Sundering the Gods

On the Eve of Snows,

come heavens or hells,

war will rage.

Ûôlkov, the Bastard Thief

By Lee J. Rice

This is a short work that will serve as an introduction to the first Campaign Setting,
The Ôlfindarâ Isles.

 

The bag was larger than a man’s head and filled with coins of gold.  For several moments all he could do was stare at the wealth before him, his thoughts awash with greed as he studied the alternating stamps of a man’s face and a mountain on the sides of the coins. Both man and mountain looked strangely familiar in their own way, but he could not put a name to either, nor even a value.  The next realization was far more stunning: he could not recall his own name.

His heart raced, and his thoughts spun wildly.  Who am I?  Where am I?  His mind was a haunting, terrifying blank.  He gazed at his hands on the bag of gold and there was a sense of familiarity with the ruddy brown skin and coarse hair, but still he could not put a name to their owner.

The other pair of hands that held the bag was finer boned and black skinned, nearly hairless.  His gaze rose to face a woman with striking green eyes and jet black hair to match her skin.  Her stare was as blank as he imagined his own to be, and it was a painful thing to behold.  His eyes wandered the rest of the room.

Goods of all types hung from the walls, and more important, everyone in the room shared the woman’s black skin and blank stare.  His gaze turned back to his hands. These were not his people, he was a foreigner here, and by all appearances, no one remembered anybody.  His eyes were back on the gold.  Nothing was for certain, but he was fairly sure that what he held was a fortune worthy of a prince’s ransom.  What came next was unadulterated impulse. 

He yanked the bag from the woman’s unflinching hands, the weight of the bag as it left the counter straining his balance.  The muscles in his arms strained as he pulled the drawstring shut and spoke in a voice he didn’t recall ever hearing before.  “My thanks to you.  It is good to have our business concluded.”  With those simple words, he turned and walked past two men armed with spears and into a street paved with tan bricks. The buildings that alternated between gray granite and fired brick were wholly unfamiliar and there wasn’t a single thing that he could call a landmark.  If a giant roc had swept from the sky to carry him a thousand miles and release him in a city he had never before seen, he could be no more lost.  

The street was filled with mingling peoples, mostly black skinned, but not all, and every one of them looked at each other as a total stranger.  He made his way down the street, weaving through lost and aimless pedestrians as he stuffed the bag of gold into a pack that rode upon his back.  Many stared at his face and backed away, reminding him of his foreign skin tone.  Just as he was tempted to stop and look into the reflection of a trough of water, he heard the first words that were not his own.  He looked back to see the woman he had taken the gold from. 

“Ûôlkov! Ib en kîzru! Ûôlkov!” 

He had no idea what the woman was screaming at him, but the two men with spears were running towards him, and several nearby people grabbed for him.  He might have been of a similar height to these people, but he was clearly more powerful as he broke their grips and threw them from him.  He lowered his head and slammed through several men who blocked his way.  He felt heat flow across his face moments after crashing into one man, and when he turned he saw the man lying flat on his back, his gut ripped open, and he knew that it was that man’s blood that he felt on his face. Who had done that to the man? 

The crowd screamed in several languages that he could not understand.  He blew blood from his lips and charged blindly forward.  A quick turn down a less crowded side street, praying to a god whose name he could not remember for this not to be a dead end, gave him clear passage for a short while only.  A press of humanity greeted him at the end, and he was thankful for his girth and power again as he shouldered his way through the masses.   

Shouts and screams some twenty yards away drew his attention, but this time he was not the target.  The clash of weapons erupted from the commotion, and he was swept down the street, struggling to keep his feet amidst the crowd.  Along the way, he stepped on several people unfortunate enough to have fallen to the ground.  Of those who had fallen, most struggled to regain their feet, but some were already dying on the bricks.  He saw glints of bronze and iron blades in the throng, but most of these people were unarmed, and he was thankful for it. 

The crowd thinned and dispersed as it passed through massive gates and into a lush green park with a fountain.  He shoved his way across the street where he jumped atop a large crate and surveyed the area.  There were hundreds of people, but only scattered fighting, and if his pursuers were out there, he couldn’t tell.  He slipped behind the crate and tested the boards of the wall there, finding one loose.  A brick made quick work of the board, and with a hand hold he managed to bend back another and slip beneath the building. 

