By Pat Nelson Childs
The cock crowed. The sun had just begun to creep above the Emerald Mountains. The autumn days still bore the sweetness of summer, but in the nighttime, cold air now swept over the peaks and high hills, leaving a crispness on the morning breeze. It wafted through the window of a dormitory room, and touched the faces of the two figures sleeping there. One of them yawned and sat up, shivering a bit as the bedcovers slid down and bared his torso. He stretched, flung back the grey woolen blanket and swung himself out of bed. Naked, and immediately chilled, he quickly headed for the basin to wash. The water, too, was ice cold, and he hurried through his ablutions so that he could dress.
This was Ely, a novice of the Brotherhood of the Noble Contemplative. He was a strapping lad of 17, with short brown hair, hazel eyes, and a wide, handsome face flawed only by a nose slightly crooked from a childhood break. Ely pulled on his muslin shorts and donned his robe, the cobalt blue color worn by all novices. Then he turned his attention to the still-sleeping figure in the other bed.
"Hey sleepy head," he said, giving the bed leg a kick. "Hey, Rokey! You're going to be late . . . again."
The other boy groaned and opened his eyes. "Yes, Mother," he grumbled, and struggled out of bed. He was slightly shorter than the other boy, but similarly well-built. His shoulder-length hair was black as midnight; his eyes a deep chocolate brown. Where Ely's chest was already covered with dark, downy hair, Rokey's was completely smooth.
"I'd wait for you," Ely told him, "but it's my turn to change the candles and refill the incense before meditation starts."
"That's alright," Rokey answered, splashing himself with the icy water. "I'll be along directly."
"You'd better," Ely joked, "or you may find yourself on dung duty again."
Rokey threw a towel at him as he ducked out the door. As he combed his hair, Rokey walked over to the window. The sun was well up now, and the sky was clear except for a few wispy white clouds. It was going to be a beautiful day. In spite of his tardiness, he took the time for his usual morning stretch, then hurriedly dressed in his own shorts and blue robe, and headed out the door.
* * *
The Brotherhood of the Noble Contemplative had existed in the land of Firma for over a thousand years. Perched atop the Emerald Mountain range, it was a secular monastery, open to males of all religious (or non-religious) persuasions. What bound the brothers together was the commitment to a philosophy of personal betterment, both physically and mentally. Novices coming into the Contemplative studied a variety of subjects ranging from geography to poetry to swordsmanship. At the end of the novitiate, a period of 5 to 12 years depending on one's age and prior experience, they took the Vow of Brotherhood and became full-fledged members of the Contemplative. At that point, one could choose to stay and focus on meditation, a particular field of study, or the day-to-day functions of the monastery. Alternatively, many brothers served in townships and kingdoms throughout the land as diplomats, elite guards and financial advisors. The skills and high moral character of the Brotherhood were known and respected throughout Firma. Many orphaned boys were brought to the monastery, for it offered a brighter alternative to the often squalid and always overcrowded orphanages in most kingdoms.
Rokey was one such orphan. He had been brought to the Brotherhood as a young child and raised by the brothers. He was well schooled in a wide variety of disciplines, math and geography, as well as hand-to-hand combat and swordsmanship. Now 17, he was in his final year of his novitiate. That following spring, he would start his preparatory year, a period during which he would be readied to take his final vows and choose his vocation. To the novices, very little was known about this year. Its curriculum was a closely held secret, one that had been strictly kept for centuries.
Rokey sped along the colonnade toward the academics hall. He was, indeed, late for his comparative religion class. Brother Crinshire was waiting with the door open, tapping his foot and wearing his usual scowl.
"I apologize, brother", Rokey said breathlessly, "I was -,"
"Spare me the excuse, young man," he said curtly. "I am docking you ten points on today's lesson, and if this tardiness continues, you will fail this class."
"Ten points!" Rokey protested. "Brother the bell has only just rung!"
"Do not argue with me," Crinshire snapped, "or you will find yourself in detention as well."
