Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Stone at River's Bend

A story set in Thedas - a rich and rewarding sandbox to explore. Even if you don't know the universe, appreciate the story for what it is: a young woman saying goodbye, and leaving home to become something more than herself. All are welcome to r/r. 


The still hour before dawn’s light, when the whole world seems to be elsewhere – no lowing or bleating of animals in the barn, no children squealing from the house, no farmers shouting in the fields, no Sisters chanting in the square – was called the Spirit’s Hour, at least in Thea’s mind.
She lay in the dark in her nightgown, her face cold but her body warm beneath the blankets. The small figure in the narrow bed beside her stirred, whimpered, sleep-sighed – a bad dream. She put her hand out, gently, stroked the small form back into restful slumber. She kept her eyes open, staring at the ceiling beams, or at least at the suggestion of them in the pitch darkness.
The Spirit’s Hour. It had a smooth, heavy feel to it, like the stones in the Chantry floor. It felt as though the world was always this way, beneath all the business and bustle of the day, and the thought was an odd one: a ground state, a kind of nakedness. Thea supposed the world needed some private time, just like anyone else. She felt a little guilty for witnessing it, but there was no sleeping for her, not anymore.
Today was the day. They were coming.
The Sprit’s Hour slid into dawn like a smooth stone into a pond. The cock crowed in the yard, with gusto, and the world began to turn once more. Thea sighed deeply in the cold morning air and slid from bed, shivering; she dressed herself in the dark and stopped herself from checking the pack she’d already checked at least a dozen times, leaving it on the floor by the window where it had sat for days already. She tucked the blankets snugly around the small figure still sleeping in the bed and eased herself out of the room, tiptoeing down the narrow stairway.
Her mother sat on her stool in front of the hearth in the main room, stirring a black pot with a wooden spoon. The Spirit’s Hour had always been her mother’s, too, and Thea kept silent out of respect for that, but her mother turned, smiled, wiping her nose with a hanky.
“Morning, Fee,” she said. “Exciting day, isn’t it?”
Thea smiled, but turned away. She could not face her mother’s tears, not yet.
They went about their morning business as usual. It seemed the best way to go about things. After a chilly visit to the outhouse, Thea stopped by the pump and washed one body part at a time with a wet rag, the way she had been taught. Too much wet body at once meant illness. Back inside, she was greeted by the snap and aroma of frying bacon. A special day, indeed, for meat to come out in the morning – the thought almost made her mouth stop watering. Almost.
She went to the wooden chest by the wall and pulled out an ivory comb. A single bone-white tine was missing, gone in her grandmother’s time. She handed the comb to her mother, who took it wordlessly; Thea sat on the stool while her mother combed her long light-brown hair, over and over, following hand over comb, until the tangles of the night’s restless turning had been worked free. As the bacon sizzled, her mother divided her hair and braided it into two tight plaits – Thea kept her eyes closed as her mother finished by winding the two braids around her head, pinning them into place. It was the first time she had ever worn her hair up. Soon she would cut it off completely.
“Smells good in here,” said a small, sleepy voice from the stairwell.
Thea turned, feeling the unfamiliar weight of the hair wound about her head. She smiled. “Hello, Robin.”
The skinny little boy’s sleep-creased face became serious. “It’s Robert, Feeya.” He relented slightly. “But you can call me Robin today. Just you. No one else.”
Thea laughed. “I’ll pass on the warning.”
“And you must call me Robert in front of the Templars today.”
Their mother tapped off the wooden spoon sharply on the edge of the pot.
“I will,” promised Thea.
Suddenly the small blonde boy was lifted high into the air, squealing; a tall man in working clothes spun him around twice, then plopped him onto his shoulders. “Daddy!” shrieked the boy. “I dropped Argus!”
“Well, goodness, we can’t have that! Save him, quickly!” thundered the man, and held tight to the boy’s legs as he bent over, causing Robert to squeal with delight again as he reached down and grabbed the ragged stuffed dog off the floorboards. “Have you got him? Have you got him? Hold on tight…” and he spun him sharply in one direction, then the other, until the little boy was laughing so hard he was turning purple, both arms wrapped around his father’s head.  
