The fighting started before first light and the din was unnerving. Twice the orcs rushed the switchbacks only to be rebuffed by the brigands. The decision among the others was to wait until full light, with the sun overhead if possible, to take Thomas down to be buried. I sat on the edge of the fire, eating a bowl of stew and listening to the others talk. Clarisse, in particular, was upset that we had left Bruce and the others on the other side of the cave, unburied.
Just Jacob agreed that it was a shame, but that the lives of all of them outweighed the risk it would have taken to retrieve their bodies. He promised that if they survived this, they would take the long way around the pass and bury the others. He left out the part “if they remained”. The world is full of wild things that would not leave a fallen one unmolested.
None of them spoke to me, but they all cast furtive glances my way when they thought my attention was elsewhere. As you may recall, I do have excellent peripheral vision and can see things around corners, or so Cook always complained. Especially when it came to baking things. She could not sneak anything passed me, no matter the diversion.
Thinking of Cook brought a smile to my face and the others took that as a sign that my madness had waned. With a full belly and the light of the morning, the despair I had nearly drowned in the previous night had begun to fade somewhat. Granted, I am only human. I, like other, am prone to fits of pique. The journaling helped as well. Scarlet is very observant for one so young. Well, youth is a matter of perspective. She had seen fully seventeen summers and more battle than many ancient crones. She had earned my respect and I told her so. Her smile was tentative, but sweet. I thought for a moment she would ask something, but in the end she turned away, brushing a lock of hair over one ear and letting her smile bloom in full. She was very pretty when she smiled.
But worship and the like was not on my mind in that moment. Okay, fine, it crossed my mind, but without a moment to stop and visit. More an intellectual acknowledgement of the possibilities in the world, nothing more.
The morning meandered with the onset of new snow which once more muffled the world. The cries and cacophony of death cries from the battle below were not able to overwhelm the quiet prayers of those around me. It was the latter that brought me to tears. The words were earnest, the need great and the deities they called upon, perpetrators of vengeance and retribution. Their anger shocked me, though I am not sure why. These children had seen so much in their short lives; been treated to an existence of servitude and pain. Still it stirred rekindled a tiny spark within me. There is a need in me to rescue and protect. I understand that about myself. But my faith had been shaken so severely I was unsure I could say the things I knew I should say.
I once heard Sister Agnes tell one of the temple virgins to “fake it until you make it.” I had always assumed she meant the exaltation that came with worship, but now I realized, for the first time, that she meant something much deeper and much harder.
She meant faith. Oh, sure, the act of worship can be pleasurable when done correctly, but it is the underlying meaning that brought true release. I knew the words I wanted to share, and the ways such things can provide comfort to one in need. I could give that to these children — give them a chance of hope, an outlet for their grief that did not invite in the vile and the wicked.
I stood then, drawing all their attention and held my hands out to two of them. They looked at Just Jacob who nodded once and my hands were suddenly filled with others. Then, at my bidding, they each grasped the hand of another until we were all connected.
I tried to say the words I had heard a thousand times when I had been hurt or scared. I wanted to relieve their pain with the ease of a whisper. But the night was still dark in my mind and the words felt hollow. I could not fake it and truly sway these children away from the path of anger and reprisal.
Instead I spoke of the pain of loss. These broken souls did not want to hear about the beauty of the afterlife, and the joy we should feel not that Thomas was on his way to paradise. They wanted a voice for their anger, they wanted a voice for their hurt. So I spoke of despair but I also spoke of hope. I spoke of dark days when even the light of a summer sun could not burn away the gloom. I told them how life isn’t fair and how good people suffered. But I also told them of the kindness of strangers and the charity of those who loved beyond their pain. Life does not follow the fairytales we are told at bedtime, it is much harsher than one can imagine and much more beautiful than our dreams.
Clarisse was the first to weep. Surprisingly Just Jacob was second and the others followed in short order. They did not wail like babies with thrashing and such. Instead it was a gentler release. The grief bled out of them through their tears. I could see it, Father. Each teardrop flashed for a moment, the dark overcome with light — as if their anguish was being replaced with grace. I know of no other words to explain it.
Scarlet was last of them all and she did not weep as such. She stood watch while the others had their moment, her shoulders back, her chin high. I watched her as her breathing grew a little ragged and her eyes glinted as if with unshed tears.
We sat there, hand in hand, for no more than a handful of breaths after that, then they dispersed. The whole area felt lighter in that moment. I know it was an illusion in the end, but belief is a potent power.
We had come to an alignment of spirits, a moment where we all needed the same things. I bent to pick up young Thomas and turned to the trail. The others followed one by one, weapons ready and a firm resolve in their faces. Scarlet came last, her crossbow aimed out toward the valley below, ready to protect those she saw as family. I glanced back at her once, catching her eye and she nodded. There was confidence in that gaze, resolve and determination. And you know something, Father? I believe that was the balm I needed. I was still angry at the gods, and at myself for failing this child. But there were others to watch over and preserve. I had an obligation to temper my righteous indignation and channel that energy into good. She may not realize just what that gaze meant to me, but in my heart, I know it was the light of responsibility which shattered the childish anger that had overwhelmed me.