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Monthly Short Story Winner: Religion

Thor's Fight with the Giants by Mårten Eskil Winge

December. The darkest month with the longest night of the year. Harsh and cold days and mankind struggling in winter’s iron grip. Separated through walls of snow from others, one feels tiny and alone. What better time to remember that there are gods looking out for you? Gods, who may help you through these hard times for a little prayer or one or two blood sacrifices? Gods, created in your image – or the other way around?

This month you’re going to write a story seeped through with a religion, cult, sect or other belief system. Or more than one. Malevolent, benevolent, even consistent. I don’t care what kind of religion, as long as it’s a big part of the story. Or somebody living one, suffering through one or (why not?) creating one.

Have fun writing and remember: Everything is believable with the right amount of faith, delusion or denial.

Rules:

1. This can be prose or a poem.
2. The story must contain a religion (or more, or… see above).
3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
4. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.
5. You will be disqualified if you exceed the limits, full stop. That’s why they’re called limits.
6. Your entry can’t be published somewhere else before.

In December we had a tie! The two winning stories were “Wardu’s Wager” by Jmacyk and “Ailurophilia” by Carter.

Congrats to the both of you! 🙂

You can find all our entries here. You can also get updates on our monthly contests on Twitter by following @ffwritingcomp. And now on with the stories!

– – –

Wardu’s Wager
by Jmacyk

Glatinu and I sat in the market square, mourning for our life in the capital, trying for some flavor of home by adding ahtene to the stuff that passed for food here in the north. It was a daily competition, to see which of us could stand a stronger dose of the fiery stuff; just one of the many contests with which my brother officer and I had always passed the time. Drinking, racing, wrestling, a little light magicking, and best of all, womanizing – these were the staples of our friendship. But we ate peppers for now in this dull, religion-soaked city of Kath, with its small, odd people. Why had we even bothered to conquer them?

Our waiter had stepped up to our table quietly. “Honored citizens,” he began, with a hesitant smile and an accent on the edge of gibberish. “You new to city. I be first to welcome you?” He was perhaps the one hundredth complete stranger to welcome us, but never mind, we knew what was coming. “May inquire – you have found a church yet?”

Found a church yet. It was the refrain Glatinu and I had been hearing since our ships had arrived in Kath, relieving the men that had marched over land, surprised the northerners and taken the city. When we’d taken rooms away from the barracks, the landlord asked if we’d found a church. When we’d had our kit delivered from the docks, the gang chief took our money, then asked us if we’d happened to have found a church yet, since he could highly recommend one. From street sweepers to random passers-by it was the same.

I commented on this to the Governor, expecting him to laugh at the locals, but he looked at me seriously and said, “Make yourself useful, then, Wardmulidan and enlist. Someone on my staff needs to understand these people.”

I was thinking about this as Glatinu chased off our proselytizing server. Somehow I’d not been able to bring myself to cross the threshold of any church, temple or anchorage. The Emperor was my god: who needed another? But, there it was, the governor’s request-cum-order.

“I tell you what, Glati,” I said, in the moment the thought occurred to me. “I will take a dare. If the very next girl who walks by our table can be persuaded to invite me, I will sign up today, no matter whether she have three eyes and an extra nostril.”

“Alright, if you insist,” said my friend. “I dare you. But I think you will be bored five minutes after the chanting starts.”

“It’s a wager,” said I. “I stand drinks for the next week if I fail.”

“The next woman we see?” he said with a sly look.

“The very next,” I replied. As a wicked smile crossed his lips, I turned to see one of the witches of Kath moving across the plaza like a ship in a high wind, wrapped in a sea-green robe from head to toe, on business that surely did not include me.

Thinking I would be a pauper by the end of the week – Glatinu was a ferocious drinker – I rapped the table for luck, spit over my shoulder for protection, and sallied out. But trying to stop the witch was like trying to hold back the sea.

