This poem came out of the July 5, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a detailed prompt from marina_bonomi who wanted to read about a world-weary paladin and/or a novice paladin in training. Then haikujaguar chimed in with her interest in same, and the_vulture mentioned a favorite iteration of paladin (from a series I also love). So that got me to thinking about what a paladin is and does, and the relationship between paladin and deity, and the nature of faith in a world that has some magic but no inclination to move obstacles out of anyone's way just because of that.
"Shine On" was sponsored by marina_bonomi, with an extra tip from chrysoula. I'm really pleased to be able to share this poem with you. For me it was one of the most potent poems that I wrote in this fishbowl. You can also read the sequel "The Ones They Leave Behind," which shares Larn's perspective of the aftermath.
[EDIT 7/13/11] See a sketch of Shahana and Ari, illustrating a scene late in the poem, as drawn by meeksp.
[EDIT 7/13/11] Also inspired by the poem "Shine On" and its accompanying sketch is the haunting and beautiful story "Holy Walking Warrior" by siege.
WARNING: "Shine On" contains imagery that may prove triggery for some people, so think before you click. There are fairly detailed descriptions of the aftermath of a raid on a village, and references to two different rapes with varying levels of detail though neither is exhaustive, along with background about cosmological violence and upheaval. The overall tone is weary and gritty but determined. People who are readily depressed or upset by what they read might want to skip this poem. People who are tired of pristine paladins with perfect lives will probably appreciate it.
Shahana the Paladin rode her mule into the ruined village,
a day late and a ducat short, as usual, but there nonetheless.
The surviving boys threw rocks in addition to taunts,
all of which bounced off her battered armor.
Shahana helped to put out the last of the fires.
She missed the quick cataract of her old water spell,
but there was no shortage of buckets,
and those did the job just as well in the end.
She rounded up what cows hadn't been eaten.
They didn't need a beast-speaking spell,
just a kind voice and a gentle hand
to guide them into the remaining barns.
Every equine in the village had been stolen,
so Shahana sighed and hitched her mule to a plow
so the old men could begin replanting the ravaged fields.
She could always get herself another mule later.
By that time, the boys had quit harassing her
and started helping out; after all, it was their home too.
One of them plucked at her elbow with trembling fingers.
"Please," he said, "it's my sister."
So Shahana followed him to the room full of casualties.
She gravely surveyed the two black eyes and split lip,
the bite marks on the small breasts and belly,
the blood drying ominously all over the girl's hips.
The paladin stripped off her stained gloves
and knelt to lay her hands upon the still body.
She descended into the silence within herself and prayed,
Great Gailah, lend me Your grace for the good of this girl.
The magic welled up around her, not with the force of a furnace,
but with the slow promise of spring sunlight warming winter soil.
Shahana crouched there, channeling, until her back cramped
and the girl sat up with a ravenous grumble.
A withered old woman brought out a kettle of mutton soup
from a sheep that hadn't gotten out of the way of the fighting.
Firmly she placed bowls in front of each of them
and said, "Eat up, dearies, before you fall over from hunger."
As they ate, the boy Larn told Shahana all about his sister Ari,
and their five brothers who had gone off to war,
and their aunts and uncles and cousins dead of famine,
and their parents just killed in the recent raid.
Larn looked at the paladin with his huge brown eyes
and whispered, "Please ... I know I can't protect her here."
Shahana sighed. He was right; there was no leaving a girl
like her in a village like this. They'd sell her. They'd have to.
The next day, Shahana set out from the village
with Ari trailing behind her like a lost puppy.
The paladin taught her how to find her way
and set up a camp and lay a campfire safely.
When Shahana drew her sword for arms practice
and danced her weary way through the figures,
Ari's shining eyes followed her in the firelight
until the older woman reached the end of her workout.
Shahana led Ari through the slow stretches,
handed her a stick and showed her the First Five Blocks.
The girl was stiff and clumsy and altogether too timid.
Well. There will be other nights, Gailah willing.
The next day, they hiked uphill through thickening forest.
Ari struggled not to limp around her healing pelvis.
Shahana shortened her own stride so the girl could keep up.
It drizzled, off and on, and the paladin watched for hidden threats.
In the ditch, a faint silvery spark caught her eye.
So, then, my instincts were correct after all.
Shahana gently scooped up the fallen star, its feeble light
barely reaching her muddy fingertips before she closed her hand.
She told Ari the tale of how the great goddess Gailah
was thrust from Her throne by Her brother's war-priests,
bent down in Her own temple and fucked over the altar,
then cast aside to dwindle into memory.
Shahana told how the bright temple was torn down
and the paladins of Gailah scattered to the five roads,
their powers diminished ... but never extinguished.
"Someday," she said, "the temple will rise again."
Ari dragged a torn sleeve across her tear-streaked face.
The story sounded entirely too familiar to her,
and she'd already seen the ending, and didn't like it.
"How can you believe that?" she said. "You've already lost."
"Because our faith is stronger than theirs, and it shines on,"
said Shahana. She patted the sword against her thigh.
"We have been tempered in fire, our souls turned to steel,
and they will never suspect our power until it runs them through."
When she opened her fist, the starry gem
blazed forth with a white-hot light.
It filled the twilight forest with razored shadows
that danced and flickered alongside the trail.
She caught Ari's wrist in a steady grip,
and dropped the fallen star into the girl's startled palm.
Shahana resumed walking, then glanced over her shoulder.
"Well, girl," she called, "aren't you coming?"
Ari rolled the starfire in her small hand.
She shifted from foot to foot, body still aching.
Then she took a deep breath and lifted her narrow chin,
straightened her spine, and started forward.