Another Flash Fiction Challenge entry for Terrible Minds:
Gorseton was a good town, with solid walls and a thriving market, but, like most of Trogshold, it followed a strict religion which allowed neither practice nor preaching of other faiths. Only the single god could be worshiped, and worshiped it must be by all folk hoping to find shelter in Gorseton’s walls. These strictures made it easy for my mother and I to conceal ourselves for many months after we fled Dnarlo.
We held no regard for their faith or their god, but managed quite well to conceal our true beliefs. I found it difficult, especially when the priesthood flaunted their corruption, as they seemed to at almost any opportunity. The day we fled, I found it at the market.
The central market of Gorseton was a great square, centered by a fountain and surrounded on all sides by aisles of stalls. By dusk, many were packing up for the night, but a few stayed open later – wine stalls, those offering entertainment, and, of course, those offering religious items.
My greatest complaint about Gorseton was that they allowed no medicine that was not blessed. I know perfectly well that the yellow flower of autumn that grows in brambles, when ground to a powder will relieve pain, but to them, it would do nothing if the blessing of their god was not conferred under proper ceremony. Naturally, this made the price higher, as the priests of the single god could not accept offerings for anything other than services directly rendered. And, somehow, they managed to find enough services to offer to keep them in fine food and finer living.
I purchased the powder from the temple stall that had red shaded lamps already lit at the corners against the waning light of day. The stall keeper raised her hands in blessing, and I saw that she was a novice priest. I kept my face still as I added a copper to the payment. I wanted to skimp, or grumble, but that was not a choice given to me. Walking away from the stall, I saw the man for the first time.
He wore a black cloak that covered his body, leaving his hands and head the only points of identity. The hands were dirty and dark, but the face was lighter in color. Brown hair grew to his shoulders. In Gorseton, only men who were priests were allowed long hair, but such a faux pas would not cost the stranger much. It was what swung from his neck on a leather thong that could get him killed.
Whether it was luck or fate, I cannot say, but the pawn was black, hiding against the cloth of his cloak. I knew it quickly only because I wore its twin around my neck, carefully concealed under my clothing.
The pawn is the symbol of Ayndu’s worship. She is the Goddess to whom I pray, despite being driven from Dnarlo, Ayndu’s cradle, for a blasphemy in the minds of a corrupt priest. The pawn reminds us that we are all pawns in the games of the Gods, and to know our place is to grasp the ability to go beyond.
I made my decision in but a moment, running into him as if I were clumsy and dropping my purchase and pouch. He apologized and leaned down to help me.
“You cannot wear that here,” I whispered as our heads were close to the ground. “Do you not know they will kill you?”
“If they were going to kill me for it, then why have they not already, since I’ve passed the gate guard and paid an entry tax in return for a blessing from a worthless god?”
I gasped, both to hear their single god so named and to hear my own thoughts echoed in this stranger’s words.
“But you, you grasped me immediately. I think you’re the one I’m looking for.” He slid a hand inside his cloak and came out with a leather mask. I paled and scooped up the powder. He held my pouch, but it didn’t matter as much as fleeing.
He grabbed for my arm, but I slipped away and ran.
“Wait! Come back!” I heard him yell, but I didn’t slow. He would just draw the attention of some priest who did know the pawn for what it was.
The powder eased my mother’s pains enough to start our journey immediately, taking only what we could carry, what was prepared for exactly such a need. We headed north, and east, farther away from the lands and people that we knew.
Our first three days on the road passed without event, but on the morning of the fourth, my mother could not rise from her bedroll. We were travelling by foot and spending nights in traveler’s clearings by crossroads, but staying more than one night would attract unwanted attention. Staying for the day certainly would. I studied the signs of the crossing and compared them to my map. It would take three days for me to make the next village, and the same number back. Far too long to leave mother alone.
That’s where he found me. His black cloak was the same, but the pawn was now concealed, and his face was covered by the mask, a smooth, supple brown covering with eyeholes and slits for nose and mouth. A priest of Ayndu, come to kill us and end our journey for good.
I pulled my own pawn out from under my shirt. It shone white, brighter than I had ever seen it. The stories call that color Ayndu’s eye, and I glared at the priest, daring him to defy her sign of favor.
His eyes crinkled in what seemed like a smile. He went to his knees and pulled out a small object that he offered to me. I stepped closer. Cupped in his hands was the skull of a rat.
“Tarn was called to trial by the assembly, and found guilty of corruption. His guilt chose his final form, and I was commissioned to bring it to you as proof, and to beg for your return, Your Highness, and that of the queen mother, if she still lives.”