[RP Episode] A privileged life


#1

A boy sobbed.

He looked down at his hands. They were rough, covered in scrapes and bruises. One of the fingernails was loose. He’d been fighting. He lost.

His stomach grumbled. If only he’d still had that ham’s bone! It had been old, rancid and had had mud on it, but to the boy it was as precious as gold. A filled stomach for another day. Something that had been becoming rare of late.

The man who sat next to him in the gutter groaned. He’d lost both his legs fighting in some foreign land. His name was Gabriel, and he was one of the few who had shown the boy some kindness. He hadn’t shared his food - none of the unfortunates here would contemplate such a thought. But he had shared advice. Had taught the boy to look down, a picture of misery, to get a copper or two off a passerby.

But then, of course, with the whole gutter filled with the dregs of society, that picture of misery had to be dreadful indeed to stand out. So the boy sobbed again. But the sound was lost among the moanings of the poor.


#2

Every night, he dreamt of home. He walked again in the garden outside with his mother. The air was full of the sound of singing birds, her skirts rustled softly besides him. His father was up ahead, sitting with some men under the patio, enjoying wine and conversation. A servant girl stood to the side, waiting.

His father had been a lawmaker, appointed by the king to keep the law and direct the guards to catch wrongdoers. He knew Dad had studied at one of the best schools of the capital, and here, in this city, he basically was the law. The boy knew how busy he was, how hard he worked. Most nights, there’d be candles burning in Father’s office until late.

But even in his dream, reality caught up. There was a ruckuss at the gates. He felt his mother turn, saw Father stand, as a group of men with swords and big, barking hounds shoved the gatekeeper aside. The one at their head, with a plume on his hat, pointed in their direction and shouted.

Before he could dream about the rest, the boy was rudely woken from his uneasy sleep by a boot prodding his ribs. He blinked, groggily, and saw a man of large stature standing over him. The man had been groomed immaculately, clothed in finery, and seemed altogether too fancy a sight for an alley where the hacking, wet coughs never truly ceased. Behind him stood two rather less fine-looking figures, scowled and clothed in dark colours. They had clubs on their belt, and the boy could see one of them had a dagger.

The fancy man looked down and snorted. “Yes, you’ll do”, he muttered. Next to him, the boy felt Gabriel stir and sit up. He scowled at the fancy man. “Krenn. What do you want now?”

The one named Krenn looked down dismissively. “Gabriel. I was hoping an old relic like you would’ve ended up in some rich bastard’s art collection by now. I’m taking the boy. He’ll have a future that way - more of one than you can give him to be sure!”

Gabriel tensed and thrust himself up right with his arms. “Like hell you will, scum! Don’t listen to him, boy. He’s a criminal! He’s got nothing for you but a life of thie-”.

Krenn tsked and nodded to one of his goons, who lifted his truncheon and swung it down at the legless beggar. Gabriel cried out in pain, but the thug kept swinging. Besides the meaty thuds of wood impacting flesh, the alley was deathly silent. After a few moments, the man’s protests ceased. No one had lifted a finger.

Krenn crouched in front of the boy. “Wait, I recognize you. You’re Sardonos’ boy, right? Good. I owe him still, you see.” With that, he stood and made a motion to his enforcer. The ruffian lifted the boy over his shoulder and carried him off - protestations none withstanding.

After the initial shock had wore off, and noticing his protests had no impact whatsoever, the boy quieted. Surely, wherever he was going could not have been worse. He didn’t look back to the alley, or the bloody corpse it now contained.


#3

Two years later, the boy had grown harder still. He had become a tough, underfed little thing, a dirty fighter, and a pickpocket who knew every trick in the book. He knew how to work with Krenn’s other boys to rob a man before he knew it, and had grown strong by fighting for what little scraps of food were available, and by running from the law on a regular basis.

Perhaps, he’d even grown a bit proud of his skills. Well, too proud anyways - or so he reflected as he tried to wash the dried blood out of his long, matted hair in a pond on the outskirts of the city. Every part of his body hurt. He’d tried to grab a crust of old bacon from one of the bigger boys in Krenn’s employ, and had paid for the attempt. The boy had seized him by the collar and smashed him headfirst into the nearest wall before kickinging him as he lay helpless and dazed until the other boys pulled him away. Rather than to let them see his weakness even further, the boy ran and had aimlessly wandered on the outskirts of the town before coming to the pond to clean himself up a bit.

