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Acolyte's Choice

by Caris

His name was Travis, and he was an idiot.

He reflected upon this every day as he went about his duties. It wasn't a hard life, per se, but it wasn't what he'd expected, not at all. The long hours, the studying, the constant chanting, oh graces the chanting, it all seemed to bear down upon him like ever-constricting bars of a particularly nasty cage, a cage whose bars were made up of a capella notes.

He was young to feel this way -- 20 or so -- but it felt like he'd always said this to himself.

Travis lived in Weston, in the temple, with five or six other acolytes. He sometimes wondered if they felt the same as he did, but if they did, they didn't show it in their earnest, pious young faces. He watched them when he didn't think anybody was looking, watched them go about their duties with shining countenances and generous spirits. Meanwhile, his own heart felt shriveled and he questioned every single thing he heard.

He was a tall, blonde man now, with a lean build and slim hips, with his hair cut in the traditional way in a short cut that tended toward spikiness on him if left too long. He'd grown up in the Church, come to it around 10 or so, thanks to his parents, who'd made a promise to Haran -- a fairly standard one, actually, involving being spared from some disaster or other. Travis was their firstborn son, so he got offered up to the apparently-capricious Logos' prophet. The rest, as they say, was history, and now here he was.

It was spring now, but Travis didn't get outside as much as he liked. Weston was in a beautiful part of the continent, in a plain with the Wilds cupped around it like a lover's body. The Temple had a small garden, but gardening wasn't what they were there for. No, they were there to learn and to ensure that the Weston residents behaved themselves.

Travis viewed his life's work with a certain cynicism, to be sure, but he had to admit he was a very learned man now. He knew several languages, including the Latin he would need when he was assigned to whatever post the Church had in mind. He could write in a delicate, if slightly spidery, copperplate hand. He could speak or sing with almost perfect pitch. If he was nearsighted, he had learned to cover it up; if he was less than perfectly enthusiastic about where his life had led, he didn't betray his feelings to anybody and jeopardize his parents' sacrifice.

He swept up the front of the temple, the foyer, his broom moving in quick, efficient little sweeps that didn't stir up the dust unduly. He worked with only half a mind on his task; this wasn't bad, because it freed his mind. He'd have been grateful to have pulled this easy work today, if it weren't for the choir practice occurring on the other side of the curtain behind him in the sanctuary.

The voices were younger than his, most of them sweet, though one or two were truly hideous to listen to. Travis hoped earnestly that Haran didn't mind a bit of bad singing. The morning was pretty, though, with sunlight coming in through the opulent glazed windows, making diamond patterns on the floor and causing dust motes to dance in the air. The air wasn't warm enough to make him miserable in his grey woolen robe, probably wouldn't be for a few months, though the promise of summer was in the air already.

He finished as the choir practice was finishing. This was not an accident; nothing he did really was, these days. He knew that lunch was soon, that's all. He was just putting the broom and dustpan into their cubbies behind the temple's main door when the curtain ruffled open behind him and loudly jabbering boys burst through the doorway. They waved hello to him, clearly not expecting him to do much. Behind them bundled Father Lucan, large and ungainly, his face already a bit red. Lucan smiled benevolently at the boys as they dashed down the hall to ready themselves for lunch.

Travis opened the door for visitors; they always had a few who came in for the lunchtime blessings. Lucan came up to him to look outside the door. As expected, there were already some well-dressed people coming up Chantria Lane to the church.

Lucan put his hands on his Red Book, ready to open it to the right place even without looking down at it. It was a well-thumbed book, bound in red leather with the starburst painted on it in silvery metallic paint. Though not thick, by Travis' standards, it was opulent, with colorful illuminations on most pages. Travis had gotten to read it often over the past few years.

"We'd best get the altar laid out," said Lucan. "Is the white linen with the gold embroidery cleaned yet?"

Travis nodded. "Yes, Father. I'll get it."

Before he could bow and turn away, though, Lucan took his wrist. "Who are they?" he asked, squinting into the distance.

Travis turned and looked, but he wasn't much better with his eyes. "Soldiers, it looks like to me, Father," he offered. Lucan didn't say anything for a moment, but let Travis' hand go. As Travis slid past the priest, Lucan finally said, "Better get the blue striped cloth instead, Travis."

