Chapter 4:

Half Rotten

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess


“Ho there!”

It was an older voice. I stopped and turned. I was in the thicket of trees, just off the path. My cloak helped me blend in, although my cursing probably hadn’t helped. Self-conscious, I swallowed, moving closer to the path. Duran was behind me, about as subtle as a strike of lightning in the middle of day. At the voice, he’d at least put the sword back away. His arm had to be sore by now; we’d been walking for hours.

“Aye?”

“Where are you headed?” An old woman. Her hat was wide. Her eyes were kind. She could have been my mother, in a more straightforward life. She leaned forward and smiled. The mule in front of her rolled its head, flicking its ears.

It was a cart rolling heavy with late-season pumpkins. Some were already rotting. A bee rolled lazily upon the breeze, landing upon one of the vines. If this is you, Andrena, thanks. But next time, try to get some fresher produce.

“The capital,” I said. “But I’ll take anything as near as the next town.”

“Hop on!”

Duran and I piled on, sitting in between rotting pumpkins. The countryside rolled away under my watch, the cart wheels uneven.

For the first time, I let myself relax. I’d come up north this way, a decade ago. It felt right to be leaving the same way. Even if there was significantly more rotten produce this time.

She let us off at the main temple.

“Sorry, love,” said the woman. “Got to be going to market. You’ve got a better chance to find someone else here.”

I didn’t like being called love- I was far too old for that, and smelled entirely too much of rotten pumpkin- but she’d saved me from walking, so I would take it. Behind me, Duran was trying to swipe off pulp from the back of his tunic. His attempts were useless. It was already dry.

“Right,” I said. “Look sharp.”

Duran hadn’t looked sharp in his life, but he did move a little bit more towards vertical.

We were in the capital of our province, which meant they had two pubs instead of one, and a temple instead of a clearing with shrines that everyone made an honest effort to clear the snow out of on holy days in the winter and raked the leaves out of in the fall. Now I frowned at it and wondered if it was worth going in.

The sun was beginning to set. No one would be leaving at this time of night; out on these rural roads, there was little risk of banditry but a high risk of wolves. Besides, horses had to sleep too.

I could go straight to an inn and bed down. That was what the younger version of me would have done, just look for whatever corner I could tuck away in.

This time, I was on a holy mission.

Should I… pray?

“I heard they have mosaics here!” Said Duran. He hadn’t covered the handle of his sword yet.

“Are we going in? I heard they installed a new shrine.”

“A new shrine?” I frowned. “What, are they inventing new gods?”

I could hear someone coming by, hawking food on a cart, so I pushed forward anyway. The last thing I needed was to buy fried dough balls for a teenager. I’d be out of money in moments.

The temple was nothing impressive. Like everything else up here, it was built simply out of pine, stacked up logs with anchoring stones at the base large enough that they might have simply rolled here during the last time the great beetle had shifted the world. The roof was sharply pointed in preparation for the winter snows. The symbol of a temple, the ever-lit-lamp, was greasy and un-polished. Whoever was attending this place, they probably had a second job elsewhere.

At this point I couldn’t really be picky. Inside, it was neat and the rushes were fresh. Neatly carved wooden shrines did the bare minimum for each god. The centerpiece, the great beetle, rolled the world underneath each of his legs. It was set across from the entrance. People had left few offerings for it. What did a beetle want, anyway? My eyes glanced over a few jewels, a mound of what looked like dried dung, and a pile of loose wood.

Interspersed throughout the room were the other gods, the flaming horse god, the twisting squid with her tentacles covered in draped jewels, most glass but some gleaming true. Whoever had done these shrines had clearly not been confident with the human face; no god was portrayed in their human form. The bear god growled across from Andrena, who had been portrayed as a beehive with a singular bee crawling into the entrance. People had left her jars of mead and pickles.

I stopped.

There was a symbol I didn’t realize. “Who’s a seagull?” I said.

“That’s Celeres,” said Duran. “She protects the postal service.”

I stared. “A seagull?”

“I think it’s meant to be a pigeon,” He said. He scratched at his chin, where a couple of hairs were emerging. “Ah, it’s only wood.”

Andrena had many and varied aspects. She possessed fertility, the home, fermentation.

Were they just giving godhoods to anyone these days? How could we have a god for only the postal service? What did she even do? Check people’s letters?

“That’s truly it?” I said.

“Keep your voice down,” he said. “It’s a temple.”

I stared at him. I had never before considered that Duran might actually be religiously observant.

“…Does she have any other aspects?”

“Haste,” he said. “Truth. Messages to the dead.”

Every other god had truth as an aspect. Most of them didn’t care about it. I wondered why this goddess expected to last.

Yet, for some reason, people were praying to her. Ashes littered the bottom of her statue. I stared at it for a moment more. It still looked like a seagull to me.

I shook my head. If I wanted to understand religious practice, I would have to spend more time than a few seconds of consideration. It was simply beyond me.

“Right,” I said. I knelt before Andrena’s shrine.

The words didn’t come to me. It had been more than a decade since I’d last prayed. In fact, now that I thought about it, I’d last prayed to Andrena before my wedding night. It made me want to laugh. She had, in a way, come through for me back then as well. Just not in the way everyone had expected her to.

I leaned my head forward. The rushes poked against my knees. I laced my fingers together.

“Did you bring anything to offer?”

“Not now, Duran.” I’d lost what I was going to pray about. I frowned.  “Andrena, please…”

“Because I brought some pickles,” he said.

“….Protect us on the road,” I said.

The pickles clicked down next to me.

“Maybe you should pray to Celeres about that. Unless it has something to do with your business?” he said. He’d been constantly asking about my business. I’d been consistently telling him to mind his own problems. “She’s more for-”

“Duran,” I said. “I don’t care.”

“I’m just trying to help!” He said. His face was actually flushed in anger. I rolled my eyes. Oh, to be a teenager. Just this morning he’d been begging to join me, and now he thought he could help. I ought to send him back to join his father.

“My relationship with Andrena is private and I’d rather you not stick your nose into it. If you want to make yourself useful, spend your time wrapping some fabric around that blade. We’re going to get robbed otherwise.” It was bad enough having to be at Andrena’s beck and call. It would be even worse to admit it to my teenage apprentice, who had gotten me into this mess.

He froze. He looked from me to the pickles on the altar, then backed away. I thought I recognized the jar. Had he made a second batch of those murderous pickles?

“Fine,” he said, stiffly. “I’ll be outside.”

After a moment, I heard the door of the temple open and close. I was left alone, with only the gods to watch me. I hunched down in front of the altar.

I didn’t feel guilty. Not at all. I’d only been honest with him.

I stared at the bee crawling into Andrena’s hive. Should I apologize? He might be overbearing, but he was just fourteen. I’d been unbearable at fourteen. At least he’d been useful enough to get a sword. And the staff had been good work.

“This is your fault,” I told Andrena. “I didn’t want an apprentice.”

Given she was made of wood, she didn’t respond.

I stared at the pickles. Would she be insulted?

After a moment, I stood and left them. They were Duran’s offering. I wouldn’t take them back. Besides; anyone who stole from a shrine was committing a crime. They deserved whatever poisoning they got.

Destrab
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