So here, with some stuff missing from the very end, and utterly unbeta'd, is my entry.
The Nameless Seeker
With dusk the breeze begins. Beneath its caress, the flames bow and dance. The leaves of the volume that Shepherd Book holds open on one knee flutter, as if the text were struggling for life.
He smiles at the wind. There are other sounds, too, but he pretends not to hear them. Only after the scuffs of feet and hushed whispers have faded to expectant quiet does the Shepherd look up from his reading.
His audience has arrived. Book smiles more broadly; of all the duties God has sent his way since leaving Persephone, this is surely the most joyful. Other smiles greet him from around the circle of flames. Lee has brought her youngest brother tonight; he sits in the seat of her crossed legs, cooing at his own fingers. Helm and Jamal, blond and black, lean against each other. They sport identical bright grins. Serious Luc, eldest in the group, hushes his four younger sisters. The littlest one, wisps of hair pained orange by the flames, waves and giggles.
No matter the hard work or harsh words of the day, they all come to his fire at night, to listen.
“Welcome.” The Shepherd gestures for them to move closer in; they reshuffle, teasing and shoving. “Does anyone have a request tonight?”
There is an instant clamor. Book always regrets asking that question.
One stands out tonight. Antele, ebony hair braided tight against her head, huddles at his knee. “Fairy tale?” Her voice is quiet, barely there, and yet the loudest in Book’s ears.
He reaches down to touch her hair. “A fairy tale? Very well. I know a few of those.”
There is silence now, or near as they can come.
Book had nearly decided not to tell this story. Yet after talking with Mal, it’s the only one that comes to mind. “Once upon a time,” he begins, and it is clear how well the children have learned, because not even literal Helm questions the ritual phrase.
“Once upon a time, there was a man who had no name.”
“None?” Antele is already riveted, staring with wide green eyes.
“No, none. At least, none that he could remember, none that he had ever used.
“He needed none.” Book stares into the flames. The words come too quickly; he must make them see this story, not just hear it. “His strength of purpose filled his whole being, leaving room for nothing so small as himself. His greatest satisfaction in life was in completing a part of his mission. It was a mission that no one else could accomplish, nor would want to try, even if they could.”
“Was he happy with no name?” Luc leans forward, covering the question by stretching a hand to the fire.
Book shakes his head. “He didn’t consider that. Or at least, he thought he didn’t.” He glances around.
Helm wriggles. “What did people call him if he didn’t have a name?”
“’Sir,’ mostly. ‘Agent,’ or ‘operative.’ Sometimes he thought of himself as a soldier or a servant, something being used by a higher purpose.” Book weighs the next words before speaking them, but he knows these children hear more lies than truth. He should be one who tells them what is real. “Even the names that others threw at him—those who knew his face, and those who never saw him–were only tags, insults, labels for something dark and horrible and unknown. ‘Murderer.’ ‘Monster.’ ‘Merciless.’”
“What’s mers..less mean?” The speaker is Jamal, not wanting to be outdone by his best friend.
“You,” someone says.
Book raises a hand for quiet. “It means someone who doesn’t know how to show kindness.”
There are no more questions, and he continues.
“The man contented himself with knowing that some people had to die for the rest to live. Some secrets had to be kept at all costs, if they were to bear fruit in a better world. Someone had to do these things, and the task had fallen to him.
“Even if no one else ever understood, he knew, and that was enough.”
“What did he do?” Lee isn’t one that Book had pegged for morbid fascination, but then, it is a common human trait.
Let them see this for what it is, the Shepherd prays silently. “He never denied the names put to him. Those insults, and the fact that no one ever managed to say them to his face, were proof that he was accomplishing his mission.
“Only a murderer would make a personal appearance to execute another soldier, researcher, or politician who failed his or her part of the great mission. Only a monster would allow disease to wipe out an entire colony, for the sake of one man in hiding there, by preventing medicine from landing. Only a merciless man could leave a child in the desert to die, and walk away without looking back.”
Even whispers have ceased now. Small children scoot closer to the older ones. “How could that be right?” Lee says slowly. She looks ill, and has her arms wrapped tightly around her baby brother.
Book closes his eyes and shakes his head. “He told himself that he was cleansing the worlds, making them ready to be holy, just, with no evil in them. No sin.”
Luc frowns into the flames. “You can’t do wrong and have it be right.” He’s certain about this, and sullen, unsure iof his certainty.
“No, you can’t.” Book’s thumb caresses the bible in his lap. “Evil cannot conquer evil. But this man had no name, and just as it didn’t occur to him to look for one, it didn’t occur to him that you can’t do wrong and have it turn out right.”
“He did think of it someday?” The words were easy, but Antele’s eyes were pleading.
Book smiles. “It took a very long time, but yes, there was a day. A day someone asked the man with no name who he was, and refused to take silence for an answer. A day his masters set him a task by means they should have known he would not be fooled by. A day he finally listened.”
“What did he listen to?” Antele locks her hands around her legs and rests her chin on her knees.
“Why don’t you listen, and then you can tell me, all right?” The Shepherd brushes a hand through his shorn gray hair, breathes deeply, and continues. “The mission that day was nothing new. An execution. Retrieval of stolen goods. The location was a lonely old temple on a bare, rocky hill.
