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.
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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.
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,
"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,
"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.