Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sister Hannah

After she blew out the candle, the stars were her only light, so Hannah had to wait for her eyes to adjust. She set the candleholder on the closed trapdoor, and turned. By memory, she slowly felt her way out to the wall of the roof, aiming for one of gaps. The sisters told her the gaps had a name, but she could never remember stuff like that. Crennallons? Once there, she leaned out, feeling the breeze intensify and blow her hair back and up from below.

Slowly, the world came back. She saw the silhouette of the forest, beyond the outer wall. Just being up here made Hannah feel better. Her world was larger. She peered down and smiled at the rough stonework of the keep wall. She checked herself again, made sure the long sleeves of her novice's habit were well secured, and swung herself over. She set her feet carefully, and began her descent.

It wasn't too hard. She'd climbed these walls ever since she was a child, and the stone bulbed out, rough with ridges perfect to set the edge of a foot upon. She locked her fingers into gaps in the mortar, or spread her hand over a bulge in the stone, leaving as much weight as possible on her feet. Occasionally she'd look up, and see the glow of the moonless sky, the stars sharp points in a field of deep blue.

It was taking longer than she expected. She'd never climbed down from such a height before - the elder sisters had always pulled her down before she could get above their heads. Hannah smiled, and shifted her weight over onto one foot, lowering herself until she was sitting on her ankle. She sent her other foot out, questing for a ridge to set it against. Well, not always. There was that one time she'd made it up to top of the great gate. She'd climbed her way around the archway, and had sat on the jutting edge of the capstone, barely six inches deep. She'd been two scared to climb down. Valerie had had to convince her to jump down into a sheet, stretched out tight by a team of sisters. The fall had been pretty fun, actually. Once down, Val had grabbed her and hugged her, holding her so tight. Val had started crying, which made Hannah start crying, and they had just sat there, locked in a hug until one of the nuns had pried her sister off her and had taken Hannah off to see the Mother Superior.

Hannah had spent most of the next two weeks confined to her cell. She had been let out for meals and classes, but they hadn't let her out in the courtyard, and she hadn't been allowed to speak to Valerie. Val had still sat next to her in the great hall at meals and held her hand. "You scared me, Hannah. Promise me you won't do that again," and Valerie had glared at her to show that she meant it. "Don't climb so high you can't climb down again." Hannah had squeezed her hand to show Val she understood. The rest of Hannah's two weeks had been spent practicing climbing the stone walls of her cell. Up and down, left and right.

Hannah reached the base of the wall, and sat. She wasn't tired yet, but there was still the outer wall to go. No reason to rush.

By the time Hannah had turned twelve, Val no longer held her hand. At eighteen, Valerie'd sworn the vows to become a full sister of the order, and somehow that seemed to mean she could no longer be as much of a sister to Hannah. She'd starting carrying a perpetual frown, and whenever Hannah tried to make a joke, or play with her, Valerie would pull away. "You've got to be more serious, Hannah." And so Hannah had been left alone. Even now there was only one other novice, and, at the time, she had been four. All the nuns had kept to themselves except for Hannah's lessons.

Those were no relief. The sisters had tried to impress upon her the importance of history, of ciphers, of their great work, watching the gods, waiting for them to... something or other. Screw up most likely. That's how Hannah had felt whenever they were watching her. She had far preferred her chores - tending the trees in the inner orchard, or weeding in the fields outside the outer wall. Every once in a while, if she had whined enough to the cook, she'd gotten to go gather mushrooms from the woods. The sister enjoyed the taste, but it had been hard work to convince her to leave her kitchen. And no one was allowed in the woods alone, and certainly not a novice.

Hannah got up, and snuck over to the outer wall. She took a glance behind her. The keep was completely dark - lights out had been hours before. Even the window for the Mother Superior's office was dark. Valerie must have finished her work for the night. Hopefully she hadn't come by to check on Hannah before heading back to her cell. She wouldn't normally, but they had had that argument. Hannah turned back around, and found her first holds. Well, if so, time was wasting.

There had been one of the lessons that Hannah loved. The forms. Each dawn and sunset, the sisters all gathered in front of the keep and, in unison, performed one of the forms. Graceful, elegant motion, flowing at times with long slow movements that switched to quick and small without stutter. Some of Hannah's first memories were of Valerie standing behind her, holding her arms in her hands and helping her move with the sisters.

