Bones For Songs
Tarry thy thoughts, Harry thy thoughts!
Ha ha ha ha!
Only a mad man notes his own laughter.
So they say, so They say, so they Say.
I do not believe them. Do you, foolish reader?
Who do I fool? Only fools who believe me mad will ever read this.
Better a Mad man than a Dunce man.
So prove your worth, oh, Worthy!
Go! Laugh, laugh Out Loud!
And take note of it.
—Tomes of the Touched
Seventeen Days to the Eve of Snows
Bones hit the cave floor with a clatter and bounce, flipping pips until coming to rest. The dice totaled sixteen. The hollers and groans of monks and priests echoed through the dark reaches of the cavern.
Tôkôdin clenched his jaws, saving his curses for the next roll if it came in over seventeen.
Robed figures huddled in an oasis of flickering brazier light in the depths of the mountain, an aureole surrounding the gamblers. Hawk and Snake, a game of over-under chance, and Tôkôdin’s weakness. He hated his coins falling into other people’s pockets, but relished the thrill. He leaned, knuckles grinding into the cavern floor as Melîu blew on the dice.
The two of them grew up together in Istinjôln Monastery, but since she’d taken her vows of priesthood and traveled to these Chanting Caverns to serve in its libraries, he’d seen her a scant couple of times. For the past two weeks they’d much catching up to do, which included her taking a healthy chunk of his coins. “Not today, girl. Not today.”
Melîu swiped auburn curls from her eyes and blew him a kiss, winking before snapping her wrist.
Numbers tumbled, three white dice and one black, keys to a small fortune for a poor monk.
Too nervous to watch, he looked to Angin, the game’s overseer. The man stood a shave under seven feet tall while weighing a hundred stone. Combined with a nose flattened between sagging, lopsided eyes courtesy of a horse’s hoof, Angin scared the wits out of any gambler who thought to cheat. Plus, he possessed a knack for counting coins, making him everyone’s choice to lead a fair game of chance.
The dice clattered to a stop and Angin called out, “Seven days and two nights, for a total of nine. Pass the bones and ante up!”
Tôkôdin pumped his fist and shot Melîu a smirk. She curled her lips and stood. Five feet nothing and petite, she could make Tôkôdin’s eyes droop like a hungry puppy’s with a smile and a flutter of her lashes. No matter, the girl didn’t look twice at him with his fat round nose and squinty eyes, and scars marring his face. If he’d achieved the priesthood she might’ve deigned to warm his bed, but more than likely she’d still have taken his money in a game of dice instead of earning it between the sheets.
Angin shoved songs from the Hawk and Snake lines to the pot, and Tôkôdin eyed a couple glints of silver amid the copper. The bones were his now, and odds favored the roller.
He snatched the dice from the floor, tossed the ante of two songs into the pot and warmed the dice in his hand. If it weren’t sacrilegious he’d pray for all ones or sixes, an automatic win on any roll. With everyone’s money in, he rapped his knuckles three times on the ground and slung the dice.
The three white dice yielded eleven and the painted black die a four.
Angin called out, “Eleven days and four nights, the target is set at fifteen.”
Gamblers mumbled and coins jingled, but Tôkôdin focused on the beat of his heart. The rhythm spoke to him: Three snakes. He dug his fingers into his pouch to find coins scarce, but he put everything remaining on the three mark of the snake line.
“You’re due for some luck.” Melîu grinned and matched his bet on the third snake.
“I hope you’re right.” If he had to share a win with anyone, Tôkôdin would prefer it be her or his closest friend.
He glanced at Lôpus as the man contemplated his wager. As first-year postulants they’d shared a cell at Istinjôln Monastery, and despite the man making the priesthood they were best friends to this day, but damned if that blond bastard didn’t put his copper on the fourth snake, with a grin his way.
A win sticking it to his buddy would make the jingle of coins all the sweeter. Tôkôdin tapped his knuckles once and rolled. The dice were unkind today, and a turn of luck was past due. If he hit the target on any roll, he won. Instead of reading the dice, he waited for Angin’s call.
