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The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "Strike Twice"

This poem came out of the September 14, 2011 mid-month fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from aldersprig, minor_architect, laffingkat, and the_vulture.  It belongs to the series Path of the Paladins, which you can explore further via the Serial Poetry page.  If you're not already familiar with Johan's adventures, back up to read "Stained," "Will Not," "The Garden of Shards," "Storm Wrack," "Uneasy Things," and "Fraying Bonds" first.  Otherwise this episode won't make nearly as much sense; that's why I held it back until other dots were connected.

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
So far sponsors include: the_vulture, general fund, ravan

FULLY FUNDED
194 lines, Buy It Now = $97
Amount donated = $96.25
Verses posted = 35 of 37

Amount remaining to fund fully = $.75
Amount needed to fund next verse = $.25
Amount needed to fund the verse after that = $.50




Strike Twice


The weather threatened rain
as Johan strode into the village,
hoping that he could trade some skill of his
for a place to spend the night,
even if it was only in a hayloft.
His standards had fallen over the years,
like most everything else in his life.
He would be grateful  for a hayloft.

Raised voices dragged him into the ragged square
that formed the center of the village:
the shrill high screams of children
and the lower shouts of men.
Johan darted between a pair of houses
to find the two groups faced off against each other.

The children were wary and wild,
likely left on their own after all the adults died,
or else runaways nesting together on abandoned land.
The mercenaries wore the mark of slavers,
though not above a little raiding on the side,
thin and rangy as wolves.
Hungry-looking, too, Johan decided;
he could almost envision them licking their lips
over the village pickings, slim as those might be
after the long hard years of strife.

"Not your fight, stranger,"
the leader advised him
as Johan stepped into the fray.
Wind whipped through the mercenary squad
tugging their cloaks as they tightened their ranks.

"Not your village,"
Johan pointed out,
choosing his position with care.
He wanted their eyes on him,
not on the children.

The leader raked his gaze over Johan,
doubtless taking in the sheathed sword and dagger
as well as the shabby practical clothing.
And something else, as the man's eyes narrowed,
so perhaps attracting their attention
hadn't been that good of an idea after all.

The mercenary threw back his head and laughed.
"Look what we have here, men," he said.
"It's one of the bitch's throwaway paladins.
Now, who wants to help me take out the trash?"

Two burly men stepped up beside him,
slapping their heavy maces against gloved hands
as their leader drew his sword with a steely slither.
Johan unlimbered his own sword and dagger.

"Get behind me."
Johan motioned to the children,
then continued, "Look at the ground.
"Don't look at me, don't look at the enemy.
You don't need to see this."

The sky grumbled agreement,
clouds tumbling thicker over the sun
as the afternoon darkened toward twilight.
Johan heard the children flutter into place behind him
and hoped they would continue to obey him.

Better to get the fight over now,
before the rain started to fall,
but the clouds were boiling overhead
and not a drop pocked the dry dust of the ground.
Johan cast a glance upward
and thought he saw a glimmer amidst the gray.
Surely it meant nothing, surely, but then he sensed
a mote of blue light flick between sword and fingertips.
He began to wonder ...

Then the mercenaries attacked,
skirl of blades and thump of boots on earth.
They weren't expecting his speed,
and Johan danced between them and the children,
always keeping his charges at his back
as he snapped the sword toward this opening or that.
Counterblows slid off his dagger like rain off a roof.

Johan managed one touch on the leader,
stitching a bright ribbon of red across his surcoat,
before they fell back and waved their archers forward.
The first arrow thunked into his shoulder,
spinning him halfway around
so that the second arrow barely nicked his hip.

The air smelled of hot metal and the coming rain,
fairly humming with tension.  Johan shook his head
and pushed the pain into a small corner of his awareness.
His left arm hung limp, but his hand still curled
as if clutching at something.  The short dark hairs
on his forearms stood away from the skin.

"Give up, trash-boy," the leader said.
"You won't get a chance to strike twice.
We can reach you, but you can't reach us."

Suddenly it was just there, 
as vivid within him as if it had never left.

"I don't need to," Johan said softly,
and loosed the lightning from the jar of his soul.

The sky split open.
Thunder roared
as a torrent of white-hot light
rivered down from the clouds
to strike the ground with a mighty clap.

And then there was darkness.

