Thursday, May 12, 2005
Stoneheart Chapter 1
Chapter 1: Exile

    The sun was no longer high in the sky, and soon twilight would descend on the small village of Ekram.  On the northern side of the village, the sun cast its rays on the sand, transforming all to gold.  On the other side of Ekram, though, trees blocked most of the sunlight, granting shade to those who needed it.  Amid the sands on the edge of the village sat a young man, his loose dirt-stained white robes spread out around him.  His eyes were closed, and his face looked toward the setting sun and the desert sands.

    "Why's that man sleeping in the desert, mom?"  a young boy asked as he passed by the motionless man.

    The mother looked down on her child with a somewhat disapproving look on her face.

    "He's not sleeping, he's meditating," she told her son.

    "What's meditating?"  the inquisitive boy asked.

    "Meditating is thinking about Gaius and praying," the mother responded with a sigh before she pulled her son by the hand and continued on.

    This exchange went by mostly unnoticed by the immobile man, but a passing observer might have seen a glimmer of a smile appear on the man's face if he was to look hard enough.  The man stayed in his state of meditation for what seemed like hours, only opening his eyes when the sun began to set, painting the sky with multi-colored hues.  The young man looked out on this scene of the desert at twilight, and a broad smile appeared on his face.  He cast his eyes to the ground in prayer before getting up and returning home.

    As he walked through the village, many greeted him, for they had known him for most of his life.

    "Ean, good to see you!" one villager called out as he passed by.

    "How're things at the temple these days?" shouted another.

    "It's the soldier man!"  a group of young boys screamed out as they ran toward him and began to follow him.

    'Life is good.  Praise Gaius,' Ean, the young man who had been meditating, thought.

    Ean continued along the dirt road he was walking until he came to a rather nondescript cube-shaped house.  He walked up to the door of this dwelling, opened it, and walked in.  As the final rays of sunshine sank beneath the horizon, light began to flood out of the window of this house, like the other houses around it.

* * *

    Night in the desert was a glorious thing.  The sun had set, and a coldness began to settle among the dunes.  The moon rose, casting a silver light on the desert floor, transforming it into a land of shifting silver rather than one of gold.  Most people never really took the time to appreciate all of this.  These thoughts and more went through Ean's mind as he opened the door of his house and walked outside into the moonlit night.

    Since almost before he could remember, Ean had worked at the Shrine of Gaius, the center of religious life in his village.  He had never really thought about why he was here or how he had gotten here, but rather accepted the fact that he was here as the will of Gaius, and he intended to make the best of life as a worker in the shrine in order to bring glory to his god.

    Over the years, Ean had filled many roles in the shrine.  Early on in his life, shortly after being taken in by the shrine following the deaths of his parents, he had been a janitor of sorts, cleaning up after the worship of the day was over in order to earn his keep.  Later on, he became an acolyte and trained to become a priest in the shrine.  However, he finally found his direction in life that one week in the winter when he had been drafted to be a partner to one of the shrine guards.

    The job hadn't really been all that great, but for some reason, it captured young Ean's imagination.  The guard that he was an aide for, Ram, was getting older, and so he was a bit prone to falling asleep at inopportune times.  Whenever his turn for the night shift came up, they began to have one of the acolytes sit with him in order to keep him awake and aware.  The day Ean had filled this role, his life was changed forever.  That calm night in the desert, he just listened to the older man talk about his experiences as a shrine guard and watched the desert at night.  At the time, it was all absolutely glorious.  Those night-time chats had led him onto the course he was on now: working as a shrine guard.

    Tonight, he had night shift, and it was another wonderful night to revel in.  Ean walked down the darkened dirt streets, between the square buildings made of hardened sand until he came to the domes.  In the center of the domes lay the greatest one of all: the shrine to Gaius.  There was only one doorway into the shrine, but many windows looking out toward the desert sky and let the night air in.  Ean walked toward the door, and waved to the guard that was still on duty.  The other guard waved back.

    "Ean!  You're here early, as usual.  Thanks, I wanted to get home early tonight," the other guard said cheerfully, though more than a hint of tiredness could be heard in his voice.

    "No problem," Ean responded, "I just love night duty.  The desert's absolutely wonderful at night.  It makes me feel like I understand a whole new aspect of  Gaius."

    "Are you still going on about that?  Oh well, I don't get it, but I'm sure the priests do.  Have a good evening, friend," the other guard said before bowing briefly and walking off.

