Gods’ Blessing

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Gods’ Blessing

Samuel Marshall

‘I’ll get wine. You find us a place to sit!’ Matthias half-shouted, leaning close to be heard over the babble of conversation. Soft-spoken Shami offered some protest, which he affected not to hear. He left her behind along with Kalan, her beloved, and pushed his way into the crowd that thronged the bar.

It was the work of several minutes to attract the bartender’s attention, a task that would likely have been easier in priestly robes or with the symbols of office. He still wore the emblem, of course. The crossed disc of beaten silver lay against the fine hair of his chest, concealed within the grey tunic he wore. A dark cloak hung from his shoulders, half-open and tied loosely around his waist for the mild autumn weather, forming another layer to obscure his vocation.

The respect due a priest spread far, here. War remained a distant memory, harvests were bountiful. Citizens had ample reason to venerate the gods and their earthly representatives. Even as a novice, he had seen his compatriots taking full advantage of what should be a lowly status; moving first in line, accepting gifts, setting themselves above the populace. It had left a bad taste in his mouth. He had vowed not to participate.

So the crowd jostled against him, squeezing past without keeping that respectful arm’s length; so they argued and shouted and swore at one another, heedless of his presence; and so he waited until, eventually, the harassed proprietor turned a moustached gaze in his direction. He ordered a large jug of the best wine, ‘best’ meaning little in a place like this, and paid for it with a few coins: a tiny part of his weekly stipend that would be a more significant expense to the childhood friends he had come to share a drink with.

Then it was his turn to struggle and force his way out through the press that surrounded the bar, holding the jug in both hands to keep it from spilling. A young woman brushed by him somewhat more closely than necessary; he glanced aside, his eye briefly caught by her ample bosom, barely concealed under a dress somewhat less than modest.

‘Want to share?’ the girl said directly, pointing at the wine-jug with a painted fingernail; her eyelids fluttered.

‘Not tonight.’ He nodded politely at the whore, wondering if she’d have extended the same hinted invitation to a known priest; decided most likely she would.

She shrugged and turned away, looking for other likely custom. He cast his own eyes over the shadowy, candlelit room. Drinkers squeezed tightly onto solid oak benches around the tables, stood around in small clusters; even away from the bar it remained crowded. A thin haze of smoke hung in the air, bearing the pungent scent of pipeweed.

To him the smell was nothing unpleasant, little different in nature from the incense that constantly burnt in the Temple. But Shami disliked it, he recalled; and indeed, she and Kalan were nowhere to be seen.

He made his way to the back entrance, nudging the door open with one foot, and stepped from cloying warmth into the airy cool of evening. Tall walls bordered other properties to left and right, the tavern building at his back; opposite, a low hedge revealed a view down the steep hill, over half the city and right out to the sea. Stars shone from the sky above; light blue in the western horizon faded to a deep indigo overhead. A single lantern hung from a tall pole central in the garden, spreading a faint pool of light.

Wind whispered gently through the air, bringing a hint of winter’s imminent chill. Matthias pulled his cloak a little tighter. Few had chosen to suffer the weather; just a handful of conversations reached his ears, soft and murmured in contrast to the ebullience inside.

He found Shami and Kalan seated on a stone bench at the far end of the small garden, looking out toward the sea. They leaned close together; from behind he recognised them by the white ribbons tied into her long hair, that fluttered gently in the breeze.

‘Here,’ Matthias said, announcing his presence. They started slightly, separating themselves with matched blushes.

He laughed, pouring wine into the three wooden goblets that stood ready.

‘Thank you,’ Kalan said. ‘We should–’

‘My pleasure.’ Sitting beside him, Matthias pointed over the hedge, toward the last traces of daylight. ‘What were you watching?’

Each other, mostly, he suspected, seeing renewed blushing.

‘There’s a ship,’ Shami said. ‘Just now docked. You can see it, in the harbour lights.’

‘So you can.’ From this height it seemed a tiny thing, single-masted and hardly capable of challenging the whims of the sea. ‘Is that the sort of vessel you mean to travel on?’

They were traders, these two; carrying cloth from village to city, and other goods in return. It was a poor living, and perhaps – Shami said, some of her family being seafarers – there was more to be made in bringing goods longer distances, even if that meant paying passage on whatever ships would take them.

‘Yes.’ She smiled. ‘You think that ship small, Mathias. Yet she’s Dallen-built; look at the shape of the bow. She’ll survive harsher seas than many a bulkier vessel.’

