by David McLeod
A Hidden Monastery
"Press gangs?" Tyler said. "Like the War of 1812?"
"Sounds like it," Jon replied. Seeing Morgan's puzzled expression, Jon continued. "Our country once fought a war because a foreign navy was raiding our ports and merchant ships, and impressing sailors into service. At least, that's the excuse that was used.
"Like most wars, this one was fought for economic reasons. The weavers of our country didn't want to have to compete with the weavers of the other country, and wanted to have exclusive rights to the cotton and wool grown in our country. The words aren't quite the same in this language, though.
"But we both remembered the concept and translated it into this language. But I said weavers and not mills. Are there no cotton mills here? Hmmm. And we remember the history. That's good; I'd like to think all those months at War College weren't wasted."
An hour earlier, at Morgan's urgent gesture, they had left the road and stumbled through the underbrush. Jon and Tyler hadn't even whispered the questions in their minds until they were more than a hundred yards away.
"Soldiers," Morgan had gasped. "I saw them through a break in the trees where the road curves back on itself. They were leading men and boys in chains. They call it recruiting, but it's no better than slavery."
After leaving the road, the boys had tramped through the forest, and set up camp by a stream. "Are we likely to run into other press gangs?" Jon asked.
"I don't know," Morgan replied. "I've never known of any, just heard of them, part of the history of The Occupation my grandfather told me." He paused, and then added, "I'm sure that's what they were, though!"
"Oh, I didn't doubt you," Jon said. He smiled, "And you can see the truth of that, can you not?
"What might this mean," Jon asked. "What might it mean, and how should we react?"
"Someone's preparing for war," Tyler said. "Or at least, a battle."
"We should avoid the road," Morgan said. "And, we probably shouldn't go into Albion at least until we know more."
The men and boys who appeared from behind trees and brush to surround Jon, Tyler, and Morgan wore robes and sandals, but they also wore their demeanor like armor. "Hold!" one ordered. "Keep your hands in sight and motionless," he continued.
Jon was in the lead. Surprised by Jon's sudden stop, Tyler reached out to balance himself. Only Morgan saw the closest man gesture. Instantly, Tyler was immobilized. His momentum carried him into Jon. Both boys fell to the ground. Morgan stopped. Slowly he held his hands before himself. "Please," he said. "We mean no harm."
Jon rolled out from under Tyler's limp body. "What have you done!" he said. "He's just a boy. He would not harm you!"
"He only sleeps," one of the men said. "We are not Evil. Who are you, and why are you here?"
Jon was feeling–and finding–Tyler's pulse, so Morgan answered, "We are refugees. We flee Evil."
"Why do you take this path?" the man asked. "No, he gestured to Morgan. You are a Sembler, and can dissemble. Let the other tween answer."
Morgan can detect lies, and–it seems–may be able to lie with impunity, Jon thought. I'll have to remember that.
Aloud, he said. "He speaks the truth. We are refugees. We flee those who would harm us, those we believe to be evil. We travel off the road because soldiers are impressing men and boys into the service of evil. We were going to Albion, because that is an open city, but fear we cannot, now. Beyond that, we don't know."
"True enough, and enough of the truth," the man said. "On the other hand, you have reached a place you should not have reached, and you know things you should not know."
He paused, to think, and then added, "You may come with us, in which case you will be bound to secrecy, or you may die here. We are not Evil, but we must protect ourselves from Evil. You have placed us upon the horns of the bull, and I dislike you for that."
Jon thought furiously. "You are not evil, but you are more than that: you are good. You hide from the same people we fear. You believe we have created a risk of discovery. Therefore, you fear us; and, you hate what you fear. That is not good; that is perhaps even evil."
After a long silence, the man spoke again. "You have the right of it. Come, we will talk more. The boy is awake, now."
Although he was awake, Tyler still suffered from the effects of whatever had stunned him. Jon and Morgan helped him walk, surrounded by the men and boys in robes, through the forest. The trees grew denser and denser until Jon felt like he was walking through a hallway paneled in live oak trees. Tyler stumbled. When Jon reached out to help the boy, he glanced to the rear, in the direction from which they'd come. The brush, the vines, completely blocked the path. There was no way back; there's only forward.
The trail broached the forest, opening into a meadow in which stood a stone structure. Gardens, pastures, and fields surrounded the building, extending to the edge of the forest. More than a building, Jon thought. A complex of buildings, surrounded by a stone wall. What's that engraved above the gate? Looks like the lamp on nurses' pins–Florence Nightingale's lamp. Are these the Lucernae?
The boys were led through the gate. The gate boomed shut behind them. They were in a large courtyard. Surrounding the courtyard were buildings, two and three stories high. The buildings, like the walls of the complex, were of stone. The lower floors had neither doors nor windows, and the only windows on the upper floors were narrow, vertical slits. Wooden stairs led up the walls of the buildings to doors on the second and third levels.
"It's a fortress," Tyler whispered. "The windows–see the short horizontal slits in the center of the verticals? For archers."
