Chapter 2: Ashes and Authorities
The Great Mother ordered Wencia many times to choose a room suited to her station, but she preferred her novice’s stone cell, to keep the new faith of the initiates nearby, as she doubted whether the Goddess was in her heart. While few novices were innocent or enjoyed the thought of sanctity, they were open-minded and great listeners, as to enter the monastery, one must not only wish for absolution, but live it. Novices sought not holiness and righteousness, but forgiveness and understanding, and the desire to be better than everyone else only came later, when the Goddess bestowed a thirst for power. Though it had its temptations, Coruna’s power was often used for good. The Great Mother knew when orphanage matrons or relative forced young women into holy orders, and often turned them away, but not before issuing a damning curse on those that might further abuse the coerced. Wencia prayed for power now: power to right a wrong, to break the swords and sword-arms of the wicked, and power to take away these days.
To say ‘Wencia had no more tears to weep’ would often be either a poetic truth or a trite falsehood depending on the writer’s bent, but in this case it was a true body horror to describe the extent of her grief, as she had cried for days, and now her eyes were crusted, her throat was dry, and her long sobs made her chest rasp and her nose burn. Any that knew her would have thought she was dying, and Mank would have stole a bottle of wine from the cellar to raise her spirits. Mank had taken his robe shortly after Wencia, and as the two votaries were not only close in age but shared a native dialect, as well as a childhood running the same streets, begging fruit and pastries from the same merchants, and playing the same neighborhood pastimes, they had much in common. Though Mank was the youngest of three men in a monastery dominated by women, he was the one most able to restrain his passions, and if he was ever attracted to Wencia, she never knew it. She remembered only two times they had touched: at a Cjantoskan festival, The Day of Divine Wells—at which the monastery annually re-enacted a sacred moment through religious dance, in which Coruna joins with her consort; and, by happenstance, while loading a cart of wine for the winter market. When Wencia dropped a keg on her foot, Mank stooped to gain leverage, and his withers brushed her thighs. Unlike most initiates, Wencia never knew a man intimately, and her mind had never been clouded or clarified by sex, but in that moment, she felt that she loved him. Some see hedonism as good, others as pernicious; the former say sex fulfills love, and the latter that it sullies it; all agree unrequited love is tragic, the more so when your beloved is dead.
The sisters of Coruna seldom wear their elegant but ungainly high ceremonial robes, reserving them for coronations, weddings, and funerals. The headdress itself took at least twenty minutes to properly affix with pins and sashes, so that it wasn’t trailing on the floor halfway through the dirge, and the robes had not only buttons, belts, a tabard with a dozen ties, but epaulets. These enameled shoulder plates were easier to attach with another’s help, but as that was usually Mank’s job, Wencia struggled through it on her own for several minutes before casting them aside on her sleeping palette. Though it could take over an hour to dress for a high holy rite, this mass would be intensely personal, and she was reluctant to follow the path of awful finality down stairs, through the foyer, and into the chapel, where Mank’s body lay in ceremonial state for his funeral rites.
Hearing scuffling in the hallway, Wencia opened the door to see Eleita, fully accoutered in ornamental fluff, sitting on the bench down the hall. The older monk stared at the wall, not seeming to pray or do anything mindful, only bore a hole to the other side with her eyes.
“May I walk with you?” asked Eleita.
“No. Mank hated blubbering,” said Wencia, her voice breaking . “Though I’ve finally stopped. Help me with these,” she said, thrusting the epaulets into Eleita’s chest. Wencia’s dried-up grief was now spitting out its dregs, raspy hiccups every quarter minute.
“Mank would turn his back to hide his snickering right now,” said Eleita.
At the cemetery grove, their sisters in Coruna and the dead lay waiting. The chapel and the sainted dead lay under a stone pavilion; outside, ash settled on the tulips, roses, and carnations, while under its roof inset with windows shaped like Coruna’s twelve-pointed star, the morning sun, grayed by the ash cloud sunken over Cjantosk, cast gray suns on the chapel walls and the graves. The last to arrive, Wencia and Eleita were also the tail end of the processional into the funeral chapel, and though it took less than a minute, it seemed too prolonged to Wencia, who became more and more incensed by anger and grief and thought about running through the other monks and shouting at Mank’s corpse or bolting back to her room and screaming at herself and the goddess.
