Shadow stood in the middle of the half circular outdoor amphitheater impatiently. It was the last thing he wanted to be doing at the moment, as he felt the recoil of all of the day’s events sapping the energy out of him. He wanted to go back to his room and curl himself around Sunhawk, but instead he found himself facing over two hundred of his fellow priests wanting answers he didn’t know how to provide. An old withered priest who headed the elders of Mith’s temple stood next to him, giving a short speech about the purpose of the conclave.
Shadow highly doubted that it was needed, for every eye was completely fixed to him as they gazed at him from their white marble benches. His own eyes ranged the sea of scarlet robed clergy; even with no empathic sense he could feel the tension in the air and saw many of his fellow priests with upset, even angry expressions on their faces. Mith’s silence was unnerving to her priests and many blamed Shadow for it. Even Shadow was greatly confused about why Mith was silent. He had enough to deal with without the hard eyed anger and suspicions of his fellow priests. He had never realized how very narrow minded many of them were. He could up to a point understand their dislike of mercenaries, but Shadow knew full well that one of the vows they all had taken was to help any in need, and above all acceptance of all forms of love. Yet it seemed many of Mith’s priests had forgotten that vow.
“Priest Shadowhawk, would you please speak to us of your reasons for your actions,” the elder said gently.
Shadow started, realizing that he hadn’t been paying attention and had lost track of the man’s words. Still he was fairly certain he understood what the man wanted of him. He shifted uneasily, not liking to be put forward in such a manner and even less what was being asked of him. Frowning a little he tried to pull his thoughts together even as everyone watched him intently.
“What I do, I do for love. It is that simple. I love Sunhawk. I would not abandon him, and his presence by my side, despite the fact of everyone’s apparent dislike of him, speaks of his feelings for me. Yes he is a mercenary and yes he kills for a living, but that is only one part of who he is. I made a vow to Mith to help anyone that needs help, do you honestly think that does not include people that you disapprove of? Many of the Hawks have needed my help, as poor as it is. Just because they are mercenaries doesn’t mean they aren’t human,” Shadow started, looking at the faces of the assembly.
An angry muttering grew within the assembly as Sirius stepped forward, raising his hand for silence. Slowly the crowd began to quiet, although he could feel the angry mood hanging in the air. It was obvious that they did not approve of his words, which didn’t surprise him. It frustrated him how narrow minded his fellow priest were, that they could disapprove of Sunhawk when they knew nothing about him other than he was a mercenary. Nothing was completely good or bad in the world and they should know that better than anyone.
“You have no right to reprimand us, you who aren’t even a real priest,” came a cry from crowd.
Shadow’s eyes turned to the direction of the voice to see a young blond girl in the light red and white clothing of a novice standing looking down at him with eyes darkened with sadness and anger. It was obvious that she was trying to hold in her own feelings even as a priest next to her tried to sooth her. Eyes turned to the woman as a murmuring once again aroused at the girl’s protest.
Shadow stared at the girl, feeling a stab at her words. He knew better than anyone that there was a grain of truth in her words. He had not been trained as he should have been and that lack of training weighed heavily on him now that he faced the insurmountable task of helping the one he loved. It was obvious that there was more to the girl’s story than just being offended by his relationship with Sunhawk, as he watched the girl violently shake her head at her companion. Only full priests where allowed to attend the conclave yet this girl was obviously only a novice by her pale rose and white colored robes.
“Who is she?” Shadow asked quietly to Sirius, who had approached his side.
“You don’t know? She is from your own temple, we rescued her from the slave auctions,” Sirius said quietly.
Shadow looked at the girl, knowing that there would be no way to remember her for he had no contact with novices of his temple, yet it was obvious she was aware of him. As Sirius’s words sunk into him he felt a sense of guilt pervade him. She had been there the night their temple had been destroyed and she had survived. He had given no thoughts to survivors of the temple or what had happened to them. He didn’t even know how she had been sold as a slave; it was very possible that someone in the Hawks had sold her at Armath. He had been so wrapped up in Sunhawk and dealing with his own new life that he had never given any thought to what was going on around him.
“Enough,” Sirius said in a stern voice that carried throughout the amphitheater, once again silencing the crowd. “Please remove her, it is too much for her to be here.”
“Wait,” Shadow said quietly, softly touching Sirius’s sleeve and shaking his head.
“She will not help your cause,” Sirius said softly.
“She has a right to be here, she needs to know,” Shadow answered with resolve. He didn’t know why he felt so strongly but he knew that it was the right thing.
“I don’t need you to speak for me,” the girl said angrily.
