That day started with my first ambush, which was also my first direct act of violence against another person. Back then this abstention from violence was not unusual for a young formally trained Priest such as myself, but in those days I felt I lacked something because of it. Thinking myself a righteous man, I had chosen to attack a foreigner who beat his wife and children and then forbade his beaten family from seeking help at my temple. I waited for him all night in a mud filled irrigation ditch that sat between a freshly turned field and the dew-saddened road. I was as naked as a priest could be; I carried with me no blessings, wore only my rough flax robe and carried the lead shod quarterstaff that signified my station as a journeyman priest.
I took some pride that in spite of my discomfort I never offered the Goddess a prayer. Not because I was ashamed of what I was doing, but out of desire to do it myself. These foreigners, the Ator, considered themselves to be ideals of manhood and tied their souls to a God that exalted what they considered masculine virtues: lust, violence, and strength. They considered our faith and our Goddess to be weak and we, her Priests, to be “tit-less nurse maids” or “seaman choked eunuchs”. They tolerated us because their Lords taxed us. I was going to beat this Ator man, quietly in the dark, not as a priest but as a man. I was going to tell him that the men of his tribe needed to respect our ways and that they could not beat their families. If I were to ask the Goddess for even an ounce of her power, to say dry my mud soak foot rags, than it would be her beating this man and not me.
This is how I understand my motivations of that day now: insecurity, tribalism and vanity. Of course today I have the views of a regretful old holy man who has spent decades reflecting on that day. The young priest in that ditch so long ago had convinced himself that he was protecting the children of the man he waited to attack. This particular Ator was named Diues Piter, and he lived in the village I served. He had built a home about a half-mile north east of the House of Bellra. Two days prior to the day in question he had beaten his wife and children so fiercely that they fled straight through the market field bleeding and wailing for the entire town to see. Juma, the head priest, had encouraged them to stay with us in the Goddess’s House. But Diues came to the House before the shadows moved a foot past midday and took his family back home with him, making an offense gesture at the Goddess’s pulpit as he left. This was the third time during the two years I had been in the village that Diues had done this, and just like every time previous he had left the village the next day to visit the temple of the God Roarck. His temple was located near the Land Lord’s keep six miles to the west. Diues always came back in the next morning with some goods for his home and stinking of wine. Knowing this pattern I waited in a ditch along the road that connected our village to the keep. I had convinced myself that I could beat this man and thus force him to stop striking his family.
In that ditch anxieties came to me and went from me through out the night. I thought about moving up the road, to a different spot, but if I moved along the road I might run into my mark and if not I could miss him all together. What if he did not return tonight? In my mind missing him would be the worst of all possible fates, I would have stood there in the mud all night and proved nothing of myself but incompetence. What if he was not alone? Ator men were rarely alone. What if the high priest Juma noticed I was gone? What if it rained? This early in spring the air still had a chill and I was poorly dressed. These thoughts did not spur me to action but they did help to pass the hours that went by in which my target did not arrive.
Yet the night was uneventful, and as the sky began to lighten my vision was finding all the mundane forms of trees, shrubs, field rats and nesting birds. Sight forced my out of my own thoughts and I started to grow self-conscious. I worried vainly about how I would look to a passing traveler there in the ditch: half crouched, muddy and wet with dew. As I prepared to climb up to the road and head back to the House for morning prayers, I heard the clinking of metal (since the Ator tribe had arrived worked metal was becoming more common) and the slap of boots and hooves on the muddy road. I looked westward, away from the growing grey of dawn and there in the fog I saw shocks of red hair and the outline of a pale skinned brow. My man was here.
He was following a donkey, guiding it the way his people do with a pine switch and small stick. He had a lead chain, a weapon, hung around the back of his neck, a heavy lead ball attached to the chain hung on one side of his chest, and the short wooden handle on the other. The donkey was a few yards ahead of him on the far side of the road. The man seemed content to let the donkey move about the road as it saw fit as long it stayed on task.
My heart jumped violently into my neck when, without a cue, the red haired Ator man made a violent gesture, and spoke a few words in his harsh halting language. I felt symptoms of panic; a rush of heat on my face and a chilled needles in my skin. I assumed he was talking to me. I brought my lead shod staff up across my body defensively, but then he looked away and made a sweeping gesture with his pine switch that started his donkey into a few quick steps. As he moved his arm he said a few words that ended with an obvious interrogative. He was talking to himself. I smiled at this.
I envisioned him reliving an old conversation and perhaps giving himself an opportunity to speak thoughts that came to him too late. I imagined that he was redressing some perceived ill, living in a moment when he had been admonished by one of his betters or embarrassed by his own lack of articulation. I hoped that at this moment on this road in the pre-dawn he had recreated that moment in his mind as to give himself the upper hand. Double would be his shame when I swept this fictional mat out from under him. He was still addressing his imaginary audience when I crept out the ditch behind him. I matched his pace quickly. I grasped the staff in two hands at one end, raising the full two yards of wood and lead above my above my head. I brought it down hard across the man’s right shoulder. The staff struck and bounced back in my hands. It startled me.
