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Watering Hole

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It's only a local tavern, when all's said and done. The building is stone and wood, like the others around it; smoke tumbles whitely from the chimney most days. Bern is stone and wood surrounded by running water and rushing mountain winds. A fire and a good beer (or something stronger) cut through the damp very nicely. And if this particular tavern counts a priest and his dog among its usual patrons, well, what of it?

Father Darius and Gray don't disturb the other patrons with their presence. Oh, the locals are a little quieter than usual when he's there, they drink a round or two less than they might if he weren't there, but the owner doesn't mind. The Old Bear isn't a church. Confession, well, that's between a man (or a woman), and the priest, and God. A quiet word at a back table in the Bear with a glass of beer or wine apiece, and a snack between them -- that's informal. Unofficial. Safer. And, as a result, the traffic at that table tends to have a high turnover. No one begrudges buying a glass of wine or beer on their way to talk to Father Darius. If Jean-Paul went out of business, who knows if the next owner would be so reasonable? Why chance it?

Most parish priests wouldn't dare come to a tavern uninvited, for that matter. The parishioners might wonder if he has drinking problems, if perhaps their secrets are less safe than they should be. Darius, though, walks in with Gray every second or third day, and no one thinks twice about it. He's been doing it since the first week he came to St. Mathieu's. The parishioners are used to it after six years.

Father Darius comes in and sits at the back table, the one between the fireplace and the wood hutch, always. If the fire needs to be stoked, he handles it A courtesy, he says, for their kindness. He drinks perhaps two glasses of wine, three on a busy day, and pays Heidi promptly. On days when he's heard through the grapevine that her children have been sick, or her father, a bit extra may be left on the table. She complains it's too much from a priest, but Darius only smiles and suggests another herb that might ease a cough, or a bit of brandy to help clear her father's lungs. Gray lies by his feet -- near the fire, in the winter, lending a homey scent of damp dog to the tavern; near the woodpile in the summer, tail thumping as people scratch behind his ears while talking to the father.

Because Darius comes in so often, however, his presence at the tavern is routine and unremarkable. Because he's never yet wavered on his way home, no one fears careless words will spill their secrets to the wind. And because they've all needed to talk to him, or had a relative who did, if Darius is at the back table with someone, the nearest tables stay empty and people stopping by the fire to warm up move on quickly. Some things, perhaps, should remain secret, and next time it might be their secret, after all. They're not fools.

Darius brings The Bear extra business. He brings a certain measure of propriety, and far less trouble in the bar. Less furniture to be mended; fewer fines from the city elders as well for staying open late, for who'll chase off a priest counseling a troubled man? And there is a certain added measure of safety from having such a large dog there, one who growls at customers starting trouble and never at other times. Customers drop by to see if the Father is in...? and buy a glass of beer or a coffee regardless. Jean-Paul doesn't object at all to being an off-the-record office for the local priest.

Tonight, Darius has waited later than usual. Normally, he comes by in the afternoon and stays an hour or three, sipping his wine and talking to those who need it or want it, or reading one of his innumerable books if no one needs him. He leaves at four to hold evening service, and sometimes comes back for an hour afterwards. How he knows when someone wants to talk to him, no one speculates. Most times when this happens, someone comes to sit and talk for thirty minutes, an hour, and frequently the person will end up sleeping in the father's rooms overnight while Darius makes up a pallet across the doorway. 'Sanctuary,' the old women say, nodding slowly with wisdom or memories of the dark years before even the Great War roiling behind those sharp gazes.

So, tonight, when Father Darius didn't stand up to wrap his heavy coat around himself and walk back to the church, a few people raised eyebrows or nodded to each other but said nothing aloud. Instead, he sent young Francois to ask the junior brother at Saint Peter und Saint Paul to please come cover the Mass. Father Darius sat at his table and ruffled Gray's ears and read and asked for some of the stew, and accepted another glass of wine although the last had taken an hour to vanish.

This glass goes no faster as Darius watches the door, glancing up periodically as he reads slowly in his book. Outside, the night is growing dark and cold and the bar's usual clientele is changing slowly. Some of the larger men, the respectable laborers who rarely come to church without the stains of their work still showing on their skin, have started drifting in. Their wives wondered who the Father was waiting for and why he's drinking so little, and remembered how dangerous some of his visitors have looked, distraught or not. Distraught, perhaps, worries the women of the parish more than large and dangerous. So, they send their solid, respectable men to sit and sip their own drinks and simply... be there.

Darius smiles a little, seeing it, and only nods to those he knows and makes no effort to call them over or stop the gathering. He watches the door and waits, patient and easy as ever, reading from his book now and then as if he only wanted an evening to himself, and perhaps he did. The night rolls on, and the air is thick with fog off the Aare. In the distance there's a rumble of thunder, there and gone, not to be repeated.

