This story was rejected, but I rather like it. Flash fiction is really fucking hard! March on and whatnot… 😉
Jek’s hide wrapped boots crunched in the snow on the ascent trail of Doli’s Peak.
“Do we really have to do this?” Loric said.
“To lead the clan you must earn Doli’s respect, little brother. Visiting the mountain god’s shrine is tradition.”
“I hate that word.”
Jek smiled. “My time readying you is almost past. You will wed Orla and then tradition will mean other things.”
“Securing the future,” Jek said.
“Warm fires and a child’s heartbeat.”
“The end of Orla’s hunting and my hidework,” Loric countered.
“You’ll change your song soon enough.”
“Spoken like a true priest with vows,” Loric muttered, kicking a clump of snow.
The wooded trail ended and Doli’s ascent path tread carefully alongside a great drop, a smattering of trees and drifts to their left, and a sheer fall to their right. The way was safe, marked with dyed yellow strips of cloth around poles, and Jek believed in the mountain god.
The wind suddenly screamed and hammered into Jek. He stumbled as his foot punched through the snow packed trail, burying his leg up to mid thigh. Jek hid his face against the lashing snow.
The gust vanished as quickly as it had come, the blowing snow swirling away. Jek twisted around and blinked.
Loric was gone, only dark hole in the snow. and
Jek wrenched himself free and crawled over. He pawed at the edge of the gap in the trail. This wasn’t possible, the trail had been marked, sanctified by the priesthood. This was Doli’s path, his path, Loric’s path.
And it had crumbled.
The base camp of Euphoria was half a league up the Darkfrost Mountains built under an overhanging outcrop of black granite. Jek leaned against the snow dusted wood railing outside the hut. Loric had vanished through the snow drift without a sound and Jek flinched as he imagined Loric’s face frozen in agony, buried in a tomb of snow.
“Jek,” Orla said.
Jek watched dark plumes of cook smoke from his village rise like thin, blackened fingers above the wintergreen trees in the valley below.
Orla moved beside him. “The hawk will have reached them. Your father will have read the message by now.”
Jek swallowed. “When do you leave?”
“We leave in half a bell.”
“ The Firstborn guides the Second. I have lived my life by that tenet and now…”
Jek stared across the snow bound slopes below, the wind swirling and playing. Doli’s Breath washed across the mountain, completely uncaring, roving with absolute indifference. Jek felt a bittersweet, rotten darkness grow in his chest and his heart beat wildly.
Doli had done this.
Jek snarled. “I will spit in Doli’s face before I leave. Burn the shrine and piss on it.”
There was a moment of silence between them.
“I’m coming with you then.”
“I must go alone,” he croaked.
Orla grabbed Jek by the shoulder and yanked him away from the railing. “You do not get to decide for me, priest,” she hissed.
Jek’s face burned as he met her bloodshot eyes and saw her tear crusted cheeks. The cold wind swirled snow around Jek’s numb legs and he sucked in a breath of harsh air.
“Doli might destroy us,” Jek whispered.
“What Doli can or cannot do is no concern of mine,” she rasped. “You’ll lead us there?”
“Get your sword,” he said.
The shrine was an old cave at the end of a thin path off Euphoria’s ascent trail. Frozen ropes bound snowy, patched hide, barring the entrance. Frostpine trees bowed on either side of the hole in the slope, ice and snow fused to their bark in great clumps, the burden forcing the branches low.
Jek watched Orla draw her sword. She launched at the door, hacking and slashing. Her steel slid through sinew and sliced the frozen sheets of hide until it was in splinters and shards at her feet.
“You have the flint?” Jek said.
“Yes, and the oilcloth,” Orla said.
Jek started down the rocky slope, left hand out for balance as his boots slid and squeaked on slick stone.
The passage descended until it opened into a small cave lit by ice tinted light from a shaft above their heads. In the centre was the shrine. Atop of a raised platform of leaning shale, frozen bones bound by cord had been worked into the form of a bear mid lunge, maw split wide, a desiccated paw raised to strike.
The wind rushed with a guttural growl around them like a guard dog showing its teeth. The tattered hide draped over the dirty white rib cage flapped.
Orla raised her sword and Jek’s stomach roiled, was Doli going to strike them down?
The wind dropped away.
“Jek,” Orla said, and held out a strip of oil soaked cloth.
Jek grabbed the other end. Together they began to wrap Doli’s shrine.
As Jek’s numb fingers unrolled the cloth he felt hot tears leak on his cheeks. He should have been able to wrap Loric’s body in last rites. There was their southern expedition to Volryr in the spring. The future as an uncle, to watch Loric and Orla’s children grow and teach them as his duty as Second son.
Jek jerked as the cloth pulled tight and slipped out of his hands. “I’m out,” he said.
“So am I,” Orla whispered.
“Let’s burn it.”
Sour black smoke puffed from the wrapped shrine as it caught fire. Jek and Orla retreated up the passage, Jek’s lungs burning and his eyes watering. Orla coughed and cursed.
Jek burst from the jaws of the cave, the fresh air blasting the gumminess from his face. He sank to his knees, breathing deep and then felt Orla’s hand on his shoulder.
“Will you return to the monastery?” She said in a quiet voice.
Jek stared at the ice shackled trees and frozen ground. “I’m not Doli’s priest anymore.”