    Ean took his place by the door as he watched his fellow guard disappear into the night-darkened streets.  He settled back against the wall, his armor clinking against the hardened sand and a spear cradled in one of his arms, and simply enjoyed the night.

    It was his love of the night desert and the amount of attention he paid to it that was to be his undoing.  So intent was he on meditating on the attributes of Gaius as revealed by the desert night that he didn't even see the dart until it was embedded in his skin.  A few seconds later, he went down, unconscious.  A shadow stepped over his fallen body and slipped into the now unguarded shrine.

    The desert night looked on with apathy.

* * *

    Morning light and night-cooled water assaulted Ean's senses.  When he opened his eyes, he saw a rather disgruntled priest looking down at him.  The priest was holding a recently-emptied water jar, and all about him other priests hustled.

    "Wha..." was all that Ean could manage to say before the priest interrupted him.

    "Ean.  The high priest wants to see you in the village square now," the priest said before walking off.

    As he walked away, Ean thought that he heard the man mutter, "Is he in for it now..."

    Still groggy, Ean staggered toward the exit to the shrine, his armor clanking.  He noticed that his spear was nowhere to be seen.  That priest had probably taken it so that no one would trip on it.  As he walked down the road toward the square, Ean became aware of a great crowd of people both around him and ahead of him.  He hadn't seen such a number in one place in the village since the last festival, and today was in no way one of those.  The shrine guard continued down the road, content to learn what the fuss was once he found the high priest.

    From the center of the village square, around the main well for the community, Ean heard the shouting of the Anoth, the high priest.

    "Do not fear!" the high priest called out to the crowd, "Gaius has not forsaken us.  This is just a test of our faith, a trial of whether we rely overmuch on physical images in our worship of the divine.  Devote yourselves to Gaius and he will protect you.  Pray to him that he would return the Divine Belt to us shortly."

    This minor speech only served to confuse Ean more.  He had no idea what Anoth was rambling on about, but whatever it was had almost the entire village whipped into a frenzy.

    Just then, Anoth spied Ean in the crowd.

    "Shrine Guard Ean, come up here!" he called out.

    Ean complied, doing his best to make his way through the solid wall of bodies that lay between him and the well.  A few tried to move out of the way so that he could pass, but most of the villagers were so preoccupied that they couldn't be bothered to give even an inch.  As he finally pushed his way through the last swarm of people, he found himself face to face with the high priest and one of the priestesses that he had seen enter and exit the shrine from time to time during guard duty.

    "Here they are!" the high priest called out to the village, "Those who are responsible for this disaster."

    Ean looked down to see the angry faces of a mob composed of those he considered friends just the other day.  A few looked like they were about to jump up and attack him with whatever was on hand.  Ean looked around, and found that the only one with a different expression was the priestess standing next to him.  Absolute terror was written all over her features.

    "What is going on?" Ean hissed to the high priest.

    Anoth merely glared at him and called out to the crowd, "The guard wants to know what is going on!"

    Furious shouts, screeches, and threats came from within the crowd.  Ean, still as puzzled as ever, looked toward the high priest for an explanation.  After what seemed an eternity of jeers and screams, he received one.

    "Last night," the high priest began, "You and Thea here were looking after the shrine.  You guarded the door while she kept the prayer vigil.  During the night, the belt was stolen!  You and Thea were found...sleeping!"

    Understanding washed through Ean's mind.  Fragments of memories from the night before connected with those of this morning, and he realized exactly what the crowd was so upset about.

    "How can I do penance for this grave sin?" Ean asked Anoth in a pleading tone.

    "How can you atone?" the high priest shouted back, "How can you do penance?"

    Angry shouts and screams came once again from the crowd, and Ean somehow knew that his life was over.

    "Hear me, people of  Ekram!" the high priest called to the crowd in the loftiest voice he could manage, "For their mortal sin of neglecting their duty and so allowing the Divine Belt to be stolen, Shrine Guard Ean and Priestess Thea shall be stripped of their position and responsibilities with the shrine.  From this day forward, they belong to the laity!"

    Cheers erupted from the crowd, and it was a few minutes until the high priest was able to continue with his proclamation.

    "For their crimes, Ean and Thea shall also be banished from Ekram until the belt is recovered.  Until that day, they may never return under penalty of death."

    More cheering was heard, but there was no cheer in Ean's heart.  All that he cherished and hoped for...crushed and taken away in just one day.  He looked over to Thea, and found a devastated look on her face as well.

    Exiled.  They were exiled until the belt was returned, and for all Ean knew, that would never happen.

Posted at 8:40 pm by RedMage
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