On the road nearby, traffic passed as always - fat merchants, lofty nobles and ladies, all sorts of people who’d have little to do with someone like him. The whinnying of horses, the clicking and grinding of walker mechanisms, the creaking of wheels, and patting of sandals on the cobblestones filled the air, as did a myriad other sounds. One particular pair of sandals, however, did not just pass. Instead, the boy suddenly had part of his field of view filled with them, and the feet that wore them. There was dirt under the toenails.

He looked up. Looking down on him was a young man, maybe ten years older than he was, well out of his teens. He wore plain brown robes, its only adornment a sash around the waist stiched with what the boy saw were prayers. From his belt, and the various straps he wore over his robe, hung a myriad of little bags and satchels. The man held a tall staff, and he smiled benevolently down at the young thief. “Peace, my son”, he said. His voice was smooth and deep, with a southern accent.

The boy scowled up at the man, who was evidently a priest of some sort. “Whaddaya want? Leave me alone.” The priest chuckled and knelt down to look the boy in the eye. “See now, much better to hold a conversation when you can look a man in the eye, isn’t it?” The boy’s scowl deepened. "Go away’, he said, and turned away. In doing so, he turned his injury towards the priest, who clucked his tongue upon seeing it. “Now, now, my son. Did you trip and hurt yourself?”

The thief rounded on him. “What would you know of it! Go away! Go bother your god or something, priest.” He basically sneered the last thing, and felt a small bit of gratification at seeing the man’s smile disappear. “I have devoted myself to a life of charity and care, my son, but if I hear you blaspheme again I’ll hit you harder than whoever did that to you.” The man’s voice had grown steely, as had his gaze, and the thief reflexively wilted. This was no man to take lightly. “Now let me see the wound.” The priest ordered.

Reluctantly, the boy turned around again, and heard the priest rummaging in his satchel. The priest withdrew a clean cloth and a bottle of some kind of liquid, which stung fiercely when he poured it on the wound. The boy screeched and jumped, cursing viciously. The priest scraped his throat warningly, and the boy quickly quieted.

After a few minutes of painful rubbing and washing and whatever it is the priest did, the man made a somewhat agreeable sounding mhm, and turned the boy back around. “Keep it clean, and don’t get in another fight”, he said sternly. The boy scoffed at that - inwardly, so that the priest wouldn’t notice. There was always something to fight over, even if it was just a scrap of food. While the boy contemplated the inescapabilities of his existence, the man stood. He looked down at the boy once more, before smiling more gently and reaching out his hand. Reluctantly, the boy reached out and shook it. "I’m Evanos’, he said quietly. The priest smiled more widely at that. “Call me Father Sebastos.”


#4

It was close to a month before the boy encountered the priest again. He’d been skirting the edges of the great marketplace, looking for an unwary man with an exposed bursary, when his sensitive ears caught a faint shouting from nearby. Any good thief’s instincts are to run from a disturbance rather than towards it, but he could not help but feel compelled to go and check it out.

The boy had long learned the skill of moving quickly through crowds, so he weaved and twisted his way through the throng to behold a most unlikely sight. It was the priest, Sebastos, on a crate, waving a book and shouting.

No, not shouting. He was roaring at the top of his lungs, face red and sweaty, eyes wide in excitement and fervour. His thunderous voice rang off the stone courtyard. “My brothers and sisters in Sagonos’ sight, look at you! Can you not see how far you have fallen? Have you not a care for how far you strayed from the Blessed Light? Look at you, for shame! What despair must the Exalted feel to see you writhe so, in the mud, like mere scavengers or eaters of carrion!”

He pointed violently with his staff, waving the book this way and that as his voice went up and down in a strangely hypnotising pattern of speech. “You have forsaken and forgotten the ancient words because you are too confident in your prosperity. You trust your possessions, your new luxuries and your mechanisms as if the gears will save you, as if they are worth more than life itself! You revel in your luxuries and opulence, and it is a horror in Sagonos’ sight! But your sin is not limited to only this, no, it goes far deeper. The rot has settled on your hearts, brothers and sisters! And it reveals itself in how you treat those who have less. You scorn and spit upon those below you, mock them for their poverty, and laugh at their misfortune! You commit violence against the defenceless, and in your pride you do not even see that it is so! Despair and wail, Vahans, for the vengeance that is coming down upon you in the Garden!”

