Authors: Igor Ljubuncic
Tanid was no fool. He knew he would have to confront—no, talk to—King Sergei, explain the situation, explain the presence of all these people. The camp posed a problem. It choked a trade line but paid no taxes to the crown; it drew away the labor force from other corners of the realm, attracted foreigners who did not swear fealty to the throne in Sigurd. He would understand if the Parusite ruler decided Tanid’s holy congregation was a menace, a threat of some sort. Luckily, for now, the king stayed any kind of judgment or action. And that in itself was also quite worrying. But deep down, Tanid was glad for the extra days and weeks, because he still did not feel ready to engage King Sergei. Would the man believe him? Would he be willing to listen? Accept the crazy story of a terrible threat
looming over the Old Land? How could he convince the man that peace and unity among all the people who followed the gods and goddesses, who followed him, was imperative?
Tanid did his best to appease the royal spies and soldiers. He made sure no flags were raised, no uniforms sewn, and no songs chanted. He kept his identity as vague as possible. He made sure his speeches focused only on religion, love, and tolerance. He could not allow his good intentions to be misconstrued as a rebellion. There was enough damage as it was. The camp was a big, fat tick, slurping blood from the Athesian countryside, encroaching on new pasture and conquering new hillocks, where fresh timber houses and mills would soon grow.
Tanid wished he could have cooperated with the patriarchs and matriarchs, made his rise to power official. But that just wasn’t possible. The world was not ready to acknowledge the presence of a god in its midst, and no matter how much time he spent thinking, pondering, trying to devise some way of making the truth known, he always ended with a bloody disaster smeared across his thoughts.
Well, today was somewhat different.
He saw Ludevit coming toward him. The man walked with a hunch, looking ever so slightly tensed. Tanid skipped a beat. Was there any danger about? For an instant, he felt like a fawn in an open field, exposed.
The other man just shook his head. No danger. Tanid relaxed slightly.
“Your Holiness,” Bad Luck Ludevit said, “the priests have arrived.”
“Thank you, son,” Tanid said. He had avoided the clergy for so many years. He could not anymore. The moment of reckoning was upon him. King Sergei might not be paying
much attention to him, but his patriarchs sure were. “Bring them to me.”
“Here, in the open?”
Tanid pointed toward the old barn, the heart of the camp. It had become a shrine, and men and women prayed there all the time, feeding him with vital energy. The war with Calemore was coming, and he needed every ounce of it.
He did not expect trouble from the priests, but still he summoned Pasha. The boy might not be the brightest one, but he was shy and quiet, and that made him a perfect companion during discreet meetings. That, and his ability to stop swords and arrows with his flesh.
Soon enough, Ludevit came back, five men in tow behind him. The Special Child had an ax hanging from his waist now, and he did not appear a messenger of peace. Perhaps that was the wrong message to send, Tanid thought with some dismay.
The worshippers at the barn noticed something important was afoot. Quietly, they laid down their offerings and retreated, every last one of them. Tanid was left alone, with an ungainly, indestructible youth for his bodyguard. The five patriarchs stopped some distance away, their faces unreadable.
Leading them was a fat man in a bright-orange gown. His fat bulged under his arms, round his waist, and the cloth was pinned between those big folds, making his torso outlined in clear detail. Sweat budded below his heavy, sagging breasts.
“Greetings,” Tanid said amiably. His heart hammered like an entranced smith, banging away.
“I am Under-Patriarch Evgeny,” the fat man boomed, his tone rather pleasant, but his eyes were hard. A big hand came forward, the five sausages attached to it wriggling with authority.
My first ordeal
, Tanid thought. The patriarch expected him to kiss his hand, to kneel before him, to bow to his holiness, to yield. Tanid refused to do that. But then, he could not tell the man he was all of the gods these men prayed to.
Tanid licked his lips nervously, probably giving off a wrong impression. They were dry with anxiety. “I cannot do that, son,” he said at length. “It would be inappropriate.”
Under-Patriarch Evgeny retrieved his hand. His face remained impassive, but Tanid could feel ire emanating from his big body. “Some would call that blasphemy. Disrespect toward the gods and goddesses.”