The coffin was a wooden box, three long boards and two short nailed together, their sides carved with an image of a robed monk dancing with an icon of the goddess. Wencia bridled when she saw that the woodworker had carved the same monk he did for the previous coffin, though he had not carved the braids, and the overall impression was of a sexless, inhuman, being, neither a man nor a woman. For a moment, she directed her fury at the Goddess, who no doubt liked passionless minions like this, and for whom this was an accurate representation of her divine love, that embraced not the humans that worshiped her, but her abstract idea of them, bound up and emasculated by commandments and scriptures. Then she directed her rage at the Great Mother, who was nowhere in the chapel.
As if dowsing for sorrow, Wencia unearthed more tears, and these deep waters welled up at the sight of Mank’s pitiful arrangements. It did not make her feel better to know that the Great Mother would be disposed of in such a fashion when her time had come. While she had heard the Death Prayer droned many times, today these lines stood out:
Our bodies are Your passions.
We fall like tears and spill like blood.
We live and die for Your glorification.
Coruna, this man’s time is done;
do not bar him from the One.
Coruna’s Death Prayer was, in full, three hours long, and when Eleita pulled at Wencia’s arm, they left the ornate, exquisite, and monotonous service as quickly as they could.
“We should stay,” said Wencia.
“You missed much last night. The Great Mother commanded me to leave after the first stanza, and I want you with me. Urgu will wreak revenge on Cjantosk unless we fulfill our vow.”
“You fulfilled your vow when you retrieved the sword from Urgu’s lair.”
“No, I vowed to return it to Cjantosk, and as it would be dereliction of my duty not only to let it remain with the bandits, but also to give it to the Elders, or any authority that fears its use, or covets its coin value, the most godly interpretation of my vow is that I find the sword’s new wielder.”
“Mank could have wielded that damn sword. Mank deserved better. From the Order. From us. And from Coruna.”
“You idiot!” Eleita smacked Wencia hard, across the face. Wencia stared, dumbstruck, at the other woman. “What are you thinking? The Great Mother could have you banished, whipped, or worse for such blasphemy.”
“Let her kill me.”
“If she hears you, you’ll truly wish you were dead.”
Aside from a fine silt that grayed the grass, dusted the grape vines and rosebushes, and clouded the windows, the monastery had escaped Urgu’s ravaging. Those monks not at Mank’s funeral rite now labored with rakes and on hands and knees to remove the dragonfire ash from the grounds, and others worked with soapy pails to wipe the gray residue from the monastery.
The swath of destruction started just outside the monastery gates, as if Urgu had made it a point to spare them. The ancient road, repaired recently by royal decree and fulfilled by the painstaking efforts of civil engineers, stone cutters, and laborers, was now scorched black, and many of its flagstones split by the flame. Though the fence around Yosgar’s farm was still intact, his rye and corn stalks were charred so brittle that they chipped as the morning breeze blew through them. The ten minute walk through rural Cjantosk was much the same, with every fifth property devastated by fire. Not one of Cjantosk’s famed tulip groves were touched, however, as if the dragon couldn’t bear to take his torch to their beauty, or, more likely, as if the dragon wanted to save them for a later depredation.
The streets of Cjantosk were scorched more severely, with one side of every street blasted by dragonfire, so that one side looked almost normal, if a little grayer, and the other side was a black pit with a jagged forest of house fragments, in front of which rows of tents were being raised. In this, Wencia realized the depths of Urgu’s cruelty, for this punishment reminded the survivors of how their noble city used to look; until the repairs were complete, every day they would be reminded of this day of destruction and Urgu’s fearful power. It also divided Cjantosk’s citizens. While on poorer streets, the fortunate cared for the unlucky half, as these neighborhoods were already used to making do with less, they also passed through more well-to-do neighborhoods, where its residents were already accustomed to looking down on the unfortunate, and on these streets a state of siege existed between those spared and damned by the dragonfire. Like the poet who started the War of Fintesca with twenty lines of verse, Urgu had turned Cjantosk against itself with lines of fire.
