Chances and Challenges, a story by Elizabeth Hoyle at
Iswanto Arif

Chances and Challenges

Chances and Challenges

written by: Elizabeth Hoyle



There is a fire burning in the cave at the top of the mountain. Its heat and smoke shock me after walking in the teeth of a cold, howling rain.
“If the storm has teeth then I guess this is the throat. An altogether more dangerous place to be, don’t you think?” A voice speaks from beyond the fire.
“That depends on if one is spat out or devoured. I have no intention of either happening to me.” I step closer, unable to keep myself from shaking.
“I don’t think that is up to you to decide. You have a fair chance at either.”
I see his eyes through the flames, the only dark spots in the midst of flickering light. He steps out to where I can see him, remarkably human-looking for a god.
“We tend to take the forms we know will scare you the least. Unless we don’t feel like it. Which is often.”
“Get out of my head,” I snap. “Unless you plan to use your powers to grant me what I came for all the faster, stay away from my mind.”
He throws back his head and laughs, his broad shoulders heaving. “In all the worlds, among all the gods, there is nothing quite like the human nerve. Very well, dear lady, let’s to business. Who are you?”
“I am Cerelia of Margaulian.”
“Any relation to Galla Seris of that same place?”
“She’s my mother.” My voice cracks as I answer. “How do you know her?”
“Oh, she and I have met previously. But I meet so many of you, whether they come looking for me or not. Such is the fate of the god of chance.” He puts a hand to his forehead and pretends to swoon with exhaustion.
“Is there any chance we could hurry up with this?”
The fire extinguishes itself, all its light and heat going into his eyes, which veer close, too close to mine. I shriek, turn my face away and fling my arms out to stop him. I open my eyes. He has vanished. I lower my still-shaking hands to my sides. My fright transforms into frustration, both at his capriciousness and at myself for being too blunt. Thunder cracks outside the cave, as loud as if the sky has been split in two, startling me again. The hood of my cloak is pushed back and hands slip into mine from behind, gripping too tight.
“Any levity I show is a courtesy only, Cerelia of Margaulian.” His voice is just beside my right ear. “Don’t forget that or the fact that I will determine what you will face to get what you want. I can make that as easy,” he disentangles one of his hands and runs his fingers up my spine, “or as difficult as I please.” He pushes me hard. I stumble to my knees. The fire roars back to life and he steps in front of me, smirking.
“I humbly beg your pardon, my lord. Fear makes some people go quiet. It has the opposite effect on me.” I bow my head until my brown locks pool in the dirt.
“You may rise.”
The weight of my traveling pack unbalances me but I manage to stand. I am not going to ask this god for more help than I have to, even if it’s just a hand up.
“Now that I know who you are, I must ask if you know who I am. It does neither party any good if both are not fully aware of the facts before striking a deal.”
I study him. His eyes, when he does not turn them red, are brown, almost gold around his pupils. His hair is dark and curls around his ears, which are double pierced with gold hoops. He’s dressed head to toe in black: boots, breeches, and billowy shirt. There is a silver chain around his neck that hangs to the center of his chest. A single white gardenia bloom dangles from it. He clears his throat, looking at me expectantly.
“You’ve had many names in many stories throughout the years,” I answer. “Some call you fate or luck. Some call you the Gambling Spirit or the Betting Man. You’ve been called Star-Swindler, Devil’s Dice-Fixer, Card-Culprit, The Rascal, The Rogue, and Desperation’s Salvation. But as you said earlier, you’re the god of chance and no one knows your real name.”
“You seem well-versed about me.”
I let out a humorless chuckle at the innuendo in his voice. “It’s nothing personal, I assure you. One should be as informed as possible when looking to make a deal with a god.”
He nods. “Perhaps you could now inform me of what you seek.”
I swallow hard, my nerves returning. I had rehearsed what I was going to say all the way from Margaulian and up the mountain, refining my words over a month of trekking. This should be the easiest part of making our deal. After this he will make me endure any number of challenges for the chance of getting what I want. Ask for a chance, receive at least two challenges, as the old saying goes. I knew sharing my circumstances would be part of the bargain. I’ve told this story to as many surgeons and healers I’ve been able to hire over the years. But it’s as if my tongue is bewitched into silence. He raises his eyebrows expectantly. I face the fire, speaking my sad story to it instead of him.