“Now Jor, you’re going to make him throw up. Let the poor boy down!” chided Mother.
It made Thea’s heart glad to see her family laughing as though nothing was wrong, as though it was just another morning. She wanted to remember these things, but the desire to remember it made it easier to forget, somehow, and by the time breakfast was done the only thing saw in her mind’s eye was the mangy mabari doll sitting all akimbo on the floor, waiting to be scooped up.

“I can’t believe you’re actually doing this,” said a familiar sarcastic voice. Thea looked up, breathing hard, resting the end of the axe on the ground. They didn’t actually need much firewood, but it was a good distraction, so she had been doing it for almost an hour.
A head of dark, curly hair was watching her, a lanky body leaning against the fence.
“And I can’t believe you actually feel purple is your color, Finn,” she shot back, pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes.
The young man smiled a half-smile. “Please. The ladies love it.”
Thea put a hand on her hip. “Maker help us all.”
“Worked on you, didn’t it?” The half-smile grew wider.
The axe buried itself in the block. “So did you come down here to chat me up, or try to talk me out of it, or what? Because none of it is working,” said Thea, frowning through her blush.
“Come on,” said Finn. “Let’s take a walk.”
Thea laughed a little darkly. “That’s how you got me the last time.”
“Believe me, I remember. But this time, just a walk. I promise. We won’t be able to do it again.”
After a moment, Thea nodded, pulling off her leather gloves and tossing them onto the block beside the axe. The two started down the dirt road towards the woods.
They walked in silence for a time, falling into step beside each other, their feet finding the old, well-worn path.
“Your hair looks nice,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied.
“I’m going to miss you,” said Finn.
“Meh. Only because I’m the only girl in the village stupid enough to keep falling for your cheap lines,” Thea shrugged, watching tiny brown birds flit through the branches above.
The young man’s gray eyes sparkled as he laughed. “Rubbish. You’re the only one I use the cheap lines on, anymore.”
Thea laughed again. “Glad to hear you’re settling. Unfortunately it’s not to be.”
Finn picked up a thin branch from beside the path, whipped the low-hanging leaves absently. “I wasn’t settling.”
Thea glanced at him, then back to the trees. After a time she said, “It’s not meant to be.”
“You don’t have to do this,” said Finn. His smile had gone. He was only a few months older than her, but he looked much older when he wasn’t smiling.
“Yes, I do. You know that.”
“Don’t you think he needs you here, more?”
Thea didn’t answer. It was an old argument, one she’d had with herself a thousand times.
Finn pressed. “How can you protect him from some fortress a hundred miles away, Fee? He needs you here.”
Morning sunlight on pale blonde hair. “Come see, Feeya, come see what I can do!”
“Sounds like you’re just going to have to trust me, Finn,” she said distantly.
“No, what it sounds like is the least well-thought-out plan since Sister Agatha decided to help a choking man by throwing him into the mill pond,” replied Finn sharply.
“Well, the mill pond was frozen, and he did land so hard that he spat out the prawn, so maybe we give Sister Agatha too little credit,” said Thea reasonably.
She stopped, realizing that he had stopped and was standing a few paces behind her.
“I don’t understand this, Fee. How can you just leave him alone?”
“He won’t be alone, Finn. He’ll have mother, and father, and you, and your father to help him.”
The young man stared at her, any trace of laughter gone. “There’s only so much my father can teach him. What’s going to happen when he grows up, Fee? When he starts becoming a man? My father says that’s when… that’s when they can’t control it any longer.”
“Watch this, Fee!” A tiny ball of flame, swirling like a phoenix feather in the air above a tiny outstretched palm. A cry of surprise as she grabbed his arm.
“I’ll be a Knight by then. I’ll be able to help him.”