As the elders’ council building had been on the wrong side of the street, and now lay in rubble, the council met in the back of the butcher’s shop. Wencia and Eleita knelt on the dirt floor, as there were no empty seats and none of the important men offered their seats to the women, as though the monastery had a voice in these proceedings, the weak were rarely honored by those with money. When the butcher, a stoop-shouldered old woman, entered the room with a tray bearing thick slabs of raw smoked bacon, the bookseller Macom stood for her, though it may have been to get first dibs on the meat. When the elders took liberal portions from the proffered snack, both Wencia and Eleita declined, though there was little left when the platter reached them.
A tall, thin elder with a widow’s peak of wispy white hair stood. “While this is the three thousand, two hundred, and twenty-eighth Cjantoskan Elder Council, it is an emergency meeting, and as such, we’ll save the reading of last meeting’s minutes and all ordinary Council business for the next scheduled Council.” He looked over his thick, slightly fogged, spectacles at the other Council representatives, then ruffled his scroll authoritatively and blew on it to dry the hastily scribed ink. “To sum: the monks’ rescue of Drucona has gone awry, and in retaliation, Urgu’s most recent depredations not only slew people and slaughtered livestock, but burned eight hundred and forty-seven homes to the ground, and another one thousand, seven hundred, and fifty-five were so scorched as to be uninhabitable. Tonight over two thousand Cjantoskan households—five thousand Cjantoskans—sleep in tents or under the stars.”
Eleita held her tongue with difficulty, as she could barely stomach the council of elders’ perspective that she was to blame for this round of death and destruction. Their nastiest neighbor was a dragon, and dragons destroy; holding the monks, and Eleita specifically, to blame for the destruction, was like blaming an ambassador to a known enemy for the war that was only a matter of time.
“Nineteen Cjantoskans died in the flames, and Urgu impaled others with talons and spikes. Some accounts say eleven, others say more, and a count may be impossible, as while some fell from the spikes, others were borne away when Urgu returned to his lair. We don’t yet have a count of the devoured either. While most of our crops were spared, a cruel swath burned Yosgar’s farm and Iltinian’s vineyards. Many report Urgu relieved himself in the Peachwine, but when I arrived at the river, I saw and smelled no sign of spoor or urine. Nevertheless, I ordered its banks blockaded until we’ve verified they are not polluted. As that means well water only, I’ve also commanded the town guard and town criers to implement water rationing.” The elder sat, rolled up the scroll, then unrolled a new sheet and picked up his pen. “Recourses?”
Though Eleita cursed Gilliven silently, she felt her burden of the blame as this litany of horrors was read. Not that it was she that provoked the dragon, but when the news spread that she returned without the well-known dragon-cutting sword, hope would die in this superstitious town, that ascribed more power to mythic swords than to the power of their many hands.
An elder with a red bushy mustache said, “you know my recommendation.”
“I do,” said the butcher, as she slurped another strip of the raw, slimy, bacon. “And you know my rebuttal. You’d have us run for the hills. Would you have us eat off the hills as well? Not that there are any neighboring lands that could feed so many, as our ancestors settled on the most fertile ground, and we are now a thousand times their number. Even our far-off king would make us unwelcome if dispossessed Cjantosk mobbed his gates.”
“Between an annoyed king, whose duty is to care for us, and a hungry dragon, whose pleasure is to eat us, there’s no alternative.”
“Stupid! What’s duty? Does it feed hungry mouths? No?” The butcher didn’t wait for answers to her rhetorical questions, but roared over the other elder. “This duty sounds useless, much like our moribund Prince. We should slaughter Duty and Prince both, and smoke more bacon.” Having often been selected to represent Coruna at the Council, the monks knew that there were no loyalists at this table that would report this shocking speech to the Prince, as the King’s son was a sot and a wastrel, and the city enjoyed no protection that he provided. While there were knights and man-at-arms in service to the Prince, they served Cjantosk only taxes, fines, and tolls and reported to their positions only to regulate the trade that the Prince depended on to stock his pantry and set the spreads for his parties.
