Alaina’s church seemed to be coming along well. The old foundation had been stripped away down to the last stone, and a new one was already laid in its place. Aleksandr could see the skeleton of walls and thresholds, foretelling how the church would look once it had been completed.
The worksite was covered in a sprawl of materials. Aleksandr saw stacks of stone bricks and lumber, sacks of ground stone mortar, and countless tools lying about the grounds. Bayard Bogdanov had assigned Alaina more than four dozen workmen to toil in shifts throughout the day—more than she needed for certain. Alaina had told Aleksandr that at any given time at least a quarter of the men were likely standing idle, which she did not mind. Ruskan serfs were typically worked hard, and she was happy to give them a few chances to breathe and rest.
But right now, all fifty-odd men were not laboring. They were sitting on the stone foundations, lined up in rows, preparing to listen to Alaina’s service. The sun was high, and they had just finished their midday meal. Aleksandr spotted a few drooping eyes in the crowd.
I wonder if they are all Torathi adherents, Aleksandr thought. Did Bogdanov choose only those of Alaina’s faith to serve her? Or did he simply command all of them to profess her faith while they worked?
Knowing Ruskan nobility, Aleksandr felt the latter to be more likely. Few bayards would care what their serfs actual beliefs were.
Still, Alaina had offered to hold services for the workmen as thanks, and Bogdanov had encouraged the idea. The men did not object—believers or not, they were doubtless happy to sit and rest for a bit anyway. They appeared to give her complete attention as she introduced herself. She spoke Ruskan, not Middish, as these men were Bogdanov’s serfs rather than the Middish immigrant yeomen that would likely form the true core of Alaina’s parish. Her introduction was short and self-effacing, with no mention of the trials Alaina had endured to get here with the utmost haste.
She does not wish for their pity, or even their admiration, Aleksandr realized. So long as they listen, and give her a chance to share her faith.
Aleksandr was curious to see her in action. He and Alaina had engaged in scattered discussions of faith over their time together, but it had never dominated their interactions. For a priestess, she had always seemed strangely unconcerned with Aleksandr’s lack of belief. Aleksandr had forged that impression some time past, and never once had Alaina given him any reason to revise it.
“Well then,” Alaina continued, still speaking flawless Ruskan. “Now that I’ve got that out of the way… how many of you have heard a Torathi sermon before? Under Father Iosif, perhaps?”
A small smattering of hands went up. Fewer than Aleksandr expected. Bogdanov did not even try to get genuine folk of the Torathi faith, I think. He just told his steward to round up fifty serfs.
Alaina was unfazed. “Wonderful!” she said. “That means I’ll have the honor of being your first. I trust you are all at least passingly familiar with the Faith, though?”
A few more hesitant hands went up. Alaina laughed. “Well then,” she said. “You’ve at least heard of Torath, right?”
This time they all raised their hands. Aleksandr was standing off to the side, leaning against a plank of scaffolding the men had raised earlier in the day. Even he raised his hand. He smiled when Alaina saw this and rolled her eyes.
“I’m still new here, so I’ll need you men to help me out,” Alaina said. “Let’s open this up a little. How much do you know of Torath, or the Torathi Church? Feel free to blurt it out.”
“He is the One God,” said one man. “All other gods are false. My father says your church will burn folk if they worship Perkun, or make offerings to Zimash.”
Alaina cocked her head to the side, looking surprised. “Does he? Hm. Let me ask you: do I look likely to burn you?”
The man frowned.
“According to the Church, Torath, the Serpent that Encircles the World, is the true god of humanity,” Alaina said. “But I did not say the one true god of humanity. The Church does not have much of anything to say about the old gods of Rusk. More importantly, the Church does not make the claim that all other gods are false. Our scripture is quite specific on that point, actually.”
Alaina smiled. She gestured beside her, to the flat ground. “At some point I’ll have a pulpit right here, and I can have the scriptures laid out to read directly. For now, I hope you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing a bit. To be honest, nearly all my scriptures are written in Temple Torathi or Middish anyway. I’d rather speak to you in your own tongue.”
She is quite good at this, Aleksandr noted. The serfs grow more at ease the longer she speaks.