The man spun around like a startled rat, and I saw his eyes wide with shock or fear. I had already pulled back my staff, and swung low this time, hoping to sweep his feet out from under him. But as I swung I stepped forward, and the staff connected harshly with this thigh instead of his knee. The bounce back was hard, and I feared I might lose the staff. He had the build of a warrior but to me, on that morning, it was if the man was made of wood. I brought the staff back across my chest, my hands positioned an arms length apart as I had been trained, but I had not planned my attack past two blows. I fought an urge to run as the red haired green eyed beast of a man brought his heavily muscled left arm up and swung out with the drover’s stick while his right hand grasped the handle of his lead flail. As he made to pull free the metal weapon his face twisted in pain, he dropped the stick and brought his left hand to the opposite shoulder where I had struck him. He stepped toward me, but the leg I had struck wobbled forcing him to pause mid-stride. But he was still up, it was going to be fight, and against my judgment and intentions I prayed, “Bellra dear Goddess protect me”. Thank the creator, that I was not bearing any blessings because I surely would have invoked them to topple this man.
I jabbed with the staff once, too slowly, and he grabbed my weapon with his left hand. He pulled me forward even as I pulled back with all my strength. My feet could not find traction in the mud as I pulled and pushed from side to side with my staff trying to break his grip. I was a head a shorter than the man, and when he pulled me close enough he released the staff and reached out with his now free left arm and grabbed my robe, he gave a deep guttural roar and I could feel my nights worth of urine spread out between my thighs.
I was all motion, hoping to get free before he could bring that lethal lead ball and chain down on my skull. Close to the man, but still holding my weapon I jabbed quickly, prodding the man repeatedly in the face and chest with the butt of my staff. One blow caught him square in the face and he flung me aside with like I was a bundle of wheat. Somehow I kept my feet even though his unsettling strength forced me to skid several yards across the road. I scrambled quickly to face him again. His flail was free of his neck and hung from his right hand, though his right arm was dangling useless. His left arm crossed his body and took the flail from his right hand. Before he could bring that weapon back across his body I rushed him.
I let out a regrettably high-pitched scream when I struck him first on the right side and then left side with my staff. He lowered his head and raised his shoulder to deflect the blows away from his face and chest. I was so close I could smell the wine on the man, I planted my staff behind his left leg and slammed against him with my shoulder. He stumbled backwards, landing in a sitting position, his legs tangled. I took my right hand from the staff and swung out with my fist connecting across the man’s bearded face. Again, I was surprised at the resistance I felt all the way to my shoulder. It felt more like striking earth than striking flesh. I started kicking at him repeatedly as he tried to raise himself up, I managed to knock his left arm out from him, and he collapsed in the mud. He turned his chin up to look at me just as I brought my staff down one more time across his face. His nose exploded into a flower of blood, and he rolled over violently while swinging his flail at last. I stepped back as his the swing went wide landing in the wet earth. I kept my distance now. He lay still for a moment before he started coughing violently. He rolled to his side and spit bright red blood onto the colorless grey dawn.
I was breathing raggedly, but a calm came over me. There was a light rain now and I looked at him there in the dirt, struggling to breath, wet with rain, dew, sweat and blood. I was reminded of an infant direct from its mother’s womb. I spoke to the man.
“Diues Piter”, I had chosen a set of words carefully. I had a sermon prepared about the role of fatherhood and the sacred trusts that are marriage and parenthood. Things, as a celibate priest, I understood only through scripture, but was sworn to protect. I have told the story of this ambush a few times over the years, in the past I have said that I dropped him to the ground with few blows and then I would recite a version of that original speech for my audience. But those stories were half-lies, what I said between rough edged breaths was “Diues Piter, I don’t want to see your bruised children around my temple any more, you deserve this, stop striking your family or take your ugly family and leave my village.” Then I ran away, not in a panicked run, but a purposed trot back towards town; leaving Diues and his largely undisturbed donkey in the road.
When I got to the village I could smell the wood smoke from the ovens. Juma, my mentor and the head priest, was already awake and baking. I went into the main room of the House of Bellra and knelt before the pulpit. My heart was still racing, my hands shaking, I was cold and wet but my thoughts were not on my physical state. The consequences of this attack had occurred to be before, but some how at that moment I could not answer the questions. What would that savage man do once he got up? Would he come back here looking for blood, and would I have to explain to Juma what I did? Kahanna, the other apprentice priest came into the main hall before I had answers. He was silent; he came in and knelt next to me before the pulpit. It reminded me that my time away from my duties was over. Kahanna and I wrapped our selves in blessings so that we might proceed with the day’s work. Despite my mud covered legs, my urine soaked rob and the hours I had been away from the village; Kahanna remained hushed and focused on the prayers.
