The air, redolent with the stench of burned meat, stale smoke and vomit, swirled slightly as the door opened. A harsh ray of sunshine from the doorway slashed across her face, highlighting the bleary redness of her eyes and the bags under them. She feebly tried to hold up one hand to block the light, but before she could react, the door slammed shut and she sighed weakly. She knew that she should stand up from her pallet on the floor, but she’d been drinking quite heavily for hours, and was quite certain that her legs wouldn’t hold her weight, thin though she was. She craned her neck up, trying to see who had come in to her room, but had so much difficulty focusing her eyes that she gave up and let her head fall back down to the sack of rags she was using as a pillow.
“Phaw! What a stench!” She knew that she recognized that voice, but just didn’t care enough to organize her thoughts long enough to pin it down.
“Damn it, this room is going to need to be fumigated and bleached before I can rent it out again. Where’s my farging gold?” Again, the voice cut through the fog of her alcohol induced haze, making her head pound and her stomach churn.
Gold? She’d gotten some this morning. She’d been given 10 gold by that merchant off the ship… he’d said he liked his women skinny. She shivered just thinking about his touch, and the way he had smelled. But his gold was good, and she had rent to pay. Weakly she waved her hand towards her pouch on the rickety table. “Sheesh… yer… rent’s right there.”
She heard the clinking of bottles rattling together as the landlord searched the table, and that’s when she remembered that she had stopped at The Matchstick to get a drink before coming back here to give the landlord the coin. Just one drink, was all she needed, just one to steady her nerves after that merchant, after what she’d done – again.
“Shit bitch, there’s nothing here but a bunch of empty wine bottles. I told you to have my rent today, or you were out. Now, you have ten seconds to give me my 8 gold pieces, or my son’s’ll be tossing your skinny elven arse into the street.”
Her brow furrowed in frustration. She hadn’t spent all the gold on wine… had she?
“Rikell, Ish gots your gold. Its… its… its…” her voice trailed off, as she tried hard to rise to a sitting position.
“That’s what I thought. Darin, Mikel, get in here.” The door opened again, and Rikell’s two hulking sons walked in through the door. One alone would have blocked all the light coming in, between the two of them it may as well have been night in her room. She squinted up at them, trying to formulate a thought, trying to stammer out a plea, but nothing came out but a sickening belch. Before she knew what had happened, each had grabbed one of her arms, and she was being carried out the door, down the stairs and through the front door. She screamed and tried in vain to wrap her arms around her head as they tossed her, like a sack of trash, into the street. Her head cracked against the freezing, rain-slick cobblestones, and her vision filled with stars. She spit, tasting blood, and knew she had bitten her tongue.
One of the huge young men turned back into the inn immediately, but the other stood staring down at her for a while. He muttered something under his breath, she only caught the word “hero” and then he too turned back into the inn, with a look of disgust on his face, and slammed the door behind him.
She tried to stand up, to holler after him, to tell him that there are no heroes, but she slipped on a piece of offal, slamming back to the ground, her skull crashing against the stone, and blacked out.
* * *
“Miss?” A voice. She tried to not listen. She didn’t want to wake up. Waking up meant pain. Waking up meant suffering. Sleep was so much better.
“Miss? Are you all right?” A hand touched her hair, dropped down to her shoulder and shook her gently. She whimpered, and tried to wave him away, tried to explain that she didn’t want help, that she just wanted to lay here and sleep, but nothing came out.
“Miss, I am a healer, please, let me help you.” She felt strong hands grab her gently at the shoulders and turn her over, face up to the light. Though she kept her eyes screwed tightly shut, the little bit that leaked through her lids sent stabs of pain into her skull.
“Leitha?!” The voice was unfamiliar, but incredulous. “Leitha? Is it you?”
Hoping to find something to say, anything that would make him just leave her here, leave her to just die, she dared to open one eye and stare up at him. A human, she noted, and not one that she remembered. How he knew her name she had no idea. She tried to think, tried to remember where he might have seen her before, and from there why he was being so helpful. But her thoughts were scattered by the wine, by the blows to her head, and by the fever that she’d been feeling for days now. And then she looked down from his face, to the medallion at his throat.
A low keening sound spilled from her mouth as she turned, and tried with all her strength to scramble away from him. The sight of the simple wooden medallion was like a dagger through her heart. Painted gold, though never made of the material, for gold was too precious to waste on a simple holy symbol. Other priests might squander their wealth on ostentatious displays of their piety, but a wearer of that symbol always put the needs of the poor and unfortunate before their own. The helping hand on the shield, the symbol of The Protector, the God of Small Things… Shavista.
