Part 5 - Always Trust a Fox
(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6)
It was an enjoyable trip to Woodland city, it being high summer and having the good companionship of the strange fox and the assorted animal life we met along the way, so I took my time. A day and a half after setting out from my family's manor, I arrived at the gates of Woodland just before sunset. Before I could ask the gatekeeper which way it was to the Messengers' Mosque, he pointed straight ahead and said "Go past the Temple of Apollo until you get to the fountain, turn left and go up the main street. The mosque will be on the left before you get to the fortress." Noticing my confusion- was I in a town of psychics?- he added with a chuckle, "It's the fox, lad. Been here long enough to know that foxes go with Messengers." How could I have missed that obvious fact? It wasn't like anyone who wasn't blind could miss a fox this large; he certainly didn't look like a dog or anything like that!
With a sheepish smile at my own obtuseness, I thanked him and continued on, eager to reach my destination and see what these Messengers were like. For one thing, were they really as strange as the impression I'd gotten after reading the scroll?
Turning the corner I saw the mosque before me: a large, old grey stone building with its red double doors ajar, although if this was to let in the cool evening air or out of welcoming, I wasn't sure. I walked up to the doors and, figuring that I wouldn't have to knock since they were already open, peeked in. The fox, knowing that we'd reached our destination and not understanding why I was hesitating on the doorstep, brushed past my legs and entered. I shrugged, then followed him in.
Inside was a small foyer; past that was a large room with many desks, tables, shelves, a great many scrolls and a great many industrious people dressed in red. There were a few adolescents in plain robes (acolytes, I realized), but all looked older than myself; if this was to be my home, it appeared that I was going to be the youngest. Well, at least I was used to that. I also noticed that everyone over the age of eighteen or so looked incredibly tan, but since this was unimportant, it got pushed to the very back of my mind to wonder about later.
The fox led me to an experienced -and busy-looking- priest who fell into the "very tan" category, but then vanished into the bustle as I was distracted by taking in my surroundings. Unsure of how the man would react to being interrupted by a random kid, but assuming that the fox had led me to someone who would be able to help, I cleared my throat and said as politely as possible, "Hello. I apologize for interrupting you but the fox brought me here and I'm not sure where exactly I'm supposed to go..." As the words came out of my mouth, I realized just how silly they sounded.
The man looked up from the parchment he had been reading, and, to my surprise, instead of brushing me off or looking annoyed, gave me a big smile as he said, "Ah, you must be the new kid Armand told us would be arriving. Follow me."
Nodding in agreement that I was, in fact, the "new kid", I followed him through the organized chaos of that work area and up a quieter flight of stairs. He chatted cheerfully to me as we walked through the mosque, although I'll admit that I did more nodding than replying as he was the sort to dominate any conversation (not to mention that I was feeling quite overwhelmed), and we eventually reached a closed door, at which he knocked. A kindly voice invited us into what turned out to be an office; at the desk was a smiling, not quite middle-aged man with black hair and pointed beard, garbed in the most ornate robe I'd seen so far in the mosque. He thanked the priest, whose name was apparently Ronnis, for "not frightening the boy away", which I didn't understand at all, since the man had been nothing but friendly. Instead of looking offended, Ronnis just laughed and retorted "That was once! Besides, he only got as far as the door" before leaving the room. The man behind the desk laughed and muttered something under his breath about some Messengers being too mischievous for their own good.
By this point I was utterly confused; weren't priests supposed to be dour, serious, and... well, boring? This all fit the impression I'd gotten from the scroll, but not any of my preconceived opinions of clerics. The man behind the desk must have noticed the look on my face because he asked, "Not what you expected, lad? Messengers know when to be serious, but Hermes is a Trickster, as well; He likes His followers to have a sense of humor, but that's an understatement when it comes to some of us." He nodded his head in the direction of the recently shut door.
Looking rather embarrassed because I didn't know that and in fact knew very little about Messengers at all; on the rare occasion my family received or sent messages, it was through a horse courier. Not wanting to offend the priest, but figuring I should be honest here, I replied, "I didn't know that, sir. Hermes isn't a god that is often... mentioned by my family." Because the fools think He's a common god and are too pretentious to even stoop to talking about Him, I added to myself, not daring to say that aloud. The man must have had an idea of what I was thinking, though, because he gave me a reassuring smile and said, "It is true that Hermes and his priests are hard working, but that does not make us lowly. However, judging from your expression, you already understand that." I nodded; I found most of the things my family thought to be wrong or stupid, so of course this was no different.
"I'm Armand, by the way; I'm the Head Messenger here, but I'm assuming that since you're here, you got my letter, so you likely already deduced that." I nodded again, although thinking that it would be just like someone like Ronnis to lead a wild goose chase instead of going straight to a destination.
He then went on to explain what it was that Messengers did (carry messages, sort messages, write and read things out for people who couldn't... if it had to do with words, the Messengers were right on top of it) and what I'd have to do (watch and learn and do a lot of the busywork around the mosque with the rest of the acolytes for a few years until I'd be allowed on deliveries). Armand was pleased to learn that I already knew how to read and write in two languages and told me I'd be learning more; that made me quite happy because I'd always wanted to learn more than Common and High Elvish, that second one being the only non-human language my father would allow, and that was begrudgingly.
Armand then showed me around the rest of the mosque, introducing me to the acolytes and a few of the full Messengers who weren't too busy; there were two student-clerics about my age, though older, and a couple more a few years older than that (one of these was elven, which kind of surprised me since everyone else I'd met seemed to be fully human- but judging by the hairstyle and ears, there was no mistaking this boy for a full human), as well as a few older priests and priestesses coming and going. Everyone seemed to be pleasant and good humored, even though none were idle, which certainly fit what I've learned of the Messengers so far.
When we got back to his office, the high priest returned to his seat and asked, "So, do you think you're ready to learn how to be a Messenger? As you likely noticed, you are the youngest here, which might be somewhat challenging to start." Drawing myself up and trying to appear confident- I mean, I was intelligent and ready to work, even if I was also new and young- I replied, "Of course, sir! I don't mind being the youngest; I can work hard and catch up."
Armand smiled. "I thought you might say that. I do have a warning for you, though." That deflated me; don't tell me there was going to be pointless rules here, too? Catching my expression, he quickly added, "Nothing about you per se, lad. I just get the feeling that you haven't been around too many young people and I know how Messengers can be; they're the nicest people I've met, but they can be rather... enthusiastic about pranks, so be careful until you get your feet under you, okay? I don't normally warn the acolytes, but most of them have a better idea of what they're getting into."
I thanked him for the advice and said, "You're right; I'd probably have just walked right into something." I thought for a moment and added, "I probably still will, but at least I'll know to watch out. This is part of the 'learning' thing, too, right?"
"You're catching on, Cyneric. I wish you luck, but I'm sure you'll do fine. One can always trust a fox." He paused in thought for a moment, and added, "Alright, maybe not so much, but Messengers can always trust a fox, if just because we're the only beings more sly than they are."
It wasn't until that night, after I'd settled in and been given my acolyte robes, that I recalled the cryptic warning my brother had given me earlier that week. As I drifted off to sleep on my first night as a cleric-to-be, I mused over how Armand seemed to have echoed his words, only in a way that turned out to be a lot less unnerving. Yes, I knew I was going to like it here, even if my new brethren did turn out to be slightly crazy.
(Part 6 can be found here.)
((Yeah, I had this mostly written months and months ago, but got distracted by Raff and never finished it. Sorry, Cyn. I do love you, too, even if I tend to neglect you for my elves.))