells uncertainty. And here the bone speaks of danger near the Heart, so be wary of false love. This danger will bring an end… but not to your life, your search? There is blood in the dark, death in the Ihomjo mine, perhaps. And darkness beneath the sun. This crack passes the Sails of Zinmil, suggesting you will travel far by sea.” There was silence, then in hushed tones: “This crack by the Sword of Anzelok, the way it circles, it’s hard to decipher. It is war, or battle.” Meris looked up. “This is all the gods will say.”

The uncertainty in her words, the uncomfortable flutter of her eyes, he’d never seen the old woman flustered. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“A hundred cracks might mean a hundred things of which I will not speak, full of contradictions. It would take days to decipher.” Meris stood, replaced the bone in her pack. “Leave now, young Choerkin. The bone speaks volumes which would serve to confuse and muddle your thoughts.”

Ivin knew better than to press further.

Kotin’s tone was placid. “Enlightening as you ever were.”

“I welcome a return to view your future, Kotin.”

Kotin spun on a heel and marched to the door with a laugh, the sound of his voice taking on a power to rival the oracle’s. Ivin followed him into the overcast light of day with a snarl on his face.

The pair stood in the rain as the door closed behind them, the smile on Kotin’s face wearing Ivin’s nerves thin. Ivin said, “I love the rain.”

“As do I.”

The Watch’s horn wailed across the small island, bugling low twice, followed by a high note, alerting everyone to an incoming Choerkin ship.

“Your cousin must be arriving.” Kotin took several steps down the steep, winding road to the docks. “We should see whether Eredin brings your new lady friend.”

Ivin’s head rolled back to stare into the rain, muttering to himself: “The bastard won’t ever let me live this down.” He’d brought it on himself and any word in his defense would fuel laughter. At least his brothers weren’t here, and with luck he’d be on a ship before they heard.

He lurched as a hand thumped him in the back and he turned to find Rikis with a smirk splitting his beard. He didn’t let an opportunity to take a jab at his little brother pass. “What’s this about a girl? I’m jealous.”

Ivin raised his hands toward the sky, beseeching mercy from the gods, and followed his father.

“Easy, brother.” Rikis chortled as he trotted to catch up.

“I see now why our father hates oracles.” A lie, but at least it changed the subject.

“They’re witch-kin and worse, ask any Choerkin aside from yourself. Not like they’re much fond of us, either.”

When Ivin was seven years old, his mother carried a daughter, and both had died during labor. Twelve years later, Kotin still slept in the same bed, always alone, or as some whispered, slept nestled beside cold ghosts. Everyone knew Kotin blamed Meris, but no one knew why. 

Peneluple’s final visit to the oracle was a popular guess. “What might a divination say to make father turn his back on mother’s faith?” Ivin asked.

“Are you certain you want to know if the secret is so dark he lost faith in not only oracles, but the gods?”

This wasn’t a question Ivin had considered before, but it didn’t change his mind. “Damn this weather.”

“Aye, damn this weather.”

The rain turned to a light drizzle, and the gale faded to a breeze. The men glanced at each other.

Ivin chuckled. “We should’ve tried that years ago.”

The brothers strolled the winding street to the docks with their father long disappeared ahead. Ivin had spent most of his life on this water-bound rock. Island, fortress, home, the ground on which the ashes of his mother and sister were scattered, it was where his life began. He’d never been away more than a month in his life, so the prospect of a year or more on Kaludor fell on the wrong side of an emotional eternity.

They rounded the storehouse at the corner of the wharfs and Eredin stood halfway down the gangplank of the Sea Owl. Kotin blocked his path with legs planted and a parchment in his hand as Eredin’s arms waved as if trying to explain away bad news. Roplin, the middle brother, kept his distance, not wanting a part of whatever had set the old man off.

Eredin looked more Ivin’s brother than either Rikis or Roplin. Ivin and Eredin were the tawny lions in a family of bears, slender and blond. Their resemblance more than anything else had brought the two together as young boys.

“My hand on the Heart of Januel, Ivin. I had no idea what was in the message until I got here,” Eredin said as soon as they arrived.

“What are you—?”

Kotin interrupted with a snarl. “Lovar wants the ship to turn sails immediately.” His venomous tone whipped back to Eredin. “My brother best know what the hells he’s doing. First, he takes my youngest, now he gives me no time for a proper send off?”

Cold drops of fresh rain hit Ivin’s face like flakes of flint, each a bit more painful than they should be.

Kotin crumpled the parchment and tossed it into the bay before wrapping Ivin’s neck in the crook of his elbow, leading him to the side with Rikis and Roplin trailing. Gulls squawked, cussing the human intrusion as they took flight.

Something was amiss.

Kotin spoke under his breath. “We’ve word of a wagon load of Broldun priests rolling toward Istinjoln.”

