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Poem: "The Strength of Starfire" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "The Strength of Starfire"

This poem came out of the September 4, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from aoife, rix_scaedu, and janetmiles.  It has been selected in an audience poll as the free epic for the October 2-3, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl reaching the $200 goal.  This poem belongs to the series Path of the Paladins, and you can read the other poems via the Serial Poetry page.


The Strength of Starfire


The little cabin stood dark and cold
in the whispering winter woods,
surrounded by nothing but snow and wind.
Ari had protested when Shahana put out the fire,
but the older paladin insisted
that it was essential to the lesson.

The pure black air enclosed them so completely
that it was impossible to see anything,
even a hand passed quickly across a face.
Shahana shivered in her quilted gambeson
but gave no other sign of her discomfort.

"Take out the star that Gailah cast down to you,"
Shahana said to Ari.
Cloth and leather rustled under fumbling fingers.
"You are going to learn to light it without my help."

Ari had long since memorized "Star of Gailah,"
the verses of the hymn ringing clear and sweet
in her careful novice voice.
She was learning the spells of a paladin's work,
and the prayers, but some of the practices
that were none of those things proved more challenging.
She did not like to bother the Goddess,
and she hesitated
to think of herself as a vessel for such power.

It was therefore no surprise
when the star remained dark.

"You see?  I can't do it," Ari grumbled.
"You can do it," Shahana said serenely.
"You just haven't yet."

The cabin door rattled in the wind.
"I don't know what makes you so sure of that,"
Ari said to Shahana.
"I have perfect faith in Gailah's perception,"
said Shahana.

"I don't," Ari said.  "I mean, look at me.
I can't even protect myself,
let alone anyone else."
"You have learned
to protect yourself and others,"
Shahana said.
"So now I can kill," Ari muttered.
"That's a great improvement."

"Yes," said Shahana,
"You have come a long way
from where you began.
It is a rare person who could
hold starfire in the palm of her hand
and think to warm the world at her hearth,
not burn everything to ashes."

"I'm just an ordinary girl,"
Ari protested.
"An ordinary girl would
hang that jewel at her throat as a bauble,
or sell it for silks and treasures,"
Shahana pointed out.

"If I were going to sell anything,"
Ari said, "I'd use the money
to buy a cottage and a cow."
Shahana laughed. 
"You see the usefulness of things
as well as their beauty," she said.

Ari sighed.  "What gives me,
of all people, the right to decide ...
what is moral or immoral, decent or wicked,
who lives and who dies?
I don't want to be like Gorrein's men,
thinking that power gives them all the privilege they want."

"They do have things a bit backwards, don't they?"
Shahana observed.  "Gailah does things a different way.
She seeks out people with a sense of responsibility
and then gives them the power to make a difference in the world."

"I can't imagine how She could have known that,"
Ari said.  "I didn't know it myself.
I never had any responsibility before."

"To be a goddess is to apprehend human potential,
even before it manifests," Shahana said.
"A lodestone is still a lodestone even if
there is no iron about for it to attract.
Yet as soon as something comes within its range,
it behaves according to its true nature.
Gailah's star is like an arrowhead
drawn to the lodestone of your heart."

The cot creaked faintly under Ari's weight
as she shifted in place.  "What good does it do,
when nobody recognizes us anymore,
or if they do, they hate us?" Ari said sadly.
"We may be paladins in Gailah's eyes,
but we hardly have the authority of the role.
People don't care much for followers of a deposed goddess
with the world falling to bits all about them."

"My dear, at such times they need us all the more,"
Shahana declared.  "When some people have
rights without responsibility,
and others have responsibility without rights,
civilization falters in its tracks.
It is like having two horses hitched to a wagon
in separate harnesses and pulling in opposite directions,
instead of being yoked into a team and working together.
Someone has got to unbuckle the whole mess
and put it back together again properly.
Otherwise it will never amount to anything."

"And who are you to decide that?"
Ari wondered. 
Shahana just chuckled.  "I'm someone."
Then the paladin continued,
"Ari, power doesn't really change people.
It just lets us do more of the same kind of things
that we were already thinking of in the first place.
Now gather your strength, and try again."

