It was Marram's Eve. Autumn was softly closing the door behind her on her way out, whisking away the trailing ends of her radiant gown before the latch clicked and the people of Farwold were abandoned to a long, hungry winter. The evening mists came more frequently and stayed until morning most days, clinging to the village's oaks and drawing brilliant color from the piles of leaves at the foot of each tree. The fog shrank the visible universe to just a few yards in every direction, so Hain the Innkeeper could be excused for missing the cloaked figure slumped against a nearby oak when he opened his tavern for its nightly business. It was only when the figure shifted and cleared his throat that the startled Hain regarded him.
"Hello?" Hain inquired, and the figure rose and moved toward him as if floating down a river. "You okay there, fella?"
"I'm all right," the figure said in a voice like rain falling on a pond. "I'm sorry if I startled you. I was waiting for the tavern to open and must have fallen asleep among the leaves."
"Well, get in, then," Hain said, one meaty hand holding the door open while the other ushered the figure in with a wave. "There's a chill out tonight, and it's good for nobody to be out in the weather for long. Grab a seat, and I'll get a fire started."
"That sounds lovely," the figure replied, flowing over the doorframe past Hain. After a moment's hesitation to take in his surroundings, he selected a booth in the back corner as Hain scurried to work behind the bar. As the stranger settled onto the booth's long cushion, Hain shot him a few glances, hoping to catch a peek of his face from under the cowl of his cloak. Still, no matter his angle, Hain couldn't seem to get a proper look at him.
"I've always liked the feel of this place," the stranger remarked as he took in the rustic stone walls and polished wood tabletops around him. "Very cozy."
"So you've been here before, then? Sorry, I can't say I recognize you."
The stranger's laugh was light, but its notes lingered in the air. "Don't worry about it. How was this year's apple crop, Hain?"
Hain smiled. "It was a damn fine one, I'd say. Folks in town got enough coin in their pockets to keep themselves happy and me in business."
"Should make for good cider, then?"
"The best in years." Hain hesitated. "I take it you're not local?"
The stranger's tone warmed and softened further, like wax before the fire Hain was lighting. "No, I'm afraid I'm not. Just passing through."
"Not carrying much with you, looks like. For a big trip, I mean."
"I don't need much for myself." The stranger paused. "I've got coin enough to pay you, though, if that's what's concerning you."
"Oh, no, of course not," Hain hastily clarified, but the muscles in his face relaxed all the same. "Just surprised, that's all. Heading anywhere in particular?"
"Eventually. But not anywhere nearby. I'm just looking for a pleasant, quiet evening before I'm on my way."
"Pleasant I can give you," Hain said, chuckling. "But I can't promise quiet. Folks'll be arriving any minute now, and they'll be here all through the evening and into tomorrow."
"Tomorrow's the feast of Marram, after all."
"Already?" The cloaked figure's surprise was lined with sadness. "I didn't realize it was already so late in the year."
"Yeah, seasons do have a habit of changing on you without asking your permission first," Hain continued. "Anyway, tomorrow being a holiday and all, you can expect . . ."
Hain broke off as the door to the tavern opened and a sickly-looking man in his early twenties entered. His short brown hair was unkempt, and his sunken eyes burned with a sullen anger that belied their softness. He slunk towards a seat at the fireplace.
"Evening, Nikolai," Hain ventured. "How's your mother holding up?"
"She's fine." Nikolai's speech was clipped, and he didn't meet Hain's eyes. He pulled a tattered book from beneath his cloak, opened it to its marked page, and began to read, disregarding both Hain and the stranger. Hain looked as if he were going to continue his line of questioning, but then thought better of it and moved back towards the bar. Nikolai didn't look up as the door swung open once more and a crowd of other men, some younger than Nikolai and some three times his age, poured into the tavern. One, who towered over the others, was halfway through a bawdy joke that had the other laborers in stitches.
Hain's fire was roaring, infusing the damp evening air with a cozy, inviting warmth. As the laborers filed in, the air thickened with their lively banter. Hain busied himself filling drink orders from the newcomers. The stranger and Nikolai both sat silently as the tavern around them filled with the loose raillery of men unwinding after a long day's work. After several minutes of marinating in the atmosphere, the stranger wistfully sighed and flagged Hain down.
"Excuse me, but I was hoping for a flagon of your mulled cider."
