Comments and critiques are welcomed at this point. I'm not going to be doing any more work on it right now, but as it's a style I've not tried before, I have a feeling I may want to revisit it later, and I would be glad for outside thoughts.
Rated: PG, gen
The Nameless Seeker
With dusk the breeze begins. The flames bow and dance before it. 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 rush of wind through the grasses. 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. Nen 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 truths of the times, he is always supposed to be ready to speak.
No matter the hard work or harsh words of the day, they all come to his fire at night, to listen.
“Welcome.” The Shepherd beckons for them to move closer in; they reshuffle, teasing and shoving. “What sort of story do you want tonight?”
There is an instant clamor. Book always regrets asking that question.
Then again, sometimes the choice is easy. Antele, ebony hair braided tight against her head, huddles at his knee. “Fairy tale?” Her voice is quiet, barely there, and yet it sounds 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 shuffles quickly through his mental store of tales. One stands out. He has always hesitated to tell this story, but after talking with Mal that evening, 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. “This nameless man was a soldier. His strength of purpose filled his whole being, leaving room for nothing so small as himself. His greatest satisfaction in life was in accomplishing part of his mission. It was a mission that no one else could do, nor would want to, even if they could.”
Helm wriggles. “What’d people call him if he hadn’t got a name?”
“’Sir,’ mostly. Or ‘soldier.’ Sometimes he thought of himself as a servant, something being used by a higher purpose.” Book weighs the next words before speaking them. These children, with their beautiful, dirty faces were no strangers to reality . . . but unvarnished truth could make or break a tale. “Even the names that others threw at him—those who knew his face, and those who never saw him–were only insults, labels for something dark and horrible and unknown. ‘Murderer.’ ‘Magician.’ ‘Monster.’”
“What’s a magi-sean?” The speaker is Jamal, not wanting to be outdone by his best friend.
“Someone who does magic, stupid,” someone says.
Book raises a hand for quiet. “That’s right, but the magic that this soldier had been taught was of the blackest kind. Too dark to even speak of–I wouldn’t dare.”
There are a few nervous giggles, but no more questions, and he continues.
“The soldier contented himself by saying that sometimes things had to be destroyed for the other things to survive. 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 fell to him.
“Even if no one else ever understood, he knew, and that was enough.”
“What did he do?” Nen 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 who had failed his part of the great mission. Only a monster would allow disease to wipe out an entire colony, by preventing medicine from landing. Only a magician could enter a heavily guarded palace, steal away the youngest prince, and walk away unseen.”
Even whispers have ceased now. Small children scoot closer to the older ones. “How could any of that be right?” Nen says slowly. She looks appalled, 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.”
Luc frowns into the flames. “You can’t do wrong and have it be right.” He’s certain about this--and sullen, unsure of his certainty.
“No, you can’t.” Book’s thumb caresses the bible in his lap. “In the end, evil only breeds more 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?” Antele’s eyes were pleading.
Book nods. “It took a 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 they should have known that he would not be fooled by. A day he finally listened.”
“What’d 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. A series of magical stones had been stolen, and the nameless soldier was sent to retrieve them. Usually, he did his own scrying to locate missing objects, but this time his masters had a location for him already: a lonely old temple on a bare, rocky hill. It tasted of spells, and he knew that whoever lived there was powerful, perhaps not even human.”
“Like a monster?” Eshara clings to her big brother’s arm, pretending to be scared.
Book smiles at her and shakes his head. “Not quite. One of the Fair Ones–not human now, if they ever were, and living half in our world and half in their own. Generally, they mind their own business, which is why the temple and its owner were enspelled to look plain and ordinary.”
“Go on,” Nen urges.
The Shepherd gently sets his book on the ground, to free his hands to add to the storytelling. “The woman he had come to confront dressed simply, in robes of saffron yellow. That should have meant she was a holy woman. Yet the soldier knew she could not be holy, for she harbored great power that had been stolen from the only people who could rightfully keep them in check.
“The moment she saw the nameless man, the woman seemed to know 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 soldier told her. He had taken care to place himself between her and the only way out. ‘They must be retrieved or, if you have already set the power free of its binding spells, destroyed.’
“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 she simply stood there.
“The nameless man stepped towards her, demanded to know where the stones 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, not wanting to break the story’s flow, does not look around to discover who.
“‘I have been sent to retrieve the stones,’ the nameless man reiterated. If her question was a delaying tactic, he would outflank her. He had already spotted the curtain behind which the stones must be hidden.
“‘I know you.’ The holy woman stared at him as if she had not 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 ragged children huddled together in the recess. Seven children, seven stones. The woman’s powers of deception were more powerful than he had thought. The oldest illusion-child, a boy, met the soldier’s gaze without flinching. The humanity in the boy’s face as he defied his enemy angered the soldier; he had come to retrieve the stones, but the woman must have already tampered with them beyond repair, to hide them in this way. He was left with only the option of destruction.
“His mission was accomplished with seven blasts of magical fire. Afterwards, the nameless man waited for the illusion to fade, so that he could take the fragments back to his masters. He turned the bodies over, feeling for the release of power that should have happened with their destruction. Looking for any signs of the breaking of such a spell....”
Book pauses. A small brown hand pats his knee anxiously, and the Shepherd clears his throat and continues. “There was no trace of magic in that room, except for his own.”
That strangled sound must be Nen, who understands already what he is going to say.
“He turned to the holy woman, who still stood watching him. ‘These aren’t the stones. 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 destroyed 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. ‘Did they steal that from you, too?’
The soldier had just enough magic left over to bring the temple down around her.”
“Why’d he do that?” demands Helm. “She just asked his name!”
Jamal elbows him. “He don’t have one, though. That’d make you mad, I bet.”
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 at night, 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 the knowledge of his masters.
“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.
“First, he found a holy order who all wore saffron robes. They taught peace, how to live in harmony with each other and the universe, 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. That young man, at least, will spend tonight thinking.
“The nameless seeker left. From place to place he roamed, never settling long. He paid for food and drink with small tricks of magic, and kept moving, 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 Nen’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 did not ask him for a name. 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 burned above 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 other 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 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... By some magic deeper than anything the soldier had ever dreamed could be, He knew it, and the nameless man was no longer without a name.”
Book lets that final statement settle over himself and his listeners. For a minute, he can hear the wind again, sighing between the nearest buildings, and the sound could be the breeze in his own abbey’s gardens.
Then Helm leans forward, frowning. “Is that the end?”
“Ain’t you supposed to say ‘he lived happy for the rest of his days’ or something?” Jamal adds smugly.
Book nearly laughs. “After a fashion, he did, I suppose. He stayed at the abbey, serving God and man with the same devotion he had once given to his old masters. He learned what love meant, and that gave him a strength of purpose that filled his whole life, and left room for himself, and for others as well.”
The children accept that as they accept the end of each night’s tale–by starting to make noise again, to whisper and prod. Book wishes them a good night, each by name, and they wander back to their homes in groups of siblings or friends.
Alone with the fire again, now burning low and red, the Shepherd reaches down to pick up his bible. He turns each page with care to find the text he had been reading before children arrived. Soundlessly, his lips form the familiar words: To him who overcomes, I will give a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it....