This poem came out of the September 13, 2011 donor prompt session. It was inspired by prompts from jenny_evergreen, haikujaguar, the_vulture, laffingkat, and aldersprig. It was selected in a poll as the free series poem for the November 1, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl meeting the $150 goal. "Opening the Gate" belongs to the Path of the Paladins series; you can find the other poems via the Serial Poetry page.
Shahana and Ari walked through pastures
dense with sweet grass and dancing flowers,
the sun warm on their backs as they traveled.
Of the former occupants, nothing remained
but a few old cowpats dried to the consistency of brick.
Once, the travelers heard the baaing of sheep
and saw a shepherd silhouetted on a distant hill,
but the shepherd swiftly hustled the flock out of sight.
"The world is so empty," Ari said.
"It makes me sad to see it this way."
"It was not always so," Shahana said.
"Once this land was teeming with people,
its hills black with cows and white with sheep."
"All my life it has been this way," Ari said
as they swished their way through ungrazed meadow.
"The herds dwindle. The crops struggle.
People go away and they don't come back.
It seems like the world has always been at war,
and always will be."
"Not always," the paladin said.
"After the shining city was founded
and gave the gods a foothold in our world,
that achievement inspired a peace
which lasted for a hundred years."
"Oh, the Gilded Century," said Ari.
"I heard of that, but I had forgotten about it."
Shahana raised her eyebrows.
"I'm a little surprised that you've heard of it,"
she said. "It seems outside your usual range."
Ari grinned at her. "When I was little,
a traveling bard came through our village.
He belonged to Jaron the Jongleur and
had promised seven years of service to the God,"
the girl explained. "I offered him my dessert
if he'd tell another story, and he told that one."
She looked wistful at the memory.
"He split the pocket-pie with me anyway."
"When I studied as a novice in the shining city,
I learned much of its history," Shahana said.
"Gailah's temple was one of the First Five.
The others were all built later." She chuckled.
"In fact, people had to import the gold for those.
They used up all the gold from the little mine
near the city on the First Five."
"I wish that I could go to the shining city
and see the bright temple myself,"
Ari said as she trailed her fingertips
through a stand of goldenmane,
stirring the yellow petals.
"Someday you will," Shahana promised.
She wanted that continuity, suddenly,
wanted to walk through the Gate of Souls
with a novice at her hand, to be presented
before the altar of Gailah in the bright temple.
Shahana had taught others before, most of them
for a short time only, but it had been years
since she had taken on a novice of her own.
Now she had Ari, who had
come to this road not by choice,
but given by chance and the Goddess.
Shahana felt grateful for the opportunity.
A growing fondness warmed her heart.
"I would like to hear more about it,"
Ari said, her girlish voice pulling Shahana
out of her thoughts and back into the pasture.
"I've been wondering --"
"Quiet," Shahana said abruptly,
putting a hand on Ari's shoulder.
"Birds," Ari said, "riding the wind in a circle."
She lifted a hand to shade her eyes.
"Ravens, I think, or some other scavengers..."
A note of wariness entered the girl's voice.
"I can see quite a few from here," said Shahana,
"which means they've spotted something to eat,
but they don't feel entirely safe about landing yet."
"What ... do you think they've found?" Ari asked,
her muscles tense under Shahana's grasp.
"I don't know for sure," Shahana said,
"but we're going to find out."
"I don't think I want to," Ari whispered.
"Neither do I," the paladin said grimly,
"but we're going anyway."
She led Ari up the shallow slope.
As they crested the hill,
another pasture rolled out below them,
this one bounded by a rough wooden fence.
The land beyond it was dotted with the bodies
of men and horses.
Ari swallowed hard. "What do we do now?"
"We go at a jog," Shahana said,
keeping a hand on the girl to set the pace.
"Watch the ground for traps.
Watch all around for an ambush.
Listen for anyone calling for help."
"Do you think someone might have survived?"
Ari asked as they headed downhill.
"We can hope," Shahana said,
though in her experience,
that was a faint hope indeed.
Stems and blossoms clutched at them
as they jogged through the pasture.
Nothing moved but the wind in the grass
and the wary circle of ravens overhead.
As the travelers approached, a few bolder birds
fluttered into the air from where they had been eating.
Shahana lifted the top rail from the gate so Ari could pass,
then replaced it in case any livestock survived elsewhere.
"Help me check the bodies for signs of life,"
"Don't leave yourself open to attack, though.
Step up behind a man's head,
so he can't easily reach you."
She demonstrated on the first body they found,
then shook her head.
"This man is dead. Ari, you go that way,"
Shahana said, waving an arm.
She looked down at the corpse by her feet.
"Wide road and fair journey, 'til you reach your yonder home,"
the paladin murmured. She nudged his fallen sword
back into his grasp. It was all she could do for him.
"Shahana!" Ari hissed.
"This one's alive.
He looks dead,
but I can see him breathing."
Shahana hurried over.
Dark hair, matted with blood,
covered the man's face
and stirred with every breath.
It took her only a moment to find the problem.
"That looks worse than it is," Shahana said.
"Head wounds usually do."
With a murmured prayer,
she tugged the man toward consciousness.
Someone groaned not far away.
"Help," rasped a man's voice.
The man under Shahana's hands began to stir.
"Take care of this one," she told Ari.
She could hear them muttering as she moved away.
A hasty search located the next survivor
pinned down under a dead horse.
Shahana laid a hand on the man's chest,
sweeping her magic through his body
to search for hidden injuries.
She sighed over the left leg.
"Well, that's definitely broken."