Travis murmurred assent and left for the storage closet. It was the work of only a moment to locate the almost utilitarian altar cloth. Pure white linen, of a type of flax only rarely found in this part of the world, it was decorated only with finger-wide strips of dark blue silk, two wide strips flanking one narrow one, all along its bottom. Travis wasn't sure why Lucan wanted this cloth and no other, but that wasn't his lookout; he got the cloth without a word and brought it to the priest.

Lucan took it with a nod of thanks, heading toward the altar. As he left, he said over his shoulder, "Travis, I want you to help me." Travis bowed deeply and followed the priest into the room.

As Travis helped Lucan get ready, getting out candles and various gold bowls and goblets and knives, the parishioners filtered in. He knew all of them and smiled greetings at them. They smiled back before composing themselves to worship, approaching the altar, bowing or curtseying deeply, touching their foreheads and then their lips, and backing away three steps before turning to find a seat in the small sanctuary. There was room there for nearly 400 people, but there were only a dozen here today, which was to be expected.

What Travis did not expect were the four military men who came in and sat down near the back. They were rough-looking, but Sciallan, not Flameholdan. He didn't recognize any of them. They wore bonemail armor and bore swords, though the weapons were tightly peace-bound and undrawable. They looked like they'd been riding, like they'd barely had time to make themselves presentable. Though Travis was now deeply engrossed in the ritual of blessings with Lucan, he did notice that Lucan didn't seem all that shocked to see the men.

The ritual went without a hitch. Lucan raised the knife, asking for Haran's might upon their lives. He lifted the bowl, asking for Haran's providence. He lifted the goblet, asking for Haran's grace. Travis' job here was to kneel at the side of the altar and pray quietly with his hands uplifted, and chant responses to Lucan's formulaic questions.

There was a certain loveliness in the ritual. The people assembled in the pews knew this ritual well and there was no faltering, as one sometimes saw on the weekends in the larger services. Travis was not so jaded that he did not feel a shiver of awe when Lucan blessed them all for attending; the power he felt emanating from the unlikely man was palpable and he didn't doubt for a second that Haran had heard them all. The sunlight streaming in through the window, making diamond patterns on the statue of Logos behind Lucan, only helped the effect.

Finally Lucan raised his hands in benediction and told them "In the name of the Lifegiver Logos, go in peace." People smiled back peacefully and got up to leave, repeating the process by which they had entered the sanctuary. The soldiers stayed where they were, looking like they knew exactly why they were waiting. Travis began to gather up the ritual objects, carefully mouthing the traditional prayers over each, setting them into a flat-bottomed basket lined in silk and padded well, each one in its place, then closed the lid over the golden treasures and put it into a small drawer in the base of the alabaster altar. Lucan waited for him to finish, then leaned forward and locked the drawer securely with a golden key, its head enamelled white.

Lucan dropped the key into the ornate, tooled red leather pouch at his waist, then smiled a greeting to the soldiers. "Lieutenant Johen, am I correct?" he asked one of them, clearly of higher rank than his fellows.

Travis, coming up behind Lucan as was proper, saw that the person Lucan addressed had wild red hair, almost a mane of it, mussed up in the way one would expect of a man who wore a helmet for most of his day. The man's armor had metal rings instead of bone, and his swords -- one on each hip, in a dashing swordbelt -- were of much higher quality, even to Travis' completely untutored eyes.

The man stood up, bowing briefly toward Lucan and the altar. "That's me, Father. I take it you got my letter?"

Lucan nodded and gestured back out of the sanctuary. "Yes. Let's discuss the matter in my receiving room."

Travis watched Lucan walk ponderously down the center aisle, and the officer and the other soldiers got up, genuflected as the officer had, and followed. Travis was feeling very much left out and envious of these higher-up wheelings and dealings, when Lucan turned, fixed Travis with his small but piercing eyes, and said loudly, "Travis, you come along. This has to do with you, too."

Travis startled, looked around the now-emptied sanctuary, then glided down the aisle after the retreating priest and the soldiers. Lucan waited up for Travis to close the curtain neatly, then proceeded down the main hall, past the refectory, to the door on the end. Another key made its appearance from Lucan's ornate pouch, and Lucan ushered them all into the room.