“Subject,” was all I could address to her before she sailed past without a pause. I half-ran to get ahead of her to make another attempt. I stepped into her path, swept a bow, and started, “Honored subject–”, before a gloved finger reached toward me, and I found myself stumbling in sudden pain.

She had magicked me. Touched me, and turned me! Shame prickled, and anger, that an officer of the Empire, me, was being swatted aside without the slightest effort. I spun back, and without thinking summoned fire to my hands. It flashed through my mind that the witches had held our armies at bay for more than a month before surrendering. But wisdom sometimes comes too late; my spell shot at her like a whip. And disappeared with no effect into the deep green folds of her cloak. She stopped then, a full one hundred paces distant, and pivoted toward me. I heard Glati yelling, sensed that Kathians all around were finding better places to be. I fell beneath a wave of power.

It seemed to last forever, and left me breathless, battered, and blind. When the weight and roll of it lifted, I was on my knees, gasping. Glati was at my side, calling for our men. My head was spinning, but I was conscious enough to wonder how we’d ever bested such women. Soldiers were running to us from their posts around the plaza, and I had the sense things could get out of hand quickly. My anger turned to fear of being the agent of a situation I wanted nothing of.

“Hold!” I croaked. “Stand down, Glatinumishdan! Stand down, everyone!” I stood carefully, pulling on his arm for strength.

The witch smoldered where she stood.

“Your pardon, lady,” I called, using my shipboard voice. “There has been a misunderstanding.”

I do not know what might have happened then, for I sensed her rage even at this distance. But the moment passed, because another figure appeared at the witch’s side. She was a twin of my opponent, but in the palest blue. They stood like competing depths of the sea, and inaudible words passed between them. My assailant stalked away at last, while this second came toward our group.

She regarded us neutrally, her expression hidden by her veil, except for extraordinary, cool eyes. I wanted to bandy with her as I did with all women, but I was learning not to presume with these witches.

“You wanted to speak with us, foreigner?” she asked in an arresting voice with just a slight northern burr. She was as short as all of her countrymen, but carried herself with great dignity.

My wits were returning quickly, but those eyes and that voice unbalanced me anew. “My apologies, lady. I simply wished to ask a question of one who clearly must have great knowledge.” I thought I sounded quite diplomatic, but Glatinu bit back a laugh.

“My sister is not one for words with the empire’s men.”

“But you?”

“A realist.”

“I am thankful, lady.”

She looked at me steadily, and I reddened, thinking about the bet with Glati, and how I had thought to play with these people. Seeing my chagrin, she softened.

“A question, you said?”

“Yes,” I answered. Our men, with calm restored, moved back to their posts. “Since we arrived here, I have been the, um, honored recipient of many invitations to join a church.” I smiled with a bit of my usual humor, “I think I’ve been invited to join every church in Kath. Could we have been invited over fifty times, Glatinu?”

“Maybe twenty,” he corrected.

“Ah,” said the witch, “I see. Have you found a church yet.”

“Exactly.”

“And you have no idea, foreigner, why people you have conquered, whose armies you have blasted, would want you to join them in worship? I will tell you.” I saw a smile in her eyes then. “You see this city. It is a great wheel, with eight thoroughfares as spokes meeting in this plaza, and a great church at each joining.” She paused, as though perhaps this was too complicated for me and I nodded understanding. “In twenty days, at the turning of the moon, it will be our great Festival. Each congregation will compete in prayer, in artistry, and in strength.”

“Strength?” I repeated, meeting eyes with Glatinu. Strength was something we knew.

“We bring forth images of our saints, and each church competes to be first to drag its avatar from the edge of the city to the heart. It is a glorious day for us, when we remember who we are, and what we are.”

“But,” said I, plainly, “I am the Emperor’s man, a foreigner.”

“Look at yourself, soldier. You stand a full span taller than any of us. You bore the fury of my sister’s magick. We look at you,” and she laughed suddenly like a land breeze after weeks at sea, “and we think ‘This one could pull a rope!’”

