THE HAND OF THE GODDESS
The paladin in blue looked a little like Grandpa: short gray hair parted down the middle,
wrinkled cheeks, a kind smile, and big shoulders to ride on. But Grandpa's eyes did not glow gold, and Grandpa had two arms.
"Welcome." The paladin's voice was deep and gentle. He knelt and offered his right hand, his only.
Destin smiled and reached out his left hand. His father swatted it down, hissing his name. Destin had learned not to cringe. That would only make it worse. "I'm sorry, Father..."
Nobody had ever called Destin "sir" before, but he knew an angry voice when he heard one. "I'm sor..."
"Not you, lad." The paladin stared at Destin's father, eyes blazing. "Do not strike the hand of the Goddess in Her home."
Destin's father flinched. He asked forgiveness.
"Save it for Temple, sir. I'm not the one who needs to forgive you." The paladin softened his voice. "I will remind you, sir, that the inn is part of the sanctuary, and the squires there serve the Goddess. Keep your comments and corrections to yourself, or stay elsewhere at your own expense. Understood?"
Destin's father nodded.
"When we have finished our evaluation, we will send for you. It's time for you to leave."
Destin's father kissed his son's forehead and hurried out. When he was gone, the paladin cleared his throat.
"Let's try again. Welcome. My name is Piet. What's yours?"
"Call me Piet. Can you do that?"
"Thank you." Piet stood and glanced at his left side. "My sleeve came out. Could you tuck it into my belt, please?"
Destin's left hand still stung. He made himself raise his right hand, tucked in the empty sleeve, and straightened it.
"Thank you, Destin. Let's go inside."
Four steps into the great hall, Destin forgot to walk. He gazed up at the golden statue of the Goddess, lips open. Her knees rose above the heads of the passing paladins and squires, and her feathered wings stretched from wall to wall. Yet the face, so high and huge, matched the one on the bronze statue he had seen at Temple, narrow and long-nosed, with seven rays like arrows rising from the helm that covered her eyes.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
Destin turned to Piet. "I'm sorry, I..."
"Let's look together." Piet tilted his head and smiled. "I see the statue every day. Sometimes I forget how special it is."
They stayed there, paladins and squires walking behind them, until Piet said it was time to move on. He guided Destin toward a door on the left.
"We'll see Her statue again when we worship this afternoon, and I have work to do. At home, do you help in the kitchen?"
"That's what I'm doing today." They entered the refectory, where two squires swept with brooms. "Did you eat at the inn before coming here?"
"Good. We'll have lunch with the squires. Before that..." Piet pushed open the kitchen door. "We help wash up."
Squires and a few paladins with aprons over their blue uniforms stood at tubs, scraping and scrubbing. A tall woman with tight brown curls and golden eyes set in a tanned and weathered face looked up.
"Ah, Piet, we were..." She put a lilt into her husky voice. "Hello, lad. My name is Braver. What's yours?"
Destin did not answer. He stared at Braver's hands, the right holding a bowl, the left working a rag, and felt his throat closing up. Father had caught him once with a rag in his left hand, wiping up lamb's blood, and he had...
Piet's voice broke through. "Destin?"
Destin looked around. He was outside the kitchen. Braver was next to Piet, hands empty, apron off. She knelt, her golden eyes level with Destin's. "I didn't mean to scare you, lad."
Destin opened his mouth. He could not make a sound.
"Piet told me about your father. He's a butcher, yes? Out by the Grays?"
"I've been there. Good people. Hard workers. Pious. Your father never misses Temple, does he?"
Destin shook his head.
"And he's told you about the left hand, the hand of the Goddess. It's for serving Her and worship. It's not for eating or playing or working. Yes?"
Destin nodded, frowning. He had heard it all before, though never so calmly.
"And you try to be a good boy, don't you?"
Destin nodded. He would not cry. He would not...
"Come here, come here." Braver hugged Destin, letting him weep into her coat. "When I was young, I thought I was a bad girl. My mother said I was mocking the Goddess. I tried so hard to use my right hand, to be good."
Destin hugged Braver back.
"But I wasn't a bad girl. I was trying to serve the Goddess, though I didn't know it. Then my mother brought me here, and I became a paladin. Now I serve the Goddess in everything I do."
Destin pulled back his head. "Oh?"
Braver nodded. "After Temple, what does your father do?"
"He comes home."
"He helps clean up."
"Because it's Her home, yes? Well, this is Her home too, and we keep it clean for Her. Thanks, Piet." Braver took the rag Piet gave her and wiped Destin's face. "Now, the three of us will go to the kitchen. We'll help wash up. I'll use my left hand, because I'm serving the Goddess. You can too."
Destin looked to Piet.
"I'll use what I have, lad. Ready?"
Destin smiled and nodded.
Braver smiled too. "Let's serve Her, then."
