Clarence ran to his parents as soon as he stepped out of the woods. The villagers cheered, but the unbearable cries of Mrs. Finley still drowned them out as she smothered her grown son into her chest.
“Look at you! You’re hurt!” The mother cried, pulling out a handkerchief to wipe Clarence’s face.
“It’s ok mom, it’s just a scratch.”
“What happened to your crossbow?” his father asked.
“Lost it when I was fighting the boar. I got it good though!”
People surrounded the lying Clarence, asking him about his adventure. His plump face becoming red from the attention, a proud smile growing. Some men shook his hand, a few of the single women giggled and whispered to each other.
“You’re a damn liar, Finley.”
The Paladin’s voice carried over the now hushed crowd, though anger stirred among them. Accusing eyes shot her way, but Mariel stood tall, placing her hands on her hips in defiance.
“Are you calling my boy a liar?” Mrs. Finley said, clutching her son close to her.
“Clarence didn’t do shit to Alboda, and you all know it. The only thing he shot today was me, and he didn’t even do a good job of that.”
She ripped the rest of the arrow from her leg and threw it, bloody, towards the Finley family. A few villagers looked horrified, others shook their head in disappointment. Mariel started towards her horse, ignoring the blood trailing down her leg and the throbbing pain. Amon caught up to her, catching her arm.
“Come on, Mariel, just say something nice to them. Everyone knows Clarence is a pain, but there’s no reason to act so aggressively.”
“They coddle that idiot and wonder why he acts likes a spoiled brat.”
She spoke loudly on purpose, staring at the said idiot as she spoke. The Paladin snatched her hand back from her brother, turning back to Major.
“In case you’ve forgotten Paladin,” a voice said in the crowd, “you have a duty to us. Your life is for us. You should be happy to do whatever we need.”
A few gasps rose from the crowd at Clarence’s words. Some told him he had gone too far, but none of their words stopped Mariel from walking back towards them, eyes set on the failed hunter. Amon quickly ran to Clarence’s defense, putting himself between his sister and the man.
“Mariel, just walk away,” he warned.
An anguished expression dominated Mariel’s face, then overwhelmed by anger. She scanned the nervous crowd. Everyone’s attention was on her.
“Let me make something clear. You all like to talk behind my back about what a shit Paladin I am, but the moment something happens, you come begging me to help, saying it’s my duty. Well, fuck duty, because I didn’t ask for it and none of you deserve it.”
No one spoke as the Paladin walked back to her horse. Mariel ignored Amon’s embarrassed face and the villagers sneers. Major took off in a run, knowing exactly where he needed to go. The sun was high by the time Mariel made it to the village temple. She tied Major to his usual post next to a field that was overgrown with his favorite weeds.
Compared to some temples the Paladin heard of, this village had a simple one. Constructed with plain stone, but filled with flowers and plants to compensate for the lack of grandeur. A few of the elderly villagers were there, taking part in their daily prayers to their gods. All temples held a statue of one ruler - Edona, known for her love and nurture.
“Get out,” Mariel demanded.
Everyone hurried out of her path, the last one closing the door behind them. They knew if a Paladin entered a temple, they meant to commune with the gods. A private and scared activity, so all but those intended to hear the gods had to leave the temple grounds. Mariel sat in the front row of the pews, her stomach rumbling. She stared at the offerings that lined the floor below the statue of their chosen gods. Many of them would flood the temple after Mariel left, believing that the gods were closer to the people after speaking to a Paladin.
Truth be told, she didn’t know if the superstition was true. The only god that ever talked to her was Yula, though she never tried to speak to the other gods and none of them appeared to be interested in her either. She went to the temple because it was the only place that was truly quiet and she had complete privacy. Though she hated that the peace she felt was in a place of worship for the ones who cursed her.
The anger ebbed away, along with the pain in her leg. Looking down, the wound healed itself. The only evidence left was the drying blood on her leg, not even a scar flawed her skin. She sighed. There was no hiding that she was a Paladin. Frustration flared inside of her, pushing her to her feet. Edona’s statue stared down at Mariel in all her glory, arms open wide to embrace her children.
Mariel spat on the ground. Some god. Who would pick someone against their will to be a grunt for the humans and a tool for the gods. She drew her hand back to destroy the statue, as she had done before, but she remembered the pain and shame it brought to her family. Instead, she turned to the wall and kicked it. Despite that, it was a controlled kick; the wall cracked in several places, and chunks of stone fell from the wall.
There was a loud knock at the door. Mariel stared at it, waiting for the eager villager to pass. When no answer came, the intruder pounded louder on the door. Further annoyed, she stomped to the door, opening it with such force that it broke from the hinges. Gris stood before her, an eyebrow raised and a smile on his lips.
“Well, at least it was only the door,” He chuckled.
“Shit. Sorry, dad.”
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