Medievia Mudslinger

November 24th, 2002

Abandoned Altar - By Lanval

Abandoned Altar

1: The Body

The body -- could it be called anything else anymore? -- lay in mud made by its own eviscerated fluids. The body had been chewed by a jackal. The animal tracks lead off into the forest. The beast got its fill for now and stumbled to the shade of a tree to nap away the sweltering summer afternoon. The blood mud was still wet, even in this heat. Flies buzz around this pile as if this body was never a man, and strong, and proud.

I saw him when he was still alive. He had woken me up with his ruckus. Now he is only a body.

Her white hands -- have I told you about her yet? -- pick the corpse up by the legs. She slowly tugs the oozing mass through the treeline. Organs drop away. Pieces of the liver get caught on an ant mound. Inside of their small palace the ants instantly rejoice. A kidney tears along a broken tree branch.

Her white hands -- I still haven't told you about her, have I? -- let go of the body after a while. She can't pull him any further. Her white dress is translucent with sweat. The chain-mail she wore underneath her dress will probably rust away before she can get this body back home.

She sighs. She leans against a tall enough tree, with plenty of branches. She clutches the bark and winces at clutching the rough sandpaper of this tree bark. She pulls herself up anyway. Her muscles pop when she does this. So does the tree. She climbs up one branch, and another and another, until the tree bends under her weight. The sun is even hotter up here. Her white skin has begun to sunburn by now. She feels the red on her neck and her face. Up here, in the tree, the breezes blow across her body and tingle over her sunburned skin. She ignores the tingling. She holds on, and looks out onto the horizon.

Forest and forest and forest as far as she can see. They had lost even the road by now. He had said that he knew where he was going, but he was a body now, and bodies do not worry about directions.

I watch her do this from my safe perch in the tree tops. I sniff at her, derisively. She is below me, bending my tree around over dragging a body. How silly a thing to do, dragging a body. It is much better to let them be. The bodies don't mind, and it makes all the little creatures below so happy to have something to eat.

It's no wonder I'm always told how wise I am. I am wise! I know what to do with a body. What better wisdom is there?

She turns in the tree, and gazes off where she had come from. Up here, she can't see a single feature. Only green trees, like a blanket of snow. Off in the distance -- east -- she turns her head. Of all the directions this one leads somewhere. She can feel something over there, at least. Maybe it's the beginnings of sunstroke, but it's the best she has. She will walk into the sun with his body behind her. She will walk until she finds whatever is there.

I decide to follow. I can probably teach her a thing or two about bodies. When she becomes one, and her killer takes whatever it wants, I'll swoop down and get a little something for myself. Maybe an eyeball. I love eyeballs. I'll probably wait until dark, though. I don't like to go down there unless it's dark.

But I follow her, I do. The body catches on roots. She tugs hard and keeps her back to it so she doesn't have to see something new tear, a piece left behind for the rats and the beetles.

She walks and walks. Sometimes she stops and rests. The forest buzzes. I give my own little hoots. I like to let any other owls nearby know I'm coming, and know I don't mean to stay long. I know there are owls here, but they're probably still asleep. Dragging a body doesn't create quite the ruckus that creating a body does.

When she rests she sits with her back to a tree and stares at him. I don't know what she sees. It's only a body. It's really a mess, too. It's covered in putrid mud. Sticks and leaves and maggots are pasted all over it like a swamp monster. I can see its spine, now. Enough of its body has fallen away to let me see the bones and tendons that are the only things holding it together at all. She doesn't sigh, or shiver, or cry. She just stares. It's rude to stare like that. If I were that body, I'd tell her to go look at something else. Of course, bodies don't mind. They never mind a rude stare, a nibble, or even a good old-fashioned chomp. Bodies are so polite if you can stand the smell. She wipes the sweat from her face and stares at the body. She sips water from a battered waterskin and stares at the body. She stretches her sore shoulders. She stares at the body.

She stands up and drags the body east.

I follow from above. When I can, I try to fly over her head. The sun will kill her long before a jackal does. Her skin is red and breaking out in blisters. I hover low, and let my wings shade her neck a little. Her eyes stay on the ground in front of her. Her hands on the body's boot. She doesn't notice me. We press on, always east. Why do I do it? Because I have no idea what she's doing, and I want to give her time so I can make sense of it.

I fly a little higher.