A blood feud between Clans Broldun and Choerkin simmered and flared over the past sixty years. Ivin rubbed his chin. “So close to the Eve of Snows, what’s the worry?”

“These aren’t some holies chanting down a road on ponies or mules. A little bird sings that these holies are from Fermiden Abbey.” The Abbey seated one of seven lord priests and stood a candle’s ride outside Broldun Fost. 

Rikis’ bass voice interrupted in a rough whisper. “Traveling for the Eve of Snows isn’t nothing new.”

Kotin said, “These are covered wagons, escorted, and left Fermiden in the dead of night. High priests for damn sure. By Lovar’s word, it’s been damned near two decades since Fermiden sent a ranking priest to Istinjoln.”

Ivin said, “Lovar’s worried about Istinjoln cozying up to Fermiden and the Broldun?”

“I don’t know my brother’s mind. If you’re askin’ me, it smells of consolidating power… or a rift in the ranks, here or the Abbey. If there’s trouble in either, might go half way to explaining why they haven’t sent no one to the mines. When you reach Istinjoln, listen, pay attention, nod polite like, but don’t you go trusting a single holy word, any one of them bastards is liable to stick a dagger in your gullet.” With those encouraging words Kotin addressed his older boys. “Get your brother’s arms. Go.”

Ivin exhaled, watched as his father stalked back to Eredin, his growls and snarls continuing the façade. He leaned on a dock post, grumbled as he brushed fresh gull droppings from the sleeve of his cloak.

Diplomacy and politicking weren’t Ivin’s strengths. His training was a warrior’s, but Kotin had taught him that negotiations were similar to any fight: you earn victory by seeing and seizing opportunity. But whatever the hells was happening between Istinjoln and Fermiden, he still needed to secure aid in opening up the Ihomjo mines. The maneuver would be a complicated dance while trying not to stomp on crystal toes.

His brothers brought Ivin’s longbow, spear, and arming sword, as well as his helm, gambeson, and mail. Ivin first thought they’d forgotten his shield, but Kotin presented him with his grandfather’s targe, a round shield smaller than most clansman carried. Bullhide wrapped its wooden core, and while its center bore a brass boss, black steel rimmed its edge. It wasn’t the fanciest targe the family owned, but Ivin would be the first Choerkin to carry it since grandfather died when Ivin was a baby.

Everything came so fast that reality blurred into heads of ale, beefy spices rich on his tongue, and molten honey-butter on fresh bread, without time for sorrow over the past or to worry on the future, exhausting every excuse to delay departure before his kin took turns pounding his back with hugs and muttering their farewells. Until he set foot on the swaying deck of the Sea Owl, and the world stopped with a surge of clarity.

In a frozen moment he took in the concern on his father’s wrinkled brow, and his brothers’ awkward unease. The Estertok Mountains were plenty dangerous without conspiracies in Istinjoln. The Sea Owl bucked on a wave, and his heart lurched. This might be the last time he’d see any of them.

He smiled and mustered his most bellicose voice. “You look like women about to blubber! Get your asses back to that tower and knit something!”

The brothers laughed and Kotin locked the head of each in an arm, hugging his boys in his own bearish way, as the boat cast off. Oars creaked and splashed as they moved from the rocky island, its steep winding roads, and the great central tower his family called home.

Eredin sighed, drained the last drops of ale from his tankard and tossed it into a pile of canvass sacks. He took Ivin’s shoulder and directed him sternward. “For a moment I thought he might drown me in the harbor to make it more real for any holies watching.”

Ivin glanced askew at his cousin. “You knew?”

“Names of the Slaves, cousin. Some secrets are best kept.”

“Years of study in the holy scriptures and that’s what you took away?”

Souls who served as slaves in penance, between hells and heavens, never spoke their names, lest they fall into the Vainglorious Hell.

Eredin shrugged, pulled a bottle of whiskey from his cloak. “The winds have weakened in our sails, so we’ve a journey ahead.” He popped the cork. “I would have brought a woman or three if I’d thought to get away with it.”

Ivin mulled his cousin’s words as he leaned against the rail and took the bottle. “What am I missing?”

Eredin rolled his eyes. “Details, maybe, details I’m not privy to. But birds are singing all across Kaludor. Something foul brews in the Twelve Hells. The Wolverine’s sure to know more.”

Pikarn, the Wolverine, had commanded the wardens for longer than Ivin drew breath, and it was his patrol he’d be riding with. It felt as if the story was incomplete.

Ivin cocked an eyebrow. “Names of the Slaves?”

“I’ve told you all I know. I swear. Sit. Drink.” His cousin’s sideways grin was infectious. “There’s no use to pondering the future without a swallow of fire in the belly to battle the ale.”

Ivin took a pull on the bottle, a smooth burn with a hint of oak in his throat. Wind, waves, and whiskey, standing wasn’t an option for long.

Background Art by Jon Gibbons

© 2018 L. James Rice