Which is how Glatinumishdan and I found ourselves twenty days later stripped to the waist, sweating, swearing, and laughing with our fellow congregants as we dragged the heaviest damned block of carved weirdness I’d ever seen from the edge of the city to the very center. I’d found a tale for the governor, but I’d found much more.

She walked ahead of us, clad in fairest robes of blue, like foam on a cresting wave, calling us to strength and speed. I’d found my church, oh yes. And she could have my heart, my soul, my very being for the asking.

– – –

Ailurophilia
by Carter

“It’s just a cat.”

The whisper tore the reverential silence like a gunshot. Marius smirked as heads turned, angry, judgmental frowns distorting the faces of all around him. He did not see his mother move but he felt the effect of her stinging hand across the back of his skull.

“Oww! What was that for?”

Surprise rather than pain elicited the brief cry, his petulance feigned. All his actions, all the likely consequences had been carefully considered and he intended to milk his time in the limelight for all it was worth. His mother glared at him, unwilling to be the next person to break the sanctity of the temple, trying to compel him into silent submission. However, he harboured no such compunctions and ploughed onwards.

“It’s the truth. It’s only a cat. And not even a dangerous one.”

He gestured at the dais. Positioned on a pedestal at the front of the temple, the cat slept. Curled into a tight ball, its whiskers occasionally twitched. Its sleek calico fur was unruffled and barely moving in time with every slow breath. The deep, blasphemous rebellion stirred even more within him. It had not even deigned to be awake for the latest bout of religious adoration, let alone his virtuoso performance.

“If it were a lion, or a tiger, I could understand. They’re cool. But it’s just a housecat. And you just have to sit here. For an hour. Even though it’s asleep.”

He tried to keep his tone disinterested but couldn’t help himself. The first creeping, stirring flashes of humour cut through his words and his lips curled into a genuine smile. Everyone had turned to look at him now, his mother’s face a mask of outraged horror. And oh how he basked in its warmth. How he revelled in their shock and righteous anger. How he craved every scrap of attention. After all, it was the reason he had allowed his mother to convince him to come to this ridiculous ceremony in the first place.

The commotion roused one of the priests from his position at the base of the pedestal. With sinuous, feline grace, he came to his feet. The figure-hugging, leopard-print outfit he wore almost made Marius burst into a fit of giggles. The headdress sporting ears and whiskers had his stomach churning with suppressed laughter. As the priest crept closer, he watched smug satisfaction replace fury on the faces of the congregation as they anticipated holy punishment meted out to the blasphemer.

Up close Marius was surprised to see just how old the man was. Deep wrinkles and dull eyes belied the smoothness of his gait. Under his gaze Marius straightened, shuffling against the cold, hard seat so he could sit proud and uncaring, meeting the priest’s stare with one of his own.

“You doubt Our Lady? Our Goddess? You do not believe in Her divinity? Her power?”

He had expected vehement bluster. From the shock on everyone’s faces they had imagined a verbal lashing. The mockery in the priest’s tone and the twinkle of amusement in the corner of his eyes came as a complete, sharp shock. A heartbeat of mental acrobatics was all it took for Marius to adjust.

“Yes.”

A nod emphasised his decree, the single word intended to slice through any pomposity and act as his own denunciation of all those who chose this temple and this deity out of the plethora available all along the Avenue of a Hundred Gods. After all, other temples, other priests, offered more entertainment, more evangelical performances that stirred the soul and enraptured their audience. To say nothing of the other gods themselves who all looked more impressive, more powerful than a silly, little cat.

Instead of embarrassed spluttering, the priest’s lips merely quirked upwards into a smile as a low, disapproving grumble swept through the temple.

“Why?”

