The sanctuary, empty and bathed in darkness, was only lit by the flickering candlelight of a few sconces. The shadows danced across the depictions of great heroes of old as well as the scriptural stories of the great Truth-Bringer. One of the frescoes was of a red-headed woman standing tall in white flowing robes and a golden staff in her hand, unleashing rays of light that shot out in every direction. In the corners of the work sat cowering figures of darkness, their forms exaggerated in to depictions of unwavering despair in the presence of this great figure.
It was this same great figure who stood behind the altar, her form immortalized in gold and towering over the pulpit. She looked upward, as if she were searching for some truth of her own. Her robed body concealed her form, granting her a chaste and authoritarian look. However, her hands were cupped below her navel in a maternal basket. Resting within that cradled pose was an egg engraved with runes and markings of ancient and arcane significance. Its size was that of a small baby, the nature of whatever laid it more prodigious than any bird of the nearby lands. Only a magnificent creature could lay something so detailed and large.
At this moment, there was merely one individual offering up prayers to the Bringer of Truth. The knight sat upon knees on the floor before the Goddess’s shrine, helmeted forehead pressed to the hilt of a gleaming bastard sword. The armor dully reflected the light of the dancing flames. Beneath the beak-like protrusion of the helmet, whispered prayers rose from hidden lips, seeking forgiveness and guidance. The holy warrior’s eyes were fixed not on the statue of the Truth-Bringer, but the dark crimson stains that marred the blade.on the shining metal, where, only an hour before, the blood of a living thing was spilled.
The large oak doors in the back of the room pushed open with the protesting groan of their age. Behind them stepped out a robed figure, clad in blue vestments. Over his shoulders was draped a scroll of knowledge and law, penned in the old tongue and serving as a reminder of the precepts of the people. His hands were hidden underneath long sleeves, and the only thing betraying his humanity was the exposed pale skin behind an expressionless, avian mask.
The bird-priest spoke, his voice marked by the wisdom of his age. “Salome,”
The knight’s helmet rose and turned to face the speaker, listening to his words.
“You have done well this past day. The beast that threatened our lands will no longer harm us.”
The knight remained silent, the grip on her sword tightening.
“You have done your family proud and have honored the Truth-Bringer by serving her as you have in times past, as I am told.”
A pregnant pause goes over the sanctuary. Only the flames’ flicker breathes life to the situation.
There it was. A singular loud sigh escaped the knight’s helmet. “But my duty to this town is complete,” she said. “And my services—and presence—are no longer required.”
The priest’s response came with only a slight delay. Had he not expected her to have heard that rejection before?. “True, but do not take that fact personally,” he said, raising a hand tentatively in some attempt to comfort Salome. “Your services are greatly appreciated, and we couldn’t have survived without your aid.”
“I understand completely,” she spoke, her voice soft, the youth in it breaking through with a slight waver. “I was just finishing my prayers. I will be out of your town,, and you can continue to appreciate me from afar.” She rose to her feet and headed out to those large doors.
As she passed, the priest, whose face turned up toward the Truth-Bringer’s statue, he added one last thing. “You serve your family, young one. Remember that.,”
“Save it,” she said, not even stopping. “I know it’s my heritage that sickens them.”
As she stepped out into the dirt road, the townsfolk stopped their milling about. Around this time of evening, most of the townsfolk should be winding down, preparing for a long-earned rest. But tonight, they were outside, watching, waiting. Salome frowned under her helmet. She didn’t even need to see their stares to feel them. The fanfare that had heralded her return after a successful hunt had been replaced by the judgment and fear that permeated this place now. There was nothing to explain to these people. Nothing that would mean anything to them. They had already made up their mind about her. But that was to be expected. She didn’t blame them. No… if she had been in their position, and not her own, she would react the same way.With nothing else here, she made her way away from the church building, past the main street, and toward the old forested road.
