JEHANNA CONFRONTS THE PRIEST

            In the province of Drusinia, not far from the village of Reine, there lived a priest of Orgham in an ancient stone church overlooking the Eastern Sea. He was a slim, sallow fellow with dark hair streaked with gray, and his character was marked by a quiet, somber nature. He was a good priest as far as the villagers could say, for in the days of his residence at the church, there was no one in the village who lacked for food or comfort. But, for all his good deeds and pious living, the priest had few visitors and even fewer friends.

            Often in the night the priest of Orgham would ring the old church bells; and each time their clear, piercing sounds travelled on the salty breezes flowing from the Sea, all who heard them felt a chill in the depths of their soul. Those wakeful would stare up towards the forlorn little church where the lone priest dwelled and hate him for his bell ringing, though none could fathom why.

            Then it happened, during the fall of the year when the wind coming off the Eastern Sea smelled thickly of brine, the priest began ringing the bells of the church each night from midnight until just before dawn. Night after night, the inhabitants suffered and cursed the priest from the quiet of their beds, but none more so than a woman named Jehanna.

            Jehanna was not from the village of Reine at all, having spent much of her life in the vast and fertile grasslands of Ilissen far to the west, past the great peaks of the Bones of Eramet. Unused to the nighttime rituals of the priest, her heart was moved in anger at what she could only see as foolishness.

            One morning, after another sleepless night of bell ringing, Jehanna arose and set out just as the sun was chasing the fog from the land. With no one to watch her young son, she could do nothing but take him with her on her trek to the ancient church overlooking the sea.

            The path leading up towards the cliff where the stone church lay was long and winding, and Jehanna stopped often to collect her wayward child and keep him moving. When mother and son at last arrived at the church’s courtyard, the sun was bright and warm upon the grimy, timeworn stones. Taking her child’s hand firmly in hers, Jehanna marched up to the church’s wooden doors, shouting loudly for the priest to come out.

            Soon after, the doors of the church creaked open, revealing the priest of Orgham in his shabby robes with his deep-set eyes squinting in the bright sunlight. Without waiting for him to speak, Jehanna demanded settlement for her grievances and indeed, for all the grievances she felt the priest owed to the villager down below. The priest, being neither an impatient nor an impudent man, listened without interruption and when at last she had finished, he shook his head.

            “My child,” he said mildly, “I do not ring the bells to keep you all wakeful. But you must understand…yes, I want you to understand that the rites are old, ancient like this church, and there are things…reasons…which make the ringing necessary, even in the darkest hours of the night.”

            The woman scoffed. “Rites? What care I for the Rites? I have much work to do each day and many responsibilities. Always I must work until my eyes sting and my body aches. The Rites do nothing to make my work easier, or my load lighter! The hours between dusk and dawn are precious, for only then may I rest. The same could be said of all the others down in the village…and here you are, disturbing those blessed hours with bell ringing!”

            The priest fell silent and turned from her. It seemed to her that he had no answer. But a moment later, his eyes fell on the small child by her side and a faint smile softened the lines of his face. He nodded again.

            “Yes,” he said. “I suppose there is something to what you say, my child. One’s duties can and do indeed wear on body and soul. And at times, it may seem that we cannot withstand the demands placed on us, but the ancient ways – like the gods themselves – cannot so easily be cast aside.”

            He shuddered as though a heavy weight was placed on his shoulders and stepped away from her. “But now, alas! It is well into morning, and I have had no breakfast. Will you go back to the village, or shall I share what little I have with you before you go? The child seems hungry.”

            Jehanna hesitated, but the pleading eyes of her child compelled her. For whatever else was said of her in Reine, all would admit that she seemed a good and practical mother. As it was, she heaved a sigh and said, “We will stay then, I suppose.”

            The priest turned and led the way into the church. The three of them passed through the light-filled sanctuary, with its many windows and its roughly hewn benches, and all the while the small child stared in wonder at this place he had never seen. Even Jehanna found her agitation ease as they followed the priest of Orgham through the church. They came to another chamber, sparse and modest in size, with a table, two benches, and a larder some moments later.

            “I have only some bread and hard cheese,” the priest told them, shaking his head, “and I must fetch water from the well, but it is good food and will give you strength for the return home. Please rest yourself.”

            “We are grateful.” Jehanna replied, at last remembering the manners she had been taught as a child. “I am sorry to trouble you. It seems you have little yourself for all your generosity in the village.”

            “The hours are long here in the church; few come to worship Orgham the Unseen. But the gods take care of their own, my child, and Orgham is no different. Though you came with gnashing teeth, we would both have you leave with food in your belly. Hunger often enough leads to more wicked things, whether it is in the body or in the soul.”

            He gave her a sad smile. “Ah, forgive me. I offer food and instead give a lecture. It seems in his wisdom, Orgham was right to call me his servant. Please help yourself to the bread and cheese now, while I fetch the water.” Turning, he left the room; the sound of his swishing robes and padding footsteps quickly fading.

            Alone with her child in the room so sparsely furnished, Jehanna took the bread and cheese from the larder, and felt shame wash over her.

To Be Continued

© Copyright J.S. White

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