“No you do not, but I choose to. You’re right, I’m not a proper priest,” Shadow said, listening to the shocked mumbling. “I wasn’t trained as others were, but I did receive a blessing from our goddess and she has not abandoned me. I hear her words to me and feel her presence.”
“Even now?” came a male voice from the crowd.
“Yes, even now. I love Mith, it is a joy to serve her, as unworthy as I am. But there is some truth in the girl’s words. I was kept apart from my fellow priests and studied the precepts of Mith alone while I awaited sick but wealthy people to be brought to me to be healed. I was never trained as I should be, for I was used instead to bring profit to the temple I served, Shadow said, looking into the up at his fellow priests.
Shouts rose from the crowd as Sirius winced, looking down at Shadow with a deep frown. It was apparent that Sirius had been keeping the facts around Shadow’s old temple a secret. As head priest he would have had to know what was going on there, yet at the same time it appeared as if he didnt know the full truth of why Shadow’s temple was left for so long.
Loud denials rose from the appalled priests as hard glances were turned to Sirius. It should have been Sirius’s responsibility to make sure such things didn’t happen and yet it had. Only Shadow realized that Sirius had been acting on Mith’s words, but he doubted Sirius knew the real reason why. He couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the man, for surely he would take the blame for what had happened until Mith chose to speak.
“Do you think that makes joining with that man right? Because you weren’t trained or poorly used by our temple,” the young blond asked loudly, her voice silencing some of the protest as people turned to watch the battle between the two of them.
“Why do you think Mith’s cryptic words hinted at victory when our city fell? It was not mercenaries that destroyed our temple. It wasn’t mercenaries that raped me that night, or you. Was it?” Shadow questioned gently, guessing that the girl met with a similar fate as he had.
“Do you think they didn’t?” the girl’s high voice trembled a little.
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I couldn’t even speak for a few days after the fall of the city. I never thought about the others of our temple, for that I am wrong,” Shadow answered.
“No, you’re wrong in supporting such people,” The woman spit out.
“This isn’t helping her,” Sirius said softly so only Shadow could hear.
“I do not know what happened to you, just like everyone the Hawks is made up of different people. Some good, some bad, and a lot with a mixture of both. The people of our city, the ones that brought flowers to our temple, who wed under Mith’s joyous eyes, who sought our help countless times, were the ones who stripped me naked and gang raped me. It was Sunhawk who took me in, who treated my wounds, who held me in my terror.
“Perhaps I was blinded by that, but I believe that Mith’s brought us together. I always have. Captain Sunhawk is far from the monster that you think he is. He’s a man that loves learning, amassing a huge library at his home that he encourages his men to use. He loves to carve wood. I’ve watched him spend countless hours gently paring away at a shapeless block of wood to create an amazing sculpture of Mith. He is a man that is loved by the people he commands, not because he pays them but because of his loyalty and caring. None of you know Sunhawk, yet you have condemned him because of his job, something that is only a part of him,” Shadow said, his voice rising to be heard over the now silent amphitheater.
“Yet there is the slaughter Soothbay,” one of the elders pointed out in the silence.
“Yes, I was there,” Shadow answered as he heard the gasps and murmuring of shock. “The Hawks arrived to what was to be a simple job. We were to herd the villagers into the city and strain its resources only. Rathgar arrived with his troops. They were nothing more than half trained conscripts pulled from the streets of his own cities and he brought no healers except for his own personal one. He cared so little for those boys he did not even bring people to take care of this men. The Hawks were the only company with trained healers and we were stretched to our limit. When the wall fell Rathgar changed his orders. He commanded the city to be cleared. Could Sunhawk have refused? Yes, but he would have had to brake his contract, paying a substantial fee, losing his guild backing, but most of all making all those children of Rathgar’s suffer the true nightmare of Soothbay for the rest of their lives.
“You want to condemn Sunhawk for Soothbay but it wasn’t Sunhawk who gave that order,” Shadow rebuked even as he felt the memories well up around him. The blood and gore, the mangled bodies that he had tried desperately to put back into some semblance of order. Many of them belonging to nothing more than children that Rathgar had pulled from their peaceful life. Memories of Sunhawk and his cold dead eyes ran through him, causing him to tremble a little.
Sirius looked down at him, his eyes widening slightly as he paled. Shadow looked up at him, seeing in the man’s eyes that he was reading him and feeling what Shadow himself was feeling. Shadow felt a hand on his shoulder and a warm calming feeling pervade him as he saw with his other senses a gentle red glow come from the man.
“It isn’t as easy as you say to follow your lover. Is it?” Sirius asked as the assembly listened intently.