Every day, a different sister had come and trained her for an hour. She would request that Hannah do a specific form, the Spring Dawn Awakens The Slumbering Bear, for example, and critique her movements. Then she would approach Hannah, and show how the form could be used in combat, to disarm an opponent, or restrain, or cause so much pain that the opponent would be unable to respond. Originally, Hannah had not understood.

"But they're so pretty! Why do you want to hurt people?" The lessons had started at age six. Valerie had not been allowed to attend Hannah's, much like Hannah had not been allowed to attend Valerie's.

"I do not want to hurt anyone," Sister Christine had explained. "The world is a dangerous place, full of people who want to hurt us. Even the gods," and she paused, pointing up, "have their enemies, as you should know. There is no one that is safe, there is nowhere that is safe."

"But we're safe here, right?"

Sister Christine had crouched next to her. "No, young one, we are not. We may prepare, and wait behind our stone walls, but someday our enemies may find us. And we must prepare."

Near the top of the wall, Hannah encountered some loose mortar. Her hand jerked out of the stone and threw her off balance. She flailed around, hand swimming through the open air, until she managed to bring her shoulder back tight to the wall. Her other hand ached from holding her weight in. She resumed her climb, and crawled over the top a few moments later. She laid down, both to rest and to present a smaller profile, should anyone be looking out towards the wall.

When she could get them talk to her, Hannah had asked the sisters questions about the outside world. Where did other people live? What were they like? Where do nails come from? The stories she'd heard in response were horrible. There was nothing but death and villany beyond the walls of the convent. People warred, and killed. Stole, raped and maimed - left their fellow beings to starve or die alone of sickness. None were to be trusted. This was the only safe place, these people the only good people. Their duties here were holy, and if the world knew what they were doing, even the convent would not be safe.

Also, nails came from a tinker, who visited once or twice a year. Two sisters would meet him outside the wall and trade for nails or pots or whatever else they needed but could not make themselves. They never spoke to the tinker, only communicating by gesture. In return, they'd reveal some gift, all wrapped in rough linen, which the tinker would peek at, then hide hastily among his wares.

Hannah knew all this because she'd been peeking from the tallest branches of one of the trees in the orchard just that afternoon, its limbs poking just above the line of the outer wall, letting her see the trade going on outside. She'd climbed down, and leaned down to grab her basket of apples back off the lawn when she'd felt a hand on her shoulder, pulling her around. It was Valerie.

"What in the name of our Founder were you doing?"

"Just watching. Sisters Reynault and Patience met with a man! He had a beard and a huge carriage full of bits of bronze and iron. I think they got more nails!"

Valerie scowled at her. "You should not be watching such things. Reynault and Patience have been prepared by the order, are experienced with dealing with the outside world. They know how to present a front that will not draw the attention of the world. But you, with your hair flapping and your eyes wide, you threaten our safety!"

"Our safety? He's just one man, Valerie. And shorter than Reynault. She could have had him on the ground in half an instant with Mockingbird Flees A Storm from the way she was standing." Hannah moved through the first part of the form, her hand wending a path from her hip towards Valerie's neck.

Valerie batted her hand away. "Yes? What if he went away and brought back more men? What if he saw your face, and decided to come and bring an army, to carry you away from us, to burn our home to the ground!" Valerie was near shouting. "We are none of us safe, Hannah, none of us. You must be careful!"

"I must be careful?" Hannah scowled at her. "Why? Because I'm in danger? Or because I'm endangering you, and your precious role as the Mother's assistant? You're not worried that he saw me watching them, you're worried that one of the sisters did." Hannah picked up her basket and stomped a few steps away before stopping and turning around. "You think that everything I do reflects badly on you, that I'm holding you back. You leave me alone for three years, and then you try to control everything I do so that I don't threaten your career!" She chucked an apple at Valerie.

Valerie didn't even try to duck. The apple hit her right in the eye. "You've assaulted a full sister, novice. The penalty is two weeks confinement. You should think on your role here, and how you should respect your betters." Hannah squalked, but Valerie grabbed her by the arm, and marched her inside the keep to her cell. "Stay here, until you are summoned for the evening meal." As Valerie turned away, Hannah was sure she could see a look of satisfaction on her face.

Hannah had had enough. She knew the world was bigger than this. The world was better than this. It had to be. She couldn't spend another day hiding from it. Not another day of her sister trying to pound her into the mold of a proper nun. She had made up her mind. She would leave. Tonight.

After getting down the outer wall, Hannah's forearms were kaput. She couldn't have picked up a feather. Her calves and feet were sore too, but she kept moving. She circled around the wall toward the gate. She walked up to it, and laid her palm on its smooth wood surface. The outside of the gate. She'd never gotten to touch it before. Her arm ached. She smiled.

