By Christopher Leeson
Once we had entered the kingdom of Sulidir, it occurred to me to ask the Lady Elekta about Cawdour's medallion -- the one that he had swallowed before my astonished eyes.
"Did he ever talk to you about it?" she inquired.
"Only that it focused his magic, and also that he preferred it to a wand because it left his hands free. He said I was to have it; he wanted me to claim it once he was dead."
The lady nodded. "Yes, you will need Cawdour's mandala or something like it. An item of such power will resist any claimant who has not received it by gift from its former owner. You should get possession of it as soon as possible."
I stared into her still-handsome face. "It must have been buried with him!"
"I'm very sorry."
I realized what she was suggesting. I revolted at the thought of robbing a grave, especially that of a man whom I had honored on a level with my own father.
"It is ironic," Elekta added.
"That the medallion should be emblazoned with the sun on one side and the moon on the other. One symbolizes the energies of the male, while the other acknowledges the energies of the female. He told me that the mandala could serve either a man or a woman, but I now wonder how it will perform when the user is both…."
She then frowned thoughtfully. "I wonder whether it is only accidental, this dual sexuality of both you and the medallion. Fate may have placed the thing into Cawdour's hands only that he should be its caretaker, abiding the time when...another would come into her own. An item so powerful will always seek out the spellcaster most worthy of it."
A Name for the Goddess
The archers looked surprised when they saw Lady Eleka's daughter walking directly toward them. They looked about sixteen; the one with a bad complexion was rangy and tall -- taller than me, at least. The other was stocky, fair, and about my height.
"Lady?" the taller said nervously.
"Good morning to you, young sirs," I greeted them. "I've noticed your keen marksmanship."
"Thank you!" piped up the stout one, probably relieved that I was not there to rebuke them.
"Skillful hunting fascinates me. I've always wanted to learn to shoot," I explained. "Can you show me how it's done?"
They looked at one another and then the tall one stammered: "S-Sure!"
"Please, Milady, put on this leather protector," suggested the shorter boy, slipping the glovelet off his own wrist. "The arrow will chafe your hand otherwise."
I obligingly donned the guard and let the two of them explain how one holds the bow and arrow, both of them talking together.
"Are you sure this is the way?" I asked. "It seems much more natural to rest the arrow on the other side.
"It has to rest against the left side, on your knuckle," the tall one assured me, "or it'll fly wild. Here, let me help you."
He encircled me with his arms and took hold of the bow. I felt his itchy woolen shirt against the bare skin of my back. This was a boldness worthy of my own when I was his age!
"Really, Sir! You are too forward!" I protested and squirmed away.
He dropped away as if pinched. "I'm sorry, my lady, I was only trying to help you aim."
I frowned, and frowned very prettily, no doubt. "Understood, no offense taken," I assured him, "but I'd rather do it by myself."
The old man had been right; boys never change. The proprieties of social rank hardly fazed them. I had once given a nobly-born girl riding lessons by seating her on a pillion in front of me and then holding her snugly, so that she wouldn't "fall off and be dashed under the horse's hooves." The maid, I'm sure, didn't learn a great deal about riding that day, but I have ever since recalled the occasion fondly.
"Milady," the tall youth coaxed, "pull back the string, sight the target with one eye closed, and then let go."
"You're right-handed. Close your left eye."
"Like this?" I went through the motions and released the fetched missile. It buried itself in the target, but missed the patch rather widely. I hadn't been trying to appear totally unskilled. It was only now that I realized how much difference my lessened strength and changed coordination would make, even when I was performing familiar acts.
"That's pretty good," commended the stocky boy.
But the tall lad frowned with much less enthusiasm. "Hmmm, beginner's luck."
"Why don't we each take turns shooting at the patch and see who comes closer?" I proposed.
"You don't know enough yet," the tall boy cautioned.
"I bet I do! You just pull back the string and let it go. I understand that much!"
Confident that their skill would humble my pride, the pair consented to a friendly competition. I think that they would have agreed to anything, so long as it meant passing just a little more time with a well-scrubbed maiden who was becomingly dressed in velvet and silk. As we took our turns, I was gratified to see that my aim was progressively improving. Eventually I struck the small leather patch through. Neither of my opponents had hit it as yet.
"By the hounds!" exclaimed the heavy lad. "You're good!"