Night will come soon. I lift up high above the tree line. I look out. Pillars of an old altar crumble slowly and slowly close by. Further away, there is a campfire. I fly a little higher to take a closer look at the fires. Humanoids cluster around it. I don't know if they're human or not. Tiny black specks against a fire and a line of smoke in the sky. The weary traveler buckles down for night. The weary troll roasts his dinner and rests his battle-weary body.

She doesn't rest anymore. She presses forward. Her breathing is hard. Her tiny slippered feet slog and slog through the forest. Even this close to sunset it's hot. The bugs creep from their hiding places and take flight. They swarm about the body, and all over her sweaty, red face. She doesn't bat at them because she would lose her grip on the body. She doesn't rub her cheeks against her shoulders because she's too tired to move against any army, much less the impossibly immense army of mosquitoes and biting flies.

She walks right into a crumbling pillar. I think her eyes are sealed shut with weariness and insect bites. She pushes and pulls the body over roots and sticks and rocks. Her face hangs down like a dead rat in my talons. And she walks right into the pillar. She falls back.

Of course, behind her is the body. She lands on it. Its legs -- what's left of its legs -- clutch at her, like a lover. She stays there. Her black hair tangled over both her eyes and the body's face like nightfall. Her red face, blistering and twisted up in agony and swarming with insects. Her lips bleed and flies drink it up like milk.

The poor dear, she starts crying. I hate it when those silly creatures cry. And for what? A body. It's just a body, and she should start a fire and cook it and we can share it and head into the ruined building for the night. I'll catch rats while she sleeps, and in the morning I'll feel nice and fat, and the body won't be here anymore to bother her at all.

I swoop down and land next to her. I hoot. I pull her hair away from her face with my beak. A wonder we haven't found a jackal by now to make another body for me to nibble on. I have to wait for the sun, instead. I pull on her hair to get it out of both the faces because I am hungry for eyeballs. I think that maybe she's tired enough that she won't fight back.

Instead she turns and looks at me. I am an owl. I am white as the moon, and rats look up at me and think I am a night cloud until I swoop down and swallow them whole. She looks at me. She smiles a little, I think. The edges of her lips move. Her hands move.

I hop back. I hoot. I don't know how to explain to her that I have no intention of eating her eyeballs. Instead, I just hoot and hoot. Somewhere in the trees, another owl who has woken up early hoots back at me. She has a rapturous voice, with a long, deep throat.

What are you doing here? says this other owl.

I'm following a body, I hoot back, I won't stay long.

This is my place, she hoots, go get your own.

She lands nearby. She looks at me. She is an owl, too. She is a beautiful owl. Her neck is long and fat with feathers. Her eyes are as big as yellow ponds. I bow and back away from her. I'm leaving soon, I say, but this body fell on my place, and this silly creature dragged it all the way over here.

Those fools, says this other owl, Don't they know what to do with a body? It looks like they both fell here. I think I should get all four eyeballs, and you can have the rest.

You can see the trail easy if you look for it, and it leads all the way back to my place, I reply, Since the body fell on my place, it's mine. I only want its eyeballs, anyway. You can have her body when she passes. And the rest of the other one. I just want the first body's eyeballs. She fell on your place and you can have hers.

The creature who used to have white hands but has since become sunburned, and who has dragged this body all over the forest for no good reason, pushes herself to sitting. She mutters in her cracked, horrible voice. She's still crying. She reaches out a hand.

We two owls jump back from her, just out of reach.

What's she doing? says the other owl, Is she almost dead?

I hope so, I say, I don't know what she's doing. I think she has sunstroke.

She mutters and whispers and her voice sounds like a horrible screech under her breath. She pulls herself back to standing and looks down on the body. Her sweat-soaked white dress is completely transparent, and the mud and sticky clumps of blood from the body have made it all the way through the dress to the chain mail beneath. She wipes her tears with the palms of her hands. She swats away flies and mosquitoes. She takes a deep breath, and lifts her water skin up from her belt pouches. She takes a long drink of the rest of the water, and grabs the body by its boots again. She pulls it around the decaying stone columns. She drags the body into the uncouth remains of a forgotten magnolia garden. The white flowers grow in heaps between the brown leaves, and clinging vines devour unlucky trees. She drags the body further and further through the garden, to the ruins of a small temple.

Gnolls and trolls don't go in temples. Gnashers and ogres don't go in temples. Only silly creatures go in temples. And she drags the body and the body's eyeballs will dry up if I don't eat them soon. I like my eyeballs as squishy as beetle larvae.

What is she doing with that body? says the other owl.

I told you, I said, I think she has sunstroke.

Maybe she'll leave food out for us under the trees.

Why would she do that?

