Father Kuhn ducked under the outstretch arm of the god. What was his name again? he thought to himself, Pangold? Panfold? Panjold? Yes, that was it, Panjold, God of…of…of making men forget, apparently. Father Kuhn lightly touched the painted wooden figure. My apologies, Majesty, I shall return soon and recite your proper name.
He squeezed his body between the jumble of ancient small gods from the Upper Vobergland, noting that one of the novitiates had leaned well-endowed Tavasar lewdly against Sisa again, so that god of twins’ hand laid upon mountain goddess’ single prodigious breast. Father Kuhn nudged Tavasar back into a more respectful incline and wiped Sisa’s breast with the hem of his robe before slipping past them. He’d never learned, or he’d forgotten if he had, most of the god-names in this section, but he understood all-to-well the popularity of Tavaser and Sisa with the younger novitiates. I’ve spent more than a few hours here myself gazing upon that breast and that cock, once upon a time.
Past Sisa and Tavaser, past Tuij and Vikji, past Unaer, Hunaer, Junaer, and Yunaer, past another seven or eight shrines so weathered-down that no one outside the Temple would have recognized them as gods, Father Kuhn found the door he was looking for. He opened it, and slipped inside into the dark hallway. The dark, low hallway ran windowless beneath the length of the middle eastern wall and provided a quick way to traverse the vast temple grounds from the river to the hill. Near the door was a bucket of water, an iron basket of oil-rag torches, and a flint and steel hanging from a length of string above torches. With a practiced strike, he lit one of the torches and, stooping carefully so not to strike his head against the soot-smeared roof of the traverse, walked into the silent darkness, past a hundred gods that monks centuries before he was born placed here because these dark and silent gods preferred dark and silent places.
At the end of the traverse, he doused his torch a bucket of greasy water and dropped it into the iron basket near the outer door. In pitch darkness, he flipped his hood over his head and turned to the other, inner door and opened it. The sharp smokey smell of burning sage and pine over the ripe stench of blood and shit assailed him. He frowned involuntarily, his nose rising against the smell. Around him, sick and wounded men, some dying, lay on cotton and straw palettes. Most here had suffered gut or head wounds and would die soon, though mercifully none appeared to be in much pain now. The Sister and her young Mercies had not abandoned these men in their final hours.
A Mercy in a simple grey robe spattered with blood, her red hair tied back and tucked under a bright blue cap, was moving between the wounded men in the ward with a bucket of cool water and a wooden cup, giving each patient as much water as he needed before moving to another. Father Kuhn recognized her for she had a shockingly ruined right eye, a reminder of some violence she suffered years ago. Mercy Adelle. She was maybe 14 or 15 and could have been beautiful were not for the black and empty scar over her cheek. Mercy Adelle looked up at Father Kuhn and closed her one good eye deferentially to him before moving to the next wounded man.
Father Kuhn quickly and carefully stepped around the perimeter of the men, reflexively averting his eyes from their wounds. He felt ashamed and hoped the Mercy didn’t notice his squeamishness. Slipping out the door into the hallway, he stood aside as another Mercy rushed past him carrying a heavy bucket stuffed with bloody rags and body parts. From the ward from where she came he could hear the awful sounds of a man undergoing surgery. Have mercy upon them all, Majesty. He turned to go the other way, following the Mercy carrying the amputations until she turned aside to a room where two great ovens awaited to burn the bloody rags and viscera to ash. Several other Mercies hurried from ward to ward through the hallway past him, and Father Kuhn stood aside patiently each time to let them pass him unhindered.
Further on and to the left, he ducked into a small chapel room set aside for the Sister to rest between her shifts in the wards. A window was open to let in fresh air. Below the window was a simple table and single wooden chair. A small alabaster statue of Shallya, weeping ruby tears and standing beneath a peaked trellis entwined with snakes in the Tilean style, an etching of the White Abbey of Trosreut, and an open book of Shallyan prayers sat upon the table. The room smelled of honey-lavender and fresh straw.
There were four low wooden beds, three of them occupied by sleepers now. Nearest the door, slept a halfling. His clothes and hands were stained dark red and purple and his fingernails were crusted with charcoal and dried blood from the recent days of hard work in the wards, fashioning drugs and poultices for the Sister until his fingers bled. In one filthy hand, the sleeping halfling clutched a half-eaten handpie, stuffed with jelly, pork and chicken. Father Kuhn wondered from where such a pie came, for he’d seen nothing like it in the Temple kitchens recently, overwhelmed as they were. A bite of pie still sat in the sleeping halfling’s open mouth uneaten, and beneath his outstretched hand grasping the pie, a pigeon patiently pecked at the crumbs that had fallen on the floor. The pigeon glanced up at the monk, cocking its head from side to side taking the man’s measure, then returned to quietly eating.
On the bed beside the halfling, near the table and window, quietly snored a young man in his sweat-stained undershirt, his new beard coming in rough on his cheeks and a book of Verenan prayers laid face-down on the floor next to him where it had fallen when the youth passed out from exhaustion.
Father Kuhn quietly went to the third sleeper in the bed in the darkest corner of the room. She was a tall, gaunt women wearing the white robes that identified her as a Sister of Mercy. The blue hem and cuffs of her robe were stained with fresh and dried blood, but otherwise the robes were new and crisply white. Tenderly, he knelt down beside her and admired her for a moment. He thought she was beautiful - not in an expected, soft, womanly way, but in a hard way, the way a perfectly built castle wall might be beautiful to look upon. In another time, in another place, I might storm these castle walls, he thought to himself, If I were another kind of man, perhaps…
Gently, he lifted her hand in his to wake her. Her eyes flitted open and Father Kuhn pressed a finger to his lips, the glanced with his eyes to the garden outside the window and smiled. Patting her hand once, he stood and went outside to wait for her.