Just then, Elekta's manservant came over to join us. I wondered if my hostess had sent him to hurry my departure.
"Lady Ava," he addressed me politely, "her ladyship would receive you in the library."
I blinked, not having expected a second audience. I handed the bow to the shorter boy and took off the guard. "Thank you, young gentlemen," I said. "I have learned a great deal today!"
My heart drumming into my ears, I trod into the M'Glywess library. My hostess, reclining upon a couch, had her stare fixed upon a row of leather-bound volumes, but her mind's eye seemed to be fixed upon her thoughts. I paused near the couch, trying to appear stoic.
She was still looking away from me when she said, "Only one who has lost a child himself could possibly understand what has been going through my mind since I last spoke to you, Sir Rodin."
I nodded. "Yes, Milady, I'm sure that is so."
She turned to face me. When she remained silent, I added, "I'm sorry that I had to bring you such sorrow, Lady."
My hostess sighed. "So you say." She seemed to want to tell me something more, but didn't. Perhaps it was a passing thought that one could not share with a stranger.
Lady Elekta had impressed me to be a very self-controlled woman. Nonetheless, she seemed to hang at the very limits of that self-control. I could not imagine that she had not cried the night before in private.
"Your face," she continued, "it is hard for me to look at it for very long. It is almost possible to pretend that you are Ava and that nothing terrible has happened."
I shifted uneasily.
Lady M'Glywess squared her shoulders. "Sir Rodin," she said, her tone stronger, "I did not wish to send you on your way until I had made it clear why I cannot accept you as a pupil."
"Please spare yourself, milady," I replied. "Every reason you might give in these circumstances would be valid."
She continued as if I had not spoken. "I have not trained one of the Blood in a long while. It is a task not undertaken lightly. I think instruction is harder for the teacher than for the student. Ava had no interest in magic, nor any aptitude that I could see. Ava should have been a natural sorceress, but something was missing within her…." She frowned thoughtfully. "Perhaps I may fare happier with my other children."
"Lady! You need not speak to me, a stranger, about matter that give you so much heartache," I remarked.
Elekta shook her head. "No, listen to me, Rodin. If I were to make you my apprentice, it would be like a new parenting. Every time I look into Ava's face I would be reminded about how fate has treated my family so unkindly."
"Lady," I pressed, "I can't help the face that I wear. But I respect your decision."
She shook her head, and shut her eyes.
A moment later she said, "None of this is easy or simple, Rodin. Cawdour had his purposes, but they were not my purposes. I do not see that I have any responsibility for what he has wrought and I cannot offer to pay the price of his mistakes. People of this region come to me every day, asking for miracles. I have no miracles to grant. I am not a goddess."
By now I was only waiting for her words of final dismissal, but she chose instead to ask a simple question. "Where will you fare from here, Sir Knight?"
I shrugged. "I have to return to Moyarien and do whatever I can to free the Oc'Raighnes. I have no other choice, Lady. If death comes to me in the attempt, it is the will of the gods. I cannot do less than all that I can."
Her next question came from nothing that I had said. "That young knight you brought with you, the one who serenaded you -- what is his name?"
I frowned. "Gannon, Lady -- and he wasn't serenading me!"
"As you please. Was he your friend, when you were a male?"
"Yes. The best a man ever had."
"Will he go back to Moyarien with you, in spite of the danger?"
"He seems to want to. I told him that I didn't expect him to take risks for me."
"Do not drive him away. It would please me to know that you to have someone who will be looking after you."
I simply stared. "I thought you disliked me."
She shook her head again. "No. I sense that you have an earnestness that is graceful. I only wish that we had met under different circumstances."
"It is a tragedy for both your family and mine," I said.
"Hold fast to all the friendships you have, Rodin. Make as much of them as you can."
It was not so much what she said but the way that she had said it that made me wonder. "I'm not sure what you are advising me, Lady."
She fixed me with her eyes. "Women thrive in companionship. It is their nature. It is very difficult for an unprotected woman to prosper. It is hard enough for one who is cast out into the world to do as little as stay free. A woman has much to give and she wants to give it, but she needs someone to give it to. And she needs a protector."
"Lady --?" I began.
"You must face the facts, Rodin," my hostess insisted. "One road has ended for you, but another road has begun. That is the pattern of life. As long as you live, accept whatever crosses your path as the intent of the gods; put it all into the context of the future, not the past."
