A Shepherd's Introduction
“There are men! There are men!”
Liha hefted the vase of water she had just pulled from the well, turned, and gave a quizzical look at Joha and little Temi, who had just come running up to her through the grass.
“What are you two on about?”
Joha spoke breathlessly: “I overheard my dad saying… some men were camping in the clearing across… the river! So Temi and I… I said we should go see if we could… see them and we did! They crossed the river though and are coming this way!”
“We’re going to tell Priest Egar!” said Temi, and they ran off toward the village.
Liha sighed and started walking back along the narrow path that lead to the village. It was always this way with Joha and Temi, though Joha was definitely the leader of the two. The adults like to talk about how daring he was and, since Liha was getting close to marrying age, joke at her about what a good husband he would make. Well, she hoped they were joking. She still didn’t see why anyone would like boys, and Joha was no exception. He seemed to her like he was always looking for trouble, or to brag about finding it. She didn’t know why the two were so worked up either; men came every year to take some grain and some silver from the village, it wasn’t really worth telling anyone.
Despite this, when she had finally gotten home and put the vase of water next to the fireplace, she decided to go to the square and see if anything was going on. As she approached, she saw Joha and Temi doing a bad job of hiding behind a bush between two houses. They beckoned her over, but she chose instead to peek at the gathering crowd from around the corner of one of the houses. Most of her neighbors were taking shelter from the late afternoon heat in the shadow of the acacia trees bordering one side of the dirt square. Facing them where lines of stern men flanking a hooded figure, their armor and sweat shining in the sun.
“Greetings, friend!” a man said, stepping forward from the group of villagers. With one hand he clutched a red, embroidered cloak to his wiry frame, while the other hand was held out in greeting. Liha recognized him as the Priest, Egar, the most respected of the village elders, who spent much of his time delighting children with adventure tales of the Holy Lord Vishara and giving advice to the adults who came to him. But now, Liha could hear that his voiced had changed from its normally easygoing tone to a more cautious one.
“Are you here for the tribute? Another came and collected it already, but, ah, perhaps it was insufficient? We are willing to offer more, though we would have to draw quite deeply from our stocks–
The hooded figure waved his hand, cutting off Egar’s thought, and said “Do not worry, we are not here for the tribute,” he said lowering his hood to reveal the long, curling horns of a ram sprouting from his head.
“Oh, a shepherd!” Egar frowned slightly. “My apologies, I did not expect a visit from your order… If it is not too much, may I ask why an… agent of it has been sent here?”
“I am no mere agent; I am the High Shepherd.”
“My apologies, your… holiness! I have never seen you before and did not expect such a visit.”
“Do not worry yourself, priest. If you know of my order and you know of me, then you certainly know this is the least of your transgressions.”
Liha saw the young men standing behind Egar, junior priests of the village's temple, noticeably tense at this. Egar, however, seemed to regain some composure. His expression relaxed as he said, “I am aware of no wrongdoing on our part.”
The High Shepherd took a deep breath. He placed one hand on his hip and the other on the pommel of his sword.
“Out of respect for you, priest, I will be forthright: you and your pupils stand accused of spreading heresy and falsehoods in the lands of my God. Members of your order have been reported to say, before crowds and in public no less, that all the gods are false but Vishara, and that they must be rejected. Surely, you understand why this is unacceptable.”
Egar shook his head, saying “What’s the harm if a handful of us spread the story of Vishara? They are merely words, and if your beliefs were as strong as ours, that’s all you would need, too.”
“Ah, mere words?” the High Shepherd shook his head. “You may only speak words, and, yes, perhaps they are harmless. But the acts those words inspire? No. I have seen the smashed idols, the defaced shrines, and the blood of murdered holy men flowing in the streets.
“I will not and can not abide these insults to my God, this attack on that which is good and orderly. This ends now. If you want peace, then you will do as I say: open the temple to my fellow shepherds, who will occupy it; surrender the totem of Vishara that is placed within to me so that it may be brought back to the Capital; and fully and publicly renounce your lie that only your god is true, and that all others are false. These are the conditions, and this is your only chance. I will –
“Lies!?” Egar laughed, “What lies have we told? Where is the power of these other gods, hm? Where is the power of yours? Lord Vishara works miracles! Your so-called god sits behind walls and gates pretending at divinity. If you think you can frighten us into telling your ‘truth’ instead, you have underestimated our integrity… and our faith.”
Egar stood firm and defiant. The High Shepherd hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward and asked loudly: “And is this the general thinking of this village?”
He passed a slow glance over the gathered crowd. There was silence. For Liha, the few seconds of it felt like a great pit, swallowing all movement. Even the wind seemed to stop.
The High Shepherd continued: “Hm. It would seem you are right, priest; my God is not a miracle maker. I was a fool to think so. Yes, I was a fool to think that they could grant me the power to make the blind see.”
He gripped his sword, pulled it from its sheath, and struck Egar stiffly across the head with the crossguard, knocking him to the ground.
“This, priest, is my God’s power manifest,” he said, plunging his sword into Egar’s chest.
Liha did not remember what happened next, only that the calm square had utterly changed. The villagers rushed the soldiers with axes, knives, and other tools, some with just their bodies. She watched blades cut into flesh and listened to the screams and shouts of the melee. Glancing over at the bush a few paces away, she saw Joha throwing rocks that Temi was handing to him. One stone found its mark on the helm of a soldier, who crumpled to the ground. Seeing this, one of his nearby fellows turned and loosed an arrow from his bow.
Joha stumbled backward, writhing in pain while blood trickled between his fingers, which clutched at where the shaft had pierced his throat, the arrowhead poking out the other side. His mouth opened and closed, but no words escaped, only a strained, wet gurgle. Temi dropped the rocks he was holding and tripped backwards, transfixed by the mortal wound, his eyes and mouth agape with horror.
Liha blinked, trying to free herself from this nightmare, but unlike a dream, this image would not fade. She felt something push her forward. She dashed over to Temi, grabbed his hand, and hauled him off the ground. She ran, hearing nothing, seeing only the path ahead of her. After a what seemed like a great while, she stopped and looked back at the rising smoke. Only then did she feel the cold of the tears on her face, and their burn in her eyes.