The white haired elder transcribed their exchange with a flurry of pen strokes, then lifted the point from the scroll. “It pains me to repeat myself, but what of sending a representative to the King? While we’re waiting for his reply or his army, we’ll form a militia to hold off the dragon.”
The butcher said, “The King’s army? Oh, so you’d bring thousands of hungry mouths here? So if we’re not a dragon’s feast, we’ll be starved this winter. Or slain as rebels for arming our own militia to spite the Prince. The King’s army will bring their own troubles, like brawling, gambling, prostitutes, drunkenness, theft, rape, and, affecting those of us on the Council, unpaid bills for goods and services. Last time the King’s army was in Cjantosk, they stiffed me for eleven sides of beef and thirty heads of hog. Worst of all for this council, if the General enacts martial law, we’ll lose most of our influence. Not to mention that if the army slays the dragon, its hoard will fill the King’s coffers, and Cjantosk will receive no reparations.”
Wencia stood up. “Influence? Reparations! My friend was killed doing his duty, so I would hear the Council speak not less of duty, but more. Just as we have done what we must and what we could, so you should do also for every man, woman, and child in Cjantosk.”
In that moment, the elders at last had something in common, the silence of shame and the unity of uncertainty. Eleita put her hand on Wencia’s shoulder, and said, “Forgive Wencia, who was an initiate just one year ago. But she has a point--what can we do here and now? Let us send messengers to the King, as with a provoked dragon just miles away, we are currently more in need of armies than reparations. And let us have faith that the armies will come, for the King must act as if he believes the rhetoric of his proclamations, that name the safety of the realm as his chief concern. And after the realm has been won, he may hear our plea for reparations. For our part, we will fulfill my vow to return with Drucona.”
“Since Gilliven was our last and only hero,” said the white-haired Council leader, “is that not a vain task? Who will wield it?”
“If we honor our vow to return the sword, Coruna will provide a champion.”
“Is that so? Would you call that hearsay or on good authority? Who could know for certain? And, if it pleased the goddess to send a hero, perhaps it would also suit her whimsy to see this one devoured as well? Perhaps the gods’ will has departed from heroes, and now it resides with her worshipers? You were spared the dragon’s fury, after all, which some might call suspicious.” Looking up from his transcription, and no doubt realizing that in less than twenty seconds he had obliquely insinuated atheism, uttered two possibly blasphemous speculations, and accused the monks of treason, he blustered on in the hope that it would be overlooked. “Forgive me, my fellow Council members, I digress. More to the point, monk, how will you deal with the bandits?”
“What we want are heroes, but lacking that, those brave enough to have our backs while we negotiate with the bandits,” said Wencia.
“Also,” said Eleita, “we need the ransom.”
The Elders gave a collective, murmuring groan when they realized the Corunan monks were fundraising. The butcher said simply, “how much?”
“The bandits’ ransom letter remarked a time and place but specified no sum.”
“I’ll give you eleven thousand,” said the butcher. “Hope they don’t ask for more.”
“What a waste!” said the red mustached elder. “Their cause is lost.”
“Sharp blades are essential for carving beasts,” said the butcher. “and of our options, the sword is still the best. The army will not arrive in time, any militia we raise will be easy prey for a dragon, and moving our city is a fool’s errand. With our luck, we’d move into another dragon’s back yard.” As she continued to rant, she became angrier and more incensed, as if she was browbeating herself into the donation. “And yes, it’s a lot of money, but it’s only money. I was saving it for a larger business space, but Urgu charred the one I had my eye on.” Turning to the monks, she added, “As to capable hands, I will send my two eldest sons.”
“I will assign three of the town guard,” said the white haired elder, “and weapons, armor, and horses that we can spare. Not that I’ll send any of Cjantosk’s most competent troops, nor give you prize steeds or well-made arms, in the event the bandits renege on your deal, kidnap our best men, and keep not only the ransom but the horses, and add all the weapons to their armory.”
“Pray that does not happen, elder,” said Eleita, “and I will pray for you as well.”
After the council concluded, when the monks headed for the door with the rest of the Elders, the butcher stopped them. “Please stay. Perhaps I can serve you food more to your liking, after which you can meet my sons. Then we’ll go to what’s left of the market and get what we can.”
