This poem came out of the September 13, 2011 call for prompts. It was inspired by prompts from haikujaguar, aldersprig, laffingkat, and minor_architect, plus a previous conversation with the_vulture. People wanted to know more about the world and its background, particularly how others view the paladins of Gailah; and there were requests to explore the character of Johan in more depth. You can find the other Path of the Paladins poems via the Serial Poetry page on my website.
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The road sloped slowly upward
beneath Johan's feet as he walked.
He flexed his fingers around a rag ball,
kneading it against his palm.
He had already regained most of the use
of his right arm, despite how badly
it had been shattered from the elbow down.
He was forced to admit that Shahana did good work,
and that she had been right to press her care upon him,
loath though he was to owe her anything.
Johan had no particular place to go,
and that rankled. He abhorred being at loose ends
like this, but there was nothing else for it.
The bright temple was broken long ago,
the paladins of Gailah flung to the five roads.
Out of the remaining gods he had considered,
those he wanted most would not have him,
and those who would have him, he did not want.
Sometimes it left him weeping, on a lonely forest road,
where no one could possibly see.
For a time, Johan had given himself to a mortal lord
and that had started out well enough. However,
their relationship had soured over the years,
as the man asked more and more of him
that grated against what little honor he had left.
Johan had gone from right-hand man
to errand boy, by the end.
Even that might have ended with some grace,
had the lord not sent Johan to pick up a package
that he needed for some ritual of sacrifice,
but when the package had turned out
to be a little girl with cornsilk curls
and brown eyes as bright as a calf's,
Johan had determined to let her off
with her uncle in a distant village,
and damn the consequences.
His lord had inquired why it pleased him
to throw away years of service over such a trifle.
"I may be a throwaway and a disgrace,"
Johan had said in an even voice.
"There are still some things
that I will not do."
His thoughts looped around, even as
the forest path forked and curled on itself.
It had been the same in his youth,
when he was the youngest of ten children,
always the least and the worst and the most picked upon.
He would not sell himself to the rich old widow
that his father had chosen, nor apprentice himself
to the barrister his mother offered as an alternative.
He had thrown himself to the road instead, seeking the city
that rose in his mind's eye like a star.
It was vital to him, as it always had been,
to find some external support for his standards,
some kind of guidance for his goals.
He sought the strength to protect himself and others,
so as not to be a victim of those
who believe that might makes right.
No one ever had any respect for a victim.
Johan found strength to be a fleeting thing,
though: he might as well have tried
to clutch rainwater in his bare hands.
Johan walked and walked,
but he could not leave his thoughts behind,
not the memory of the shining city and the bright temple
the day he came to give himself to Gailah
nor the day he shook its rubble from his boots
and turned away from his Goddess.
He could not escape the mocking laughter of the lord
whom he had served until he could bear it no longer,
nor the unwelcome blessing of his former fellow Shahana
and the calm regard of the girl who stood by her side.
Dusk came, and Johan was no closer
to an answer or a destination than he had been before.
The road widened ahead of him, though,
and he welcomed what it promised.
There was a travel shack beside the road this time,
not just a little shrine with a bland-faced statue for all the gods,
and a spark of firelight gleaming golden through a hole in the wall.
Inside, Johan found a priest of Talaton, god of balance.
The stout man stood on tiptoes, reaching overhead
to restore a faded mural of the gods
that covered the whole back wall of the shack.
He looked absurd in his motley robes,
white-spotted black over black-spotted white,
but he turned at once to welcome Johan
as if they were old friends.
"Come in, come in!" the priest said with a grin,
rubbing his plump hands together.
"The tea is nearly ready, and
I have a partridge roasting in the coals."
Johan gritted his teeth and admitted
that he had half a loaf of bread in his backpack.
He detested the servants of Talaton,
for they always seemed determined to make fun of him
and he had rarely seen one take anything seriously.
This one merely introduced himself as Matin,
setting aside his paintbrush to take up their supper.
He carved the partridge deftly into two portions,
tore the bread in half, and bade Johan pour the tea.
Well, so. It would be entirely out of temper
to start an argument. Johan poured the tea.
It was better than he had tasted in ages.
The leaping firelight made the mural
seem to come to life all along the back wall, as if
the gods and goddesses were sitting down to supper with them.
Johan flinched and looked away, focusing instead
on the perfect golden skin of the partridge
and the rich brown crumbs of the bread.
After supper, Johan watched Matin
whittling a stick with his nimble fingers.
It seemed an odd waste of time for someone in service.
Then Matin stood up and used the wooden sole of his shoe
to hammer the plug into a hole in the front wall.
Johan hunched himself even smaller,
remembering the harsh lecture at his lord's displeasure,
the cruel power in the guards' grip as they held him down,
and the sickening smack of the mallet against his hand.
The rhythmic sound continued until the knothole was mended.
Johan rubbed his left thumb over his right palm
and stared into the coals of the fire.
A gentle touch at his back startled him
so much that he almost fell off his seat.
"Softly, now," the priest said in a quiet voice.
"You seemed a thousand leagues away, Johan.
Best come back here where it's safe."
"I've met priests of Talaton aplenty,"
Johan said slowly, looking at Matin.
"You are really nothing like any of them."
"We serve balance, son of Gailah,"
Matin said. "You are not so full of yourself now
as you once were." One corner of his mouth quirked up.
"You need to be shored up, Johan,
not taken down a peg."
Johan didn't even ask how Matin knew that.
The gods had their own ways of knowing things,
and dispensed those to their followers as they saw fit.
"Come, you can help me touch up the mural,"
Matin said to Johan, urging him toward the center
where Gailah sat in Her place at the long table
as if the bitterest piece of history had never happened.
The priest held out a block of pigment and a paintbrush.
"I cannot," Johan said, shaking his head.
He rubbed his hand again,
remembering how it had been broken
along with so much else.
"I believe," Matin said firmly,
"that you have regained strength enough for this."
With that, he tucked the brush into Johan's grasp.
So Matin and Johan worked together,
restoring the picture of heaven's hall
that had been painted during a brighter time.
Johan was weeping again, silently,
his tears splashing into the little well of water
hollowed into the top of the pigment for mixing paint,
but the brush in his hand held steady
as he traced over the lines of his Goddess.
Johan found it easier to sleep that night
than it had been in a long time,
wrapped in the warm blanket of Matin's grace.
Heaven was as near as it had ever been,
just around the heart's corner.
When the dream came at last,
he heard Her voice the same as always,
intimate as a whisper in his inner ear:
Beloved, there are some things
that I also will not do.
One of them is give up on you.