It wasn’t usual, that a couple would travel together in such a business; ordinarily the woman would stay settled, minding the house or the children. Yet these two could barely stand an hour apart, let alone weeks or months; Matthias had grown up alongside them, and the pair had been inseparable almost since they could speak.

‘Did you get around to marrying yet?’ the priest asked, changing the subject only halfway: betrothed for years, they’d told him before of plans to finally marry before setting off on the long journey that beckoned.

Kalan laughed, his wide, open face creasing into dimples. ‘You know we didn’t. We thought first…’

He glanced aside, and Shami continued. ‘Well, my mother said…’

Matthias groaned, draining the last of his cup and reaching down to refill it. ‘I never liked your mother. What, this time?’

‘That’s not a very priestly comment to make.’ She mock-frowned.

‘I’m off duty. Come on, what did she say?’

‘That we’ve been together too long to consider it clearly. That we should seek a prophecy, before we make a permanent commitment.’

Matthias froze momentarily. A few loose drops of wine scattered from the jug, wasted. He set it down and took a hurried swig of the goblet. ‘I’m surprised you can afford a prophecy,’ he said carefully, over a growing worry that rose foul-tasting in his gut. ‘The preparation is expensive. It requires a large donation to Temple coffers…’

‘Oh, you’re right,’ Kalan said cheerfully. ‘We can’t possibly afford that.’

‘Not to worry.’ Matthias said, half-interrupting a little too quickly. Shami was looking at him a little strangely. He calmed his voice, said, ‘I’ll do it for you.’

‘But you can’t just do it on your own, can you?’ Kalan frowned. ‘The Temple wouldn’t allow that.’

‘No, of course not.’ He calculated the cost, factored in a few favours he was owed. It still came to far more than he could reasonably afford, but… ‘I’ll cover everything.’

‘It’s very kind of you to offer.’ His friend smiled warmly. ‘But there’s no need. That kind of prophecy’s for lords and generals, not the likes of us.’

‘We don’t need a complicated answer,’ Shami said. ‘Just yes or no. And they’ll give that. You know…’

Kalan nodded. ‘With the stones. It’s not too expensive.’

More than they could comfortably afford, Matthias thought gloomily. ‘At least get that accursed mother to pay.’

‘I think she will.’ Light had fled the sky, leaving only the lantern’s orange flicker on their backs. Shami’s face was barely visible, a pale-brown shadow in the darkness. ‘Anyway, would you pass the wine?’

He handed over the earthenware jug, still half-full.

‘You’re a little quiet.’ Kalan put a hand on Matthias’s shoulder. ‘Is something wrong?’

‘Surely you’re not worried about the prophecy,’ Shami said, pouring wine. ‘How could the gods do anything but approve our union? I mean, we’re…’ She giggled; blushing again, no doubt.

‘Positively sickly to be around,’ Matthias said solemnly, raising his cup.

They both laughed, and he joined in. But the worry still lurked beneath.

He lay unsleeping in the comfortable bed of his own individual room, a luxury far distant from his time as a novice. Three months ago he’d been sharing a large, chilly dormitory hall, lying close to the stone floor on a thin mattress that had barely deserved the name.

There, he had slept easily.

Several cups of wine should have encouraged a pleasant drowsiness, at the end of the day. Instead he felt all too sober.

He prayed again, individually, to all the gods he could trust; added a few others of whom he was less certain. To each he prayed for a ‘yes’ answer tomorrow, a blessing of Shami and Kalan’s marriage. The whispered ritual took several minutes. Its repetition should have reassured him, settled his thoughts, allowed him to sleep: a meander through the familiar, well-worn names of divinity. Íleas and Kell, Syon and Arvel, Lemuin and Ashadur and Tanthazar as well…

Yet still he lay wakeful.

It wasn’t at all how priests were supposed to behave. He shouldn’t be praying for one result or the other, shouldn’t be second-guessing the gods; should only be praying that they guide the prophecy.

Which was another thing priests weren’t supposed to do: doubt. Of course the gods’ hand would touch the result, regardless of how little attention was paid by the novices administering the system. Of course it wasn’t a simple scam to enrich the Temple’s coffers.

Of course.

Sleep remained elusive.

‘You’re certain, Priest Matthias?’ The youth looked back, slightly anxious, as if afraid this were some kind of theological test he might fail.

‘Quite certain.’

The boy made a quick hands-together gesture of piety, bowed, and left Matthias alone in the room. Funny how you acquired that commanding, adult tone just as you acquired the black robes of priesthood, he thought; how you could slip it on and off just as easily. Today he wore the grey of a novice, would take that role, and nobody the wiser.