The white haired elder also turned to them on his way out. “After lunch, I’ll collect the three guards I have in mind. Are you leaving today or tomorrow?”
“This afternoon,” said Eleita.
“Then they’ll be outfitted and ready to serve,” said the elder. “Until then.”
The butcher then led the monks through the back door to the slaughter house, where a grey, grizzled man around the butcher’s age supervised many young men and women. “These are the loves of my lives,” she said, sweeping her arms wide as if to encompass the bloody room. The youngest slit larger animal sections apart slice by slice; one boy seemed only a little larger than his knife. The two tallest boys swung large, sharp cleavers with rapid strokes to parcel the flesh into salable chunks. “Kuiran, Englid, meet Eleita and Wencia. Boys, go bathe, then put on clean clothes. Not your good clothes. And there’s no need to pack for this errand.”
“Mama, what about me?” As a senior monk, Eleita had known a lot of young initiates, and surmised this petite young woman was older than she looked, for she was too chesty and broad of hip to be younger than twenty. “Send me.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking, Alyana. These sainted monks are ransoming a prisoner from the bandits in the western wood. This isn’t a stroll on market day.”
“Mama, I’m faster and smarter. Kuiran cut off his own thumb.”
“You’re also more stubborn, with a spiteful streak. That was three years ago, and you’ve never stopped riding Kuiran for it.”
“And Englid doesn’t know North from South!”
“Both weigh twice what you do. What will you do when a full grown man charges you? Cut him into bacon?”
“You see? You’ve never been practical or realistic.”
“What’s practical and realistic for this family is that I do three times the work. What if I didn’t pick up the slack any more? Let me go! Please mama, it’s only a ransom. Except for you, who haggles better? Would you trust anyone but me to mind the store?”
“That’s why I don’t want you to go. You’re my good hand and my good eye both.” She growled and groaned. “Promise me you won’t fight, that you’ll run if it comes down to it.”
“I promise,” said Alyana, smiling, then ran off to join her brothers.
As Wencia and Eleita had awoken anxious for Mank’s rites, neither ate breakfast that morning. Though vows forbade them to partake of animal flesh, they were ravenously tempted by the meat mountain the butcher laid out for lunch. Though it was a hardship to watch the butcher’s children rip into the feast, both monks were accustomed to occasional austerities, and praised the butcher’s generosity.
After lunch, the butcher girded her sons with two dangerously rickety heirloom swords, then took the crossbow and a dozen quarrels from under the storefront counter to give to her eldest. Though she didn’t arm her daughter, Alyana cut an unyielding sapling for a staff, and belted on a sheathed butcher’s knife.
“You’re not taking my best knife!” said the butcher.
“You gave it to me, Mama,” rebutted her daughter. “Though you use it whenever you can. It’s mine, and I’m taking it.”
“So it is. I reckon you can.” The butcher turned to her sons. “Do everything the Sisters of Coruna tell you. Don’t get killed.”
By the time the white haired elder arrived with seven horses and three guards armored in mailcoats, gauntlets, helms and heavy shields, the day plunged into a balmy spring afternoon. Even the monks, who wore their ritual gowns from Mank’s funeral, and whose chemises were soaked in sweat, thought the city guards looked overheated. But their first thought when meeting these shaggy, stubbly guards was not for their comfort, but for the monks’ own safety, for the men did not inspire confidence. They looked like they were pressed into service that morning from the worst dregs of society, then poured into their armor five minutes ago. Not only was their armor rust-ringed, but their frayed tabards were out of order, missing buttons and badges.
The white haired elder leaned in to whisper to Eleita. “Don’t judge them by their appearance. They’re night watch that were only roused from their bunks an hour ago. While they’re not my best, if they weren’t dependable, I’d not trust them for night watch. That said, they have odd habits.” Turning to his men, he said “Follow Sister Eleita’s orders like my own, and let death befall you before it threatens either of the monks.”
Then speaking to Alyana, the white haired elder said, “I thought only seven were going, but seeing that there are eight, I will lend you my own steed, young lady.”
