Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Untitled Fantasy Novel aka Paladin of Souls, Ista of Chalion, or who knows what yet...

Copyright Lois McMaster Bujold.

The whole party met in the grove for dawn prayers, for this the first full day of Ista's pilgrimage.  Dawn by courtesy, anyway -- the sun had been up for some hours before the inn's guests.  The innkeeper, his wife, and all their children and the servants were also turned out for the ceremony, as the visit of a divine of notable scholarship was evidently a rare event.  Besides which, Ista thought more cynically, there was the possibility that were he flatteringly-enough received, the divine might recommend other pilgrims to this decidedly minor holy attraction. 

As this wellspring was sacred to the Daughter, dy Cabon stood on the bank of the rivulet in the sun-dappled shade and commenced with a short springtime prayer from a small book of occasional devotions he carried in his saddlebag.  Exactly why this well was sacred to the Lady of Spring was a little unclear.  Ista found the innkeeper's assertion that it was the true secret location of the miracle of the virgin and the water jar a trifle unconvincing, as she knew of at least three other sites in Chalion alone that claimed that legend.  But the beauty of the place was surely excuse enough for its holy reputation.

Dy Cabon, his stained robes seeming almost white in this pure light, pocketed his book and cleared his throat for the morning lesson.  Since the tables behind them stood set and waiting for breakfast to be served when prayers were done, Ista was confident that the sermon would be succinct.  

“As this is the beginning of a spiritual journey, I shall go back to the tale of beginnings we all learned in our childhoods.”  The divine closed his eyes briefly, as if marshaling memory.  “Here is the story as Ordol writes it in his Letters to the Young Royse dy Brajar.”

His eyes opened again, and his voice took up a storyteller's rhythm.  “The World was first and the world was flame, fluid and fearsome.  As the flame cooled, matter formed and gained vast strength and endurance, a great globe with fire at its heart.  From the fire at the heart of the world slowly grew the World-Soul.

“But the eye cannot see itself, not even the Eye of the World-Soul.  So the World-Soul split in two, that it might so perceive itself; and so the Father and the Mother came into being.  And with that sweet perception, for the first time, love became possible in the heart of the World-Soul.  Love was the first of the fruits that the realm of the spirit gifted back to the realm of matter that was its fountain and foundation.  But not the last, for Song was next, then Speech.”  Dy Cabon, speaking, grinned briefly and drew another long breath.

“And the Father and the Mother between them began to order the world, that existence might not be instantly consumed again by fire and chaos and roiling destruction.  In their first love for each other they bore the Daughter and the Son, and divided the seasons of the world among them, each with its special and particular beauty, each to its own lordship and stewardship.  And in the harmony and security of this new composition, the matter of the world grew in boldness and complexity.  And from its strivings to create beauty, plants and animals and men arose, for love had come in to the fiery heart of the world, and matter sought to return gifts of spirit to the realm of spirit, as lovers exchange tokens.”

Satisfaction flickered across dy Cabon's suety features, and he swayed a trifle with his cadences as he became absorbed by his tale.  Ista suspected they were getting to his favorite part.

“But the fire at the heart of the world also held forces of destruction that could not be denied.  And from this chaos rose the demons, who broke out and invaded the world and preyed upon the fragile new souls growing there as a mountain wolf preys upon the lambs of the valleys.  It was the Season of Great Sorcerers.  The order of the world was disrupted, and winter and spring and summer and fall upended one into another.  Drought and flood, ice and fires, threatened the lives of men, and of all the marvelous plants and artful creatures that matter, infected by love, had offered on the altar of the World-Soul.

“Then one day a powerful demon-lord, wise and wicked by the consumption of many souls of men, came upon a man living alone in a little hermitage in a wood.  Like a cat who thinks to toy with her prey, he accepted the beggar's hospitality, and waited his chance to leap from the worn-out body he presently possessed to the fresh new one.  For the man, though clad in rags, was beautiful, his glance was like a sword-thrust and his breath perfume.

“But the demon lord was confounded when he accepted a little earthen bowl of wine, and drank it in one gulp, and prepared to pounce; for the saint had divided his own soul, and poured it out into the wine, and given it to the demon of his own free will.  And so for the first time, a demon gained a soul, and all the beautiful and bitter gifts of a soul.

