Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Gift Part Fifteen

The trip to Bridgetown was uneventful except for the constant rain. Winds whipped the rain into a driving force that stung exposed skin and kept the travelers' heads down except when they were scouting. Don and Angel for the most part took turns scouting and setting rear guard. All of them were experienced campaigners but they had the keenest senses and were wary after running into the hags. Michelle was the most miserable. She hated storms and lightning having spent much of her childhood in the Midwest where tornadoes and hurricanes were a menace and lightning was a danger even at a middle school football game.
The forest thinned then ended abruptly as they neared Bridgetown and the reason for its name was apparent. The city was mostly new with a few old stone buildings left from the Atlantean era when they were expanding and establishing colonies. The city was built over three great ravines that flattened out into a coastal plain. The bridges were high and supported with great arches of poured stone. Not concrete as the Romans built but actual stone that was liquefied then poured into great molds. The stone was nearly impervious to weathering and stronger than reinforced concrete it also retained the vibrant colors that the original builders put into the stone. The three bridges were of a golden-hued stone with a red trim as were the surviving Atlantean buildings. There was a temple complex that had been converted into a church, a harbor lighthouse, fortress, and docks that were still used and a high tower above the city where the ground began to slope to the sea. Atlanteans had abandoned the colony long before and if they remembered why or what they named the city they never revealed that to others. The rest of the building was simple stone and wood construction with a tall stone wall about thirty feet high around the city. Scattered wooden shacks made from driftwood and scraps straggled along the road from the great tower, a wonder of that part of the world, down to the city walls proper. The tower had its own wall and gatehouse and had never been taken during all the Orc Wars nor had it fallen to treachery or the occasional pirate raid.
Even with the impossibly slender tower dominating the skyline the three bridges drew the eye. Justin had memories of visiting the city several times and seeing the bridges gleam like armlets of red-gold laid out in the sun. Today they were subdued but still impressive and the old temple complex stood out from the rest of the city's buildings. It was a great domed building with lesser domed buildings and towers around it. The largest domed building had been turned into a cathedral and pilgrims from all over the known world made journeys here.
Being so close to the Chapterhouse there were a goodly number of brothers coming and going and that led to a fair amount of tension as the order that administrated the temple were determined to remain independent of the rather assertive and confident Order of Saint Michael.
It was hard not to think that less than a day's travel away was the headquarters for the largest and most powerful militant Christian order in the known world. The brothers at Our Lady Star of the Sea were determined to keep their works of art, scholarship, and the unique nature of their Atlantean temple converted church. The name itself was an act of defiance at this new world. Not a star was to be seen in the night skies of this new inverted universe. But the memory of what Mary Star of the Sea meant to the gentiles of the world they came from and this one as well was preserved by the Brothers here and their great circular cathedral. Some called it the greatest cathedral in the known world. Not only did Mary intercede for the human gentiles in this world but the non-humans as well. Christian Elves and Dwarves were particularly devout in their observances.
The fountain in the Chapterhouse gardens built at the time this temple was converted and consecrated to a cathedral was just an afterthought, a gift to the order that would help protect what the workmen considered their real masterwork. The Atlantean temple that was converted to a Christian church with art work in the Atlantean style and materials. Heroic realism was the only thing that came to Justin's mind whenever he visited. The paintings, mosaics, sculpture and even the hangings and ritual cloths and decorations had been made by the Atlanteans.
The party stopped at the church's rooms for travelers and were given quarters in keeping with their position and reputation. Justin enjoyed the heroic statues and mosaics that filled the buildings and even the halls. They looked like the saints and sinners were frozen in their moments of passion and rapture. Here Mary held her divine child the love on her face tinged with a hint of sorrow the stone was unpainted but possessed the hues of life. Justin could swear that baby Jesus followed him with his kind and merry eyes. There, Joseph held his young son's hand as he swung a hammer, pride and patient love evident at a father passing on is knowledge to his son. Everywhere he looked there was one perfect statue after another.