The smell of Juma’s oven, the feel of clean robes and fresh foot rags, combined with the warmth of the Goddess’s blessings wrapped around me set my nerves at ease. Sixty or so of the villagers, all my tribe, all Mitirangu, came to the House for the morning meal, the cluster and chatter seemed to push out the creases of exhaustion that were folded into my face. Kahanna tapped a keg and started pouring a black malty brew, of which he was overly proud, into the little lidded buckets that field workers carried with them all day. It was a planting day, there were still fields to be plowed and back bending shoving to get the bean crop in the ground. The village’s chatter worried about a frozen ground that would be hard to till, new pregnancies and the shame of having to keep a robust fire in your house this far into spring.
Juma exited the ovens, a large basket of flat loaves held at arms length and the steam surrounding his face. He was friendly and warm with a “Here, Here children bring your loaves into the main room with you and we will have the morning lesson.” Juma’s shaved pate could be seen bobbing through crowd as he used his characteristic dignity and pride to shepherd his flock into the House.
While Juma gave the lesson I took my turn at the oven. The ovens were built on a brick platform and partially enclosed in a shack of loose wood planks. In that space I took the left over bread pieces from the day before and shredded the stale chunks into a large bowl made from a single piece of stone and polished to a fine sheen, save a savage crack around the rim. I broke a half dozen eggs into the bread, added some un-separated milk that one of the villagers left by the ovens that morning as an offering and I then used a Blessing to turn a jug of water into a sweet pressed pear cider. I tossed that into the bowl and mixed with a cow bone ladle. I then dispensed the mix into smaller ceramic cups to be placed into the ovens. As I lifted the heavy bowl with the intent of scraping the last of the mix into the cups my arms snapped out like a sapling pushed aside by the person in front of you. I ducked my head, spun around and only then realized that I was frightened. I was alone in the baking shed, save for the ever-present rodents ducking in and out the shadows cast by the oven’s coals.
Once I had regained an ounce of calm, I heard clearly the sound that had sent me the fright; feet slapping hard against the muddy earth. I turned to face the curtain that hung in the bakery’s portal, I raised the bone ladle in defense, and blessed it with the strength of the mother Goddess. The mud slapping runner or runners ran passed the ovens. Pushing aside the curtain, I squinted into the grey morning light, my tired eyes took a moment to focus on two red haired Ator boys, I knew them by sight: Laf and Ganus. Their mother and father were both Ators, they had built a house outside of the village’s market circle to the northeast a few yards from Diues’s house. Laf and Ganus’s father I had only seen once, he was away from the village most of the year, either serving his lord or perhaps serving another woman. The mother supported the family without our help; she fished, kept a small pin of goats and tended a small garden. While she did this she let her boys, Laf was about six years named and Ganus less than four years named, run wild all through the village and fields. To me this family represented the very worst of the Ator. It seemed to me that these boys were treated as little more than pets to these people.
I must have taken some perverse joy in the plight of the those children in those days, because every time they robbed a field or were got caught defecating near the well like feral dogs, I rushed to raise them up as examples of poor child rearing. Their crimes or missteps were things I looked for each day like an herb hunter looked for roots. As of that morning, I had still not learned their names and I was happy that their mother never came to the House for bread, never attended a Holy lesson and stuck to her own kind.
The boys had stopped at the door of the House, and immediately hunched low next to the portal in a conspiratorial huddle. I could hear Juma reading today’s lesson. I walked quickly but silently up to the boys, my soft steps were intended to keep them ignorant of my presence till I was towering over the boys. This way I could give them a good start, put them on the defensive before shooing them away. I was certain they were planning some disruptive mischief, and certain the only way to gather respect from these unkept children was to scare them.
“Children!” I snapped at them in a harsh whisper, the younger one turned and looked up me, his face greasy with food and breath reeking of fried lake fish. The other boy, the older one looked at the ladle I held and flinched away. “Go along there is nothing for you in there.” I wasn’t sure they understood, so I gestured to the northeast, “Go home, go to your mother”
The oldest boy said “Rennik” and gestured at the House. Rennik was a name I knew.
“M’to” the small one said in the Ator tongue and gestured at the house.
“Rennick can’t play with you now,” I told them and of course tried to turn it into a lesson. “Rennick is doing man work. He is learning and then he is going to go work in the field with the other men, like a man.” Ator men did not do field work for the most part, so I took every effort to try and remind the children that among our faithful real men worked the field.
“We don’t want play!” the older boy, Laf, said with sudden rage and kicked me with a dirty bare foot. I was alarmed by his use of my language and his violent gesture. I grabbed his arm, harder than I should have, and I could feel the small child’s bone of his arm under my fingers as I yanked him towards me. He held on to the handle of House’s door and screamed as the force of my lurching pulled open the door. The smaller boy ran into the House and I could see in my mind’s eye the entire congregation in the House turn toward the opened door. I immediately let go of the boy’s arm and he dropped into the mud wailing. I realize know I had lifted him off the ground. I backed away frightened. One of the chief commandments of our order, one of the sixth Oaths I took when I became a Priest, was to be a father to all children. Yet here I was standing over a wailing child that I had just flung into the mud. This was not image I wanted my congregation or the other priests to witness.
