The man walked through the gate. A sheep, still awake and being led around the courtyard by what he assumed was a shepard, bleated in his direction. No one else noticed. The hubhub of business in the main square did not change. He shrugged and walked on to the small oikimion, taking in its battered appearance, rough stonework and woodwork black with rot. And he sighed, for he knew there was work to be done. He ducked under the low door and blinked, eyes adjusting quickly to the dark - the only light came through gaps between the wooden tiles that made up the roof.
Inside, there was one family, praying. They were five - two adults, two little sons, and one somewhat older girl. The youngest child could barely walk yet, and the oldest looked to be about ten years old. Alexios swallowed as he recalled himself at that age. He shook his head to chase away the visions of the alley, and walked up to them. “Sagonos’ light upon you, brothers and sisters. I am Father Alexios, to whom the care for this house has been given.” He said. The father took in his appearance before reaching out his hand. “Welcome, Father. I am Hephaestos, the town’s blacksmith. This is my wife Eurike, the little ones are Barbas and Tonotos, and my daughter Euphrosine.” Alexios nodded to the wife, and knelt to ruffle the boys’ hair. Then he turned to the daughter, who didn’t hesitate before blurting out “Can I touch your head?”.
Silence fell on the house.
After a moment, the mother fell over herself, stammering half an apology before shutting her mouth in confusion. The priest was laughing. “What, you’ve never touched a bald head before? Why, go right ahead.” He bent his head to her, and she hesitantly put her hand on it. “Feels just like my arm.” She declared, evidently uninterested, before running outside. Alexios straightened again, facing the father who was making a hurried explanation of how his daughter was a cheeky little thing and so on. Alexios didn’t listen, but he worked over the event in his head. “How long has it been since there was a priest here?” The man pondered it for a moment, scratching his head. He muttered “I don’t think Euphrosine had been born yet when Father Rillos died”
Well, that explained the state of the building then. Alexios tilted his head. “And do people still come here regularly?” If it’d been any brighter, he’d have seen the man blush. But the silence told him enough. “Well then.” He said, thumping the wooden floor board with his staff. “Let’s get to work.” The priest marched outside, almost banging his head in the process, and walked to the center of the main square. He’d long ago discovered his talent for shouting, and it came of use them. He twisted his vocal cords in that particular way before bellowing “BROTHERS AND SISTERS, A MOMENT PLEASE.”
The various people who were busying themselves in the square, hauling water, or working in their shops, or just walking by, paused. Slowly, hesitantly, they gathered around him. Alexios brought his voice down to a more normal level. “Well now, that’s better isn’t it? I am pleased to meet you, brothers and sisters. I am Father Alexios, and it is my privilege to be the caretaker for this House. I have learned that it has been a while since this town has had a priest, and I do not hold it against you if you have fallen out of habit in doing Sagonos’ work. However, I would strongly recommend you to take it up again! But before this can happen, we will have to make some-” he paused. “-Renovations to the building. I will need a dozen hands to help me with the work. You will be rewarded for your work! Either in this life, or in Sagonos’ Garden.” No hands went up. The promise of heavenly reward was, evidently, insufficient. Alexios nodded to himself, and resolved to send a missive to the Pateros to ask for funds soon.
“For now, ruined or not, this Oikimion will be a House again. I will be organizing a hunt tomorrow, with the catch to be dedicated to the Hunter as a reconsecration of this ruined building. That is all.” The crowd muttered amongst themselves as they dispersed, and the priest went back inside to find a broom.
When rebuilding ruined temples, you had to start somewhere.
The next day, Alexios had changed from his priestly robe into a more practical pair of deerskin trousers and tough boots. His chest and arms were bare, but for ritual, swirling patterns of red. Customarily, the blood in the oikimion’s font would be used, but as the temple currently lacked a font, let alone one with blood in it, red dye would have to do.
In his hand he held his thrusty spear, one he’d fashioned himself in the third year of his studies. It’d seen a good number of hunts, and was likely to see far more. Besides him, crouched, was Hephaestos, and three other men from the village. He’d sent a boy on a horse back to the city early that morning, with enough money to make it worth his while and pay for a night’s stay in a tavern.
Hephaestos had brought a shortbow, and currently held an arrow notched to the string. The other men had brought axes - good for butchering in Alexios’ opinion, but for little else.
Up ahead, the bush twitched. Quickly, Hephaestos drew and launched an arrow. From the thunk, Alexios could hear it had hit wood. A shame.
They pressed on. The priest waved them down when, in the distance, he spied an elk. How fortuitous, to see such a dignified creature sacrificed as the first offering! He placed the stock of the spear into the shallow curve of his throwing weapon, took careful aim with his arm, and swung his arm overhead, straight at the creature. The spear shot from its cradle, arching gracefully towards the elk, before slamming home with a meaty thud. A pained mewling filled the clearing, and the men crept closer to see the elk now had Alexios’ weapon embedded in its belly. The priest gripped the handle and gave it a jerk to pull it loose, before pointing it at the animal’s head and stabbing it through the eye. It shuddered as it died.
He nodded to himself before pulling two strings of leather from his pocket. First, though, the rituals had to be observed. He laid the strings on the grass and drew a knife, digging it in the creature’s chest and rooting for a moment with his hand before pulling forth the elk’s heart. It was bloody and still warm. He stood and turned to the men. “Sagonos created us from the heart of His prey. By sharing in it, we take its strength into ourselves.” He gave the heart to Hephaestos. 'Eat, brother, and grow strong."
The smith eyed the bloody piece of muscle warily for a moment before tearing into it with his sharp teeth. Blood spurted from it when he bit. After chewing and swallowing, he passed it on to the next man, who ate and passed it on, until Alexios himself took the final piece. he knelt again, and started tying the legs of the elk to his spear with the leather strips. “Hephaestos, help me carry this please.”
Together they carried the creature back to the town. As they entered, faces still bloody, dead elk hanging from a spear lifted on their shoulders, the people fell silent. Taking his cue, Alexios began to sing the slow chant of the Praise. “Επαινεί είναι εις τον Κύριον Σαγανως εξυψώνεται, Δάσκαλος του Κήπου, στο οποίο τα ζώα του δάσους και τα πουλιά του ουρανού βρίσκουν απόλαυση.” The men, and some of the people around them, began taking up the responses, and Alexios could feel his heart swell with the singing.
Inside, they made their way to the sole altar of the church, which had long been undisturbed. It had been piled with fresh wood and kindling, and the smoke hole in the roof had been cleared. Now that the church had been lit with torches, its state of disrepair was even clearer. Alexios had spent the whole day clearing out cobwebs and dust, and rebuilding the altar with his own hands. It was, after all, vitally important that the sacrifices began again as soon as possible.
When they had made their way to the altar, they laid their animal on top. Once again Alexios drew his knife, and made a cut in the lower belly to let the blood drain into a bowl. For now this would have to serve as font. He dipped two fingers into the bowl to draw an arrow on his forehead, pointed downwards, and passed it on to the next person. Once the last person of the congregation had adorned themselves as was proper, the bowl went back forward where Alexios poured its remnant out over the animal.
He took a torch from the wall, and held it up to the smoke hole. His voice half spoke, half sang as he said, first in Old, then in New Mendranion. “Great Sagonos, witness our sacrifice and be pleased! For as you did, so must we do. As we must do, so have we done in Your name.” And with that, he jabbed his torch into the kindling. It flared up, smoke curling to the ceiling, and Alexios stood and watched the elk crumble into ashes. He stayed there, eyes drawn to slits by the brightness of the flames, looking at the altar with a smile curling around his lips, until long after the last person had departed.