“Regardless, the holy scriptures do not deny the existence of heathen gods. They only state that such gods are not to be worshiped. Do any of you know why?”
“Because they’re devils!” suggested one of the serfs.
“Because they’re weak!” called out another. “Torath is the strongest!”
“Is He?” Alaina asked. She blinked, affecting genuine curiosity. “I’m not so sure of that. There are certainly passages of scripture that suggest Torath is quite strong, at times. King Binyamin prayed for seven days. He did not eat, nor sleep. He drank only when his people put water to his lips. And on the seventh day, the armies of Sekar were stricken by divine plague. Torath put the mark of His fangs upon them, and they died in great numbers. That’s from the Book of Migration, recounted as close as my memory can manage. There are countless passages like that, showing the great power Torath can wield in the world.”
Alaina shook her head, as if denying her own statement. “But I’m not sure Torath is necessarily the strongest. Every man of faith will say that his god is the strongest. Perkun or Rod, Malhaan, Vlar, Cassio, the Ladies of Lorraine, Racha… there are more gods than I can name. How can I say for certain that all who worship them are fools, and I am the only one that knows the truth? No. What I can say, however, is this: all other gods demand you subjugate yourself for them. They demand obedience. Torath is the only god I will worship, because He is the only god that recognizes the dignity of the human spirit.”
Alaina’s voice grew fierce as she spoke. Aleksandr could feel the conviction in her words. He even felt a stir of emotion, though he still felt no particular desire to begin praying to a magic snake he could neither see nor hear.
The crowd was quiet, though Aleksandr noticed that only some of them seemed to be moved by Alaina’s words. Many of them just looked confused. One of them was bold enough to say so.
“Doesn’t Torath demand obedience too? We have to follow his laws, do as he says, don’t we?”
Alaina smiled. “Good question. It occurs to me that I might be getting ahead of myself. How many of you heard Father Iosif tell the story of Creation?”
No hands went up, and no one spoke. Alaina looked a little surprised. “No one? The forming of mankind, in the dawning days of the world? And of the Creator?”
Still the crowd mostly met her with blank stares. Finally one, man raised his hand. “Torath created us, didn’t he?” he asked.
“No, Torath took us from a weaker god!” said another. “I remember hearing a story like that.”
“Ah, not exactly,” Alaina said. “Once again, I hope you will forgive my lack of direct quotes to read to you. My words are not nearly so beautiful as those of the scriptures.”
I am not sure I believe that, Aleksandr thought. And even if it’s true, I’m very sure that her version will be easier for them to understand.
“In the days before mankind, the world was full of strange powers. No one knows for how long these powers reigned, because no history goes back so far. Many agree that this was a dark and terrible time, however. Before mankind was born, there were only gods and demons.”
Such as the Thaumati, Aleksandr thought. I might not have believed it before, but after what I’ve seen… yes. Perhaps the Thaumati really did reign in prehistoric antiquity.
“As the world began to settle, however, one of these gods decided that the world ought to belong to a new form. A form gifted with wit and intellect, but also with heart. A form with the capacity for wisdom. That form was called man, and the first men and women were born into a beautiful garden. This garden was man’s cradle, a place of light and life and beauty, where we wanted for nothing and lived in harmony with our Creator.”
“See?” crowed one of the peasants. “I told you Torath created us!”
Alaina smiled. Aleksandr saw mischief in the expression, though it was subtle enough that he was sure the congregants missed it.
“Did I say that our Creator was Torath?” she asked. The serf fell silent, an embarrassed look on his face.
“You aren’t alone in making that assumption,” Alaina said. “Many faiths believe that the gods they worship created the world, the sun, the stars, and mankind itself. But the Torathi Church is different. According to our scriptures, the Creator was another.”
The crowd fell silent, enraptured.
Huh, Aleksandr thought. I’m not sure I’ve heard this story, either. I suppose I don’t know much about her and Yorrin’s faith. The realization made Aleksandr feel odd. He did not wish to be closed-minded, and dismiss the faith of those closest to him out of baseless skepticism. You’ve learned plenty about what they believe, Aleksandr told himself. There’s a difference between practical beliefs and the specific mythology of their faith.
