This poem came out of the July perk wherein the donors got to leave prompts for Path of the Paladins. It was inspired by prompts from janetmiles, laffingkat, morrigans_eve, the_vulture, and marina_bonomi. It has been sponsored by morrigans_eve, who is also now a series sponsor for Path of the Paladins in general. "To the Five Roads" comes fairly early in the series, after "The Canticle of Days." It shows how Shahana and Ari are getting along as they gradually deepen their relationship, some of the things that paladins do, and a little more about Shahana's past. It's also good setup for "Stained" as it deals more directly with the roadside shrines. You can read more of this series on the Serial Poetry page of my website.
The shrine seemed old and worn,
the edges of its stones rounded,
the statue furred with moss.
Leaves and twigs filled the offering bowl,
dark against the dusty white marble.
"We'll stop here today,"
said Shahana the Paladin.
Ari glanced up at the sun,
half-hidden by the early summer forest.
"It's not even noon," she said.
Shahana smiled. "I know,"
she said, "but the shrine needs us."
Clearly no one had cared for it
in a long time, although once
these roadside shrines were well-tended
by traveling priests and pious travelers
and peasants from nearby villages.
The two women knew why it wore
this sorry air of abandonment:
they had seen no one on the road
in days, and the nearest settlement
was a scatter of burned-out cottages
fallen to rubble and weeds.
"Well, at least I know cleaning and mending,"
said Ari. She picked at the moss on the statue.
"There are brushes in my pack," said Shahana.
The older woman knelt to work on the stones
at the base of the shrine, using a hoof-pick
to clean the mortar between them.
Ari took a stiff brush to the statue,
scuffing away the moss. "It's funny,"
she said. "I never imagined a paladin
doing work like this."
"Ah, child," said Shahana, "this is
the work I became a paladin to do."
Ari turned wide blue eyes on her mentor.
"You can't be serious," she says.
"When I was a girl, I didn't want
the same things the other girls wanted,"
said Shahana. She flicked away a bit of liverwort.
"I didn't want to give myself to a man.
I wanted to give myself to the five roads,
to see the world and tend the shrines
and visit all the temples in the shining city."
"So you did," said Ari.
Carefully she pried a mossy beard
away from the statue's face.
"So I did," Shahana agreed.
"I went to the city and saw the temples.
Gailah singled me out from the pilgrims
and spoke to me. She told me
that many came to the city seeking glory,
but few came seeking service."
"So that's why you became a paladin,"
said Ari. "Service."
"Yes," said Shahana.
"I learned the arts of war
and the arts of prayer.
You would have liked my mentor --
she was tall and stern,
with hair like a raven's wing,
but she had the most beautiful voice."
"I think your voice is beautiful,"
Ari said faithfully.
"Ah, but you never heard Morayne,"
said Shahana, picking at the stones.
"She died in battle, years ago.
I went a month without singing,
for memory of her."
"How sad," Ari said.
A little pile of moss lay beside her,
steadily growing as she worked.
"We had our happy times,"
Shahana assured her.
"We roamed the roads
and cared for the public shrines,
aided people who needed us, but
we always had the bright temple
to come home to."
"Where do you call home now?"
"The paladins of Gailah
are scattered to the five roads.
We meet and part again,
like leaves blowing in the wind.
Only the Goddess binds us together now."
"You swore to rebuild the bright temple,"
said Ari, "someday."
"Someday," Shahana agreed,
"but today it's this poor world
that needs our care."
She dusted her hands
against her leather-clad thighs.
"I'm finished cleaning the statue,"
said Ari, carefully sweeping the moss
away from the base of the shrine.
"Now we clean the offering bowl,"
said Shahana, turning her attention
to the marble basin in the statue's hands.
"I wish we had some water,"
said Ari, frowning at the dirt.
"There will be a spring,"
said Shahana. She closed her eyes,
turned in place, then pointed.
"That way, through the trees."
"I'll fetch the water," said Ari.
So Shahana scooped out the mess
of leaves and twigs that filled the bowl,
then dusted loose the dirt with a brush.
Ari returned from the spring
and together they scrubbed the basin
until the marble gleamed in the dappled sun.
Then Shahana filled the offering bowl
with pure clear water.
Ari scattered the surface with flowers --
white rock roses and wild thyme,
yellow daylilies and pale pink phlox.
She leaned over to sniff them.
Suddenly Shahana moved up behind her,
startlingly close, pressing Ari forward
against the wide rim of the bowl.
Strong arms curved around her,
cupping the smooth marble.
"Now think of something you hold sacred,"
Shahana said to her, "something special
that brings you peace and joy."
Ari nodded, and Shahana continued,
"Great Gailah, bless this place with your power,
that it may revive the weary, uplift the fallen,
and give comfort to those who need it."
Light rippled beneath their hands,
blue-white as starfire.
It filled the offering bowl and overflowed,
spilling down over the statue
and the stones of the shrine.
Everything it touched began to glisten,
the last of the dirt burned away,
leaving the whole shrine
bright and beautiful amidst the forest.
Slowly the light faded,
until only the sunbeams danced on the water
and played over the flower petals.
Yet the shrine remained clean,
and a lingering sense of peace
pervaded the space all around it.
"That was divine magic,"
said Ari. "You did magic."
"We did magic,"
Shahana corrected gently.
"I'm not a paladin,"
Shahana kissed her forehead.
"You will be," she said.