“What are you going to do, smuggle books of theory back to him? Hide a tutor under your breastplate? I know you hate the Circle, but there must be a better way of keeping Robin safe.”
“I don’t hate the Circle, Finn. But he can’t go there. Children who go to the Circle might as well be dead. And you… your father did everything he could, but you know how many my mother lost. That my mother has any smiles left in her is a miracle.”
Finn looked at the ground, running a hand through his dark curls. Eleven years and much loss had passed between Thea and her little brother.
“I can’t do that to them,” Thea went on. “He’s the last Westley.”
He smiled a little crookedly. “That’s a little old-fashioned, don’t you think?”
She laughed, sadness running through the sound like ore in stone. “Maybe. But how would you feel if you were the last of your line?”
“I am,” he laughed.
“But you won’t always be. You’ll find a nice young girl who loves cheap pickup lines and the color purple, and you’ll have lots of obnoxiously smart-arsed little babies. You’ll have a summer wedding, and a house with a porch, and two dogs. I can see it. It’s all very idyllic.”
He gave her a dry look. “So they take seers in the Templars, now, do they?”
She went on. “The dogs’ names will be Fidget and Hubert. Fidget will have a housetraining problem, and Hubert won’t stop humping the guests’ legs. Just like his master.”
He laughed, and she was glad to hear the old joy in the sound. They began walking again. “I’m not so sure about that. I was considering joining the Chantry,” he said casually.
“Oh Maker, Finn, you couldn’t keep yourself from women if you wore a spiked chastity belt.”
“I will refrain from reminding you that some women like that kind of thing, and instead insist that I am, in fact, quite strongly considering it. I can do some good. Maybe travel.”
“Doesn’t your father need your help at the clinic?”
Finn nodded. “I can study here under the Revered Mother for a few years. Then we’ll see. One day at a time.”
She shook her head, amused. “And the women?”
“Like I said, one day at a time.”
 They had reached the hawthorn tree by the bend in the river.
Thea smirked. “So that’s your game, is it?”
The dark-haired young man was the picture of innocence. “I have no idea to what the young lady is referring. The tree is simply a lovely place to take in the scenic vista.”
“So the fact that it’s where we –“
“Madam! I have a reputation to uphold!” he said with mock indignity.
“I’m sure you do a lot of upholding around here, you blighter!”
“Blighter! Madam, I am a perfect gentleman!” he roared, and gave chase. She ran from him, laughing wickedly. It was an old game, played for many years, though the overtones had certainly shifted.
“I’m sorry, Feeya, I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you, I just wanted to show you,” he babbled, tears running like two rivers from his blue eyes. She could barely feel her own tears as she stared at her hand, at the blackened flesh still curling up. Through her shock, she was already making up a story – cooking grease, hot iron pots, too close to the fire.
He caught her by the side of the river, hoisted her kicking over his shoulder. “Thou art mine, Ser Theodora, and thou shalt like it!” he boomed over the water. Then, less boomingly, “Ooof… you’ve been chopping too much wood, lately, my lady. Methinks you have put on muscle.” He put her down, rubbing his shoulder, grinning. His right hand lingered on her left, on the scars, or maybe it only felt like it did.
She smiled hugely, breathing hard. “Methinks ‘tis true, for observe, Serrah!” and without warning seized him by the arm and thigh and lifted him easily on her shoulders. He shouted various epithets while she jumped nimbly to a stone in the river, then to another, and another, laughing. Once back on the bank, she dumped him unceremoniously under the hawthorn tree, where he sat trying to catch his breath and failing due to excessive laughter.
“I always did… have a weakness for… women who could haul me about… like a feed sack,” he gasped.
Thea leaned on her knees. “You’re a heavy little blighter,” she laughed.
He drew his knees up to his chest and looked up at her, still grinning from ear to ear. “This is how I will remember you,” he said.
Her smile faded a little, and after a moment she stood up straight. “We should get back,” she said. “I don’t want the Templars to think I’ve run away.”