"You see much, boy," one of the boys closest to Tyler said.
"How do you feel, Tyler," Jon asked, pointedly ignoring the boy.
"Okay, I think," Tyler said. "A headache, though."
"Extract of willow bark," the boy said. "It will help."
"Willow bark–acetylsalicylic acid." Jon said.
"Aspirin?" Tyler asked.
"I don't know those names," the boy said, "but it is an acid. Are you a healer?"
Jon nodded. "That is one of my skills," he said, "and one of Tyler's, too."
"I am Lawsonius," the robed boy said. "I will bring the extract and water." He hastened to one of the buildings, and rapidly climbed the wooden stairs.
Before Lawsonius returned, several men joined the crowd. All deferred to one, who stood before Jon, Tyler, and Morgan. "They tell me you are Good, and that you flee Evil," he said. "They also tell me you put my friend James (he gestured to the leader of their captors) on the horns of the bull. You do not really think him evil do you?"
"No," Jon said. "I do believe my argument was well developed, but the conclusion is false. Therefore, I have made some error."
"Senior?" the man named James interjected. "He's a healer. I heard him tell Lawsonius. And a philosopher?"
Before anyone could answer, Lawsonius returned with a ceramic vial, capped with a stopper. "Willow bark," he said. "The boy received a Sleep Spell," he added for the benefit of the Senior.
All activity stopped while Lawsonius poured a teaspoonful of white power onto a leaf, which he folded and offered to Tyler along with a mug of water. Jon intercepted the leaf. "If you please," he said, dipping his finger into the powder. He touched his finger to the side of his tongue. "Aspirin. Concentrated. About half this, I think, and all the water."
Tyler nodded, and dumped some of the powder into his mouth. He shivered at the taste, and chugged the water. "Thank you," he said to Lawsonius.
"Now then," the Senior said. "You will be staying with us for a while." The tone of his voice changed, and he asked, "Do you eschew Evil? Do you swear for yourself, and for these who follow you, no harm to us while you sojourn with us and forever after?"
Forever after? Jon thought. Nor can I swear for Tyler and Morg–
As Jon turned to look at Tyler, that boy spoke. "Jon, you are my friend and my teacher and my love. You may swear anything for me and I will be bound by it."
The Senior and several of the others were startled. What Morgan said did nothing to change that. "Jon," Morgan said, "I pledge you my fealty. You may swear for me, too."
Something just happened, Jon thought, but the Senior is waiting for my answer.
"Your people have caused us no harm," he said. "You hide from the same evil we fear. I swear that we mean you no harm and will do you no harm."
The Senior shook his head. "I had not expected this," he said. "I assumed that they were already in fief to you. You boys are a puzzlement. Gentian?"
One of their captors, a red haired boy who appeared to be about 16, stepped forward.
"They are guests," the Senior said. "And would probably enjoy a bath. Find them a place to sleep and bring them to supper."
Turning to Jon and his companions, the Senior added, "Welcome among us. I will see you at supper." He turned toward one of the buildings, gesturing to others to follow him.
"Bath first, I think," Gentian said. He gestured for Jon, Tyler, and Morgan to follow him.
They had the bath to themselves. The steam rising from the hot pool was welcome. Gentian began to disrobe. "You certainly impressed the Senior," he said. "Well, come on," he added, seeing that the others still stood dressed. "You do need a bath, you know. And if you delay, it will begin to get quite crowded."
Jon, Tyler, and Morgan undressed and cleaned each other. Jon and Tyler were still a little awkward in their employment of boy magic, but Morgan's lessons were paying off. Morgan cleaned their clothes, and joined them in the hot soak. Gentian was already in the tub, having cleaned himself and his clothes without intruding on the others.
"You know," Gentian said, "that my friends are going to want to know all about you, don't you?"
Morgan spoke. "You–all these men and boys–you're clerics, aren't you?"
"Of course," Gentian answered. "How could you not know?"
"But all the clerics have been killed," Morgan replied.
"Not here," Gentian said. "This monastery has existed from the beginning of time, and will last forever. Or so they say. We remain hidden from Evil and Change and Chaos. That is why you were intercepted. You wandered too close to us, closer than anyone has in centuries."
"Wait a minute," Jon said. "Monastery? Clerics?" He turned to Gentian. "Who or what do you worship?"
The boys' skin had become wrinkled, and others had begun to come into the bath, but still Jon was uncertain what was meant by cleric.
"Come on," Gentian said. "We'll talk more. For now, we must find you a room . . ." His voice drifted off. "Unless," he said, "you would sleep with me?"
Tyler had understood instantly. Gentian's offer was not only to sleep with him, but to share boy magic. Tyler's nod was Jon's cue. Jon agreed. "Thank you, Gentian."
Gentian's room held two large beds and several chests. A desk stood in one corner and a table in another. Everything was neat. Except for the blanket folded on one bed, the room looked unoccupied. "My roommate and companion–" the boy said.
