Appendix A: Chapter 16

[Editor's note: Chapter 16 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland slowly paced through the streets of Blackstone, lost in thought. The promise he had made to Anna weighed heavy in his heart. He felt himself bound to honor it, not merely from an obligation to follow through on a promise but because he felt at least in part responsible for Derek’s current condition, trapped beneath Castle Blackstone, the only person by his side powerless to help him.

Yet he himself felt powerless in this situation as well. Dalton clearly was not going to be swayed easily, if such a thing were even possible, and Roland doubted he would be granted a second opportunity to try in any event. But what else could Roland do?

The irony of the situation cast a heavy shadow on Roland’s heart. In the ruins of Castle Helioth, the very heart of the old evil that had nearly consumed every kingdom, Roland had had little difficulty securing Derek’s freedom. But here, where the kingdom of Telerand held firm control, Roland could do nothing to help him. Roland’s position in the Order gave him all the power he needed to smite evil wherever it lay, but gave him nothing to persuade a bureaucrat.

The setting did little to cheer him up. In every direction, the outer walls of Castle Blackstone loomed over the humble buildings of the town protected within them, blocking all view of the horizon. While those walls were obviously there for the town’s protection, from this angle they looked more like a cage, trapping him metaphorically in the same way that the dungeon walls trapped Derek literally.

As soon as the image had entered his mind, Roland shoved it aside and silently cursed himself for ever having imagined it in the first place. He reminded himself that though he may be lost, he was not powerless. He was still free to act; Derek was not. A true paladin would never give up just because things looked bleak; that was precisely the time when a paladin’s action was most urgently needed. And if Anna had lost her faith in Roland’s ability, that only meant that he must redouble his efforts to be the hope for those for whom all hope was lost.

The path was surely there, even if Roland could not see it. And if he could not see it, then he would need to consult someone who could.

—-

After searching the streets of Blackstone systematically, Roland finally found the Shrine of Yssindria, on the opposite side of town as the building which housed the Order’s sleeping quarters. He had difficulty recognizing it at first; having grown accustomed to the standard building design, he had almost overlooked the emblem of the Order on the curved wall of the building.

Roland entered the building, and stopped just inside the door, wondering if he had been mistaken after all. The room he found himself in was circular. The floors sloped slightly downwards towards the center, where upon a dais stood an alter shaped like a ring with a notch cut out of it. Wooden pews arced around the center of the room, with aisles radiating out from the center like spokes in a wagon wheel. Roland had never seen an altar without a statue of Yssindria standing behind it, and certainly not one where a priest was apparently supposed to stand within the altar itself. Yet this was indeed a shrine to Yssindria, as the images of scenes from the holy books that were engraved around the stone wall attested.

Roland slowly walked around the perimeter of the room until he reached a door on the opposite side of the entrance. Since it was the only other door set along the wall, Roland guessed that this led to the back chamber of the shrine. Roland knocked lightly on the door.

“The next services won’t be held until tomorrow morn–” a voice said from behind the door as it swung slightly inward, stopping once the head of someone wearing the usual vestments of a shrine acolyte poked through the crack. “Oh, my apologies, sir. I had thought you might be another villager asking about the schedule. Is there something I can help you with, sir?”

“Is the head priest in?” Roland asked.

“I believe so, sir. May I assume you wish to speak with him?”

“That is correct,” Roland nodded.

“What shall I tell him you wish to speak with him regarding?”

“I seek his advice on… some matters of pressing concern to me,” Roland replied, not wishing to burden the acolyte with his problems.

“Very well, sir, I shall tell him. Please, take a seat while I let him know a paladin is here to see him.” The door shut.

Roland turned around and began walking down the aisle facing the door. He suddenly found himself unsure of the protocol for approaching the altar. He had been trained to kneel before it to show his respect and obedience to the Lady, but since in this case there was nothing behind the altar other than additional pews, it didn’t seem as though there was anything to pay his respects to. Roland decided to take the middle road, stopping at the third arc from the front, bowing his head briefly, then silently sliding into the pew.

Roland allowed himself to once again become lost in thought about his current situation as he sat and waited for the acolyte to return.