After the door fell shut, I remember looking at it for a long moment, expecting the congregation and Juma to rush out and point shameful fingers at me. When it did not happen immediately, I looked to the boy. He was laying on his side groaning in pain. I called upon the Goddess to bless this child and pull away his pain. The joy and immensity of the Goddess filled and warmed me, but when I stepped forward to lay hands on the child he screamed louder and backed away. I paused, I dashed a glance out at the town square and I fore saw that this would look worse. “Ganus! Ganus” the boy yelled, I would learn later that this was the name of the younger child. I stood tall again, and looked at the dirty pale skinned red haired child. In a whisper that was between begging and threatening I said “We are trying to help you, always trying to help you, but you don’t want the help…well we don’t want to give it.” I remember distinctly saying we, feeling as if I carried the emotional mind of the entire Mitirangu tribe and the faith of Bellra.
Turning away from the child I stepped into the House of Bellra. The congregation was standing in the in a circle around Rennik’s mother Tweena and the chief priest Juma kneeling by the child Ganus. Rennik was standing behind his mother, his light skinned face twisting with labored emotional breathing. I hadn’t been raised in a village, I grew up in the cloister with other young men given over to the Priesthood as infants. I had been in this village less than two years, so I didn’t quite understand what youths like Rennik meant to their village. But I did know Rennik, he was a youth of almost 14 years named, taller than me, with an easy smile and confident voice suggesting precocious wisdom. Rennik was also a half-breed. His father was an Ator, the old man had obtained a rank of some type in the war and was a true land owner. Along with Diues, Rennick’s father had been one of the larger personalities among the Ator, but for the past winter he had hardly been in the village.
Rennik and his mother Tweena, were not the man’s only family, and he had at least two other wives in two other villages. He had built each of wives a house on land that he owned. While Tweena was allowed a small garden outside the wooden house she did work her husband’s land or reap its benefits. Rennick’s father would send servants to work the strips of land at planting and harvest seasons. He expected Tweena and his children to tend the crops between those seasons. I had even heard that he viscously beat Tweena some years before when the harvest had failed to meet expectations.
Tweena kept the ways of Bellra, as did her children, which included two daughters younger than Rennik. Rennik was vocal in his desire to learn and worked the communal fields along side the other men of the village. He attended holy lessons and organized games and pageants among the younger children. The village loved him. We loved being able to love him in spite of his heritage. Loving him made us feel generous, and even if I felt tinge of jealousy for something I couldn’t quite name (perhaps his future or his acceptance by the village) I still admired him.
Ganus and his brother had come to get Rennik because Rennik’s father had returned to town from the south. The father, did I say his name? Well in truth I don’t remember the man’s name. The father had returned and with the help of the other ten or so men of the Ator tribe that lived in village, he had forced Tweena’s two youngest daughters out the house. He and the other Ator men were busy pulling every thing of use of out of house. Rennik’s father decided that he no longer wanted to be married to Tweena and no longer wanted to care for her or her children. I was of course audibly horrified and disgusted, but Juma shushed me. Kahanna and I finished the morning lesson and oversaw the planting of the fields while Juma went to talk with the Ator men. It was only after he left that I started to worry that there might be some retaliation against Juma for my attack against Diues. That possibility made me sick with worry as Juma was gone on past midday.
After the morning lesson, I dealt with usual task for village priests, I used the power of Bellra to mend a broken plow stones, Kahanna and I blessed the seeds so that they may grow strong, reminded the people which fields were to be fallow this year, and set out beer and bread for the afternoon meal. Delivering the blessings with Kahana was an oddly lonely task. It wasn’t a competition, we worked well together, we had the same goals, but we didn’t function as a team. I would do something or Kahanna would do something, we would consult each other discuss, laugh or agree but we kept our spheres of activity separate. In truth, I leaned on Kahanna. He was near sixteen years older than me, had been born in the neighboring village, and before taking his Oaths had been called to arms during the Ator invasion. He knew the people of these villages better than I did, some of them personally. I had never been a farmer, I had not grown up in a village or had a family. At the cloister me and the other young foundlings were the crops, the instructor priests sowed us with words and cultivated us with parables and platitudes. I knew the scripture better than Kahanna for he could barely read and he would never have the command of language that I do. I knew how to farm as far as when to plant a field, when to leave a field fallow, when to harvest, how to store seed and mill grain. But Kahanna had actually been raised by these tasks, and even though, Kahanna and I were of the same circle as far as the Goddess was concerned, he knew how the blessing were traditionally applied in villages like that one and he knew what the Mitirangu people excepted. I often felt ignorant and surprised by the ways of my people and thus like an outsider.