The only marred statue was of Mary holding her son as he was taken from the Cross. Her normally blue robes black with a shining halo around her head the halos appeared deceptively simple but upon closer examination were complex geometric shapes within the simple circlets. Someone an iconoclast heretic had taken a great hammer to the statue and there were two nicks in the angels and Mary's knees. The name of the vandal was not widely known, the Church did not want to provide motives for further such attacks and there were brothers in plain black tunic and trousers standing near each statue during the hours they were on view to the general public.
The brothers were not armed but they were broad of shoulder and narrow of hip and wearing the garb of the Brothers of Saint Michael. If anyone would be capable of stopping a vandal with or without weapons it would be them. The Brothers of Our Lady Star of the Sea both resented the need for the guards and for the fact that they did not produce soldier priests with such competence. They were scholars and antiquarians and greatly respected both for their piety and knowledge but the secular world and much of the religious world admired the strength of arms despite the Church's own teaching on the matter.
Justin was only disappointed that they did not have good light for the appreciation of the art. Great panes of crystal provided skylights for the domes as well as hanging chandeliers with beeswax candles for the evening. Today the clouds and driving rain concealed the light-giver and distorted the light that came through the skylights.
He had the dual pleasure of seeing the art for the first time and memories of his favorite pieces of work. The stations of the cross around the central nave were laid out in a circular pattern to follow the circular nature of the nave. What once was a semi-circular vestibule or entry way was now the chancel with a high altar flanked by stands for the choir which was considered the best in Christendom alongside the choirs at the Church of Holy Redemption in Nova Roma (where the See of Peter was found in the known world) and the choir at Avalon Abbey the cathedral built by the healed Arthur Pendragon and his followers to this new land.
The practice of 'musico' had never taken hold in church choirs here. Higher pitched parts were sung by women, boys, and elven religious folks while an entire 'Dwarven' style developed over a thousand years ago when dwarves began singing in their deep voiced styles the Christian hymns and Masses. Our Lady Star of the Sea included both the higher pitched Elven voices and the impossibly deep Dwarven voices. A giant of Gath was also a member of the churches monks and sang in their choir. Happily, Justin discovered that they would be able to stay to hear the Mass and the Choir.
There had been nearly continuous argument regarding the Holy days of obligation since coming to the new world and word of Protestantism had further confused the issue but today would be the Mass for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Justin was talking quietly with Sean when two of the local Brothers of Our Lady Star of the Sea approached Sean. The locals wore a cassock of undyed wool and rope belts in contrast to Sean's black tunic and trousers with matching leather belt and boots. It was a rule of Sean's order that you were always in a uniform suited to wearing under armor with only a few exceptions.
“Brother Imhotep,” a tall tonsured brother began but Sean stopped him politely.
“Brother Sean if you please.”
“Brother Sean, you are the brother who was known as Imhotep?”
“Indeed I was,” Sean replied, “However for good reason I now go by another name. I am still a member of my order and still an ordained priest.”
“Would you wish to celebrate Mass with us this evening?”
Sean paused for thought then replied with resolve, “Yes, I would very much appreciate that. It would be my honor although I do not have the proper vestments to celebrate a Mass.”
The brothers were relieved to be dealing with an issue they had both expected and were prepared for, “That is not a concern. Although, you are tall and broad shouldered we have vestments to match including the shoes.”
“That is a relief, Brothers.”
To Justin Sean told him, “I'll see you later this evening after Mass, I need to go prepare and that can take a bit of time, especially when there are so many people involved.”
“Yes,” the taller brother did the speaking for both of them apparently, “We were hoping you could hear confessions as well before hand. We have a large audience and a large choir here tonight all of whom should be shrived of their sins beforehand.”
“I will be happy to,” Sean replied.
“Go tell Mom that I will be helping to serve Mass tonight. I will see you afterward.”