“Seven days and three nights, totaling ten, the game goes snake.”
Tôkôdin exhaled and slapped the ground before sweeping the bones into his hand. “Snake, snake, snake,” he muttered to the dice. He struck his knuckles twice, and dice hit stone.
Angin called out, “Eight days and one night for a total of nine, two snakes and counting.”
Tôkôdin rocked on his knees, whispering to the dice. “Get me drunk, my little darlings.” With this swollen pot, even split, he’d be drinking the same ale as the priests, not the watery swill impoverished monks endured. He swore even the hangovers were better. His knuckles struck thrice, dice flicked from his fingers.
“Eight days and six nights totaling fourteen, three snakes and counting.”
Tôkôdin muttered under his breath, “Gods and hells, gods and hells.” A roll over fifteen and he’d fill his purse. He needed to piss. No, just nerves. “Gods and hells.” Four raps of the knuckles and he let fly.
He couldn’t look.
Angin called, “Three days and two nights totaling five, four snakes and counting.”
His spirit sank so deep his bladder went away, and Melîu buried her face in her hands with a groan. If the night die had been a one, the whole pot would jingle at his hip. He groped the dice, slow and depressed, glared at the pips. His darlings had become sons of bitches.
Lôpus lay an arm on his shoulder, his eyes aglow with more mirth than Tôkôdin could stomach. “Three ones and a two, the night die taunts you.”
Tôkôdin smirked at his friend, the dice might still teach him a lesson. “You’re wrong, every damned one taunts me.” He glared at the dice again, hope remained. “Fifteen or four of a kind, you worthless bones.” He cast the dice with a rattle and buried his face in his palms.
“Fourteen days and six nights for a total of twenty! Four snakes is the winner!”
Tôkôdin glared as Lôpus hooted and butted heads with Pindin, the other man with money on the fourth snake. Lôpus was a good friend, but right now Tôkôdin loathed him. Lôpus didn’t need the money, a priest’s stipend was four times a monk’s. He tried not to hate him for achieving the priesthood while Tôkôdin failed, but jealousy was a hard flea to shake.
As Angin collected side bets and divvied the pot, Tôkôdin took his eyes from the celebration and stared into the blackness of the cavern. Gruel and water for me.
Melîu stood and passed him, gracing him with a smile. “I’ll be back soon, you get ’em on the next round, you hear me?”
He nodded. “Next round.” He didn’t have enough coins for an ante, let alone a round, but she didn’t need to know this. He watched the sway of her hips as her form faded into the shadows outside their braziers.
Guntar, the bearer whom he served, slapped him on the back. “I hope your luck on the trail is better than your dice.” At least he feigned sincerity.
Tôkôdin rose to his feet with a groan of stiff muscles and agonizing loss, wandering from the halo of brazier light surrounding the dice game. More fires burned near a lone priest who stood watch at the stairs but the murky dark suited Tôkôdin’s mood. He stopped and looked up, but the ceiling of the massive cavern hid in deep shadow. The dark hollow appeared infinite, but like life, somewhere above, it, too, met an end. He’d never seen this cavern lit by the troughs of oil carved in the walls, but folks told him the ceiling was streaked with pyrite, and nicknamed the Fool’s Haul for those who thought it gold. Tôkôdin figured it was better to chase false gold than to throw away real copper, at least until his pouch jingled again.
He needed a stiff cup of whiskey to drive away the hurt those dice put on him, neither a fine ale nor weak beer would do the trick. Tôkôdin huffed, adjusting his plain gray robes hanging limp from his shoulders. It was a consolation of sorts, there being no alcohol to buy even if he had the songs in hand. He snorted and meandered to the ring of braziers surrounding the Crack of Burdenis, a deep hole in the world.
Named after the Patron God of Snows, the chasm hid the fifth shrine of Burdenis, the brother of Sôl, King of the Gods. A hundred strides long and twenty across at its widest, the Crack mirrored the ceiling: so deep you couldn’t see its end.