Juma’s approach to dealing with the Ator men was not what I had expected, Juma had gone to meet with Tweena’s husband and convinced the man to come to the House of Bellra to listen to our arguments as to why he should let his wife and children stay in their house. Juma also promised the Ator as much beer and bread as they could consume. Since Ator men left all the fieldwork to their wives they were at leisure enough to listen to Juma’s arguments.
The Ator men arrived directly after the midday meal. It was still cool for a spring day, with a stinging wind that could pull the sun’s warmth off you. All the field workers had returned to work except for Tweena and her son Rennick. Kahanna and I were clearing away the ceramic mugs from rough wood tables outside the House when I notice that Tweena was staring to the northeast. I followed her gaze and found it holding a dozen Ator men. They were wearing their grey or white tunics sewn together with red thread, and as the fashion of their tribe demanded, the thick leather leggings that horseman wore. Every one of them was armed with a lead, bronze or perhaps even the rare steel weapon. My fear was confirmed Diues, was among them. His face had swollen, presumably from were I struck him this morning, his right arm was in a sling and he walked with a limp that had not been there before I had felled him earlier. I was certain that their first order of business would be to doll out vengeance upon me, but as they approached the House the Ator, even Diues, took no more note of me than one might make of a garden goat. Later I would find their indifference insulting, but at the moment of their arrival I was relived.
Juma lead them into the House and instructed Kahanna and I to gather offerings for our guests from the brewery and bakery. I was reluctant to leave the House, because I was afraid the conversation would turn to my fight with Diues. I regret that. I hesitated and stood awkwardly in the door making Juma repeat his request, making Juma look weak. But as was his nature, he never raised his voice but smiled and nodded as the men filed into the House two at time, still carrying their metal weapons. Then only once they were in the House, did he turn to me and hiss out sternly his command.
It was a lot for me back then: the lack of sleep, the fear of being attacked, and then the sting of having my superior admonish me for gawking. I slunk back to the bakery, trying to mix all my emotions into something I could handle. My emotions ripened to ruin when I saw Kahanna cleaning up the mess of shattered cups and the unbaked bread puddings I had left on the preparation table. “Kahanna, I am sorry, those Ator boys tore through here earlier and I haven’t had a chance to come back and clean up.” It was lie, and one that didn’t make much sense. He only smiled at me and placed the stone bowl back on the table while sending mice scurrying around his feet. I went on talking, taking a rough flax cloth sack from the wicker box by the door and sweeping into it all the unbaked bread custards. “Those, Ator…they ruin all this, beat their wives, take land for themselves alone, run their horses through our fields and then Juma just smiles and feeds them our bread. How can that man stay so calm?”
Kahanna smiled at me and at that moment his look felt accusatory and critical, I could feel him saying that I was a visitor also, and that all of the Ator men had been in the village longer than me. As I fought the urge to look away in shame, he smiled wider, a supportive encouraging grin and said, “Best you get angry for Juma, no?” It wasn’t until months later I realized that Kahanna was speaking in jest. But my response to him was sincere, “You have never been more right brother”.
In addition to food and drink, Kahanna and I brought two large brazers into the House that while warm, turned the large room in a hot smoky mess. We took the translucent cowhide screens off the windows and allowed the breeze to relieve the tense warmth of the room. In the House of Bellra the Ator had moved the benches around as they pleased; pushing the benches they were not using against the wall, and aligning other benches into a half circle that allowed them to sit with their backs to the pulpit. Tweena sat alone on a bench opposite the men, with her son and daughters seated on a bench behind her. Juma took a submissive position, sitting on a mat on the mud caked wooden floor between Tweena and her would be evictors. Kahanna and I stood by the main entrance. My anger had pushed aside any fear or apprehension I had about these Ator. I had brought my staff with me, still carrying flecks of Ator blood from this morning.
The negations started in the Ator’s language, which I could not speak at the time, but I could glean the content of the conversation. Juma made his case first, speaking in an even and level tone, gesturing at the Tweena and back at her husband with open upturned hands. The Ator men of the village, not Tweena’s husband or Diues, would not allow my master to finish even a simple sentence. They would shout out something, or snort and their grab their crotches. Juma, always looked them in the eye from where he sat, and once they finished he continued; his tone unchanged. My face grew dark and warm with rage and I began to envision crossing the room briskly and knocking each these men to the ground. Despite the clumsy and haphazard way I had bested Diues that morning, despite my lack of sleep or their overwhelming number, I just couldn’t seem to fully imagine any of those men hurting me. I felt invincible and righteous. I am not sure what held me back.