"He was sent away two months ago–to another monastery where his skills were needed. I've not taken another companion. My invitation to you was a bit selfish, I think. If you want another room, I'll understand."
Tyler and Morgan looked to Jon. Another epiphany told that boy what to say. "We knew that your offer was more than it seemed." Jon paused, and then added, "Nor do I believe was it an accident that you were selected to be our host. No, we do not want another room, and we do not believe you are selfish."
Tyler and Gentian were still exploring one another following an exuberant sharing. Jon and Morgan sat at the table in the corner.
"Morgan, the Senior said something about you and Tyler being in fief to me. I don't understand. I mean," Jon added quickly, "I think I understand the concept, but I don't understand. What happened?"
"I was surprised–and disappointed–that you didn't offer to accept my fealty sooner," Morgan began, "and when the Senior asked you to swear for us, and then when Tyler swore, I, well, I followed my heart–"
"But I remember from stories, the oath of fealty was more inclusive, and it had to be a reciprocal oath," Jon protested.
Morgan looked hurt. "Do you not accept our oaths?" he asked.
"I did," Jon said, reaching over the table to take Morgan's hands into his. "When I swore on your behalf, I accepted your oath. Not just formally, but with all my heart. But that should not be the sum of it. Tyler? Would you and Gentian come here, please?"
"Gentian, will you be our witness?" Jon asked.
A little unsure of what he was being asked, Gentian nevertheless agreed.
"When the Senior asked me to swear for you, each of you–in your own way–promised to accept whatever oath I made on your behalf," Jon said. "It seems that in doing so, you have sworn fealty to me.
"Was that your intent, Tyler?" Jon asked.
Tyler nodded. "Jon, I will follow you with all my heart. I will obey you and honor you. I will die for you."
Jon leaned over and kissed the boy. "Tyler, I will lead you with all my strength and all my ability. I will teach you, protect you, and cherish you. I will die for you."
"Morgan?" Jon turned to that boy. "Was that your intent?"
"Jon, when I swore fealty, I knew what it meant. I swear to obey you, to follow you, to honor you, and to die for you if I am called upon to do that."
Jon hugged Morgan to him, and kissed the boy. "Morgan, I will lead you with all my strength and all my ability. I will teach you, protect you, and cherish you. I will die for you."
"Gentian?" Jon asked that awestruck boy. "What more must we do?"
Gentian shook his head. His eyes were filled with tears. "Nothing more. Nothing more. Thank you. Thank you for letting me see this. It's the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
Gentian led the boys to dinner in a great hall on the top floor of one of the buildings.
"A refectory," Tyler whispered to Jon. "It's called a refectory."
Another tween met them at the door. Gentian introduced him. "This is Kevin; he's the Senior's acolyte."
Kevin led the four to a table at which sat the Senior, James, and several other men.
After introductions, Jon thanked the Senior for his hospitality, and then asked, "You are called Senior. What does that mean?"
The man chuckled. "Mostly, it means that when a difficult decision must be made, I get to make it. Pragmatically, it means that my compères have agreed that I should make those decisions."
"You are the first among equals, and you rule by consensus," Jon said.
"You have the right of it," the Senior said. "You have shown already that you are a leader–I was terribly surprised and a little nonplussed when these boys (he gestured to Tyler and Morgan) swore fealty to you in my presence. I felt the power of their oaths, and knew they were sincere. Now, you show a depth of wisdom unexpected in a tween." He shook his head and smiled. "I think we all would like to know more about you."
Jon looked at Tyler and Morgan. Both boys knew the question in his mind, and both boys nodded.
"And I would like to tell you," Jon said. "May we meet privately, perhaps after supper?"
The Senior frowned. "Is it something that you wish to keep secret? I would not like not to be able to share knowledge with these, my friends and counselors."
"I understand," Jon said. "And I know of no reason they or Gentian should not know. It is, perhaps, knowledge that should not be known outside your community."
"Then on our oaths, we will not speak of it beyond this table," the Senior said. "It is Jon's secret to share with those he will; it is not ours." He looked around the table, and received nods of acknowledgment from the others.
Jon took a deep breath. "Tyler and I have been companions for about two years," he said. "I was his teacher for part of that time. He studies to become a healer. Before we met, I was a healer attached to an army reconnaissance unit. The nature of our missions meant that I had to kill as well as heal. I have seen a great deal in war and in peace. I have received extensive training in healing, in warfare, and in politics."
Jon thought. Politics is a word in this language. I should have expected it. Anytime two or more people interact, they're going to compete for resources. Politics–and war–is all about deciding who gets what, and who does what to whom. Before the Bush administrations, it was said that war occurred when politics failed. They turned that around completely, and replaced all politics with war. And it's still going on–it was, when we left–thirty years after Bush II.
Jon continued. "Tyler and I met Morgan only a few days ago. The day before that, I killed a man who thought Tyler and I were escaped slaves. He tried to kill me. He had already announced his intention to take Tyler into slavery and would not believe that we were not slaves.