This talk seemed useless to me. I was trying to find polite words to allow a withdraw when the steward came into the library, flushed and excited.
"Lady!" he cried. "Soldiers have ridden up! Militia horsemen. They demand to see you!"
The sorceress, who had seemed so serenely wise a moment before, suddenly became an alarmed woman. "What do they want?"
"I don't know, my lady."
"I suppose I must see them," Lady Elekta mused out loud. Then, as if on impulse, she rose and went to her bag; from it she drew what looked like a small baton. This she deftly concealed inside her bodice, between her matronly bosoms.
The lady avoided looking at me as she brushed by, on her way to meet the riders. I had been begun drifting in the lady's wake, but of a sudden froze. What if this visitation was no surprise to her? What if she had summoned these riders herself, to arrest me?
Like daughter like mother?
I exited the house via a side door and came out on the side where the two boys were still at their target practice. But they weren't shooting at the moment; instead, they were staring back at the house, listening. Harouck's soldiers had a bad reputation everywhere. When I came close to the pair, they hurried up, yammering this question at me:
"Milady, do you know what it's all about?"
"Shhhh -- listen."
The breeze was carrying the conversation from the other side of the villa: "I said you're under arrest, Lady M'Glywess!" growled some man, no doubt the leader of the patrol.
I dashed to get a look for myself and the boys followed after me. Through the mat of a flowering bush, I saw Elekta confronted by a man in horse armor, one who looked like the sort who ought to be cleaning stables instead of leading soldiers. "We have evidence that you conspired with your husband Cawdour against the Scepter," he declared. "And if your daughter is being hidden here, you'll suffer all the more!"
Elekta conspiring with Cawdour? Absurd! And why were the militiamen so interested in Elekta's daughter, still a child?
Then it struck me. They were looking for the "daughter" who had run away from their paymaster. The first place they would look for her would be at her "mother's" house.
I took the bow from the boy holding it, and dragged the quiver from his shoulder. If I had to make a break for the nearby forest, I wanted to be armed. Where was Gannon? Damn him! If he was off with some girl --!
"Cawdour and I are divorced," explained Lady Elekta. "I have shunned contact with him for almost seventeen years. And Ava is not here!"
I was surprised to hear that Elekta was not giving me up. Why not?
"She's stubborn," said the captain. "Do something about it, Master Gwygir!"
A man address, one who looked something like a civilian clerk, stood up in his saddle and spoke foreign gibberish. But it was a word of power. Elekta fell to her knees, gripping herself as if she were wrapped in a blanket of pain. A magic-user! The devils had come prepared to arrest a sorceress.
The wizard's chanting was making Elekta writhe agonizingly on the flagstones. She was not fighting back, perhaps stunned by the surprise attack. Also, any physical resistance would have brought swift death by the sword. My hand didn't shake as I notched an arrow and raised the bow.
"No, Lady!" cried the tall boy, but too late. The arrow had been crafted for rabbits and foxes, but a dart through the throat sent the wizard tumbling from the saddle, his full weight striking his skullcap. I only hoped that he had broken his neck!
"Who shot that arrow?" bellowed the captain.
Some of his men were pointing our way. "Those boys back there!" someone accused.
My two companions were horrified and stood like straw targets. I cursed myself; in my haste to help Elekta I had forgotten about the risk to the boys.
"Run -- or you're dead men!" I yelled, pushing them on their way.
Letting out with yaps like a pair of hunted foxes, the two of them kicked up clods of earth in their dash for the trees.
Two of the horsemen came galloping, but their stares were fixed upon the boys, not on me. Of course, I was only a "woman!" I tucked the telltale bow behind my back and dodged lest I be ridden down. The first of the riders threw but a side-glance my way and he continued on after the youths. His mate, behind him, didn't even turn his head.
I ran after them and went as far as the target. The back of the second rider offered a mark too tempting to pass up. I took swift-but-careful aim and let the string twang. The shot drove clear through the man's left arm -- not as disabling as I had wished it to be, but good enough. The rider bleated like a goat and almost fell from his perch.
One dead, one incapacitated -- I had made a good start, thank Toutatis -- but the captain himself was thundering up from the other side of the house. I cached the bow and quiver behind the target.