"Should've known! Good choice!" Hain said, grinning through his bushy beard at the stranger, and within a few minutes, he returned with the stranger's drink of choice. The stranger sipped his cider and regarded Hain.
"It's delicious," he said. "The best cider in creation."
"Every tavern claims theirs is the best in creation," Hain said with a wink.
The stranger continued earnestly, "But yours truly is."
"Ha!" Hain said, pounding the table. "If you think a little flattery is going to lighten your tab, fella, you're awfully mistaken!" And with that, he turned his attention back to his other customers, several of whom were already ordering a second round.
The stranger regarded Nikolai, who appeared lost in his book. Nikolai had glanced up only a few times since taking his seat, and both times it had been to subtly peek in the stranger's direction, as if Nikolai was trying to piece together just who this stranger was, as if there was some visual cue Nikolai was just barely missing which, when he saw it, would unravel the man's secret identity. But it seemed Nikolai would no sooner ask the stranger his name or business than read the ending of his book before its beginning.
The stranger quietly grabbed the innkeeper's attention when Hain wandered near him once more. "If it's all right with you, I'd like to buy a flagon of your cider for the young scholar by the fire."
"Sure!" Hain agreed, and then, after his eyes darted quickly about the tavern to ensure that he and the stranger were unsupervised, he dropped his voice. "But I should warn you that Nikolai over there isn't the most agreeable of folks. I'm happy to bring him a flagon, but you aren't likely to make yourself a friend of the boy by buying him a drink."
"Oh, I think you can make a friend of any stranger if you buy them the right drink," the stranger said genially.
Hain shrugged, and his eyes darted to Nikolai once more. "All right, but don't say you weren't warned." And with that, he headed back behind the bar to prepare Nikolai's flagon, on the way nearly colliding with the giant laborer who was now regaling his companions with a tale about his recent fishing expedition. A minute or two later Hain slammed the flagon down on Nikolai's table. The boy shrank from the sound as if he'd been struck, then glared at the smirk on Hain's face.
"This is from the fella over there," Hain informed Nikolai, jerking his thumb in the stranger's direction. "Guess he thought you looked cold."
Nikolai looked suspiciously towards the stranger and didn't respond. Hain lingered at Nikolai's table for a moment, but when it was clear that Nikolai had nothing to say to him, he shrugged and bustled off to attend to his other customers. The incident did seem to get the attention of a nearby table of laborers, however, and the amiable giant began to eye Nikolai with interest as if noticing him for the first time.
Nikolai closed his book almost lovingly, then grabbed his flagon and stormed over to the stranger's booth. He placed his flagon next to the stranger's and slid onto the opposite bench.
"What is this supposed to mean?" Nikolai demanded, gesturing towards his flagon of cider.
"I'm sorry?" the stranger asked with gentle confusion.
"Why did you buy me this drink?" Nikolai clarified.
"You looked cold and lonely."
Nikolai snorted. "Only one of those is true." He shivered and pulled his threadbare cloak tightly around him. "I can buy my own drinks, you know."
"I don't doubt that you can."
"Well, then, if you knew I could buy my own drink, then why did you buy one for me? If I'd wanted a drink, I would have ordered one myself."
"So you don't want it?"
Nikolai stared at the flagon intently for a moment, then looked at the stranger. "That depends."
"On what you're after from me."
The conversation was interrupted by a loud laugh from right beside their table. The giant who'd been regarding Nikolai was now standing next to him, and he grinned at Nikolai wolfishly.
"Nikolai!" he said, sliding into the booth on Nikolai's side and clapping him on the shoulder. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your new friend?" Nikolai winced from the blow and shrank closer to the wall.
"Greetings," the stranger said, turning towards the large man. "And who are you?"
"I'm Revka," the man said, extending his beefy hand to the stranger. "Are you an old friend of our Nikolai here?"
The stranger shook Revka's hand politely. "Nikolai and I only just met, Revka. But I assume the two of you are friends?"
"Of course," Revka grinned once more at Nikolai, whose eyes betrayed a confused mixture of fear and fury. "Though I'd say I'm a bit friendlier with his mother than with the boy." He winked at the stranger.
"Shut your foul mouth," Nikolai spat, and Revka's eyes danced. "Leave us be."
"I'm not doing nothing," Revka said, raising his hands. "You're the one who got all angry."