She turned around, and started to jog down the tracks of the Tinker's cart. Maybe he would give her a ride.

Hannah is an optimist, who, up until now, has lived in a world of pessimists. Orphaned as a newborn, her six year old sister Valerie brought them to an isolated convent in the mountains. Hannah's never managed to learn how. There, they were raised by an order consumed with their life of isolation. Valerie grew into her role, and after making full sister, started to scale the hierarchy.

Hannah, despite having no memories of the outside world, believes it to be a good place. And, after having fled her only home, she is determined not to be proven wrong, even if she has to make it so. Neither very experienced nor the brightest, Hannah has some strange ideas of how the world outside works, which may lead to some humor. She's fascinated by people, and may err on the side of too trusting.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Cassius (the Redeeming)

The two of them weren't very far from the camp when they heard something crashing through the brush ahead. The girl froze, and looked up at her father's face. He waved at her to get down, and they both crouched, eyes darting around the forest, looking for the source of the noise. Suddenly, they saw a huge shape move between two trees. It moved toward them and into a shaft of moonlight, resolving into a huge beast, covered with brown shaggy hair and metal plates, two curving horns on its head, its face that of a bull. In its hands was an enormous axe, its twin edges bare and glinting in the light.

The girl shrieked, and ran back towards the camp. The man left behind turned and called out to her. "Honey, wait, don't run. Honey, it's ok! It's just-" and he gave up as she vanished into the green. He sagged. "It's just our escort, Sir Cassius," he said to himself.

He turned toward the minotaur. "My apologies, good sir knight. I've told her you're here to protect us. She's just a little flighty."

The minotaur waved off his apologies. "It's all right. I've certainly suffered worse insults. It's just Cassius, though. I've not earned my knighthood yet." He removed his helm, the metal curved oddly to accommodate his horns.

"Hanlon, isn't it?" The man nodded. "Do you mind if I sit for a moment? I've just run a ways, and this armor is a bit heavy. I'd like to catch my breath. If you'd sit with me, I'd appreciate it."

"Of course." There might have been a slight tint to the man's voice, but no fear showed on his face. There was a fallen log a stride or two away. Cassisus clanked a bit as he sat. Hanlon's movements were a bit more quiet.

"I must apologize again for my daughter. I'm not sure why she's so nervous, normally she's quite well-behaved."

"Normally, she's not part of a caravan. Especially one that's been attacked three times in twice as many days. She's used to her protector looking like you. I'm a bit of a transition." Cassius smiled, his lips pulling back to reveal his sharp teeth. "It's all right for a child to fear monsters. It's healthy."

Hanlon spoke up. "But you're no monster - " Cassius cut him off.

"Oh, but I am. I've done horrible things. Horrible. In my youth, my brothers and I, we ran wild. We were worse than any bandit, and this valley was our stomping ground. We raided countless caravans just like this one. Not half a day from here was Ufirth, which we burned to the ground. We killed men by the score, and worse than that, we ate what we killed." He grinned his sharp grin again, no mirth at all. Hanlon's eye's grew wider, but he did not pull away.

"We drank in the fear and the power, and we reveled in it. There were fortunes on our head, and we collected our own wanted posters as a point of pride. One day, we set upon a small temple. We'd hit it before - taken the meager collection and stuffed the priest down the well. Good fun, we thought. We were looking for more of the same.

"My brother Kratus was the first in the door. He kicked in the door and ran in. Not two seconds later, he crashed out, knocking me over. A hole in his chest spilled his blood over me as his breath rattled out. I was stunned, so it took me a second to push his dying body off of me.

"Marcus and August were fighting an armored man - easily a foot or two smaller than they. Yet they could not close with him. He swung his sword, catching every swing of their axes, turning their blows to the ground. I heard a muffled sound coming from him, and realized he was laughing at them. I was infuriated. I charged his back. We were to be feared, I thought, respected. Not laughed at.

"I never even saw the blow that stopped me. I came to with a long gash in my head", and Cassius pointed to a scar, "and a hole in my chest. I should have been dead. I was not. My brothers were not so lucky. Our bodies had been piled in a ditch, out in the woods. Like offal, or rotting meat. No burial or respect given.

"I pulled my axe from our grave, and trudged my way back to the temple. The door was already back on its hinges. Like we'd never been there at all. I stood outside and roared for our killer to come out. To face me. I yelled, specifically, for justice for the death of my brothers.