He hustled Rokey inside and closed the door behind them. Rokey took his seat, cursing inwardly. Brother Crinshire was never a pleasant person. Rokey often wondered why he had chosen the Brotherhood, and why the Brotherhood had accepted him. He seemed always unhappy in his work, delighting only in inflicting petty torments on his young charges. He had always enjoyed his comparative religion classes in prior years. This year he was struggling with both the personality and the teaching style of his instructor. He would consider himself fortunate if he could just finish the class with a passing score.
After morning classes, it was time for the senior novices to begin their proctorships. This month, Rokey was in charge of monitoring the younger boys at their gardening chores. He had enjoyed this proctorship, for he liked being outdoors, especially on a fine day such as this, and was somewhat sorry that the month was at an end. Today was his last day in the garden, and the day after tomorrow, new proctorships would be posted. Before that, though, came the Hunter's Moon Festival.
The first moon of autumn was known as the Hunter's Moon. Each year at that time, the Brotherhood and the villagers celebrated the approaching harvest with a festival. It was an event which all the brothers, as well as the inhabitants of the adjacent Noble Village, looked forward to with great anticipation. Casks of the monastery's finest honey ale would be tapped. The cooks at the Contemplative had been hard at work all week long, producing an impressive variety of foods, cakes and confections. Music and dancing would start early and go on late into the night.
There was little for the proctor to do in the gardens today, so Rokey found his thoughts drifting to festivals past, and to hopes of a mild fall and winter this year. Soon the bell sounded. The boys filed past, handing in their gardening implements as they went, and made for the dining hall. When they had all gone, Rokey closed up the gardening shed. The younger boys ate earlier than the older ones, so Rokey had one more class before lunch - swordsmanship. Brother Barrow, who was his personal mentor as well as his swordsmanship teacher, was waiting for him on the training ground. At this point in his training, the lessons were one-on-one. Brother Barrow, a brawny, barrel-chested man with a wild mop of short, red hair, was an excellent swordsman, and Rokey's own skills had improved greatly under his tutelage. Today he was holding a bastard sword, the weapon at which Rokey's skill was still the weakest. He groaned inwardly.
"Don't give me that face!" Brother Barrow chastised him. "The bastard sword's your shortcoming. You need the practice and you know it. Now choose your weapon."
"Yes Brother." He was right, of course, but Rokey was no happier for it.
He went to the weapons rack. All the swords were crafted by the Brotherhood and even the practice weapons were finely made. He chose a sword, a bastard type similar to Brother Barrow's, slipped the leather safety sheath over the blade, and returned to face his instructor. They worked for a while on his recoveries, arcs and parries. Rokey found the bastard sword difficult, not only because it was heavier than a regular longsword, but also because of the hand-and-a-half grip, which allowed one to use it with either one or two hands. While that could be a great advantage in battle, it also made it more challenging to master.
At the end of the lesson, they bowed to one another and returned the swords to the rack.
"You did well today, Rokey," Brother Barrow told him. "I'm pleased with your progress. You have the makings of a fine swordsman."
"Thank you Brother," Rokey said, flattered. Barrow was not one to bestow empty compliments.
It was now time for Rokey and the other boys his age to eat lunch. He trotted off to the bathhouse for a quick wash, his mentor's praise still ringing in his ears. After Brother Crinshire's stinging rebuke that morning, he had been in need of a boost.
* * *
Later that day, Rokey and Ely were in their room, preparing for the festival. Ely had slicked his hair back with vegetable grease and splashed himself with musk which he insisted 'drives the lasses mad with desire.' He offered some to Rokey who politely declined. He also put on regular clothing, which novices were allowed to do for such festivals. Rokey was still in his robe. He owned no regular clothing.
"Tonight is my night, Rokey," Ely said. "I've had my eye on this little milkmaid these past several months. She always makes it a point to lace her sandals just as I'm walking by. You know what that means." He nudged Rokey in the ribs.
"No, what?" Rokey asked.
