Grail Overfloweth by Sean Regan

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SUMMARY: For the November 2009 flash fiction contest. Theme is "hunger."

The acolyte bowed and exited the chamber. The note was expected, and the abbess eagerly opened the paper to learn the Ordeal's progress.

"Five remain. Two submitted before sunset and now take refreshment."

Five remained from eleven, and this the Ordeal's third day. The number was in no way remarkable. The abbess smoothed the folds of her white robe and left her chamber. Away from the fire-warmed carpets, she felt cold stone through thin slippers. She walked well-known corridors, descended a staircase, and entered the dining hall. The two children, boy and girl, shared bread and honey. They ate, in silence, with the hunger of three days.

No obvious symbol proclaimed the abbess' rank, but the youngsters sensed her importance and rose in silence. The abbess gestured toward their meal. "Continue," she said, in the Holytongue. "Well I remember the pleasure of eating after I submitted, and it would be cruel to deny you the same." She recalled the warm bread given to her after she had submitted on the fifth day of the Ordeal. She was not the last in her trial, but she had demonstrated sufficient strength and devotion; her performance opened the paths of her career.

The children ate as the abbess watched. They had entered the abbey for the first time a day before the Ordeal's commencement. Tomorrow, they would return to their towns and villages to await the abbess' judgment.

The abbess departed and proceeded to the hall where the davali - the trialists - endured the Ordeal. Three days ago, at the Ordeal's commencement, the davali began their cycles of meditation and rest, in cycles of three clareons each. Priestesses announced the changing cycles and the subjects of the meditations; they also offered water, which was permitted, and relief to any who chose to submit.

It was a deca after Giftday, the nadir of winter, and hunger and cold conspired to weaken the davali. Four had submitted in the first two days, and the abbess had already written her harsh opinions of their concentration and fortitude. But the faith was no pure meritocracy, and the first to submit, a baron's second son, had done so knowing that his family would purchase an influential position. He submitted after a single cycle of meditation conducted in desultory fashion. He had no need to starve.

The five remaining davali were in a rest cycle. The abbess walked along the hall. On her left and right opened cells, each with a prayer stand, a cushion, and a cot. Two boys slept in opposite cells; the abbess thought they would submit together. A girl occupied a separate cell further along the hall. Though quite alone, she murmured in her sleep. The abbess continued and passed another sleeping boy. Fourth son of a merchant, he could submit in the morning without shame, and with years, he likely would preside over a modest temple.

He was the fourth. One remained. She passed between a set of empty cells and crept to the last pair. The right-hand cell was empty. The abbess peered left to see the final davali.

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