Travis had seen this room several times, but the effect of its opulence never failed to move him. It was a large room, square-shaped, wtih several large windows, all glazed in diamond patterns and covered in silk and velvet drapes. The floor was of whitewood, with a handmade rug over it, a hooked rug from, Travis had been told, an Eastern City whose name the acolyte had forgotten.

The furniture was of equally ornate make, all of it darkened and covered in the intricate swirls of antique Priasciallan style. Travis noticed that most of the soldiers stayed near the door, but Travis and the lieutenant themselves were pointed toward a settee and a grouping of comfortable chairs. Travis settled into it, arranging his robe around himself and sitting with his hands clasped together in his lap.

Lucan sat at a desk near the chairs and began sifting through papers on it. He found what he was looking for and held it out to the officer. "I did indeed get your letter. Very distressing." He regarded the soldier with a grave expression.

The soldier nodded simply. "I'm sure you understand our plight. Can you help us?" His direct gaze turned to Travis, who sat quietly, sure now that whatever this plight was, it involved him.

Lucan leaned back, his bulk settling as he shifted in his seat. He looked at Travis for some time. Silence grew between the men, a silence Travis found uncomfortable. Before it got downright embarrassing, Lucan said speculatively, "This is Acolyte Travis Deandre." The officer nodded toward him, testing the younger man with his eyes. Travis didn't know how to react to that kind of gaze, so sat still.

Lucan continued, "I've been thinking about who to send ever since I got your letter. I have prayed long on this matter and Haran leads me to suggest Acolyte Travis."

The soldier did not appear all that surprised by the news. He continued to study Travis. After a minute, he said, not looking at the priest, "Are you sure he's up for that?"

"Ask him yourself," said Lucan, gesturing almost dismissively.

"Sir, Father, what's going on?" asked Travis finally, his voice sounding way meeker than he'd intended.

Lucan didn't answer. Finally the soldier said, after a moment's ungraceful pause, "I'm Lieutenant Johen, of Terbrina. Do you know where it is?"

Travis thought a moment, then shook his head. The soldier didn't seem surprised. "It's about a week's ride southwest of here, a small village. I was sent here by the village's Mayor to ask for Lucan's help." He looked pointedly at the priest.

Lucan had been sitting quietly. Now he held out a letter. Without giving it to Travis, he said, "Miners are getting rowdy there, I'm told."

The soldier nodded. "They have, I'm afraid, killed the priest who used to live there. The people are devastated and have asked for another priest. Weston's the closest large village to Terbrina, so I'm here to ask first."

Travis felt a sudden clawing sensation in the pit of his stomach. Lucan continued, "I've been in touch with Priascialla about you, Travis. You know you're close to ending your acolyte period."

He looked at Travis like he thought Travis was intelligent, and Travis tried hard to look intelligent for him. The soldier was looking at him too, but it was harder to read his stern face. Lucan said, "Travis, would you accept the position of priest of Terbrina?"

Travis had been kind of expecting that question for a minute or two now, but he found himself saying, "But the last priest was killed, right?" His voice sounded altogether squeakier than he thought it should.

"He was an idiot," said Johen almost angrily. "He was trying to push temperance on miners."

"Temperance is a noble goal," murmurred Lucan, as if it were obligatory that someone should say it.

"Maybe, but miners can be rowdy sometimes, and Burlingale was trying to push the issue," replied Johen. He turned to look at Travis. "Are you sure he can do the job?"

"Oh yes," said the priest. "He's learned, knows the Red Book, and is pleasant to people. I have utmost confidence in him. Return tomorrow, and he will return to Terbrina with you."

Lucan stood up then, and Travis and Johen followed his lead. Lucan led them to the door, opening it. The other soldiers filed out first. Lucan smiled at Johen. "Blessings upon you."

Johen looked at Travis before thanking the priest and leaving. The other soldiers followed him out. Travis remained next to Lucan until they were out of sight; he turned to Lucan. "Are you serious?"

