33 Days to the Eve of Snows

The Chanting Caverns earned their name from the drone of howling winds caught by a series of caves that dotted the rising mountains to either side of the Œmindî Pass. Dependent upon the strength and direction of the winds the chant could range from soothing song and whispers to a powerful and haunting chorus, but on this day, deep within the belly of the mountain the chant of the winds merged with the rattle of ivory dice. The game was Hawk and Snake, and Tôkôdin already knew he wasn’t a winner, the question that remained was if he were a loser.

If the next roll totaled less than eighteen the game would pass the dice to him, but if it were eighteen or over he would lose all the coins he would rely on for next week’s ale. That was not a happy thing. 

He waited with bated breath as the dice rattled across the stone floor.

Angin, leader of the game, called out, “Seven Days and Two Nights, for a total of Nine. Pass the bones and ante up!” Ten monks and two priests hooted their pleasure, while the roller and one other groaned, and all bets remaining on their marks were shoved into a growing pot that sported a few glints of silver amid the bronze.

Tôkôdin snatched the dice from the floor, tossed the ante of two Songs into the pot  and rattled four dice in his hand. The Roller always had advantage, and if he could roll all ones or all sixes on the first roll he automatically took the entire pot. He cast them on the ground with the three white dice yielding a total of eleven and the painted black die a four. 

Angin, leader of the game, called out, “Eleven days and four nights, no win, the target is set at fifteen.” A good deal of muttering and jingling ensued as people counted coins and placed them on their marks beside the Hawk and Snake lines. Tôkôdin placed his mark and five songs on the third Snake.

Tôkôdin blew into his hand. The dice had been unkind on this and most other days, but one good turn could return all that he had lost. There were several variations of Hawk and Snake, some with wagers on individual rolls, but here near the Crack of Burdenis and far from a house game, the priests and monks simplified the rules. The wager was on how often the roller would roll above or below the Target consecutively, with a maximum of five rolls. If those five rolls were all above or below the Target, all bets got pushed to the middle and the dice passed. If at any time after the target roll the dice came up four of a kind of any sort, the Roller claimed all side bets and passed the dice. If the roller matched the target on a roll, then the roller took the pot and all side bets. If he managed to match the third Snake then he would take all side bets not of the third Snake, a roller’s bonus, while splitting the pot with others who laid their coin in the third Snake, with shares counted by Songs wagered and order of bet.

The dice hit the stone with a clatter. “Seven days and three nights, for a total of ten, the game goes Snake.” As quickly as that, all who had put their bet on Hawks were not going to win this round. 

Tôkôdin scooped the dice, “Get me drunk, my little darlings.”

Angin called out, “Eight days and one night for a total of nine, Two Snakes and counting.”

Tôkôdin took a deep breath and rubbed the dice between both hands, cast.

“Eight days and six Nights for a total of fourteen, Three Snakes and counting.”

As he grabbed the dice his heart was racing; fifteen or above and his pouch wouldn’t be empty. He tapped his fist full of dice to his forehead and let them fly.

Angin grinned his way, “Three days and two nights for a total of five, Four Snakes and counting.”

His hand was slower now as he picked up the dice, glared at the pips.

Lôpus, who’s money was on Four Snakes, thumped his shoulder. “Three ones and a two, the night die taunts you, friend.”

Tôkôdin smirked at his oldest friend, a man who had started his acolyte training at nearly the same time and age as he had. “You are wrong, they all taunt me.” He glared at the dice again, “Fifteen or four of a kind, you worthless bones.” He cast the dice.He buried his face in his hands.

“Fourteen days and six nights for a total of twenty! Four Snakes is the winner.”

Lôpus hooted and slapped hands with Pindin who also had his money on the Fourth Snake, as Angin collected the side bets and started divvying up the pot before the next round.

With a groan of stiff muscles and agonizing loss Tôkôdin rose to his feet and wandered toward the Crack of Burdenis. “If I threw myself down this hole would I come up fifteen?”

Tîkotu, Third Priest of Burdenis who had not been gambling stood by the stair that lead down into the Crack. “With your spit poor luck I’d say you come up dead.” The priest was in his fifties, and his gut suggested that they feasted well at the Crack when there weren’t lowly guests such as Tôkôdin.