His voice rose in pitch even more, fast approaching the point of true hysteria. “But it is not too late, no, brothers and sisters! You have time yet to turn from your corruption and embrace all that is pure and good once more. And the task is simple: to give care! To care for your neighbour, to share food and wealth with him without expecting in return. To show your detachment from your civilized entrapments and comforts by giving them away. For like the great hunters of the woods, you do not need them! There is a great purity in abstaining from possessions and denying yourself comfort for comfort’s sake, and what better way to do so than to help your brother and sister in need? Surely this is a blessed thing in Sagonos’ eyes, for it is written ‘On those who give care rests Sagonos’ eye, those who would not abide by the starving of their neighbour or the wailing of their child move with holy purpose.”

Off to the side, a couple of bored guardsmen stood, leeaning on their halberds, yawning and generally making a display of how uninteresting they found the proceedings. The crowd, in the meantime, was slowly dividing between those who were enraptured and those who were enraged by what the Father was proclaiming. A middle-aged man walked right up to the crate, waved his hands in the air, made a sound halfway between wailing despair and a roar of victory, and proceeded to tear his fine garment right down the middle. He bent, bare back displaying the rolls of fat and the age-loosened skin, to rub mud in his hair as the crowd shouted in surprise and anger. He shouted “Bless me father, for I must go into the wild to find true faith!”, and after a blessing and a prayer he set off at as fast a run as he could manage, which was not very fast, in the direction of the nearest city gate.

Many others similarly seemed swayed or at least thoughtful about the priest’s words. Others, however, were not so persuaded, and what looked to be a half-rotten liver flew out of the crowd to strike the stone wall next to the Father’s head. Within a moment, the square had exploded into a full-blown riot, with supporters and opponents of the Father engaging in a vicious brawl. Bits of cloth and expired meat flew this way and that, and the guardsmen joined the shouting in an effort to calm the crowd. When this proved ineffective, they took to jabbing people with the butts of their spears.

Sebastos, meanwhile, had come down from his crate and made a departure. While going his way, he bumped into the boy, and looked down in pleasure. "Ah, Evanos! There you are. What a performance, eh? And what a response! Maybe this town is not beyond saving after all."
Before the boy could make a reply, however, two hands fell heavily on each shoulder. “Got you.” A rough voice behind him drawled, and he was turned around to see two men wearing the embroidered surcoats of the city guard. The boy’s heart jumped in fear - he knew he should’ve run when he had the chance. “Apologies, Father.” The lead guard simpered. “This one’s a thief, we’ve been looking for a while for him now, but he’s slippery as a fish, he is.” At that, the man’s hand tightened and his fingers dug deep into the shoulder. “We’ll see him tried and disposed of as is just. Have a pleasant day.” With that, not even giving the Father a chance to respond, they marched off. They dragged the lad along, straight for the local courthouse.

Once inside, he went through several carpeted corridors, past a barracks filled with big, angry-looking men, and into the office of a local magistrate. This was not a full judge, the boy knew, but still empowered to make judgments in minor cases. “Ah,” the man spoke, his voice dry and raspy like the parchments he handled all day. “One of Krenn’s boys? Very well, you know the drill. Lock him up for a few days, and we’ll schedule a judging before the end of the week.”


#5

The boy blinked as he emerged into the light. He’d been locked in a dark, wet cellar for Garden knows how long, with only the rats for company and only dried scraps for food. Nothing pained him more, though, than the anticipation of his intending fate.

He knew what the court did with thieves.

He stood in a bench facing a high table with several men in robes sitting behind it. Crowd stands to each side were willed with shouting, jeering onlookers, who screamed all sorts of abuse and curses at the boy. He shrunk before their hatred instinctively, pulling his head between his shoulders and making himself look as small as possible. The judge pounded his table with a stone, and called for silence. “The accused,” he intoned ponderously, “is accused of theft, cheating at dice, and evading the King’s law and justice. How do you plead?”

The boy wilted under the judge’s stern gaze, and barely managed to croak. After a few moments the judge nodded to himself, as if this had happened before, and spoke again. “By his silence, the accused has plead guilty to the crime. In His Majesty’s name, he is hereby sentenced to-”

A thunderous voice rent the air. “CEASE THIS INJUSTICE IN THE NAME OF YOUR GOD!” The boy whirled around to behold the priest, Father Sebastos, walk in with his usual staff and book. The man strode up to the bench, his gaze thunderous and emitting a very tangible aura of divine displeasure. “He has a right to have someone speak for him! Seldom has Sagonòs been witness to such audacious injustice in His holy court!”