“My mother is ill. She has been for years, though it’s only grown acute in the last year. Her appetite is scanty. She can hardly move. Sometimes she burns with fever so badly that she does not know me. She’ll go days without making a noise then it’ll be weeks of screaming and sobbing with pain.” Her worn face looms before me, framed by hair that used to match mine before her sickness turned it gray. I blink several times and take a deep breath. “I’ve come to you for the chance to heal her. I don’t care if I have to give up my own health or my life or anything else. I can face whatever challenges you set before me in order to earn this opportunity. I want the chance to make her well. I know I ask what thousands have before but I am willing to do whatever it takes. If I can, I am going to make her well.”
I look over at him. His arms are crossed over his chest, one hand raised to cradle his chin.
“You think far too highly of your species if you think I receive similar supplications every day. How old are you?”
“Eighteen.” He nods at that information, puts his arms behind his back and steps forward until we are a few inches from each other.
“Now that each party has been introduced and your goal has been stated, we can move on to the terms of our deal.”
My heart flutters. “Then you’ll give me a chance?”
“I will give you three challenges. Only one will give you the chance make her well. But take care. The number does not increase your odds of success. And these challenges are not without their consequences. Do you agree?”
He holds out a hand. I reach to take it but stop just as our fingers touch.
“I suppose you can’t tell me more about those possible consequences, can you?”
“If you wish to consult the god of details, her home is in the archives of the ancient library at Diand. But I’d only give you one chance if you left and then came back. Besides,” he shifts even closer, bumping my fingers with his. “Is it really a chance if you know how it may turn out?”
“I know how at least one of them can turn out. That’s going to have to be enough.” I take his hand. He pulls me away from the fire, farther into the cave. It grows darker until he pulls back what looks like part of the wall to reveal a well-lit room. What I had thought was the wall is a heavy, dark velvet curtain, which he tugs closed behind us. An enormous, canopied bed covered with furs and quilts dominates the room. I whirl to face him.
“The chance to have your way with me was not part of our deal!”
“I need to take you far away and the only way your body will endure the way I travel is if it is at rest. Think of the bed as a conveyance, as intriguing as it would be to think of it as a regular bed and you and I an ordinary woman and man.” His gaze goes up and down my body, a smile spreading across his face. I barely resist the urge to smack him. I set my pack down, get a few steps of a running start, then jump onto the bed. After a month of sleeping on the ground, the bed is as soft as a kitten’s breath.
“Boots off, Cerelia. I’m the god of chance, not chaos.”
“I’ll need them later⸺”
“I’ll make sure you have them. Now off!”
Torn between annoyance and amusement, I comply. It feels good to stretch my toes after walking so long today. I lay back as he takes off his own boots and scoots toward me until he’s right beside me. I twist so I face away from him. He presses into my back, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Relax, Cerelia. I mean you no harm. You will have your chances soon.”
I focus on that last sentence and close my eyes. After traveling for so long, it should be easy to sink into such warm softness. I am weary and my legs ache but my mind and heart skitter about like frightened rabbits. I try to fathom how lying in a bed will get me wherever he’s taking me. Then I start wondering what he has in store for me. My thoughts turn to Ma and Jokthom, the neighbor I entrusted her to. I haven’t been away from her for this long since before she fell ill. Is she alright?
“Shall I do something to distract you?” He asks, his breath fanning my ear. “I can help your mind slow down.”
“Alright,” I reply. The lights beyond my eyelids are suddenly extinguished and his hand travels from my shoulder to my forehead. Heat radiates from his fingers and an image of a meadow full of flowers takes shape in my mind. Bees hum around me and the stiff breeze carries the light scent of lilac. I hear the trill of a fiddle bow being tested across the instrument’s strings. Whoever is playing strikes up a lively jig. Laughter erupts, along with singing and clapping. I want to join in the fun, to try the instrument for myself even though I know it will not sound as sweet for me. I hurry down the meadow, the scents, sounds, and sensations vanishing one by one until I am left in the darkness with a calm heart and a still mind.
Grass tickles my face as I open my eyes. A breeze tussles my hair. I stand and take in my surroundings. I curse. That bastard has deposited me back home. This has all been for nothing. I grab the axe stuck in the stump of the old cherry tree where we cut our firewood. I hack at the stump’s sides, my anger churning my muscles faster and faster until panic takes its place. I replace the axe and face my home. Smoke rises from the chimney and the chickens have been recently fed judging from the amount of feed that’s on the ground of the run outside the coop. The gate of the fence around the garden has gone off its hinges again, even though I fixed it before I left. Other than that, everything appears peaceful and somehow brighter, like the cottage’s brown paint and blue trim have been refreshed. Maybe Jokthom repainted as a surprise. I doubt I have the strength to summon the thanks he deserves. But he deserves it and more, so I will say it. I head inside, relief mixing with my anxiety at being home.