She managed only to drag herself a few inches before her strength ran out, and she collapsed, weeping almost silently back onto the ice cold cobbles. “No… please… no” she managed to whisper, but he obviously didn’t hear her, or chose not to listen. He reached down and scooped her into his arms, cradling her like a child. She tried to fight, tried to leap down and run away, but her body wouldn’t respond to her demands. She tried to scream, tried to call for help, but he lay a calloused hand on her forehead, and murmured a prayer she remembered all too well. Before she could say another word, she slipped once more back into darkness.
* * *
When she awoke, her head was clear. She was warm and dry, laying in a thin but soft and clean pallet, staring at a ceiling that was all too familiar to her. How many times had she slept under this roof, exhausted from healing the wounds and sicknesses of the poor? How many times had she laid down cradling a child as they cried themselves to sleep for a mother or father that was never coming home again?
She sat up slowly, carefully making as little noise as possible, and trying not to wake the others sleeping around her. Treading carefully, and watchful that none of the priests see her and thus try to stop her from leaving, she crept across the room, and down the hall toward the front, and only, exit from the temple. She sighed inwardly as she put one hand on the door to pull it open, relieved to have escaped without drawing any attention.
“They told me you wouldn’t stay.”
She started, and whirled around, one hand going to her belt for a blade that wasn’t there, that hadn’t been there since she sold it for wine. But her quick movements didn’t startle the young priest standing behind her. He must have been light on his feet to have followed her down the hallway without her hearing him. Many things had dulled over the last year, but her sense of hearing wasn’t one of them.
“What do you mean by that?”
He sighed, and leaned against the wall. “When I brought you in. They told me I was the fourth person to bring you in here like that. Poisoned by cheap wine, diseased from selling yourself to the sailors, fevered from being in the streets in the cold. They told me you just want to die. Some of them told me that it broke their hearts, but maybe you had earned the right to die. They told me I was just wasting my time, and that there were others who wanted the help, who needed the help, and who deserved the help more than you. That healing you of the damage you’d done to yourself with wine, and the damage that your sailor ‘friends’ had done to you with their diseases, well, that it was all a waste of time and of Shavista’s blessings.” He reached down to his belt and undid the strings that tied his pouch to it. Tossing the pouch to her, he smiled slightly as she caught it.
“There’s not much in there, but its enough to let you crawl back into a bottle, if that’s really what you want. But if you want to die, there are far faster and more assured ways to do it.” He reached down to his belt again, this time drawing his dagger and tossing it at her feet. She bent down to pick it up, staring at the razor edge he’d honed it to.
“Yeah, I keep it pretty sharp. Sometimes magical healing just isn’t enough, or I am too exhausted to use it. So a sharp knife comes in handy, to excise the infected flesh.” He shrugged. “Either way, it should be sharp enough to open a vein on a skinny arm like yours.”
She stood there staring at him for minutes, her mind struggling to grasp what he’d just done. No priest of Shavista would ever counsel another person to kill themselves, let alone give them the means to do it. He obviously was some sort of charlatan, some sort of madman. But she’d heard him call upon The Protector, had felt the power of his magics…
“What kind of priest are you?” she gaped at last, finding her voice after a few false tries.
“The impatient kind. Now pick one. Either you take the gold and silver in there, give me back my knife and go drink yourself back in to a stupor and, or you give me back the pouch and go slit your wrists somewhere quietly. Though I would like the knife back when you’re done with it, if you don’t mind telling me where you’re going to do it. That’s a damned good knife, and I’d hate to lose it.” When she didn’t answer him immediately, but rather stood there, looking at him like a poleaxed steer, he grinned slightly. “There is a third option you know. You could talk to me.”
“Talk? Talk about what?”
“Well, the other priests here tell me that you used to be a big deal around here. Used to throw yourself into battle all the time, used to be some kind of a hero to all sorts of people. One of them told me that you were once the greatest archer in the realms, and another told me you used to be the second in command of those poor bastages in the Order of Light.” He sneered slightly, his voice dripping with scorn “but the kind of drunken whore that I see before me can’t possibly be the same person,” he shrugged, and his voice resumed its normal, compassionate tone “unless maybe, just maybe, something happened, something went wrong somewhere, and maybe, just maybe, you need to talk about that.”