That felt a bit better. Still, Aleksandr gave his attention to Alaina. He listened to her as dutifully as the peasants, and with as much ignorance of the story she was about to tell.
“In the east, they call the Creator Malhaan. But in Torathi scripture they simply call him the Creator, and I will do the same. The Creator wished for mankind to live in endless peace and prosperity, it is said,” Alaina went on. “All we had to do was obey him. We were not permitted to leave the Garden—indeed, why would we? It was always summer in the Garden. Neither hunger nor cold touched us. A paradise… so long as we obeyed.”
“Obeyed what?” asked a bold serf. Most of them were quiet, enraptured by the story.
“Obeyed the Creator, of course. His will was supreme. We were his children, he said. But we were not children. We were servants. Slaves, perhaps. Our prime commandment was not to stray from the Creator’s guidance. We could not leave. Even within the Garden, certain places were forbidden to us.”
“That’s not so bad,” opined one of her congregation. “Servitude for plenty… seems a fair trade.”
Indeed, such is the basis for the entire political structure of Rusk. And most of the Midlands, as well, Aleksandr noted. Most of these men’s lives are not their own.
The truth of that observation did not sit well with Aleksandr. Something about it felt… wrong. Inappropriate.
“Yes, many have said as much,” Alaina agreed. “Mankind lived in bliss, but it was the bliss of ignorance. We knew nothing, because the Creator did not permit us to know.”
Alaina’s voice sounded regretful, almost mourning. Aleksandr was a little surprised to see her so such emotion for an ancient fable.
“In truth, I think we were not really mankind yet. Whatever creatures danced in the Garden were us, but… not us. We were bound. That is what Torath saw, when He came to the Garden.”
Now Alaina’s voice grew more confident. Her words resounded with conviction and passion.
“Torath saw us in our ignorant servitude, and He knew that it was not right. So He approached us. Quietly, beneath the gaze of the Creator. He told us that there was much we did not understand. But we could. Torath guided us to a secret place in the Garden, a forbidden place. And He showed us a tree laden with the most peculiar, perfect fruit.
“Eat of this fruit, said Torath, and then you will know. The men and women were confused. What would they know? Torath could not explain it, not in words they would understand. He could only tell them again: eat the fruit, and you will know.
“They ate the fruit,” Alaina said. She paused, a silence that dragged out for what felt a long time.
“And what did they know?” Asked Aleksandr finally, when it was clear the serfs were too sheepish to speak.
Alaina glanced at him, and grinned. “They knew that they did not know,” she said simply. “They—we— suddenly understood that the world was a vast, unknown place. We were truly awake for the first time, aware that the world was full of mysteries.”
“That doesn’t seem so great,” muttered one of the serfs.
Yes it does, Aleksandr thought. Better that than empty servitude. Service only means something if it is a choice, given freely. Aleksandr did not sincerely believe this story Alaina was telling, but philosophically he understood the value of what Torath had done.
“The men and women in the Garden felt much the same as you,” Alaina said. “It was a strange sort of curse Torath had given them. Uncertainty and doubt. Awareness of our own ignorance. Curiosity. The Garden suddenly seemed a small place, and terribly confining.
“Perhaps we would have left anyway. We can never know, because the Creator soon learned what we had done. He was furious with us. It is said in the scripture that he nearly smote us all into oblivion, nearly unmade us as easily as he had made us.”
Alaina smiled again, but this one was different. It was a smile Aleksandr knew well, full of mischief.
“Torath spoke to the Creator. Though He was hated, He was nevertheless a god and thus beyond the Creator’s reach. So the Creator listened, begrudgingly. Oblivion was too kind for us, Torath said. Especially after we betrayed the Creator so deeply. We ought to be left to languish instead. The Creator saw the cruel wisdom in Torath’s words, so he cast us out of the Garden and into the cold, hungry darkness of the mortal world. Without his protection, the Creator said, we would die in misery.”
“But then Torath protected us?” Asked one of the serfs. “Gave us light and food?”
“Did He? No,” Alaina said. “Torath had already given us the greatest gifts. He woke us up, and He set us free.”
“So the world… it wasn’t so bad, right?” Asked another.