“I never much cared for the layout of this shrine,” a voice next to Roland said softly, snapping Roland out of his thoughts. He turned to see a man dressed in the white and gold clerical vestments of the Order standing in the aisle, looking towards the altar. “But our sculptors could never figure out how to design a statue that looked right from all angles,” the man continued, idly stroking his graying beard. “Besides, putting one in the middle wouldn’t leave much room to move around between it and the altar, so I suppose it’s all for the best.”

“Then why design a shrine in this manner, if I may be so bold to ask?” Roland asked hesitantly.

“You’d have to ask the people who made it. It was originally used to worship one heathen god or another back in the old days, before the Order had ever set foot in Blackstone. And since the castle walls don’t offer much room to expand the town, we had to make do with what we were given when we moved in. Such is life. May I?” The man gestured slightly towards the pew in which Roland sat.

“Of course,” Roland said, sliding back to make room for the head priest.

“I hope you don’t mind if we speak out here, sir…?”

“Roland.”

“Sir Roland. I do have my office in the back if you prefer, but I must warn you the only view available out my window is of the latrine,” he smiled.

Roland shook his head. “Here is fine, your holiness.”

“Please, call me Jonathan. We are all equals in the eyes of the Lady, after all. Now, my assistant tells me there is something that weighs heavily on your mind. What is it that concerns you, Sir Roland?”

Roland explained everything that had happened since he had first met Anna during the fire at the Iron Flagon. Jonathan listened attentively, watching Roland as he spoke and nodding attentively at times, but keeping silent until Roland had finished.

“That is quite a tale,” Jonathan said once Roland became silent. “You have done well in the service of the Lady under difficult circumstances these past few weeks.”

“Even though I have been negligent in my official duties of late?” Roland interjected.

“I do not think anyone will blame you for helping someone in desperate need. Ultimately, the rules for those of us in the Order are to help us help those in need. The Lady will understand if they must be bent now and again if circumstances warrant.”

“Thank you, your holiness, but that is not my true concern. I fear my efforts have ultimately not helped Derek at all, merely changed the identity of his captors. The boy should be with his sister, rebuilding what is left of their family. He does not belong in a dungeon. Yet I do not see what I can do to fix that that I have not already tried to do, and failed.”

“And you wish to do more for him.”

“I wish to complete what I originally set out to do, yes.”

Jonathan leaned his back against the pew and closed his eyes in thought for a few moments. He then said, “There once was a wagon who worked in a farmer’s field. The wagon carried the farmer’s seed as he planted his crop. The wagon carried the farmer’s manure as he fertilized his field. But the wagon also carried the wheat as it was harvested by the field hands. And as the wagon sat unused in the barn that winter, it regretted not being able to have helped the wheat during the harvest.” Jonathan paused, then added, “You, Sir Roland, are that wagon.”

“I am afraid I do not understand,” Roland said.

Jonathan quickly shook his head. “No, I suppose not. Please forgive me, but my congregation here tends to relate to farming metaphors better than to stories from the holy books. The purpose of the wagon is not to help the crop, but to help feed the farmer’s family. Without it, the farmer could do nothing, but not all of the farmer’s work requires the wagon. The wagon does not understand why the wheat must be harvested, and does not see the wheat being milled and turned into food for the farmer’s family. Instead of seeing how he has helped the farmer, the wagon agonizes over what he has done.”

Roland again looked at Jonathan blankly.

“The wagon is you. The task continues, but your role in it is complete. The matter with the boy and his sister is now in the Knights’ hands, as it should be. You should be proud of what you have done for them, and ready yourself for the next job to be assigned to you. You should return to Telerand to receive your next assignment.”

Roland thought of Jonathan’s parable, and finally asked, “So Derek is the wheat?”

Jonathan nodded.

“But the wheat gets ground up in your story. And eaten. So you’re saying that Derek will be sacrificed for the greater good.”

“I… All parables are imperfect, and fall apart if you inspect them too closely,” Jonathan explained. “With more time perhaps I could have come up with a better one, but I did the best I could within the constraints I have. Just as you have done your best with the constraints you have been given. You must accept that and be willing to move on from there. Do you understand?”

“I think I understand,” Roland replied. “I’m just not sure I agree.”

“I suggest you sleep on it. All problems are lighter after a good night’s rest. And if not, I shall still be here.”

Chapter word count: 1,857 (according to wc)
Total word count: 29,509 / 50,000 (59.018% complete)

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