He straightened from his lean, put one hand on his hip and held out the other to her, palm up. “So, my knife, my gold, or your story. Which one is it going to be?”
Without thinking she tossed the knife and the pouch at his feet, and whirled in place, threw open the door and dashed back out into the street. She rain so fast into the freezing rain that she didn’t hear the words that he called out to her, didn’t see him follow her out for a few yards, didn’t see him standing in the rain, and didn’t care.
* * *
When she finally had to stop running because her legs, unaccustomed to such exercise, would no longer carry her, she collapsed in a heap near a fountain. The steady crashing of the water spilling over the top of the fountain and the seemingly never-ending torrent of the rain falling to the ground upon which she lay, panting, almost drowned out the sounds of her sobs.
How dare he. How dare he presume to judge her. To mock her like that. He had no idea. None at all.
She didn’t realize that she’d spoken out loud until a quiet voice at her shoulder startled her out of her misery. “Miss, it’s my experience, and that’s a lot of experience, that they never know, they never understand, until you tell them.” The speaker was an ancient Halfling, his skin wrinkled like leather, his few remaining hairs white and whispy thin. He was standing up on the tips of his toes to try and get his bucket into the basin of the fountain, and was obviously having difficulty with even its empty weight. Without thinking, she quickly stood up and gently took the bucket from his shriveled hands. Dipping it into the water and drawing it out and setting it at the Halfling’s furred feet. She hadn’t thought about helping anyone in a very long time. In fact, she had spent the last two years trying not to think at all.
He sat down beside it, leaning back against the wall of the fountain with a sigh, letting the rain pour down over him heedlessly. “Ahhh… thank you miss. That blasted thing gets heavier every time I try to lift it up. And the walk gets longer each time to. These legs of mine have always been long enough for me, but these arms seem to be getting weaker and weaker. And such a long walk it is too.” He grinned up at her, his obvious ploy making her grin slightly back.
“Lead on old man. I’ll carry your bucket for you.” Again, her offer surprised her.
“Well then, follow me miss!” With a spry step that belied his claim to weakness, the old man hopped up and quickly hurried off into the rain. She had taken no more than a dozen steps following him when he stopped at a small wooden door, barely twenty yards from the fountain. “Ahhh then. Here we are! Home sweet home.” He winked at her and ducked inside the door, stomping his furred feet and tossing his cloak over a short cloak rack beside the door.
Leitha followed him in, stamping her own feet to dislodge the water and muck from them, then set the bucket down at her side. Before she could say anything else though, the old Halfling was busying himself at the stove top, wrapping a towel around one hand to lift a kettle, and pouring boiling water into a small teapot. He busied himself for a few moments at fixing the tea, then turned back to face her again. “Sit, sit!”
His manner was so officious, and reminded her so much of another short man who had been known to bark orders, that she sat in immediate reflex. The chair was too small, and her knees rode up to her chin, but she felt too calm, too inexplicably content, to stand up, or even to venture an objection. Moments later, she sat, teacup in one hand, and a chocolate biscuit in the other.
“So, he doesn’t understand hmmm? They almost never do.” He nodded sagely and sipped a bit of his tea, grimacing and then quickly adding a dollop of honey from a pot on the table.
“Oh you know. People other than yourself. Never understand what you’re thinking. Hmmph, never even know what you’re thinking. Except maybe those mage types… nasty thing that, magic letting you peer into another person’s mind. Still, even if they can see what you are thinking, doesn’t mean that they can understand how it makes you feel. Hmm?”
She paused to take a sip of tea before answering. As her stomach filled with the honey sweetened tea, it gave a loud growl as if to remind her that it had been ignored for far too long. She bit into the biscuit, letting the chocolate melt on her tongue and savoring the taste like she hadn’t done in a long while. Finally, she spoke “Yes, but sometimes you don’t want to think about it yourself. Sometimes if you think about it, you’ll go mad. And you can’t talk about it without thinking about it, so you have to chose between going mad, or not thinking about anything at all, which is really just another form of going mad.” Her tone, and even her words, surprised her. She couldn’t understand how she was remaining this calm, this steady. She hadn’t said this many words in the last three years combined. And yet there was something about this old Halfling, something that just made her feel calm. And safe. She hadn’t felt safe in years.