The butcher’s daughter scowled at him unaccountably and took the reins ungraciously. “That was mindful of you, Captain,” she said, then then mounted the horse with unexpected ease. “Why does one so accommodating now bar our path?” For the Captain of the Guard now faced the outfitted group, as if he was grandstanding before an audience—which he was, in an attempt to ascribe as much credit to himself as possible, without accompanying them into the bandits’ lair.
The white haired elder, his face burning, turned on his heel as he took his leave. The well-drilled motion reminded Wencia of Mank, when he had first come to the monastery. It had taken over a year for Mank to soften his discipline, to unlearn the martial way of walking, standing, and even waiting, and learn the monastic way of doing these simplest things. The white haired elder’s well-oiled about face spoke of not only long military experience, but a military precision seen not in the three night watch, but in career officers and politicians.
The butcher said, “Alyana, don’t bait that man. You don’t know what he wants. But for now, think not of Tilonus. Be safe, and come home soon.”
“Yes, mama,” said the butcher’s daughter. As they walked down the ancient road, mother and daughter waved to each other until the butcher shop was no longer visible. To Eleita, the butcher’s mournful face seemed just as out of place as Alyana’s jubilant expression. The mother wasn’t burying her daughter, and should be more proud, and the daughter should shed a few tears for her distraught mother’s sake, the monk thought, but as with luck their trip would only mark a day’s journey there and back, neither should make such a production out of this goodbye.
“I am Eleita, and this is Wencia, for those of you that don’t know already,” she said. “Though much was said of obligations by your mother”--here she indicated the butcher’s children--“and much was said of orders by your captain--“here she indicated the guards--“for the duration, I encourage you all to bring me your complaints and recommendations. I’m not your captain, and I’m definitely not your mother. Blessed be The Great Mother. and may she live long” she added.
“Yes, ma’am,” said the guards in unison, as if they had been rehearsing, but when they tried to parrot the prayer it came back garbled, and groggy, possibly hungover laughter followed. Neither Alyana nor her brothers said anything.
“Yes, pray with us,” said Wencia. “Coruna, bless our journey to the western wood. Hide us from Urgu, or let the dragon fall into a deep sleep, or if it is your will, bless him with the sting of death at last. Bless our horses, that their hooves may be sure; bless our blades and arrows if we must defend ourselves; and, shield our bodies so our blood does not fall. If it is your will, curse and plague the bandits, that they might surrender Drucona.” While the other travelers folded their hands, and nodded their heads at the end of Wencia’s prayer, Eleita saw the brothers’ quizzical looks and the guards’ eye roll. Wencia should not have tried to lead so many laypeople in such an antagonistic prayer. The masses loved the dances, the holy sagas, and the proverbs, but their simple faith was often challenged by the idea that the Goddess was the author of evil as well as good.
In leaving Cjantosk, they passed the neighborhood where Mank and Wencia had grown up; the city block was not only charred to the ground, but the dragonfire was so intense that blackened bodies were still mortared to the thoroughfare. Wencia begged that they stop, to inter the dead, and Eleita had to persuade her this task was too much for their small group, unless they simply, and without ceremony, swept the road clean. It was no longer possible to distinguish between the bodies and the road—the ashy, crumbled stone, and the bone fragments and charcoal flesh, mingled together. Urgu had not only ravaged their city, he had made human rubble. Though the monks bade them to walk around the dead respectfully, the guards stepped over them.
Though a few farms had suffered, rural Cjantosk was still full of green, growing things: a field of tulips in a dozen shades lay to their left, and sheaves of corn grew next to pumpkin fields on their right. Eleita wondered how much of this year’s yield would die with fewer hands to work the fields. That was when she realized there were no bodies and no new graves in Cjantosk’s farms. While Yosgar no doubt wept over his charred corn and rye, and Iltinian wished himself drunk at the thought of the loss of this year’s vintage, they yet lived. Though Urgu halved those that lived off the fat of the land, the dragon slew none of those that worked the fields. By the time they reached the city limits, it became clear that Urgu had taken his wrath to their dwelling place, Cjantosk’s inner city, just as Gilliven had taken it to his.