"You're a healer?" he asked,
then corrected himself,
as he focused on her armor,
"No, a paladin."
"I am Shahana, paladin of Gailah," she said,
brushing sweat-damp hair from his face.
"Lie still. We'll get you out of here."
"That won't be easy," Ari said, murmuring
to her charge. She settled the first man
comfortably nearby, his head neatly bandaged.
"There are no trees to throw a rope over,"
the farmgirl said critically.
"We'll need a pry-bar to move that horse.
Unless you can magic it, Shahana?"
The paladin shook her head.
"I need all my energy for healing."
"I can help," the first man said.
"I'm good for leaning on a pry-bar."
"Denas, you can help by not making yourself worse,"
Ari said, pushing him back to the ground.
Then she turned to Shahana and said,
"I'll go fetch a rail from the gate. There's nothing nearer."
Denas stretched out his arm, just managing
to reach the other man's outflung hand.
"Baderc," he said. "I'm glad you survived."
"For now, at least," Baderc said.
"I'm grateful that you made it too."
"You'll both be fine,"
Shahana assured them.
She poked at the dead horse,
thinking about the best place to put a pry-bar
and what she might prop it over.
Then she cut loose the animal's saddle
and put it into position.
Ari returned with the rail.
Shahana shoved one end under the horse
and angled the rail carefully over the saddle.
"Get ready to pull yourself free,"
she advised Baderc.
"We can't lift the horse very far or very long."
They leaned on the rail, prying hard,
and Baderc scrambled loose.
They let the weight drop.
Baderc flopped to the ground, panting.
He'd bitten his lip in the process --
nearly bitten through it, Shahana realized.
The paladin knelt beside him,
laying both hands on his broken leg.
Soft familiar prayers spilled from her lips
as she worked to knit the ends of bone back together.
"So what happened here?"
Ari asked quietly.
"We were guarding the last of our horses,"
Denas replied. "I think some of them
may have escaped. I hope they did, anyway.
Some war-priest and his band attacked us."
The words ripped through Shahana's concentration,
sharp and cold as a sword blade.
"Gorrein's men were here?" she demanded,
turning to look at Denas.
"Gorrein, his priests fly the skull banner, right?"
Denas asked her. Shahana nodded tightly.
"That's them, yes. Hacked us up like knackers."
"How did you even survive, then?" Shahana asked.
"They enjoy making sure of the fallen."
"They were doing just that," Baderc said,
hitching himself up on an elbow.
"Then something went wrong, I guess.
War-priest threw a fit all of a sudden,
and ordered his men to leave."
"We need to move," Shahana declared.
"Finish checking for other survivors,
then get out of here, in case they come back."
"There may be another survivor," Baderc said.
"I heard someone calling for water.
"It's ... been a while, though."
"We'll look," Shahana assured him.
It was Shahana who found the young man
lying in a puddle of blood and mud,
his hands curled around the lance
that pinned him to the ground.
His blue eyes focused on her briefly,
then drifted away again.
"Taranos," said Baderc.
He was leaning heavily on Ari,
while Denas clung to the girl's other side.
Baderc's voice scraped over the words as he went on.
"Damn. It could take him hours to die, or days --"
"No. It won't."
Shahana cupped the man's face in gentle hands.
"Taranos," she called softly. His gaze met hers,
and this time it held.
The paladin turned her attention inward,
to where heaven was never farther away
than the turning of a corner,
the opening of a gate.
She set her shoulder against that doorway
and threw her weight into it.
It resisted for a moment, and then gave,
numinous light streaming past her.
"Taranos," she said again.
"No, don't look at me now.
Look up, over my shoulder.
See who waits for you."
He smiled, then,
and murmured a name.
Shahana never caught it,
lost as it was in the wind of his last breath.
She let the gate slam closed
behind the departing soul.
When she pushed herself upright,
dark spots swam through her vision.
She swayed on her feet.
"Shahana!" Ari yelled.
Strong farmgirl arms grabbed the paladin
before she could fall.
Shahana staggered a bit, then steadied.
"I always forget,"
she murmured into the girl's shoulder,
"just how heavy that door is."
"Are you all right?" Ari demanded.
"What should I do now?"
"Camp," Shahana said.
Exhaustion dragged at her.
"Camp. Right." Ari's grip tightened.
"I know how to do this,"
the girl muttered to herself.
"I can do this."
Shahana leaned against Ari,
grateful for the support.
She could put her faith in this girl,
and know that it was in good hands.
"You two will have to lean on each other.
I can't carry Shahana and both of you too,"
Ari was saying to the wounded men.
"Where can we shelter near here?"
"There's a herder's hut hidden in an oak grove,"
Denas said. "It's a bit of a hike from here, though."
"We'll manage," Ari gritted. "Let's go."
Shahana lost track of time through that long, miserable walk
over hills that felt like mountains beneath her weary feet.
There was only the slow shuffle of steps wading through weeds
and the cadence of Ari's voice as she murmured her way
through prayers -- desperate pleas -- for safety and concealment.
At last, though, there came the creak of hinges
and Ari lowered Shahana onto a smooth clay floor.
Two warm, breathing shapes settled beside her
as Ari coaxed Denas and Baderc into lying down.
The girl mumbled the last few verses
of the Canticle of the Traveler. Shahana smiled.
The world faded in and out, though Shahana tried
to stay awake and alert. It was a lost cause.
Blanket. Hands stroking her hair.
"Sleep, Shahana," Ari said. "Sleep safe.
I will keep watch."
Shahana let go of the waking world.
It was in good hands until morning.