“Ma, I’m back⸺”
“Who are you?” A man rises from the table, an eating knife in his hands. He’s puffy-faced and red-eyed from crying but that’s not what causes my heart to twist at the sight of him. He’s my father. My father who’s been dead for eight years. Yet here he is. Did the god of chance kill me?
“What do you want? I’ve no money for thieves or beggars. If you’re looking for work, try Farmer Ion down the road.”
“I’m headed to Margaulian. The current took my waterskin when I last filled it and I was wondering if you had a cup of something to spare.” I cannot recall the last time a lie sprang so easily to my lips or the last time I lied to my Da but the guilt is piercing as he lays the knife on the table and motions for me to shut the door. He bows.
“I apologize for my uncivil greeting. There have been bandits seen about and my wife has been away for a long while. I tend to jump at the slightest noise now.” He fills the kettle from the water bucket by the door and sets it on the trestle in the hearth. “Are you intending to continue on after you reach Margaulian or do you intend to find a bed for the night there?”
“I hadn’t decided,” I answer lamely. He sifts through multiple jars of tea, muttering to himself. I can’t help but smile. Tea was always an indulgence of his and he had a pet theory that there were perfect teas for perfect times, depending on what a person was doing. He finally selects one of the larger jars.
“This is a brew of my own making. It will give you energy for your journey without making you jittery the way some blends do. Please, be seated.”
The kettle beings to whistle and he prepares cups for both of us. He sits opposite me and offers sugar and cream. I stir in a spoonful of each, take a sip, and close my eyes. It’s all so familiar. I could be a girl again, whining about learning scales from our tuneless schoolmaster or telling him how my friends and I avoided Farmer Ion’s hounds after we raided his orchards.
“What’s wrong? You’re crying.”
“I’m sorry.” I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand. “It has been a long time since anyone’s been so kind to me.”
“An excess of feeling needs no apology, so long as it hurts no one.” He smiles. “Would you like to hear a story to take your mind off it?”
I nod. He tells me how he and my mother met at the same cloth stall in Tien’s marketplace, far to the north. She rejected him three times before agreeing to become his partner. He tells me of how he and my mother were thrown out of a tavern to thunderous applause after two bards were singing a duet so badly that they got up and performed it themselves. I’d never heard that story before and find myself laughing until my sides ache. I forget my chances, the deal, and my mother’s sickness. My lips start trembling from smiling so much. I finish one cup of tea then he pours me another. I tell him altered versions of things he and I did when it comes my turn to share. He laughs heartily at all of them and I cannot help wondering if I exist in whatever realm or time this is. I also start to wonder where my mother is.
It grows dark enough to need to light candles. “I did not mean to keep you. It’s not every day I get to have tea with an interesting stranger and I’m afraid I got carried away. You will stay the night, of course?”
“I shall, if it won’t trouble Galla too much.” Some of the light fades from his eyes.
“She has gone on a journey. I don’t rightly know where she has gone or when she’ll be back.” He opens his mouth, shuts it, then decides to speak anyways. “I must thank you. I was extremely low when you arrived and our conversation has saved me from drowning in my thoughts. I know I’ve probably bored you and you’ll remember this as an encounter with a man who could not control his tongue. I am truly grateful all the same.”
I am almost in tears again, trying to think of a reply, when the door opens and a much younger version of my mother bursts in.
“He’s agreed!” She shouts and throws her arms around my father’s neck, dancing him back a few steps. He embraces her and kisses her deeply. I look away. “We have the chance we always wanted and his bargain was fair⸺”
“This is fantastic, my love, but did you not see that we have a guest?” He nods at me; my mother turns around and I rise.
“Your partner has been a gracious host, ma’am.”
“I do not doubt it. What is your name?”
My father chuckles. “I never thought to ask for hers nor give mine. Please forgive my lack of manners. My name is Janth.”
“I’m Cerelia.”
They exchange a glance as if they are communicating with their thoughts. “That is a lovely name, ma’am,” my mother says. “I’ll bet my partner did not extend you the courtesy of water for a wash. Please feel free to refresh yourself at our well just beyond the cherry tree stump then you can have a proper reception as our guest.”
