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Twilight led them to a little roadside shrine,
its clearing just wide enough for a campsite.
The statue had been brushed clean
by human hand alone, and the offering bowl
held a long, thorny branch of blackberries.
A pile of rags lay against the base of the shrine.
Shahana and Ari approached with caution,
the paladin wrapping one strong hand
around the hilt of her sword.
The pile stirred and sat up,
resolving itself into a worn man
at the last ragged edge of his youth.
Dark hair twisted into a curl
just above his shoulders,
and the cleft in his chin looked like a chip
knocked out of a cornerstone.
The sheath at his side swung empty
and no armor covered the tattered silk
of his once-fine outfit.
Shahana said softly.
The flat voice barely carried
across the small clearing.
"Of course it would be you."
"Of course," Shahana agreed.
She swept her hand into the gesture of introduction.
"Johan, meet Ari, newly come to the service of Gailah.
Ari, meet Johan, formerly a paladin of Gailah."
"A peasant girl," Johan said with disdain
as he looked down his long straight nose at her.
"I was a peasant girl,"
Shahana reminded him,
"before Gailah called me to Her temple."
"Formerly a paladin?"
Ari said, narrowing her eyes at Johan.
He looked away, then,
and said nothing.
"Johan's path took him away from the temple
the day it was overthrown,"
"I should go,"
Johan said abruptly.
He tried to drag himself to his feet,
only to wind up back on the ground,
face flushed and gasping for breath.
He cradled his right arm against his chest,
and now they could see how the sleeve
had been cut away to wrap some hidden injury,
white silk thickly stained with red
from elbow to fingertips.
Shahana knelt beside him,
clasping a gentle hand over his shoulder.
"What happened?" she asked.
Johan sighed and leaned back
against the broad brick base of the shrine.
"My lord was less than pleased with my service,"
Johan said, plainly unwilling
to divulge any useful detail.
"Ari, you'll need to set up camp tonight,"
"I'll not be getting up once I do this."
Ari nodded and set to work.
"I don't suppose you could just walk away
and leave me here?" said Johan.
"No, I don't suppose I could,"
"I don't leave people who need my help."
"I don't deserve it," Johan said.
He tried to push her hand away,
but she held steady.
"Service isn't about what people deserve,"
Ari said from her place by the firepit.
"It's about what needs to be done."
After that, Johan quit trying to dissuade Shahana
and let her take care of him.
The murmured prayers were familiar and soothing.
Energy pooled under her touch,
smoothing the mashed muscles back together
and coaxing the splintered bones to begin knitting.
Ari finished setting up the camp.
She built the fire, put the soup on,
and laid flatcakes to bake.
She unrolled the bedding
and bundled Johan and Shahana into it,
both of them too tired to move much on their own.
Ari sang the evening prayer
in a voice as thin and silver as starlight.
Shahana murmured along with it,
unable to muster the breath for more
and grateful to the girl for taking over that duty.
Johan remained silent,
huddled in a borrowed blanket,
but his lips moved all unknowing.
"You do good work, girl,"
Shahana said when Ari brought supper.
Ari's gaze followed their shaky hands as they ate,
watching to make sure they could feed themselves.
"I've never been to the bright temple,"
Ari said over the modest meal.
"Is it very beautiful?"
"It's big," Johan said with a leftward shrug.
"It's bright." He hesitated, then added,
"The main gate is leafed in gold.
It looks like yellow fire in the morning light."
"I can't imagine belonging to something so wonderful,
and wanting to leave," said Ari.
shrinking under the blanket
as if the wool were armor
that would protect him from her hurtful words,
or perhaps his own memories.
"It isn't what it once was,"
he said, his voice rough.
"I joined the order for strength,
not for weakness.
I can't afford that kind of vulnerability."
Ari's hand drifted downwards
from her breast to her belly,
finally settling in her lap.
"Everything alive is vulnerable,"
she said slowly.
"Only dead things are invulnerable,
or at least, no longer care
what happens to them."
"It makes no difference anyway,"
"Honor, like silk,
is easily stained and poorly cleaned."
"Stain is just another word for dye,"
the peasant girl said.
"If white cloth gets stained,
you just dye it some other color."
Then she plucked at the pale spots
on her blue dress. "Though sometimes,
it goes the other way."
"I'm really very tired,"
Johan said in a small voice.
"So are we all," Shahana agreed,
and motioned for Ari to clear away the dishes.
Ari made the camp ready for the night,
then bedded down beside Shahana.
The next morning found Johan
curled tightly against Shahana's side
like a lost puppy.
Gently the paladin shook him awake
and then turned to rouse Ari as well.
"I'll make breakfast," said Ari,
and went to put the porridge on.
"Will you come with us, Johan?"
Shahana asked later, as they ate.
He shook his head, dark hair swinging,
flint-blue eyes shuttered under sooty lashes.
"I can't live up to Gailah's standards,"
he muttered, "and She can't live up to mine."
Ari snorted over her porridge
and opened her mouth as if to say something,
but Shahana nudged her sharply
and the girl subsided.
"You know the bright temple
stands ready to receive you at any time,"
Shahana said to Johan.
"The bright temple was destroyed,"
said Johan. "I saw it."
"Only the one made of stone,"
"and we will rebuild even that in time."
"I can't go back,"
"Such is the way of the world for all of us,"
"We can only look back; we can never go back.
We can go only onward."
When the morning prayer had been sung
and the camp neatly packed away,
they shouldered their packs
and prepared to leave in opposite directions.
Shahana clasped hands with Johan,
carefully, barely closing her powerful grip
around his tender fingers.
He pulled away from her,
but slowly, slowly.
Ari gave him a gentle hug,
whispered something into his ear,
and kissed him on the cheek.
Then she trotted away down the trail.
Johan watched her go,
two silver tears
trickling silently down his face.
"What did she say to you?"
Johan shook his head
and trudged away.
Shahana stretched her long legs
and caught up to Ari.
"What did you say to him?"
the paladin asked.
Ari said to Shahana.
"I thought he could use a reminder of that."
"Gailah knows ... what, Ari?"
Ari shrugged. "I have no idea.
Whatever he's holding against himself, it's ridiculous.
I mean, look at us. Look at Gailah. We go on.
It doesn't matter what his problem is, though, does it?
Gailah knows. That's enough."
the paladin asked quietly.
Ari smiled then,
sudden as a sunbeam through clouds.
"Maybe not yet,"
"but it will be."