“Hmmm yes. That’s true. But what if you have to go mad, in order to be sane?” He grinned up at her and pushed the plate of biscuits across the table toward her, waving away her protests. She quickly devoured the remaining three biscuits while she thought over what he had said.
“Go mad to become sane? There’s something I’ve never heard before. Though it sounds like the sort of thing that your Folk might believe.” She raised a quick hand in supplication “no offence intended, but I have met more than a few of the Folk who fit into the ‘mad’ description.” Her hand reached out toward the biscuit plate, only to discover it was empty.
The old Halfling tut tutted as he hopped down from his stool to walk over to a well stocked shelf and lifted a heavy ceramic jar from one of the shelves, walking carefully back to the table with it. “True, some of you tall people seem to think that the logic of the Folk is odd, but its logic nonetheless. And points to you for getting our name right.” He chuckled then opened the jar and peered within.
“Blasted. No more biscuits. You’ve gone and eaten all my chocolate biscuits. And here I was hoping to have some for my bedtime snack.” He sighed, untied his his belt pouch and tossed it to her. “Well, nothing to be done for it now. Only one place sells these, the baker around the corner. You’ll have to go and get me more. Go right when you leave the door, then right again. Four doors down on your left side. Big building, stands all alone. You can’t miss it.”
Before she could mount any sort of objection, he was bustling her out the door, admonishing her once more “Remember, the place you want is right, then right again, then the fourth door on your right. Trust me, it’s the place you want.”
Chuckling slightly under her breath and turning her cloak hood up against the rain, she held the pouch he had given her tight in her hand as she turned right, then right again. One, two, three…
The Temple of Protection loomed ahead. The fourth door was the entrance to the temple. But she’d ran from this place for what felt like hours, not mere yards. She looked around desperately, trying to figure out how she had come all this way so quickly. Whirling about, she dashed quickly back the way she had come, left, then left again. There was the fountain, and there was…
A solid wall. No door, no entrance into a quiet little home. No old Halfling with sweet tea. Looking down at the pouch of gold in her hand, she saw a symbol marked into the soft leather. A hand, open as if to help, on a shield of gold.
She sat on the edge of the fountain for hours, not even noticing that the sun had set, or that the clouds had finally moved on, leaving the sky clear and bright with a full moon. She stared at the pouch in her hands the entire time. Finally, she levered herself back to her feet, and slowly walked, one halting step at a time, back to the temple. She stood outside it for long minutes, listening to the noises from within, the soothing chanting of the priests, the crying of a baby, the wailing of loss and the laughter of hope. She smelled the carrot and barley stew, and her stomach rumbled. She remembered. She cried.
Maybe the old man was right. Maybe she needed to go mad to get sane. But all that had happened to her, all that she had lost, could she go through that again? Could she live those memories again? The feeling of Balok’s blade, burning insider her. The loss of the Guardians. The death of the soldiers she’d trained. The loss of her family, of her friends. Nalmalas, gone for all time. The loss of every man she thought she’d ever loved. Watching people die and knowing that she couldn’t save them. Knowing that every man and woman she’d cared for, that every soldier who owed her their oath, was dead or a slave.
As she tried to work up the courage to open the door, to plumb those dark depths, she heard a familiar voice behind her. “You are stronger than you think.” She turned slowly to see the young priest, leaning against the wall, watching her. “You are stronger than you will ever know. I know. Trust me.”
“How can you know? How can you know what I can or can not do? Why do you care?”
The priest smiled. “I know because I wouldn’t be alive if not for you. I know because I watched you stand up to numbers far in excess of your own. I know because I saw you take wounds for those they were intended for. I know because I heard you sing to a little girl, to quiet her terrors in the night. I know because I remember when you carried me into that temple years ago. But most of all, I know because He knows.” He gestured to the wooden symbol at his throat.
He stepped away from the wall, and walked past her, stopping at the threshold of the church. “So if you are ready, ready to let His will be worked, ready to take up your task once more, and ready to be who you are supposed to be, then come in. I’ll be waiting. He’ll be waiting. And so will all those who need you. The choice is yours.” With that, he strode through the door and it swung quietly shut behind him.
She stood there for a moment, and then heard the cry of the child inside once more. There were still people who needed her protection, who needed her strength. She had to choose between her own safety, maybe her sanity, and the safety of those who couldn’t be strong on their own. And that, that was no choice at all. Without a glance backwards, she pushed open the door and walked through.