His eyes adjusted to the darkness as he pulled his pack off his back and took a look inside.  Something dark hid beneath his bag of gold.  He slipped the bag between his hunched legs and pulled forth a bundle of cloth.  It was heavy, if not so heavy as the gold.  He couldn’t say why he was nervous, but his fingers trembled as he pulled back a piece of the wrapping.  Finely polished ebony, black as the night sky and carved with symbols hard to make out in the faint light was the beginning, and the finish took his breath away.  Set in the middle of the carving was a yellow stone the size of a child’s fist, a topaz perhaps that seemed to emit a meager light of its very own. 

A gasping intake of breath told him he was not alone.  He wrapped the stone hurriedly, stuffed it in his pack and glared at the darkness.  “Who is there?” 

“Evert inin.”   

The voice was youthful, but he hadn’t a clue what it had said.  “I don’t understand.” 

“That was beautiful.  Understand?”   

The words were not in his own language, nor those of the black skinned people, but he understood them, and found that he could speak them.  It was a revelation that made his mind swim.  “Yes.  I do.”

A boy, perhaps as old as ten, crawled from the darkest shadows and into the faint light.  He wore little more than rags, and his skin was nearly as light as his own.

“What is your name?”  The boy asked. 

He gave that question a good deal of thought, but again, came up with nothing, except-- “I think it might be Ûôlkov.  Yes, they yelled that at me.”

The boy laughed, “Ûôlkov? Ûôlkov?  Not so easy to translate, but sorta... it means bastard thief.” The boy’s grin was ear to ear.

He thought about that a moment and shrugged, “That may not be so far off. What is yours?”

The boy’s laughter faded with an exasperated exhalation, “I do not know. So, I guess your name is better than mine, Ûôlkov.”

It was Ûôlkov’s turn to grin.  He liked this boy.  “Well, boy, do you know a way out of this accursed city?  I fear my welcome may have soured.”

The boy giggled, “I couldn’t even find my way out of here until I saw you breaking your way in.”

Trapped with an urchin with no memory of the city he most certainly called home, Ûôlkov was rapidly identifying the bad luck certain to balance the luck of his bag of gold and mounted gemstone.  Coins clashed as he grabbed the bag and began to stuff it in his pack.

“You must be a fine thief, jingling like that... with a stone like that.”

For a moment Ûôlkov thought that he might have to kill the boy to cover his tracks, and the matter of fact nature with which he considered the possibility disturbed him.  He swallowed back his own disgust, untied the bag and tossed a coin to the boy.  “You never saw me, understood?”

The urchin’s teeth bit into the coin, followed by a toothy smile.  “Right, right.  Never saw you.  Except that I have.  I’ve seen lots of people, through the cracks.  Have you seen yourself?”

Ûôlkov was confused and beginning to think he might have to kill the boy after all.  He shook his head.

The urchin grinned, “Your face is covered in blood, and you’ve got... well... tusks.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”  His hands went to his face and found two hooked, bony protrusions, one covered in sticky blood.  “By the Unholy Igorus!”  Igorus? Who the hell is this Igorus? he thought for a moment before discarding the question as a waste of time.

“You standout, friend Ûôlkov.  How long do you think you could wander the streets before they find you?”

“Maybe a year, maybe a minute.”  He pulled at a tusk, felt the tug of its connection to his skull, and it suddenly felt so natural that he had no idea how he could have forgotten.  “Damn it.  Two more coins if you find the way out and lead me there.”

The boy darted for the opening, “Done.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Ûôlkov pulled two coins from the bag and slipped them into a pocket before tying the bag tight.  He strapped the pack tight to his back and lay on it, staring at the low ceiling and trying to relax.

Time passed as slowly as the whorls of dust that clouded the scattered beams of light, and his mind twisted often to the possibility that the urchin would sell him out, that it was just taking the boy this long to find whom to sell him to.  When he convinced himself that the boy was trustworthy, even if by default of his lack of memory alone, he closed his eyes and tried to think of his name.  Ûôlkov.  It felt neither right nor wrong, but he knew it had to be wrong.

“I am Meshûk.”  The statement in his native tongue brought his heart to his throat, but it felt right and wrong simultaneously.  “My people are the Meshûk,” he said aloud, “and I am... Ûôlkov.”  He tore a sleeve from his shirt and wetted it from his canteen. He wiped his face, removing at least the blood he could feel.