Tanid could not budge. “Some would. But they would be wrong. This is a holy place. This camp and all of its people have only one goal, to sustain the faith and praise the gods. We do not measure our love for gods in obedience.” He gestured toward the barn’s murky interior.
Evgeny looked behind him. “Stay here,” he told his four brothers. One of them looked genuinely surprised.
Tanid entered first. Shafts of sunlight streaked between planks, coloring the clear brown interior with golden stripes. Bales of straw had long been cleared. Instead, the floor was covered in charms, gifts, offerings. There was even real gold somewhere there, but no one would dream of stealing it.
“Who are you?” the under-patriarch asked the moment they were alone.
Here it goes
. Tanid turned slowly, as if nothing worried him. “My name is Gavril.” That was a simple, honest name.
“And where do you come from?”
“The Territories,” Tanid heard himself lie. He had practiced this for a long time.
“Why are you not a member of clergy? What is the meaning of all this?” Evgeny stepped forward. Tanid was almost
alarmed, but Pasha was standing just behind the fat man, ready to protect him if needed.
“Faith does not require an institution,” Tanid rebuked, trying to keep his voice flat. “Faith just requires passion and dedication and pure hearts. That is what we have here. This congregation is not meant to challenge the authority of the patriarchs and matriarchs. It does not diminish the importance of your work. It does not change anything, except give people hope and love. That’s all.”
Evgeny seemed to weigh that for a moment. “One cannot just claim to speak in the gods’ and goddesses’ names. That is not right. You must be trained properly. You must be enrolled in a monastery and choose your dedication.”
Tanid pointed behind him. “All those men and women have come here because they need faith.” He felt silly for apologizing before this priest, but then, he had never expected an encounter with the clergy to be pleasant. He was bracing for far worse.
The under-patriarch deflated suddenly, stepping back. “Religion must have rules, too. By creating this holy site, you have disrupted the normal course of things. Prayer is not a trifle. It must be observed carefully.”
, Tanid wanted to tell him.
Not at all. Any man giving his devotion to the gods feeds me with strength, anywhere, anytime. Shrines and monasteries are human things, meant to give shape to belief so it is not forgotten over the centuries
. “Why does my work bother you?”
The priest grimaced, his jowls inflating like a frog’s. He sighed loudly. “Ever since the war against the Feorans, faith in the realms has been greatly weakened. Most of the Safe Territories have been razed, and we are still trying to rebuild all the houses of worship, with great difficulty. Our numbers are
scant. Athesia is a godless place, and praise the gods that King Sergei conquered it. Neither the Eracians nor Caytoreans have much love for the gods left. It’s only the Parusites who remain righteous.” He paused, and then began pacing around Tanid, Pasha shadowing him.
“My brothers and I have worked very hard in trying to rebuild the faith. But the king’s efforts are diverted elsewhere, and he does not have money or people to spare. He has stalled my efforts to form a combat clergy, and his contributions to the rebuilding of great monasteries have been…inadequate. I might almost be tempted to suspect he has a sinful agenda. And now this. Amid all our challenges, you have shown up, and you threaten our holy mission.”
Tanid was not sure he followed the fat man’s thoughts. “I do not understand.”
Evgeny pointed in the same direction as Tanid, but his gesture felt greedy. “All those men could have been enlisted as servants of the gods and goddesses, replacing the decimated Outsiders. They could have formed the backbone of the combat clergy. Their donations could have paid for the new gilt roofing for the monastery in Jaruka. Instead, they are wasted here.”
“They are not wasted,” Tanid replied quietly.
“You are a man of faith?” Evgeny asked.
“Good. But what if you suddenly decide to teach these people…
things? Make them believe in other gods. What then?”
Tanid felt as if someone had shone a torch down the dark mouth of a cave, exposing glittering gems embedded in the rock. He finally understood what the under-patriarch was telling him. He did not care anything about Tanid’s mission. He cared about power.
Should he be disappointed? Surprised?
“I serve the gods and goddesses,” Tanid spoke, trying to sound patient. “My love and dedication are not measured in gold coin or blocks of stone. Just faith, pure faith.”