Lucan seemed quite serious. He brought Travis back into his room and sat him down on one of the comfortable chairs. He poured brandy into a small glass and brought it to Travis with his own two hands. Travis, who had never been served by Lucan in his life, took the brandy and downed half of it in a swallow, wincing at the dry scratching it tore down his throat as he swallowed.

Lucan sat next to him on another chair. He had a glass in his own hands. "Travis, this is very serious," he began earnestly. "You're ready for this."

Travis looked around the room, hoping to find an answer in the luxurious furnishings. "They killed the last priest?"

"You heard Johen. He was stupid. You're not."

Travis stared at his glass. "What would I have to do?"

"Just be their priest. You've learned more than enough to handle it."

"But I'm so young..." his voice trailed off and he fell silent.

"I was younger," replied Lucan. "I was seventeen. This was my first parish." He looked around, satisfied. "I've come a long way."

Travis thought about it. Lucan drained his glass, then motioned for Travis to rise and follow him. "I've already set up your elevation for tonight, after dinner. Everybody will be there."

Travis almost choked, but managed to smile and say thanks before he left.

Evening had fallen, but Travis barely saw how beautiful the stars were that night. He sat on his bunk in the acolytes' dormitory, wearing only his white tunic and pale-grey pants and shoes. His grey robe had been folded and returned to the Hospitaller, who'd taken it with a surprising lack of ceremony. His extra robe had also been returned. Travis had no more grey robes. He felt naked and alone.

The other acolytes avoided him. He just wasn't one of them anymore. One acolyte burst into the room briefly to grab a cup that had been left on the table, making Travis rise hopefully, but after a quick, surprised look at Travis, averted his eyes, smiled shyly, and ran back out again. Travis was alone for one of the first times since he'd entered the church.

Finally a sonorous knock came at the door. Travis rose and answered it. The youngest acolyte, Micah, dressed in a brand-new robe, said in a piping voice, "It's time." He held the door open for Travis.

Outside, Travis found two more acolytes there, all dressed in new robes. One of the boys held a golden candlestick set with a pure-white wax taper candle that burned with a fierce, small light. Travis, who wasn't sure what to expect now, realized he was to walk behind the two boys. He did, and Micah fell in line behind him.

Thus escorted, Travis walked down the hall. The two boys before him held open the curtain to the sanctuary, and Travis was surprised to see that it was full of people. Lucan stood at the altar, in front of the statue, a golden cup before him.

Travis took in the sight of the sanctuary at night; even now, it enthralled him, sent a thrill down his spine, made his hair feel like it was raised on edge. The candles set in their golden sconces twinkled like stars, along the side walls. A crystal-hung golden chandelier sparkled above his head, its numerous little tapers all lit. The air smelled slightly of the incense that all Haranite churches seemed to use, a combination of "clean air" and spicy perfumes with a sweet, clove-ish scent. More than anything else, the scent made Travis feel he was home.

The two boys ahead of him paused to let him take in the sights, then slowly, slowly led him down the central aisle, like a bride. The analogy was not lost at all on Travis as he walked past all the Westoners he'd known for years. They all looked at him with pride and pleasure in their faces, eyes glued on him. He went to the altar, and the two boys in front of him fanned out to either side of the altar, kneeling there with the grace of angels and holding their hands out slightly in supplication.

Travis saw a kneeling-pillow before the altar, a pillow he'd never seen before. It was a cushioned block of wood, intricately carved and set with gold and rubies. The cushion was of silk, embroidered with deep red and gold. He knelt on it, feeling slightly foolish for wrecking the embroidery as he was surely doing. Micah, behind him, came to Lucan's side, standing off to his side and behind the priest. Travis clasped his hands together in prayer, bowing his head.

Lucan waited for a suitable time, his Red Book opened to a page. Travis marvelled at how the older man always knew how long to wait. Would he ever know innately how to do that?

"Welcome, friends," said Lucan in his clear, rich, deep voice. The audience, which had been rustling as crowds always do, calmed down, gazing at him intently. Travis felt their eyes on his back and felt a surge of nervousness.

"We are here today to welcome Travis Elvenet into the ranks of the clergy," began the priest, smiling down at Travis as he knelt. "I've known him since he was just a boy, and he has always loved the Church."