A male creature just like her comes by sometimes and he leaves food out under the trees.

That silly creature does the dumbest thing she could possibly do to the body!

I tell you, I don't know what to think about that silly creature. She drags that body all the way to the temple with her just to do the silliest thing she could do. The other owl and I discuss this between rats. We figure she was taking the body with her to the temple so she can have something to eat while she rests up. It's the only thing that makes any sense at all! Does she eat it?


She wastes all that perfectly good body.

I will tell you exactly what she does.

In the abandoned altar room, she tears down the only decoration left: a big wooden sculpture of a rising sun. She goes out into the magnolia garden and digs a giant hole. It takes her all morning just to dig one big hole. She doesn't even stop to sift through the upended dirt for the juicy larvae. Me and the other owl swoop down and fill ourselves to burst with those delicious little larvae. We can barely fly after eating all those little bugs. They aren't as good as eyeballs, but they have a wonderful texture.

Anyway, we fly back to a nice spot in the magnolia trees where we can watch what she does next.

She drags that body out by its boots. She pushes it into the big hole. She picks up that broken altar-piece and starts pushing dirt back into the hole. It takes her all afternoon to do this. A whole day, and instead of finding any food, she buries the only edible thing she has. She even takes the only tool she has -- the broken altar-piece -- and jams it in right at the head of the hole. Now she doesn't have the body, and she can't dig up any grubs!

This creature is too confused to bear.

I have debated just flying back to my place. I might find some leftover pieces on the way. No eyes, unfortunately, thanks to the silly creature, but a good internal organ is pretty squishy, even if it doesn't have that same delicate flavor that eyeballs have.

Of course, I wouldn't have such a beautiful owl to talk to there.

She's letting me stay for now. The body's trail has attracted so many little beasties. We're still negotiating whether I should get both eyeballs for my loss, or only one, or none. Who knows? I might be stuck here until spring. The woman certainly doesn't look like she will die soon. Still, what else is there to do but argue over eyeballs.

Wise creatures like me know that an argument is a perfectly acceptable conversation when it is about something important.

We also talk about the male creature who shows up and puts food under the magnolia trees. I don't believe her, but she insists that he's real, and that he shows up every time the weather is going to change.

2: The Offering

Well, an owl can't stay long where he can't get food. Things are getting quite uncomfortable at the pretty female owl's place. She was always talking and talking about the creature who had buried the body, and how that creature killed all the rats that used to live in the temple. That creature cut back the dead magnolias that used to house so many big, juicy beetles. She got the fountain inside the temple working again so the slippery little frogs in the puddle outside ran away to find new puddles. Their puddle had dried up because the fountain doesn't leak anymore and their puddle is gone!.

And all that pretty owl could talk about was all the food that's gone because of that stupid creature in the temple.

A wise creature will know when their welcome is over long before the words need to be said. The weather was slowly changing. At night a crisp north wind blows down and ruffles your feathers. The leaves on the oak trees right outside the magnolia garden crinkle at the fringes. Winter is in the air, and with it starvation. One of us has to leave, and it isn't my place to stay.

I leave.

A wiser creature than I will leave a better trail through the woods than bloody pieces of a body. I took off to the sunset, and realize that I know nothing of where I journeyed. I just know I need to go west. I travel at twilight and keep quiet and low during the day and the night. I fly west looking for familiar trees, familiar smells, familiar anything.

I can't really find it.

After a while, I stop. I hoot a little, quietly, just to test the place. Another owl hoots back. Get the heck out of here! This is my place! Find your own!

I used to have a place nearby, I say, Do you recognize me? I think I recognize you.

I don't care! he bellows, Get out! You'll eat all the squirrels before winter and then we'll both starve!

What does a wise owl do now? Well, the body-dragging creature would probably just fly off into the horizon, always looking for a feature of ground that doesn't look too unsavory. Not me, though. I know a place, where I may not be welcome for much longer, but at least I was welcome a little longer. Especially because I had flown away for a while to try to find my own place and given it the space a little room for a while.
I went back to the abandoned temple's garden.

When I finally get back there, I'm in for a surprise. Another creature has arrived at the same time as me. He stands at the steps of the altar, and holds the reins to his old horse.

I find the female owl hiding in the magnolia bushes. What's going on? I say.

I don't know, she whispers, Be quiet so they don't know we're here! They might have food we can steal! He usually leaves it out for us under the magnolias and we can eat it all!

The male creature calls out into the temple, "Hello! Is anyone here?"