"She wants me. You know . . . she bends over, ties the sandals, shows off her wares a bit. It's the oldest come-hither there is. Well tonight is the night. I'm going to show her what I'm made of."
He bucked his hips suggestively.
"Good luck, lover boy," Rokey said, shaking his head.
"And what of you?" Ely said with a smirk. "You never speak of lasses. You must have your eye on someone."
"Well for pity's sake Rokey, you're 17, same as I," Ely observed. "You must think about getting it sometimes. Myself, I think about it all the time. I get so randy at times I'd do it with a goat if you put some lip rouge on it. Tonight I plan to sweep this lass straight off her feet."
"I'm sure that will come as excellent news to the goats," Rokey quipped.
Ely slugged him in the arm. When he had finished his preparations, they left the room and made their way to the main courtyard. For the festival, two long rows of booths had been set up down each side of the main courtyard. The booths were manned by brothers or villagers, who gave away, bartered or sold sweets, milk, ale and wine, tools, clothing and foods of every description. There were meatrolls and cheeses, sausages on a stick, liverpaste sandwiches and steaming hot vegetable stew. Desserts included cakes, redberry pies and candy made from the spun sap of sugar trees. Of course, the most popular booths were the ones that dispensed the ales, meads and wines. People came not only from the Noble Village, but also from kingdoms and territories as far away as Tanohar and Duncileer to take part in the festivities. Even though it was early, the musicians were already playing and several couples were dancing merrily on the large canvas square that had been staked down for that purpose.
The two boys had just grabbed honey seed cakes at the first booth when Ely spotted a pretty young blonde girl across the yard. He smacked Rokey on the bottom and headed her way. This was obviously the milkmaid he had spoken of. Rokey again wished him good luck. He wandered for a while among the booths and revelers, enjoying the jovial atmosphere. Then he stopped at the booth giving out honey ale. Brother Tomshire, a large and jolly man with a perpetually red nose, which suggested he partook regularly of his wares, was cheerfully manning the tap.
"Rokey my boy!" he bellowed happily. "Good to see ye. Here now, have a pint and enjoy." He drew off a frothy mug and handed it to Rokey, who accepted it gratefully. He lingered a while, chatting with the portly monk.
"So what are yer plans in the Brotherhood, Rokey?" he asked.
"Have ye given it any thought yet?"
"I have brother," Rokey answered, "but I haven't yet made a decision. I'm partial to astronomy, but I also love illustration."
"What about the guard?" Tomshire asked. "Many young men your age are yearning to get out from behind these four walls and travel abroad. The guard makes that possible. It can also open a great many doors for a man with brains and ambition."
"I don't know, Brother," Rokey answered with a shake of his head, "I'm quite content right here at the Contemplative. I don't find it confining at all. I find it rather comforting. I think I may be destined for a quiet life of meditation and scholarly pursuits."
"That may well be," the brother agreed. "The world's too big for some, that's a fact. But there's still plenty of time, plenty of time. No hurry, no hurry. I was only days from my vows when I finally made my choice. Some of the brothers don't decide until long after they've sworn. And of course, one can always change one's mind later on. A career choice is not a millstone."
"I fancy I will have a better idea as my preparatory year progresses," Rokey said with a smile.
"P'raps ye will. P'raps ye will," he said, and then leaned closer to Rokey. His face grew hard and serious, a rarity for the normally jocund brother.
"But mark this," he said in a conspiratorial tone. "You're approaching what might well be the hardest year of your life, young son. Soon you're going to learn that there's considerable more to the Brotherhood than you know."
"Aye, such as what brother?" asked Rokey, his curiosity aroused.
"In good time, you'll find out," he said, "All I can say is what I've said, and that was probably too much." Abruptly he stood up straight and laughed. "But let's not fill this fine autumn eve with whispers and mysteries. Drink up and have another. I'll join ye!"