“Gavril,” Evgeny chided, “some would say you’re a heathen.”
Tanid smiled. “I doubt it. All those people out there would disagree with you, son.”
“You must address me as Your Holiness,” Evgeny pointed out.
“You are equal before the gods and goddesses, like everyone else out there. Pasha?”
“Your Holiness?” the boy croaked, looking uncomfortable.
Evgeny spun, but then he realized the lad had addressed Tanid, not him. His eyes were flinty and sharp now. Fat men had an advantage when it came to hiding their expressions—all that lard covered their muscles, made their skin lax—but the priest could not fool Tanid.
“Holiness is achieved through devotion and sacrifice,” Tanid lectured back. “I have earned it. The fact people are flocking to me, seeking guidance and redemption when they cannot find it elsewhere, in monasteries in the Safe Territories and other holy places, it tells me something. We follow the gods and goddesses, and nothing you may say will change it.”
Under-Patriarch Evgeny was silent for a while. “All right, Gavril,
Holiness, what do you want?”
Tanid tried to suppress his excitement. “I just wish faith to flourish. That is all.”
Evgeny wagged a thick finger. “You must want something else.”
The god realized the priest was trying to manipulate his defeat into an advantage, make it seem as if Tanid was the one
with a hidden agenda. But it was Evgeny who had come to see him. “No, son, you tell me what you want.”
Evgeny gestured largely. “I need soldiers. I want to establish a mighty army of faith. I want the combat clergy to rise once more, so it can defend the people from heathens and unbelievers everywhere. We must not allow a catastrophe like the Feoran scourge to ever happen again. We must be able to protect ourselves, to fight against those who would see the faith destroyed, whoever they are.”
Much like you have been doing here
, his eyes whispered.
, Tanid thought. The one thing he really needed, to convince King Sergei to seek peace with his enemies so they could unite under him, one god, against Calemore. “I must ask you to petition King Sergei on my behalf. I must see him.”
“Why?” Evgeny did not seem to like this proposal.
“This is between me and the gods.” Tanid held his gaze.
The priest snorted lightly. “You are a holy man with a mission then. Admirable. I must say I am surprised. I have not met many who claim to have talked to gods or goddesses. Most people hide such truths. We call them Special Children, and they are greatly valued in holy places. They help us in many things.”
Tanid avoided looking at Pasha. He did not feel any magic coming from Evgeny, but he could not really know what the man was capable of. Just the fact he knew what Special Children were made him extremely dangerous. Which was why he had avoided the clergy for so long. “I must see the king,” he insisted.
“Sure you must. But then, if you were inclined to show favor toward the patriarchs and matriarchs, we might help further your cause, holy man.”
A fair compromise?
Tanid wondered. Let himself be manipulated into a delicate alliance with these priests? But what other choice did he have? If he posed a threat to their status and power, he could not begin to imagine the danger he posed toward the king. He had no idea how the Parusite ruler might eventually react. He might even decide to unleash his army against him, and then, there would never be unity in the Old Lands against Calemore. He was not selfish enough to allow that. And he dreaded thinking of having to go to Roalas on his own. He still did not feel powerful enough to risk that.
“I could speak favorably in your honor. We could share resources.”
Evgeny seemed to like that. “I will assign some of my brothers to serve with you.”
Tanid breathed deeply. He had to agree. “They will not interfere.” A warning and a question.
“We are united in our love of the gods and goddesses, are we not? We share a common cause.”
“If you help me convince King Sergei of the urgency of my mission, I will allow some of my followers to go to the Safe Territories and join the ranks of your clergy, be they warriors or priests. And they will help rebuild the holy places, and some of the donations will go to the temples across the land.” He caught himself in time, just before he blurted “Old Land.” That would have betrayed him right there.
After the war with Calemore, after
, he wanted to add.
“They say a holy man is never poor or hungry, for he has faith,” Evgeny intoned.
Tanid did not like the preaching. He was already thinking, hard and fast, about all the possibilities and risks. He was getting himself entangled with the patriarchs. That meant his true identity might be exposed, and what then?