Hospitality

By Amalasuntha

Not the rain but the stone kept her awake in the end.  The Hospitality had been their long-awaited aim for the break point of the journey.  Walking down the hard packed stone of the Drum Road, they had been in sullen spirits for the last tenday, only the thought of the Hospitality had stopped them from bickering out of pure frustration.  The food, beds, baths and chance to Dream were something that everyone had looked forward to.  When the cluster of buildings finally come into view at the bottom of the valley yesterday afternoon it mattered not that the destination was still a day away, the oppressive atmosphere that had settled into them over the Skirling Mountains lifted, as if the power of the Hospitality reached all the way across the valley floor and up the hillsides.

And now they were here, curled up in miserable parody of the Hospitality’s munificence.  She sat up, pulled her blanket round her shoulders, straightened her trousers which had twisted during her sleep and felt very alone.  The room they had chosen was more for personal defence than for convention.  The monks rooms, whilst ideal for protection with their one low arch to each individual cell, would have meant that they all had to sleep in separate rooms on tiny cots.  Not Good, Bowman had said, and the others had agreed that sharing a room would be a better plan.  Just in case.  So here they were, in the Butterfly Fold, a chapel dedicated to women’s smaller deities, now as wrecked as the rest.  The pews and seats they had piled up against the main doorway, the door having been smashed somehow beyond their ability to use the remains by fitting them back in the socket.  The winds came through the gaps in high notes, a sussurus of accusation in the dark.

Bowman was still awake.  He had said he didn’t sleep, which she had never before really believed until she saw him sat with his back to the base of a fractured statue of the Lace Maker, beautifully carved folds of cloth swirling round her bare legs and high sandals, remaining delicate fingers curling gracefully round her ceremonial pins. Such beauty did not extend above the waist, the painted marble was cracked and broken, so that nothing remained aside an ugly stump, the whole glowing pale in the light from the lamps. The Bowman sat amongst the marble remains on the floor, the statues offering bowl holding his knife and oil cloth, unconcerned at his sacrilege, battered quiver and Ironwood propped up between the figurines polished legs within his easy reach. He was whittling some odd piece of wood in the half-light.  The shavings were chasing each other round the floor in untidy circles.  He didn’t look up.  Despite her blankets the cold in the stone seeped through like a slow tide, soaking cloth and bones until she could no longer ignore it.

Yesterday afternoons sunshine seemed distant and now in the middle of the darkness, quite unreal.  They had picked up pace once they saw the white plaster walls and red tile roofs, distinctive and gleaming next to the wide bend in the blue ribbon river.  Her pack suddenly didn’t seem quite as heavy and the ache in her back went from demanding to inconsequential.  She was smiling somehow.  After all they’d been through, she was grinning just like the rest.  Chequered Sally sang out, her voice caught on the winds, which were now cool and refreshing rather than the bitter they had been a  moment ago.  They had finally made it, and she offered a prayer up to those who hadn’t: Greenbelly, Gruff Juff and Erode Bignose would never see this.  I will pray for you, she remembered thinking then, walking down the final incline to the shelter of the valley floor, when we reach the Hospitality I will pay you each an Obolus and give your names to the Keeper.

And now they were here.  She looked round, took in the sleeping shapes of those who had been strangers, but were now firm friends.  “Go back to sleep” the voice came quiet yet commanding through the dark, the Bowman had stopped his carving and was now looking dead at her, to tell the truth he made her a little unnerved.  Obediently, she reluctantly lay back down on the cold floor, as if returning to a grave.  She rolled away from him and onto her side, shufting the blankets into a comfier position, and went over the events of their arrival again, the images and feelings familiar through repetition: could they have done anything to stop it happening?, what should they do now?, should they have stayed here at all?  She remembered the moments in which their unfettered joy and laughter had turned into quiet dismay, shock and unrestrained distress.  The great archway facing the river gaped like the socket of a missing tooth, and the whole place was quieter than a funeral.  She could remember everyone speaking in hushed tones, as if not wanting to disturb the silence which had descended.  Chequered Sally kept repeating “no, no, not here.” until Bowman, two paces in front and with Ironwood in hand told her to be quiet.  They explored the complex together, Bowman knowing exactly where corridors and rooms went, his experience from a previous visit he had explained when they were all safely barricaded into the Butterfly Fold.  She remembered being told back at Gullstown as they set off that the Hospitality was home to over 70 monks, but they had not even seen one.  There were signs of an attack and disturbance, four great furrows had been ploughed into the main courtyard uprooting flagstones, statues and clipping the edge of the Lily Fountain, black smoke trails imprinted onto the stone of the squat library tower, making it look like a fat burned twig.  The stable block had been mostly flattened as if it were a crumpled paper underfoot, one gabled end standing untouched, with recently polished tack neatly laid out on stands and haybags full, awaiting use.  The main temple ceiling had crashed inwards, sending the First and Second Bell Towers toppling across the outwall and presumably over into the fields outside.  Every individual low arched door to the monks cells had been torn from the hinges.  Even the ovens of the Bread Kitchen had not escaped carnage, only the smallest remained intact, the remainder smashed apart, as bones for the marrow.  Barrels and contents, ropes and boards lay in disarray throughout the Rose courtyard and each new corner rounded brought a new depth to the destruction.  No people, not even the remains of one monk, and surely there must have been other guests, she thought. Where were they?  Where were any of the indentured?  They had passed the stables, or where they used to be, and no horses remained, but what about the Crested Ducks and Bristle Pigs that the Hospitality was famous for?  Hospitality Honeyed Pork was famous throughout, even reaching as far as Fourgates in the deep West, but she hadn’t seen or heard a single animal since their arrival.

