"The Priest"

By James Berardinelli

    The gods were dead. Whether dead to men or dead in fact, it hardly mattered. For one who had devoted the entirety of a life to their service, no fact could be more bitter. For the better part of nineteen years, Brother Valdemar had lived in denial but he could no longer pretend that the unthinkable hadn't happened. When he prayed at night, the only ears to hear his voice were his own. When he gave thanks at meals, only the cooks acknowledged the praise. All that mattered - all that had ever mattered - was gone. The world had become a place where the wages of righteousness were no different than the fruits birthed by the wicked.

    A woman approached him. She beamed at him - a wide, cheerful smile, as if she was genuinely pleased to see him. If she wondered why someone in priestly raiment would be in an establishment like this, it never showed. She was attractive, the kind of buxom blonde innkeepers liked to hire as serving girls. She wore a loose-fitting blouse and, when she bent to sweep the crumbs off his table with a rag she carried, he caught a glimpse down the gaping "v" of her neck. She might have held the pose a fraction of second longer than was necessary, allowing the image to burn itself into his memory. Not since childhood had he seen a female breast and the ones he had been exposed to at a young age hadn't been as full and ripe. Valdemar felt a stirring between his legs. How long had it been since that had happened?

    "What can I getcha, sir?" she asked.

    He knew nothing about spirits. Water was the only liquid to have passed his lips for decades. He looked into her blue eyes, unsure what to say.

    "Ale?" She supplied. He seized on her suggestion and nodded. She winked then turned and headed for the bar where the inn's owner, a retired adventurer, regaled his customers with exaggerated tales of his past exploits.

    What was he doing here in a place of ill repute? As yet, he had broken none of his vows but he was on the edge. Ogling a woman's chest and placing an order for a forbidden drink… But the gods wouldn't strike him down for his sin. In fact, was there even such a thing as "sin" anymore? His theology never prepared him for a situation like this.

    When the girl returned with his drink - a large pewter mug filled with a strong-smelling beverage - he handed her a small pile of studs, unaware of whether the amount satisfied the price. He could tell by her surprised expression that he had overpaid, but it hardly mattered. She leaned across the table, giving him a longer, clearer view. "If you want anything, if you need anything, just ask for me. The name's Annie."

    When she was gone, he gazed into the auburn depths of the mug as if it was poison. Once he touched that to his lips, he would cross a boundary he never thought he would come to. Doubt and fear had brought him to this point. The core of his existence, everything that had meaning for him, had been stripped away, leaving behind only a yearning for something to fill the void. The gods couldn't do it. Perhaps immersing himself in impure thoughts and immoral actions could.

    As the fourth son of a landed earl in the southern city of Basingham, he had grown up knowing his path would most likely take him into the priesthood. His oldest brother would inherit his father's estate. His other two elder brothers would marry advantageously. He was the "spare" in case one or more of them died. Unlike other noble children in his situation, he never resented the material things he would lose by saying his vows. From the early days when his nanny spoke to him about the gods, he believed his calling to be true. The gods had made him a fourth son so he could serve them. To that end, he spent many of his early days as a scholar and ascetic, rarely touching strong drink even when it was presented and never sampling the charms of the serving girls who offered themselves to him with the hope of gaining favor.

    At age 15, he formally entered the Basingham Temple for his novitiate. Following nine months of intense prayer, contemplation, and training, he was invested with the rank of "priest" and sent to the High Temple in Vantok to continue his service under the tutelage of Prelate Ferguson, the most revered servant of the gods in the whole of the civilized world. The day when his name was called along with only three others to travel to Vantok remained one of his happiest memories. How could he have guessed then that 30 years later he would be in the city for far different reasons?

    His term of servitude within Vantok's Temple lasted the requisite 10 years. During that time, he rarely saw the Prelate and only on three occasions was he accorded a one-on-one audience. Despite being an old man, Ferguson had the energy and bearing of someone a third of his age and always seemed to be in a rush for a meeting or appointment. His questions to Valdemar were perfunctory and his benediction curt, but that mattered little to the priest - he was simply glad that the most holy man in the world deigned to address him.