The creature who had dragged the body came out from the temple in her ruined white dress. The dress is covered in dust and grime, and has slowly aged gray underneath the sun. She doesn't wear the chain mail underneath anymore. She keeps the chain mail rusting in the fountain inside the temple. She looks down at the man. "What are you doing here?" she says.

"What are you doing here?" he says, "I come here every equinox. You're not a new priestess are you? I thought they had all drifted away into the world after my father died. Besides you're too young. Are you a new convert, then?"

The male creature is a big fellow, with a gigantic stomach. He has white hair all over his face that hasn't been preened in days. He stands there, fiddling with the reins of his horse. The horse stares at the ground and probably wishes it didn't have to have that metal bit in its mouth so it can eat some grass. Instead of getting to eat, it has to stand there and let those two silly creatures talk. The horse is starving for some grass. Those two creatures stand and stare at each other, and the horse doesn't get anything.

"I don't know what you mean about a priestess," says the female, "I know this was a temple once. I didn't know to what deity."

"You pulled the relic out of the temple," he says, "You shouldn't have done that. It's all that's left of the religion. Disappearing worshippers took everything made of gold, but they left that old wooden one. It was worthless."

"It isn't a relic anymore," she says, "It's a tombstone. It stays where it is."

"Alright," says the man. He bites his lip and runs a hand through his beard.

They stand there staring like buffoons. I stretch my neck in disgust. The female owl next to me clicks her tongue at the stupidity.

Finally the male steps forward a little. The female steps back into the shadow of the doorframe. The male says, "How long have you been here alone?"

"I'm not alone," she says.

"You're not?" he says. He cocks his head and tugs at his beard again. His horse whinnies.

"No," she says.

"You know," he says, "I have some extra food from my journey."

We two owls perk up beneath our shadows. We watch his hands very closely.

"I can give you some," he says, "I have some wine, too. It's good wine." He reaches into the saddle bags of his horse. Of course, he doesn't take the metal bit out of the horse's mouth to let the horse eat comfortably. No, he just goes right ahead for himself. Only he gets to eat comfortably.

"I don't want it," she says.

"This is my temple, actually," says the man, "I hold the deed to all the land in Riverton. It used to be my father's temple. Before that it was my grandfather's temple, and on and on way back, a man for every magnolia. We worshipped the sun. Of course, we preached the end of the world at a solar eclipse." He looked around and gestured at the magnolia garden. He shrugged. "Didn't happen. Hard to keep a congregation after you're that wrong…"

"It isn't a temple anymore," she says, interrupting the nostalgic rambling, "If it is, then it is a temple to my God."

"Of course," says the man, "What God is that?"

"The God who sent the owls to me to shade my back on my long journey. The owls who spoke to me of beauty when I was beyond hope. The owls who guard the garden and keep away the trolls. That is my God. The owl god."

At this, the female owl and I look at each other. Then we laugh. We laugh long and hard. We fall from the branch because we were laughing so hard.

The male creature turns and sees us rolling and flapping on the ground with our laughter.

The male creature kneels down at us. We look up at him and laugh harder and harder. The male creature stands up. He mounts his horse. The horse snorts.

He smacks the horse hard and shouts, "Hiya! Giddiyap!"

The horse turns and walks toward the fringe.

"Wait!" shouts the female.

The other owl and I regain our composure enough to return to the shadows. The man had said food, and he was leaving.

"What is it?" says the male.

"What's your name?"

"Solibusca Greyn. Please, don't hurt me," he says, "Call off your Gods. You can have the altar. I know my god was foolish, but my family is buried here. That's why I come here. Every one of those magnolias is a tombstone, too. I guess our God was wrong and their souls are still around here, somewhere. I come here on the equinox, I talk to the trees, and I go back to Riverton. I guess I can go back a little early. I'll leave you alone with your Gods."

"I won't hurt you," she says, "Please."

"Please what?"

"I…" her mouth hangs open like a dead cow. It takes this silly creature a long time to come up with a sentence. She finally closes her mouth, and opens it again. "I don't know," she says, "Do you have any flint?"


"I haven't been able to make a fire," she says, "I've tried so hard to make a fire."

The male hops off his horse. He tugs at his beard again. "I bet you haven't got much food here, either."


"What have you been eating?"

"Roots. Acorns. I'm so hungry," she says. She sits down at the temple steps. "I'm always so hungry." She rocks on the steps, with her stomach in her arms. I certainly don't feel sorry for her. She's done more to disrupt the food supply around here then anything short of a long winter.