He reigned up. "Who fired that second shot?" the loutish troop leader demanded of me.
"It came from those barracks," I volunteered with a wave of my arm.
He scanned the timber structures where the bachelor laborers lived, but in a nonce a change came over his aquiline features. "Say now, lass, you have the red locks of someone we're looking for. What's your name?"
"Maeve," I replied.
His mouth pursed skeptically. "You'd better come back with me!"
"Like hell I will!" I grabbed the bow and quiver and sprinted for the orchard, holding up my skirts to give my legs running room. The captain spurred after me, shouting: "Lady! You won't be harmed! Your betrothed only wants you safely returned!"
So, Harouck wanted me safe, but I wanted him dead! I hoped that Arianrhod, goddess of Inevitable Fate, might grant both of our wishes!
I plunged between the thorny trunks of the plum trees. My clothing kept snagging and tearing, but my stature made weaving through the thickets easier than a man on horseback found it. The captain swung down from his saddle and loped after me afoot.
He was still slowed by the thicket more than I was, but, try as I might, I couldn't gain ground against the man; Ava's body lacked both his stride and stamina -- thought he seemed a sorry excuse for a soldier. I expected at any second to be grabbed by a trailing garment and wrestled to the ground. The injustice of it! Had I still been capable of fighting like a knight --
I heard a yell and looked back to see my would-be captor angrily dragging on his snagged cloak to free it from a thorny tree branch. The officer looked up just in time to see my raised bow. He warned me off:
"You can't hurt me with that toy, lass, but try it and you'll go back to Moyarien bound hand and foot!"
"Treat me like a lady or I'll tell Harouck you were mean to me!" I yelled back. The officer actually registered alarm; the vindictive punishments of the chancellor were notorious. While the squad-leader hesitated, I released the bow's tension. The captain howled as the arrowhead drove through his left cheek. He fell to earth holding the shaft of the arrow in both hands, his mouth spewing blood.
I would have resumed my retreat, except that there was Elekta to think about. She had children to protect and I had made things so much worse for the family by being spotted in her company. It seemed suicide to challenge the squad armed with a small-game bow, but I could take a single step in either direction, I found myself being pummeled by tiny, fast-flying bodies -- a thousand excited honeybees! They swept around me without stinging and buzzed on toward the villa. I threw myself into the tall grass and let them speed by.
Once the air had cleared, I rose and followed the insects. From the orchard's edge, I saw that Lady Elekta was back on her feet -- brandishing a stick. The bees were swarming all around the militia like a black cloud; I heard the painful cries of both the men and animals as they were stung.
The druids, I knew, could command the beasts of wood and field -- the lower the beast, the more easily it was bent to human will. The bees were ignoring the lady and venting their fury only on her oppressors and their horses. Some riders were thrown as their mounts leaped and bucked. Those that were deposited on their backs, well bruised, could do nothing better than beat about at the bees with their bare hands, cursing loudly.
Just then, a battle cry echoed off the barns and I heard the clumping sound of a running horse. Gannon, finally! He was mounted and armored. Now I could forgive the man's delay; I knew how long it took for guardsman to caparison.
Charging into the thick of the bee attack, Gannon hacked and slashed and those of a mind to assail him. I dashed out of the orchard, notching a new arrow as I ran, but by the time I achieved my range, I had no target left. The squad was a rabble of fugitives heading in all directions from the villa. I left the wretches to the lady's winged defenders, and to Gannon who was riding in their wake vindictively, trying to impress on them that there was no profit in being a tyrant's lackey. I went to see to my hostess.
She looked a sight, with a crazed expression that made me think of a goddess of battle. The "stick" in her hand was a turned rod about half a cubit long, the same that I had seen her conceal in her bodice. I didn't know how magic wands worked, but this one seemed to have worked very well.
"Are you all right, my lady?" I asked.
She shifted my way, starting to look like herself again. "Oh, Rodin. We are doomed!" the druidess panted. "We chased them away, but they will come back, reinforced! Even the children will not be spared."
"To kill us they first have to catch us," I assured her.
Elekta sank back against the whitewashed wall of her house. "Fugitives? Is that what we must become?" She looked at the lay of the farmstead. "No place in Arannan will be safe. We have to go north into Sulidir. Thank Deus that my husband is already there on business."
