Afternoon was a quiet time in the middle of the week even in Fallominster.
Perhaps especially in Fallominster.
It was not like this even in the town chapels in the West, by the warm sea where Sister Andrea had grown up and begun her service – after the pregnancy. But that was many long miles and mountains from this place of Kings and Bishops and other titles they did not have where she came from, on the hilly coasts of the sea of Belphalos.
She had thought that here, in the holy kingdom of the Usurper, that the Light would be electric, that it would be alive. That people would flock to the marble fanes of glory with the Light already in them.
She was still young, but not as young as she had been when she thought that.
She was alone on this stuffy afternoon, tending the Minster. She had said her prayers at the Procession of the Circle of Light, adored the images of the Author, stopped at her favorite saint, Benedict – partly because his portrait was so handsome and it reminded her of a special man she had once known.
She was collecting candle stubs, now. Pulling the wicks and the wick bases, dropping them in one basket, scraping the wax from the sockets into a copper pot for re-melting with the stubs later in the kitchens.
Back home, when the little boats would come back in the afternoon, teeming with the sea’s bounty, the sea birds would rise up, crying. Sometimes, while the men were unloading and the women were hauling, there would be a strange quiet, and a couple would stop against one of the pylons, kissing in the warm sun.
By the time the man turned back to his nets, the white sea birds had snuck in and were eating the eyes from some large grouper, or trying to yank an entire squid up out of the mass of the ship.
When the man would turn with a paddle or a net hook and swipe at the greedy gulls, they would rise up, catching the onshore breeze, shadows larger than the woman, and the sheer plaintiveness of its cry was astonishing. She would see this from her window at times, when she was meant to be studying her letters, or some 27th of the Trivium.
That’s what the sound was. It rose through the basso toward soprano, a rising like the screech of the gull. But where the gull is like a baby with quick screech after screech, breaking like wave after wave in a windy afternoon; this like the scream of a toddler whose hand – moments before – had been caught in a heavy door. This was the sound of something deep inside, breaking, the the hollowing cracking before the mast of one of the old ships abandoned in the shallows gave way.
She had sat, frozen by astonishment, and by memory as the sound crashed inside the dome of the cathedral. As it changed from origin to echo, she dropped her basket and rose, stepping out from the shutters into the nave and peering around the church.
There had been a small crash, moments before. Now there was the just the tail of the echo running around between gleaming stones.
She scanned for movement. She felt tense.
She teetered with indecision. She should fetch one of the Mothers, or perhaps one of the strong monks she thought might still be down below in the cellars, or the crypt.
She caught what sounded like a ragged breath.
An old woman was standing in the south entrance. She was some lord’s grandmother, in the fine fashions of decades past. She looked suspicious, turning to go back into the warmths of sunshine.
Andrea picked up the hem of her robe and walked the Circumference of Light, giving the icons and paintings no thought, ignoring the strong light flooding in from the high windows in its many colors.
He was in a small alcove by a statue of some dark-haired Hybersian saint.
The way he was laying on the marble floor on his back, she thought simultaneously that he was dead, and that he looked a great deal like the depiction of the pagan Hanged God, with his arms up, and one leg bent.
The great pain of the world – childbirth (even when the child does not survive, or has not survived, still it must be born), and the great trial of the world – the care of men – had both been given by the Light into the hands of women. They were made stronger than men, and had been tasked with holding the world of man together. This is what her first tutor, Doña Leticia, had said.
She went near, and she could see the great breaths moving the tunic of this little lord’s breast. She had a keen eye for how people appeared when they came into the public eye in the capitol, and she could tell from how he was comported that he was rustic – barely more than a knight, perhaps, and he certainly had no staff to care for him; no woman and no valet. His hair was blonde and pretty but unkempt and unruly; his clothes were good, but simple; there was no equally pretty blonde lady with cornflower eyes embroidering his things.
The small window above the northern saint, whose nameplate she made out as “Julia”, spilled yellow light that made the little lordling bright. It glittered on the tracks of tears running down the sides of his face which he had not wiped away. There were little gleaming drops, his tears, marking the marble beside him.
She sighed, and knelt down near him, slowly drawing his head onto her leg as the hard floor cooled her rump. Like most men when the world breaks them like the weak stone of the white cliffs of Hybersus, she expected him to crumble into her, to hold her skirt, to weep like a boy, to cry out again as he had.
But he only sighed, and kept looking up into the magnificent ceiling of the Minster.
Someone in the distance walked into the back of the cathedral. That was good. It would keep this lordling from doing anything foolish.
He muttered something, but his hoarse throat ate the words.
“Pardon me?” she asked in her lightly-accented Philosopher’s Tongue. His eyes found her for a moment, and then flicked back to Julia.
“One pure, unfettered cry,” he pointed at Julia, “because the world has enough small weeping and small cares and this utterance clears a way for the Light.”
She recognized the words, dimly, as something written in the colloquial hand of this rural Hybersian saint from a placed called Norich. She had been a great pagan mystic who had been given a vision of the Light’s kindness to equal Zarathushtra’s vision of its power and severity.
“Fa bene, curso la Luz, e tuti la lucienne” she uttered in her native tongue, a rough descendant of the Philosopher speech. “It flows easily, the course of the Light and those who bring light (Lucien).”
His face tightened up, and she thought she might have touched some difficulty he was bearing that had brought him here. She saw no icons or tattoos or sigils that would have brought a devout, or a holy knight into the Minster in the afternoon, long after the bishop had celebrated great morning mass of the day.
He sat up then, looking at her, and up at the saint, as though comparing her to the statue.
“You look a bit like her, St. Julia. The only one I ever really liked reading. The Light as a mother.”
There was something in him that she saw in a moment, that was like the release of fragrance by the tonning crush of the perfumier’s wheel.
“As Lucien, I can assure you, non facile cursit Via Luctis, (nothing lives easily on the Light’s Road),” he said, and his voice had grown easy, like his visage. He looked nothing like her Benedicto. She wanted to kiss him. He kissed her hand; he lowered himself to one knee.
“Will you bless me, Sister, the way pagans are blessed; the way knights are blessed on the eve of something it is known they will not survive?”
His accent had grown queer and countryish, and her command of the language common to Shanria was not great, but she understood what he was saying. She was no mystic or saint; she was not even a mother. But everyone participated in the Light, and it could be given freely.
He bowed his head. She stood, and gathered her hands in the yellow sun spilling in through the window. She made the circle, like a halo, above his head. She said the prayer.
At the last word, she was filled with a sudden fear for him, for no reason she could fathom.
He kissed her on the cheek. His face was clear and strong, but tears ran down his cheeks. He walked away down the aisle, and out into the sunlight.
Later, downstairs and across the courtyard, pulling the pan full of the broken remnants of candles – little flames, sometimes called petit lucienne – onto the hot grate, it occurred to her that in some parts of the Scripture, the Lightbringer, The Morning Star: Lucien, stolen from the Light, had become a great servant of the equally-powerful Darkness, first called Ahriman, now called Cordenox, who flees from the sky with the coming of the day.