This poem came out of the March 20, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from catsittingstill, morrigans_eve, and the_vulture. It belongs to the Path of the Paladins series, and you can find the other poems through the Serial Poetry page.
This microfunded poem is being posted one verse at a time, as donations come in to cover them. The rate is $.50/line, so $5 will reveal 10 new lines, and so forth. There is a permanent donation button on my profile page, or you can contact me for other arrangements. You can also ask me about the number of lines per verse, if you want to fund a certain number of verses.
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There is a matching set of lyrics, "A Matter of the Heart," by catsittingstill for which a tune could be crowdfunded. It speaks of the core theme in this poem, the relationship between patron deity and follower.
Three-Town Fork was a river community,
two settlements on either side of the water
and one on the big hill that divided it into branches.
Alone, each was no bigger than any of the other little towns
that Shahana and Ari had visited -- but together
they held enough people to resist the ravages of war
better than most. They even had enough men left
to mount a small militia.
It was the captain of the militia
who came to Shahana asking for help.
"Please, warladies," he said,
"we know the smugglers have made a den
somewhere near here, but we cannot find them."
He kept his hands still, the fingers neatly folded,
but the strength of his grip turned the knuckles white.
"We suspect they have support of nefarious means."
"I expect so," Shahana said calmly.
"Gorrein's men need to eat, same as any others.
A reliable supply line would benefit them."
"An army relies on its supply line, so ... we cut the line?"
Ari guessed, reciting from her strategy lessons.
"We cut the line," Shahana confirmed,
"but first we must find it."
So they rode out with the militia,
Shahana and Ari squeezed onto the one spare horse,
tracing the river trails in search of the smugglers' den.
Shahana taught Ari the spell for
sensing the tides of good and evil among mortals.
"It is like holding a bowl of water between your hands,"
the paladin explained, "only without the bowl."
They cast it the first time with Ari's hands over Shahana's
so that the girl could learn the feel of the magic
without needing to control it herself yet.
It lay flat between Shahana's hands,
then riffled into little waves that showed the militiamen.
"Watch for it to drain away, like water running down a sinkhole,"
Shahana instructed Ari. "Now you scan this side of the river
and I'll scan the far side."
It was Ari who found them first,
which nearly made her lose her grip on the saddle.
"There," she said faintly, "that cave up ahead.
"It feels like the ground going out from under me."
The energy swirled around and down until the spell broke.
"Well done," Shahana said, reaching back to pat Ari's knee.
Half the militia swept down to flush the smugglers
into the grasp of the second half.
They set fire to the den with its hidden ships
and its cunning pontoon docks.
They cut down most of the smugglers.
Several fled as far as Shahana and Ari,
but Shahana's sword made short work
of the ones that the militia captain missed.
"I don't like this," the captain said
as his men trussed the few prisoners.
"We've seen no sign of their backup,
if they really have any."
Shahana cast an eye at the slowly clouding sky.
"We have time to keep searching," she said,
"at least for a while."
"Sir! We found this in the den,"
said a militiaman as he rode up to them.
He held out a half-melted lump of metal;
the captain took it, then shook his head
and passed it to Shahana.
She traced the curve of skull
and declared, "Gorrein's symbol."
"Should we cast again?" Ari asked.
"I'm not really tired yet."
"No, that spell is hard enough to handle
just with petty evil like those smugglers,"
Shahana said. "With Gorrein's men,
it would turn into a raging riptide."
So the militia captain sent out scouts
as they headed back toward Southbank Town.
One scout came back and reported,
"We can hem them in if we split up
at the next fork of the trail, half high and half low."
The militia of Three-Town Fork were familiar
with such maneuvers, and the captain approved.
It did not take a spell to detect Gorrein's troop after all,
for the world seemed to tilt and lurch away
with a roaring of anger like waves wracking a beach.
"War-priest," Ari said, her voice tight.
"Worse than that," Shahana said grimly,
"they have a paladin with them."
"How can they have a paladin?"
Ari yelped. "Paladins are supposed to be
good and holy, and devoted to their god,
not just a bunch of armored thugs!"
The trees stirred and the enemy troop appeared.
"Devotion is a matter of the heart, child,"
said the paladin of Gorrein. She sat steady
on her black horse, a crest of red cockerel feathers
braided atop her long black hair.
"You follow your heart, and I follow mine."
"Can we beat them?"
the captain asked urgently.
Shahana shifted in her seat as she considered.
The militia had more men, the enemy troop more training.
Two paladins against one, but the one had more power.
"Perhaps," Shahana replied, "but at great cost."
"Ah, here comes the flood I requested,"
the black-haired woman concluded.
She gave Shahana a half-bow.
"Until another day."
Then she wheeled her horse
and led her troop briskly down the trail.
Ari wanted to give chase,
as did some of the militia,
but Shahana and the captain held them back.
"We have our warning,
and time enough to lay the sandbags,"
"Blast it, they always get away,"
"Not always," Shahana said,
"and not forever."
They spent the rest of the day
preparing Three-Town Fork against the flood,
for which the townsfolk were deeply grateful.
At least the smugglers were out of business
and the rising, muddy river free of their burden.
At supper, Ari hunched over her bowl of soup
and grumbled about the paladin of Gorrein.
"Paladins are supposed to be better than that," she said.
"I don't see how anyone could go do terrible things
just because some god told them to."
"People do terrible things because they want to,"
Shahana said. "Some gods just make that easier, is all.
Not everyone wants the same thing
that you and I want from Gailah, or She from us."
"Gailah is like the sun that brings the sprouts in the fields,"
Ari said slowly. "She makes everything better just by touching it.
"Gorrein is like -- like a forest fire with no river to contain it.
He will burn up the whole world, if we let Him,
and Himself with it. That's no good."
"I agree with you," Shahana said.
"However, being a paladin is less about being good
than about being devout, being willing
to serve your patron's ideals with a pure devotion.
That woman may be evil, but what she said
about following your heart was absolutely true."
"I think if my heart was that small and angry,"
Ari said, "it would just break to pieces."
"Ah well," said Shahana,
"yours is made of steel and starfire,
while hers is made of salt and iron.
I know which I would rather have beside me."
"So do I," said Ari,
and dared to lay a fingertip
on the pommel of the paladin's sword.