Gods and favored priests like Melîu were the only ones who knew what went on in the hidden caves deep below. There was only one way Tôkôdin and his dingy monk’s robes would be honored with a visit to the floor of the Crack.
“If I threw myself down this hole would I come up fifteen?”
Tîkotu, Third Priest of Burdenis, showed typical holy compassion. “With your spit-poor luck I’d say you’d come up dead by the third stair.”
The priest looked in his fifties and his gut suggested they feasted well at the Crack when there weren’t guests to feed. Tôkôdin wagered the man’s ale was good and thick; free, too, to add a kick to Tôkôdin’s sober belly. Maybe he should’ve rubbed the fat priest’s bald head for luck. The angst on his face would’ve made up for a couple songs lost.
“Your compassion soothes me to the marrow.” His gut twisted as he gazed at the steep, zigzagging stair carved in the wall of the chasm. He counted twenty torches set into the descent before darkness consumed their meager lights in its depths.
The old priest suffered a phlegmy cough and spat. “You didn’t even lose a poor man’s fortune. And if you had, who’s fault but your own?”
Was it supposed to console him that something less than a poor man’s fortune had been his own? “I had fifty songs, you should know, for walking escort.”
“Gutted and bleeding out from a Colôk’s claws, would you think this a fair price?”
Tôkôdin squirmed, the sentiment was a lifetime from Guntar’s rousing recruitment speech. “Colôk are stupid animals, nothing more.”
Tîkotu guffawed, chins shaking. “Dumb beasts, for sure. Who run in tribes, forge weapons and armor, and pray to false gods for power.”
Lôpus called to him. “Tôkôdin! You in the next round?”
He didn’t bother to turn around, just raised his pouch and gave it a silent shake. He slumped to sit at the edge of the Crack and leaned against the pulley-post, making sure not to jostle the bell dangling from its arm. He peered into the bucket hanging from the pulley’s rope, a method for transporting messages faster than the fifteen-hundred steps to the bottom, and found it empty. What the hells did he expect, a few songs to buy a pint?
Tôkôdin rubbed his eyes and gazed into the black hole. A dim pulse of light shook his malaise and a rumble echoed the lower caves. He glanced to see if anyone else heard and found Tîkotu standing over his shoulder and the game of Hawk and Snake silent and staring his way.
His body took a chill, goosebumps pimpling his arms. He jumped to his feet and prayed for heat.
Lôpus thumped his shoulder, breaking his prayer’s concentration; no warmth came and his goosebumps multiplied, the reason he’d failed the priesthood. The power of the gods required focus, even for a lord priest.
“What’d you see?” Lôpus asked.
“A flash of light, deep enough to be bottom.”
Another flash, brighter, and followed by a rumble deeper and more powerful, shook the caves. The quivers beneath his feet reminded him of a rumored mine collapse not too far from these caves, and brought a chill. These caverns might have stood for a millennia or more, but a jab of claustrophobia squeezed the beat of his heart.
Guntar edged through the press of milling adherents. “We should head down.”
Tense but composed, he had a way of appearing at the brink of fisticuffs on a happy day. Now his teeth ground, spoiling for a fight.
Tîkotu grumbled. “Half of you’d be dead from the fall before you got there. We wait here.”
Guntar’s jaw muscles flexed in clenching pulses near his ears, and Ivin feared the man’s words. Guntar carried a temper, and as a bearer for Istinjôln, charged with delivering important messages, his status in the Church lay beyond his years. Tôkôdin couldn’t say who had authority here.
Guntar’s diplomacy suggested the answer. “I bow to your wisdom, of course.”
A pulse of light and another rumble echoed from the deeps, interrupting the power play. In the bass of the echoing thunder, a subtle, higher-pitched shriek caught his ear. Could humans scream so loud? A chill prickled his skin, pervasive, unfading even in the ensuing silence.
Monks and priests alike meandered from the Crack, muttering reassuring words. Tôkôdin could not. He stood pensive, staring, ears strained for any sound.