"I'm not strong enough for this,"
Ari said.  "I give way too easily."
"So does a river, yet in time
it wears its way through rock,"
Shahana said.  "The strength of starfire
is not that of stone, but that of water."

"It doesn't seem to matter," Ari said.
"I can't quite touch it either way."
"When you reach for your power,
do not think of it as closing your grip
around the hilt of your sword,"
Shahana advised.  "Instead, think of
holding something precious and fragile,
like a moon moth."

Ari took a breath to sing, and suddenly
the fallen star blazed blue-white
in the basket of her hands.
The brilliant glow
danced and flickered like firelight
before settling into a steady beam
that illuminated the two women
crouched in the wayfarer's cabin.

"This is the heart of what it means
to be a paladin," Shahana said softly,
"to hold power gently  instead of harshly."

Ari gazed down at the shining star in her grasp,
its pale light playing over the planes of her face,
looking in that moment like a temple statue
of Gailah carefully cupping the world in her hands.

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11 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
catsittingstill From: catsittingstill Date: October 9th, 2012 01:29 am (UTC) (Link)
To be a Goddess is to see indeed
The flower folded in the tiny seed;
To be a Paladin's to see for true
The vanished blossom where the seed first grew.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 9th, 2012 01:41 am (UTC) (Link)

Wow!

That is beautiful. Thanks everso for sharing!
catsittingstill From: catsittingstill Date: October 9th, 2012 02:08 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Wow!

It is a seed from what you wrote--the part about "To be a Goddess is to apprehend human potential" Then I "saw" the seed with the flower folded inside it, and around it the flower it came from in one swell foop (because I'm a biologist and the life from life from life thing comes very naturally to me) and so I tried to balance the goddess part with a paladin part, because that kind of seemed like the complementary entity.

I'm not quite sure Paladin is the right entity but it works here, and I can't think what would be more fitting anyway.

I'm very glad you like it. It speaks to me; I may use it elsewhere, if that's okay.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 9th, 2012 03:13 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Wow!

>> (because I'm a biologist and the life from life from life thing comes very naturally to me) <<

Me too. I use science even in my not-science-fiction writing, just more subtly.

>>I'm not quite sure Paladin is the right entity but it works here, and I can't think what would be more fitting anyway.<<

I think it fits.

>>I'm very glad you like it. It speaks to me; I may use it elsewhere, if that's okay.<<

Go ahead, use it where it wants to go.
catsittingstill From: catsittingstill Date: October 9th, 2012 01:30 am (UTC) (Link)
I really liked this one; I guess I should have said that first, in case it wasn't clear.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 9th, 2012 01:42 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I figure if what I've written is inspiring other folks, it must have done something right.
mdlbear From: mdlbear Date: October 9th, 2012 04:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

*chuckles* Yup.
the_vulture From: the_vulture Date: October 9th, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Erm, at what point in the story arc does this occur? It just seems rather out of character for Ari, especially nearing the current point in the arc.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 9th, 2012 08:11 pm (UTC) (Link)

Hmm...

>>Erm, at what point in the story arc does this occur?<<

I currently have "The Strength of Starfire" between "With Its Head Cut Off" and "Careful Trust." It comes after "But One End," because Ari mentions killing someone. It comes before "The Formless Ones," because there's more proactive magic in that one. Some of these are kind of challenging to slot into place, though -- the latter part isn't as tightly packed or sequenced yet as some of the earlier stuff. Sometimes I do get things out of order.

>> It just seems rather out of character for Ari, especially nearing the current point in the arc. <<

She has moments of higher and lower confidence. That can be challenging to track.

If you can suggest a better point in the sequence, or lines that particularly threw you off, or anything like that, then maybe I can make improvements in location or content.
mdlbear From: mdlbear Date: January 14th, 2015 02:29 am (UTC) (Link)
When a poem still gives me a catch in the throat on the third reading, ...

Self-confidence doesn't come easy to Ari, any more than it does to me. I think I must have needed this.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: January 14th, 2015 02:45 am (UTC) (Link)

Aww...

>>When a poem still gives me a catch in the throat on the third reading, ...<<

That's so sweet.

>> Self-confidence doesn't come easy to Ari, any more than it does to me. <<

Sooth. She has to work at it over time, but she's making progress.

>> I think I must have needed this. <<

I'm glad I could help.
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