They followed the path back to the fence where she’d found him. She wished she had a greater sense of drama, because now seemed the moment for something dramatic. Nothing came to her, so to hide her sudden tears she turned to walk away.
Finn reached out and caught her left hand in his right, and squeezed. She squeezed back. It may have been a promise, a declaration, a dramatic move, she wasn’t certain. She had no sense for that sort of thing. But she squeezed back, as hard as she could.
 “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated, and tried to touch her hand. She pulled away slightly, instinctively. His eyes pleaded with her as he looked up from the floor. Without words, they begged: Are you scared of me, Feeya?
She watched him for a few steps, making his way towards the village, staring at the ground as he went, as he often did, his shoulders flexing as he swung the whippy branch back and forth along the hedge. For a moment she lost herself in a thought of what might have been – warm summer nights, weddings, a house with a porch – and then she let it go, a feather in the breeze.

Thea was in the barn saying goodbye to the goats when she noticed Robin standing behind her, moving dirt around with the toe of his shoe. She waited for him to speak, half-turned, her hand still stroking the goat’s cowlick between the horns.
He didn’t speak. After a time, he walked up slowly beside her and leaned against her, putting his head against her hip, turning his face towards her. His arms folded against her leg, one hand against his own cheek, the other picking at the seam in her leggings.
Her right hand lifted, stroked his soft, baby-blond hair.
“I love you so much,” he said, his voice muffled.
For him, she thought to herself as tears flowed from between closed lids. For this.

Three riders approached shortly after the last of the mid-day bells rang out from the village.
There were two Templars, both older men, one dark-bearded, one bald as a squash. Across both of their chests shone the flaming sword insignia of their order. The Revered Mother rode between them on a pony, looking positively overjoyed. She had not had the pleasure of entertaining recruiting Templars in many years, and at age ninety-two, she might not again.
Thea stood by the gate with her mother and father.
“Joran Westley?” said the bearded rider as the mounts slowed to a halt.
Her father saluted.
“A soldier, I see. Thank you for your service to the Free Marches, serah. My father was also in the service.” The Templars dismounted, their light riding armor jangling and gleaming in the sun. “I am Ser Hausman, and this is Ser Gilliam.”
“The gentlemen are Knights of the Starkhaven Circle,” supplied Mother Gertra as Ser Gilliam gamely helped her down from her pony.
The bearded Templar, Ser Hausman, nodded at Thea. “And you must be our potential recruit. What is your full name, girl?”
“Theodora Ilsabetta Westley, ser.”
“A solid enough name, to be sure,” said the Templar.
Mother spoke up. “Please come in, good sers. I have tea almost ready. I’m sure you’re eager to sit on something that doesn’t jostle.”
The bald Templar, Ser Gilliam, laughed heartily. “A wise woman.”
“Thank you, goodwife,” said Ser Hausman seriously. “It will be a good opportunity to begin the questioning.”
They entered the house. “And this is my brother Robert,” said Thea. The small figure by the fire rose and stood to attention.
Ser Gilliam chuckled again. “Two soldiers in this family, I say! And you, the most fearsome of the lot, I’d wager. How old are ye, Messere Robert? Five and twenty? Five and thirty?”
“I’m seven, ser,” answered Robin proudly, his thin little chest puffed out like a pigeon’s. “And I’m not a soldier yet, ser, but maybe one day I will be.”
“A lucky day that will be for Starkhaven’s army, serah,” smiled Ser Gilliam. Thea’s mother smiled gratefully at him.
“Now Robert, it’s time to be a good boy, and run up to your room and play. We must talk,” said Father. The small figure disappeared up the stairs in a flurry of knees and elbows.
Seats were eased into; cups of hot tea were handed around to general murmurs of appreciation. Thea remained standing in the center of the room, feeling like a horse at auction, which, in a way, she was.
“Do you believe in the maker, Theodora?” asked Ser Hausman suddenly.
Thea looked directly into the Knight’s hooded brown eyes. “I do, ser,” she said.