Once they had found that the place was wholly deserted, Bowman split them up into teams to gather supplies and find the best place to sleep.  She alone had been tasked with locating candles, lamps, oil or small pieces of wood which they could use for light and heat.  She found a cupboard full of candles neatly bound together in a side room off the main temple.  They looked the same as the candle stumps spilled from their fittings next to the sad remains of the celestial statues and she almost didn’t take them.  Reaching into the cupboard for a couple of bundles made her feel like a thief.  Even though the temple was ruined, and the sanctuary gone, she took a moment to work her way across the rubble to the base of the Wife and Mother, of which only the seated legs remained  She had pushed the broken stones and debris from the offering bowl, knelt for a moment and balanced the stack of fat candles across the chipped rim.  As she stood, she picked them back up and dropped a couple of small coins in to pay for them.  After a moment, she picked her way across the main floor, once covered in a rich mosaic of Pattern, now buried in slates, tiles, dust and dross, to the statue of the Keeper.  He had survived whatever high destruction had reaped this place and stood only missing one ear and a thumb, his staring mask polished and complete, his armour covered in the red wax seals of those who wished to remember someone.  She didn’t have any red wax, nor the proper anointing oil, and so she knelt in the detritus at the foot of the statue and bowed her head.  “Hail Keeper,” she prayed aloud, ” I don’t know the proper words, so I’ll just say what I know and hope that you hear these names of those who walked beside my path for a time and come to you before me.  I come here in this, your place and say their names so that you may look favourably upon them and invite them into your halls.”  She paused, reaching into her coin belt once more for the familiar heavy ridged edge of three Obolus.  “Greenbelly of Eastfork,” she said, putting the first coin slowly between the statues feet, the scrape of coin on stone seeming unnaturally loud, then “Gruff Juff of Gulltown,” and “Erode Bignose the tailor” for the other two, creating  a stack of clean coins in the gloom.  She knelt for a moment longer, then duty fulfilled and candles found, she had resumed the hunt for lamps and oil.

She was just thinking on the days previous events when she woke to dull light and the smell of oats and honey being cooked.  She rolled, shoulders and back stiff and complaining from the nights cold to see that almost everyone else was awake, and sat round wrapped in blankets against the dawn chill.  Bowman was gone from his place by the Lace Maker, only a few sad wood shavings remained to tell of his presence.  Sally offered her a wooden bowl of porridge, last nights expeditions turning up a full quart jug of milk, a bag of oats which had escaped the destruction and several jars of jam which they had split between them and eaten immediately.  The porridge was overcooked but still good, she would have preferred salted butter to the too sweet drizzle of honey, but she couldn’t have everything.  Especially not here.  Just as she finished scraping the last cold oats from the bottom of the bowl, Bowman returned.  Everyone looked expectantly; he was just another one of them, but somehow people deferred to him.  He had a quiet authority, a personal power as her mother would have once said, and everyone felt it.  He seemed very intense almost, like he was looking deep into her thoughts every time he looked at her.  She wasn’t sure about him, but felt safe enough with the group decision to trust him enough to guide them.

He walked purposefully into the centre of them all, holding a flat pale object in both hands in front of him.  It was about the size of a plate, and she wondered what it was and why he would have taken the care to carry it here.  He stopped right by the morning embers, looking down momentarily as not to upset the porridge pan and stack of dirty bowls, everyone hushed expectantly.  “I’ve been round the whole compound and grounds,” he announced, only his hands turning the translucent thin disk over and over betraying any kind of anxiety, it reflected the embers, flashing pearl swirls across the vaulted ceiling.   “And I know what did this.  We need to pack up and leave.”

(more about Amalasuntha.)

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