Justin shared polite nods with the local brothers before heading out to find Michelle and let them know of the change of plans.
One of the pages or younger brothers had to have been hard at work on Michelle's armor as she threw back the candle light in a thousand points of brilliant flame and gold. Her cloak that hung from her shoulders was the purest white with thin gold stitchery in a two-inch-wide band around the edges that became elaborate knot work at the corners. The rest of the party was wearing their best clothing but none of them matched Michelle nor should they in that setting. Her head was covered by the hood of her cloak with her helm in the crook of her left arm.
As a Paladin of the Church she represented the very will of God. As long as she remained true to her calling and in communion with God she was always doing his will. That was the defining characteristic of a Paladin. They were the living hand of God in the Known World and were directed and driven by the Holy Spirit. She was not carrying her halberd or shield but wore her sword at her side. Like all Paladin's swords it represented the Truth of God's word. Of all the people who attended Mass paladins were the only ones not only allowed but expected to wear a sword.
Tonight she was not the only Paladin. A tall young man with the black hair and tanned dark complexion of an Atlantean seafarer stood next to Michelle. He was a couple inches taller than Don making him closer to seven feet tall than six with broad shoulders and a trim waist. Like all paladins he was handsome and wore the heavy armor of an Atlantean champion made from the incorruptible sea green steel favored by the Atlanteans it was trimmed in moonsilver filigree of Sea Elf style. His helm in the crook of his arm had a horse hair crest that rose from the top and spilled down the back in a white cascade like the crest of a wave. He wore a light green cloak trimmed in silver. Unlike Michelle his head was uncovered.
He was handsome as most paladins were, and his short black hair was in artful disarray of ringlets combed straight back. The young paladin's piercing eyes were a mix of sea green, gray, and blue like most Atlanteans of pure blood.
Don stood at his wife's side as was fitting of the spouse of a paladin and the rest of the party stood in the row behind Michelle and the other paladin. Like most modern churches there were pews in the back for pregnant women, elderly or the infirm but most were expected to stand through Mass.
Even though there were two paladins in brilliant armor standing as sun-bright representatives of the living God they were still no match for the church itself dome of the church was the night sky of lost Earth. Stars were everywhere as was the moon in its proper phase for the Assumption. Dominating the entire sky was the Angels and Saints taking Mary to Heaven to be greeted by her Son coming down from his throne to raise her up. On his throne sat God the Father. That part of the night sky was grim and foreboding. While the vision of Mary and Jesus filled one with hope the stern face of God reminded sinners of the necessity of Jesus' sacrifice. There was justice in that visage but little mercy. Justin could see why most people preferred to sit where they could see the Assumption of Mary and not Jehovah seated in judgment and majesty.
The music was everything that Justin expected and remembered but the difference between Kantrus' memories and the live experience was stark. It was so much richer and fuller. He could feel the power there and the glowing power that was nearly a physical force from Michelle and the other paladin. Perhaps it was a physical force? Justin thought to himself. What else could explain a woman with the physical strength and ability greater than nearly every man.
The choir was made up of Sisters from the local nunnery and Brothers of the temple. They were an eclectic group with humans of all cultures and races, elves of several different types as well as dwarves, halflings and the Giant of Gath. His voice and volume remained in the background when it was appropriate but when the choirmaster a tonsured dwarf with a fussily trimmed beard gestured for it, the giant's voice boomed out like the voice of God himself.
The giant stood eyes shut in ecstasy, his head thrown back, and face lifted to the heavens. The giant was clean shaven and had a neat tonsure. Justin was unused to a giant with his hair and beard trimmed and noted that he looked far more human without the shaggy mop of hair and beard and stained leather and hide that made up most giant's attire. 
As the Giant raised his voice in prayer, Justin could feel the vibrations in his chest cavity and it rattled him down to his toes. He was glad that wasn't the only man affected he could see the hair standing up on Scott's arms as the choirs' voice crashed over them like the waves of the sea in perfect pitch and harmony.