“Who sponsors this young woman?”
“I do, Ser Knight,” said the Revered Mother proudly.
“Has she been confirmed in the Maker’s sight?”
“She has,” supplied Mother Gertra, reveling in her role. “These seven years.”
“Many are those who wander in sin,” began Ser Hausman, his eyes still on Thea.
She continued the verse without hesitation. “Despairing that they are lost forever; but the one who repents, who has faith unshaken by the darkness of the world, and boasts not, nor gloats over the misfortunes of the weak, but takes delight in the Maker's law and creations, she shall know the peace of the Maker's benediction.”
The bearded man laughed, taking a drink of his tea. “Well done. That one’s a bit obscure. But tell me – indulge me, really – recite your favorite verse, if you would.”
Thea clasped her hands together, covering her left hand with her right. She began to speak, words that she had whispered to herself and to her brother in the darkness of many anguished nights. “Though all before me is shadow, yet shall the Maker be my guide. I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Beyond. For there is no darkness, nor death either, in the Maker's Light, and nothing that He has wrought shall ever be lost.”
Ser Gilliam smiled appreciatively. Ser Hausman raised an eyebrow. “The Canticle of Trials. Interesting. Why that particular passage, Theodora?”
Thea took a deep breath. “Because, ser,” she said, keeping her voice as steady as she could, “it’s easy to forget about the light when the darkness closes in. And there is so much darkness. But we must always hope – we must cling to it, ser, and keep the hope close, or the darkness will take us. We must fight for the light. I must always fight.”
“As a Templar, you must give your life to the Chantry and to the service thereof, forever. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ser.”
“As a Templar, you will train hard, and become proficient with weaponry. It is a grueling life. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ser. I have… already a little skill.” She motioned to her father’s old sword and shield, emblazoned with the red and black heraldry of Starkhaven, hanging on the wall above the hearth.
“Does the scarring on your left hand affect your performance?”
“No, ser.”
“As a Templar, you will be expected to take life when necessary. You will witness horrors beyond your imagining. You will be called upon to punish those who misuse magic. You will be forever vigilant to the presence of mages, apostates and maleficar, and you will do everything in your power to do as the Chantry demands. Do you understand?”
“I… I do, ser,” she said, driving the tremor from her voice.
Ser Hausman leaned towards her, steepling his fingers, his dark eyes sharp. “I say again: as a Templar, you must give your life to the Chantry and the service thereof, do you understand?”
The young woman took a deep breath, let her hands drop. “I understand, ser, that I will become one and of the Chantry, and none but the Maker will guide my heart and deeds. Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him; I will exist to serve the Chantry, and the word of the Maker embodied therein. I will hold my faith like a flame against the dark, ser.”
Her mother turned away, towards the fire.
In the depths of Thea’s heart, the thought bloomed: if I repeat these words often enough, I will begin to believe them. I want to believe them. I must believe.
The Templars seemed satisfied. “Very good,” said Ser Hausman, rising. “Now, if there is a private space we might make use of, preferably enclosed…?”
“Oh, er, will the barn do?” supplied Father, still a little caught up in the recent exchange.
Ser Gilliam stood as well, leaving his cup on the arm of his chair. “That will suffice. Theodora, Reverend Mother, if you please. Madame and Messere, please remain here. We will return shortly.”
Leaving her mother and father behind as she led the way to the barn felt strange, but not as strange as Mother Gertra’s thin hand on her shoulder as she whispered loudly, “You’ll make a wonderful Templar, my dear. Such armor!”
Thea hauled open the door, motioned the group inside.
“Yes, this will do,” said Ser Hausman critically.
“Why the barn, ser?” asked Thea.
“We are going to conduct a test, most basically designed, really,” said Ser Gilliam, shifting a wooden wheelbarrow out of the way. “Simply to determine your degree of connection to the Fade.”
Thea nodded.
“Please stand there. Hold still.”
She moved into the open space in the center of the barn, and held still. A goat bleated a half-hearted complaint, watching with one eye.