As I daydreamed about viciously beating his father and his father’s companions, Rennick stood up violently and stormed out of the House past Kahanna and I. I noticed that the Ator men were laughing and Tweena had begun to cry. Kahanna went after the boy, but I wasn’t going to leave Juma alone here with these beasts. I stared at Rennick’s father, my mouth hard, my staff held aggressively across my chest and with every other element of my posture I tried to communicated my displeasure to this man. He didn’t look at me, neither did Diues, two of the other Ator nudged each other and pointed at me with a sneer. I stared back at them but they just laughed more. Tweena’s husband was gesturing at Juma and talking more loudly. The old man then tilted back the rough unglazed cup of beer he held, downed the cloudy liquid and stood up as if to leave. But as he turned towards the door something made him stop.
As I was standing by the door, I at first thought that it was my fierce visage that gave him pause, but then I noticed Rennick was again standing in the door way. Looking from the boy to his father Juma gestured with open hands and the old man took his seat again. Kahanna went to fill the old man’s cup. I looked to my left and Rennick was now standing next me, he was breathing heavily and looking at the floor his face a twisted caricature of anger. Rennick’s father began talking again, but calmly this time, it didn’t appear that he was mocking his wife this time. I leaned my head down next to Rennicks “What is he saying” I asked.
Rennick snorted, “He is saying that my mother belongs to the village and the village should take care of us, he says he can’t use her any more, he has two younger wives.”
“What is Juma saying in response?” I asked next. Rennick perked up his ears, “Juma says older wives are better, they know how to raise children and farm-”. Rennick swallowed those words bitterly and feel silent.
But Juma was still talking in the Ator tongue, which I could not understand, “What else is he saying…” I was insisting now, not asking.
“Juma says father should take us back to his other houses, let my mother teach his new wives.” The bile in Rennick’s whispered tone was exactly what I wanted to hear.
One of the Ator shouted something and made a crude gesture with his hands and they all laughed, Rennick shuddered.
Rennick’s father laughed also, Rennick then translated his father’s next response unprompted. “He says he wants to give the house and the land to one of his other sons…an older one” The boy’s rage was tempered with a bitter shame and I began to feel a bit sorry for him. He continued in the pained whisper “Now Brother Juma is begging him, saying how my mother bore him three children, worked his land, saved back grain to pay taxes and doesn’t my mother deserves some loyalty too?”
The old man smiled wryly and said a single Ator word I understood, “Yek” which means “No”. The other Ator men erupted in laughter, even Diues cracked a pained smile at the old man’s ruthlessness.
Rennick stomped his feet and yelled something in Ator, his voice cracking. It was a pitiable gesture and the men laughed more, including his father. I spoke up, “This is your son…” I said the name of Rennick’s father “he is a boy now, but in a few years when he is a man he will come after you…if you do this…then by your own laws you won’t be able to refuse combat with him. Look at what you are doing, if you push your son and his mother out of this house, then either he will kill you or you will kill him. And…” I said his name again “You are not the young man you once were.” Most of the Ator stared at me as one might note a barking housedog, the two men from earlier stood up and handled their weapons.
I could tell though that the old man understood. He looked down at Juma and spoke this time in Mitirangu, which was harsh and without melody in an Ator mouth, but I think speaking in our tongue protected his pride in the presence of his tribe’s men. “My oldest son needs some land, he is not a worshipper of Bellra, he can’t live in the village working church land like they can. He must pay his own taxes” He pivoted his hand across his knee in a sweeping gesture. “If I let them stay, will your church help me find some land?”
Juma nodded, “If we give him some of our land, he will have to pay a share of the crop tax to the Lord. Is your other son a warrior? Well then perhaps he might lease the land…”
I placed my hand on Rennick’s shoulder and whispered, “I think we beat that bastard” He shrugged me off and went to his sisters.
The rest of that afternoon was lovely, the old man agreed to let Tweena and her children stay in the house. Kahanna and I opened another keg, and after a few more face saving protests the Ator went back to their homes with a very little posturing. The sky cleared up and the sun came out bright and yellow, but the air was still chilled such that any moment in the shade or standing in the breeze would prickle your skin. The field workers started coming home in small groups and Kahanna and I welcomed them back with beer and blessings. We moved the braziers back outside. Slowly the whole village began to gather around our braziers and share brew with us. Juma told me, with some reservation that I had done a good job during the negotiations. He said, “You got us the right result, maybe for the wrong reasons, maybe in the wrong manner, but you got us what was best for Tweena”. I thought I understood what he was saying then, I thought he was talking about rank or decorum.
But in a short time everyone knew, that the Ator had bowed to my arguments, and they all came up to me to offer some congratulations. The word also got out that Diues Pieter had been beaten and was injured. The village assumed it was fight among Ator, those were common, but they still enjoyed seeing the man silenced and weak.
As the sun set Juma read the evening lesson inside the house, and I laid down on a bench we’d set outside along the warming braziers. I have never slept better. I felt a sense of control and certainty at that moment that I haven’t felt again. Not that I am uncertain now, it is just that my certainty is not as satisfying as it was in those days.
4: THE CHEST
When Kahanna shook me awake I was cold and dry mouthed, it was dark and the brazier was dim. I sat up and washed my mouth with beer from the stein by my bench. “I smell smoke” Kahanna said his hand was still on my shoulder but he was looking to the northeast.