"After you cast aspersions on his mother's sexual fidelity and purity," the stranger clarified. Nikolai smirked, while Revka blinked at the stranger in confusion.
"After you insulted his mother," the stranger clarified further, and now Revka seemed to understand.
"Ah, you got me, friend," Revka said. He reached out as if to clap the stranger on the arm, but then suddenly thought better of it. "Is that why you're so mad all the time, Nikolai? Don't like it when folks talk about your mommy?"
"I don't like it when you speak at all," Nikolai said pointedly.His eyes flitted to the stranger in a plea for support, but the stranger remained silent.
"See, here's the thing about Nikolai," Revka said, turning back to the stranger. "He thinks he's better than all of us because he went off to the Collegium. Had to come back to Farwold before he finished, but he thinks he's better than all of us because he's so clever. Ain't that right, Nikolai?"
Nikolai stared intently at the grain of the wooden table before him. "It was your mother," the stranger said to him, and Nikolai raised his eyes. "She fell ill, and that's why you had to leave school and return to Farwold." Nikolai nodded silently, his eyes misty. "That's a hard thing to do. I think you'd have some compassion for the boy, Revka."
"Hard to show compassion to a boy that never showed you compassion," Revka said, his eyes hardening. "A boy that spits on you, and the folks you care about. And on Marram and the other gods."
Nikolai sniffed and crossed his arms. "You've got it the wrong way around, Revka."
"You see!" Revka threw his arms out towards Nikolai. "See what we have to put up with? He's like this all day in the orchard."
"Like what?" the stranger asked.
"You know..." Revka seemed to be searching for the right words, finally settling on a few that would do. "Moody, and whiny, and being all insulting to the gods."
"And Marram in particular."
"Because Nikolai's mother was a priestess of Marram," the stranger continued. "A long time ago. She worked miracles, cured diseases, and saved people from the brink of death. But then she wound up pregnant with Nikolai and was cast out of the order."
Nikolai stared at the stranger, mouth agape, brows furrowing as he stumbled over his words. "What... you... who in dark hell are you? How can you know all of that?"
"I'm good at putting things together," the stranger said. "And you look a lot like a priestess of Marram I used to know."
Revka snickered. "I'm sure you knew her real good. Hey Nikolai, maybe our friend here's your daddy!"
Nikolai's eyes flashed, and his fists clenched and rose as if to punch Revka. Swiftly, the stranger extended his hand, and Nikolai hesitated, his eyes darting toward the stranger. The fury drained from his eyes, and he lowered his hands.
"I'm not your father, Nikolai," the stranger said. "But Revka's right about one thing - I am a friend. And I'm sorry about what you had to go through. It's enough to make anyone despise the gods, especially Marram." He turned his attention back to Revka. "You should be more understanding of our young friend, Revka. You're old enough to show a boy in Nikolai's position some compassion regardless of how he's treated you."
Revka glared. "Hey, friend, knowing Nikolai's past is great and all, but don't go telling me what to do. Nikolai's story may be a sad one, but there comes a time that a man's gotta stop acting like a boy and start taking responsibility for himself and his actions."
"I do!" Nikolai snapped. "You mock me for rejecting Marram, but you run crying to his priests every time you get sick or hurt. How is that taking responsibility for your actions?"
Revka shook his head. "Those are totally different things. You get sick, you call a priest. That doesn't mean you're not taking responsibility."
"It does when you call me an outsider for going away to school, when you say I'm not one of you because I want to find a way to heal people without praying to some uncaring god for everything!" The words came pouring out of his mouth in crashing waves, and he paused for a second, his eyes flitting to the stranger. He had never spoken so freely before, especially not in front of one he didn't know. Yet here he was, he realized, in this dark corner of The Wayward Gull on Marram's Eve, spilling himself out on this table to an idiot and an outsider.
"That's not natural," Revka responded, interrupting Nikolai's thought. "Health comes from Marram, just like death and storms come from Kranych and the seasons come from Allandra. People can't perform miracles all on their own, boy, and thinking otherwise isn't just wrong, it's . . . it's . . ." And he finally arrived at the word he'd been searching for earlier. "It's heresy!"
"And what's wrong with heresy?" the stranger asked. Words abandoned Revka as his jaw dropped, and Nikolai was convinced that smoke would start pouring out of Revka's ears in a moment.
The stranger quickly added, "I mean, what is it about heresy that's wrong? Why shouldn't we be heretics?"
