This poem came out of the October 4, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from siege, ravan, and aldersprig. It belongs to the Path of the Paladins series, and you can read more about that on the Serial Poetry page.
This microfunded poem is being posted one verse at a time, as donations come in to cover them. Because it's part of the half-price poetry sale, the rate is $.25/line, so $5 will reveal 20 new lines, and so forth. (This rate will hold until the poem is complete, even if that takes longer than the sale lasts.) 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.
So far sponsors include: laffingkat, general fund
193 lines, Sale Price = $48.25
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They smelled the battlefield
before they heard it,
and heard it before they saw it.
Shahana and Ari covered their faces
with wet cloth against the reek
of week-old corpses.
The field was black with ravens,
loud with their cawing
and the snarls of feral dogs
as they fought over bones.
The two women stuck close
while they picked their way
through the carnage.
"Why are we even here?"
Ari muttered, her voice thick.
"There's nothing we can do."
"Can't you feel them?"
Shahana asked quietly.
Ari rubbed her arms,
goosebumps vivid on her skin
even in the late-summer heat.
"Ghosts?" the girl asked.
The paladin nodded.
"Ghosts, yes," Shahana said,
"and it is our duty to help them cross over."
Ari glared at a handful of spectral forms
huddled around a shattered standard.
The emblem of Gorrein was still visible
under bloodstains buzzing with flies.
"Even them?" Ari said through her teeth.
"Especially them," Shahana said.
"They aren't likely to find their way home alone."
Ari grumbled, but finally conceded,
"You have a point. I don't really
want them lagging around here."
"Help me gather all the ghosts together,"
Shahana said. "I have the strength
to open the gate only once."
So they walked the battlefield,
collecting the spirits of a few freemen
whom the mercenaries had slain,
and those mercenaries who seemed disposed
to follow where they were led.
Fortunately most of the souls
had already departed on their own.
Then they came across a corpse
clad in armor enameled with familiar symbols,
a swath of gray hair fanned out from the smashed helm.
Shahana sank to her knees beside it.
"Darthur," she said, her voice breaking.
"You knew him?" Ari asked.
"He taught swordfighting to the novices
back at the bright temple," Shahana said.
She groped in the trampled grass
until she found the sword, then laid it
upon its owner's chest.
The fallen star in the pommel flared to light,
and there stood a luminous man
armored in moon-bright steel,
his silver hair flowing behind him.
"Shahana," he said, smiling.
Shahana squawked in surprise,
scrambling backwards. "Darthur!"
she exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"My duty," he replied,
his argent gaze sweeping the field.
"Some of the fallen are quite stubborn."
One tall ghost with raven feathers in her rusty hair
pointedly turned her back on the transparent paladin.
"You see?" Darthur said with a wave at her stiff back.
"I see," Shahana said.
"You delayed your own journey
to aid them with theirs.
My novice Ari and I will lend a hand."
Shahana drew her own sword, then,
and lit its pommel with the fire of her faith.
She showed Ari how to do the same
with the fallen star that the girl carried loose in a pouch,
not yet set into the hilt of a sword.
Back and forth they walked across the field,
Shahana and Ari and Darthur's ghost.
Before long, the three of them
had collected all the lost souls willing to come,
drawn to the light like so many pallid moths.
Then the gatherers moved along to the more stubborn ghosts
who clung to their deathground with grim determination.
"I declare, this is worse than
picking kittens out of the washed woolens!"
Ari snapped. "Look at you ninnies,
trying to hold on with your sharp little claws
and yowling all the while that you don't like being wet."
She flapped her hands at the ghosts,
shooing them closer together.
"You like your God so much, quit dawdling
and get over here so you can go see Him."
Shahana couldn't help it.
She threw back her head and laughed,
even amidst the sad wreckage of the battlefield,
taken by the idea of comparing dead mercenaries to wet kittens --
and oh, they did look just as surly and bedraggled as that,
especially the ginger-haired woman who hissed at Ari.
Then Shahana felt a cool touch
as one of the ghosts tugged at her attention.
It was the drummer boy, she saw when she turned,
recalling how his body had sprawled across
the ripped skin and splintered frame of his instrument.
He had been barely older than Ari, his soft jaw
just beginning to show a fringe of beard.
"Please," he whispered,
"we need your help."
"Gladly," Shahana assured him.
"I'll open the way to heaven
as soon as all the ghosts are gathered."
But the boy shook his head,
wispy hair floating around him.
"No, it's not that," he said.
"I can't go until I tell someone."
"You can tell me," Shahana said.
"I'll do what I can for you."
"I think something is wrong with our God,"
the boy said, worry etched on his narrow face.
"I was born in the army camps -- I've followed Gorrein
for most of my life -- He calls to the fire inside me.
I would do anything for Him, but I don't think
He will ask what He needs of me, or of anyone."
"Go on," Shahana said, though beside her,
Ari had her hands on her hips
as she watched the boy with a critical eye.
"He beats the drum that we follow,
but I'm not sure that He knows
where He's leading us, anymore,"
said the boy. "I know that
we're supposed to be enemies
and I've no right to ask you for any favors.
I just had to try. Please, warlady.
Watch for what's gone wrong. Please."
His voice thinned and faded into the wind,
his feet drifting a handspan above the ground.
"I will watch," Shahana said.
"As will I," said Darthur,
"and I'll take this lad where he's going."
The incorporeal paladin draped an arm around the drummer
and drew him close against his armored side.
Shahana checked one last time
to ensure that they had gathered up all the ghosts.
"It's time for us to open that gate, sir,"
she said to Darthur.
It was easier like this, with two of them
able to get a hand on each side of the gate
and heave open the doorway between here and heaven.
The air split apart and spilled supernal light
over the shadows of the deepening evening.
Ghosts streamed past, their forms fading
as they vanished into the numinous distance.
Shahana trembled as she held up her end of the task,
even when the ginger wench bumped her hard on purpose
and left a bone-deep chill aching in her shoulder.
The light was so bright that it hurt her eyes,
like staring into the sun, but even with her eyes closed
she could still see Darthur standing with his broad back
against the gate, radiance glinting off his armor.
Shahana blinked hard, striving to keep her focus
as the world swam away through the silver river of her tears.
Then Darthur cast her free,
slamming the gate closed from his side,
light swallowed by shadows that left
afterimages dancing inside her eyelids.
Shahana wavered, and Ari steadied her at once.
A warm wind whipped their hair across their faces,
smelling of fresh-baked bread and summer flowers.
"Are you all right?" Ari asked.
"Close enough," Shahana said.
"Darthur took some of the weight."
"I'll find us a campsite nearby," Ari suggested.
"Good," said Shahana. "I can get that far."
They made camp upwind
from the edge of the battlefield.
The sharp clean scent of woodsmoke
helped clear their heads, though neither of them
had the stomach for more than hot tea.
"You'll help them, won't you,"
Ari said slowly, "that boy, and Gorrein."
"If I can," Shahana said.
"Helping is what paladins do, Ari."
"I'm glad," Ari said. "I was upset at first,
but I've been thinking." She stared into the fire.
"I know that the drummer may have killed people,
and Gorrein is evil and half-mad, but ..."
"What?" Shahana asked,
as she raked her graying hair out of her face.
A small smile tugged at Ari's mouth.
"Brothers are often a headache,
but that doesn't stop sisters from loving them."