Jay C. Mims
Priest of the Winter Wind
It’s too quiet out on this tundra, no sound but the screaming Wind and the now-constant clack of my chattering teeth. I’m surprised my jaw can still move in such rapid succession in this cold. Yet, every few minutes my teeth bang together, that clack-clack-clackreverberating off the rough stone of the mountains to join the Wind’s funeral dirge. I pull my knees closer to my chest, wrap the blue cape even tighter around my huddled body, trying to retain some amount of warmth as the frigid Wind rushes towards the mountains, carrying flecks of ice in its crescendo.
I was a fool to come out here in the dead of night, onto this frozen plain with a battle hymn on my lips and slaughter in my heart. A bloated sense of my own ego caused me to leave camp, accept Brachyurus’ challenge early this morning. He may lay slain at my feet, but I’m freezing to death, huddled and bleeding and shaking as the snow whips around me.
The only warm part of my body is my head, covered as it is in mane-like, black hair. Thick, knot-like braids protect my scalp and neck from the ice and Wind. My war-braids, sixty-two in total, are probably keeping me alive. Brachyurus was going to be my sixty-third, but my fingers can barely grip a weapon let alone twist hair together. I’ll die without my sixty-third honorable kill being recorded.
Sixty-two vanquished enemies, run through by my blade after being defeated in one-on-one combat, are recorded in my ebony hair. My battle history is chronicled in those braids, on display for any and all to see. I only needed three more—two counting Brachyurus—to challenge our sitting Warchief. I was so close to taking my rightful place at the head of our clan. Now the cold and the dead bastard’s spear have stopped me.
“Nothing was ever going to stop me,” I exhale, my words a puff of smoke in the frigid air. “Not a single enemy was going to get in my way.”
Brachyurus chooses not to answer me, allowing his biting Wind to respond for him. That Wind, and the ice and snow and cold it carries with it, has begun to encroach into my head, to seep deep into my scalp. My hard-earned war-braids mean nothing out here in the frozen waste. Even in death, he was still victorious, no doubt laughing from the other side that his trap had worked.
His challenge had come late last night or early this morning. My men were all asleep, not that being awake would have allowed them to intercept Brachyurus’ message. He had prompted the wolf to infiltrate, to skulk right up to my tent, where he knew I would be busy preparing for the coming battle. The low growl of the beast outside my tent had roused me from my planning, and I had strode out into the cold night with sword in hand. Waiting for me was the messenger-wolf, white fur gleaming under the light of the full moon. There had been no clouds—or snow—when I stepped out of my tent.
“Warmaiden Zhana,” the wolf spoke when it saw me, its voice that of my enemy, “face me and me alone in battle. Spare the men and women we both lead from senseless death.”
“Brachyurus, Priest of the Winter Wind, do you challenge me to honorable combat?”
“Yes,” the wolf spoke, the single word sounding dejected.
“I accept,” I replied before plunging my straight sword into the neck of the wolf. It made no sound as it hit the ground, jerking only once as its blood spilled out onto the frost-tipped grass. That blood snaked around, slithering out of the beast to pool and congeal into rudimentary shapes, before settling into the form the Priest had bestowed upon it: a map. The indicated path led several miles north of my camp, up through a mountain pass and onto a wide swath of flat land. That was the battlefield Brachyurus had chosen, the same tundra that will no doubt be my grave.
It took mere minutes to don my rough, leather armor and depart from my camp. In my arrogance I hadn’t alerted my second-in-command to my exodus. My mind was only on my enemy, and the sixty-third war-braid he would represent once my blade was slick with his blood. A warrior’s smile was the only other thing I chose to take with me. Brachyurus would be dead by the time I made it back to camp, and this bitter campaign would be over.
“Your soldiers ambushed mine, didn’t they?” I ask again of the Priest’s body. His trap surely couldn’t have been only intended for me.
I arrived at Brachyurus’ chosen field of battle some two hours after leaving camp to find the Priest of the Winter Wind waiting for me, bracing himself against the shaft of his great spear. His armor was the same interlocking plates that his soldiers wore, though his had a collar of white wolf fur attached to a deep blue cape. His white beard seemed to merge with that collar, making the two almost indistinguishable. The Wind ripped his cape about in a frenzied dance.
“To the death and the end of your Warchief’s aggression?” he called, his voice a clap of thunder at the onset of a storm.
“My Chief’s aggression did not start this war, Priest,” I replied as I stalked closer to him, my sword brandished in my left hand. “But your death will mark the end of it!”
I charged forward, not giving the old man time to respond with his words or his weapon or his magics, swinging my blade in a wide arc that he parried without so much as moving. I was close enough to see his blue eyes with that first exchange, eyes full of sadness and what can only be described as resignation. If only I had given that stare heed.
The fight was on in full then, each of us thrusting or slashing or dodging or parrying. Nothing else existed: no mountains behind me or tundra behind him; no Wind or clouds; no full moon in the sky. The only entities in all of creation were Brachyurus and me, our weapons’ sharp retorts the only bridge between the mortal world and the realm of battle we found ourselves in. Combat was a transcendental experience.
The Priest was holding back, I knew. I had watched him in battle before, wielding that awesome spear with the precision of the most advanced surgeons and the artistry of the finest painters. While still a capable warrior, it did not feel like I was facing off against a true master of warfare. It had irked me, until that frustration became a distraction.
Brachyurus drew first blood, stabbing the spear deep into my right shoulder while I philosophized about his prowess in battle.
This was not my first injury, was far from it, but he only landed the blow because of my own preoccupations. Surprisingly, he let me stagger backward without advancing. He should have surged forward, killing me then and there. Instead, he allowed me to regroup, assess the damage, and counterattack.
The Priest of the Winter Wind allowed me to cut him down after wounding me, not even bothering to defend himself. I ran my sword through his abdomen, gripping the hilt in one hand and his shoulder with the other as I pulled him to me and pushed the blade into him. He made no sound as I yanked the sword free, just smiled as he grasped the mortal wound, blood oozing down his chin.
“You lose, Warmaiden Zhana,” he gasped before falling backward, his back hitting the tundra ground with a boom. The storm erupted from his torn stomach then, ice and snow and Wind exploding from the wound. “You lose!”
That look of resignation, the calm contempt of his voice as he spoke through the wolf, made sickening sense in that moment. I had turned to run back through the mountain pass, but it was too late. The pass was already frozen shut.
“Do you feel the Wind, Warmaiden?” he wheezed, flecks of blood flying past his teeth on his words, winter itself pouring from his ruined gut.
His trap had been perfect, the Wind upholding its end of whatever dark pact it had made with the Priest. The deal had required Brachyurus’ life, that much was clear, but it probably also needed my blood. That’s the only explanation my near-frozen mind has come up with in the last four hours.
As the Wind rips about me, as the frost bites into my fingers and toes, I know that I am going to die. Not in battle, the way I always envisioned my death, but frozen, victim to the foul Wind the Priest had worshipped. Brachyurus didn’t just trap me on this tundra, didn’t just tear my hopes of glory from my soon-to-be dead hands, but kept me from the death I so rightly deserve.
There is nothing more to do than pull the Priest’s damned cape as tight as I can around me and wait for the end.
Jay C. Mims is a writer from Denton, Texas currently displaced in Chicago while he pursues an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago. He writes book reviews for Into the Void Magazine, and his first novel, Skin Eater, is available on Amazon.