“The demon lord fell to the floor of the woodland cell and howled with all the astonished woe of a child being born, for he was born in that moment, into the world of both matter and spirit.  And taking the hermit's body that was his free gift, and not stolen nor begrudged, he fled through the woods in terror back to his terrible sorcerer's palace, and hid.

“For many months he cowered there, trapped in the horror of his self, but slowly the great-souled saint began to teach him the beauties of virtue.  The saint was a devotee of the Mother, and called down her grace to heal the demon of his sin, for with the gift of free will had come the possibility of sin, and the burning shame of it, which tormented the demon as nothing had ever done before.  And between the lash of his sin and the lessons of the saint, the demon's soul began to grow in probity and power.  As a great sorcerer-paladin, with the Mother's favor fluttering upon his mailed sleeve, he began to move in the world of matter, and fight the baleful soulless demons on the gods' behalf in the places where They could not reach.

“The great-souled demon became the Mother's champion and captain, and She loved him without limit for his soul's incandescent splendor.  And so began the great battle to clear the world of demons run rampant, and restore the order of the seasons.

“The other demons feared him, and attempted to combine against him, but could not, for such cooperation was beyond their nature; still their onslaught was terrible, and the great-souled demon, beloved of the Mother, was slain on the final battlefield.

“And so was born the last god, the Bastard, love child of the goddess and the great-souled demon.  Some say He was born on the eve of the last battle, fruit of a union upon Her great couch, some say the grieving Mother gathered up the great-souled demon's shattered dear remains from the stricken field, and mixed them with Her blood, and so made the Bastard by Her great art.  However so, their Son, of all the gods, was given agency over both spirit and matter, for He inherited as servants the demons that his father's great sacrifice had conquered and enslaved and so swept out of the world.

“What is certainly a lie,” dy Cabon continued in a suddenly more prosaic, not to mention irate, tone of voice, “is the Quadrene heresy that the great-souled demon took the Mother by force, and so engendered the Bastard upon her against Her great will.  A scurrilous and senseless and blasphemous lie...”  Ista wasn't sure if he was still paraphrasing Ordol, or if that was his own gloss.  He cleared his throat, and finished more formally, “Here ends the tale and tally of the advent of the five gods.”

Ista had heard various versions of the tally of the gods what seemed several hundred times since childhood, but she had to admit, dy Cabon's delivery of the old story had the eloquence and sincerity to make it seem almost new again.  Granted, most versions did not give the complex story of the Bastard more space than the rest of the Holy Family put together, but everyone had to be allowed their favorites.  Despite herself, she was moved.

Dy Cabon returned to ritual and called down the five-fold benison, asking of each god their gifts, leading the respondents in praise in return.  Of the Daughter, growth and learning and love; of the Mother, children, health and healing; of the Son, good comradeship, hunting, and harvest; of the Father, children, justice, and an easy death in its due time. 

“And the Bastard grant us,” -- dy Cabon's voice, fallen into the soothing sing-song of ceremony, stumbled for the first time, slowing -- “in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain's peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word.  In darkness, understanding.”  He blinked, looking startled.

Ista's chin snapped up; for an instant, her spine seemed to freeze.  No.  No.  There is nothing here, nothing here, nothing here.  Nothing, do you hear me?  She forced her breath out slowly.

It was not the usual wording.  Most prayers asked to be spared the fifth god's attention, the master of all disasters out of season as he was.  The divine hastily signed himself, touching forehead, lip, navel, groin and heart, hand spread wide upon his chest above his broad paunch, and signed again in the air to call down blessing upon all assembled here.  The company, released, stirred and stretched, some breaking into low-voiced talk, some strolling away to their day's tasks.  Dy Cabon came toward Ista rubbing his hands and smiling anxiously.

“Thank you, Learned,” Ista said, “for that good beginning.”

  He bowed in relief at her approval.  “My very great pleasure, my lady.”  He brightened still further as the inn's servants hurried to bring out what promised to be a very hearty breakfast.  Ista, a little shamed by the excellence of his effort to have purloined the divine's ministrations with false pretences of a sham pilgrimage, was heartened by the reflection that dy Cabon was clearly enjoying his work.

© 2002 Lois McMaster Bujold