When all the bowls and spoons were clean, Piet took Destin around the sanctuary. In the reading room, Destin admired the illustrations of the Great Codex as Piet quoted wisdom from the open pages. In the sparring room, Destin met Modest, a tall squire with a tight crop of blond hair and green eyes.
"Do you have a moment, Piet?" Modest held up his baton. "I need longsword practice against a right-hander."
Piet had Destin stand against a wall. He chose a baton, black wood with gilded bands, and whispered a prayer. Golden magic shimmered up from the free end, forming a longsword's blade. Modest prayed and turned his baton into a longsword of his own. Destin saw that Modest also had a small round shield, made bigger with magic by another prayer. Destin frowned. Modest had a shield and Piet did not. How was that fair?
"Don't worry, Destin. These swords aren't sharp. The Goddess knows it's practice." Piet nodded to Modest. "Ready?"
They counted down and sprang for each other. Modest went on offense, thrusting at Piet's joints and face, and Piet dodged and parried, each clash of magic blades ringing like iron. With a shout to the Goddess, Modest swung his sword overhand, and the blade grew in the air to greatsword length. Piet dodged the blow, and as Modest's blade struck the floor, Piet closed in and feinted with his longsword. When Modest raised his shield to block, Piet hooked the bottom edge of the shield with his left boot, kicking it up into Modest's face. As Modest staggered back, Piet disarmed him. The golden magic vanished.
"Better sword-work," Piet said as he disengaged. "Use the blade-shift as a last resort only, and watch your shield placement. Never let a foe use it."
Modest sniffed. "If you'd had a shield..."
"Stop. I once made excuses in the sparring room." Piet tapped his empty sleeve. "This is what it cost me."
Modest picked up his baton, and said no more.
"Remember what you're named for, and keep training." Piet handed off his baton and returned to Destin. "It's almost lunchtime, lad. Are you ready to eat?"
Destin watched how the squires took their bread and cheese, tearing off pieces with their left hands, and followed their lead. After lunch Destin helped Piet clean the refectory.
"Destin, have you started going to Temple?"
Destin picked up a crumb with his left hand. "Yes, Piet."
"We worship the same way. I'll help you. You'll be fine."
After clean-up they went to the hall with the statue of the Goddess. It was full of paladins and squires and their voices.
"Let's go to the back. You can sit on my shoulders. That way we can both see the Grand Master and the Goddess, even when we all raise our hands ... Modest, a little help?"
Modest untucked Piet's empty sleeve and lifted Destin onto Piet's shoulders. Destin hooked his legs under Piet's arm and stump and leaned forward. The sleeve tickled Destin as Modest draped it over Destin's left leg. Piet thanked Modest, and Destin joined in.
"There's the Grand Master," said Piet. "Hush now, lad."
The hall quieted as the Grand Master, clad in gilded half-plate armor over paladin blue, took to the platform below the statue of the Goddess. Destin blinked. Was that Braver? She was a tall woman, whoever she was, made taller by her helmet with its winged crest, and what he could see of her face matched. She turned her head to look across the worshippers, and there was silence. Braver's voice announced the hymn: "Goddess, Let Us Be Your Hands."
Braver lifted her left arm and sang. As Destin saw hands rise and fingers spread in front of him, he felt something brush his left calf. He looked there, and he gasped.
Piet's sleeve was filling from the top, like Father stuffing a sausage. At the bottom, golden magic formed a hand. The hand rose in the air, spreading fingers, reaching for the Goddess. Destin's eyes followed the hand to the Goddess's face. It was larger than he remembered, huge against his tiny fingers wriggling in worship, through them, up against him...
She kissed his forehead. "Fear not, my child."
Her face passed through his. He saw gold. He saw darkness.
"Fear not, my child," Piet echoed. "Did She say more?"
"No," Destin said from his cot. Everything looked golden.
Destin nodded. "I'm sorry, Piet."
"Don't be, lad." Piet looked to Braver. She had taken off her helmet, though not the rest of her armor. "Ma'am?"
"Simple words for a boy to repeat, yet a message for us all. I have heard the wisdom of the Goddess." Braver stood. "Destin, do you know how to write?"
"We'll teach you soon." Braver motioned to Piet. "Stay with him. I must prepare this wisdom for the Great Codex."
"Fear not, my child," Braver said once more, and left the infirmary. From outside, her voice echoed: "Goddess, I can only trust Your ways..."
Piet brushed a hair from Destin's face. "It's been a long day for you, Destin. You must rest now."
"I just slept..."
"Not sleep, lad. Rest. When the Goddess marked me as one of Her paladins, I couldn't get out of bed for three days straight, and I was a grown man. Brave as you are, you're still a little boy. It's a wonder you've done this well."
"When's Father coming?"
"He saw you this evening while you slept. I'll make sure you two can visit before he goes."
"Before he goes?" Destin blinked golden eyes. "Without me?"
"It's the will of the Goddess, Destin. She gave you Her eyes. She made you Her hand. You are Hers now. You are home."