Stefan walked up to the weathered priest under the shade of the cherry blossom tree. The priest was an old wolf of a man, with crags etched deep into his face and clean shaven from crown to chin. Even under his unassuming rough-worn black robe, one could see his physique was the same as a reaver from the north.
“Excuse me?” Stefan asked in a hushed voice, “are you the priest Luther?” The monk didn’t stir.
“Please. Just call me Luther.” He said, calm and focused. Stefan came close to the little stone bench where Luther was sitting. He waited to be offered a seat but Luther didn’t move or open his eyes.
“You can sit down anytime you like,” Luther said, with a smirk peeking out from the corner of his mouth. Stefan was glad for the simple manner and took the seat. A gentle breeze danced across the garden, shaking loose a couple of pink and white petals.
“What can I do for you?” Luther asked.
“I was told to seek out your wisdom.” Stefan answered. The priest let out a laugh that broke the serenity and stillness.
“Someone’s played an awful trick on you if you think I have any wisdom.”
“The inn-keep by the crossroads told me I should seek your wisdom before…”
“I’m traveling south on my way to join the barefoot brothers,” Stefan said, “I asked the inn-keep for a room for the night. When I told him where I was headed, he told me that if I went and talked to you, he’d let me have a room free of charge.”
Luther opened his eyes and shifted in his seat. Stefan felt uneasy by the action. He felt like he had just blasphemed or insulted the man.
“And why do you want to join the brothers?” Luther asked, just a shade sterner. Stefan shifted again in his seat, uncomfortable in the monk’s presence.
“I need to repent.” Stefan finally confessed. He waited for the tone of voice to get sterner or accusatory. Instead, Luther simply asked, “Repent for what?”
“I…I acted foolishly.” Stefan felt the story stuck in his throat. The priest laughed again, this time even harder. It was such a genuine laugh that even with his nerves frayed, Stefan couldn’t fight back a smile. Luther struggled to control himself enough to ask, “How foolishly?”
“I struck my older brother with a hammer.” Stefan said. Luther kept on chuckling.
“My boy, I could tell you stories about my brothers that would have made a strike with a hammer seem like an act of virtue.”
The comment made Stefan feel a little better but it didn’t wash away the shame of his action.
“I hurt him.” Stefan said.
“Hammer strikes often do.” Luther replied. Stefan wanted to cry he felt so bad. Luther must have noticed his distress. “Well if you’re going to be so damn grim, you’d better tell me the whole story.”
Stefan took a deep breath and began his shameful tale.
“My brother and I were working the anvil. We’re both the sons of the village blacksmith. We were working the anvil and I…I smashed his hand.” Stefan stammered out slowly.
“I take it wasn’t an accident.” Luther said, not quite as jovial.
“No it wasn’t.” Stefan said, feeling tears burning behind his eyes.
“Why’d you do it?” Luther asked, no judgement in his voice. Stefan sighed again, feeling so pathetic.
“There was this girl walking past our smith. Her name was Vara. She had these beautiful purple eyes. I’d never seen eyes like those before. Purple eyes and red hair, red like the sunrise. I loved her. I love her voice and the way she’d sing little songs to herself when she’d come back from the millstone.”
Luther let out another half-laugh though this one was more for himself. “Young love will distra-“
“She didn’t distract me. She didn’t love me.” Stefan said, bowing his head low.
“And your brother made fun of you for it?” Luther asked.
“No. She loved Genneth. She was walking past the smith to see him.” Stefan corrected him, keeping his head hung low.
“So you broke Genneth’s hand.” Luther said, putting the puzzle together. Stefan nodded his head, feeling like a felon. Genneth was always the golden son. He was older, with a handsome face and a strong chin. He’d been Da’s chosen apprentice while Stefan was only allowed to work the bellows. Stefan was always the helper, never equal.
“And for that you want to join the barefoot brothers?” Luther asked with neither jest nor judgement in his question.
“What else can I do?” Stefan asked, the emotion burning through his thinly veiled composure, “I broke his hand, shattered the bones. You can’t smith with only one hand. I hurt my brother, I took away his future. What else can I do?”