Later, blissfully intoxicated and full of roasted venison and new potatoes, Rokey stood over by the stables, watching the dancers twirl. He was not much of a dancer himself, but he enjoyed watching the couples strut and spin. As he stood there, swaying with the music, he was joined by a pretty young red-haired girl. Rokey knew only her name, Barrett, and the fact that her father was the village tanner.
"Enjoying the festivities, Brother?" she asked.
"Aye, very much," he answered, "but as you see miss," he indicated his blue robe, "I'm not a brother yet. My final vows are still more than a year hence. Til then I am simply a novice. My name is Rokey"
"A novice? I see. So tell me Rokey - are you a novice in every respect?" she asked with a sly grin.
It took Rokey a moment to grasp her meaning, then he blushed deeply. She had been teasing him and he had fallen right into it.
"Barrett, that is hardly a suitable topic for relative strangers," he told her.
"Ah, so you knows me already, do you." She drew her shoulders back, showing off her generous bosom.
"Well, my handsome novice, we needn't remain strangers." Her long fingernails lightly scraped the back of his neck, giving him goose bumps. "Why not come with me to the stables, and . . . . show me how you ride"
"I, I - ," Rokey stammered, completely at a loss for words. Barrett leaned closer and whispered in his ear.
"I see you out running some days," she cooed, "with nothin' but those little shorts on. You cut a fine figure, covered in sweat, your muscles rippling . . ."
Rokey's knees were trembling, his stomach fluttered with butterflies.
"Barrett, I'm . . . I'm - ," he wasn't sure what he was.
"Nervous? No need to be, love. I'll be very . . . gentle." Her tongue slipped into his ear.
Rokey started violently. His half finished ale splashed over them both. Barrett squealed in surprise and annoyance.
"I'm sorry Barrett. It was an accident, really I, p-please excuse me."
Rokey sped off and merged with the folks gathered near the musicians. He was hot with embarrassment and enormously relieved when he had finally put the crowd between himself and the stables.
He avoided Barrett for the rest of the evening, and tried to have a good time, but the incident had dampened his enjoyment of the festival.
That night he lay awake, wondering about his earlier reaction. Why had he behaved that way? Barrett was a pretty enough girl. She had caught the eye, and perhaps more, of several of the other young men. And there was certainly nothing wrong with what she had suggested. Brothers had been losing their innocence in the stables since the Contemplative began. Something had just been - had just not felt right. He hoped that Barrett wouldn't spread the news of this throughout the village. He would be a laughing stock. At last, exhaustion and ale conspired to calm him into a restless sleep.
* * *
Despite a poor night's rest, Rokey was up early the next day. His mood had not much improved, so he decided to go for a morning run. The day after the festival was a day of rest, and all in the Contemplative were free to enjoy their own pursuits. Rokey saw that Ely had not returned home the previous night.
"Well," he grumbled, "at least one of us can successfully manage that pursuit." Then he pulled on his muslin shorts, tied his hair back into a ponytail and set out for the road.
The day was a fine one, though brisk. Rokey's sweat washed away what remained of the previous night's ales and indignities, and his mood improved. He even began to sing as he ran. Soon he approached the outskirts of the Noble Village, where homes began to dot the landscape. As he rounded a bend, a sudden, sharp sound drew his attention. He turned toward the source of the noise and stopped abruptly.
At the back of one house a few hundred yards off, a young man was chopping wood. He was shirtless; his muscular arms bulged as he hefted the heavy ax over and over. His reddish blond hair was wet with sweat, which ran in rivulets down his well-formed chest and sleek abdomen. His breeches fit like a second skin, barely containing his full thighs and -,"
He snapped to and realized that he had been staring, totally engrossed, and had not heard Barrett ride up behind him.
"Barrett," said Rokey, "sorry I didn't hear you. Listen, I'm sorry about last night . . ."
"I forgive you," she told him, "but you might have just told me the truth up front. Here I was left all last evening wonderin' what was wrong with me."
"Told you what?" he asked.
"Well that you don't fancy girls, 'a course," she replied.
Rokey started to protest, but she cut him off.