I was feeling buoyed up by victory. "You must take with you everyone who can travel swiftly, Lady." Despite the circumstances, I grinned. "Be sure to take along those brave young archers. They're the stuff of heroes."
"I will," she promised. "You saved my life, and possibly my children's, also. I am in your debt."
With a shrug I said, "I could have done little without your magic of the bees. But it's my honor to be of service." That was a rote saying of a knight. By recapturing my knightly pride, I realized how absent it had been from me.
"What a warrior you still are, my dear young friend! Come with us to Sulidir, Sir Rodin, you and your comrade both. You will be welcomed by my husband and we shall have much to talk about."
I bowed, man-style. "Thank you, my lady. It is a journey that I am looking forward to."
We made the border of Sulidir in two days. Fortunately, our party of about twenty had not been challenged by a border patrol. With children and servants to slow us down, we would not have escaped from mounted men.
At the first town of size we took lodgings. Lady M'Gwyess' retinue was lodged according to their dignity. Her free ladies shared rooms, as did her steward and footmen. The more humble had found space in the barns and stables at little cost to our hostess. I had thought that we could make the next town before dark, but Elekta had insisted on stopping, for there was a temple of importance not far away. I wanted to know more about her intentions regarding it, but she was deathly tired and said little more before withdrawing to her room.
I supped and then slept in the same room as Gannon. Inn servants brought me breakfast and I was just finishing it when I heard a tapping at the door. "Rodin!" called the Lady M'Gwyess though the panels.
I let her in and she began to speak immediately. "That temple I mentioned, I know the chief priestesses well. If you still want to learn magic, you should begin your training with the blessing of the goddess Llyana."
I frowned, realizing that she had completely reversed herself. Among many her duties, Llyana was a goddess who patronized sorcerers, particularly women sorcerers. It was logical that Elekta would be beholding to her. "I will accept any aid, Milady, be it immortal or terrestrial."
"Good," she replied, but then gave a moue. "We have much we have to do very quickly, Sir Knight. For one thing, you will have to create an entire new identity for yourself. We are much safer here in Sulidir, but even abroad exiles have been assassinated by Harouck's agents. Worse than that, I might not be able to persuade the temple council to help you if they knew that you were under a necromantic curse. If you agree, I shall present you as my daughter Ava. It will not seem strange that a mother would sponsor her own daughter."
"No good has ever come from impersonating Ava," I said.
"Your initiation will change your name to one you may like better. When you swear yourself to the goddess Llyana, a priestess will ask you to give her your new a cult name."
"So?" It seemed like an unimportant detail.
"Any name, even Rodin, would satisfy the goddess, of course. Every secret in your heart is an open page to that which is divine. But insisting upon taking a man's name would alert the priestesses that something is amiss. If they knew the truth, they would send you from the temple immediately."
"You're saying that you want me to lie about who I am and where I come from."
The druidess nodded. "Have you never told a lie before? No doubt you dislike using a woman's name, but you will need one regardless. How eager are you to tell everyone you meet that you are Rodin Oc'Raighne? A man's name would make people notice you and wonder. Harouck's agents are always on guard against anything that seems amiss."
"What name should I take?" Any woman's name would be equally intolerable.
She shook her head. "Your cult name will serve you in all your dealings with the goddess, in each prayer and incantation. If you cast off your cult name, the goddess will not know you."
"You're probably giving your goddess too little credit for intelligence," I replied sourly. "After all, you say she knows everything already."
Elekta glanced thoughtfully at the window. "A sentry might know your face, but opens the gate only to those who offer the correct watchword. You ask many questions, Rodin, but my instincts inform me that you shall make a cunning and knowledgeable priestess in the end."
I looked away. I needed to learn magic, true, but I had no wish to become an actual priestess. I decided against arguing that issue just then and gave some thought to women's names. Like the wearing of dresses, this would be yet another disagreeable surrender. A man who surrenders too much is eventually defeated; no matter what I did, I might eventually lose more than I gained.
Many names came to mind over the next hour, but they all seemed obnoxious -- Nimye, Penardyn, Tailitu, Nicneven, Cyhiraeth, Iweridd, but none of them felt the least bit congenial. I rejected even 'Maeve.' Because I loved my sister, I didn't want to subject her to mockery by putting her name on an ex-soldier so full of rough ways.
"Dyan," I suddenly blurted.