"I got some waybread in my pouch here," he says, reaching into his belt pouch, "I have some beef, too. I have enough for you and your friend. I know the way back to Riverton from here, too."

"My friend won't be eating anything," she says.

"He won't?" he replies.

"No," she says.

"Oh," says the male, "Okay."

More important than anything they say was the food in the man's hand. He pulls out a round loaf of waybread, and a huge slab of smoked beef.

Those fools don't deserve that delicious meat, I say.

They haven't even let that horse have a bite, says the pretty female owl, and he's so hungry, too.

I know, I say, what a bunch of fools. Maybe they're going to eat the horse. They want his belly empty so they can kill him easier.

That makes sense
, she says, That must be it.

They make their fire near the altar, inside the temple. We two owls swoop in to the doorway and carefully creep our way inside. We see the firelight down the ancient hall. We smell the meat slowly roasting. It isn't as good as when it's wet and slippery, but it smells strong, and carries longer than raw stink.

We hop in slowly, at the fringes of the firelight, looking for our chance at a nice supper.

The man turns the beef over a spit above the altar. It's too big for us to eat like that, especially hot and spinning, but we keep alert.

The man speaks slowly while he turns the beef. "You have been here a long time, you have. I can't imagine what it must be like to live out here alone," he says, "No one to help you get the garden going again. No one to go hunting for rabbits or deer."

"I can't go to Riverton with you," she says.

"I didn't ask you to," he says. He picks at the meat with a small knife. He bites into it and smiles. "Nice and warm," he says, "Here, have some." He hands her the meat over the fire.

"I'm just saying I can't," she says. She takes the meat and chews. She swallows quickly. She says, "I will stay here always."

"That's fine by me, but it's going to get awful lonely out here," he says, "You're going to be awful hungry, too, when I'm not around to give you real food."

"I can't leave," she says.

"I'm not asking you, too," he says.

"You are, just not in so many words," she replies.

"Who was that person anyway?" he asks, "A friend of yours, I figure. Must have been a good friend."

"Stop talking," she says.

"Alright, but it's going to get awful lonesome here without some talk. Why don't we just eat instead? I think it's all warmed up all the way through nice and tasty-like."

They cut the beef into two halves. They chew their food. We two owls hop about looking for our chance at a piece of it.

After they eat they stare at the fire. She looks over it at the old male creature with white hair and a tug on his beard every time a thought passes through his head.

"You know what we used to do," he says, "back when we had this silly religion?"

"I don't care," she says, "I feel sick." She stands up. She walks to the altar and rests her hands on the edges of it. She looks down at the libation bowl cut into the stone slab.

"You alright?"

"No," she says, "I feel sick. What did you feed me?"

"Same thing I fed me. Beef. You just haven't had it in a long while, have you?"


She bends over. Her stomach contracts hard. Chunks of chewed up beef hit the altar and splash all over her dress. She heaves and heaves there, puking on the altar.

The male creature frowns.

The female owl and I drool. This is exactly what we have been waiting for.

We hop around closer to the altar, each of us on one side of it. It's shaped like a chariot, with two rising suns for wheels, and a large table top instead of a warrior. More importantly, the altar's covered with regurgitated meat.
The female stands there, staring at all that wasted food and doesn't eat a bite of it. We hoot to ourselves with our impatience. She looks at us both. She looks back and forth between us.

"Your Gods are here," says the male.

The female says nothing. She steps back from the altar. I keep an eye on her while I eat, and I eat fast. So does the female owl. We eat and eat and bang heads and hoot angrily and keep eating.

"They have accepted your offering," says the man.

The pretty owl and I devour every last chunk of meat. We swallow it whole. It tastes delicious, and the stomach juices make it slide down real smooth.

"My mother used to read to us," says the female creature. I listen half-heartedly. "We only had three books so she read them over and over again all winter long. One of them told this story. 'In his coffin, he ignored the ceremonies and the cemetery. He weighed down the gathering with his rude aloofness. No one could enjoy the company or the booze because of the host's conspicuous absence. Later on, the beautiful grounds and flowers of the cemetery brought no joy to anyone because he refused all visitors, and hid from everyone who loved him.'"

"An interesting story," says the male.

"That's why I can't leave with you," she says.

"What?" says the male, "I don't understand. Tomorrow morning, I have to leave. The trolls are raiding closer to Karlisna this time of year. I have to beat them back to Riverton, and I'm an old man on an old horse. You can stay or not. I don't care. This place could use a priestess again. This used to be a wonderful temple, when I was a boy. Some of my best memories are from this very room. Do you sleep here?"