If there had been anyone observing the inside of his head at that moment, they would have marvelled at his brain’s gymnastics, the aerial improbabilities he performed to regain his balance and find his feet. If there had been an award for such things, he would have beaten all competition in that single instant.

“My neighbours have a cat. It’s lazy. It sleeps all the time. It barely hunts and they have to feed it themselves. Yours probably can’t even manage that much and it’s supposed to be a god. Gods do things. Everyone knows that. They do miracles. They have powers. They help people. They can look after themselves. Yours can’t even be bothered to wake up for its followers. Cats are just animals.”

Marius came to his feet, literally rising to the occasion and addressing his audience with sweeping gestures. Everyone stared in horrified fascination and he loved every glance, every intake of breath.

“Come with me.”

The outstretched palm and the calm voice almost undid him. It confounded all expectations. After attacking the cat’s divinity, he ought to face severe punishment, ought to have incurred divine wrath. For the first time he felt a sliver of an inkling of doubt. Stealthy and cautious, it crept into his consciousness and prepared to pounce. But he had come too far, had enjoyed himself far too much to turn aside now. Instead he took the proffered hand. The priest’s smile broadened.

“Why him? I’ve been coming here for years. I’ve been faithful. I’ve –”

The priest’s roving gaze found the speaker and subdued her in an instant. An annoyed frown marred his face and Marius grinned. Knowing that others considered him blessed and chosen, somehow singled out for special treatment, made the farce all the more hilarious. He stood tall and lengthened his stride as the priest led him up the aisle towards the cat.

If anything, up close the animal looked even less impressive. The black and ginger patches that had seemed so precise, so defined from a distance almost looked as if they bled into each other and the apparently pristine white was speckled with fine, dark hairs. Geometric patterning was revealed as a lie as randomness prevailed. His lips curled in distaste and he opened his mouth to utter fresh obscenity.

“Touch her.”

The command stopped him before he could begin. The dare dripped from the priest’s voice, the desire to make him baulk, to return silent and chastised to his seat, evident in each syllable. Clearly everyone in room willed him to rethink his blasphemy. Instead he reached out in defiance.

Beneath his fingertips the fur was fine, soft and velveteen. He rested his palm against it and smiled at the priest, hoping for some sign of shock that he had actually risked touching the priest’s god. From the faces of the watching throng, they at least had expected some response from the cat, some sign of divine displeasure at his temerity. Yet nothing happened. His touch provoked no retribution and yet the priest continued to smile.

The cat stirred. Subtle, slow movements under his hand alerted him to the beginnings of wakefulness. Soft vibrations travelled through his hand as the cat started a deep, buzzing purr; all resonance and little sound. Subconsciously, his thumb moved, tracing the curve of the cat’s spine and the thrum intensified.

A languid eyelid cracked open. A dark, slit pupil stared out at him rimmed in almost fluorescent gold. Muscles stretched and pressed back against his hand and the purr flooded his senses.

Yes. You can serve me and mine.

The voice, feminine and sultry, slipped through his mind; quick, nimble and inescapable. He tried to jerk his hand away but it remained traitorously in place and continued its caresses. With every movement, every display of bliss from the cat, he became increasingly transfixed, unable to look away, to focus on anything except the sleek form before him.

You can call me My Lady.

For a brief moment, resistance flared. Words and protestations tried to force their way towards clamped lips only to stick in his throat like a hairball.

“Yes, My Lady.”

The cat’s eye closed as it settled back into sleep. Yearning cascaded through him. He longed to see that eye again, feel her gaze and her beauty turned towards him and her voice in his head. Enraptured, he could only stare, his hand finally motionless. The priest took his hand between his own, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.

“I welcome you into our fellowship. You have truly been blessed by our Lady.”

Around him the crowd stared, mouths agape, his mother’s among them.

“Come. I shall introduce you to the kittens.”

– – –

Congratulations again to Jmacyk and Carter! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for more information. Happy writing!

Title image by Mårten Eskil Winge.

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