The next thing I knew I was spluttering and coughing as someone had thrown a bucket of river water over me. I tried not to think about who’s water closet was upstream.
A circle of faces peered down at me, each blinking.
“Are you sure this is the one?” Millie asked, scrunching up her nose and squinting at me.
Analise slapped Millie on the arm. “Hush, let mama handle this.”
“It’s amazing he’s survived this far,” Captain Kershaw said, a wicked grin on her face. “Liz, is it?” She glanced over at Liz who sat on the bunk next to Kithri, pretending not to notice me. “Does he do this a lot?”
I propped myself up on my elbows and looked at her, curious. “Only when he’s seen a ghost,” she replied.
She was annoyed by her coloring, but I think not at me. I struggled to sit up without bashing into those who were hovering around me until Blargle reached out a great paw and lifted me to my feet with as much effort as she’d exhibited handling that keg of ale.
I rubbed the back of my head, pushing my hair out of my face. Millie handed me a clean cloth that I assumed was used to wipe down tables, and I dried my face, working carefully to clear the water out of my ears. I hated when I had water in my ears.
“Analise, how about we get some better light down here?”
I snapped my head around at the sound of that voice. There was something slightly off in the timbre, but my body was going through shock waves. Analise brought out a lantern and the room was filled with a golden glow. A second lantern appeared and a third. Before long there was more than enough light to easily read by, without straining the eyes.
“Come, sit,” Sister Edna said, steering me by the shoulder. She motioned for Millie to bring me more ale, and settled in the chair opposite me. Captain Kershaw took a third and Sebastian the last. Analise and Millie began preparing a picnic, leisurely digging through the various casks and crates. Blargle went to stand near the bunk bed and began talking with Liz in her native tongue. I caught a bunch of niceties and inquiries about her adventures and such, so I tuned them out.
“I know this is a shock to you,” Sister Edna said. “I know how close you were to my sister.”
Sister? I looked up, confused and Captain Kershaw reached over and took my hand. “Merric, love. This is Meredith.”
I slowly turned to look at Kershaw. My head was full of a buzzing noise that sometimes lingered when I have fainted. Okay, I’ve fainted enough to recognize the sensation. I’m not proud of it, but what can I do? It’s not like I enjoy it.
“Meredith?” I asked. “Not Edna?”
The woman moved one of the lanterns closer to her face. “Sisters,” she said. “Edna was several years my junior, but when we were children, no one could tell us apart.”
I sat back, deflated with a dull void in my chest. No one spoke for a bit until Millie set several plates with cheese, pickled eggs and onions, and two types of bread in front of us, then walked away. Without thinking I took an egg and bit it in half, watching the woman in front of me.
“I’m sorry,” I said after I finished the egg.
Kershaw laughed. “I think it’s shock.”
I glanced at her slowly, the world not quite settled in my mind.
“I miss your sister dearly,” I said, moving back to look at Meredith. “I hope I wasn’t rude.”
“I visited you twice,” Meredith said, folding her hands on the table. “Once when you were eleven, and my sister seventeen. That was when she made her first convocation.” She reached over and took a sliver of cheese and broke it in half, sniffing it before slipping it into her mouth. “The last time I saw my sister was the fall before she died.”
I had just turned eighteen then, and she had decided to begin showing me the secret rituals.
“She was a good teacher,” I said, wanting to say so much more, but afraid to let my tongue loose for fear of never being able to stop it in my grief.
We ate in silence, the only noise coming from the hushed conversations of the others.
“When I left my sister that last trip,” Meredith said, sliding a scroll across the table. “She bade me deliver this to you, if I were to ever show up in Far Spire.”
She pulled her hand back and left a rolled parchment, sealed with wax in the shape of an egg. This matched one of the holy symbols I carried on a chain about my neck, a gift from Edna on my coming of age.
Meredith picked out a pickled onion and took a bite, making a face. The tart odor of the vinegar was cut with the smell of garlic. I took up an onion and saw that they were stuffed with garlic cloves. Edna had always told me, if one guest ate garlic, then you all ate garlic, or risk being offended as the conversations evolved.
I chewed heartily, surprised how the tartness, the sweet and the savory mingled in my mouth, the combination giving my spirit a boost. I would have to remember that for the darker days ahead.
We talked for more than an hour, me telling tales of my adventures, only hitting the highlights, and skipping over some of the events, like killing the brain abomination. That seemed too personal.
When the food was gone, and everyone was starting to droop, Kershaw excused herself to return and see what was going on in the village. Sebastian went with her, but promised to return soon. Blargle was sacked out on one of the bunks snoring, so Meredith sent Millie and Analise to sleep as well.
She and I talked in hushed whispers for another thirty minutes or so, then Liz said she was going to sleep, and that left just Meredith and I awake.
I cannot express just how much she looked like Edna, Father. I assume you’ve met her before, as she’s visited the monastery twice. But I don’t recall ever getting visitors from anywhere but the village surrounding the keep.
The lateness of the night and surfeit of food should have had me wishing for one of those too tiny bunks, but my mind was racing with memories of Edna and the last time I had seen her alive.
“Aren’t you going to read that note?” Meredith asked.
I looked down at the table, afraid. Her last words to me had been in anger. She had scolded me for arguing with Brother Durham, the lout. She said I knew nothing of his life, nor had any hope of understanding the depth of his despair. I told her he was a cranky old man who taught nothing but anger and pain. She had slapped me at that, before storming off. I lifted my hand to my cheek, the memory of that slap fresh enough to sting.
I dashed the tears away and pulled the scroll over to me, breaking the wax with my thumbnail and unrolling the note.
“Dear one,” she began. She had called me that as long as I remember. She loathed that the others called me Useless.
“If you are reading this, some tragedy has befallen me, and you must flee the monastery. Do not think to blame Brother Durham for my demise, no matter what you hear. He is a good man who seeks to save us all. I know you do not like him, and this makes me sad, but I will demand that you do not judge him until you have seen the world with clear eyes.
“While you have grown into a fine young man, your ignorance and biases are difficult to overcome. I have sought to teach you to eschew the first of the typical reasons for anger in a man of your age, and the worship you have practiced is a hallmark of your willingness to learn new things.
But the time is running short. The wheel may have spun its last. If you understand these words, understand my death, know that I have gone to the far shore willingly so that you may have a chance that will otherwise be denied you.
Father Mulcahy fears the end of all things, Dear one. While the world continues to slide into decay and chaos, he knows of the prophecy. He has chosen to prevent the wheel from turning, rather than allow you the chance to fulfill your destiny.
He loves you, and fears you. Perhaps you can succeed where he has failed.
Go north, seek the first temple, face the white fist and above all else, learn to love.
You have a good heart, more so for the deprivations heaped upon you here. Trust the light, embrace hope. And above all else, never return here. ”
I looked at Meredith who held her hands out to me. I stood as she stood and fell into her arms, weeping as I clutched the letter in my fist.