I obey and head outside. I draw the water and rinse my shoes once, my hands twice, and my face three times in Margaulian’s custom. I can’t help but smile at the memory of Ma teaching me how to offer water to a guest. She would go outside and come back in, pretending to be made-up characters from other places, complete with different voices and postures. The custom has fallen out of fashion in the big cities but our valley still practices it faithfully. I dump the water on the ground, considering what I should say if they ask me more about my identity.
The fire and candles have somehow all gone out when I return. I grope along the mantlepiece, hoping the box of spare flints and tinder is there like it always was in my childhood. It is. I try to light a fire but the spark I strike quickly fades.
A low noise, something between a growl and hiss, comes from behind me, reverberating in my belly. Every hair on my head and every nerve in my body stands on end. More sparks fly from my flint, catching and flaring up into a huge, unnatural blaze. A shriek sounds at the sudden light before something scaly knocks me to the ground. It slides under me, wrapping around my middle, pinning my arms to my sides before I can move. It lifts me up and I find myself eye to eye with an enormous green serpent. Its eyes are yellow and as big as dinner plates. It blinks at me, narrowing its eyes to cruel slits. The serpent opens its mouth, a forked, red tongue slithers over long, sharp teeth.
I scream and struggle but the huge beast hisses and tightens its grip so hard that I cannot move, cannot think, can barely breathe. I spot my parents’ clothing and shoes out of the corner of me eye, under the snake. A closer look makes freeze in horror. Their bodies are flayed open, skins burst, looks of horror on what I can see of their faces. This snake didn’t eat them. It grew from them.
It shakes me back and forth to stun me. The movement wakes me, masking my attempt to grab the knife in my belt. I slowly work it free, the snake’s scales drawing blood where they chafe against my hands and wrists. I finally withdraw my knife. I twist my hand and stab at any bit of its body until the serpent shakes me so violently I don’t know which way is up. The snake’s screeches make the rafters quake. It stops shaking me, striking too quick for me to dodge. The sharp pain of its teeth in my shoulder is nothing compared to the white-hot burn of its venom. I don’t recognize my voice as I scream.
Memories seep into my mind as the venom seeps through my blood. Ma’s sobbing after we buried Da. How I ignored her request to change her out of a nightdress before going to the market in Margaulian all day. She’d been covered in sores for weeks all because I’d been in a hurry to be elsewhere. I’m forced to relive hundreds of moments of my failure and short temper and my mother’s pain and grief. I can’t stop them, can’t focus on anything else. There’s a gleeful gleam in the serpent’s eye as it draws back, preparing for another strike. It must know what its venom is doing. This time I make myself ready for it, finally freeing my arm. The squelch that arises when I sink and twist my knife into the snake’s eye is sickening. It howls even louder, dropping me. Its teeth catch my forearm as it swings its head but I ignore the blood and stab, gouge, and slice every part of it I can until the snake is finally quiet and limp.
The memories still won’t go away though I have more pressing matters to think of like how to extract the venom and stop my bleeding. I raise my forearm to my lips to try to suck the venom out but my mind sees the last full cup of mead from the barrel. It had been such a hot day and I hadn’t been able to stop myself from taking a sip from the cup Ma had asked me for. I’d drained the whole thing, leaving her the bitter dregs. Why had I been so selfish?
My eyelids are heavy. The red on my arm burns and spreads onto the ceiling as I fall back to the floor. There is nothing I can do but close my eyes, a feat that takes the last of my strength.
“Cerelia? Lia? Please wake up, darling!” There’s a hand in my hair and whatever I’m leaning on is warm. Something taps my cheek and my eyes flutter open. My mother is above me. Alive. Whole. Healthy-looking. This is surely a dream or I am surely dead.
“You said she’d be alright!” She accuses.
“And she will be. Give her another few minutes.” The god of chance has lost the mocking quality to his voice. This is surely a dream, then. I let my eyes close. A cup of water is placed to my lips and instead of trying to get me to drink, I am nearly drowned. I sit up, dizzy and spluttering.
“See, I told you she’d be alright! You should have more faith in me, Galla.” I cast the retreating god of chance a dirty look as I cough and wipe my mouth. I look at my mother. She’s here and rosy, her hair done up in a braided crown. She’s wearing one of her favorite gowns, deep red with white roses embroidered on the neck, sleeves, and along the hem. Here in the god’s cave and in the light of the fire, there is no evidence that she has ever been ill. Hugging her hurts where the snake bit my shoulder but I don’t care.
“I’ve missed you,” she whispers.