“The woman he had come to confront dressed simply, in robes of saffron yellow. A holy woman, then. Yet she could not be holy, for she harbored evil things that had been stolen from the only people who could rightfully handle them.
“The moment she saw the nameless man, the holy imposter knew what was about to happen. She stood straight, shaven head covered with silver down, bright blue eyes set in the darkness of her face. ‘Who are you?” she asked. ‘Why have you come?’
“‘For what you have stolen,’ the nameless man told her. He had taken care to place himself between her and the only way out. ‘They must be retrieved or destroyed. Choose.’
“The holy woman didn’t move. The nameless one had seen both fear and courage many times, and he would have known if she shifted a micron, if she even tensed in readiness. But the monk simply stood there. Her stare was unblinking.
“The nameless man stepped towards her, demanded to know where the items were hidden. He had no need to reach for a weapon; his presence was message enough, for those that recognized his mission–as this woman clearly did.
“Unless it was himself she knew. Her hairless brows drew together in a frown. ‘What is your name?’ she asked.”
Someone in the listening circle draws in a sudden breath. Book, afraid to stop telling the story now, does not look around to discover who.
“‘I am an operative sent to retrieve those stolen items,’ the nameless man reiterated. If her non sequitur was a delaying tactic, he would outflank her. He had already found the moving curtain that sheilded what he had come for.
“‘I know you.’ The monk stared at him as if she had no heard a word. ‘What is your name?’
“The nameless man took a single, closer look. Nothing in the woman’s wrinkled skin, or thistledown hair, or sharp blue eyes, spoke any recognition in his mind. ‘No, you do not.’ Without further delay, he pushed past her, strode to the curtain, and pulled it back.
“Several children huddled together in the recess. The oldest, a boy, met the nameless man’s gaze without flinching. The man knew that look, defiance of death, and knew which choice this boy had made.
“It would do. The slaughter was the work of a few moments with a small laser pistol. Afterwards, he hunted over the bodies, looking for the brands of ownership that would be there, by which their location had been traced....”
Book pauses, blinking an unexpected mist from his eyes. A small brown hand on his knee lent him the strength to continue. “There were no brands.”
That strangled sound must be Lee, who understands already what he is going to say.
“He turned to the monk, who still stood watching him. ‘Who are they?’
“‘They lied to you,’ she said, as if pulling the thoughts from his own mind. ‘They sent you here, told you what you would find...and instead, you found and killed only innocent children. Their deaths serve no one. Not even your masters.’
“The nameless man could find no words. The holy woman came to meet him, standing face to face. ‘What is your name?’ she asked again, and in that moment he shot her, too.”
“Why?” demands Helm. “She just asked his name!”
Jamal elbows him. “He doesn’t have one, though. Wouldn’t that make you mad?”
Helm pokes him back. “I wouldn’t kill someone.”
The other children hush the two squabblers. Book leans forward, elbows on his knees, hands folded together before him. “In the days that followed, whether doing his work, reporting back to his masters, or lying awake in his bunk nights, the nameless man could not stop the holy woman’s question from echoing in his ears.
“What was his name?
“Did it matter?
“The nameless solider received another assignment, this one far from his base. He left...and vanished from official and unofficial knowledge.
“The nameless solider became a nameless seeker, uncertain what he was searching for, at first. Yet underneath, he was always driven by that single question.”
“What is your name?” several voices speak in chorus, followed by giggles, a counterpoint to the cadence of the tale.
“He went first to the holy order who all wore saffron robes. They taught peace, how to live in harmony with each other, how to deny the evil in oneself. But none of them looked at him as holy woman had, and without a name, what could ‘peace’ mean to him?”
There are frowns over this, but Book sees the thoughtful look on Luc’s face, and knows that at least one will take even that oblique thought home tonight.
“The nameless seeker left. From place to place he roamed, never settling long. He ate and drank and slept, always wondering if somewhere in the ‘verse he would meet someone who knew his name. Each person he met was quick to give him a name for use, for power, or for show, but none of those was the name he thought he might have had.
“He dreamed, now, of certainty, and of a dark-faced woman calling a name he could never hear.”
There is hunger on Lee’s face, there across the fire, as she rocks the sleeping child in her arms.
“He bought a ship, from a man who looked only at his money and asked for no identification. It might have been a good idea, but the ship was faulty, and a storm brought him down between one port and the next. Broken, blood and rainwater blinding him, the nameless man followed the only light he could see.
“It came from the doorway of an abbey. More holy men, these clothed in brown and gray. Asking nothing, not even where he came from, they took him in, fed and healed him...and left him to himself.
“And the nameless seeker stayed. He healed, and mended, and learned from the holy men, and he stayed. When he took vows in the sight of God and man to become one of them, they gave him a name to use among them.”
“But–“ Antele stops, until Book nudges her gently. “But that’s no different than the rest of the places he went. Why did he stay?”
“Ah.” Book lets a smile return to crease his face. “You haven’t heard the rest. The seeker had stopped looking only because here, in the quiet of evening prayer and silence, he had heard his true name spoken. Old, truly his, from long before and far ahead of himself. This God of theirs... He knew it, and the nameless man was no longer without a name.”
BTW, if anyone familiar with Firefly and Serenity would like to volunteer to beta this story over the next couple of days, comment! I welcome the help. Who knew Book's voice could be such a challenge?