But before she could leave the town gates, a splat of a mushy something hit the back of her head. She spun around, gripping her blade and prepared to defend herself, when a second tomato, days into rotting, struck her right in the visor. Pungent juice invaded the holes of her helmet, replacing crisp evening air with the awful smell
The offender stood in the middle of the road, unafraid of the imposing metallic figure before her. She couldn’t have been more than ten, just on the threshold of losing the innocence of childhood. It was a burning hate that filled those eyes, though. The young farmer girl gripped another overripe vegetable in her hand as she stared down the once savior.
“You do not strike a knight of Zhell without good cause, young lady,” Salome said, holding back the urge to cough the stink away.
“There’s no way the goddess would allow a monster like you to serve as a knight!” the girl shot back. “You’re trying to trick us, you are. Leave, now, you… you… clutter!”
That last word came out with slight hesitation, which it should, yet the intent was clear. Beneath the mask, sharp teeth grit together, fighting back every urge, every desire to use her might to end that rude tongue. Her hand hurt, fingers clamping against her sword so hard, the digits screamed.
“By law…” Salome said, “you have just challenged me,” she spoke. “I am within my right, granted by the Council and the Laws given to us by the Truth-Bringer herself to face you to restore my honor.”
“What do you know of honor?” an older woman said, running up behind the girl and placing her hands on her shoulders. “You’’re challenging a little girl, you heathen.”
“Heathen?” Salome barked. “I am… I have sacrificed…” She would never get through to these people. She would never show them the errors of their ways, nor the folly in their actions. “fine.” She turned away once more, knowing full well that nothing she would say would make them see what she saw.. “Leave me alone. That is all I ask.”
Another tomato smacked up against her armor, hitting her square in the back, but she didn’t turn. She didn’t stop when they jeered and threw curses at her. She continued walking, into the wilderness. Alone.
Night enveloped the world in darkness. Only the creatures of the night would be able to make their way through, so it would normally have been no problem for her. However, the disgusting stench of rotten vegetables stunk up her holy armor. She stopped at a small clearing, letting the sounds of the forest calm her mind. But the chirping of frogs and crickets could not drown out the names that were called to her. “Monster… Heathen. Clutter.” She roared, tightening her gauntleted fist, and threw a punch into a nearby tree. The metal cracked the wood, and there was a silence, for a time. When there came no follow-up, their natural discourse continued, proving to the knight that her frustration and rage did not matter, even in the land of chaos.
She rested her head against the injured trunk of the tree. Tenderly, she caressed the wise old plant, muttering her apologies to the natural world. These trees were, after all, , a gift from the Goddess. They made order out of chaos, and yet, she repaid its beauty with hate. That smell wafted by her nose once more, breaking away whatever serene thoughts began to creep up within her. The knight grabbed her helmet, working off clasps and belts. She spun around and leaned her back against the bark of the battered trunk, her hands yanking off the avian helmet. She gasped once her face was freed and took a deep breath as she was once alone, taking in the fresh, unfiltered air.
She scrambled to work off the gauntlets., Frantically, her covered hand worked on the other one. Such armor is only ever donned with the aid of a squire or some other servant, but out here in the wilderness, she only had her own hands, encased in a veneer of nobility, to rip off the only thing protecting her accursed form from the perils of the outside world.
It took her longer than she cared to count, but by the time her tired muscles cried in protest in her frantic and anger-fueled attempt to be free, she was sitting on the ground, legs clad in metal and spread on the ground, her head pressed back on the tree she had damaged, and the dark of the night in full swing, the forest making even the light of the moon obscured.
Her chest rose and fell steadily, and her eyes closed. Despite having rid herself of most of the upper body’s coverings, with only the cool, sweat-drenched linen undershirt to cover her. The cool breeze came as a welcoming change from the stuffy mask she wore. She patted her hand against the ground, feeling for that covering. She then lifted it up, and though she could not see it, she knew she was looking at it head on, her nose wrinkling. This helmet, a sign both of her station, and a prison that keeps her safe. She slumped back onto the tree once more, and wrapped the metal thing under her arms, keeping it safe from brigands and bandits. Though she hated it, though she despised the truths it hid, she also loved it enough that she would never let it go, even in the cold embrace of death.
It was with that last thought that oblivion took her, granting her solace, at least for the night.