    Toward the end of his tenure, he was given charge of one of the new novices who, like Valdemar, was the lesser son of a prominent noble in Basingham. Although Valdemar was unfamiliar with the lad, whose name was Justin, he knew the family. Justin's reputation painted him as a dissolute rake but Valdemar found him to be humble, pious, and intelligent - qualities not often found in 14-year old boys coming from noble backgrounds. He and Justin got along well but their time together was limited by necessity. Once Valdemar's decade was completed, he was sent to a small village in the North where he would replace a recently deceased cleric.

    The biggest adjustment for Valdemar was the weather. Born and bred Basingham's warm climate, when only the heart of Winter offered the possibility of snow, the priest's new home boasted frigid temperatures for the bulk of the year, with only Summer not courting frost in the mornings. Still, he was happy there, doing the work of the gods - offering succor and comfort to all who needed it. His ministry numbered less than four dozen families but it was a good post, at least in the early years.

    Then it happened. Like most priests, Valdemar wasn't immediately aware although, looking back on that day, he remembered a vague sense of dissatisfaction during his nightly prayers. Normally, the hour he spent on his knees by the side of his bed was the most comforting time of the day as he basked in communion with the deities. That night, however, something was missing. Only now did he know the truth of what happened: the gods had abandoned their creations.

    The relative isolation of Valdemar's hamlet stalled the dawn of recognition. When merchants brought ugly rumors along with their goods, the priest could dismiss their words as the grumblings of those who had lost their faith. His own convictions were certain, his belief unshakeable. There had always been malcontents and deniers and if there were more in these days, that was the way of the world. If the gods were testing Valdemar, he was certain not to be found wanting. Until, that is, the day when Brother Augmentin arrived.

     Valdemar had known Augmentin from his time in Vantok. They hadn't been friends but Valdemar had admired the older acolyte for his dedication. They lost touch when Augmentin was posted. The man who came to visit was nothing like the stern puritan Valdemar remembered. In his place was a slovenly drunkard, a hedonist so deep in apostasy that it was difficult to believe he had ever worn the garb of a servant of the gods. His greeting to Valdemar was warm, like that of an estranged sibling eager to reconnect.

    Augmentin didn't remain for many days but his stay shook Valdemar to the core. It was one thing to ignore the rumors spread by merchants but quite another to hear the same words come from the mouth of a man he had served alongside for six years in the holiest building in the South. Why, Augmentin asked, was Valdemar staying true to his vows when the ones to whom they were given had turned away? According to him, it was time for the priests to find a new calling now that the gods had cast aside their favor.

    After Augmentin's departure, Valdemar determined that he needed resolution to his growing crisis of faith and the only place he could get that was far to the south, in Vantok. He resolved to make the long trip and request an audience with the prelate. While Ferguson rarely agreed to meet with supplicants, Valdemar hoped that his previous residence in the temple might accord him privileged status. He was wrong.

    He had been waiting for ten days when he received a note from Ferguson stating that the prelate would not be able to meet with him; perhaps if he tried again in another year... Dejected, he mounted his mule and headed home. Once back in his village, he became a recluse, rarely receiving visitors and leaving the duties of ministering to the people to his assistant. When the appointed time arrived a year later, he again made the journey south. The results were no different. He spent a week and a half in a small guest room within Vantok's temple, desperately hoping for word that Ferguson would see him. He engaged in communal activities like group prayers and meals but his heart wasn't in it. When word came that the prelate regretted not being able to see him, he departed Vantok, more certain than ever that his life no longer had meaning.

    This was Valdemar's third trip. Once again, his efforts to meet with Ferguson failed but, to his distress, he gleaned the information he came for. Last night, he overheard a conversation between two of the prelate's close associates that confirmed his deepest fears: the gods had forever turned away from men. This was no temporary punishment; it was a permanent abandonment.