"And so the knight emerged. His helm was off, and his sword still in its sheath. He was a human and old-looking. His face was shaved, and his hair grey and cropped close. 'For justice?' he said, and cocked his head at me. I rushed him, and he stepped aside, tripping me. I pushed at the ground to right myself, but my strength left me. He squatted by my face and looked at me. Then I felt a fist crack me on the side of the head, and blacked out.

"When I came to, I was in a bed. I could see that my chest was bandaged, but I was set in restraints. Another human in a white shift saw that I was awake, and scurried away. Soon enough, the knight came by and stood by my bed. I shouted insults at him, and asked why he did not face me in combat. He told me he had no interest in fighting a wounded opponent. Heal, he said, and he would face me again.

"So I waited, and healed. The attendants changed my bandages and waited on me. The knight came by occasionally. To make sure I was preparing for our fight, he said. After a few weeks, I managed to wrestle myself out of the restraints, and pushed my way outside to a courtyard.

"I had been moved after he knocked me out apparently. This was not the temple, but some lord's keep. I yelled my challenge, holding a stone broken from the pavement, my dressing gown flapping about my hooves.

"The knight came out, donned his helm, drew his sword, and laid me out in a manner of seconds.

"I spent the next few weeks healing up again, before I broke loose and the knight took me down again. This repeated itself several times. Each time, the knight came by afterwards, and each time, I issued my challenge.

"Finally, I asked him why he did not kill me? Why keep me alive if he knew I was only going to break free and try to kill him again? It was then that he told me of his lord Bahamut, and of mercy. Bahamut had seen fit to grant me mercy, he said, sparing my life when I should have died. He was only following his lord's example.

"I broke out that afternoon, and tried to stab him with a broken flagpole.

"After about six months of this, the knight came by and told me that he was tired of facing such a weak opponent. He said if I would give him my parole that I would not try to escape, or kill anyone else, and if I spent the month training, that he would let me face him again and the end of the month.

"Even though I was eager to face him again, and a month seemed like too long a time to wait to collect his head, I agreed. I was weary of losing. I was weary of my sickbed.

"At the end of the month, he beat me again. He disarmed me and made me yield, his sword to my throat. Give it another month, he said.

"Eventually he started training me himself. 'You want something done right', he said, 'and I don't want to wait another month for you to face me not knowing how to parry.' I tried to kill him in training, but he just sidestepped my blows and critiqued my form.

"He taught me my first prayers as a way to still my mind for combat. I continued on my own, figuring that if Bahamut had saved me, maybe he would help me kill the old bastard.

Cassius paused his story. The shadows had grown darker. Above the two of them, the stars had vanished and the sky was the steely gray of pre-dawn. Hanlon's face was almost completely obscured.

"Well," the man rasped. "Did you kill him?"

"That's the thing. Creatures like you always want to know that. Humans and other folk are generally more interested in what it was that changed me, what made me turn the corner from vicious killer into true believer. Was it a tender moment? Did I cry as I realized my past sins?" Cassius stood up, and Hanlon scrambled off the log.

"Creatures? What do you mean?" Hanlon's voice was torn now. It dropped too low and squeaked at the end. His body was almost entirely hidden in the still dark shadows, all details obscured.

"Come off it creature. I'd apologize for deceiving you, but you've been trying to deceive me, so it's all the same. And I did appreciate the chance to catch my breath. I found Hanlon Albrecht's body a good two miles out, and I ran every step of the way back." Cassius's axe was in his hands, edges gleaming with the coming morning.

Hanlon, or the thing that had looked like him, hissed. Its form distended, inky tentacles and claws waving and flashing at the edge of the shadow. "And Bahamut's mercy," a distorted echo of Hanlon's voice called, "is it for me too?"

"Not for me to say." Cassius clapped his helm back on. "Redeem yourself!" he bellowed, "for I can not do it for you!" And Cassius charged into the shadow.

Cassius repents for a youth ill-spent. He has devoted himself to the life of a Paladin, and hopes that he may one day overcome the wrong he has wrought.

His family had long since disowned him and his brothers, well before their death. His only family now is the knight who killed them, who brought Cassius to his current path.

Cassius still faces him in mortal combat once a year, to make good on his oath. Each year, they both live. Cassius wonders what would be justice - killing the knight for the death of his brothers? His own death, for the wrongs he has done? He does not know for sure, and counts each reprise as another instance of Bahamut's mercy.