The combination of voices from the piping voices of the halflings, the voices of the Elves like silver bells, to the deep voices of the Dwarves and the Gabriel's trumpet of the giant's voice allowed the choir a range and power equal to any musicians or cathedral's organ that Justin had heard.
It was fortunate that the Father's serving Mass including Sean had strong singing voices. It would have been an anticlimax for the choir to outshine the reason they were all there.
Justin had confessed his sins that afternoon both those of Kantrus and his own from this world and his own Earth. He wasn't sure if he were responsible for Kantrus' sins but he saw no reason to take a chance with that.
Justin knelt with the others of the congregation but something caught his eye and took him out of his religious contemplation. At the back on the other side of the congregation was a group of men that knelt but belatedly as if unfamiliar with the order of the Mass. They were dressed as sailors and unlike the rest of the congregation they were not watching the Mass and the choir nor were they looking at the fantastic art around them. They were watching the others in the congregation. Justin resolved to investigate further after Mass.
After receiving communion, the Mass continued for a short time. The Father leading the Mass blessed the congregation then the choir sang the recessional. Justin noted that while most of the congregation knew the songs the choir was so powerful that his elven ears had to listen specifically to hear the congregants' contribution.
The rain had stopped before Mass and the courtyard had dried except for under the trees where the paving still steamed. Some congregants gathered to socialize afterward in the large courtyard with ancient trees providing shade. Some of the trees were the white and gold Atlantean evergreens that towered hundreds of feet and were several yards thick. The paving squares around them had been carefully removed but it was clear that the work done to keep the trunk and roots of the trees free of the poured stone was a later alteration and did not match the craftsmanship of the original work. It was worth it in Justin's eyes because the trees were magnificent in and of themselves and now found rarely. Most often they were harvested for their wood and only the Atlanteans knew the secret to getting them to take root off of their island.
Michelle had a smile on her face that told Justin she had a surprise for him. It was the kind of smile he had seen a hundred times when she pulled out a special breakfast for his birthday or put an extra present under the tree on Christmas night. Justin looked to Don to see if he had a clue but Don was as curious as Justin. Michelle was standing with the tall Atlantean paladin.
Michelle introduced her companion, “May I present Sir Atland of Atlantis?”
“Derek!” Justin shouted seeing his friend in the young giant for the first time.
Derek looked a little rueful, “I thought I could fool you guys for a little longer.” he said disappointed. “Dad didn't even recognize me.”
“True,” Don replied, “Until now I forgot there was a 'Sir Atland.”
“Yeah, Antland sounds kind of geeky,” Andy added. He was dressed in his finest as were they all and most every other person who came to the Mass. Religion was still a serious business for all Christians in this world. This world was dangerous and often it was only faith and the church that stood between the people and the evil that stalked the night.
“Yes,” Derek replied, “Antland would sound geeky good thing my name is Atland not Antland.”
“It was more fun calling your paladin, 'Antland',” Andy grinned. “But I guess Atland is better.”
“My bio had me as Prince of Atlantis,” Derek replied, “Then I found out that there are hundreds of Atlantean princes. Since the fall of Atlantis about twelve thousand years ago the royal family was destroyed and only the cadet lines were left. Each had an equal claim to the throne so they agreed to let each city state go its own way. We act as a group in most things but we are independent in internal affairs.”
“So while I'm a prince just like I hoped, it wasn't all it cracked up to be,” Derek finished.
He stood in his armor that appeared like something out of the classical Greek world updated to match the advances in weapons and protection. His harness was made of sea dragon leather and decorated in moonsilver matching the filigree of on his armor. Rather than a halberd like Michelle he carried a great hewing spear that was nearly ten feet long with a blade that was at least two feet long and broad as a big man's palm at the base it tapered smoothly to a needle point. His shield was a heavy round hoplon style. It was decorated with the white swan on blue of Atlan's city state. Justin was sure it weighed about twenty pounds. He was glad he was a wizard. Shields of steel and wood were for those who couldn't make one with the flick of their fingers.