“We are twenty feet from the ovens, of course you smell smoke” I said with a confident smirk, but my mocking tone was lost in my dry throat.
Kahanna knew the villages though, and when a smell or sound was out place he was like a yard dog. “No, different smoke” and he nodded to the northeast and I saw the faintest orange glow on the horizon. I stood up and I knew immediately that it was a loose fire, either a house or field. It had rained that morning, so it likely wasn’t to be a field. As I reasoned this out, Kahanna tapped my shoulder, and tossed his head aside in a ‘come along’ gesture.
We started running, not fast, not a sprint just at hurried strong pace and Kahanna called the light of the Goddess to illuminate our path. I think of that run often, how I enjoyed it, how I saw my self as this strong righteous creature hopping over low fences and the piles of rubbish that laid around the town. I actually looked at Kahanna once and laughed with pleasure as I skipped over a small wheelbarrow.
We left the town proper and moved through a small patch of woods (nut trees mostly) out into the fields and homes of the Ator. I saw the house, it was glowing brightly beneath the thatch roof, and fire burned around its south wall. The Ator build their houses out of wood, while most of our Mitirangu houses are made from sod or bricks. “A brick house wouldn’t burn like that,” I said to Kahanna. He responded by way of telling me to go into the house on this side and that he would go around.
The Holy Book of Bellra describes fires specifically. The first goal of a priest in a fire is to protect the people not the property. I wrapped Bellra’s blessings about me so that the fire would not burn me, but I wasn’t worried about the fire. It is the smoke that kills people or so the book told me. Normally when I tell this story I mention my fear, because I think it makes the story a little more believable, paints me as a little braver or wiser, but in truth I don’t remember being afraid. I remember being anxious, and extremely aware of my audience. The Ator houses weren’t quite a village onto themselves, but they were generally clustered around the tracks of land granted to them. A few dozen yards from this house was Diues Pieter’s house. Just as I arrived he came limping out to watch the fire. He looked worse than earlier today, right arm was still in a sling, he leaned heavily on a crutch tucked under his left arm, and his face was even more swollen. I felt that this would be my third chance in one day to show this man up. I recall specifically delaying my entry into the house one moment so Diues could get a good look at me and also because I was imaging what he must be thinking. I assumed that he must be completely impressed by me at this point, and that as soon I jumped into that burning house to save his fellow tribesman he would be forced to painfully acknowledge my superiority.
Kahanna was already around the far side of the house, I went to a wood shuttered window that was in one of the rectangular building’s short walls, tore shutters off and divided into the building. It was more confusing then I had expected, there was a bright glowing cloud of smoke over head punctured by a lot of sun bright threads of light, but the smoke was so thick I could not see a hand length in front of my face. As I passed through the waist high window, I crashed on top of a box that was under the window, rolled off of it and lay down on the floor. I could see a wood plank floor, and I crawled across it toward the middle of the cabin. With my belly on the floor, I could see a little farther, I saw a fire place against a long wall that was completely engulfed in flames and the floor in front of it was on fire. I saw a few posts, the legs of furniture or narrow roof supports I couldn’t tell as I had never been in an Ator built home before. I crawled across the cabin, veering away from the fireplace. The cabin was only four yards long and two yards wide, but that is a great distance in a fire. I met Kahanna part way through the cabin. “See any one,” he shouted. It was only then that I realized how loud the fire was. “The house is empty,” I said. But Kahanna caught my eye and saw something in it. I don’t what he saw in the briefest of moments but he started crawling past me on his belly, back the way I came. I followed him, keeping my eye on his rag wrapped feet to guide me.
He stopped and I moved up along side him. The smoke was getting thicker and darker. He was right in front of that box I had landed on when coming in the window. The box was a large heavy wooden chest, hinged with leather straps and held together with bronze bolts. All the Ator men that come to our country during the conquest brought boxes like this with them. I’d find out later that these chests represented a Ator man’s right to own property, and they were often blessed by Ator priests with wards of protection. Then I only knew that the Ator men valued them. Kahanna was trying to lift it towards the window, but the awkward angle prevented it. I tapped him on the shoulder, “Leave it,” I shouted. As soon as those words left my hoarse smoke choked throat I saw the arm. The lid of the chest was cracked open and a thin pale arm stuck out the chest. I didn’t hesitate I stood up, and lifted the box towards the window. But as soon I reached my feet, things went black.
When I opened my eyes again Kahanna was pulling me through the window. I saw his face and then looked down at my feet. The robe around my legs was on fire, but the Goddess kept my flesh from burning. I was told later what happened. I did lift the chest to the window, Kahanna was holding on to it and he let the momentum of the box guide him through the small window like a snake. Half hanging out the window he lowered the box the ground as gently as possible. Diues Pieter was there and with one hand and one good leg dragged the box away from the building. Kahanna then pulled himself out the flaming house before reaching back in to pull me out, for as soon as my head hit the main cloud of smoke I lost consciousness and slumped against the wall.