    Valdemar looked up from his mug, shaking himself free from the grip of his memories, and studied the place where he found himself this day. The inn was called The Wayfarer's Comfort and he supposed it was no different than many places of this sort found throughout Vantok and the other five cities. He couldn't say for sure - in the past, his vows had kept him clear of such venues. Servants of the gods were expected to set examples of chastity, sobriety, and piety. But it no longer mattered, and his presence here wasn't exciting interest or chatter.

    It was early afternoon and the large common room was more than half-full. He idly speculated that if the innkeeper had this many customers at such an early hour, the place was probably full to overflowing at nights. Most of the patrons looked to be merchants, soldiers, and day laborers. There were no farmers. This was Harvest season and those who worked the fields were occupied from an hour before dawn until an hour after dusk. On nights when the moon was full (or nearly so), they might toil all night.

    From what Valdemar could tell, The Wayfarer's Comfort served three purposes. For city residents and visitors, it was a place to gather and either enjoy fellowship or drown one's sorrows in the cheap brew that flowed freely. For those coming from afar to visit the Jewel of the South, as Vantok was often called, the rooms offered lumpy straw mattresses and little else. And, for anyone disinclined to visit one of the city's brothels, most of the serving girls were willing to combine a tumble with a pint if the price was right. Valdemar was sorely tempted on that score, and Annie was obviously willing, but he deemed that breaking one vow today was a sufficiently daunting achievement.

    Heaving a great sigh, Valdemar lifted the mug to his lips. Then, following only the briefest of hesitations, he took a swallow of the contents. The liquid was tepid and slightly bitter but it warmed him as it made its way to his belly. After finishing the first tankard, an emboldened Valdemar called Annie over for a second one. His payment, again greater than the cost, earned him an appraising look. Bending over to afford him another lingering view down the gaping neck of her blouse, she asked, "You interested in going upstairs for a while?"

    Valdemar found his mouth suddenly dry. The words croaked out. "I'm a priest."

    Eyes laughing, Annie shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time with someone from the temple. Ain't you breaking a vow just by being here?"

    Between his legs, Valdemar could feel his body betraying him. She was right, of course, but what did it matter, anyway? If the gods didn't care anymore, why should he? Why not derive the most pleasure he could while his coin held out? The trip back north would be hard with Winter approaching and he had little to look forward when he got home. Augmentin was right: pleasure of the body was the only antidote to the death of the soul.

    Two mugs later, he was sitting nervously on one of the upstairs beds, waiting for Annie to join him. His palms were sweaty and his arm pits were dripping. He was still wearing his robe even though she had suggested he remove it when she showed him into this room. A part of his mind recognized it to be a dingy, depressing chamber. Aside from the bed, which was unsteady enough that he wondered if it might collapse, the room was unfurnished. The lone window admitted almost no illumination - not only was it north-facing but the grime was thick enough to blot out much of the indirect light. Dust was thick on the floor and in the air. With no fireplace, he imagined it would be frigid in here during the coldest weeks of the year.

    For Valdemar, this was a break with the only life he had known as an adult. His calling had been genuine - of that he was sure. The rejection of the gods, whatever the reason, had negated the meaning of his existence. He couldn't understand how the temple still functioned, almost as if nothing had happened. Priests still prayed and chanted and ministered to the sick and weary. Didn't they care? Didn't they feel the void? Or were they lying to themselves?

    Perhaps things were different here. Maybe those who lived and worked in the temple were more concerned about performing duties than understanding the reasons underlying those duties. Annie had admitted that he wasn't the first priest to have courted her favors. Did being a priest mean something different to Valdemar than to those in Vantok who wore the robes? Was that why Ferguson wouldn't see him - not because the prelate was too busy but because he knew there was nothing he could to for a rural priest who suspected the truth?

    The door opened to admit Annie, who tsk-tsked when she saw that he was still wearing his robe. Without ceremony, she removed her blouse and stepped close enough that they were nearly touching. Even in the dimness of the room, he could see enough for arousal to overcome the anxiety coursing through his body.

