The Last God
Gillian St. Kevern © 2022
All Rights Reserved
The Kindly One Speaks
The dead man’s eyes reflected the chill grey sky. The wind dragged at his tunic, giving him, for an instant, life. But the gods, though cruel, had yet some mercy. Kel was alone in the burning village.
“Earth Mother…” The words stuck in his throat. They meant nothing to him. They meant even less to the corpse.
Kel’s dirt-caked hands locked around the handle of the shovel. None but him saw the observations made; none cared. The man’s family would not return to the village until the death rites had been completed—if they returned at all.
Smoke stung his eyes. The fire was dying now, too, burning itself out in the ruined house at his back. Beside it lay the two yet to be buried.
The accusation in their dead eyes was too much to bear. “Earth Mother. From clay, you made us.” It was not as if she listened. As if any of them listened. “Sky Father. You breathed us into life.” Bile rose in his throat. Burying the dead was the lowest task anyone in the Nine Lands could do, and he couldn’t even do that right.
“The dead need no counsel.” His cheeks burned. Two years on, and Jayna’s words still stung. He’d confessed his doubt in the gods to the head-priest, and this had been her solution. “Go tell Samel, the gravedigger, you relieve him of his duty.” His horror must have shown on his face because her expression softened. “Serving the Unknown God is not easy. Other gods reward their servants, but we must find reward in our service. Make your work your purpose.”
Kel drew a deep breath. Digging graves was all he had. “Mighty Sea. You bestowed on us the life fluids. From three, we are one in life. In death, we become three again.”
There was something in the familiarity of the words. He scattered a handful of soil into the grave. “Rest peacefully in the embrace of Mother Earth.” He’d found a knife nearby the man’s body and cleaned it. He placed it on the man’s chest so he might cut free of his shadow. “May your shade descend without obstacle to Gentle Death’s kingdom.” Finally, the three tin coins. “May your spirit soar, free of earthly debts, to join the gods in perfect communion.” He shut his eyes. “I ask this, in the names of the Eleven and the one as yet Unknown.” The secret names of the gods came easily to his lips, sealing his prayer.
Kel began filling in the grave. A priest without faith was good for one thing at least. Maybe in time this would be enough…
How many deaths would it take for him to be satisfied with his fate? Kel saw the years stretch out ahead of him, a succession of empty graves to fill, until he was as numb inside as the dead were cold. The shovel slid from his grip.
The distant thunder of hooves was a relief. The North raiders back to finish the job. Kel looked over the waterlogged rice fields to the riders, distant but steadily growing closer, the cloudy sky flashing on their weapons.
Mechanically, he reached for the shovel. He searched within himself for fear but found only resignation. Had he known this was coming? Ever since news of the attack had reached the Farport temple, he’d felt a strange sense of dislocation, as if his shadow and breath already strained to leave his mortal body. Being struck down suddenly was no hard thing.
If it was sudden. Kel’s legs tensed. The godless North raiders took special delight in torturing priests. His death would not be quick, nor would it be final. No one would bury him.
Well, that’s just fine. Kel pushed his shoulders back, hefting the shovel. Grave dirt still clung to it, coating his grey cloak, now his funerary garment. He took a deep breath, beginning his recitation of the funeral rites again. There was one comfort at least. His existence could not possibly get any worse than this.
But as Kel raised his gaze to the rapidly approaching horsemen, he glimpsed gold on blue. His blood chilled. He licked numb lips, blinking, but there was no denying the burnished copper of their breast plates. The North raiders rode out draped in animal pelts. Armour meant soldiers. Blue and gold meant—
Kel’s chest pounded painfully. Sky’s soldiers—in this deserted village? He looked around, but there was nowhere to hide. The raider’s destruction had been thorough.
Do not be a fool. Kel drew a breath, forcing himself to hold it. That they were Sky’s soldiers meant nothing. Iscar was a general. Would Sky send his war-maker to protect a few peasants? Hands shaking, he pulled the grey hood of his tunic low to mask his face.
One of the riders outdistanced the others, dark hair streaming out behind him as he urged his rowan forward. The cloud danced on the tip of his raised spear.
Not long now. Kel gripped the shovel.
With a clatter of hooves, the horse stopped before Kel. The spearhead pressed against his chest. “What brings you to land raided by the Northmen? Do you have treaty with them?” Less than half Kel’s age, the soldier radiated a confidence Kel would never possess. “Speak!”
“I serve the Unknown God.” His voice trembled. “I bury the dead.”
The other soldiers reached them, horses and riders milling on the edge of Kel’s vision. He did not dare look. Sky’s servants were notoriously arrogant.
His interrogator narrowed his eyes. Hazel like Kel’s own, but lit with a fire Kel had long since lost. His features were regal, naturally warm skin toughened by years of service beneath the sun’s rays. “What proof can you offer?”
“Proof?” Kel gulped. “I have only myself.”
“Only an uncommonly brave man would spend time alone in the company of the dead or territory so recently visited by the North raiders.” This voice was older, but no less powerful. Every word revealed the iron will that formed them. “Or one with uncommon dedication to the gods. Respect the robe he wears, Sol.”
Iscar! Kel’s world spun. A thousand needles pierced his chest. Heat rushed to his face and then drained just as abruptly. He could not breathe.
His interrogator scowled, leaning his spear against his shoulder. “Uncommon is right. Something is strange about him.”
“Sol.” Iscar had never had to raise his voice to exert control. His subordinate bowed his head, urging the rowan onwards.
Kel stared at the dirt-stained edge of his robe. Implacable Death, claim me now! Take me to your kingdom of shadow where none might recognise me!
Over the thundering of the pulse in his head, Kel realised Iscar was speaking to him. “News can you give us?”
“None.” His voice wobbled. The humiliation to come made him sick. “The Northmen departed as suddenly as they came.”
“Leaving only death.” Iscar’s tone was grim.
Kel risked a glance. Iscar surveyed the surrounding land. His profile was unchanged, its new lines accentuating the mighty set of his jaw. His dark hair was cut short like that of all Sky’s soldiers, and any grey hairs were not immediately apparent. He moved as one yet in his prime, countenance alert and assured.
Sol snorted, his horse flicking its ears. “Little here to tempt a raiding party.”
“Indeed.” Iscar swung himself off his horse. Tossing the reins to a second soldier, he looked down at the grave without flinching. “These people do not have enough even for themselves.”
Was it possible—he hadn’t recognised him? Kel licked his lips, scarcely aware of what he said. “The harvest was poor. Rain rotted the root vegetables in the ground. If the Northmen hadn’t claimed these villagers, the winter may well have.” There had not been a day, a single day, in which he had not thought of Iscar. He could not have failed to know him. That he did not know Kel…
It was well. He dug his fingers into his skin, trying to regain command over himself. Better unrecognised than have his shame uncovered.
But to be forgotten… The pain was all-consuming. He’d not believed he still had the capacity to hurt so much. But then, no one had ever hurt him like Iscar.