"Alright. I'll leave the flint behind, and most of the food. I can get by in the woods. I'm a bit of an old hand at it. I think I can spare a blanket or two, and a change of clothes. You probably should stop wearing that since you puked on it. If my wife had come with me, I could give you a dress that would do you just fine, but she's too old to be runnin' around the woods with me. Too many kids, she had. That takes it out of a body when you birth so many babies. Anyway, I can give you a shirt that'll be pretty big on you, and maybe if you get yourself going good here, you can make a blanket into a skirt or something."

"Thank you," she says, without feeling.

"Do you mind if I ask you something?" he says.

"I do," she says.

"It's just that… Well, one of my girls just got married, and I couldn't help but notice…"

"Don't ask it," she replies, "Just go to sleep. The owl gods will watch over us tonight, and we will dream of flying with our beloveds over the trees and the cities and the concerns of men. We will have visions tonight because they accepted our offering."

The pretty female owl and I, basking in our full bellies waddle from the temple and hop up into our tree. The two fool creatures who do nothing but waste good food and waste time about their meals spend the night in that temple. One of them snores. The other sobs. It doesn't matter to us. We digest slowly, and fart all night long in the shelter of our magnolia.

The horse is tethered to an ancient stump. The male creature still hasn't undone the bridle. The horse struggles to eat the grass at his hooves through the metal bit. Its old teeth don't like doing it. Its old tongue hates the acrobatics of it, especially when the grass is mostly eaten and nothing but small nubs remain close to the dirt.

Foolish creatures can barely take care of themselves. They waste food, and they don't know when another creature is miserable for it. Nothing's more important than a full belly. Nothing.

That's a wisdom for you. It's easy to be wise when your belly is full. When your belly is empty it is wise to fill it.

In the morning, the horse is still asleep when the male creature takes the reins. The horse wakes with a sneeze. The male creature hops up into the saddle. He looks back at female creature. She's wearing a new shirt, dark blue and down to her knees. She has it bound around her waist with her old leather belt.

"I'll tell them about you in town," he says.

"Don't," she says.

"But people will bring you food," he says, "They'll pray to your owl gods. The militia will patrol out further this way, keep the trolls off you in the winter. You aren't ready for winter are you?"

"I'm fine for winter," she says.

"I will tell people, anyway," he says, "That way you can be more than fine. Your owl gods, now, do they got names?"

"No," she says.

"Well, I can make 'em up on the road. I can think of a few good names for Gods," he tugs at his beard. He says, to the space above the female's head, "Won't be no affront to Vryce, I think, if we just find a good name for 'em. Won't hurt nobody at all."

"Call them whatever you want," she says, "And don't tell anyone."

"Well, I'll tell 'em something," he answers, "It'd be good to see this altar get back in business. I grew up here, you know. It was so beautiful in the spring. I met my wife right where you're standing. She came here from Tavinsport decked out in white to celebrate spring, and we were married in the magnolia garden. God, that was a beautiful day." The old man looked about the way old men do at their boyhood homes. This place, these trees, the crumbling pillars of a forgotten god only remembered in his mind. People turning to dust underneath the ground, all they had hoped for above them, and fading.

"Please don't tell anyone about me," she says.

"You'll be fine, I reckon," he says, "You'll make a fine priestess out here. Everybody loves the new gods. Gives 'em hope in something fresh. Makes 'em feel like they're building something."

The man turns his horse towards the fringe of the magnolia garden. He rides slowly and deliberately. He reaches out and runs his fingers through the thick magnolia leaves.

The female creature shouts at the man's back. "Is today the equinox, or was it yesterday?"

"Today," he shouts.

"Please don't tell anyone about me!" she shouts.

"Don't worry," he shouts over his shoulder. He reaches into his saddlebags and pulls out a pipe. He lights his pipe in one quick gesture with some spare flint he keeps in his dusty, brown jacket. He puffs smoke and rides slowly through the magnolia garden. The horse sways side to side without a hand on the bridle to guide. I tell you, I never saw any creature look so peaceful over nothing like I did that old male creature, smoking his pipe and touching the magnolia leaves while his horse meanders.

He just gave away a ton of food to this strange female creature, and he was leaving it behind! The fool obviously had no idea what he was doing. Of course, the female owl and I know where it is hiding, and know we can probably sneak more of it before the night is old.

I look at her and she looks back and both of us think the same thing. Her eyes flash at me. I bet we can get more to eat if we stay near the altar, she says, That's closer to where they keep the food!


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