Beginning week two of the monthly challenge, today’s prompt from storyaday.org is a little more specific than the previous ones:
In a mysterious valley, two rival abbeys of nuns and monks serving the same strange god play a secret game unbeknownst to their superiors. When the stakes for the game become souls, how can the game be ended — and the debts to the demon of chance be paid?
This time I really struggled to finish, and my story turned out a bit clunky. But completing a story a day is the whole challenge, and I’m posting them all this month, good or bad. Hopefully, tomorrow will go better!
“It’s your move, Brother Harris.” A firm hand squeezed his shoulder, reassuringly.
The monk blinked away the incense stinging his eyes. Shadows surrounded him in the candlelit crypt. Two delegations: his brother monks, and nuns from across the valley. This midnight meeting was a breach of the strict rules that kept the two abbeys segregated by sex.
Though it had been ages since he’d seen a woman, and those in attendance were quite comely, sex — in any sense of the word — was the furthest thing from his mind.
His hand trembled as he stretched it toward the game board, which had been placed atop a flat sarcophagus. He withdrew it before making his move.
“Are you afraid, brother?” A nun smiled without warmth, her pale face like a moon within her wimple.
“I’m just thinking. Is that not permitted?” He wished he could think. Though his mind raced, it was a rudderless course, no one manning the helm.
“Easy,” said Brother Wallace, bending low to his ear. “No matter your stratagem, the gods will have their say.”
But his god equally belonged to the nuns. Why should the deity favor one side over another? Or look down at all upon this illicit contest? As Brother Harris reached out again, he saw glowing yellow, serpentine eyes in the dark of the crypt. He backpedaled, tripping over his own feet, his finger a calloused signpost. “Do you see that?!”
“What, brother?” The monks and nuns turned to look, wearing puzzled expressions.
“Now he’s just stalling,” said a nun, and the others snickered. “It’s not life and death. Just move.”
He stared into the black void, where the candles did not reach, his imagination conjuring twisted shapes. But no more eyes. “Fine,” he muttered, quickly approaching the board and advancing the figurine of a monk to a new square.
A portentous silence followed. The monk stood proud.
“There now! I believe it’s your move, sister,” said Brother Wallace, brimming with newfound superiority.
Brother Harris just wanted this to end; he regretted allowing himself to be pressured into participating. He certainly hadn’t become a monk with an expectation of intrigue.
Perhaps for the sake of showing him up, his opponent made her move without delay, though she gnawed at her lip all the while. The nun figurine slammed down on a vacant square of the board. Was that a good move? It wasn’t what he’d expected.
This time, the customary silence was cut short. Tiny needles stabbed from within the game board and pincushioned the figurine. As they withdrew it clattered onto its side.
“Damn it all!” his rival spat.
“Sister!” gasped one of the older nuns. “Mind your tongue.”
Brother Wallace slapped the victor on his back and crowed, “I believe that’s a monthly tithe, of the sweat of your brow. You gather the pomegranates, do you not, sister?”
She nodded in disgust.
“We’ll be eating well, brothers!” His arm wrapped about Brother Harris’ neck and squeezed, despite all attempts to shrug him off. The other monks quickly joined in this victory assault, hoisting Harris upon their shoulders.
From his new vantage point, as they carried him from the crypt, he looked back once. The nun’s figurine bled from its wounds, soaking into the wood grain of the game board. His cry of alarm was drowned out by cheers.
The nuns, however, didn’t remark upon it as they stowed away the pieces and bundled up the board. He began to doubt his sight. Perhaps the irritation of the incense was creating phantoms.
The monks’ procession quieted to a hush as they emerged into the warm night air and deposited Harris back on his sandaled feet. The crypt lay roughly equidistant between the two abbeys, and sound traveled far in the quiet valley. None were eager to attract the wrath of the Reverend Father, while they should by rights be abed.
Brother Wallace whispered, “This lessens the sting of Brother Cowler’s failure. A well played match.”
Harris found Cowler keeping pace a short distance away — strange he hadn’t noticed him inside the crypt, but his mind had been preoccupied. He gave his fellow monk a sympathetic look, blankly returned. “I can hardly take credit, when I scarcely understood the rules. I don’t know what’s so compelling about a game of luck.”
“We make our own luck, brother, with our god’s aid.” That seemed contradictory, but Harris was too exhausted for their oft-repeated theological debates.
A tall iron fence surrounded the abbey, but a secret gap lay behind some dense shrubbery. The monks slipped back inside, shushing each other with knowing smirks, enjoying this bit of disobedience. All except for Brother Harris. He had never doubted himself before, and if not for the reactions of his peers, he never would have doubted what he saw tonight.
They slipped back into the dormitory, the revelation of their victory drawing quiet cheers from the other monks who’d remained behind, and crawled into bed. They would still be expected to wake before dawn for their daily chores.
Disquieted, Harris woke even before his brothers. With a dim blue glow heralding the sunrise, he noted only one bed was empty. Brother Cowler’s.
He ventured out into the empty stone corridors of the abbey, and headed for the chapel, seeking quiet meditation.
“You’re up early, Brother Harris.” The Reverend Father in his blood-red robe entered shortly behind him. His hair was snow-white, but his eyes sharp as ever.
“Not as early as Brother Cowler, I gather.” He hoped the monk wasn’t too troubled by the blame the others still placed on him, for his loss last week.
“Cowler,” he said more loudly.
“I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten the monks under my charge. Who put you up to this, eh? Father Etnell? Wanted to check if I’ve lost my mind, did he?”
“No, um…” Harris was disturbed, but now afraid to speak further. It wasn’t his place to contradict the Reverend Father, or suggest he’d gone mad. But surely he had. He’d known Brother Cowler well.
“I quite understand. It’s early, yet, but go up and ring the bell, would you? We must always be on guard against sloth.”
But that was Brother Cowler’s duty… “Yes, Father.” Harris needed time to think.
He climbed the rickety ladder to the belltower, and looked out over the parapets at the mist-shrouded valley. Through the gray haze, he caught a glimpse of the nun’s abbey. But as a glimmer of sunlight struck its walls, it evaporated before his eyes.
“My god, what is happening here?”
He roughly pulled the rope and the bell tolled, rattling his wary brain. But it didn’t seem to knock the cobwebs loose.
By the time, he’d returned to the chapel, the other monks were scurrying about.
Brother Wallace met him with a broad smile. “Well, Brother Harris, you’d better get out there and gather those pomegranates. I’m looking forward to them.”
“Me? But what about the nun?”
“Nuns? What nuns? It’s been a long time since any made pilgrimage to our lonely valley. Nothing much to see here but an abbey full of grumpy monks — and a lazy one, trying to shirk his duties.”
Harris held his pounding head. “I’ve… never had that duty before.”
“No one has. That’s why we played a game to decide who would do it, last night. You lost, remember? Don’t be a poor sport.” A ray of sunlight passed over his face, and his eyes briefly glowed yellow.
He blinked. “Something about that seems familiar, yes…” At least it didn’t seem worse than any other chore. “Very well, brother. With any luck, I’ll be back before dark.”
“We make our own luck, brother. With the deity’s help.”
Thanks for reading!