Cortland didn't remember a time before life in the cool temple halls, whispering the prayers of the gods, reading the chants, and working in the archives. At dawn, they lifted hands and the golden light of peace came to their fingers and glowed like the rising sun. He rarely thought about the world beyond the single building. He had only heard the tales about cities, famines, and lately of wars. The Holy Ten provided for them.
Until the day the southern soldiers attacked, killed almost everyone, destroyed what they could find, and made slaves of the remaining men and women.
So Cortland, at the age of sixteen, went out into the world.
Shock and loss left him mute. In the city, he was sold cheap as kitchen labor -- able to follow orders, but not much else. All the time, the prayers of the Holy Ten repeated in his head, the voices of dead friends whispering to him. He held to that sound as long as he could, even though he knew they whispered lies; the gods had not saved them.
Cortland, called Kaybe -- Kitchen Boy -- became a favorite at Master Julin's estate. He did his work, helped others when he could, and still said nothing at all. The prayers of the Holy Ten disappeared from his thoughts. He slept better then.
"How can I read this?" Risthur, the estate overseer said, with a shake of his head. Antona, the cook, stood her ground. "This makes no sense!"
"It makes sense," she insisted. "All the herbs are written here, see? Just like you say."
Rithur stared at her in dismay. "These are not real words. A letter now and then, but --"
"But never bothered to learn them words," she said with a glare.
Cortland happened to look down at the wax tablet as Rithur sat it and the stylus on the table. He could barely make out the words as well, so he took the stylus, rubbed out the first word, and wrote it in more clearly. Rithur and Antona still argued -- and then went suddenly silent.
He looked up. Rithur stared in shock at the tablet. He looked up at Cortland. "You can write. You can write very well."
Rithur took the tablet and left. Cortland went back to cutting up vegetables.
Soon Rithur returned with Master Julin. Everyone stopped work and stood at attention. Julin rarely came into the work areas, and his fine clothing looked out of place next to the scared worktable covered in peals, flour, and spots of animal blood.
"That one, sir," Rithur said and pointed to Cortland.
"You can write? And read?" Master Julin said, an elegant grey eyebrow raised. Kaybe bowed his head in agreement. "Yes, and from the looks of this wax tablet, you write very well. Educated. The kitchen is no place for you."
Antona sighed and gave him a little hug before he went off with Rithur. For the next year or more, he helped the man with the estate records. Eventually, he began working more with Master Julin and his daughter, Ava. Julin had asked him how he learned to write. He'd picked up the stylus and thought about the temple, the other life, his world before he became a slave. He put the stylus down again and shook his head. Julin never asked again.
A pleasant place, he realized. Master Julin let him sit in the arbor and write out the reports. Open and airy on these hot summer days. He began to even forget the walls of the temple.
Ten years passed from the time he left the temple until war found him again. The enemy came down from the north, along the same roads where he had been taken as a slave. They destroyed, killed ... and enslaved. There was no where to escape. The city already lay in ruins and the army moved now through the countryside, destroying the fields and killing everyone. At dawn they rode towards the estate and when Kaybe saw the soldiers riding under a flag with ten circles -- the symbol of the Holy Ten -- indignation that he hadn't known he could feel rose up. He pushed past the others, threw open the side gate, and went out towards the men with weapons who were only yards away now.
"Let him go," Master Julin said. "They are his people. It's only right."
But he stopped and looked back. "Not mine," he whispered. "None who kill are my people."
They all stared, standing there by the walls, ready to defend their little piece of world, both master, workers and slaves -- because they had all been treated well here. They stared, shocked that he had spoken, as he himself was shocked.
Kaybe -- Cortland -- had survived. And now he had a reason. He turned to the soldiers and lifted his hands as he whispered a morning prayer he hadn't thought he still remembered. The light came to his fingers, brighter than the rising sun.
The soldiers knelt and whispered.
"We did not know -- the priests were dead," one of the men said. He was older, his face scared. "We can take you back --"
"Put away that flag," Cortland ordered. "It is not a flag of killing. If you truly love the Holy Ten, put away your swords. Go home and serve the Gods in love and peace. Leave this place."
And they did. Later, people called it a miracle. Others followed them and before long the army retreated, though no one could say why.
Cortland stayed. Master Julin's estate became a new temple. He taught those who came, and some stayed to serve. They didn't hide away behind walls and ignore the world. They would not let war come upon them, unprepared to face it. And if there was any real miracle, it was that others listened to them and for two hundred years or more, there was peace again in the land.