The judge conferred for a moment with the two magistrates sitting next to him, before nodding. “If the accused permits, Father Sebastos will speak in his defence.” At this, the boy nodded rapidly.

The Father in question scraped his throat and deposited his book on the corner of the accused’s bench before speaking slowly and deliberately. “You are here to jeer and shout condemnation at a child who, through circumstances not of his own making, was forced into crime to survive. How despicable! You congratulate yourself on your own righteousness, law-abiding in your wealth, not realising that that is meaningless if it carries no prize, takes no effort.”

“Yet it is the crime of every single one of you,” at this he pointed with his staff at the visitor’s stands, “that this boy has fallen into such circumstances. Such is the extent of your own corruption, that you would claim your own lawfulness at the expense of others’! Why is this boy on the street? He should be sleeping in a bed! Why does he starve? He should be fed! Why is he forced into thievery? He should be caringly and lovingly raised into a man after Sagonòs’ own heart!” The boy blinked. He’d never heard such a thing before. The priest spoke bitterly, putting venom and accusation into every word. “It is testament to the fallen state of this city that this boy has been denied what is right and just in Sagonos’ sight. Your godlessness and lack of grace and mercy has put him here! We should all be in his place, cowering before justice, while he sits in the high seat to proclaim judgment on US! Woe I say, woe onto me and onto you all for bringing such to pass. Surely there will be a price to pay, in this life or the next. For unlike the parody we now find before us-” Sebastos sneered at the high table and the judge whose mouth was open and face contorted into a rictus of outrage. “-You can be sure that His justice will account in all balance!”

With the priest seemingly finished, the judge managed to find back his voice. “That is all right and well, Father, but the law is the law. The boy is hereby sentenced to loss of his right hand for his crime, may he learn from it!”

At that, the man abruptly stood to leave, but was stopped in his tracks by another near-hysterical shout. “HERETIC! You deny the just his due and the false his punishment. You slander the Exalted with your corruption! May there be a judgment upon you for this! It falls upon Sagonos’ servants to dispense true justice, if you will not. I will take his punishment upon myself! It is my responsibility, same as yours, that today’s disgrace has come to pass.”

The judge waved tiredly. “As you wish. Suffer as you must. I have had my fill of this.”

At that, the guards let go of the boy they had started dragging off the accused’s pedestal, and went for the priest instead. The boy stood, eyes wide, tears brimming at their corner. He followed the party outside, to the courtyard, where he gripped the priest’s sleeve. “What are you doing?” he whispered harshly. The priest smiled gently, but tiredly. “Faith, my son, is no use unless one is prepared to suffer for it.” Before he could reply, the boy was manhandled away, still staring in stupefaction. A guard ripped the priest’s sleeve away, while another carried over a heavy block of wood. Word had evidently spread very quickly, as a vast crowd had gathered. The boy had never seen so many people in one place before.

A herald walked up to read out the sentencing. He unrolled a scroll he had brought for that purpose. “For the crime of thievery, the boy Evanos has been sentenced to loss of his right hand. But Father Sebastos has agreed to take the boy’s punishment on him, and will suffer it in his stead.” As the herald walked back, the priest cried in a loud voice. “Behold the meaning of faith! Were any of you true of heart, you would be here, mutilated with me for this little one’s crime!”

The priest was forced to his knees, and strong hands placed his wrist over the chopping block.

Overhead, the axe gleamed, pausing for one ominous moment, before flashing down in an arc of silver brighter than the sun.


#6

One year later, the boy padded alongside the priest on bare feet. The wound of his stump had long since healed, and although it was covered by the usual brown robe, sleeve sewn shut at one end, the boy knew full well that it was there.

The memory of it had made stealing hard. More and more, the boy had to fight his conscience and his memory of that afternoon, but he did not really have a choice. A man must eat, after all, and food was not free. If only it were.

His growing disenchantment with the trade had been noticed by Sebastos, who’d taken to slowly encourage the boy back onto the straight path. Still, he also recognized necessity for what it was. His diatribes against the corruption of the city - exemplified by the boy’s need - had not mellowed. If anything, his self-sacrifice at the court had convinced a significant crowd of his sincerity, and he could now count on a devout following whenever he spoke. Monocheiras, they called him. The one-handed.

