Braska, Auron, an unscheduled stop on the pilgrimmage, and religious politics in the dark. Written for kadrin in the 2005 Final Fantasy Ficathon on LiveJournal.
By: White Aster
Final Fantasy Ficathon Requester: kadrin
Request: Auron and Braska, Auron's perspective, fairly early on in the pilgrimage.
1) I can't tell from the map how someone who started in Bevelle (as I expect Braska and Co did) would go through all the temples on their pilgrimmage. Seems like they'd have to backtrack considerably no matter how they went. So, I'm assuming that they went south from Bevelle overland and hit the temples along the way, then went back up to Bevelle and on to Zanarkand. Not that it really matters, I suppose, but I spent a lot of time thinking about it, so I figured I'd let you know. To add ambience or somesuch...
2) This isn't Great Art by any means, and didn't end up going where it was originally supposed to go. It works best, I think, if it's viewed as something like another Auron Sphere or something. It's sort of a day-in-the-life, rather than a plotty story with a juicy, pithy ending. At least, that's what I think. Nonetheless, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. :) Enjoy.
"So...I hate to dispute the wisdom of Yevon, whether it comes from summoners or hard-headed monks, but I'm gonna chime in here and say that we're lost."
"We are not lost, Jecht." Auron squinted at the path ahead of them, all ten feet or so that he could see. The Guado had warned them that the fogs could roll in quickly in Macalania this time of year, but this was ridiculous.
"You're full of it. See this?"
Auron sighed, stopped, and turned to see what Jecht was going on about. His gaze swept past Braska, who, despite most of a day's travel and the fog and the prospect of camping out in the forest for the night, still looked mildly cheerful, if a bit tired. Jecht, on the other hand, was his usual cocky self, standing hipshot behind Braska and pointing off the path. "That's a tree, Jecht. There are a lot of them around."
"No, idiot. THIS." Jecht stabbed a finger at a fresh scar in the bark. "I made this an hour ago when we climbed this exact same hill for the second time."
Auron looked around. Now that Jecht mentioned it...hadn't he seen that twist of trees over there before?
"I told ya that we took a wrong turn after lunch." Jecht sounded infuriatingly smug about that.
Auron would bite his own tongue off before he admitted that Jecht was right and opened his mouth to argue just on principle, but Braska's voice stopped him. "Now, now, none of us could make heads or tails of that sign, and this..." the summoner gestured at the path they were on "...whatever this is, looked just as good as the alternative at the time. It's hardly anyone's fault."
Jecht snorted. "I knew we were lost an hour ago, when we passed that rock for the second time."
"Well, why didn't you say anything THEN?" Auron snapped.
Jecht's finger stabbed at the tree. "Because I knew you wouldn't believe me unless I had a hack-mark in a tree to make my point with!"
"Berries!" Braska exclaimed, evidently to one of the trees by the side of the road...or perhaps to the bush he was bent slightly over.
Auron and Jecht blinked. "What?"
Braska turned, tossing something to Jecht. Jecht bobbled the thing but eventually caught it. Given that it was tiny and the fog was getting thicker, Auron had to admit that that took some talent. "Strawberries. We should pick some. They'll make a good dessert tonight." Braska straightened, turning to look at Auron. "Right, Auron?" He tossed another berry, and Auron caught it, eyeing it, but there weren't any poisonous plants he could think of that looked like strawberry fruit, and this certainly looked like a strawberry. He sighed, scraping off the greens. Mmm. Tasted like a strawberry, too.
Braska looked at him expectantly, smiling. To an untrained eye, he would look innocent, slightly oblivious. Auron, though, could see the amusement under it. He knew exactly what he was doing. Auron sometimes felt shamed that Braska felt the need to break up his and Jecht's arguments. He didn't TRY to argue with the man, but he was so crass and INFURIATING....
Auron sighed, giving in. "You're saying that we should give up on reaching Guadosalam tonight."
"As if we'd be able to find it in this muck," Jecht grumbled, glaring out at the fog as if it was a personal insult.
"He's right," Braska said softly, shrugging a bit under his heavy robes. "It's getting late, and the fog's likely only to get worse as night falls. Berries, then find someplace to camp, and we'll see where we are in the morning when the fog lifts."
Auron chafed at the delay, and he knew that Braska did, too, but he had to admit that there was little else to do. "Yes, my lord--"
Auron heard the movement behind him at the same time he saw Jecht freeze and pull out his sword, his eyes over Auron's shoulder. Auron reacted without thinking, his own sword leaping into his hand. They had killed a dozen fiends since coming into the forest, and they WOULD use the fog as cover and he shouldn't have let himself get distracted--
"Honored sirs?" The figure in the fog stopped well out of sword-reach. It was tall, but definitely humanoid-shaped. And not many fiends spoke Old Guado.