“Your compassion soothes me to the marrow.” He looked down the steep zig-zagging stair that had long ago been carved in the wall of the crack. He could count twenty torches set into the descent before the darkness swallowed their meager lights.

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?”

It was little consolation that something less than a poor man’s fortune had been his own. A monk’s stipend was a meager thing.

“Tôkôdin! You in the next round?” cried Lôpus.

He didn’t bother to turn around, he just raised his pouch and shook the few coins remaining and slipped it back into his pocket, then sat at the edge of the Crack and leaned against the pulley-post. He had heard that it was fifteen-hundred steps to the bottom, uneven, curving and worn, and miles of tunnels beyond before finally reaching access to the shrine. Somewhere within that maze was a shrine to Burdenis, Patron God of the Snows, Eldest Brother of Sl, and one of the most important gods of the Pantheon. Lowly monks such as himself rarely had the honor of praying at that shrine, and one look at those narrow rounded steps leading into an abyss made him not mind that at all.

Tôkôdin rubbed his eyes and gazed blearily into the black hole before him. There was a dim pulse of light and moments later a low echoing rumble. He looked around to see whether anyone else had heard this to find Tîkotu standing over his shoulder, and the game of Hawk and Snake gone silent and staring his way. 

Another flash, no brighter than the first, set off a  rumble deeper and far more powerful. Tôkôdin was to his feet and the gamblers scurried to the edge of the Crack. 

Lôpus stood beside him. “What did you see?”

“Two flashes of light, deep enough to be bottom.” 

Guntar, the priest Tôkôdin answered directly to, edged through the press of milling monks. “We should go down there.”

Tîkotu grumbled, “Half of you or more would be dead from fall before you got there. We wait here.”

Guntar didn’t dare glare at the senior priest, but Tôkôdin knew him well enough to read the wrinkles in his brow. “I bow to your wisdom; of course.”

They all witnessed a pulse of light and another rumble echoed from the deeps. Then there was silence, long pensive silence. Gradually most of the monks and priests meandered from the Crack, convincing themselves that whatever had occurred below wasn't their concern. Tôkôdin could not.

It had been nearly a half an hour, and still he couldn’t shake the notion that there were screams hidden in the rumbles. “What were they doing down there, Tîkotu? What could they possibly be doing to cause that?”

The older man sucked his teeth and rested his arms on his belly. “I haven’t the slightest pissin’idea.” He chortled, “But don’t ever believe our betters don’t come up with some fool ideas.” 

The bell attached to the pulley-post rang loud and sharp, jarring those at the top of the Crack from their thoughts, and the rope began to move. Not a soul hurried to the Crack but everyone milled in that general direction before finally coming to a stop to stare at the pulley and its rope.

Minutes later a container arrived and Tîkotu pulled forth two scrolls, opening and reading one. “Guntar, gather your people. You ride for Istinjôln immediately. Burdenis shield you from the snow’s might.”

Tôkôdin huffed, so much for a fire and warm night’s sleep in the caves. It would be a long cold walk out of the mountains. 

◎     ◎     ◎

They were eight hours out from the Crack of Burdenis and only an hour or two from passing out of the Œmindî Pass and into relative safety. Few Colôk attacks in the region occurred outside the Pass, but they couldn’t get comfortable until they reached the village of Ervinhîn, and that was a destination they wouldn’t make until well after dark.

Tôkôdin felt a chill run the length of his spine, but it had nothing to do with the bitter winds and pellets of ice in the air. He pulled his fur-lined cloak tight, peered from beneath the hood, searching for any movement in the snow splotched walls of the Œmindî Pass. Somewhere, anywhere, in the rocks that jutted all around them could hide a Colôk scout, and where there was a scout...

The echoing cry of a Colôk warrior ricocheted between the stone walls, overpowering the howl of the winds. Tôkôdin muttered a prayer to Burdenis and felt a comforting heat start at his heart and spread slowly through his veins like warm molasses. 

Seven monks and two priests walked behind him, and in the middle of them all rode Guntar upon his stocky mountain pony, its coat and mane thick and long to endure the weather in the Estertôk Range. It was for Guntar’s safety that the monks and priests walked encircling him, for he was the messenger. Tôkôdin hadn’t a clue what the message was, or why it was so important, but he did know that his own life was forfeit if it meant the survival of this priest and his message. Every time he glanced at Guntar he could only imagine what that message might contain to explain the mysterious events within the Crack. 