He sat cross-legged on the cold stone floor, near the middle of the small, square room. The walls were unyielding, windowless, enlivened only by ancient, fading paintings of religious scenes. A single candle burnt in each corner of the room, providing dim illumination. Incense filled the air with a dark, musty scent.

The novice he’d excused from duty had left via a narrow alcove at Matthias’s back. Opposite, a curtained archway was the petitioners’ entrance. And by Matthias’s knees, within a foot-wide black circle painted in the room’s precise centre, stood a spherical jar of gleaming, polished white.

The curtain twitched.

‘Enter!’ Matthias called.

A middle-aged man pushed his large form gingerly through the cloth, blinking in the gloom.

‘Welcome, and be seated. Take care not to enter the circle.’

Small as the circle was, it would be difficult to cross by accident; still, the warning added a degree of solemnity to the ritual. Which, he’d been told as a novice, was half the point.

Or all of it, he’d thought cynically, keeping that suspicion to himself, as he kept it now.

The man had managed to get himself sat down, looking somewhat awkward; unused to stone floors, Matthias rather thought.

‘State your question.’

It was a rambling story, about a son-in-law and workshops in different parts of town and finer details of carpentry which left Matthias entirely at a loss; but in the end, as all these must, it came down to a simple question. Should he agree to take on the son-in-law as an equal partner in the business?

‘May the gods answer your doubt.’ Matthias reached down within the narrow opening at the top of the jar, keeping his eyes fixed on the questioner. He felt among the identical stones within, picked out a single one. Wrapping his palm around it, he lifted it from the jar and stretched his arm across the painted circle.

‘Hold out your hand to accept the token.’ He released it unseen into the man’s sweaty palm, then drew back.

Both of them looked at the stone, seeing it for the first time. Its shiny surface glittered white: yes.

‘Your question is answered,’ Matthias intoned, last line in the ritual; and the fat man nodded, clambering unsteadily to his feet. He seemed relieved, by the answer or by having a decision made for him. Placing the white stone carefully in a tray by the entrance, he bowed and squeezed around the curtain once more.

Matthias rose quickly to his feet, retrieved the token, and dropped it back into the jar, where the stone bounced and clacked into its new place. A chance to stretch your legs, this; avoid cramp. Even novices couldn’t be relied upon to sit cross-legged on cold stone for an entire day without pause.

Resuming his position, he welcomed the next visitor, and the next, and the next. They sought advice on various issues; whether it was time to retire (no), whether a son should be punished for his gambling misdeeds (no), whether a new restaurant should be opened (yes). He fell easily back into the rhythm of it, a familiar duty that he’d had from time to time as an older novice.

And then two familiar figures squeezed around the curtain together, hand in hand, smiling in recognition as they caught his eye; smiling anyway, before.

‘Welcome, and be seated,’ Matthias said, dread settling over him like a heavy cloak. ‘Take care not to enter the circle.’

They sat; dressed for the occasion, he noticed, Shami in a dress of light, airy blue and Kalan wearing a matching shirt. It was a happy, summery colour, stained an ugly yellow by the candlelight.

‘State your question.’

Shami smiled. ‘You know the question, Matthias. It’s…’

Kalan finished for her. ‘Should we marry?’

‘May the gods answer your doubt,’ Matthias said formally. He saw the laughing glance they shared in response; these two bore no doubt whatsoever.

If only the same were true of him.

He held out his hand to show it was empty and reached into the jar, pausing there for a moment. It would have been so easy to skip that demonstration, not part of the ritual anyway. To palm a white stone, make sure everything came out right.

But that would be a lie, told to his two best friends. And more, it would be giving in to his own weakness. How could he call himself a priest if he weren’t willing to leave anything important to the gods? No. He had resolved, somewhere amid that sleepless night, to do this properly.

He held their question in his mind, whispered a silent prayer for advice; held his hand loosely, hoping for a tug of divine guidance. Nothing particular happened so, heart beating faster, he reached down. His fingertips brushed against one of the rounded tokens. He took that one between thumb and middle finger, and twisted his hand to transfer it to his palm. His arm shook slightly, so that he almost dropped it.

Clasping his hand around the worn stone, he drew it from the jar.

‘Hold out your hand to…’ To. What came next? How could he have forgotten the wording? They were just supposed to take it, to… ‘To accept the token.’

They held out their hands together, Shami’s left hand cupped against Kalan’s right. Trembling, Matthias released the stone, drew his hand back quickly, and stared at their upturned palms.

Black: no.


Matthias sat like a statue, unable to think of anything to say or do; watched shock spread across both their faces simultaneously. They glanced at each other – that was it, no words, only a glance – and stood together. Turned quickly and ran from the room, bursting through the curtain so that it flapped right up, the supports creaking alarmingly.

