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They met at Weatherflee,
a town big enough that it
boasted more than one inn.
Shahana and Ari stood
at the crossroads, gazing at
Johan and Althey across the way.
"We'll take the Town Horse,"
Shahana said, pointing to
the inn down the south road.
"You can have the Grey Head.
There's no need for a fuss."
She turned to go, Ari
following behind her.
"Shahana ... wait,"
They turned around.
"What do you want?"
"To talk," Johan said.
He took a deep breath.
"Please, come with us to
the Grey Head. It's bigger
and the beds are fresh."
Shahana looked at Ari.
"What?" Ari whispered,
shuffling in place.
"You're a fellow paladin,
now, not just a novice,"
Shahana said. "You have
a voice in where we go."
Ari looked at Johan, with
Althey shadowing him.
"They're not awful, just
tense sometimes," she said.
"Let's find out what Johan wants."
What Johan wanted was
a muddle and a mystery,
but Shahana saw no need
to repeat that out loud.
"Thank you for the invitation,"
she said. "It's been a long trip
today. Shall we see what's for
supper at the Grey Head?"
Johan gave a grateful nod,
then led the way down the road.
The common room at the inn
was cozy and not too crowded.
Most of a sheep roasted in the hearth,
with divots in the shoulders showing
where someone had haggled off
earlier servings. Underneath sat
the pots of stewing greens, and
potatoes nestled in the coals.
"Four suppers and two rooms for
the night," Johan said to the innkeeper.
"I could have covered ours," Shahana said
after he had paid. "It's no trouble."
"It's my invitation, so I'm buying,"
Johan said firmly. One corner
of his mouth quirked up. "You
could always get the next round."
Shahana raised her eyebrows.
It was unlike Johan to reach out --
or at least, unlike him as she had
come to know him in recent years.
He had been different, once,
more outgoing. They all had.
Maybe times were changing again.
"Will there be a next round, Johan?"
she asked gently. "We haven't
exactly gotten along, for a while."
"I know," Johan said. "That's my fault.
I was ... not in a good spirit, for years."
He looked down, and then back up again.
"I would like to repair the breach between us."
"Yes," Shahana said. "I would like that too."
"What brought this on?" Ari asked, leaning
toward Johan. "You couldn't stand us before."
"Many things," he replied. "The world is
changing again. I have a novice. You, who
were a novice when we met, have become
a paladin. My regards on your promotion."
Ari dipped her head in acknowledgment.
"Thank you," she said. "It's still ... very new."
"So were we all, once," Johan said. "You'll
get used to it in time, my sister on the path."
"Ah," Shahana said softly. "You have
taken up your vocation again, Johan?"
"Well, I'm trying," Johan said. "That
is one of the things that has changed,
I think, but it's hard for me to tell. I was
so young when ... everything happened ..."
"Yes, of course," Shahana said. "Not many
of our younger brethren survived at all.
That's quite an accomplishment."
"If you say so," Johan said, plainly
trying not to start an argument.
He held out his hand. "Shall we
make peace between us?"
Shahana looked him over,
considering the past
and the future.
He had abandoned
his vocation, but that was
between Johan and Gailah.
He had said harsh things to
Shahana, but in truth, she had not
always softened her words with him.
They had gotten into one quarrel after
another during the wandering years,
but then, who among them could
claim to be wholly sane then?
If Shahana wanted to heal the world,
she would have to start with herself
and her fellows. Well, here was one
most in need of such healing.
She clasped Johan's hand.
"Peace between us," she agreed.
Energy rippled and danced across
their joined hands, only some of it familiar.
"What in the world?" Shahana said.
Althey chuckled. "That's one of
the new things," he said. "These days,
it seems like more than just Gailah
has taken an interest in Johan."
"Is that even possible?" Ari said,
looking at Shahana. "I mean, I thought
the whole point of becoming a paladin
was that special bond with our Lady."
"The link is the nature of our station,
not its purpose," Shahana corrected absently.
Ari might be a paladin now, but she was still
a very new one, and she had never had
the advantage of the temple schooling.
"See, that's why we wanted to ask you
for advice," Althey said. "We thought
you might know more about this."
Johan pushed up his left sleeve
to show a magnificent tattoo
of roses and blackberries.
"This came to me in a dream,"
he said. "The marksman made
exactly the image I imagined. Then ...
when it was going on, I had a vision
of Alazar, God of Art, who sent me
along to Gailah's garden."
"That was fortunate," Ari said.
"I was most grateful. I have
missed Her so much," Johan said.
"I don't know why the other gods are
taking such an interest in me, though.
It is ... most disconcerting at times."
"You set aside your vocation for a while,"
Shahana said, watching him carefully.
"Yes. I did that." Johan lifted his chin.
"You were already attuned to the divine,
but no longer tightly focused like the rest
of us," Shahana said. "Perhaps that
changed something in you."
"So I really am broken,"
Johan whispered, putting
his face in his hands.
"I don't think so,"
she said thoughtfully.
"A broken man wouldn't
come seeking to mend
a ravaged relationship."
"What, then?" Johan said.
"Perhaps you are not broken,
but a new kind of paladin for
a new age," Shahana said.
"It may be that we will need
your openness and flexibility,
and the gods' willingness
to share your service."
"See," Althey murmured,
clasping Johan's shoulder.
"It will all come right in the end.
The gods know what they're doing --
well, most of them anyway. I doubt
even Gorrein knows what he's doing."
Ari snorted a laugh. "He does act
like a lost lout sometimes, doesn't he?"
"He does," Johan said. "Maybe
even Gorrein can find his way in time."
"I'll drink to that," Shahana said as
their suppers arrived with mugs of cider.
"There now, it's good to have the family
back together," Althey said as he pulled
a plate toward him. "Let's hear it
for reconciled differences."
"My family were lost long ago,"
Johan said, shaking his head.
"No, they're not," Althey said,
looking around the table.
"Not all of them, anyway."
"Family," said Ari. "I could
use more of that myself."
She covered Althey's hand
with her own, and smiled.
Shahana added hers, recalling
the company that had been.
After a moment of hesitation,
Johan followed her example.
It would all work out in the end,
because they had found their family.
* * *
Hobby horses appear in many different cultures. The two inns are named after different versions.
Paladins are holy warriors in history and entertainment. Customarily they serve one diety. With Johan, it looks like the gods want to try something new.