Travis' mind wandered as Lucan recounted his dutiful years of service to the Church, his many areas of learning. He wondered if Lucan had ever felt any hint of doubt, as Travis himself did all the time. He looked at his hands, trying to ignore the burning of his ears. Finally he realized Lucan was coming to an end.

"And now Travis will take on his new robes, and be considered by Haran and by mankind as a fully-trained and fully-endorsed priest, with all the privileges and duties of such." Lucan looked at Micah, who already had a red robe draped across his arms, then asked Travis, "Are you willing to accept this duty?"

Travis could barely summon the nerve to nod and say "I am".

Micah brought the robe to Travis, who stood and accepted it. He put it on self-consciously, feeling oddly awkward to be dressing in front of hundreds of people.

Lucan watched, then came forward with the cup. Micah brought a small beaker of holy oil behind the priest, and a pure white towel embroidered along its edges in golden silk. Lucan held the cup up, blessing it, then took a sip of the wine in it. He held it out to Travis, who took a sip himself. He'd never sipped holy wine before and felt a jolt as it went down his throat. With the wine, Travis felt a sudden newness of purpose, a purpose he'd never felt before, a confidence he'd never experienced. He gazed at the wine, then at Lucan, with new eyes. Was this what faith felt like, he wondered?

"Let it be known," said Lucan sonorously, "that Travis Elvenet is now Father Travis."

Travis wasn't prepared for the sudden burst of applause that shook the hall. Lucan indicated that he stand, and he did, turning around to face the congregation. They were all smiling, clapping, all for him. He felt blessed in a way he couldn't have described, as if the grace of Haran washed over him. He stood and basked in it, barely noticing the people themselves. Eventually Lucan touched his back and Travis began to walk up the aisle again. Behind him, he heard the priest announce a party to be held just outside in the church's courtyard. It didn't matter to him at all, though.

He saw Johen standing near the back, applauding politely, and felt a bit of the grace and happiness fade. He knew why he'd been appointed -- as cannon fodder. It was an unpleasant thought. Tomorrow he would be riding toward a village he'd never even heard of before (was this how young people felt about marrying strangers, he wondered idly?), to do the impossible. He had no idea how he was going to do it.

At the party, Travis stood around and drank red tea and talked to people. The people of Weston were very happy for him, he could see, and there was no lack of well-wishers to clap him on the back, drink his health, and issue general hopes for his continued success.

Johen came to him and smiled. "Congratulations, Father Travis."

Travis nodded, smiling and looking around.

The soldier continued, "Tomorrow will come early. You can ride, can't you?"

Travis just stared at him.

Had there ever been a time when his bottom had not ached, Father Travis wondered, rubbing the affected area as he set down his travel bag on the comfortable-looking bed. It was dusk, and he'd just gotten into town with Johen and a sizable escort of soldiers. Travis had felt almost guilty when he saw how small the village was, and how generous the people's welcome to him had been. Truly it was a gracious feast, for a boy who'd been acolyte himself just a week or so ago.

Travis barely noticed the crisp slice near the bottom of the bag. He hadn't realized the brigands had gotten so close! He fingered the tear in the fabric of the bag, wincing at the dirty edges of the tear. He got a sudden thought and almost tore open the flap of the bag, looking inside it for the most precious thing in the world. Yes, there it was -- his Red Book.

The book was almost brand-new looking; it'd been sent from back East and had probably belonged to some old priest who'd died. It wasn't thick, and the pages it did have were the thickness of vellum and could barely be torn (providing one could bring oneself to desecrate the book that way). As one might suppose, it was covered in soft, richly dyed leather. Travis opened the book, looking at the title page's illustrations, all made in intense colors. A saint, Lucilius the Bold, stood before Haran with a small golden box in his hands, with tall trellises of flowers and ivy painted up the sides of the page. It was one of the more popular stories from Haranite legend, and Travis would gladly have looked more at the picture, but a knock on the door interrupted all reverie.

A mousy-haired adolescent was at the door, to tell him that he had some guests. Travis didn't remember seeing the boy before, but he spoke kindly to the lad and put the bag and book down to follow him out. Washing-up and fresh clothes could wait.