Johan woke with his head ringing like an anvil
under a blacksmith's hammer, matched
by the dizzy clangor in his ears.
His shoulder ached with a molten throb
that felt as if someone had drilled it with a hot iron
and then dug the iron out with a dull spoon.
Voices twittered around him,
bright and senseless as birdsong.

"Mister?  Are you all right?"
someone piped right into his ear,
which finally made it through to him.
The same someone shook him gently,
and oh, that  had to stop this instant.

"Go.  Way."  Johan's voice wavered
as he batted feebly at the hands.
It was beyond bearing that he should be seen
in such a vulnerable state.
Instead of going away, though,
the hands brought rather a lot of friends,
carefully hauling him up to sit in the soft bed
with his back propped against a pile of pillows.
He could feel a rag quilt, too, warm under his fingers.

Johan pried his eyelids open to find
the whole flock of children hovering over him.
He cleared his throat, then asked,
"What happened?"

"Everything went boom, 
and then the bad men was burned all up,"

said the littlest girl, bouncing on her toes.
"We thought you was dead too,
but Althey said not."

The oldest boy nodded,
his beard no more than sunlit stubble
framing a soft pink mouth.
"You weren't in very good shape, though,"
he said.  "I dug the arrow out of you--"

"With a spoon!"
a younger boy chirped,
entirely too admiring.

Johan winced at the image that evoked.
Dear gods, he hadn't  hallucinated the spoon, after all.
Possibly not the hot iron either, information
that Johan urgently wanted to leave unconfirmed.

"Anyhow, my Da was a healer,
before the war-priests stole him away
to make him serve the mercenaries,"
Althey said.  He blinked solemnly at Johan;
round eyes in a round face gave him an owlish look.
"I know enough to tell that you better stay in bed for a while."

"I don't plan on going anywhere soon,"
Johan said agreeably.  He could hear rain on the roof.
Something about Althey plucked at his attention, though.
Johan's inner sight had gone murky years ago,
but nothing seemed able to banish it entirely.
He closed his eyes to shut out the distractions,
and -- there.  A faint halo lined the boy's hands.

Well.  Surely someone else 
could deal with the implications of that.


Johan settled himself more comfortably
into the pillows, and accepted a bowl of soup
from the tallest girl, who introduced herself as Rakel.
Vegetable soup, it was; he could taste
rampion and mouse garlic and wild carrot.
Johan watched while she dished out portions
for the younger children as they crowded around.

After the meal, while the others
occupied themselves with the cleanup,
Althey edged over to Johan's bed again.
"I found this," the boy said,
"on the ground among the bodies."
He opened his hand to reveal a clear jewel.
"I didn't think they'd own anything this pretty,
so I figured it must belong to you."

Johan swallowed hard around
the lump of memory lodged in his throat.
"No," he said hoarsely,
closing Althey's fingers around the fallen star,
"that's yours."

"Thank you," Althey said,
as if Johan had given him a treasure
and not a handful of trouble.

Oh, how Johan wanted to walk away,
but he wasn't going anywhere for a while, was he?
No, he was stuck here with a cottage full of children
and a newly minted novice that he desperately did not want.
Duty hooked its hard sharp finger into him again,
barbed as a fishhook, jerking him forward
into a future that he feared more than he could admit.

"Don't thank me," Johan muttered.
"Nothing is ever as good as it looks."

Althey spread his hand over Johan's injured shoulder,
ever so lightly, and even untrained, that touch
was enough to cool the burning ache of the wound.
"Don't worry," Althey said, "everything will get better."

And Johan's traitor heart wanted to believe  that.

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19 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
ravan From: ravan Date: September 11th, 2012 03:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, no, Johan has a new apprentice. I can hear him whimper now...
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 04:13 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

He's whimpering like a new puppy put out for the night.

*smirk* I love my job.
kelkyag From: kelkyag Date: September 11th, 2012 03:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Huh. I didn't think Gailah's paladins could do that anymore / right now. Interesting.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 04:12 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

>>Huh. I didn't think Gailah's paladins could do that anymore / right now. Interesting.<<

That's what the slavers thought. Sucks to be them.

That's what Johan thought. Kinda sucks for him too.