"I said I was attached to a reconnaissance unit. The word reconnaissance isn't quite right, but it is the closest word I know in this language. This language isn't my own, nor is it Tyler's, for we are from a faraway place. We are, in fact, from another world that has a different sun and moon in its sky. We have been on this one for only a few days. Whoever or whatever brought us here took much of our own language from us, and gave us this one."
James merely nodded. He's a Sembler, Jon remembered.
"You don't find that unusual?" Jon asked when no one spoke.
"You arrived less than a tenday ago?" a man–he had been introduced as Symphytus–asked.
Jon thought quickly. Has it only been, what? Eight days? Aloud, he said, "Late tonight, rather early in the morning, perhaps an hour before sunrise, it will have been nine days. You don't find that unusual?" he repeated.
"I felt a disturbance in the matrix nearly a tenday ago," Symphytus said. "It occurred an hour or so before dawn. I suspect it was your arrival."
"You know how we came here?" Tyler asked. His eyes shone. "Do you know how we can go back home?"
The instant the door to Gentian's room closed, Tyler burst into tears. Jon hugged the boy. Morgan put his hand on Tyler's shoulder. Gentian was too surprised to do anything until Morgan gestured; Gentian put his hand on Tyler's other shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Tyler," Jon said. "And Symphytus wasn't trying to be cruel. Remember what Morgan told us about wanderlust and quests? That's how people think on this world. They think we're on some grand adventure led by magic or destiny or something. Do you remember what you said to me when I believed I'd misled Morgan into accompanying us? Do you remember how strong you were for me, then? I want to see that strength, now."
Tyler's sobs stopped instantly. He looked into Jon's eyes. "Oh, Jon, I do love you so much."
Over the next days and weeks, Jon, Tyler, and Morgan spent exhausting hours being exhaustively interrogated by Symphytus, James, and the Senior. The Senior's motive had been made clear to them. "Your use of magic to heal Morgan's brother created noise that endangered you and Morgan's family. We certainly understand that. Control of the noise created by our use of magic is a critical component to our survival here, and the survival of this monastery for so many aeons.
"To protect ourselves, and in service to the Light, we will teach you to protect yourselves. If you are, indeed, on a quest–which I strongly suspect–you will have to leave here at some point. That may be soon. Your training will be arduous. Before we know where to start, we must know what you know and what you don't know. Do you know," he turned to Jon, "for example, how you followed our path through the woods?"
Jon shook his head. "I just walked along the path. I don't understand."
Morgan spoke. "Jon, most of the time, we followed no path. At least, not one Tyler or I could see."
The Senior smiled. "You see?" he asked, as if that explained everything.
"Senior Healer, the lamp above the gate. I had nearly forgotten about it. Are you the Lucernae?" Jon asked. He'd been invited to study with that man until, the Senior said, "Until each of you has the measure of the other. What does Jon need to know, and what can he teach us?"
The hours that Jon and the Senior Healer spent dancing around various topics had stretched to more than a month. Jon surprised himself by what he remembered from medical school; the Senior Healer acknowledged the depth of Jon's knowledge while surprising Jon with his depth of understanding of disease and its cures–using natural herbs.
I remember, Jon thought, that at one time, it was believed on Earth that all cures had to come from the "vital forces" of natural substances: plants and animals. Then Paracelsus found a cure for syphilis that involved quicksilver–mercury–and blew that theory away. These people don't hold to the old theory, but lacking a chemical industry, they've found amazing things in the herbs and–yes, weeds–of this world.
The Senior Healer looked over his shoulder at Jon. The man had been browsing the bookshelf in his workroom. "Lucernae? No, that is the Elves' name for themselves. The lamp is merely an acknowledgment–an advertisement in fact–that we serve the Light and that which is Good."
The man smiled wryly, and then added, "Of course, we are so secretive I don't know to whom we're directing the advertisement!"
"You do like to label things," the Senior said when Jon asked him if the monks were druids. "It is your medical training–and one of the important things we're learning from you."
The Senior chuckled. "Calling it the radius rather than the long bone on the thumb side of the forearm is less descriptive, but much faster–in speech and in writing. I'm more and more surprised to learn that so many of your words have their root in Elvish.
"But Druids? I do not know that word."
"How to begin," Jon mused. "The Druids of my world were the educated leaders, the clerics–as you seem to be–teachers, judges, and counselors of one time and place in our history. They were especially attuned to nature. In fact, the name 'Druid' means, as near as I can remember, 'wise son of the oak tree.'
"After we were captured, I saw that the path behind us had been closed," Jon added, "and finally understood it to have been done by magic."
"Hmmm," the Senior mused as he poured more tea. "You understand that some people are born with an ability to control magic in certain limited ways. You know, for example, that Morgan and James are natural semblers, and that this is one aspect of inborn magic. This and other innate skills can be refined by training, and enhanced by an understanding of the Great Magic.