    "Have you kept your vows until now?" Her voice was husky.

    Valdemar grunted. It was the most coherent response he could manage under the circumstances.

    "Let's make it memorable then."

    Several hours later, Valdemar, now a multiple oath-breaker, exited The Wayfarer's Comfort. His gait was unsteady as he covered the short distance between the main entrance and the stable, where his mule was waiting. It had been raining all day and, although the precipitation was lighter now than when he arrived, the streets had been turned into muddy quagmires.

    His sexual initiation had been less than memorable; his emotions were still a jumble. He hadn't lasted until he was inside Annie but she was gentle and understanding, saying it was common with men on their first time. She tried to arouse him a second time using her hand and mouth but it didn't work. He felt like a failure. In a way, it seemed absurd: all of that tension, all of that self-denial over the years culminating in such a base physical response, no different in the end from what he could accomplish by himself when he needed a clear head.

    The stableboy, a strapping lad of about 12, was the same one Valdemar had greeted upon his arrival earlier in the day. It was for boys like these, no longer children but not yet having reached their Day of Maturity, that he worried the most. They would grow up in a world without gods. They would never know the comfort of reaching out in prayer and finding a warm, caring spirit at the other end. Their lives would be cold and barren.

    Earlier, he had engaged the stableboy in a brief conversation, trying in his clumsy way to convey his concerns.

    "Are you a believer, my son?" he had asked.

    The lad hadn't known what to make of the question. "Don't rightly know. My parents never taught me one way or t'other and I ain't given it much thought."

    This didn't surprise Valdemar. Peasants were often so consumed by worries about day-to-day living that they had neither the time nor the patience for proper pieties. "You may be wiser than us all. I have devoted my entire life to the gods, and this is how they repay me…" He had let the sentence hang. "They have abandoned us. How we have displeased them, I cannot say, but they have turned from us. Devout or infidel, it does not matter. There are no miracles. Prayers are not answered. It has been thus for many years… more than a decade, perhaps as many as two… but it can no longer be ignored. Woe be unto us all. Evildoers will prosper and those who have devoted their lives to the path of rightness will dine on ashes. The gods no longer favor their people.

    "I see this has little meaning for you, my son."

    The stableboy's response had been straightforward and without guile. "It's just that I can't see how things will be different for me without the gods."

    A sad smile had crossed Valdemar's features. "I can understand how one so young and isolated might feel that way. But without the gods, who nurture this world and all its creatures, balance will erode. Even one in your position will eventually feel the sting of life in a gods-less existence. I have no answers, my son. I am traveling the whole of the land, seeking solace - seeking evidence that there might be some small group among us that still has favor among the gods. At every stop I have made, there is nothing to encourage. What grievous sin have we committed that has caused the gods to look away?" He had wrung his hands in frustration.

    For the stableboy, that conversation took place only a few hours ago. For Valdemar, it was another lifetime. Now, as he accepted the reins from his mule's temporary caretaker, he pronounced an unusual benediction: "Take care of yourself, my son. None other will."

    After leaving The Wayfarer's Comfort, Valdemar departed Vantok by way of the main thoroughfare, which eventually became the Great North-South Road. The trip home would be long and grueling, demanding nearly four weeks of travel. The southernmost leg was the least difficult, with inns catering to travelers dotting the road at regular intervals. Valdemar made use of their comforts, at least for as long as his coins held out. Each night, he spent several hours nursing a mug in a common room followed by an encounter with a whore in his rented room. By the third or fourth time, he was able to last long enough to consummate the act, although none of the women showed the kind of enthusiasm and generosity as Annie. He knew he would remember her forever and she would be the woman against all others would be measured.

    Eventually, Valdemar ran out of money and had to spend his nights in barns and stables, since no one would turn out a priest to sleep in the cold alongside the road. As the path wound ever northward toward the imposing Broken Crags mountain range, inns and waystations become scarce, forcing Valdemar to use his priestly status to beg shelter from those in stopped caravans. By day 17 out of Vantok, the priest entered the ominously titled Widow's Pass. With the weather worsening and flakes of wet snow mixing with the rain, Valdemar know it would be a treacherous crossing.