As Travis rounded the corner, and walked down the hall, the mousy boy suddenly leaped to one side, his hands hitting the floor in his rush to get away. Travis could barely gasp before he was pushed to the wall.

A rough-looking man held him against the wall, his fists clenched into Travis' robes. A face Travis had never seen before hovered before his eyes and a rough voice snarled, "You just think twice about bringing your mincing ways to this town, you hear me?"

Travis blinked, horrified and suddenly terrified beyond measure, but before he could say a word, the man gut-punched him. Travis gasped in pain and crumpled to the floor, curling up into a ball, his eyes clamped tightly shut, holding his belly. He heard but barely registered the sound of the man running away, and barely registered, likewise, the sound of someone else approaching.

"Haran!" he heard someone cry out, and felt, rather than saw, someone kneel beside him. He struggled to get himself under control, enough to look up and see Johen there. Johen put his hand on Travis' shoulder, unbending him slightly to look him over, his face twisted in anger.

"Get him!" he heard Johen say, and heard booted feet running away, down the hall. The voice came down closer to him, and he knew that Johen was looking him over. "You all right?"

Travis took a breath, was amazed to discover he could actually do so. He chanced a glance around. His assailant was gone, of course, as was the boy. He took another breath. His belly hurt badly, but it wasn't unbearable now. He looked up at Johen, still not quite trusting himself to speak.

Johen seemed satisfied with his inspection and got up, holding his gloved hand out to Travis. After a moment, Travis took it, and found himself hauled bodily to his feet. He adjusted his robes, feeling foolish. "It was so fast," he said wonderingly, looking around.

Johen chuckled under his breath, but there was no mirth in that deadly look he gave the now-empty hall. "Coward. Attacking a priest. We'll soon find him."

"What will you do to him?"

Johen looked at him levelly. "I'll let you watch, if you like. My men don't like people who push priests around."

Travis went back into his room, pausing at the door. "How'd you know he was there?"

Without missing a beat, Johen said, "The boy. I saw him running out of here. I didn't recognize him. We followed just in time to see that miner punch you."

"Why did he do that?"

Johen smiled, again without mirth. "If he was a miner, he doesn't want you closing down the liquor flow here."

"Oh." Travis thanked Johen and went into his room. A few minutes later, a knock sounded at his door. Travis, sitting on his bed, sighed wearily, but eventually had to get up and answer it, out of his overdeveloped sense of duty.

Standing there were a man and woman he didn't recognize. The man was balding and genial-looking, with eyes creased with smile lines; Travis instantly liked him. The woman was young enough to be the first man's daughter, but looked nothing like him; her hair was dark brown and curly, her eyes blue as the sky, where the man's hair was greying-blond and his eyes brown.

"I'm Orvis," said the man. "This is Allana, my assistant," with a motion to the woman. "I heard about what happened. I'm Terbrina's physician."

Travis felt distinctly unhappy about allowing anybody into his room right now, so he stepped into the hall and shut his door behind himself. "What can I do for you?" he asked dutifully.

The man looked nonplussed. "I wanted to examine you, but I see now that Johen slightly exaggerated your injury." Allana, behind him, looked at him with her sky-blue eyes and said nothing. She wore basic villager clothes of a skirt and blouse and overvest that reached her ankles, but she seemed at once exotic and cozy.

Travis had never seen such a woman, and felt suddenly very social. "Yes," he heard himself stammer. "Come in."

He let them into his room. The physician had a satchel with him, which he set on the floor. "Those miners," he sighed. "They want to ruin this village before it even gets off the ground."

Travis poured them both cider from a jug on his sideboard. The woman's fingers touched his as she took her cup. His hand tingled even after he sat down. "I don't think I understand," he managed to say, in what he hoped was a fatherly and wise manner.

Orvis sipped his cider. Allana held hers in her lap quietly, sitting near the door as if she weren't a part of the conversation. "They began to get out of hand when Freehold opened up. I think that crazy mayor of theirs has convinced them that they can do whatever they want."

This didn't sound good to Travis, who said so.

"It's still true, Father. And begging Allana's pardon, but they're rough men, and have been nothing but trouble."