"Some of us–presently six, I believe–have some innate ability to stimulate and inhibit the growth of plants. This is an important skill, and not only for a community that depends on its fields and gardens. We nurture the skill, and those with it become the ones who encourage the forest to grow densely around our monasteries, and who maintain the path through the forest.
"When the paths open into the world, they are filled with brambles whose growth we encourage. Elsewhere, they are hidden by illusion–another form of magic. We also have created mazes. One not knowing the secret of the maze is very likely to find himself returning again and again to the place where he entered."
He hasn't answered my question, Jon thought. But this is fascinating!
"The bramble barrier to the path which you entered had burned," the Senior said.
"Yes," Jon replied. "I remember a patch of burned forest."
"Yet, yet you passed through a maze and walked some distance through an illusion without seeing it."
Jon nodded. "How? Tyler told me shortly after we arrived that people often had different skills, whether innate or learned, and to different degrees. Is the ability to penetrate an illusion one of mine? And–how can I control it? I think it will be important to know when I lead my companions into an illusion? What is beyond it may not be as good as you have been."
"Morgan said that you and he had discussed balance?" the Senior said, although the inflection of his voice made the statement into a question.
"Yes, although I don't completely–no, I don't nearly–understand it," Jon admitted.
"Then we have two new directions for your training," the Senior said. "Refining and strengthening your innate ability to see through illusions is one. Gentian will help you; he is an Illusionist. The second–that will be discussions with Symphytus regarding balance."
They are druids, Jon thought. They live in harmony with nature; they can control the growth of trees and brush. But, he chuckled to himself, they don't offer sacrifices in burning wicker cages. That much of Druidism didn't cross between worlds. Jon pondered this spontaneous thought for a moment. You may be on to something, he thought. The similarities–Latin, for example–like Tyler and me, they have crossed between worlds.
"I believe I've gone about this the wrong way," the Senior said. Jon had asked him to explain how magic was captured and stored. "When a boy comes to us, he's almost always able to use boy magic, and knows the mysteries. Our training assumes that foundation."
Jon waited patiently. The Senior spoke again. "I understand that your world holds no magic, but that you found that you could control magic–albeit noisily–when you came here. I also understand that you are engaging in sex with your companions and with Gentian.
"Oh, don't look surprised. This is a small community. And, besides, I had very much hoped that you might bond with Gentian. It was no coincidence that I assigned him to be your host."
"Yes, Senior," Jon said. "Tyler understood that instantly, and was quick to share with Gentian. And, yes, we do engage in sex–considerably more often than–well, that's neither here nor there. And I understand that sex–orgasm, actually–transfers energy from one boy to another, and I've learned a little about how to use that energy. But, the anatomist in me still wants to know the what and the how."
Schwann cells, Jon thought after the Senior had completed his lecture. And the oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system. That's what he meant. They're insulators for the neurons, but they're also capacitors–like in old radios–for magic, rather, for the energy we call magic. I can't wait to tell Tyler.
Jon reflected on what was perhaps the more important lesson: To create, magic must be carefully controlled. Even before gathering magic, its use must be planned. To destroy? A knowledge of chemistry and the brutal application of power can destroy some things, and damage nearly anything. Fortunately, few people have the knowledge and few of those have the ability to gather enough power.
"Tyler, is it morning, already?" Morgan mumbled sleepily. Only the faintest hint of dawn colored the sky beyond the arrow-slit window.
"Sword drill today," Tyler answered. "Come on, Senior Centaurium will not tolerate tardiness." The boy quickly tied a fundoshi between his legs and around his waist, and left the room. Morgan copied Tyler's actions, and was only a few seconds behind him. Bare feet and fundoshi were all that were needed. Even in the winter, Master Centaurium would have them sweating within minutes.
In one corner of the courtyard, Tyler, Morgan, and other boys hacked at one another with wooden practice swords. Lead weights gave the swords the heft of real swords.
"It's nonsense to practice with a heavier than real sword thinking that you'll then be better with a lighter, real sword," Master Centaurium taught. "Drill with what you'll use and you'll do no better than that. Soon, you'll be sparring with real swords!"
In another corner, Jon, wearing the tights he'd adopted–it's not a singlet, but it's the closest thing around here–led a decuria of boys and men through the opening moves of a Tai Chi routine. Actually, his class comprised 15 students, but they were still called a decuria or "ten-fold." The Tai Chi warm-up would be followed by karate lessons. Most of the oriental martial arts were developed by monks, he thought, and the ones on this world know Tai Chi–but no more. I can't say 'canon,' yet I can teach them karate and taekwondo. Is that why I was brought here? I certainly hope it's more than that!
Under the Senior's patient tutelage, Jon had learned to see the matrix from which magical energy was drawn. More months of lessons were required before he was able to draw energy from the matrix without creating a loud noise.
"Every use of magic creates some noise," the Senior had explained. "Even sex. A weaver's loom hisses with magic; a potter's wheel hums with magic. Those sounds are normal and slight. What you must do is draw energy from the matrix either without sound, or with a sound that mimics a craftsman's magic."
