The Knowing. Part 3
When Variol opened his eyes, they met soft golden sunshine. He stirred and groaned, and lifted the back of a pew that had collapsed across his torso.
He sat up. Around him were the charred and smoking remnants of the place once consecrated to the disgraced War-God. Of the demoness, there was no sign.
A louder groan, and he got to his feet. His flute was lost in the wreckage. Behind him were only the pathless hills of the Gravian Forest. A long and lonely trudge through the plains awaited him, with only the ash in his mouth to break his fast.
But with his tenth step, he stumbled. A jagged, jutting board, which, when kicked aside, revealed a sack of wine. He picked it up: by the grace of one god or another, it was still intact. The bard raised it to his lips and drank deep.
“Now that’s a good night’s work,” he murmured. He drank again, and began to hum a tune as he headed West. At his back, the sun climbed higher through the merry blue ceiling of the World.
A few days later, he left the rainy country of Hylomoria behind. He caught a wagon-train in Kenoma, and sang for his passage South. The year was blossoming into Spring, and all the cosmos of blue and green awakened as the leagues unfurled before them.
And there, one morn, was Sendroval. The bard’s old home, walled and mighty, surrounded by the sunlit fields of the South. Variol thanked his new friends and hopped from the wagon to saunter down the Lane of Death.
For this great city, jewel of the Kingdoms, housed a temple to each one of the gods. It was named for Sendra, Goddess of Wisdom; but Yyrkana, Goddess of Death, was honored there as well. Not far off was the temple of Aive, Lord of the Sun, and another disused church of War.
Death’s temple was closed to the public during the day (unless the sky-watchers foretold an eclipse), but Variol knew many things. He walked casually along the onyx wall, away from the front steps and the giant doors, down a small and shadowed alleyway. Then, casually, he caught hold of a seam in the stone and swung himself up. Caught hold of another, hoisted himself up, and caught another: scaled the black wall like a crooning spider till he vaulted the top and dropped into the secret garden beyond.
A tall grey woman was strolling in the flowery aisles. Kindly smile lines marked her face, and the frown of deep thought, and the jaw-set of enormous strength. Variol stepped out from behind a birch tree wrapped in flowering ivy, humming a cheery tune. Her fists clenched when she saw him, but her face stayed calm.
“Lady Nella,” said the bard, “High Priestess of Death.”
“Odd,” she said, “that’s my name too.”
He grinned. “Lovely to see that you have humor, Lady. My name is Variol of Sendroval. I come, ostensibly, for the tourney of the bards two days hence; but in the meanwhile, there’s work to be done. I need your help.”
“You have humor too, little minstrel. Why in all the Seven Hells would I help you?”
“Because you know that Gordash betrayed the God of the Bards. But his treachery did not conclude with his banishment: Yyrkana too is imperiled. You see, you need my help as well.”
“Tell me the tale, bard. Your boldness earns you that, at least. I’ll decide after if your quest is worth my time.”
He shook his head. “First, your word. I cannot risk the tale until I know your loyalty is where it should be. Your predecessor was best of friends with the murdered rhyme-lord, and the Death-Goddess with the Bard-God. But you, I do not know.”
The Priestess stepped closer, and her frown grew deep. “You go too far. Speak your tale or I will cast you out myself.”
“A Knowing, then?” He smiled.
“You’re unwise to challenge me.” She raised her voice in the Hymn of the Tomb, and her avatar stepped slowly forth from her flesh. The power of Yyrkana loomed behind her, an aura like the sickle of a titan. “You are nothing but a feckless fool,” she declared.
“Perhaps.” And his glowing spirit lunged for her grey-clad body.
Anticipating her opponent’s use of Music, Nella drew upon the silence of the grave: the deep, black, sound-swallowing nothingness that waits beneath the grass. But Variol didn’t try to match her strength. The Spirit of the Grass, unworshiped by men, dwelt quietly about them in the budding Spring, endlessly growing and alive. As she drove toward his body on the wings of oblivion, she found herself gently but tirelessly pushed back by a vibrancy no scythe could keep at bay.
Pivoting in mid-idea, she pushed forward with the breath of Winter, foe of Grass and friend of Death—but, slipping behind her defenses, Variol himself now called upon Yyrkana Death-Goddess. His handling of that power was far less efficient than the Priestess’ would be; but the difference in sheer brute force between a mere season and final mortality was enough to break her momentum once again.
She fell back and glared, but a grudging respect was dawning in her face. Nevertheless, she felt, it was time to put forth her true might. She soared above the sunlit garden and descended as the hammer of Apocalypse. “Death is victorious!”
“Yet the battle is glorious.”
As she slammed into his avatar with the full, terrible weight of her Goddess, she saw what he had done: buoyed up by Rhyme, he’d cast out webs of invocation in two opposite directions, channeling Gordash by the call to arms and Sendra by his stoic perseverance. In the figure of the Bard, War and Wisdom met—and he warded himself with all three. It was a brilliant move.
But he was no priest of Wisdom, and War was no longer a God. She pressed him slowly down, and down, until she stood firmly inside his body. Her Known was now his own.
Her opinion, however, had changed in the course of this fight. True, he’d been defeated; but for a simple bard to hold his own against the High Priestess of Death was a remarkable feat. The belief she had sought to impose, she no longer held: and therefore, nor did he. They returned to their own bodies, the Knowing a stalemate.
Variol sat down heavily on the grass, panting. The Lady Nella, her chin held high, walked to a nearby bench and sank onto it with dignity. For a few moments, they sat in silence. Finally, she took a breath and spoke in a calm unwavering voice.
“I will not betray your confidence, rhyme-smith. You have my word.”
He nodded and wiped his brow. “Thank you, my Lady. Here, then, is my tale. . .”
jJ.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu, he and his lovely wife have just had their first daughter, Ms. Sonya Magdalena Rose.