Ser Hausman glanced at his companion, who nodded slightly. Ser Hausman drew his sword, held it flat before his face. He held very still, took several deep breaths, and lifted his left hand.
Thea felt a wave of heaviness roll over her, a sense of pressure, but nothing more. She barely wavered.
The bearded Templar lowered his hand and his sword, smiling slightly. The Reverend Mother audibly let out a sigh of relief.
“Alright, well, that’s that,” said Ser Gilliam.
Thea looked from one man to the other. “That was the test?”
“Indeed,” said Ser Hausman. “If you were a mage with a strong connection to the Fade, you’d be on the ground screaming for mercy right now.” His smile increased, he winked at her. “One day, if you work at it, you’ll be able to do that, as well.”
She looked at the bearded Templar. “Yes, ser. I will work hard.”
Again, on the way back to the house, Mother Gertra’s voice in her ear: “What a Templar you’ll make, my dear! Blessed Andraste, how exciting for you!  You must promise to write, my dear!”

They had already tied her pack to the back of one of the horses by the time she pulled on her cloak and said goodbye to everyone with kisses and embraces. It was only a show. The real goodbyes had already been said, with eyes and silences. Robin looked as though he wanted to say something, shout something really, but she kissed him into quiet, promising that she would see him again before he knew it. She had no idea if it was true or not. She hoped it was.
Ser Gilliam held out his gloved hand. “Up you go, then,” he said kindly. She allowed herself to be pulled up, swung her leg over the rear of the horse, settled in behind the man, feeling his armor move against her front. She could smell him – leather, armor polish, soap, something vaguely metallic. Not unpleasant by any means, but alien to her.
They did not linger. She glanced behind her only once, and immediately regretted doing so. She buried the image of her family huddling together by the hedge, Robin in her father’s arms, looking the other way down the road, and focused on the gentle jostling of the horse beneath her, the sound of hooves thumping on the packed earth, the tiny dents and scratches in Ser Gilliam’s plate armor. 
“We’ll overnight in the next village,” said Ser Hausman. “Then it’s on to Lesille. We’ve another recruit to pick up there. After that, Starkhaven. Ever been, girl?”
Thea shook her head. “No, ser.”
“A bit full of itself, really,” said Ser Gilliam, thoughtfully. “But you won’t be there for long. You’ll be divided into groups, and sent to training refuges all over the Marches. I hope for your sake you don’t get the one outside Ostwick – Owl’s Roost, they called it. That’s where I was, more years ago than I care to count. The food was terrible.”
“Owl’s Roost burned down ten years ago, Gilliam. Come now, you recall.” Ser Hausman had taken a pipe out of a saddlebag, pulled off a riding glove, and was carefully thumbing dark tobacco into the bowl.
“Oh, that’s right. Well, the food was terrible.”
The sun inched nearer to the treeline, and Thea lost herself in the thump-clump of hooves. The smoke from Ser Hausman’s pipe was dark and bittersweet, with a coppery edge. There is no darkness, nor death either, in the Maker’s light, she repeated to herself. No darkness, nor death either. Nothing that He has wrought will ever be lost.
Thea leaned gently against Ser Gilliam’s armor. Under her cloak, she ran the fingers of her right hand over the time-smoothed scars on her left, saw a glimpse of baby-blonde hair in her mind’s eye, golden in morning sunlight. Tears filling bright blue eyes, overflowing down round cheeks. The smell of burning flesh. I’m sorry, Feeya, I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you, I just wanted to show you…
The Knight glanced over his shoulder at her. “Anxious, girl?”
Are you scared of me, Feeya?
Thea leaned back, stared upwards into the purple sky, at the young stars winking their ciphers at her. It was the secret sister of the Spirit’s Hour, when the world, while still turning, seemed quiet and brimming with something akin to hope, smooth and warm as a stone by a riverbend on a summer’s evening.

“No, ser,” she said firmly. “I’m not afraid.”