Some of them had even been so inspired as to take up the mantle of caregiver themselves, spending their wealth on aid and food for the poor rather than their idle luxuries. Sebastos could not have been more proud. For many others, though, this was too large a commitment to make. Still, the Father encouraged them to do what they could. Although the city had not seen a significant change, Sebastos knew that the small mercies he had encouraged had made great differences in the lives of some people. This was the way to change the world: one little bit at a time.

And today, he’d resolved, would be another baby step in that direction. For that purpose he’d all bit dragged the lad along. Their destination was ahead: a majestic looking building, topped with a large dome with a hole in the roof through which drifted scented smoke. The Oikimion, temple of Sagonos.
Inside, the air was full of the smell of incense and sandalwood. People murmured prayers at shrines embedded in the wall, and in the middle, right under the dome, stood a large altar upon which the remains of an animal offering smouldered. The boy could feel his mouth water at the smell, but he was very sure indeed that to eat from the sacred offering was not something the priests would appreciate.

On the far side of the altar, a choir sang praises. Their voices droned, in unison, rumbling in a deep basso that he could feel in his empty stomach. They stopped at a sconce filled with a red liquid, and Sebastos reached into it with two fingers to paint a red arrow on his forehead as a symbol of devotion. The boy, not having been at a temple since his parents’ arrest and execution three years ago, hurried to copy him. Sebastos mouthed a short prayer to himself, before walking on with the boy in tow. In front of the choir stood a pair of men in black robes, conversing silently among themselves. One of them, an older and wise-looking man with a long beard and the shaved head that was customary among the priests of the church, turned towards them at Sebastos’ approach.

Up close, the boy saw that the man’s robes were embroidered with very fine scrollwork in white thread. In his ears he wore arrow-shaped hangers, and an elaborate array of tattoos curled over his face and head, reaching down to behind his ears. He nodded at the brown-robed priest in front of him, who had crossed his arms over his chest and bowed in a gesture of greeting. “Ah, Sebastos. Welcome. I take it this is the boy you spoke of?” His dry voice rasped.

“Yes, Father Druinon”, the short priest replied. “Then let me have a look at you, boy.” said the old priest. The boy, however, stared defiantly at the old man. “Who are you?” He asked suspiciously. The other black priest looked shocked at the breach of protocol, but the old man merely smiled - an act that increased the already significant amount of wrinkles on his weathered face by several magnitudes. “I am Father Aristos Druinon, Pateros of this House. Father Sebastos here has told me about you, boy. He has said that you are smart, resourceful, but currently putting those talents to very poor use indeed.” At that, he looked rather severely at the young man. "How would Sagonos feel about your use of your skills, hmm?"
After a moment of silence, he continued. “He told me that you have nowhere to go, and no purpose in life.” His voice grew ponderous, despite its rasping, dry quality. “I have been entrusted with the assessment of potential novices for inductment into the Church.” The boy blinked at that. “What does that mean?” The old priest’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “It means, young man, that we will test you, and if you pass, we can give you a home and a purpose. We can make you a priest.”

The boy blinked at that. His throat had gone dry, suspicious and sceptical look temporarily forgotten. He, a priest? He tried to picture it - wearing a long robe, saying prayers every day, giving aid and advice to people. And somehow, deep down inside, something stirred at the image. Something that he’d thought had died after he lost everything. Purpose.

Hope.

He looked up at the old man. “I will take your test, Father. And I will become a priest.” Next to him, Sebastos beamed at his response. Druinon nodded at that. “Brother Styros here will take you along to assess you. Respect him as you would me.” The Brother in question didn’t hesitate for a moment, before turning and bounding off with long strides. Hurriedly, the boy ran after him. The two priests looked until he’d disappeared through a door at the side.