Won't this be fun?
kelkyag From: kelkyag Date: September 11th, 2012 04:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Johan also thinks/thought he isn't a paladin anymore, or that he could stop being a paladin. Being able to call lightning when he needs it might not suck, it's more the implications of being able to that make his life "interesting".
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 04:42 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>>Johan also thinks/thought he isn't a paladin anymore, or that he could stop being a paladin. <<

Well, he's pretty messed in the head. He thinks that he doesn't live up to Gailah's standards anymore (not true) and that she doesn't live up to his (only slightly more true). He did try to walk away from his vocation. It just didn't stick. I'm not entirely certain whether it's impossible in general, or possible but he couldn't manage it.

>>Being able to call lightning when he needs it might not suck, it's more the implications of being able to that make his life "interesting".<<

It did just save his life, not that he cares about that. It also saved the children's lives, and he does care about that. But he doesn't feel like he deserves this sort of grace anymore. It leaves him feeling empty, wanting, guilty, frustrated, anxious, and just generally miserable. And that's before the whole maelstrom of it worked this time but he can't tell if it will work again in the future.
(Deleted comment)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 06:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thoughts

>>Reading it made me think that the bit that Gailah saw, Johan's spirit that led to her offering and him accepting is still there. That a paladin might be able to put the load down for a little while, but confronted with a situation like this they can't help but help.<<

Yes, it's still there. Johan thinks with his head but acts with his heart.

>> It's part of why they are paladins? <<

It is indeed. An inward compass, kind of.

>> Maybe a paladin can stop being one by doing something totally against their deity's nature, but Johan hasn't, has he? <<

Aha! So that's it. Yes, precisely. Johan has tried to resist following his nature, but he hasn't tried to change it. That's partly because he believes (wrongly) that it already has changed. But there's no evil in him, no malicious desire to mangle the world for fun. He only ever tried to stop being what he was, not become something else; and that never works.

This also touches on "Swimming Against the Tide." Radd got himself kicked out because he kept doing things that were against Gorrein's orientation, until he grew out of compatibility. Like stroking a compass pointer with a magnet until it reorients to the opposite pole.
the_vulture From: the_vulture Date: September 11th, 2012 06:23 am (UTC) (Link)
YAY! I can finally talk about this poem! :D

I really love the sheer mythology of this piece. At the core is the theme of redemption. In this case, it's not only for Johan, who selflessly nearly sacrifices himself for the children, but also Gailah, in that She now demonstrates the might that Johan thought was gone. Furthermore, there are elements of reminiscent of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, in that Johan, having 'died', undergone a 'rebirth' in a time of darkness, now steps forward to take his place beside the Goddess, with, aptly, a blaze of light.

I also like the use of the storm as an extended metaphor, acting as the voice of Gailah.

Of course, all the mythical effects are nicely balanced by the humanity and humility expressed through the statements, thoughts and actions of Johan and the other characters. In particular I rather like these lines:

Johan winced at the image that evoked.
Dear gods, he hadn't hallucinated the spoon, after all.
Possibly not the hot iron either, information
that Johan urgently wanted to leave unconfirmed.


And, of course, there's all the possible story implications, such as a strong indication of a shift in the balance demonstrated by such a mighty miracle where, before, even minor ones were hard to achieve. I wonder how long before Johan figures out that, not only does Gailah deem him worthy enough to save, but also to even see to bringing up a new paladin.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 09:14 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>> YAY! I can finally talk about this poem! :D <<

I love your analytical comments.

>>I really love the sheer mythology of this piece.<<

I like mythology because it deals in stories that are true not just once, but many times. The big plots really work, the archetypes aspect beautifully, and it's always possible to tune them to any current culture.

>> At the core is the theme of redemption. In this case, it's not only for Johan, who selflessly nearly sacrifices himself for the children, but also Gailah, in that She now demonstrates the might that Johan thought was gone. <<

Yep, the power's coming back. Lots of people are finding that disconcerting.

>> Furthermore, there are elements of reminiscent of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, in that Johan, having 'died', undergone a 'rebirth' in a time of darkness, now steps forward to take his place beside the Goddess, with, aptly, a blaze of light. <<

This series has a lot of cycles, spirals, peaks and valleys. The contrast between darkness and light is another repeating motif. Flux and polarity.

And I'm reminded yet again of Shahana's earlier observation: "We can look back, but we can never go back. We can go only onward." Because not only is there no reverse for them, there's not really a stop either. For all Johan's kicking and scratching, he keeps moving forward, no matter how bad things get.