A half an hour later the notion of screams hiding in the rumbles still haunted his ears. “What were they doing down there, Tîkotu?”
The older man scrunched his face and rested his arms on his belly. “I haven’t the slightest pissin’ idea.” He chortled, his eyes nervous. “But don’t ever believe our betters don’t come up with damned fool notions.” The priest’s eyes scanned for listeners. “I did hear—”
The pulley bell clanged four times, echoing through the hall, alerting them to a message. Tîkotu hefted a lead weight and set it in the bucket attached to the rope and it plummeted into the abyss. Not a soul hurried to the Crack but everyone milled in its direction before stopping to stare at the pulley.
Tôkôdin counted to thirty before a bucket reached them and Tîkotu snatched two scrolls, one in a sealed tube, the other he opened. “Guntar, gather your people. You ride for Istinjôln immediately. May Burdenis shield you from the mountain’s might.”
Guntar took the tube and bowed. “Even at the cost of our lives, it will reach Istinjôln.”
Tôkôdin huffed, so much for a fire and warm night’s sleep in the caves. A long walk out of the mountains promised to ease the pain of his gambling losses—by the time his fingers were numb he’d have something new to cuss.
Tôkôdin lingered by the Crack as others gathered their gear, looked into Tîkotu’s eyes and saw fear. “What the Twelve Hells is going on?”
The old priest grabbed him by the collar and pulled him close. “Make godsdamned sure he makes it to Istinjôln, or we’re all dead here. You got me?”
Tôkôdin stared, stymied. “Colôk?” The beasts had slaughtered priests on hallowed ground before, but not a major shrine so well protected; it felt wrong.
“No.” The man’s grip softened, and he gnawed his lip. Tôkôdin guessed the man had been ordered to secrecy, but Tîkotu broke. “The Shadows from the Stone, that’s what we call them. And they won’t stop here, mark my word.”
“Shadows? Stone? What the hells’s that mean?”
“Pray you never find out. Now go.”
The priest shoved him away without another word.
He snorted and strode to the gaming braziers and snagged his dice from the floor before grabbing his pack. He tested the buckle on the strap holding his snowshoes, a shovel, and hatchet, and made certain his jerked deer and canteens were still buried beneath his fleece-lined trousers, in case the weather took an unseasonable turn. His soft-soled elk hide boots and wool robes were coated with wool wax to repel snow or rain in the mountains, but extra gear never hurt in unpredictable mountain weather. He yanked the drawstring and pulled its straps over his shoulders, praying he wouldn’t need any of these things.
He took up his staff, nine hands of Ironwood, and hefted its deadly weight. He’d dreamed of important missions when he clasped arms with Guntar and pledged his life, but with the moment upon him, his stomach knotted.
“Leaving so soon?”
Melîu’s voice. Beautiful Melîu.
He turned, caught by a hug. He smiled despite his nerves. “Whoa, girl, no time for that. Well, all right.” He grabbed her hand and dragged her several feet into darkness before she pulled free and slugged him hard enough to sting.
“Such a naughty lad.”
His grin faded. How many monks and priests served this shrine? How many were friends? Everyone’s lives were in danger. Melîu’s life. “Shadows from the Stone?”
She shot him a cockeyed glance, her mouth opening and closing without a word before she planted her feet. “You shut up about those, you hear?”
“I hear you.” A dead subject, whatever those words meant. Guntar and the rest of the escort stared, waiting on him. “You’ll be safe?”
She fidgeted, and forced a smile. “Next time you’re here, stay longer.”
He wanted to kiss her, but a lack of courage turned him to stone. No need to prove he was a fool. “I always leave you wanting more, don’t I?” He winked and turned, but didn’t get the final say.
“That’s because there ain’t enough of you where it counts.”
He stopped mid-stride, chin sinking to his chest. Even humorless Guntar chuckled, and with Tôkôdin’s wit reduced to childish comebacks, he admitted defeat. Women always won anyhow, why fight it?