Travis glanced over at the woman when Orvis said her name, but she was looking at the cup in her hands and acting as if she wasn't even there. He turned his gaze back to Orvis. "I'll do what I can about this."

Orvis thanked him profusely for being there in Terbrina, and motioned for Allana to follow him out. They got up and left after bowing and thanking him again. An acolyte was outside the door to escort them out -- and, if Travis remembered his acolyte days at all, to eavesdrop a little. He asked the boy to come back when he had seen the visitors out and locked the temple up for the night.

Allana followed Orvis out without a word, but turned and glanced at him, barely for a moment, as she turned the corner. Her expression was entirely unreadable. When she saw that Travis still stood there watching her, she dropped her gaze. Travis turned away, hoping he hadn't acted too juvenile. He'd seen thousands of women, many more beautiful than this one. Perhaps the attack had fogged his mind a bit.

The acolyte's name was Belran. He was thirteen, he said, when he'd returned. He looked distinctly uncomfortable in Travis' presence, as if in too much awe to make a coherent reply. He'd lived in Terbrina all his life.

"Do you know the physician and his assistant?" Travis asked carefully.

"Oh yes, Father," said the boy eagerly. "They've been here all my life. Well, the physician has, anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"That girl of his, Allana. She's only been here a few years." The boy's eyes were bright as a bird's as he chattered. "I hear her family got wiped out by robbers or something."

Travis felt as if an invisible person had punched him again. It wasn't pleasant. He made small talk with the boy for a while, then saw him out and got ready for bed. A real bed, for the first time in days!

It was too bad he was so tired; he fell asleep so quickly he barely had time to admire the comfort and coziness of his large bed. But a plan was already forming in his mind.

The acolyte, Belran, got up at dawn without any prodding. His three peers, all different ages and at different places along their path to priesthood, were likewise waking up. By now, none of them needed alarms, not when the sun itself woke them up so well. He washed his face and hands and put on his grey robe over his tunic and leggings. After brushing his hair and donning his shoes, he left the boys' dormitory and went to the kitchens. Their cook had been up for an hour already, and had the priest's breakfast on a tray, ready to be served. Belran took it and went straight to Travis' room.

The boy knocked on the door, but received no answer. It didn't bother him much. The last priest hadn't been able to get up early either. The priest's chambers were on the wrong side of the temple, that was for sure. Belran delicately called to Travis. No answer.

Finally, Belran opened the door a crack and peeked inside.

Travis' bed was made up neatly. The priest was nowhere in sight.

Belran entered the room and looked around in astonishment. Yes, the priest was gone. His satchel was gone too, though his clothes and incidentals were there still, so at least he hadn't run away.

Belran rushed back to the kitchen, the tray forgotten and left in Travis' room. The cook, a middle-aged woman of few prospects but good cheer, smiled at him and offered him a doughnut.

"No, no!" cried the boy. "Where is Father Travis?"

"Oh, dear, he came in just as I was getting in," she said cheerily. "Asked for bread and cheese and a stoppered wineskin, and left. I assumed he was going somewhere or other and wanted a good start."

"But where?" asked the acolyte, but the cook only shrugged. She hadn't asked, and Travis hadn't volunteered. The boy looked out at the opened garden door, as if looking for the priest to be out among the shaggy herbs and flowers, but could think of nothing else to say.

The morning was growing long, and a bit warm. The air had been moist with dew when the sun had come up, but now the moisture had evaporated, leaving an excessively buggy, sunny noontime in the forest.

Travis walked on a narrow, packed-earth road, a staff in one hand and his pack on his back, wearing his priestly robes. He was thankful for the forest around him; at least it kept the sun off his uncovered head. He'd been steadily ascending along what he realized now were foothills to the local mountain range.

He'd known, hours ago, that the dream he'd had had come from Haran himself. He knew it had to be right. He'd gotten up immediately, as if in a trance for a while, getting dressed and going to the kitchen. He had begged food from the cook, who'd just gotten there, and had left before anybody else had gotten up. He knew he was going the right way. For the first time in his life, he thought, he didn't feel like an idiot.