A stone about the size of a man’s head clattered from the rocks above.

Tôkôdin crouched and a prayer of fire ignited his hands. For a moment he imagined the rock as the head of one of the priests they had left at the Crack of Burdenis, but to his chagrin it was nothing more than a rock. 

“A little jumpy, aren’t you? That rock remind you of your dice?”  Lôpus’eyebrows did a smart-assed dance. Tôkôdin smirked at Lôpus and they shared a smile and chuckle that spread through the entire group. The fire that enveloped his hands died away.

The assuagement of his unease was momentary at best as they moved forward. When walking point on an escort stalked by Colôk it would take more than a few glib words to sooth his raw nerves. If attacked, the odds were they’d be the first or the last to die, and neither result was particularly appealing. 

“Move along!” Guntar shouted over the winds, but even a mere twenty feet from the lead priest the voice was faint in the wind. Tôkôdin took a single step through ankle deep snow before a powerful bellow shook his soul. Louder than the call of a bull elk, and far more terrifying, Tôkôdin had never heard a Colôk so close. His hands blazed, but this time there was no laughter.

It happened faster than he could have imagined, the world blurring into blood and snow before he knew what happened. The shrill whinny of the pony was first and Tôkôdin spun to see a stone the size of a man’s chest crush Pindin to the ground in the back of the party. His life's blood blotted the snow.

Lightning blazed from the sky and struck harmlessly against the walls of the Œmindî Pass, missing whatever its target had been as Guntar’s pony spun him in uncontrollable circles. The priest yanked at the creature’s reins, unable to focus his prayers and unable to control his mount.

As Tôkôdin stood, staring and lost in a moment of gore and mayhem, he felt a chill on the back of his neck and he whirled to face the nightmare of these mountains. A Colôk warrior sailed through the air and landed with a grace seemingly impossible for a creature that stood ten feet tall and weighed five hundred stones. Covered in fur, leather, and crude mail, the brute of a monster wielded a club longer than Tôkôdin was tall. 

Tôkôdin’s breath fled his lungs in a scream that might as well have been that of a mute amongst the sounds of terror that surrounded him, and the creature seemed to smile at him. To smile!

Flame blazed from his hands toward the beast, but it might as well have been the chicanery of a court jester, as with a single sweeping gesture it seemed the very winds of the mountains came to the Colôk’s aid. Puddles formed at the feet of the beast as the fires diverted harmlessly to the ground.

Howls, explosions, and screams echoed all around him, but for Tôkôdin this was a moment frozen in time. He could see the yellow fangs of the Colôk, the black of its bear-like eyes, and beneath those deeply inset orbs the flesh pulsed a bloody red, a terrifying trait that men called the blood-rage.

Another prayer screamed into his brain, and a shield of electricity swallowed his body, crackling and popping with the blowing snows. The Colôk skulked a few steps, and with a leap startling in its speed and distance, it was in range before Tôkôdin could mutter the first couple words of a second prayer. There was a flash, an explosion of pain as the Colôk’s club struck his shoulder, and thunder as his defensive prayer struck back at his attacker.

Tôkôdin crunched against a boulder, his left shoulder a useless heap of flesh and bone. “Lôpus,” he muttered, but he knew there was no way anyone could hear such a pathetic lament. He gazed at his attacker. The Colôk’s club left a trail of smoke, and the creature itself appeared dazed, but all the power of his prayer had done little to keep the beast from pressing its attack.

The Colôk shook the thunder’s concussion from its head and lumbered toward Tôkôdin while using its club as a walking stick. From somewhere around him he could still hear screams, and the intermittent explosion of a prayer’s might, but for him all hope was gone. With his shoulder crushed and any attempts at prayer splintered by pain, his doom walked toward him at its leisure.

Then there was fire and hope, as Lôpus weaved a prayer beside him. The flames seared the creature, its fur turning to a cloud of reek. Tôkôdin smiled, or at least he tried to, but his hope turned out to be brief, as insubstantial as the warmth of a kiss on a winter’s day. The glaive’s strike came from the corner of his eye and left his friend of twenty years standing without a head. The priest's blood splattered across his face and robes, and he vomited through his own pain as he watched the body crumple to knees and finally a heap.