“No, it is a hard path. I may not be like a normal priest but for me death is abhorrent. I’m a healer of the body if not of the mind, but I also can see how badly death affects everyone. But I still love Sunhawk. He isn’t a cold-blooded killer, I’ve watched him battle his own demons. I’ve watch many of the Hawks deal with the suffering their jobs create. Yes there are monsters out there that enjoy what they do, but very few are in the Hawks and many don’t stay,” Shadow answered slowly, looking up at the girl who had felt the worst of the Hawks.
“Tell me, what did the Hawks do to you?”
“They sold me! They raped me,” the girl’s voice quivered as Shadow looked at her, his eyes never leaving her face.
“He sold me. He said he wouldn’t. He lied, he said he would keep me,” the girl cried out under Shadow’s gaze, her anger melting as she sank down to the bench. “Why did Sunhawk keep you?”
Shadow suddenly understood as he watched the girl cry and felt a deep rise of sadness fill him. He knew at least a part of the reason, although not all of it. Whatever man that took her couldn’t have kept her, she had no place in the Hawks, not even as a healer. He doubted that the young woman or her captor loved each other, but Shadow knew full well the pull of kindness in the middle of despair. That kindness could cut as deeply as cruelty, perhaps even more so. The young woman’s friend helped her to rise and slowly walk out of the amphitheater as Shadow turned away from her.
“Priest Shadowhawk?” Sirius prodded.
“What more would you have me say? What would ease your minds or make you understand? Everything that I’ve said today is common sense. It isn’t anything new or startling to ask you to judge a person on who they are, not what. Mith and Argos have never been friends yet neither are they enemies. Yet you all look as if Sunhawk were a monster for following his ways. You want to know why I won’t leave him? Because he is more them just a mercenary, because I follow Mith’s precepts and follow my heart,” Shadow said tiredly.
Without another word Shadow walked out of the amphitheater, leaving the silent group of his fellow priests to think on his words.
Shadow lay in the bed snuggled against Sunhawk. He had returned to their room and stripped out of his robes, climbing into bed with the still sleeping man. Even though it had only been mid afternoon he had drifted off to sleep as the days’ event caught up to him. He had spent the rest of the day drifting in and out of sleep next to Sunhawk, who thanks to the herbs Shadow gave him slept deeply and hopefully dreamlessly. Now as the sun sank low Shadow gazed at Sunhawk’s features in the fading light.
The face had become so very familiar to him, almost commonplace, yet he still found himself studying it intently. As his eyes traced the high cheekbones and plains of the man’s straight nose he noticed Sunhawk’s face had become thin and his cheeks hallow. Even in sleep he looked worn and tired. This year had been hard on Sunhawk and it showed. Shadow couldn’t help but feel he was at fault.
Even though Mith had tried to reassure him and guide him in the right direction, Shadow felt uneasy. He wanted to know everything about Sunhawk, the good and the bad, yet the situation now didn’t sit well with him. They were forcing him into a corner, using the man’s very love for Shadow. He was overjoyed to learn that his destiny was to be with Sunhawk, and yet it also disturbed him that by that very fact alone he was hurting his lover.
Shadow couldn’t help but feel they were ripping Sunhawk apart and there might not be anything left of him when they were done. He had always accepted Mith’s words with absolute trust, but for the first time in his life he doubted her.
Sunhawk stirred next to him, turning to his side as Shadow curled his body around the man, leaning on this broad, well muscled back. He felt so warm and real to Shadow. Sunhawk had seemed so incredibly strong when Shadow had first met him. He had no fears as he was held in the man’s arms, despite everything that had happened to him. Now Sunhawk needed Shadow’s strength, he needed to feel protected and safe. Protected from the one other person Shadow loved.
Shadow sighed, tracing the curve of Sunhawk’s muscular arm, when he felt Sunhawk turn, his golden eyes looking into Shadow. Looking at the pain stricken eyes Shadow reached out, stroking Sunhawk’s face gently before leaning forward to kiss the man. Sunhawk’s lip remained still as Shadow pulled away a little, keeping their faces close.
“I can’t,” Sunhawk whispered, closing his eyes.
“It’s ok,” Shadow soothed, gently caressing the man’s tangled hair.
“Sunhawk there is nothing to be sorry about. You don’t have to talk anymore. You don’t have to say anything. I want you to understand something Sunhawk. I love you, whatever your past is. I don’t care, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t need to know and you don’t have to continue to suffer trying to relive it for me. I’m sorry Sunhawk, if I were a proper priest I would know what to do to make things better for you. But I’m not, all I can do is this, all I can do is love you,” Shadow said, feeling tears slide down his face.
Sunhawk reached out to touch the tears, hesitantly looking at them almost afraid. Shadow captured the large hand in his own, bringing the salty wet fingers to his own dry lips, hoping he had chosen the right path for Sunhawk and for himself.