“What do you think joining the brotherhood will do?” Luther asked.
“Everyone knows the stories. Rendrik the rapist who found redemption and forgiveness in the eyes of the gods. Or Borg, thief who stole from rich and poor. He joined them and he still leads pilgrimages even at 89 years of age.” Stefan said with a sniffle.
“So that’s the sort of company you feel you belong in?” Luther asked.
“If they can find redemption, I know I can.” Stefan said. Luther raised his eyebrows and gave a look that simply said, possibly.
“You can find redemption in other ways too.” Luther said after a moment. Stefan looked up at the monk. The look Luther was giving him was not a sweet look but it wasn’t hard withering stare that he was so afraid that the priest would unleash.
“Like how? I can’t mend my brother’s hand.” Stefan said.
“No you can’t.” Luther said as he rubbed his head. Stefan felt crushed at the statement. He knew it was true but it was so absolute and only reminded him of what he did. The two sat in silence for a moment. Stefan stared down at his rough leather boots and the monk’s thin sandals.
The monk stood up and walked over to the low wall that marked the edge of the garden. On the other side was a clear view of the emerald sea off in the distance.
“Do you know what’s beyond that horizon?” Luther asked suddenly. Stefan shook his head. He had barely any knowledge of where he was now, much less on the other side of the sea.
“On the other side of that pretty green water, ways up north are the Winter Tears. Islands covered in snow, ice and home to the red ones. Do you know who those are?” Stefan shook his head no again.
“They’re the northmen who worship the red goddess Krietha. She’s the goddess of war and battle, the high-queen of the gods of the north. The red ones pay honor to her by sailing out from their frozen homelands to burn, pillage and sack everything they can find. The strongest warriors from every tribe and family gather under the banner of skulls, the red ones’ sacred war banner. When they’ve gathered enough strength they set sail and conquer everything and everyone who stands before them.” The priest told the story without breaking his gaze on the horizon. Stefan felt a sudden chill run down his spine and the breeze, previously so soothing felt colder as the story continued.
“I was young warrior when I first sailed. A pup of a warrior, brash and arrogant as all the others, but I’ll never forget how alive I felt when I ripped open my first throat.” Luther was no longer in the garden. In his mind’s eye he was back on a long-forgotten battlefield, in armor and sword in hand.
“I raided this monastery. We had shattered an army a few miles up the road and were running down the survivors. My tribesmen and I chased a few levies into the monastery and we cut off their heads. Then we sacked everything of value then melted the shrines of the gods.” Luther confessed it all but without any trace of remorse or sadness. He looked back at Stefan who was dumbfounded and shocked.
“Crime enough, eh?” Luther asked with a smirk.
“How…why are…” Stefan didn’t even know what to ask.
“Why am I here? Simple. I found my redemption here.” Luther said in a very matter-of-fact way, “I returned years later. I helped rebuild the monastery, tilled the earth for this garden. I re-laid this old wall here too.” Luther said with happy tap on his craft.
“So…you found redemption in the eyes of the gods, just like the brothers do.” Stefan finally concluded, trying to make sense of the story he’d just been told. Luther soured his face.
“The hell I did! I found redemption in setting stone and mortar. I found it in tilling this damned soil.” Stefan scratched his head, now more confused than shocked.
“But how di-“ Luther didn’t even wait for Stefan to form a question. He turned to face Stefan and took a softer tone of voice that still rang with authority and experience.
“You can’t fix your brother’s hand. You can’t make your pretty purple-eyed girl love you. But you can keep the forge hot. You can swing a hammer. Now you tell me where you’ll find redemption: in the forge or without shoes?” Stefan suddenly felt a sliver of happiness as Luther gave him a smile and a little wink so fast you’d barely notice it. Luther patted Stefan on the shoulder and then gave him a gentle tap on the cheek. Luther’s hands were like leather.
Stefan thanked Luther for his words and turned to leave the abbey. He had passed the little stone bench and the cherry blossom tree when he turned to look back at Luther, who was back to staring out over the sea.
“Luther?” Stefan asked. The old man turned his head.
“Do you still worship the red goddess?”
The warrior slowly smiled.