"Because that's not what the gods want, dammit!" When Revka's words returned, they were exasperated and incredulous. "Do you hear what you're saying?"
"Yes, I hear it," the stranger's tone was patient and kind. "But my question is, why should human beings care what it is the gods want?"
"Because the gods decide what's right and what's wrong!"
"But why do gods have the power to decide right and wrong? Because they're stronger than mortals? Because they can do things that mortals cannot?"
"Yes!" Revka shouted in exasperation.
The stranger let out a soft laugh. "So if I were to beat you in an arm wrestling competition, then you would allow me to tell you what was right and what was wrong?"
Revka shook his head. "That's not the same, and you know it! Stop trying to fool me!"
"Well, then, answer me another question - which of the gods decides what's right and what's wrong? When they meet together on the Divine Mount, what happens if they disagree?"
Revka was about to give an answer, or at least try, but Nikolai interrupted him. "And what about the fact that what the gods want or command might change? What if Marram commands something tomorrow that's different from what he commands today? After all, the scriptures . . ."
Revka's face was turning red. "Don't you dare quote scripture at me, boy!" he shouted. "I don't have to listen to this, not on Marram's Eve." He rose to leave, but the stranger extended his hand towards him.
"I'm sorry, Revka. I didn't mean to upset you. Please, don't go just yet. I have something I'd like to share with you and Nikolai both, if it's all right with you, and then I'll need to be on my way. Something I need to get off my chest, now that my time seems to be running out. And it may even be something you'd like to hear."
Revka paused for a moment, torn between curiosity and outrage, until curiosity won the day. "All right, then" Revka said, returning to the bench. "What've you got for us?" Nikolai stared at the stranger intently, unsure where he was headed.
The stranger's voice became rich and warm like melted honeycomb. "I'd like to tell you both a story, if you don't mind. It won't take too much time, but it seems an appropriate one for Marram's Eve. Is that all right with you?"
Nikolai nodded seriously, and Revka huffed. "I don't know what kinda Marram's Eve story heretics tell, but go ahead."
"Thank you." The stranger paused, coughed quietly, and began his tale.
"Once upon a time, there were three people, just like us here, sitting in a warm, cozy place before a fire on a chilly night. But the three lived far, far away on a distant world set amongst the stars. All three had grown tired of their star-world and wanted to create a new one, far away, where people lived like they had in the star-world's past. They wanted to recreate society from scratch, and they had the power and abilities necessary to do so. So they flew through the darkness far, far away from their home, farther than anyone before them had gone, and founded a new land with brand new people, people who didn't know anything about the star-world where the three had come from.
"But the people in the new land were savage and brutal, and so one of the three declared that the people needed guidance, authority, and a heavy hand to rule them. What they needed, she said, were 'conceptual training wheels'..."
The stranger paused, taking in the simultaneous rapt attention and incomprehension on the faces before him. He shook his head "Never mind. What she meant was that the people needed gods to teach them how to live until they were ready to stand on their own. It had worked for the ancestors of the star-people, she said, and so it would work for these new people as well. So they decided that until the people of this land were mature enough to rule themselves, the three of them would preside over this land as its gods.
"The three set about their work and established their domains of power. The woman who had come up with the plan, Allandra, claimed the seasons as her own. Another of the three, Kranych, claimed storms. And the final member of the trio, Marram, claimed health. But his participation in this divine trinity was contingent upon Allandra and Kranych accepting one condition: Marram would only play a god as long as the people needed gods, as long as Allandra's 'conceptual training wheels' were necessary. Marram resolved to walk among the mortals for a period every year in disguise, speaking with them privately to determine whether they had evolved to the point where gods were no longer needed. Once he had gathered his evidence, he declared, he would return to the Divine Mount to present it to Kranych and Allandra. Should they deem the evidence sufficient, then the three of them would depart for their home amongst the stars once more and only return from time to time to see how the society they had created was progressing. The other two gods agreed to Marram's condition, and so Marram set about his work.
"Year after year, Marram would return to the Divine Mount with his evidence of the people's development and present it to Kranych and Allandra. The pair would consider what Marram had collected, and then all three together would discuss whether the evidence was sufficient to warrant their exodus. For hundreds of years, Marram could find no reason for the gods to leave.