"Greetings," Braska said, a hand on Auron's shoulder.
The figure stepped forward slowly, hands open and in full view. The man was very tall, as was common for the Guado, but he was also burly, well-muscled, the veinings of his skin almost obscured by a deep tan. Auron judged him to be perhaps Braska's age, though the Guado tended towards a certain agelessness and he could have been half or twice again that. His clothes were roughspun and sturdy, a crossbow on his back next to a quiver of steel-tipped bolts. His pale eyes flickered warily over Auron and Jecht's swords, but then settled on Braska. "Lord Summoner." The man's bow was immediate, deep, obviously heartfelt. "The fog must have led thee here, so far from the road. Or perhaps 'tis Yevon, answering my prayers."
Auron caught Jecht's smirk at the "so far from the road" comment. Braska latched onto the other, though. "Yes, we...seem to have lost our bearings slightly. But...you look troubled. Is there something I can do for you?"
As the man fully straightened and stepped closer, Auron could see that the Guado looked weary, haggard, his skin ill-fitting somehow, as if he'd lost weight recently and quickly. His pale eyes were bloodshot. "I...." He took a deep breath, then bowed again, formally. "I am sorry to trouble thee, Lord Summoner. But... a friend of mine died several days ago...." The man's voice shook, then firmed. "I buried him, but tis so far from the nearest temple that I would ne'er be able to get a summoner to come for one man...." He bowed again, eyes on the ground. "I know that thou art on a journey, Lord Summoner, and if thou hast not the time, I can lead thee and thy companions back to the road. 'Twould take until after nightfall, but--"
"No, no, no, please," Braska said, moving to stand in front of him. He laid his hands on the man's shoulders, and even though the Guado was taller, somehow Braska looked the stronger of the two. His voice was soft. "Chance or Yevon's hand brought us here, and I would not have earned my robes if I would not help a soul in need. Please. Take us to your friend."
The Guado's shoulders trembled slightly, then lifted, as if a weight had rolled from them. "Thank thee. It is not far."
His name, he told them, was Vinta Guado. He was a forester, one from the long line of Guado families that lived in Macalania Forest, hunting, trapping, and gathering. It was a hard life, with fiends and wild beasts constant dangers, but not unrewarding. Some of the most beautiful birds in the world flitted through the forest's canopy, and a fallen jewelbird feather could bring enough to feed an entire family for a winter. Pelts and rare fruits and vegetables were other common trading items and provided a lucrative enough living that the foresters could live on their own, largely unbothered by the outside world. It was for exactly that reason, Auron had heard, that some of the Guado had moved into the Forest when Yevon's word came to Guadosalam. It was known in Bevelle as a place where the Guado heathen and outcasts congregated among the forester families, albeit peacefully enough.
Vinta led them to a cottage another half an hour into the forest along paths that Auron never would have found, even had it been a clear day. He followed Braska closely and could hear Jecht behind him doing the same. He was not entirely certain of which direction they were going anymore, and Jecht was probably thinking the same thing. Once, fiends slid out of the air in front of them, but between Braska's spell and the twang of Vinta's crossbow, they fell into pyreflies before Auron even got a good look at them.
The cottage was small, wooden, set into the crook of a tree's base. Smoke curled lazily in the fog-bound air, but the windows were dark. Vinta waved a hand. "My home. Thou and thy guardians art welcome to stay and rest, Lord Summoner."
"Thank you," Braska said. "We would be most grateful."
Vinta pointed along a wisp of a path leading away from the cottage in the opposite direction from which they'd come. "I buried him over here."
The grave was, to Auron's surprise, not that far from the house, just up a hillock and around a particularly dense copse of trees. Fiends tended to attack the first living they saw upon awakening, and it was odd that the man had not buried his friend farther away.
Braska, though, showed no hesitation as he walked up to the grave. It was a simple affair, more cairn than anything, with heavy stones piled carefully over freshly turned dirt. A worn throwing axe, decorated at the haft with a bright green feather, rose from the top of the cairn, a leather thong with a small pendant attached dangling from it.
Braska paused in front of the grave for a moment, then turned, to smile softly at Vinta. "We're not too late." As he turned back, spreading his arms, Auron saw the Guado's shoulders slump in relief, a shaky hand raising to his eyes.
Braska's sendings were like the man himself: stately and slightly ornate, yet with a sense of warmth, a trace of familiarity. It was not simply that the sending ritual was a way of life, something every child saw too many times before they grew to adulthood. It was something indefinably personal. Something like the slight frown of concentration, of yearning that crossed Braska's brow as he moved, as if entreating the soul into his hands like a lost babe.