After a minute, Esmée rose and wrapped a brilliant blue sash that hung from her bedpost across her left shoulder and tied it around her waist. Outside the window, she could see Father Kuhn patiently waiting in the garden, sitting upon a bench near a large bed of lavender. He was, maybe, a decade older than she was, but still respectably handsome and only a little soft around the middle. She tied back her hair into a ponytail with a loop of blue ribbon while she watched him. My hair has grown long and has become a nuisance, she thought. She pinned a small silver dove to her sash above her heart and ran her hands across both cheeks and back over her head to smooth down her hair. Quietly, she stepped passed her sleeping companions and shut the door behind her.
Father Kuhn stood up from watching the bees toiling in the lavender as Esmée came blinking into the sunlight and bowed his head towards her.
“Good morning, Sister.” he began apologetically, “Forgive me for disturbing your rest. I realize the past week has been exhausting, but I found the book you wanted.” The monk reached into the fold of his robe and produced a large leather bound volume and held it forth to Esmée.
“Thank you, but couldn’t it have waited?” she snapped, taking the heavy book from him. The Proper Practices, Methods, and Theories of the Rites of Medicine and Cures by M. H. J. Raschbucher, I.P.H.R.M.
“And a letter, to you, from Ubersreik. It arrived this morning with the Sisters you requested.” He produced the letter. The bleached parchment envelope was simply addressed to Mother Esmée v.d. Groot, At the Temple, Eilhart and sealed with dark blue wax stamped with a dove in flight.
“Mother? I am no Mother.” she said staring at the handwriting.
Father Kuhn shrugged his shoulders. “Sister. Mother. Brother. Father. It’s the same soup in the end.” He turned back to the bees among the lavender bushes while Esmée opened and read the letter. Her eyes widened. For the mercy you… In a time of war… It is a Blessed Miracle… Blessed by the Goddess…, The Convocation agrees… Hereby known as Blessed Mother…
Father Kuhn had waited long enough and he cleared his throat. “Now that the roads are safe again, I suppose you and your companions intend to carry on to Altdorf?”
“We are charged to take young Ulrich safely to the Colleges.”
“Interesting boy, that one. Quick study. Very quick. It’s a bit strange…”
Esmée cut in quickly. “Yes. He’s very bright and his father has high hopes for him. I thank you for helping teach him letters.”
Father Kuhn was undeterred. “I was going to say it’s a bit strange that the son of a baron educated in Altdorf, even a destitute one such as Herr Baron von Stauffer, would reach the age of twenty and one and not know how to read…”
“You agreed not to pry.” said Esmée matter-of-factly.
“Yes, I did. And I won’t. Your arrival was fortuitous and the Temple needed your help - your’s and your friend’s, and young von Stauffer’s - you’ve all helped in this terrible moment. Fortune like that inspires curiosity. But discretion is a small price to pay for a little good fortune in times like these.”
Esmée nodded. “Thank you.”
“So, when do you think you’ll be leaving?”
“Soon. I’ve done what I can for these men and I have this promise to fulfill. The Sisters from Ubersreik can take over now.”
Kuhn motioned towards the letter. “And the letter? From the look on your face, something momentous related to the address on the envelope?”
“I understand the men in the wards have been calling you Mother for days now.”
“Yes.” replied Esmée, embarrassed.
Father Kuhn smiled tenderly at her. “You’ll need a new robe. Those stains will not come out.” He stepped towards her. “I would…”, he stammered, “If you would allow me…” He looked down at his feet. “Let me take care of that for you today while you rest. And don’t bother yourself with the new Sisters. I can tend to them for you. Get some sleep. It’s a long journey to Altdorf.”
Esmée nodded. “I am tired. Thank you. And it seems I won’t have as much time to read this as I thought. Here.” She held the massive book out to him. “I’ll find another copy when I get to Altdorf.”
Father Kuhn laid his hand on top of the book and pushed it gently back towards Esmée.
He threw back his head and solemnly intoned in his baritone sing-song voice, “The Librarian of the Temple of All Gods is content to loan this book to the Blessed Mother Esmée, Beloved of Shallya, until she no longer has need of it.” Then he smiled softly back at Esmée and said, "There, I've alerted every nearby god that you are not stealing books from the Temple. Besides, you’ll need something to occupy your mind on your journey anyway. Return it to me when you return to Eilhart again.”
“I may never return to Eilhart again.”
“Now you make me sad.” he said directly. Esmée blushed.
“Very well,” she relented, “I shall bring the book back to you when I return to Eilhart again.”
“Good.” said Father Kuhn with a smile. He motioned to the hundred shrines, reliquaries, and small statues that festooned the Temple grounds within earshot. “They heard you.”
He bowed and started to turn away, then stopped himself and turned back to her. “Lavender and bees. This garden is a shrine to the small goddess Brojia, a honey spirit from the headlands of the Stir. She can cure any illness with a spoonful of honey from her pot. I haven’t come here often in the past, but I think I will come here more often now. Until tomorrow, Blessed Mother Beloved of Shallya. Peace of All Gods be with you.” He bowed again and left Esmée alone in the morning sunlight. The bees were buzzing among the bushes of lavender.
She felt warm.