This one was hard! It was harrrrrrrrrrrrd! (Yes, I want some cheese with that whine.) Whatever possessed me to write a SAGE story in a setting I’d never worked before during Story A Day May???? What a maroon!
ANYWAY, this story is set almost in Antosillia, the country to the west of Layounna, which is only barely mentioned in the books. Nishi, to the north, is only barely mentioned, too, but I’ve written stories set there. Oh, well, it’s done now! Let me know if there’s too much blah-blah. I always have to write myself into a new setting, and I didn’t have time to edit the blah-blah out.
by Marian Allen
Brother Reticence took a deep breath and slid down, immersing himself in the rock pool fed by the hot spring. He wedged his hands and feet into crevices, keeping himself submerged as long as possible, feeling the heat and minerals seep all the way to the centers of his bones.
When he could hold his breath no longer, he surfaced and climbed out as quickly as possible. He and his six fellow penitents stood naked in the springroom, exposed to the icy mountain wind that poured through the lattices of the more-than-man-sized windows. They stood motionless, except for their shivering, listening to the eerie music of the stone flutes built into the monastery walls, until the heat had been sucked out of them, their shivering had ceased, and they sank to their knees.
Brother Reticence felt the false warmth of death by cold embrace him. He willed his knees to lock, not wanting to concede, not wanting to kneel, not wanting to be retrieved and revived and welcomed back into The Fellowship of the Stone.
He wasn’t sorry! He would do it again, if they gave him the chance!
Even as he thought this, his spirit left his body and sank through the floor, through the walls of living rock, to the lowest level of the monastery, down to the most sacred room, Brother Reticence’s favorite spot in the universe, the Cavern of the Labyrinth.
The Cavern was warm and bright, heated and illuminated by fires burning in holes and fissures in the rock itself. Monastery legend said that the Cavern was created and the eternal fires lit by one of the first monks, who, attempting to enlarge a cellar, dug through a rockfall into the space beyond and thrust a torch before him. His martyrdom had created the most sacred place in all of Antosillia – or so the abbots said.
The Cavern of the Labyrinth was never empty; if a service wasn’t being sung there, at least five Brothers or Sisters would be walking the lines chalked on the floor, the Labyrinth, solitary only in their thoughts. In the rare moments when no one was there for a purpose, five Attendants would be patrolling, making certain all the fires were burning and controlled, sweeping up dust and fallen debris, freshening the Labyrinth’s lines, or meditating.
Brother Reticence would never see the Cavern again, never walk the Labyrinth, never join the services with the rest of the monks.
He had sinned, and he wasn’t sorry.
What had he done? He had spared a life.
Antosillia was blessed by natural protection. It was surrounded by rough sea with rocky harbors on one side and all-but-impassible mountains on the other. The three high, treacherous passes were guarded by monasteries, peopled by Brothers and Sisters who devoted the strengths of their lives to the borders of Antosillia. They had one task: let no one in without a Writ of Passage signed and sealed by The Highest Two. Anyone else must be turned away or, in the case of attack, driven back or destroyed.
Brother Reticence had been one of the six monks on watch at their pass, one of the two at the highest point of the watchtower. He and his fellow had seen the figure, the size of a flea, slowly making its way up the steep slope from the land of Layounna to their east.
It was Brother Reticence’s place, as junior monk, to descend to the lowest level of the tower, warning the monks on the middle and lower levels to be on the lookout for the coming traveler, sending one of the others to take his place above while he and one other remained below in the gatehouse.
As junior monk on lookout, it would be Brother Reticence who would have to speak to this approaching person, to turn them back, to beat them or break them or kill them if they refused to go.
Most foreigners who took it into their heads to “visit” Antosillia were discouraged by the rigors of the climb and went home with nothing more to brag about than the difficulty of the way, the bleak inhospitality of the landscape. They never had a chance to cross to the true Antosillia, where the mountainsides were like edible jewels, lush and sweet.