It did not last as long as Auron was expecting. Sometimes the longer the soul had lain, the closer it was to becoming a fiend, the longer it took to send it. This one, though, all but leapt to Braska's fingertips, glowing softly green before sliding like chaff in the wind towards Vinta, brushing against his face before fading away peacefully. The Guado, head lowered, clenched his hands as the light faded.
Braska returned to center, pausing for a long moment, and Auron stepped close, silently. Braska smiled at him. "I'm fine. Really." Auron nodded and then watched as his summoner turned, making sure that Braska really was fine and wasn't merely being polite, as he tended to be. But Braska's steps were strong as he walked over to Vinta, murmuring comfort to the forester as the Guado wept silently.
"Can't sleep?" Braska asked quietly, later.
That night, they had spread their bedrolls in front of Vinta's banked fire, bedding down comfortably after a simple but hearty meal of cinder-roasted tubers and rabbit stew. The Guado had retired to his own bed in the loft above early also, with a hunter's habit, and assured them that he could lead them back to the main road in the morning, even if the fog did not lift. He had smiled slightly, "I have walked these paths ere I was a babe and could do so blindfolded if need be. Please, do not worry."
Auron turned his head to look at Braska. The low firelight picked out the pale braid of Braska's hair, but not much else. "I cannot help but think that our host is hiding something, my lord." Braska was silent for a long moment, and Auron rushed to add, "He has been the soul of courtesy, of course, and I don't wish to be ungrateful, but...."
"Yes?" Braska sounded curious.
"Well...he buried his friend little more than a stone's throw from here. Everyone knows that fiends usually set upon the first people that they see. Why tempt death by not burying him further away?" Auron paused. "That and we are not THAT far from the nearest temple that someone could not be persuaded to come. I know several of the priests that tend to this area, and had he gone to the temple, I cannot see them refusing him, unless there was some calamity that had just drawn their attention."
"Hmm...quite true." There was a soft shush of cloth against cloth as Braska shifted. "I've a theory about that."
"A theory, my lord?"
"Yes. You see, this area is, despite the population being quite farflung, also quite nosy. News passes by word of mouth at trading posts and gatherings during holidays. The temple is no exception, and thus they knew that Vinta's friend, who was male, was not only not a worshipper of Yevon, but was also a worshipper of the old Guado gods. As well as being Vinta's lover."
Auron stared. "His lover?"
"Indeed. Which, as you might expect, did nothing to endear either of them to the temple, that sort of thing being frowned upon."
Auron looked off into the darkness. "So Vinta did not go to the temple."
"On the contrary. He did and was turned away. Told that it was no less than his friend deserved, living in sin outside of Yevon's teachings."
"That...was their right," Auron said slowly, the words heavy on his tongue.
"True. Though judging others is a cruel road to walk," Braska quoted softly, "'and one that often leads back to one's self.' It used to be that the Guado priesthood would send souls to the Farplane, but the old monasteries have been burned or abandoned since Yevon came to the Guado lands." Auron knew the histories as well as Braska did. He had spoken with monks of his own order who had been involved with "burning the heathen temples".
Braska's next words were breathed to the night air, almost inaudible. "It is something of a cruelty, I think, to force a man to walk your road simply so his loved ones may rest in peace."
Such words, if spoken anywhere, anytime else, would have rung of heresy, but there in the darkness, Auron could not doubt them. Was not protection and care and rest for the weary what Yevon's teachings espoused the most? Despite the pettiness and ambition that Auron had seen seeping into the church...would the Yevon that Auron had sworn his vows to have truly sanctioned such actions as Vinta and his lover had suffered? And really, who was Auron, fallen monk that he was, to judge anyone? "But my lord...how do you know all this? Did you have some talk with Vinta that I did not hear?"
"No. But there was an amulet of old Guado design on top of the cairn. An amulet of Gosha the Green Hunter, I believe. And...." Auron could see Braska raise his arms, look at his fingers in the dying firelight. "I held his beloved's soul in my hands for a moment. And that soul had been very worried. And was very relieved."
"And Vinta's choice of burial ground?"
"I can only guess. Perhaps he thought that proximity to him would give his lover strength to resist becoming a fiend. Or perhaps he wanted his lover to come for him, before anyone else."
"Indeed, but he is still a man deep in mourning and can't truly be faulted for it."
"Still...." Auron couldn't keep the doubt out of his voice.
"Never underestimate the power of grief. Sometimes I think our world swims in it. I sincerely hope that you never have to mourn for anyone, Auron."
"I will mourn for--" Auron bit off his words. It was the darkness' fault, he decided.
You. I will mourn for you."Nothing, my lord."
To his relief, Braska did not push, merely hmmed sleepily, and Auron listened to his summoner's breathing even out and deepen before letting himself relax. Jecht's wheezing snores broke the silence, and Auron was glad that at least one of them would have gotten enough sleep that night.
After all, come morning they had a lot of lost time to make up for.