“I’ve missed you, too. But we can go home now. You’re cured, aren’t you?” I don’t know if I’ve undergone all three challenges or not nor do I care. She’s here and she’s obviously well. We should leave while we can.
“You should not think so loudly if you do not want another to overhear your plans,” the god says, leaning against the back wall of the cave. “You have one more chance left.”
I wobble as I get to my feet but I am able to stand steady.
“I am ready to take it.”
“That’s determination to drink to.”
He conjures a silver chalice from behind his back and steps forward to place it at my feet. It is heavier than it looks and contains what seems to be water. I glance up at him but his face reveals nothing. I raise it to my lips and begin drinking. My mother screams. I lower the chalice and turn around, kneeling beside her.
“Are you alright? What hurts?”
She clutches her stomach, a vein standing out in her neck. “I had a stabbing, burning pain. It’s going now.”
I rub her back and lift the chalice to my lips, hoping I haven’t ruined my third chance by stopping. Once the tasteless liquid passes through my teeth, Ma starts screaming again. I stop drinking again and look over at him. He tilts his head and arches an eyebrow like he’s issuing a wordless challenge.
“I’m so sorry, Ma. It’ll be over quick, I promise.” I chug, tears streaming down my cheeks as I swallow and she wails. The chalice is deceptively deep; just when I think I’ve reached the bottom there is more. She has stopped screaming and is on her back, convulsing, when I can’t do it anymore. I toss the chalice aside.
“It’ll kill her!” I gasp. I wriggle my arm under her shoulders, trying to help her sit up. She’s barely breathing. “Ma, I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.” I feel so useless. Nothing I say or think to do next can help her. I hear the soft pad of his leather boots cross the cave. He picks up the chalice and stops beside me.
“There’s only a little left. Are you sure you won’t drink it?”
I can’t take my eyes from my mother’s pale, waxen face. “Yes, I’m sure. I won’t drink it. I won’t kill her.”
“Then I can keep her alive long enough for you to say your goodbyes.” He upends the chalice over my mother. A few drops hit her and she breathes deeply, pulling herself up. I’m about to launch myself at him and pummel my frustration into his skin when she envelopes me in an embrace that makes my shoulders ache.
“It’s alright, love. You did your best. I’m so proud of you. Don’t be mad at yourself, please, love. You have been the best thing of my life.”
Her words wash over me. I can’t believe it. After all this time, after coming this far, I didn’t have what it takes to save her.
“This was part of the bargain you made, Galla,” the god says. “I showed her that you had journeyed to find me before. But I didn’t tell her that a life would be demanded of you for your chance to create one.”
I twist to look at him without letting go of her. “What do you mean?”
“Weren’t you paying attention? She came here to ask for the chance to have a child⸺”
“She doesn’t need to know!” Ma’s breath is hot against my neck.
“And I told her that in order for a life to be given, a life would eventually have to be taken. It might have been anyone’s. But it is hers.”
Now I’m the one who cannot breathe. “Did you know all of this would happen? That I would fail her? Even after all of this?”
His grin is too wide. “Of course not! It is never truly a game of chance if you know how it turns out.”
“Quit parroting yourself! I’ve never met anyone who loves the sound of their own voice so much!”
“You seem to be too fond of your own.” He nods at my mother. Her face is even paler than before, her lips a dangerous shade of blue. I hold onto her though she’s so heavy.
“Ma, I love you. Please don’t go.”
“I have to, love. I love you. Please⸺” She dies with a pleading whimper. Her body is already cold, so unlike her that I lower her to the cave’s floor and slide away. Guilt begins to gnaw on my heart. She held my father for hours after he breathed his last and I can barely touch her. I want to cry, scream, kill this god who as good as tricked me and took her away. A small part of me knows that he did not trick me, though. That this is all my doing. I do something that feels like the worst thing I could possibly do. I breathe in and exhale slowly.
I stand. I don’t want to leave her here but I know I can’t carry her down the mountain. I am through asking him for help. I fix her face in my mind and turn around. I am almost at the cave’s mouth when his hand comes down on my uninjured shoulder.
His eyes glint, I can’t tell whether from tears or the I-told-you-so’s he must be holding in.
“You did a brave thing in trying to save her. There will probably be a day when you will need saving, too. I look forward to seeing you again, for I am sure this is not the only time we will meet.”
“You’ll have to find me, then.”
I leave the cave. The storm has passed. I forge my own path down the mountain, hoping I’ll figure out where I’m going as my feet carry me there.

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