Aggravated still, he slid over to a crack and watched people pass.  Most were quiet, still with haunted eyes, looking for a face that they recognized.  Some passed in groups, chatting, seeming for all the world to know who they were speaking with.  But did they?  It had been several hours, and all he could remember was the name of his people.

“Ûôlkov.”  The urchin’s voice rattled him from his thoughts.  “We must be moving, they are gathering all foreigners, for what I do not know.  If we hurry we might make it past...”

A hand shot through the entrance and grabbed the urchin’s ankle.  In a rush of dust and flailing arms, the boy was gone.  There was a commotion, shouts and cries that Ûôlkov could not understand. The boy’s cries went abruptly silent and the head of a spear pierced the wooden wall a head’s width from where a few moments before he had been staring into the street.

The voice spoke in the tongue he and the boy shared, but with a heavy accent.  “More rats in there, come.”

Ûôlkov fought back the panic that rose within him.  He saw little hope in scurrying further beneath a building in hopes of stumbling across an exit that the urchin hadn’t been able to find.  He snorted, disgusted with his luck, and crawled from the gap in the wood, empty hands exposed.  Four men,  their bodies painted in garish reds and oranges, and wearing armor of overlapping wood and bronze straps, stood before him with spears leveled.  Each man looked at Ûôlkov in their own peculiar fashion, obvious displays of how rare his appearance must be. 

The boy laid on the hard bricks, moving, but there was a swelling welt on his forehead.   

Palms out, Ûôlkov bowed his head slightly.  “No trouble.  Peace.  Peace.”  He tried hard to appear a simple man with nothing to hide even as he pieced together his escape, and fortunately, the former appeared to be a success.  

The men relaxed, and the one ôlkov presumed the leader spoke again,  “Good.  Carry the rat, follow.”  The butt of the man’s spear rammed into the urchin’s ribs and Ûôlkov managed not to snarl. 

“Of course, yes.”  Ûôlkov knelt beside the urchin, the weight of the gold on his back making what normally would have been an easy lift a back and thigh burning chore.  With a grunt, he threw the boy over his shoulder and staggered after the two guards in the lead. 

The leader chuckled, “You are weak pig, yes.” 

Ûôlkov ignored the jibe as he concentrated on each step over the uneven cobbles.  “Where do we go?” 

“The gates.  The Guard has decided, no foreigners in city.” 

Ûôlkov was first amazed by this luck, then troubled by it.  So much luck, what terrible thing would be required to balance the Fortunes? 

He stumbled over a protruding brick and went to a knee, but recovered quickly enough to avoid a jab from the butt of a spear.  “Sorry, so sorry.  I will walk more carefully.”   

Sniveling weakness made him want to retch, but it seemed to keep these guardsmen placated as they lead him to a southern gate that exited what appeared to be a central section of the city.  Here the city clearly changed, the buildings were smaller, and many more were of wooden construction than there had been previously, and they showed signs of disrepair.  The roads too were less well kept, the stones more uneven and often rutted by what must have been decades of wagon and cart traffic. 

The path they took was winding, and ôlkov suspected that these men didn’t remember precisely where they were to going, but their direction, no matter how erratic, unerringly corrected to the south, and the further they went; the more disorderly things appeared. They passed several bodies, battered, beaten, stabbed, sliced, and even burned, but not a single one was Meshûk. He was glad for that, but at the same time he wondered if he were the only one of his people in this city. 

Small trails of smoke to the west turned to billowing clouds. The attention of the guards drifted to the smoke, but there was no reason attempt escape, and the clamor of some great commotion to the south made him wonder if armed guards might prove useful. The zig-zag alleys gave way to a wide road that ran due south. Bodies marked the trail to the commotion’s source, a plaza just inside heavily fortified gates where hundreds of people were bottlenecked between the wagon wide portcullis and armed guards like those of his escort.  

The butt of a spear jabbed Ûôlkov in the ribs, his first realization that he had even stopped to stare. He adjusted the urchin slung over his shoulder and marched past the fallen, some of which were still clinging to life. Most wounds, slight or fatal, seemed blunt force, and it appeared that several had died from trampling. The good news was that none seemed that of spear thrusts or sword strokes, so the guards apparently remained more or less civil, but ôlkov knew that getting out of those gates in one piece would not be easy. He considered dropping the kid and upping his own chances, but a sharp tug at his conscious dispelled the notion. The  boy had done right by him, and right was right just as dead was dead. 