    Widow's Pass was the only way through the mountains for hundreds of miles in any direction. Forged by a wizard centuries ago to provide a direct trade route between North and South, it was showing its age. Originally, it was intended that a wizard would provide routine maintenance on the pass, but magic had died out nearly a millennia ago, leaving Widow's Pass to slowly disintegrate. Several dozen men perished in the pass every year, often victims of carelessness but occasionally targets of foul play. Widow's Pass was a good place to kill someone and make it look like an accident. Deaths in the pass were never investigated and no guards patrolled the narrow, winding trail.

    Valdemar hated the pass. He felt dwarfed by it, with the fractured mountain peaks rearing high above to either side, blocking out direct sunlight. Even in High Summer, it was a place of shadows and cold. On the doorstep of Winter, only those desperate to get home risked its perils.

    Home: was that Valdemar's destination? Did that single word have any meaning for him now that the creeping dread had been revealed as the truth? Where did his duty lie? Was it to return to the near-seclusion of the past few years and continue to pretend the world was as it had once been? Or was it to shout his new understanding from the rooftops, allowing his words to spread a firestorm of distress and despair - things that fueled his own internal inferno.

    By now, he had sampled the pleasures of the flesh from The Wayfarer's Comfort and Annie to the daughter of a merchant behind a wagon. While there was release to be found in those things, there was no solace. He could drink himself senseless but when he awoke, the empty ache returned, stronger than ever. And, even though there were no gods to judge him, the weight of an irrational guilt pressed down on him. He had broken his vows and, even though the ones to whom he had sworn had turned away, Valdemar still felt shame and a powerful sense of being unclean. "Sin isn't a state of the body," Ferguson once preached. "It's a state of the mind." By that definition, he was living in a state of profound sin, yet there was no one who could offer absolution.

    Night arrived early in the pass and Valdemar was forced to stop before the sun set outside the mountains. Traveling by night was tantamount to suicide. Because so little grew in the pass, there was no fuel for a fire, so Valdemar had to be content with wrapping himself in coarse blankets and hunkering down by the side of the road.

    The priest passed a restless night. With the stars obscured by low-hanging clouds, there was no light but it didn't matter. There was nothing to see and the absolute blackness suited his mood. The only sounds to reach his ears were the moaning of the wind through the peaks, the occasional distant cry of some animal, and the soft noises made by his mule. During those times in the past when he traversed the pass, Valdemar had mused that this might be the loneliest place in the world. Tonight he believed that more than ever and, for the first time, he lost even the hope that the gods might be out there watching over him and offering comfort.

    Morning came as it always did to the pass: slow and incomplete. There was no sun to be seen, just a gradual fading of blackness into an indistinct gray. Cold to the bone and badly cramped, Valdemar rose to his feet. He had to lean against the mule to keep from stumbling and falling over. Crossing the pass was demanding for those in the best of health and spirits but for someone like the priest…

    It was time to get moving, he supposed. It would take several days to make it to the northern mouth of the pass and every minute he delayed gave the weather a greater chance to turn ugly. Before mounting the mule, he wandered over to the side of the trail, where the crumbling edge of the hard-packed dirt fell away into nothing. It was a long way down from here - so far that his eyes couldn't pick out the bottom in the gloom although he knew it to be several thousand feet.

    It was at that moment, gazing into the abyss, that Valdemar arrived at a realization. He hadn't just lost his faith in the gods; he had lost his purpose, his cause. All that he had been, was, and ever would be was tied inextricably into something that no longer had meaning. Returning to his tiny, well-ordered priestly life held no appeal. The pleasures that had seduced Augmentin were equally dull and tasteless. What else was there?

    He acted decisively and, with a grim smile, took a step forward, walking into nothingness. Thus was he reunited with his gods in oblivion.