The sounds of battle dissipated as the Colôk who had broken Tôkôdin’s shoulder rolled in the snow and snuffed the flames. Tôkôdin heard the sound of a pony in the distance, but he was uncertain if the priest and his message were still aboard the terrified creature, or if his carcass too littered the Œmindî Pass.

With his back still to the boulder where he had landed Tôkôdin refused to look up, choosing instead to stare at the blood and filth that soaked the snow between his legs. Even when he heard the footfalls of a Colôk approach, and could see the creature’s black claws that dug ice and stone for traction, he refused to lock eyes with his doom.

The silence all around him was nearly as terrifying as the sounds of battle had been, as he knew that the eyes of every Colôk must surely be upon him. He muttered a prayer under his breath, but no power would be forthcoming, for this prayer asked only for a merciful death.

The Colôk that stood in front of him growled, and in that snarl he could swear he heard the word “weakling,” and at this, the last moment of his life, he would not be able to deny the accusation.

The blow came as a love tap to his head, or was it that he no longer had feeling? Tôkôdin swayed and leaned into the snow, where he lay gazing into the dead eyes of Lôpus until his own blood blinded him. Then, darkness.

◎     ◎     ◎

Guntar leaned heavily on the exhausted pony’s neck, twining his bloodied hands in its mane for grip and warmth. Nightfall was nearly upon him, and despite having reached the foothills where snow had yet to collect, darkness promised to bring with it a frigid cold.

His prayers were as weak as his body and barely able to keep him alive. He feared if he stopped to make a fire that he wouldn’t have the strength to remount, and afoot he was assuredly dead. As he swayed in the saddle, fighting to retain consciousness, his mind often wandered to the leather tube strapped to his side.

What was it that he was apparently going to die in the effort to deliver? He knew only that some event of magnitude was occurring in the Treaty Lands, or so he had pieced together from slivers of conversations he should not have heard.  Then the lights and thunder deep in the Crack of Burdenis, somehow it all had to be connected. Every time he thought of that sealed tube, some part of his mind promised that he would open it before he made that journey down the Road of Living Stars to the House of Sôl and take its secrets with him. His other half would argue that Sôl would seal the doors against him, condemning him to the Slave Fields, for such a transgression.

It would only be fair for a man to know what he died for, wouldn’t it? Would Sôl really hold that against him after so many years of faithful service?

The pony stumbled, and Guntar would have tumbled to the ground and found his final resting place if not for the saddle straps that made sure he and his message stayed with the pony. His mount stumbled, bringing him back from his ruminating and he quickly checked his tethers, pulled them so tight that he knew his legs should ache, but there was only a vague pressure. 

Guntar mouthed a prayer of healing and a tiny surge of energy sparked within his being, but it was so much less than he had hoped. He reached for his canteen, but when he lifted to pour, he found only ice. Until that moment, he had not realized just how thirsty he was. 

He fell back to his pony’s neck and thought maybe he should name this faithful beast in whom he now entrusted his life. A silly thought, he admonished himself. Undoubtedly, someone had named it before.

He blinked. Or had he just reawakened? Full night was upon him, and there was no longer much pain. His arms dangled past the pony’s withers to rub its legs as it walked. Not only couldn’t he feel his hands, he could barely move his fingers.

He raised his head a fraction and saw lights in the distance. Ervinhîn, the pony must have brought him to Ervinhîn, Sôl’s praise to this fine beast. 

The next time he blinked, he was inside a small palisaded town where a woman cried out.

“A rider! Wounded rider!”

He had no strength to call out, to say yes, I am here, help me. Before his eyes closed again, he saw men running to him, men who wore the cloaks of the Côerkin Patrols.

“What we got here?” He heard a voice ask.

The next voice was extremely close, right next to his head. “An Istinjôln man. A priest with a message judgin’by the straps on his legs.” He felt his head lifted roughly by his hair, and his eyes opened for the last time to see a balding man staring back at him. “But he won’t be finishin’this delivery unless we prop him up with a stick.” There was a chuckle amid the muttered prayers from several others, and the man let go of his hair and his head dropped to rest against the pony’s side.

Guntar stared at the dirt until his vision faded, his final thought that he really should have opened that scroll and taken its secrets with him to the other side. But, it was too late now.

Background Art by Jon Gibbons

© 2018 L. James Rice