Pious and pure, her life had been lived within the sanctity of the walls of the Goodness of Holuvenius. Only women, some young but most old, were allowed within this sanctuary, but unbenounced to their Most High Matron of Holuvenius, Clarity had stepped outside the bounds and brought upon them a terrible sacrilege by rescuing someone very much not female and bringing him in to the confines of the fortification.
He was not old but she was. Clarity had spent her life listening to and obeying the commands of Matron, all to good effect. She was content with everything but this one rule: no male could find solace within the sanctity of these walls which had protected Clarity all her life.
The gentle wrinkles of her skin and the soft sweep of her white hair were testimony to the beautiful and peaceful life she’d been afforded, especially when knowing outside the walls of her splendid Goodness of Holuvenius war tore and ravaged their lands. It was only here, under the protection of Matron, that they’d stayed safe . . . and pure.
Until now, she thought with some unrest.
It did no good to dwell. She shook herself free of the worrisome thought and tilted the boy’s head up where she then rested the edge of the small cup to his mouth and coaxed a tiny drink of water past his cracked, dry as desert lips. At first glance, she wasn’t reassured that he was drinking, but she saw the tiny, almost indistinguishable movement of his throat muscles and a wave of relief washed over her.
Clarity could not help picturing how he’d come to be hidden here in the depths of the warden’s private quarters. She of all people within the sanctuary knew how serious a sacrilege it was to bring a male within this domain, but she couldn’t help it. He’d begged with those eyes which pleaded not from selfishness, but from the desperation of one who carried the weight of someone else’s life on their shoulders.
In the middle of the night, when Clarity had taken her turn at the gates, he’d come knocking. The others slept on in blissful ignorance while she’d peeked out the door and looked upon his bloodied, mud-caked face, but she’d seen him as if seeing him for the thousandth time. She thought she’d dreamed of him somewhere . . . once . . . on a cloudless night.
“Please, maiden of the Goodness of Holuvenius, grant me sanctuary for a short while. Only a short while,” he’d said in an urgent whisper as his shoulder fell against the hard stone wall by the door, his head resting there too, and his hand tucked deep inside his tunic.
“No,” she gasped barely above a whisper, but loud enough to make her nervous that she’d woken someone within. Clarity had taken a deep breath and lowered her voice. “You know I cannot allow that, young man. Now go, find shelter elsewhere.”
His pained eyes had clouded over with something more severe than fear. Clarity saw it for what it was, a heavy sadness and grief that only comes from a loss greater that one can bear alone. It wrenched at her heart in a way she’d never experienced before and robbed her of breath.
“Please, worthy maiden. I . . . just . . . need one . . . night,” he’d said and passed out, falling forward and into Clarity’s arms, her surprise and quick wits working against each other as they both collapsed to the ground, the boy crushing her under his dead weight.
She’d not thought after that. She’d only acted upon some unseen force of compassion for which she had no explanation and yet also carried a terrible fear that this sacrilege would forever change the purity of the home she’d treasured since before memory served her well.
“Oh for the love of everything beautiful, what have I done?” she lamented in a quiet voice while wiping away the dirt and blood still stubbornly adhering to the worry creases of his forehead and the slight cleft of his chin where the stubble of new beard growth on his young face broke the smoothness of his skin.
A tumbling above broke her concentration as the sound of something exploding shook the walls of her beloved home. She placed the wet cloth down on the edge of the bowl of reddish-brown clouded water and looked to the ceiling of the basement room. Clarity bit her lip and worked her mind around what could have made that sound. It couldn’t be good, whatever it was.
She ignored the candle on the table and moved up the tight stairwell to the warden’s home–her home. Clarity emerged into daylight flooding in through the small windows of this private abode, which was a rarity in the sanctuary. Another loud blast and the shaking of walls brought her to her knees.
Wobbly and with heart pounding, she went out into the courtyard, her eyes widening with the sight of the maids of the Goodness of Holuvenius clutching onto each other wearing their hair in braids and nothing else but their pure white night dresses. Fear paled their cheeks and Clarity swallowed hard.
She rolled back her thin shoulders and stood tall when she saw the Matron standing on the wall yelling to a man outside. Her words sent a chill down Clarity’s guilty spine.
“We have never and WILL never have a man within these walls. It is sacrilege, Commander! This man of whom you seek is not here.”
Clarity climbed the steps and stood near the Most High Matron, but her eyes were for the men on the other side of the wall. Was it a legion? She shuddered as she took in the sight, the trampled, muddied ground, the dirt-covered, flea infested soldiers and last but not least, the hulking and swarthy commander who didn’t look to be taking no for an answer.
“All of our dogs and my trackers followed his trail here, to your door. I will see for myself that he is not within your sacred walls, and then once I am satisfied that you are not hiding him, I will leave.”
“I tell you–”
“Matron, you open this door to me, or I will blast it down.”
His words were final and resolute, but before the Matron could throw a retort back a gasp of feminine voices, almost in unison, rippled through the chilled morning air behind them. Clarity shut her eyes, sure she already knew what had caused the stir. She peeked at Matron out of one eye who was turned with the most withering and shocked looked aimed down at the courtyard.
She twirled back around and spoke a haughty command mingled with terrible fear. “Commander, please wait a moment.”
Clarity opened her eyes all the way and followed after Matron who sent her a look that spoke more than words ever could. They glided down the stairs faster than anyone might have believed two women of such advanced age could ever do. But things had always been different within the walls. Until now.
“You, young man, how did you get in here?” Matron barked as she strode up to him, her finger poking him in the chest as soon as she was close enough.
He flinched but leaned a little to his right and looked straight at Clarity. All eyes turned to stare at her in shock and disbelief. She could feel their combined disappointment and jabs of disdain for her utter disregard to the rules they had been governed by for over eight centuries.
Matron turned on her with looks of sadness, anger, fear, and disappointment all whirling across her aged and wise face. Clarity clasped her hands in front of her dirty white apron and waited for the words she knew Matron must speak no matter how much she might wish not to.
But before she could speak the young man, the boy in Clarity’s estimation, made a plea. “Matron, please do not punish this maiden of the Goodness of Holuvenius. I was near death and she saved me. I will leave this place, but might I leave by a back entrance? You see, that man out there is my enemy, and he wishes me dead for what I have.”
Matron’s eyes never left Clarity’s face and vice versa. The sadness of this moment would haunt all the days of Clarity’s life from that point forward.
“I will let you leave by a secret passage, but because of Clarity’s choice, her sacrilege, she must go with you and . . . never return,” Matron said, her eyes glassy and bright. “Clarity, you have been faithful, and may your faith serve you well. On our parting I may bestow on you one gift: the return of your youth. Use it wisely.”
With that, Matron placed a hand to Clarity’s chest and a blinding light surged through her. In the next second she felt light and had more energy than she’d known in eighty years.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Matron. It was all she could offer.
Matron nodded a forlorn farewell and waited for the young man and Clarity to leave through the secret passage down in the warden’s cellar where she’d kept him hidden for the hours before this moment of rending. Clarity wanted to stay, but she accepted what her charity had wrought, for what better things in life were there than compassion and self-sacrifice?
What life would behold beyond that moment, she couldn’t know, but she did know her faith would always lead her to compassion first.