“What's with the spear and that movable wall?” Andy asked hooking his thumb at the big round shield. “I thought Grandma's shield was huge.”
“I came straight from the ship to Mass,” Derek replied, “I barely had time to wash up in the brother's quarters before Mass and I didn't know where to leave them. The Nave has attendants to keep watch on things like this.”
“How did you get Atlantean armor decorated by the Sea Elves?” Angel asked.
“I rescued a Sea Elf princess. Doesn't anybody read the bios I write?” Derek asked exasperated. “You know I put some thought into those.”
“Yeah, sure.” “Yes, of course.” and variations on that theme answered Derek's question. How sincere were the answers were anyone's guess but Justin wouldn't have bet many or most paid as much attention as he did. He loved character bios. He just didn't remember much about the character.
Justin asked Derek about it.
“Well, I only played him once,” Derek admitted. “I thought he was a cool character but he's kind of a pretty boy. I like the bigger rough types.”
Everyone laughed and Derek looked confused.
“Just look at yourself,” Sean told his old friend, “You're taller than anyone here but Allan and he's a freaking Martian ape.”
“Hey!” Allan protested.
“You're handling that monster of a shield and the spear like they are made out of Papier-mâché and balsa wood.”
“What do you think you are? So what if you have pretty girly-girl curls?” Sean teased his friend, “You're still a bad ass fighter or are you 'all-show, no-go?'”
“I haven't had to use my sword since I've been here but I did get in a really short fight with some of the sailors on the ship I took to get here. I somehow knew I'd meet you here.”
“So Atlantean princes are taught something like pankration,” Derek explained, “I did not know that. Atland did and man did I kick those sailors' behinds.”
“I slept with one eye open after that. The guys were kind of jerks anyway. A bunch of Nazis is what they were. Real Nazis I mean not just saying they were fascist jerks.”
“Were they those men?” Justin nodded casually towards the sailors he had noticed earlier.
“Yeah,” Derek replied with suspicion, “they had nothing but contempt for Jesus. You know I was never down with that. Even when things were at their roughest, I never doubted that God was on my side, even if I did feel like Job.”
“Now that I'm a paladin I understand so much more. If only...” Derek trailed off lost in thought.
“Don't beat yourself up,” Don slapped Derek on his muscled shoulder, “First time in your life I've had to look up at you when we're both standing. When did I say you could grow so tall?”
Derek laughed shaking off his earlier mood, “Yeah, look at this?” he gestured to take in his whole form as best as he could with a shield and spear, “I look like I'm posing for a statue of Archangel Michael.”
“You look fine, Derek,” Michelle said with motherly affection, “So tall and handsome. I like your hair.” She glared at Sean.
Derek blushed embarrassed by the attention. He was drawing glances from both men and women. Although the whole group was hardly inconspicuous. Any one of them save perhaps Andy or Don would have drawn a second glance from any man or woman. Andy's job was to look inconspicuous and Don when he was not dressed in his finest as a Tuathe De prince looked like any weathered traveler, perhaps taller and more graceful than most but the rest would gather attention anywhere. It was only the presence of the two paladins and the Father in his high mass garb that prevented people from approaching more closely. Two beautiful elfesses, an elven wizard, a four armed giant, and a member of the Zwergen Iron Guardsman stood out anywhere even without the gleaming paladins.
“Let's go to our rooms so we can talk,” Don said looking over at the Nazi sailors and not liking what he saw. Don's Shadow Warden 'sight' told him that there was something definitely 'off' with all of them and two of them were simply flat wrong. Don had his guesses as to what was causing them to appear uncanny but he wanted time to mull it over before he spoke about it. And the courtyard of the cathedral was no place to be discussing it in any case.
He felt a chill thinking about the Nazi sailors as they headed for their rooms.

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