"Don't be silly," said Barrett. "I saw you just then with yer eyes glued to me brother Jar. Cut's quite a fine figure himself, don't he? If his brain were only half the size of his willy, he'd be right dangerous."
"Barrett, really - ,"
"I shouldn't bother yerself with Jar though," she explained. "He only fancies girls. The bigger the tits and the smaller the brains, the more Jar fancies 'em. 'Tis only fitting though; two-syllable words give him a bit of a hitch as well."
Once again, the tanner's daughter had rendered him utterly speechless.
Barrett shook her head.
"Humph, maybe the two of you have something in common at that," she remarked.
She pressed her horse forward and started to ride on.
"B-Barrett!" Rokey managed at last. The girl paused and turned back to him.
"Don't worry yourself, handsome," Barrett assured him. "I see no reason to keep it a secret, but if that's your wish, I'll not spill the beans. Been nice chatting with you."
She spurred the horse and galloped off toward the house. Rokey turned and sprinted back to the Contemplative as though a demon were chasing him.
* * *
Rokey awoke, sweaty and aroused. He had been dreaming about Jar. He thrashed around, untangling himself from his blanket and stumbled to the basin. He splashed some of the cold water over his face and body, until his urge began to subside. Ely stirred and sat up.
"What's wrong, Rokey?" he asked.
"Ely," said Rokey, "do I seem like a samer to you?"
"Rokey," Ely answered grumpily, "that is not a question I want to be asked by a naked man in the middle of the night."
"C'mon I'm serious," Rokey insisted. "Do I act different, talk different . . . like a girl?"
"Rokey all samers don't act like lasses," Ely told him. "Look at brother Neesuch. He's tough as a bear."
"Brother Neesuch is a -,"
"Certainly," Ely said. "You didn't know that? And he's not the only one. There's Brother Franklin, oh and Clive, the blacksmith's apprentice -"
"How do you know all this?" Rokey asked.
"It's no secret, for pity's sake. Have you seriously given no thought at all to sex before now?" Ely asked incredulously.
"Not really," Rokey replied, shaking his head. "I guess I'm a late bloomer."
"Well, what's bringing all this on all of a sudden?" asked Ely. "Did you have . . . an experience with someone?"
"No. Well, not exactly." Rokey told Ely everything, about Barrett, his run that day, and his dream about Jar.
"Well," said Ely. "Sure sounds like you're a samer to me. Not that I'm an expert," he added hastily. "But that Barrett - whew - she could raise the dead, if you follow my drift."
"I don't want to be a samer," Rokey said miserably. "I just want to be normal."
"As far as I understand these things," his friend explained, "you don't really get to choose. Besides, who's to judge what's normal anyways? You? Look Rokey, I'm not really the best fellow to talk to about this. I've got nothing against samers mind you, but I'm strictly a ladies' man. I've got no experience with the issue. Maybe you ought to talk to your mentor, or better yet, brother Neesuch. I'm sure he'd be much more of a help."
"Gods, I couldn't," Rokey told him. "I'd be too embarrassed."
"Why?" Ely asked. "You told me."
"That's different," Rokey replied. "You're my best friend. You still are, right?"
"Of course, stupid," Ely answered. "But I won't lie to you. I'm going to feel a bit more self-conscious running around bare-arsed in here."
"I'd never feel that way about you," said Rokey.
"And why in blazes not might I ask?" Ely demanded mischievously. "What's wrong with me exactly?"
"That would be like having the hots for my own brother," Rokey explained.
"Well, that's a relief I must say," said the other boy. "I didn't look forward to having to kick your arse out of my bed in the wee marks of the morn."
Ely fluffed up his pillow and lay back down.
Rokey got back into his own bed.
"Thanks Ely," he said.
"Don't mention it," Ely muttered. "Now shut the devil up and let me get some sleep, will ya?"
Rokey lay his head back down. The events of the past two days kept replaying in his mind, but eventually he fell into a deep and, thankfully, dreamless sleep.