This traveler, although slow, ascended without rest or hesitation. As it – she – came closer, the monks could distinguish a woman – an old woman – dressed in blue and green and gold, the mountains’ chilly sunlight glinting from a gold pendant resting at the base of her throat.
When she reached the gatehouse window, Brother Reticence greeted her courteously and curiously. She was hardly dressed for a walk that was at least half a climb, and she carried no supplies. She must be exhausted, dehydrated, and famished, yet she appeared to be fresh and well.
“Welcome, traveler. Beyond this gate is Antosillia. What brings you on this difficult journey?”
“I’ve come to visit my sister. She lives here.”
“Show me your Writ.”
She laughed, a comfortable hissing burble, like a kettle just on the boil. “I have no Writ.”
“Then your sister will have to visit you.”
“She heads a large family.”
He understood. One of the reasons he had chosen the monastery was the self-knowledge that he lacked the qualities it took to head an extended household and the qualities it took to subordinate himself to anyone less than Antosillia herself. He was beginning to wonder if he lacked the qualities that took, too.
“Then I hope you can write, because that’s the only visiting you can do.” He stuck a finger through the lattice to point to a doorway cut into the rock. There’s a waystation. Food, wine, water, a bed, paper, pen, and ink. Rest and refresh yourself, write a letter, address it, take some food and drink with you for your return to Layounna, and go back.”
She cocked her head and said, “You don’t belong here.”
Sister Charity, behind him, drew a sharp breath at the woman’s statement.
The woman smiled and spoke again, her clear eyes meeting his. “You think your own thoughts, Brother. You want to choose your own service.”
“I’ve chosen this service,” he said.
“And they tell you what to do. And you question it, every time, in your heart if not aloud.”
He felt himself flush with the heat of the truth.
Behind him, Sister Charity whispered, so that only he could hear, “The temptress weaves nets of seduction to snare the faithful!”
From the way the handsome old woman’s eyes crinkled, he could tell she had heard, in spite of the Sister’s low tone. Brother Reticence laughed. The old woman carried herself well, she was obviously sharp and strong, but “temptress” was an ill fit.
“You’d better leave,” he said.
Sister Charity raised her voice. “She’s tempted you! It was deliberate!”
“She only stated an opinion. She made no suggestion. She should leave.”
The old woman said, “I hate to be the cause of contention. Brother, leave the monastery. Go down into the lowlands and find your life. It’s waiting for you there.”
Sister Charity backed against the stairwell wall. “You heard that, didn’t you? There’s no doubt now!” She waved a hand at the crossbow in the rack at his right hand. “It’s her death sentence.”
“It is, you know,” he told the old woman.
She said, “If you say so.” With an unfaded smile and a friendly nod, she turned and, ignoring the waystation, began her long journey home.
“Shoot her!” Sister Charity’s voice rose in panic, not rage. “You’re letting her go! You’ve contaminated us all!” She dove for the crossbow, willing to step out of place and do his duty for him rather than let sin speak and go unpunished.
He held her back until the target was out of range.
And so they had all needed purification and atonement.
His spirit walked the Labyrinth now, the best walk he had ever experienced. All spirit, there was nothing to divert him from the richness of the spiritual nourishment every inch of the journey gave him. Tears of joy froze on his physical cheeks, in his beard, while his ethereal body reached the center of the Labyrinth and worked its way out. His inner vision blurred as he felt himself sway on his feet, up by the rock pools.
One of the windows darkened, filled with a monstrous head of blue and green and gold. Monstrous as it was, the huge face bore an expression of tenderness and humor. The mouth opened, and flame engulfed him. Not a killing flame, though, but one of gentle warmth bearing the scent of lowland herbs.
His spirit returned fully to his body, his physical eyes focused, and he looked at the stony view through an empty window.
On firm legs with unbent knees, he retrieved his habit and boots and walked out of the room, out of the monastery, and out of the mountains. He left not a word of explanation behind.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: hot water, windows, labyrinth, dragon