#7

The pair of sandals roughly disturbed a patch of loose dirt in the middle of the road. A walking stick jabbed down into it. Had anyone been nearby, he would’ve heard the satisfied sigh of a man taking in a sight he’s been longing to see for a long time. The owner of the stick was such a man, and the sight he saw was such a sight. He was a man of tall stature, somewhat lanky, shaved bald but with the beginnings of a rough beard covering his chin and cheeks. He was wearing a heavy black robe, tied around the waist by a white sash embroidered with prayers. From his shoulder hung a heavy-looking satchel. The walking stick in his hand, which came almost up to his head, had clearly been well-used. He stood on the top of a rise in the dusty, unpaved road. In the distance he could see the small town - a collection of huts, wood and with thatched roof. Around it was a low palisade, surrounded by pastures for cattle and some fields for feed growing. The magistrate’s office and a small oikimion were the only stone buildings. Evidently, it had been left completely untouched by the radical changes that had swept the Commonwealth over the past century. There was no clockwork here, no cartels, no automata tending the fields far as he could see, nor any of the towering barns used to raise the massive numbers of livestock needed to feed the growing cities.

How rural and unimportant the town looked mattered not to him. It was his goal - and not just of the journey that had taken him through fields and towns, through agricultural communes and farm complexes, far to the south of the Commonwealth. In the regional capital he’d reported to the Pateros who was in charge of the minor parishes in the area. He’d been sent along to here - an insignificant posting for a newly ordained priest. Still, it was his parish and they were his people. And though he’d never met them, he loved them already.

As his feet kicked up the dust of the final leg of his journey, the man reflected on where he’d come from. After being taken from that church by the Brother, he’d been subjected to rigorous testing. He had to read, to write, to show that he was up to the task of becoming a priest. And though his reading and writing skills were dusty - he’d not done either for three years, after all - it came back to him quicker than expected. Though the brother had tried to hide it, he’d seemed impressed.

The next day he’d been put on a cart to a location on the outskirts of the city’s domains, in the hills. It was a rather large complex, with a chapel, dormitories, workplaces, offices, a large canteen and kitchen, and an extensive library. It was the major training center in the area, ran by a severe priest called Mother Helena, who was prone to stalking the hallways of the dormitory at night with a cane to slap anyone who’d not retired to their cell yet. The cells were tiny, with room for little more than a cot, a small desk, and a chair. The staff consisted of a dozen brothers and sisters, who tutored the roughly six score students in various skills including reading and writing, the ecclesiastic language, calligraphy, singing in choir, liturgy, legalism and theology, and about the behaviour of people. The boy had absorbed the teachings eagerly - except for the language, which he considered abhorrent. Still, all things come with time, and though he’d never become a genius of languages he became passably good with it. He’d been expected to learn the entire catechism by heart - a vast tome several hundred pages thick - and to be able to explain the holy writings and teachings to laymen.

One part of his curriculum that he particularly enjoyed, however, was physical activity. In order to become strong and lithe, the students played many sports with each other. Later, as he grew older, the boy would frequently go on hunting trips also, both as a training and as a means of worship. He’d quickly learned the various rites of consecration and sacrifice that were required to dedicate a kill to Sagonos’ glory, and all but devoured the books on techniques and tools of the hunt.

After their fifth year at seminary, the students had to choose which Order they would join. The most scholarly of them became members of the Mind Order, and would travel to the Epistemioi to further their studies in science and research under the great doctors and scientists of the church. The more martially disposed of them chose to become chaplains of the Fist Order, men who would inspire their fellow soldiers of Sagonos with holy rites and prayers before, during and after battle. They would travel to the nearby barracks of the Order to be trained at war by the masters at arms. Those who were called to serve in compassion joined the Heart Order, and stayed to study medicine and counselling. The vast majority, however, would join the Spirit Order and become priests in worship of Sagonos himself.

The boy, however, had absolutely no idea which one to choose. He was torn between the Knights and the Heart Order. The idea of service and compassion appealed greatly, so he would be able to do for others what Sebastos had once done for him - to pick them out of the gutter, set them on their feet, give them what they needed to live in dignity once more. But the Fist Order had its own, more primal, appeal. The boy had come to relish in the hunt, in the sense of triumph at overcoming his prey. A life of strength and glory seemed a wonderful prospect.

Beside himself with concern and agonizing over his decisions, one day he’d knocked on the door to Mother Helena’s office. She’d called him in with her whiplash-sharp voice, looked up from the pile of documents she’d been reading, and actually smiled. “Ah, Evanos.” She’d said, uncommonly warmly. “I won’t say I’ve not been expecting you. The choice is hard, isn’t it? Sit down.” She gestured at the chair in front of her desk with the parchment before putting it aside. The lanky 17-year-old folded his clumsily long limbs into the chair and explained his troubles before the old matron. She clucked his tongue at him in that characteristic way of hers, and nodded. “The mistake young ones always make is to see the distinctions in too sharp a light.” She pronounced, before pointing her parchment at him. “You think that, if you choose one Order, you will never have anything to do with the others’ work. But this is an untruth! Does a priest not study late at night? Does a professor not preach to his students sometimes? Do you think a heart brother is any less fierce than a knight in the fight for another’s life, or that a fist brother will not struggle to bind his comrades’ wounds himself if needed?” The boy looked down at that.