But then, Marram began to find good men and women of intelligence, even brilliance. He asked them questions, and they gave thoughtful answers that revealed both intellectual and moral sophistication. Marram recorded all that he could, and he returned to the Divine Mount convinced that the time of the gods was over.
"But his hopes were dashed. Kranych and Allandra did not find the evidence compelling. And so Marram walked among the people the next year, gathered more information, and returned to the Divine Mount to present it to Kranych and Allandra. Again, they did not accept the evidence, and so generations passed. Marram became increasingly convinced that the gods were no longer needed despite his friends' protests to the contrary. Finally, after centuries of traveling, Marram returned to the Divine Mount to present Allandra and Kranych with what he took to be irrefutable evidence of the people's ability to look after themselves - a medical manual written by a former priest of Marram detailing various remedies for the sick in rural areas who had access to none of Marram's order. With this final piece of evidence, Allandra's resistance finally cracked. She somberly thanked Marram for his work and agreed that it was time for the gods to leave.
But in the intervening centuries, Kranych had become obsessed with his power, with the fear his actions provoked in the hearts of the people. Kranych, Allandra and Marram realized quickly, had fallen in love with his own divinity and would never relinquish it willingly, no matter how ready the people were for the gods to depart.
"And so there was a schism among the gods. Kranych declared that he would stay forever as a god of this new world even as Allandra and Marram begged him to abandon his position, knowing that, the longer he stayed in power, the more disastrous the results would be. Kranych refused to accept Marram's evidence or consider Allandra's arguments. 'If having us as their gods infantilizes these people,' Kranych insisted, 'then they are better off remaining infants forever'. He grew angry with Allandra and attacked her, and in the ensuing fight, Marram found himself with an opportunity to kill Kranych. And he took it."
The stranger sighed, his tone darker now. "With their friend and companion dead, it was time for Allandra and Marram to leave their new world, to return to their home amongst the stars and allow normal human biological and cultural evolution to take its course. But Marram could not leave without saying good-bye to the people he had walked among for eons. Allandra agreed to give him until Marram's Eve to make his peace with the world he was leaving, and so Marram enjoyed one last trip through the world he had helped build, saying his farewells before taking, once again, to the stars.
"Here my tale ends."
Revka and Nikolai had been listening in silence. The noise of the tavern around them had faded into the background as the stranger spoke. But as the stranger's story ended, so did its spell, and Revka snorted as the noise around them returned to full volume.
"That's garbage," he said angrily, waving a hand dismissively. "Heretical garbage. Get out of here, 'friend', and take your crazy stories with you!"
Nikolai ignored Revka, his eyes wide and full from the stranger's story. He leaned forward towards the stranger despite himself. "Are you... is Marram going to be okay when he leaves?"
The stranger nodded. "I believe so. I hope so."
"Garbage!" Revka repeated, his voice growing louder and increasingly unhinged. "You're a madman, friend! Absolutely..."
The stranger's head snapped towards Revka in the first sign of anger any in the tavern had seen from the figure. The stranger rose and pulled from under his cloak the severed head of a pale man with a dark beard and a shaved head. The stranger held the head aloft for all in the tavern to see. Its base was crusted with black blood and its eyes fixed straight ahead. The tavern grew silent as the stranger slowly placed the head on the table facing Revka, who stared at the head and then the stranger with revulsion.
"There lies Kranych, your god," the stranger said in a loud, harsh voice as he walked towards the tavern's front door. As he reached it, he turned towards the silent room, noting the gaze of every man fixed on him. Revka's face was shock and outrage. Nikolai's dour expression belied his tense muscles' longing to embrace the stranger, to try to alleviate the stranger's pain which Nikolai felt as keenly as his own. Hain looked as if he were going be sick.
The stranger cleared his throat again, fearing it would crack when he spoke. "The old gods are gone now. You'll all have to band together to fend for yourselves from here on out. We have loved you as our own. We go in peace."
Until now the other patrons hadn't noticed the woman clad in a dress of autumn leaves, holding the door open to allow the stranger to freely exit. As the stranger strode from the tavern into the chill of night, the woman gave the tavern's customers one last sad, solemn smile before she softly closed the door behind them.
x x x
Daniel Peterson, PhD is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at South Georgia State College. Not surprising, then, that his debut in anotherealm deals with religio-philosophical themes. Reading this raised my consciousness and held my interest throughout. Nice job, Doc. Agree or disagree on our Forum page. Here's hoping it won't be his last. -GM