One of the candles went out, caught by the sudden draft. He stared stupidly at the thin line of smoke that rose to the shadows, the point of light that still glowed on its wick. Another movement caught his eye; the heavy curtain, swaying back and forth, back and forth until it settled into its place.

Somehow that dispelled the bonds that held him frozen. He drew a deep breath to shout after them, and as quickly realised he’d paused too long; they would be out of the Temple by now, with several walls between. Instead he jumped to his feet and ran after them, toppling the jar in his haste. Black and white stones clattered noisily across the floor in his wake.

He ran through the antechamber, startling the novice who collected money and the queue of citizens who waited with questions. Through the courtyard, through the gate… then he stood outside the temple, panting for breath, and looking frantically each way along the busy street. Shami and Kalan were nowhere to be seen. The wind blew in sudden gusts, making his grey novice robes flap one way and then the other as he stood there, indecisive.

Eventually it occurred to him to ask. A sweetmeat seller kept her stall right by the temple gate; pushing roughly past waiting customers, he demanded urgently, ‘Did you see a couple dressed in light blue, running? Which way?’

‘Ah,’ she nodded, an old woman with a toothless lisp. She pointed. ‘’Ey went–’

He’d already gone, sprinting again. At the next junction, no sign of them; nor at the corner. He ran a little further, without any better luck. Finally unable to continue, he collapsed against someone’s doorstep, gasping for breath. He had lost them.

After recovering his strength he trudged, frustrated, uphill. While in the city they both lived with Shami’s disapproving mother, kept chaste in separate rooms of her stone-built townhouse. He would go there to await their return.

There he waited. And waited, and waited; as even the much-loathed mistress of the house acquired a worried expression, and the sun sank beneath the seaward horizon.

He stayed awake all night, but they did not return.

It was the evening of the next day before he reached the end of the lost trail. Asking street-seller after street-seller, he’d traced their path through the city with painful slowness. Some remembered the couple; most didn’t. They looked distressed, people said. They held hands as they ran, someone had noticed.

It led eventually to the northern quarter, some distance from the centre, where the noise of streets was quieter than the shrieking of gulls. That was where he first asked someone and got the gasp of surprise, the sympathetic sigh, the ‘I’m sorry.’

He’d gone back to the centre, then. Told the mother, his dislike for her now seeming irrelevant; it wasn’t her fault. It was his, if anyone’s.

Now he tramped up a steep, muddy track that he remembered from one earlier trip: Kalan in the lead, turning back to him, enthusing, ‘Come on! You can see for miles!’

He could have warned them of his doubt, instead of keeping silent. Or gone the whole way and faked the right result, for all the harm to his pride. But he’d done nothing, only trusted in the ritual he’d begun to doubt, and as a result…

Clambering over a rocky lip, he found himself on the clifftop plateau. It was a wide grassy area, the vegetation kept low by a handful of goats who wandered here and there. Wind blew coldly around him, carrying with it a few stinging droplets of rain.

There on the cliff-edge was the huge, ancient stone that jutted out to overhang the drop. As children, visiting the city for the first time, the three of them had stood out on the tip of it, staring far out to sea.

And it was from there that, yesterday, two of the three had jumped.

Matthias made his way out onto the stone, treading carefully as the rain grew in strength and the rock became slippery. He hadn’t bothered to change, still wore the grey novice robes. Though they were tied tightly around his waist, edges of the material still flapped angrily in the wind.

He looked down. Waves crashed through shallow water over the rocks at the base, throwing up a mist of white spray. There was no sign of any human remains; the sea had washed everything clean.

In his left hand he bore a pair of flowers, purchased in the city, small blooms of a delicate blue. He stretched out his arm and dropped them together, watching them tumble through the air as the wind tore them one way and then another. They fell from sight, hidden in mist or the building rain, but he watched anyway until he judged they would have hit the rocks.

That was where his two best friends, good people he’d known and loved since childhood, had met their end. Through his own cowardice, in not telling them his conviction that the ‘prophecy’ was no more than chance; or perhaps through some genuine, unfathomable will of the gods. Which was it?

He took a breath, and glanced out far to sea. Something caught his eye, silhouetted against the sky’s last brightness. It was the boat they’d seen before, or another one like it; sailing west, for lands far away. A brief smile flickered over his lips.

Then he lifted his right hand, clenched into a kind of fist. He turned the hand toward him and looked down at it.

‘Shall I join them?’

The wind stole his whispered question in an instant.

He opened his palm, and looked down at the small stone token.