“Evanos, look at me.” He looked up. “Whichever Order you choose, it will be up to you what you make of it. All priests serve, and Sagonos’ work is so broad and varied it frustrates any attempts on our part to structure it. If you look deep down inside yourself, what is it you truly, deeply desire? Think on this, if you will. Now be on your way, I have paperwork to do.” She said, before shooing him out of the office.

That question had kept him up late at night several times that week, until he found for himself an answer that rang true in his heart. He would be a better father than his own: one that would never abandon his children, nor ever hesitate to come to their aid.

Two months later, he wore the black robe of the Spirit Order for the first time at his ordination. He’d knelt in front of the Kyriòs of his Order, an old and wrinkled man with richly embroidered garments, and whispered prayers as the venerable man touched his forehead with the blood of a deer he’d speared himself. When he rose again, the old man lifted his voice. “I name you Brother of the blessed blood, Father of Sagonos’ children. Much may you do in His name. Many prey may you slay in His sight. May you share in prosperity and bounty with those He will give into your care, and may He who sees all bless you with His knowledge.” At that, the attending clerics and assorted laymen burst out in applause and cheering. In the first row stood Father Sebastos, unable to applaud but with a beaming wide smile on his face. The old churchman lifted a hand and the congregation quieted. He spoke again. “Now, my brother, under what name will you be known in Sagonos’ blessed sight?”

And the boy who had become a man drew in his breath to repeat the sentence he’d practiced so many times in bed at night. “As this congregation is my witness, and under the blessed eyes of the Lord of the Garden himself, let it be known that henceforth my name shall be: Brother of the Thèma Pnèvma, Alexios. Defender.”


#8

The man walked through the gate. A sheep 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 relative 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”

Ah.

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 the Old Tongue, then in Vaha “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, looking at the altar with a smile curling around his lips, until long after the last person had departed.


#9

The duties of a priest are, as he had hoped, diverse. Alexios filled his day from dawn till far after dusk with the care for his people, in every way imaginable. He gave praise to Sagonos daily, directed people in the proper rites for their sacrifices, which slowly became more frequent as they warmed to his presence. He spent time in the market, making sure to be among his congregation as often as possible, to ensure good relations. After the requested funds had arrived, he employed a dozen men on repairs to the oikimion. The roof was relaid, newly carved doorposts replaced the old, rotten wrecks, and he personally ordered a sizeable iron chandelier from Hephaestos, who was fast becoming his friend.

The most enjoyable of his duties, however, was teaching the children. The government lacked a school system, with it mostly being done by private tutors and the elderly of the villages, but the Ekklisiasma had taken it upon itself to teach the children of the glories of Sagonos, as well as many of the skills they would need in life. When they became teenagers, they would be further trained by their parents in the family trade.

And so, every morning, Alexios found himself in the church, a circle of children around him as he taught them to read and write, to do sums, and to learn the history of the world and their place in it. This morning they would discuss the creation of the world. “Come children, gather around.” He waved around him, and the fifteen or so children sat in a semicircle on the wooden floor before the altar. They ranged in age from barely able to walk, to Euphrosine, who was the oldest. The oikimion was quiet, as it was Alexios’ habit to close the it for his lessons so they would not be disturbed.

“Today”, he began, “I will tell you about a story. It is a very great story! Very tense.” At that he bent forward and looked around the circle, receiving a mix of eager and bored responses, mostly from the older students. “Today we will discuss the creation of the world. Has anyone heard about it before?” A few hands went up, nervously. Alexios pointed at the owner of one of them, who all but wilted before him. A muttered remark to the side, barely audible, made Alexios all but jerk his head to the side. “What’s this now, miss? Care to share your news?”

Euphrosine huffed. “It’s all fairytales anyways. Why should we listen to this? It’s so dumb.” The priest smiled. “If it’s a fairytale, it’s at least an exciting one. And if not? Well, then it means that much more, hm? But if you don’t listen, you’ll never know.” At that she quieted.