"Dyan?" echoed Lady Elekta. "An interesting choice. What does it mean to you?"
"You know that it means victory, of course, and I could use a victory." I didn't mention that even males, especially in the south of Arannan, could bear the name in perfect dignity.
She gave a thoughtful nod. "Pleasant-sounding, but strong. It seems to fit you, though I can't exactly say why. May I call you Dyan from now on?"
"As long as you don't forget what my real name is!" I replied grumpily.
"A cult name very often becomes more comfortable than a birth-name. I was not called Elekta at my nativity."
With that unpleasantness settled, Elekta told me to get ready to ride with her to the temple. She then retired to her own room.
Left alone, I looked in the mirror, something I still didn't like doing. Dyan. How different this Dyan looked from the one I knew. He had been a brave old soldier, a retainer of my father. It was that Dyan who had taught me the rudiments of swordplay, instruction that had allowed me to be noticed as a squire in training. I could use his name without feeling the least bit diminished.
We sighted the Temple of Llyana in the early afternoon, dominating a large grove of sessile oaks. During our ride from the inn, my hostess had passed on to me all that I needed to know of it. The temple was well endowed by the nobility of Sulidir and had been built entirely from the sacred oak, its carved pillars supporting a broad, three-tiered structure. More than a place of worship, it was also a school and library that trained sorceresses and priestesses. It provided lodgings for its students and was an actual home for the priestesses appointed to its service. Hospitality was a custom of the order, and guest lodgings were available, mostly in the outlaying buildings.
The plan Elekta had been proposing went something like this:
"If you are to become a -- magician," she said, "your sorcerer-soul must freely 'wed' your sorceress-body."
I didn't like the idea of marriage, mystical or otherwise, not in my present condition. "Can't they just keep living in sin?" I asked acerbically.
The sorceress chuckled. "A sense of humor is like a rapier, pupil. If it cuts well, it can overcome many an obstacle."
I regarded her. I had not heard the sound of her laughter before this moment. Maybe she was rallying from the pits of despair.
"Will I be able to work magic after this ritual?" I asked.
"No, the ritual will only set you upon that path. It unstops the bottle, so to speak. Magic is taught here, but that would not work best for you; you would have too many secrets and the people you lived and studied with will surely sense that you are always on guard about something. That would eventually lead to distrust. Your teaching, therefore, shall be my task.
"But very early on you should find yourself able to use certain -- magical objects." She glanced at the rider behind us. "Another person, such as Gannon, could do nothing with them. But they will siphon the mana that your blood draws naturally from the elements and perform wonders in your hands."
"I've heard of magic swords, and magic lamps," I offered.
She nodded. "Such items takes power from a sorcerer's aura to produce a magical effect. Usually an object has only one spell. Yet, even to fix and hold one spell in a material object takes a wizard of high capability. Most magical objects are therefore very old, seeing as how magical talent has declined since the Golden Age. Few wizards alive know how to imbue objects with any worthwhile enchantment."
"Why is magic in decline?" I asked.
"Mana rises and goes dormant with the motion of the stars," she replied. "I'm hopeful that I can persuade the priestesses to lend you some of their magical treasures. But take care. If you should lose a sacred object, you will lose both the favor of the temple and of the goddess."
"I'll be careful," I promised. "But if such devices are so convenient, why bother to learn spells?"
"Wizards are many and the number of devices are relatively few. Many are locked in protected vaults and few have access to them. Some have been lost or destroyed. They have their weaknesses; one cannot damage a spell, or drop it in flight, so it is better to learn a spellcraft of your own. And each enchantment that comes from the focus of the sorcerer himself consumes much less of his power. Magic devices are very wasteful in that regard; you will find your mana quite drained after even a short use, and feel physically weary, too. But as long as you are without spells of your own, such treasures can provide you with an advantage not available to common foes."
"I hope so. I want is to come back from Moyarien alive and with my family."
"The gods willing, you shall," Elekta assured me. Her optimism had sounded perfunctory to my reckoning and did not inspired much hope.
Elekta had sent a messenger to the temple ahead of us, asking that her daughter be initiated into the Circle of the Goddess. She had a plea of urgency. The priestesses had agreed after a hurried vote, followed by a hurried preparation. After we arrived, servants guided us to an apartment where there was food and beds. As the designated initiate, I received a sleeping room of my own.