When Jon understood, and was able to draw power quietly, he turned to an earlier resolve: to examine Tyler and himself, to see how they had been changed during their passage to this world.
Carefully concentrating energy from the magical field, Jon willed himself to see closer and closer, smaller and smaller. Nothing happened. How does it work–a microscope, that is? he thought. In his mind he formed an image of light from a mirror passing through a glass slide on which a drop of blood had been placed. He visualized the light passing through one lens after another until it formed a picture in his eye. Probably don't have the lenses right, he thought, when suddenly the picture snapped into focus in his mind. It worked! Now, let's find out what happened to Tyler and me. With the Senior Healer and two of his acolytes looking on–and monitoring the magical field–Jon closed his eyes and looked at Tyler, and then at himself. He held Tyler's hand, and knew that the boy saw what he was seeing.
"All of the titanium plates and screws are gone, but I guessed that the first day.
"Tyler, see the marrow? In children, it's mostly hemopoietic: red marrow that produces blood cells. In adults, most of the marrow in the arms and legs, including the hands and feet, is yellow and adipose–fatty. Yours? More red than I would have thought. Mine too, and about the same degree.
"The epiphyseal plates in the long bones have sealed; we will get no taller. Can you live with that? I might be able–"
Tyler interrupted Jon by kissing him. "Jon, I like who I am, and I like who you are. I don't want to change."
Jon opened his eyes, and lost the internal vision. Closing his eyes, he concentrated, again.
"We didn't get a third set of teeth, although people born around here usually have three sets. Oh! How could I have missed that? We don't have any fillings, either. Did you have any?" Jon felt, rather than saw, Tyler's nod.
"Oh, and by the way, you don't have your appendix; neither do I," Jon said, "but I never had an appendectomy. And the cecum seems to be missing."
"What was the cecum for, anyway," Tyler asked.
"A few hundred thousand years ago, when our ancestors were vegetarians, the cecum was needed to hold cellulose and bacteria used to digest it. We evolved away from that when we put more meat into our diet. It's another vestigial organ, like the appendix, itself. And both are another fact that the intelligent design crowd couldn't deal with."
The examination complete, Jon opened his eyes. Tyler shivered briefly.
"You've always looked younger than your years," Jon said. "And you still do. It's why several people have thought you were a boy. However, physically we're both tweens."
"Well, at least I didn't have to go through puberty again," Tyler said.
Jon grinned, and then said, "You know, that concept isn't the same, here. Back home, puberty is defined as the onset of gonadotropin secretion and the ability to produce sperm or ovulate. In other words, it's when someone is able to reproduce. For boys, that's about age 10 to 13; for girls, it's about age 8 to 12. Here? A human girl is usually not able to reproduce until she's at least 100 years old. Boys become tweens at about 70, and can remain tweens–producing seminal fluid but not sperm–for hundreds of years."
"So," Tyler said, "technically, there's no adolescence."
Jon merely raised his eyebrows.
"Adolescence is the period from the beginning of puberty until growth to full height and the sealing of the epiphyseal plates in the bones. But here, people stop growing, and their plates seal, long before they're capable of reproduction," Tyler said.
Tyler and Lawsonius sat side-by-side at a study carrel. Tyler tried very hard to concentrate on the scroll that Lawsonius held, but was distracted by the boy's bare leg pressing against his own. I can't concentrate! The scroll is boring, almost like, what was it Morgan said? Ah.
"I remember Morgan telling Jon that before he met us, the only thing in his life that changed was the seasons." Tyler said. "That must have been dull–even stagnant!"
"I suspect that Morgan was exaggerating a little. On the other hand, his life on a farm was less exciting than his life–and yours–now, even isolated as we are in this monastery" Lawsonius said.
"I believe," the boy continued, "that one important function of a ruler–whether he be a warlord or a benevolent prince–is to provide sufficient stability and predictability that people will work–that farmers will farm, and millers will mill, and smiths will smith. If people have no hope that they will see the fruits of their labor, they will not labor. A smart despot will leave enough after taxes and tribute that people can live and work through another season. A stupid despot will leave so little that people will either starve or revolt."
That sounds a lot like the tax structure back home, Tyler thought when Lawsonius paused. Except that they did 'reverse taxes,' paying people not to work. Didn't they understand the simplest rule of economics: "If you tax something, you'll have less of it; if you subsidize something, you'll have more of it." They subsidized unemployment by paying and extending unemployment insurance. They reduced the incentive to work. They subsidized irresponsible people having children by paying welfare: the more children, the more money. They penalized savings and investment by taxing interest income and capital gains. And my folks lost their home. How stupid! Tyler's thoughts were interrupted when Lawsonius continued.
"A benevolent prince will ensure that his people have sufficient order in their lives to protect them and their property, yet sufficient disorder so that each person can find opportunity to develop and grow."
"I understand order, I think," Tyler said. "But I don't understand the need for disorder."
"Without disorder, there would be no challenge. Without challenge, there would be no reason to grow mentally and physically. If life were the same day after day and year after year, we would become like sheep."