“Now then. On the first day, there was only the Garden. The Garden is all above us, and you can see the roots of the glowing trees at night. Do you know what they are?” One particularly excitable youngster was all but jumping up and down where he sat. “The stars! The stars!” “Very good!” Alexios exclaimed. “And who lives in the Garden?” At this he pointed at an older boy. “Sagonos, I suppose” he muttered. “That’s right. Sagonos lives in the Garden and He is its Master.” Alexios answered. “Now then, Sagonos lived in the Garden, and He knew it back and forth and all the creatures in it. But He was the only person there, and as you can imagine, it gets rather lonely all by yourself.”

“So Sagonos said to himself: “I will make a people like myself, who will share this Garden with me.” But to do that, He needed something to make His people of. And only the greatest, finest thing would do for Sagonos’ own people! So He took up His great spear and His bow and went to look for the Golden Elk. The Golden Elk was an elk so huge it was bigger than the world, and you could see it glowing from a thousand thousand thousand steps away.”

Euphrosine lifted her hand. “What did it look like?” Alexios shrugged at that. “Like an elk, I suppose. But made of gold! It must’ve been very beautiful for Sagonos to consider it worthy. But let’s continue. So Sagonos went to hunt the Golden Elk and, because it was so bright, could see it from very far away. So He stalked it with His spear, and threw it across the sky, and the elk fell!” At that, the children gasped. “And He ran to it, and saw the clear blood pouring from its wound, and He drank of it to see if it was good enough. But it was not! He needed something better. And He tasted its muscle, and its fat, and its hair, but none of it would do. He needed something far more precious to make His people with. Finally, He opened the belly of the elk and reached deep inside, and there He found its heart. That was the only thing good enough to make us with. And He took its skin to make a source of light, and with the rest of the body, Sagonos made the world and everything in it, with its clear blood to make rivers and oceans. And from the heart He made His people, and He taught us what we should do, and gave them many beasts as teachers. Who can tell me what these beasts were?”

“Wolves!” “Foxes!” “Eagles!” “Bears!” The children tumbled over each other in their rush to name as many animals as they could manage. Alexios watched, chuckling. Then he turned to the still rather sceptical looking girl. “Well, Euphrosine, what do you think? Is it a good story?”


#10

The girl snorted, evidently unimpressed. With a shrug and a chuckle, Alexios dismissed his class, as it was almost afternoon and they were needed to help in the field with their parents, and went home to prepare a light meal of charred bacon and chicken. His home had, like the church, been slowly renovated. The work had been slow, with no Oikopoizoi able to help, but it had been steady. He’d spent numerous afternoons himself, heavy robe stripped off, in pants and bare chest sewing timbers or hammering nails.

As he looked around at the rough woodwork of the furniture, he admitted that he still needed to improve.

He was interrupted however by one of the villagers barging into his house. The man hadn’t knocked. He just rushed into the kitchen, panting. “It’s time.” He said. Alexios stood, the remains of his meal forgotten, and quickly donned his priestly robe. It was time for one of the more somber and solemn duties of the priesthood. Old Jaros had been ill for some time now, and it was clear he was going to the Garden soon. It seemed the appointed time had come for the old coot to receive his last blessing. Alexios went by the church first, and dipped a shallow metal dish in the font’s drying blood leftovers from that morning’s sacrifice.

When they came to Jaros’ hovel, Alexios ducked through the narrow doorway to find the inside crowded. Jaros’ children and grandchildren huddled around the man’s sickbed, distraught and weeping. Alexios did not try to console them. It was a disgrace for a life to pass without weeping. Instead he knelt, silently, dipping his index and middle finger in the font before drawing a glyph on the man’s wrinkled forehead. Omega, representing the end of a life well lived. He murmured a blessing over the man before bending over to kiss the bloody drawing. Then he got up and left, leaving the reek of death behind him.

Jaros passed that night.

The next day, Alexios sent men out to cut wood for the funeral pyre. It was customary for a deceased person’s corpse to be sacrificed to Sagonos in the usual fashion, to provide one last tribute - the most precious of all. The tribute of a life well-lived.

He presided over the rituals. The man was laid on the pyre, dressed in his best clothes, the hunter’s tools of the javelin and the axe placed over his chest to serve him in the Garden’s eternal hunt.