Outside the burning cabin, Diues had opened the chest and inside it, wrapped around each other were Laf and Ganus. Their eyes and nooses were black with soot and their cheeks streaked with tears. Death had them.
Directly after Kahanna, Diues and I had laid out the bodies of the two smoke choked boys and realized they were beyond any help I heard a scream and some words in Ator. It was a woman’s voice and I saw Laf and Ganus’s mother running towards the house from the tree line. She was carrying a fishing pole, net and a line with three fish attached. The sight of her running up to us, the awareness that these boys had been home alone, and everything else in that moment just filled me with feeling of helplessness. Thus I got angry. I intercepted the woman before she could reach her children.
“Is it my babies?” she cried in accented Mitirangu, trying to make her way past me.
“You didn’t care about them when you left them alone did you!” I screamed at her and struck her with both my fists simultaneously hitting her in each shoulder. She fell to the ground, but she never took her gaze from the sight of the children’s bodies laid out on the ground. I screamed at her, “Don’t you look at them! You killed them, you left them alone to burn, to die scared and alone!”
Juma was there, I hadn’t seen him arrive but he put his hand on my shoulder and turned me towards him. I immediately felt shame and fear. I usually say that I stopped there, and realized what I had done. But I tried to hide those feelings, to fight that self-knowledge by keeping my rage up. Juma’s eyes were full of tears and he nodded ‘no’ to me. “You know I am right” I whispered to him and then turned from him. I found myself facing Diues. His wife was leaning against him, holding him up by wrapping her arms around his belly, and their children were wrapped around them as well. They were a single unit of emotional distress, their faces all bruised from the blows that I or Diues had given out. Juma and Kahanna helped the Goddess keep the fire from spreading and I walked back to the House. I performed my last Holy act of the day by directing the Goddess to pull the poisoned smoke out of my lungs.
I never saw Laf and Ganus’s mother again. I was told her husband came up the next week and collected her. Her land went to Rennick’s half brother. We divined later what happened to the two boys, the mother and tucked them into bed with blankets and then went to gather fish so the boys could eat the next day. It was cold though and the oldest boy, Laf, had gotten up to make a fire, tried to use an oil lamp and ended up lighting the floor on fire. The boys first tried to put out the fire out but failed. As the fire picked up the children went to hide in their father’s chest. There they held each other while the smoke killed them. They were not taken by Bellra and the Ator say they were not taken by their god either: so neither their parents nor I will see them in the afterlife.
I have looked for them every day since then, hoping to see their ghosts and hoping that Death will let them slip back to our world so I can tell them. I would tell them that I am sorry, I would tell them it is not their fault, I would tell them that their mother loved them and that she was just doing what was best for them. I have looked for their mother too. I would apologize to her, yes, but mostly I would listen. I want to hear her anger at me for the unthinkable lack of compassion I showed her. I want to have the accounts of somebody that loved Laf and Ganus, and I want to know about those boys.
Like I said earlier, I tell this story often. I tell the story of that fire to encourage young Bellra priests to be respectful of other tribes and other faiths. If I tell the story of the whole day, I ask the young priests what did I do wrong. They point to my violence or my cruelty, but mostly they don’t realize that my chief crime. I was selfish, I was making the events all about me. I attacked Diues for me, to prove something about myself, not because I wanted to protect his family. I spoke up at the meeting with Rennick’s father because of how I felt. I was angry, but as a priest I should have been more concerned with Rennick or Tweena. I screamed at Laf and Ganus’s mother because I was hurt, not because the boys were gone. I screamed to hide my shame.
When we laid out the boys’ bodies, we saw that Laf’s arm was broken. It was the arm sticking out of the box and the same arm I had grabbed that morning. I have never been sure if I broke it, when I landed on the box or when I grabbed his arm. Either way I feel like I broke that boy. I re-live that day often, seeing things I could have done differently or better. In all cases the answer to those considerations is compassion. The answer is to make the moment less about how I felt and more about what others needed.
There is something else too, something I never share. The things I did on that day made me realize I hate the Gods. The Gods created us so that we can choose among them. We are these spiritual dice on which they have bet. While I may believe that the way of my Goddess is superior and kinder than the way of the Ator’s god, it doesn’t make my Goddess any less culpable. Suffering is the plow of the Gods, and whatever they reap it is sown with misery. Their love for us is not unconditional, they want our souls and our praise, and in that way it is a selfish love. I am still a priest, though, because I cannot renounce the Goddess just because I disagree with her anymore than I could denounce bread cause I do not like farming or baking. Yet the game is rigged, once you accept that the Gods have control over both your immortal soul and your mortal life, than you have to follow their commandments. As I approach my seventh decade of life I don’t see the Priesthood as a choice. I never had any choice; the Gods made me flawed and I suffer for it.