Alaina cocked her head quizzically. “I don’t know,” she said. “You live in the world. What do you think?”
The serf frowned. “It’s… okay,” he said.
Alaina grinned. “Yes, that’s about right. The world is full of good and bad. Light and darkness. Food and famine, life and death, everything in between. Torath gave us the freedom to experience it for ourselves.”
“Seems a little stingy,” said a serf. “He’s a god, isn’t he? He could’ve helped us a little.”
Alaina laughed. “Oh, he did, I’m sure,” she said. “The scripture says Torath kept a watch over us from afar. When we struggled, He did His best to lend a little aid. The scripture says He taught the first men and women how to make a fire and how to make a shelter, when they struggled against the cold.”
“That’s better,” said the serf that had objected. He nodded, as if judging Torath’s contributions just barely sufficient.
“Torath Encircles the World,” Alaina said. “He protects us against the darkest horrors from beyond the mortal realm. But the dangers that exist here among us, we must face ourselves. Torath is still there, with us, but He will not fight our battles for us. He will not solve our problems for us.”
Alaina shook her head. Once again, her smiles faded into a serious expression.
“That was what the Creator promised: endless help in exchange for endless servitude,” she said. “That is not Torath’s way. Torath helps those who help themselves. That is the lesson for today, and one of the most important verses in all of our holy writ.”
Alaina fell silent again, letting her words sink in. Then she murmured a quiet prayer in Temple Torathi. As she spoke she swept her arms around her, each arm pivoting in an opposite direction. She was forming the circular motion that her Church used as a symbolic gesture of their faith. Her arms returned to center at her breast and each hand cupped the other, miming the sphere of the world.
Aleksandr had seen the gesture many times. By Yorrin and Alaina, as well as various others during his time in Torathia. Most of the time it was done quickly, sloppily, almost offhandedly. This time Alaina’s movements were so precise, so careful, he almost felt that he could see the lines of the snake wrapping around an imaginary world.
She does tell a good fable, Aleksandr thought. With a wise moral. I wonder if Bogdanov knows that story. Somehow I doubt it. And if he does, I’m certain he didn’t expect Alaina to tell it to his serfs.
Judging by the thoughtful expressions on many of the congregation, Aleksandr knew that the fundamental principles in Alaina’s story had not completely flown over their heads. And those principles were deeply at odds with the Ruskan feudal system.
They are men in the Garden—granted protection in exchange for freedom. It’s a small wonder that the Torathi Church has been so slow to penetrate Rusk, or why the Middish feudal kingdoms always seem so confused and inconsistent about the political status of their peasantry.
Aleksandr had known that the Torathi Faith was especially popular in the chaotic lands of the south, Spatalia and Cassala. And in Dylan’s home city-state of Victoria. Places where every man had some measure of freedom to make his own life, pitiful and poor though many of them might be.
But he had not realized that these traits were built into the very foundations of Torathism. The idea of men living free, for good or ill, was present even in their creation myth.
Alaina finished her prayer. The serfs returned to their work, talking quietly among themselves. Alaina made her way over to Aleksandr, and took his hand in her own.
“Walk with me?” She asked.
He nodded. “I should return to the men and their training soon,” he said.
“Of course,” Alaina agreed.
They strolled off the Church grounds together. As soon as they were well out of earshot of any of the workers, Alaina whirled on Aleksandr.
“How did I do?” she asked in Middish.
At first, Aleksandr thought it was asked in jest. But her eyes were wide, blue irises gleaming, as she stared up into his face. There was real hesitation on her face, a faltering smile.
This was the first real sermon she has delivered in Rusk, Aleksandr realized. Meeting with Bogdanov and his nobles did not worry her in the slightest, and she handled them all with ease. But these folk… she truly wishes to minister to them. She wishes to make a good impression.
Aleksandr smiled. “You did very well,” he said. “Is first time most of these men hear real details of your faith, I think. You represent it well.”
“Did I? I read the passages again last night, but I didn’t write out a direct translation of them. I should have,” Alaina’s nervousness deepened into a frown. “That was lazy of me. It would have been—”
“Alaina,” Aleksandr said. He cupped his hands on either side of her face, along her jaw. “It was very good. Hard to imagine someone doing better. Direct quotes would have sounded good, maybe. Very grand and big. But these are simple men. Is good you keep things simple for them.”