Five boys now occupied what once had been Gentian's solitary room. Lawsonius had been invited to move in some months ago; and, the beds really were large enough for three. Or four. Or, frequently, five.
It's no different from the platoon in Iran, Jon thought. We slept by squads, in tiny rooms or ditches or foxholes, and usually on top of one another. The sex, however, was nonexistent. At least, in the field. Here it's every day and usually more than once a day.
The five companions had returned to their room after bathing, and were tending to the few chores required by the simple life of the monastery. Unencumbered by possessions other than their clothes and weapons, and without pressure to out-compete one another, their life was unhurried and un–un something, Jon thought. Almost like the lotus-eaters, but, no. There's an underlying sense of mission–I understand that–and of something I can't quantify. They're not lotus eaters. They–it's like they're on stand-by for something that they know is coming.
"Listen!" Lawsonius said. The others stopped what they were doing and listened. The clip-clop of hooves echoed in the courtyard. Gentian jumped upon the table and peered from the arrow slit window. "Horses!"
"Well, yeah," Tyler said. "When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras."
"Huh?" Gentian said. Lawsonius also looked puzzled, but Morgan nodded. "Zebras do not live here, but only in the eastern continent." When the other boys' puzzlement turned to him, he added. "It's in The Book of Heroes."
After supper, Lawsonius took Jon's hand and led him to a shadowed bench in the courtyard. "Jon, what did Tyler mean by 'think of horses, not zebras'?" Lawsonius asked. "It was more than a tease, I think."
Jon thought for a moment before he answered. All of Lawsonius' questions have a depth to them. I must not offer shallow answers.
"Hoof beats could be created by horses, zebras, or deer," Jon replied. "Except that–as Morgan pointed out–zebras are very unlikely in this place and time. I suspect that deer and others of that family are also unlikely."
Lawsonius nodded. "They live in the forest, but not one as thick as surrounds this place."
"The meaning," Jon said, "was that one should look for the most obvious and reasonable answer, rather than search for obtuse and esoteric answers. It's one of the principles of logic."
"Logic?" Lawsonius asked.
Where to begin? Jon thought. Ah, I think I know. Peter Abelard's life was perhaps the most screwed up of any person, if you believe all that was written about him, but he did–in a way–start science.
"A man named Peter Abelard, who was wise in knowledge but foolish in love, suggested that when we look at the world, we do these things," Jon began.
"First, we should doubt, for doubt leads to questioning; and only questioning leads to truth. Second, we must learn to distinguish between rational proof and the tools of propaganda and persuasion that others will use to fool us. Third, we must be precise with words and demand precision of others. Finally, we must be wary of error, even in the most sacred texts."
"Does that mean I should doubt the truth of what you have said?" Lawsonius asked. "But I know that you speak the truth to me."
"Lawsonius, I will always speak the truth to you," Jon said. "Even if the truth is hurtful. I would be sad; I would hurt, too, but I would be truthful.
"Should you doubt the truth of what Abelard said? I don't think so. What he said makes a great deal of sense. Should you doubt the truth of what I say? Yes, because even though I will not lie to you, I am not infallible and I do have many prejudices."
The next day, the boys and tweens, novices, probationers, and acolytes, as well as Jon, Tyler, and Morgan stood against the wall of the building that housed the refectory. The Senior Weaponsmaster had been quite clear. "Not all of you will become horsemen. There is no glory in being such, nor is their shame in not being such. Do you all understand? Do you all accept this?"
All the boys nodded, although it was certain that at least some did not truly accept and believe what they heard.
"The horse will choose you," Senior Centaurium continued. He paused. "I know that some of you will be disappointed. A hundred years, perhaps two hundred, before any of you were born, I stood where you now stand. I was not chosen. I nearly abrogated my vows in my disappointment and anger. Please, do not any of you."
The boys' silence was their answer. The Senior had shown them a bit of his soul, a private part of himself. Behind the boys' silence was some awe, and several whispered oaths reaffirming a commitment to the Light.
Senior Centaurium's words had had their intended effect. The words and blessings of the unselected boys were genuine.
"He's a beauty, Tyler," Andrus said. That boy was a frequent sparring partner of Tyler. "May I touch him?"
Tyler stood holding the reins of a huge stallion. At least I think he's a stallion, Tyler thought. He concentrated, and looked, but he couldn't be sure. He's still got his testicles, but are they connected to anything. I don't know how they castrate horses. I guess I'll have to ask.
"Oh, yes," Tyler answered.
"He's much finer than we had on the farm," Andrus said. He stroked the horse's forehead.
"Um," Tyler stammered, "can you tell if he's a he? I mean, how do you know if he's been neutered?"
"Oh," Andrus replied. "It's easy. Look." He took Tyler's hand, and guided that boy's vision. "He has his gonads," Andrus added. "A gelding's are removed."
"They don't just cut the vas deferens?" Tyler asked.