>>I also like the use of the storm as an extended metaphor, acting as the voice of Gailah.<<

There's power in a storm, potential for much good and much harm. It's there in Gailah, the black cloud that hangs over a bad mood. But it's as much Johan, he's a moody little blighter with a sparksome temper. It's just more visible now.

>>Of course, all the mythical effects are nicely balanced by the humanity and humility expressed through the statements, thoughts and actions of Johan and the other characters.<<

I think it's the gritty little details like that which carry the plausibility and connection of the series. There are these great, numinous forces at hand yet they play out in individual lives. That's a weight-bearing column because it was part of the original prompt.

>>And, of course, there's all the possible story implications, such as a strong indication of a shift in the balance demonstrated by such a mighty miracle where, before, even minor ones were hard to achieve.<<

It took a while to build, but yes, there's more to work with now. It's not what it was, yet; it'll be variable still. But it's rather more than what they had recently.

>>I wonder how long before Johan figures out that, not only does Gailah deem him worthy enough to save, but also to even see to bringing up a new paladin.<<

I think it's less about figuring than accepting. He'll do the work, because he can't stop himself; he's tried that and failed abjectly to get away from it. But he doesn't get it. He's been told outright, more than once and in different ways, that he's still worthy. He disagrees. This is a blind spot the size of a small moon.

And that latter part about bringing up a new paladin? That's exactly what has him going squiiiiiiiick.

I rather suspect they've been paired purposely because Johan's deeds so consistently outweigh his words. A charlatan will promise everything and deliver nothing. Johan will badmouth himself, his goddess, his vocation, and the whole world -- and deliver miracles anyhow. It will be interesting to see how Althey responds.
rix_scaedu From: rix_scaedu Date: September 11th, 2012 09:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, Johan, I think Gailah's letting you in on a little secret.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 09:21 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

*snicker*

With, you know, a clue-by-four the size of a tree because that's what it takes.
rix_scaedu From: rix_scaedu Date: September 11th, 2012 09:28 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

Because after all, who's ever heard of an undercover paladin whose cover is so deep he's a secret from himself? (Does that sentence make sense to anyone besides me?)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 09:34 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

*laaaauuuuugh*

Well, huh. I bet he wouldn't ping up some of the seeking spells. There would logically be different ways to find people, depending on what specifically you were looking for. You could scan for the fallen star. (Do not look directly into laser with remaining eye...) You could scan for the deity's attention on their paladins. (Get away from My guy before I mash you with My pointy boot.) You could scan for morality. (Confused muddle.) You could scan for sheer power. (Fizzle, with a chance of lightning.) Or you could scan for the vocation, which would rely on the individual's own perception of it. (Error 404: file not found. Abort, retry, ignore?)
janetmiles From: janetmiles Date: September 11th, 2012 01:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

Well, huh. I bet he wouldn't ping up some of the seeking spells. There would logically be different ways to find people, depending on what specifically you were looking for. You could scan for the fallen star. (Do not look directly into laser with remaining eye...) You could scan for the deity's attention on their paladins. (Get away from My guy before I mash you with My pointy boot.) You could scan for morality. (Confused muddle.) You could scan for sheer power. (Fizzle, with a chance of lightning.) Or you could scan for the vocation, which would rely on the individual's own perception of it. (Error 404: file not found. Abort, retry, ignore?)

This is a marvelous paragraph.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 07:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

*bow, flourish* Happy to be of service. I had fun with it.
siege From: siege Date: September 11th, 2012 05:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

Or you could know what you're looking for, despite all the muddle and mess, the shattered faith, the misconnected and unreliable power: that clear, bright line of Truth that cannot be denied, written deep within the guided soul.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 11th, 2012 07:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

True, but that's a subtle thing. Most people can't see it at all; it's hard to spot from a mortal perspective, even with help. Also it tends to be a point-blank observation -- a way to tell if the person in front of you has a divine vocation -- rather than a long-distance search method.

Einar, now, he saw it, once Johan was standing right in front of his booth. But then he's used to looking for the balance point hidden in a sword while it's still in the forge.
fyreharper From: fyreharper Date: January 14th, 2014 02:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh! :does a flaily happy dance:
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 14th, 2014 03:47 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

Johan has attracted a small but devoted following in this series. There are several more poems about him after this one. Folks can request more at any relevant prompt call.
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