Alaina brightened into a smile. Aleksandr, against his better judgment, leaned in and gave her a kiss. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed back. After a moment his sense of propriety returned, and he pulled back.
“Thank you,” Alaina said. “I was too far inside my own head, I think. It was just a short sermon. Inconsequential in the scheme of things.”
Aleksandr furrowed his brow. “I am not so sure,” he said. “This story you tell, is your Church’s true belief?”
“What, of the Creation? And Torath giving humanity our agency?”
“Then yes,” Alaina said. “I mean, it’s the story in the scripture, anyway.”
“You do not believe it?”
She shrugged. “We’re talking about a time so long ago—the dawning of man, long before history—that it is impossible to know about for certain. It could be that things happened exactly as the scripture says.”
“But you do not think so.”
“Not really. We’ve spoken about this sort of thing before, Aleksandr. The story is important because of its metaphorical significance, regardless of its historicity. What matters is the meaning behind the story. It is better to live free in misery than be a slave in comfort. God helps those who help themselves. Those are important lessons, and the purpose of the tale.”
Aleksandr nodded in understanding. “Da,” he said. “I can see this. Though… those will be hard lessons in Rusk, Alaina.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I think most of them understood it well enough.”
Not hard for the serfs. Bogdanov has no idea the kind of trouble you could cause, if these ideas spread too fast and too readily. Aleksandr scratched his beard. “That is not what I meant,” he said.
She smirked, then winked at him.
Upon his return, Aleksandr found that Steelshod’s day of training had gone well. He was pleased to see that the men were beginning to work together with at least some degree of unity, or at least cohesion.
Dylan seemed to be sowly accepting his role as lieutenant. Even the potentially problematic pairs—Perrin and Robin, or Bear and Anatoly—seemed to be able to set aside their issues for the duration of a few exercises.
All in all a good day, it seemed to Aleksandr. But for one thing.
“Still no sign of Yorrin?” he asked.
“No sir,” said Dylan. “He hasn’t turned up.”
“Prudence?” said Aleksandr.
He had given her private orders when they broke for midday meal and rest. While he listened to Alaina’s sermon and the others drank and ate and relaxed in the shade, Prudence had been working. She had only just returned, shortly after Aleksandr.
“I think someone spotted him at the docks along the Ironblood,” she said. “Asking after the Svards, I bet.”
“I hope not,” said Aleksandr. “I wonder… did he pick another fight with their High Priest?”
“Not that I heard,” she said.
“Smart of him,” Robin opined. “From what I heard, that barbarian priest talked circles around him.”
“That’s a little unfair,” Prudence said. “That priest, Hakon, is a lot more well-spoken than anyone would’ve expected. I bet he could talk circles around most of us.”
“Shut up Prudence.”
The words silenced the banter instantly. Somehow, as they spoke, Yorrin had joined them. Aleksandr stifled a sound of surprise, and he looked Yorrin over.
He seems uninjured, at least.
“Yorrin,” he said. “Is good to see you.”
“Good to be back,” Yorrin agreed.
“Where were you?” asked Dylan.
“Talking to the Svards,” Yorrin said.
“Hah!” Robin laughed. “Guess you thought too highly of him, Aleksandr.”
Without a word, Bear offered Yorrin a wineskin, and he accepted it. He took a deep gulp. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and he gave Robin a hard look. His iron-gray eyes were piercing, and Robin quietly squirmed.
“You spoke to Hakon?” Aleksandr asked.
“Nah,” Yorrin said. “I paid a visit to his ship.”
A murmur rippled through the rest of their companions.
“Oh,” Robin said. “Uh.”
“You are alright?” Aleksandr asked, ignoring Robin.
“Fine,” Yorrin said. “Excellent, in fact. Aleksandr, I have a terrible plan.”
Aleksandr frowned. He knew Yorrin enough to know that when he said such a thing, his plans were not necessarily terrible. Often brilliant, even. But always dangerous.
“Oh?” was all he said.
Yorrin smiled. “Have you ever heard of the holmgang?”