"Oh no," Andrus replied. "They cut 'em off entirely." He giggled nervously.
Andrus paused, and then added, "Will you take me for a ride, someday?"
"Oh, yes, Andrus," Tyler said. "I would like that very much."
Tyler was not the only one of the five who had been selected; all were now companions of a horse.
Jon had been selected by a dun colored gelding, who he named Al-eid. "Well," Jon said, "That was the name of the camel I rode from Bandar Abbas to the Zagros Mountains. That camel was perhaps the most even tempered beast. What's the matter, Morgan?"
"Camel?" Morgan asked.
Jon laughed. "At last! Something that's not in your book. I'll tell you all about them. But first, you must show me your horse."
Morgan had been selected by a mare. Gentian named his horse, a roan gelding whose color almost matched the color of the boy's hair, Hope. When pressed for the reason, the boy had blushed and said, "When my companion left–when he was taken from me–I hoped that I could find companions as fine and true as he was, but I despaired. Jon and Tyler and Morgan rescued me from that despair. And Lawsonius, too, when you joined us. My hope–my wish–was answered."
Lawsonius–the smallest of the companions–had been selected by the largest horse in the herd. It stood at least four hands taller than any other. It was a golden brown with flaxen mane and tail "I'm going to have trouble mounting Wisteria," he exclaimed.
"Wisteria?" Morgan had asked.
"Wisteria," Lawsonius had answered. "His eyes are purple."
Two years had passed since Jon and his companions had come to the monastery, but Jon still did not understand what lay at the roots of their philosophy, and why every word he used to describe the people, the place, and their customs resonated in his mind with a religious connotation. He described to Gentian the conversation he'd had with Morgan's family: the notions of original sin and revealed religion.
"We were told so often and in so many ways that something was wrong with us. Eventually, many of us started to believe it. But we didn't know what it was. So, the notion of original sin, which led to the idea that what's wrong isn't our fault, became very appealing," Jon concluded.
Gentian's first question was startlingly perceptive.
"How," he asked, "do you think these superstitions began?"
Jon thought for a few minutes, and then said, "Religion on Earth began as an attempt to explain the what, how, and why of nature. Stories of gods who threw lightning bolts and whose nocturnal tossing and turning caused earthquakes, were gradually replaced by explanations from science. By this time, however, the elite–from the god-kings of Egypt to Hebrew priests to Christian televangelists to Muslim mullahs–had discovered how powerful religion could be in controlling and fleecing their flocks.
"The one real and fundamental disconnect between science and religion as we learned it," he added, "is this. Science is based on–it is dependent on–the idea of cause and effect. Before something happens, another thing must happen to cause it. Religion–the Judeo-Christian religions in particular–posits that humans have free will. Well, if everything is cause-and-effect, where's the place for free will? That notion challenges their fundamental beliefs. That's why so many of them were so anti-science."
"But, why do bad things happen to good people?" Tyler asked.
Before Jon could collect his thoughts, Gentian answered, "Probationers are asked that same question. None of the Seniors will answer it for us. We have to find out the answer for ourselves. I think that it's the wrong question."
"What is the right question, then?" Tyler asked.
"The right question is, why do good and bad things happen to good and bad people," Gentian said. "It's not true that bad things happen to good people simply because that question doesn't account for good things also happening to good people, and both good and bad things happening to bad people. The question, itself, is a lie."
"Jon, you said the fundamentalists rejected science?" Tyler said.
"Well, not entirely," Jon said. "They just used the Bible as their science textbook."
"You mean about creation taking only six, 24-hour days?"
"More than that. You know that most people have 12 ribs, but some people–about 8% of us–have 13? They taught that men had one fewer rib than women, based on the passage about Eve being made from Adam's rib. They took a fact of science and perverted it to their ends. That was a part of their 'home schooling' curriculum.
"These 'fundamentalist' beliefs started in the areas of the country hardest hit by dust storms and an economic depression, in the early 20th century. By the late 20th century, they had taken firm root in the United States, and by the early 21st century, they dominated politics and economics. The belief of the Christian fundamentalists, nurtured by the televised charlatans who led them, was that these were the end times, with all the prophesied signs and portents.
"Many of them stopped living for the future, but only for the present and for the second coming. This had a direct and overt effect on their lives and on the lives and economies of the communities where they were a majority or a vocal minority. It had a less immediate and less obvious effect on the economy of the nation, but by the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, the economy of the United States of America had all but collapsed, for it was in the USA where this nonsense had originated and flourished.
"In trying to avoid the imposition of a state religion, the founders of that nation had opened the door to the most inane nonsense that called itself religion."
"If someone held such delusions, we'd think him insane," Gentian said.
"Yes, but when many people held the same delusion, we called it religion," Jon replied.
"I think I understand what you mean by religion," Gentian said. "I would have to say that the only religion we have is self-respect, respect for others, and respect for World."
"Love the world in which you live, and love thy neighbor as thyself?" Tyler deliberately misquoted a phrase from the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Gentian nodded. "Well put."