A guard on the perimeter collapsed with his face split open from something thrown from the crowd and hell nearly broke loose, but for the restraint and commanding words of a couple officers. As the wounded was drug back the guard pressed harder, poking and prodding with the butts of their spears, shouting out commands that may or may not be understood. The tinder was dry and all it needed was the right spark. “Blood of Igorus,” he muttered. 

A few paces from the line the head of his guard gave him a shove, past the ring of guards  and into the throng, “Ibinû look after you, pig, the Four Queens are feisty today.” 

Ûôlkov’s mind raced. So many people packed together, some facing the guards, most  like him wanting no more than to get out that gate, there was no way to hurry. Then he felt it. 

It was a like soft push on his back that jingled the coins and knocked a breath from the urchin that ended with an annoying prick in his back. Screams erupted around him and chaos was a breath way. He turned to look back. He looked back and immediately spotted a man with a bow, a man with his eyes directly on him and shouting to the guards. He nocked a second arrow and Ûôlkov knew what had just happened. 

He lowered his head smashed into the crowd, the second arrow taking a woman completely through the chest to lodge in another man’s thigh. It was lightning in a dry forest. The crowd’s rage boiled over and instead of fighting for the gate they turned on the guards. Those that were armed drew their weapons and others took advantage of a moment’s surprise to seize guards and weapons and fight back. But not Ûôlkov.

He took quick advantage of the sudden gaps in the crowd and swam his way upstream as the first spears and arrows drove into the throng. He ducked as low as he could and weaved his way through the gate before there was a chance to drop the portcullis. He was battered, bruised, bloodied and exhausted by the time he broke into open ground, but he was alive. He stumbled to the backside of the gate house tower and lowered the blood slicked boy to the ground.

“Are you hurt?”

Ûôlkov spun to the sound of the voice and had to raise his eyes to meet the woman’s gaze. He stared.

“You’ve an arrow in your back, are you hurt?”

She was easily a foot and a half taller than him, with fair skin, flowing silver hair, and eyes as bright as a fine blue sapphire. “I’m fine, I think. The boy.”

The woman swept her hair over her shoulder, oblivious of the sounds of battle from inside the gate, knelt beside the urchin, and touched his wounds. “He will live,” her head nodded as if she were about to pass out and the flow of blood from the wounds ceased almost immediately. “He was lucky.”  

Ûôlkov removed his pack and squinted at the blood soaked fletching sticking from it. He grabbed the arrow and pulled, but a clash of coins stopped its removal. He glanced all around and set the pack down in shadows of the wall. The woman was still tending the boy, and people were paying attention to everything but him. He untied the pack, reached for the arrow, and removed it from the inside out. Four gold coins were pierced cleanly by the arrow. His life had been saved by an urchin’s chest and four gold coins. What kind of arrow was capable of this?

He took a few coins from the pack, slung it back over his shoulder and paced to the woman’s side. He held the arrow with skewered coins out for her to see. “Ever seen anything like this?”

She seemed to gain strength from a single deep breath, then she stood, gazing curiously at the arrow. She touched the tip of the clear, glassy arrowhead and it pulled forth a bead of blood. “Needle-Lâtxu, I believe that is called. Worth more than the coins it killed--” she paused, a strange smirk on her lovely face-- “but I have no idea how I know that.” 

“The  boy is well?” 

“He will sleep, and I will see him living until tomorrow. You should go, if that arrow was intended for you.”

Ûôlkov nodded, handed her four clean coins, “For all you have done.” He pulled the two gold coins from his pocket he had promised the urchin and handed them to her, “For him when he awakes, he earned his wages and more this day. 

With what strength remained he turned and walked from the southern gate of the city, passing through people running to and from battle as well as the wounded and crying that sat huddled on the ground. That evening he sat around a fire with a band of fellow outcasts, contemplating the evils that the day had wrought, and balancing them against three treasures. The first had already been in his pack, the second he had put there, and the third was put there by another and had nearly killed him and his only friend, a friend with less of a name than he himself had. There was balance in all things in the world but for the life of him he couldn’t figure on which side of the scale the next weight would come. Should come. 

But dead was dead, and Ûôlkov was not that.

Background Art by Jon Gibbons

© 2018 L. James Rice