The tall stranger steps through the door, not frowning, really, but his is a face meant for smiles and they are nowhere to be seen this night. Tall and broad, dressed in the sturdy wools of travel and carrying himself lightly, like the blacksmith when he's not burdened with his tools. The local men eye him suspiciously until he looks at them and nods absently, as if another night he'd have stopped and bought a round. That casual courtesy wins him a moment's breathing space as he looks around, and by then Darius has stood up and come to greet him, Gray rising to his feet as Darius goes but not leaving the fire.

Darius reaches for him, and the stranger clasps both hands around one of his as if he's finally caught a lifeline. Darius waves him towards the table, tells him to shed his coat and rest, and they sit down. The stranger drapes his coat over the chair rather than hang it on a wall peg, and manages a smile for Heidi when the barmaid walks over with her pitcher. She fills Darius' mug and a new one for the stranger as well. It's the strong, sweet red wine that the locals like to drink with bread and cheese and olives, and he drinks and begins to relax. Gray noses his head under the man's hand and gets a wider smile and both hands combing through his ruff.

The men watch sidelong, unwilling to insult Darius by staring at his visitor, but unwilling to go home and tell their wives and mothers and sisters that they sat by and let some stranger injure their priest. So they glance occasionally, and try not to listen, and only slowly realize it wouldn't matter if they did. The stranger's speaking some foreign language -- Greek, Lorenzo murmurs, who ran away to be a sailor when he was young and should know -- and Father Darius is listening, odd, light eyes intent on his visitor. His face, as ever, gives away little of what he thinks, but the visitor's voice tells more than he meant, most like. Pain, and grief, both new, and a problem too heavy for him to carry, and a pressing need for advice. Pressing the breath and joy out of him, from the looks of it.

Darius finally puts coins on the table to pay for both of them and stands and for a moment the stranger looks lost. Until Darius beckons him up, using Italian again to tell him, "Come. You'll be wanting to talk longer than Jean-Paul will wish to stay awake. And after you've talked, old friend, you need a good night's sleep." Darius wraps coats around both of them and an arm around the stranger's shoulders. He is barely shorter than this unknown man, both fond of him and worried about him. The stranger allows it, too, grateful for it as a man for his father's clasp on his shoulder's or a brother's support. The worry on his face is easing, leaving behind a mouth used to smiling and faint wrinkles around his eyes such as a man gets staring into the sun.

Gray walks on Darius' other side, his tail wagging in anticipation of a walk in the fog. That tells the Bernese what little they still needed to know. So Jean-Paul nods to them both on their way out, as does Salvatore who can steady the marble tables where they shape the chocolate, and small Ritter whose grip was honed by bracing tools to break stones. Darius nods in return as he passes, and not even his eyes comment on who has missed Mass too many times of late. After they've gone, the tavern grows louder with drinking and gossip, for the storm has passed, but it's still cold out and the wine and coffee are still flowing. And every man there is grateful that the stranger's pain is not in their eyes in the mornings, and that they do not have to travel however many miles to get advice from such a priest as they have.

~ ~ ~ finis ~ ~ ~

Comments, Commentary, and Miscellanea:

Darius wasn't always in France, and he was never solely a Catholic priest. Set in Bern, Switzerland, because it seemed appropriate somehow. The dog's name, by the bye, is Gray for a reason. (Have fun figuring it out.) The man coming in could have been any of a number of immortals. Let me know who you think it was, if you like. I'm not sure either, after all.

Written for the Summer 2004 Highlander Lyric Wheel, and for Unovis, who made me an LJ icon and asked for a Darius vignette as payment.

Lyrics provided by beej; lines used marked with *

by Savatage

The night is growing dark - *
From somewhere deep within
It shelters like an ark
That always takes you in

The barmaid walks on over *
And pours another round
For a lost soul at the corner
Who prays he's never found

And the mind goes numb
Till it's feeling no pain
And the soul cries out
For a handful of rain

Wash your women
In your Whiskey
When your future's
In the past
And you're staring
Up at heaven
From the bottom
Of a glass
And you need some insulation
From the years you've
Had and lost
And you feel the perspiration
As you're adding up the cost

And the night rolls on *
Like a slow moving train
And the soul cries out
There's a land beyond the living
There's a land beyond the dead
If it's true that God's forgiving
Of the lives that we had led


In the distance there's a thunder *
And the air is thick and warm *
And the patrons watch with wonder
The approaching of the storm

And the night rolls on
Like a slow moving train
And the soul cries out
For a handful of rain

There's an old man in the corner
And he's smoking all the time
And the smoke is drifting upward and it's
Twisting in my
Twisting in my
In my mind

The whiskey's getting deeper
And I use it like a moat
There's a blues man in the distance and he's
Lost inside his
His note

The night is growing dark
From somewhere deep within
It shelters like an ark
That always takes you in

And the night rolls on
Like a slow moving train
And the soul cries out
For an handful of rain