By evening, Elekta was sent word that the induction ceremony would be held in two days. I was unhappy with the long wait, but the Lady seemed relieved that the delay would not be even longer. She told me to stay in the apartment and say as little as possible to anyone, including the servants.
Meanwhile, she was often absent over the ensuing days, conferring, she claimed, with the members of the temple council. Gannon, by the way, was put up in one of the outer buildings, where profane women and male visitors stayed for a reasonable fee. I was not to see him again until our business at the temple was concluded.
Shortly before high noon of the second day, the lady returned to my isolated cell accompanied by two young initiates. Neither of them was more than marginally pretty.
"You have to go with them," Elekta told me. "I will attend the initiation, but must keep to the place assigned me."
Still unsure about Elekta's plan, not even certain that I could fully trust her, I stepped between acolytes and they conveyed me through a series of narrow halls and into a vaulted room where the air was warm, humid, and fragrant with unguents. Far from being the initiation chamber, it was only a bath. "You must purify yourself here, Lady," one of my attendants informed me, and then both assisted in my undressing.
Once bereft of my impure raiment, I was lowered to the neck into a heated tub of scented water. The young women scrubbed me hard, making my skin tender and prickly. They even took care to clean my ears and remove the dirt from under my nails. My teeth and my gums were likewise meticulously brushed with a chew-stick, and then my mouth was rinsed with a sweet-but-tart liquid that burned like a peppery sauce.
Following this, I was dressed in a ceremonial vestment. I had seen more modest costumes worn by tavern joy maids. The short gown, if it could be called that, was diaphanous and showed off too much. Knowing my dislike for women's intimate garments, Elekta had warned me not to make a fuss over clothing. "The robes we use are 'ritualistically correct,' she told me, "and they have existed in the present design from centuries ago. Their purpose is to please the goddess, not to pay homage to what the standards of modesty may be at any moment in time."
I was tempted to ask the acolytes, "Is it going to be very warm inside the chamber?" but I held to my promise not to speak inanities.
The initiates -- to my gratitude -- then enfolded me in a white cotton over-robe that they called a cassock, but gave me no shoes. My hair was combed down straight and then bound with a single fillet.
Another young priestess arrived and took stock of the preparation work. She seemed satisfied, and then guided me by the hand into another chamber. From the archway, I noted that there was an altar. To the right of the altar there stood a statue of the goddess, and in front of it lay a thick green quilt.
I regarded the idol as a work of art. Goddess statues are made to resemble ideal women and many a male would have given his soul to caress such a one in his arms. Stories were told of mortal men who mated with goddesses and created heroic issue. Without such handsome statues, the goddesses would, I think, have had fewer male devotees.
Among the many others present was Lady Elekta, amid the crowd of priestesses and acolytes. Three women stood apart from the others and close to the statue, each wearing impressive array. These I took for senior priestesses, perhaps of the temple's administrative body. They looked mature but not elderly, though they would no doubt be much older than they appeared. Each had the customary tonsuring of this order, scalps shaven cleanly from the front back to an imaginary line drawn from the tip of the one ear to the tip of the other. Each wore a bejeweled torque, its centerpiece being a many-faceted crystal sphere -- a device which Cawdour used to call the "Serpent's Orb." He also had a replica of the sacred original, supposedly a gift descended from the abode of the gods. It was said to be the symbol of the paternity of gods' children on earth with their divine ancestors.
"This is the girl?" one of the half-bald women asked Elekta ritually. The latter nodded and the officiator remarked to me, "What a pretty child!"
I blinked, not having expecting any pleasantry to be spoken in a gathering that so formal. The speaker, coming a bit closer, extended a willowy arm and touched my cheek. "Yes, I feel the heat of the Blood within her. How strongly it radiates!"
"Come, lovely one," a second high druidess coaxed, "kneel before the goddess."
They were treating me as if I were a nervous child. I had no use for their endearments, but I allowed the triad of priestesses to lead me to a verdant quilt before the statue. As I eased myself to my knees, as Elekta had been advised me to do earlier, one priestess placed her hand upon my head.
"What name do you give to the goddess, Maiden?"
I took a deep breath. "M-My name is -- shall be -- D-Dyan."
"Very well, you are Dyan. The goddess shall not forget the name of her newest daughter…."
TO BE CONTINUED…