Appendix A: Chapter 22

[Editor's note: Chapter 22 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

As the sun began sinking below the horizon the following night, Roland was focused on cramming everything he had into his pack for the coming journey. Partly out of wanting to be able to pull necessary items from it without delay, and partly out of apprehension of where the path ahead was leading, he repeatedly removed and re-packed his possessions, trying to hit upon the optimal arrangement.

Roland shoved his spare clothes to the bottom and placed the newly-bought bundles of dried foods, enough to last him an entire week if need be, on top. He couldn’t think of a reason he would find himself in an emergency situation where he couldn’t delay in eating something or changing into a fresh shirt, so that seemed safe enough. Then the toiletries went in, since there was a little room down there they could be squeezed into.

Now the trick would be to fit everything else into the pack without making it too unwieldy. Roland carefully set Derek’s letter to Anna, folded back up, atop the bundles of food. Next went a pair of unlit and fully cooled torches; Roland touched the top of each with the back of his hand out of habit to double-check, even though he knew he hadn’t lit either ever since he arrived at Blackstone. But one didn’t need to hear too many stories of someone’s pack bursting into flames to take the little extra time to be cautious. Roland wondered how much truth there really was to some of those stories — he had trouble seeing how anyone could accidentally pack a still-smoldering torch, let alone a lit one — but with all the risks he was going to be taking now, he hardly needed to tempt fate.

Roland then turned to the long coil of rope sitting on the bed. He wasn’t going to be able to carry the entire thing anymore without leaving something else behind. He took the knife laying next to the rope and cut four lengths of a few feet each, then paused and cut a fifth for good measure. Taking care of that now was bound to save a little time later. As for the rest of the rope, he cut it roughly through the middle, coiled one of the halves, and put it into his pack. He then set the knife in the middle of the coil, and on top of it he put the five shorter lengths.

Roland stopped to look at the remaining space. There wasn’t as much room left as he had hoped, but he wasn’t willing to leave anything more behind. He walked to the corner of the room opposite the bed and lifted the yak cloak off the chair it had been stretched out over to dry. Cleaning it that morning hadn’t done much to neutralize the smell. Holding his breath and hoping the smell would rise up out of the pack and not down into the food, he folded the cloak as tightly as he could and shoved it into the pack, pressing his weight on it to smash it down enough to close the top of the pack.

Roland exhaled. He picked up a small pile of folded maps from the nightstand by the window and reordered them until the hand-drawn one he had prepared that afternoon was safely sandwiched between the others. He took the stack and shoved it into the little side pocket of his pack.

Roland briefly smiled at the progress he had made so far, then frowned as he turned his attention back to the bed. His leather armor and a chain mail shirt borrowed from the Order’s local armory laid at the foot of the bed, away from the remaining rope. Roland felt an odd sort of sentimental attachment to the leather armor, having worn it throughout this trip as well as the previous three. But even if there was still room in the pack, there was no way he could have folded it enough to fit, and he could hardly wear both at the same time even if he wanted to. Yet he knew that the chain mail would prove to be the better choice in the short term, and there was no point worrying about the extra weight in the long term if he didn’t last to make it that far.

Roland froze as that thought crossed his mind, then shoved it aside. The last thing he needed to do right now was to start worrying about all the things that could go wrong. He hardly needed to exercise his imagination to enumerate them, and he definitely didn’t want to dwell on what the consequences were going to be if he failed. To be honest, he wasn’t much looking forward to the consequences of success either. He felt a brief temptation to take the priest’s advice and just walk away from everything, but the thought of regret hanging on his conscience was the worst of all.

Roland focused himself back onto the task at hand. He picked up the chain mail shirt and pulled it over his head. Hopefully whoever straightened up the room after he was gone would be able to put his leather armor to good use somewhere. He leaned over to the headboard and lifted his good cloak off of it. He wrapped the cloak around himself and closed the front of it until there was no sign of the chain mail underneath.

Roland hung his sword from his belt, hefted the near-bursting pack onto his back, and surveyed the room one last time. In the flickering light of the lamb, no longer accompanied by any sunlight, he only saw the furnishings of the room and the items he was willingly, albeit reluctantly, leaving behind.

Roland silently shut the door behind him and headed down the stairs to the first floor of the little building. He nodded to the acolyte stationed near the entrance before he stepped out into the street. Glancing around quickly to gain his bearings, he set off towards the shrine.

Roland saw a few people exiting the building as he approached the front door of the shrine. As much as something could be considered a front door of a circular building, at least, Roland thought. But he was hardly inclined to walk to the next town over just to visit a more sensibly designed shrine.

Inside, there were a few people scattered throughout the pews. Roland guessed that evening services had ended a short while ago, with only the stragglers remaining behind. Even as a paladin Roland could understand why some people would skip out early before the closing benediction, but never fully understood why a few people — and in Roland’s experience, it always tended to be the same few people — would linger for as much as half an hour afterwards. In this case, they certainly weren’t staying to admire the decor. Roland thought maybe they felt they had some heavy spiritual burden that they needed help with, but were too timid or nervous or afraid to ask for help from a priest directly, and instead stuck around in hopes that something would happen for them on its own.

Tonight, Roland thought he might be able to sympathize with that.

Roland slowly paced down one of the radial aisles, hesitantly performed a half-kneel towards the empty altar, and sat down in one of the empty pews, leaving his pack in the aisle next to him. Reflecting on the task he had set before himself, Roland thought he wasn’t looking for guidance so much anymore but reassurance that he was doing the right thing. Deep down in his thought, Roland was fairly sure the answer was yes, though he reluctantly acknowledged he could argue a reasonably convincing argument to the contrary.

Roland lifted his head to look towards the altar, and thought that the sight would be a lot more reassuring if there weren’t a big empty space where a statue of the Lady ought to be. Roland looked back down at his feet and decided not to interpret it as a sign. Besides, the hypothetical statue, the altar, the images in the windows and along the walls, all of them were merely symbols to remind those inside the shrine of the underlying (overlying?) truths of the Lady looking down on them from above and guiding them as they each struggled with their problems as best they could.

And in the grand scheme of things, sitting here itself was just a symbol. The Lady wasn’t confined to a handful of temples and a scattering of shrines; she could be found everywhere, for anyone who would listen. This was especially true of a paladin such as himself; She was always with him, and he was always with Her. Roland did not offer a silent prayer as he sat; there was nothing he could say that he had not said to himself over and over as he wrestled with the paths before him.

Even if Roland was setting down on the wrong path, he was not doing so lightly. The Lady could see — how could She not? — the reasoning behind his choice, and would know he made it for the right reasons. When the rules of proper action contradict one another, one must fall back upon the fundamental principles from which those rules arise.

Be the light when all else is darkness. Be the hope when all hope is lost.

When the time came to face the consequences of his actions — and Roland was certain that time would come, probably sooner rather than later — he would be able to accept them with a clear conscience, knowing that he had done what was right even if he had done the wrong thing.

It wasn’t much, to be sure, but Roland knew it would be enough. He stepped back into the aisle, executed a full kneel-with-sword even without a statue of the Lady in front of him, picked up his pack, and headed for the exit.

He had a task to carry out.

Chapter word count: 1,686 (according to wc)
Total word count: 40,240 / 50,000 (80.48% complete)

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