That's when he realized he wasn't alone. He stopped suddenly, not breathing or moving, at the sight of the five men who stepped out from the trees around the path. They must have been miners -- they all wore the rough, patched, faded clothes of outdoorsmen; all were stubble-faced or bearded, with the beaten-up broad-rimmed hats miners all seemed fond of. Also, a couple of them bore pickaxes as weapons.

Travis didn't recognize any of them, but one of them hissed at the sight of him. "You!"

Travis stared at the speaker. He might have been the attacker of the previous night, yes. He couldn't tell. But the speaker knew him -- he advanced upon the priest, scowling and waving an old-looking knife in a most threatening manner.

Stopping just inches from Travis, the speaker glared at him hatefully. "You've got some nerve. What are you doing here?"

"Skiv him, Aramy," said one of his companions, who, if anything, was even more rough-looking. The men joked back and forth, swearing and advancing upon Travis.

Travis had no idea what to do next, not till one of the miners reached for his staff. "I'll take that, boy," said the older man.

Travis, not really aware of what was happening, felt his body react: With a sudden motion, he brought the staff down on the miner's bare hand, cracking him across the knuckles. The wooden-sounding crack reverbrated through the suddenly-quiet forest.

As the miner fell back with a howled cry of pain, the other miners, cursing violently, seemed to coil to spring. Travis held his staff in both hands, slowly circling to face them.

Then he felt the light of Haran infuse him, fill him with grace and knowledge and power. His eyes shone and he felt words bubble up in his throat.

Holding his right hand out toward them, he said, his voice strangely commanding and powerful, "You will not touch a priest of Haran!"

The miners halted, their eyes suddenly wide and cautious. One of them lowered his pickaxe slightly.

Travis felt like he was glowing. The power was incredible, immense. There was too much of it; it would overwhelm his poor ability to speak. He surveyed the men with a fiery gaze, the sheer force flowing from him to them.

"I have seen you," he said, his voice loud and clear. "I know you. I command you to take up my yoke again, as you once did."

One of the men, a red-bearded fellow, dropped to his knees at this. Most of them remembered to remove their hats, and stood, watching him, in mute astonishment.

"And as for you," Travis said, turning his attention to the miner who'd apparently attacked him, "you know well the laws. You know well your sins. For you, there will be punishments so severe all evildoers will tremble to remember it even in your son's day."

At this, his target began to quake.

"Though I am angry, I will allow you to amend your ways and repent," intoned Travis, watching them all. He gestured with the staff. "You will all make reparations for your crimes and aid Terbrina in growing in faith and service. Is that clear?"

Without exception, the miners agreed, their eager words blending together into a harmony of contrition and apology.

Travis surveyed them one last time. "Then leave this place, and get ready for the task ahead. I will expect to see you tomorrow night. Is that clear as well?"

The miners agreed to this as well, then scrambled away. It was only after they were long out of sight that Travis felt the glory inside him subside. He took a deep breath, one that felt like the first air his lungs had gotten since he'd seen the miners step out from the trees, and looked down at his staff. His right hand, which had clutched the staff longest, felt almost frozen into a claw. His throat was tight and sudden tears came to him as he realized that whatever had inhabited him so briefly was gone. He fell to his knees and wept, his head bowed in prayer.

The next night, back in his room, Travis made ready for his evening sermon. He put on his newest woolen robe with care, adjusting his starburst pendant against it. He combed his thin hair and washed his face and hands with water poured into a silver basin.

He'd arrived back at the temple that afternoon, to no fanfare. He felt drained, exhausted. He'd gone to bed for a few hours, pleading sickness. An older acolyte had led the few noontime attendees in prayer in his stead. Now, this evening, he felt fragile and new, but able to do his duties.

Belran was there, at his door, knocking softly at his door. Travis opened it and smiled down at the boy.

As they went down the hall, Belran asked where the priest had been. Travis smiled slightly. "You'll see."

When Belran drew aside the curtain to let Travis into the sanctuary, the priest was not at all surprised to see the freshly-washed and laundered miners sitting along the back pew. They looked back at him almost fearfully.

Travis took a deep breath and stepped into the sanctuary of his -- yes, his -- temple, looking straight ahead to the altar, the altar of the God he now knew to be entirely real and all-powerful.


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