Her mother’s worn hands took hold of hers in the quiet dimness of her parents’ bedroom. The air smelt of lavender and thyme.
“You must never say anything to anyone regarding this. Do you understand?”
Tari nodded dumbly.
“Sit down.” Tari dropped onto the goose feather quilt.
She watched her mother’s greying head as the woman knelt on the wooden floorboards and reached under the bed. Withdrawing a metal box, her mother rose to her feet and fixed Tari with stern, green eyes.
“This is a family heirloom,” her mother said, unlocking the metal box with a small key. “It has always been passed from mother to daughter. The promise on receiving it is to never speak of it to anyone except the person you pass it on to.”
Tari could not imagine what this secret was but said, “I promise.”
“Good. Here.” Her mother took out a thin leather sheath with a pointed end. “This, is the silver dagger. For countless generations it has stayed within our family, always going to the daughter.”
Tari briefly wondered where her mother’s family was, but knew talk of that kind was not encouraged by her father.
“This is our secret and our trust,” her mother continued, laying the sheathed knife in her daughter’s open palms. “There is a legend in our family that in the First Age this dagger was made by the elves and will always throw true to protect the bearer from harm. The legend also says that the dagger was lent to a woman of the south in one of the great wars but such was the devastation, she was unable to return the dagger to its rightful owner. That is our secret. One day a descendant of the elves will return and one of us will give it back to them.”
Tari stared at her mother with wide eyes. This was a story such as her father read out from his vast store of books. Things like this didn’t happen to ordinary folk.
“Do you accept the conditions Tari?”
“Yes,” she stammered, not really comprehending what she was doing.
“Then take this dagger and keep it safe. I will find you a cord so you can wear it around your neck and hide it in the front of your dress. Speak to no one about this, not even your brothers. I do not know what the rules are at the Temple regarding weapons but your father seems to think they are banned. Therefore, do not declare it but find a safe place to hide it once you are given a room.”
Tari nodded again, thinking that the dagger weighed heavy in her hands.
The dream dissipated and Tari woke briefly to hear Sidra muttering in her native language. The girl moved restlessly on her pallet and then fell silent. The chamber was still dark and Tari pulled the blankets over her head. Sleep dragged her down into warm depths again.
There was something wrong. She could feel it. The sense of unease that had crept upon her when the kaerlings entered the Temple had stayed with her. Now, in the midst of sleep the feeling grew out of proportion. Sidra was in danger. And Tari was helpless, completely powerless to do anything. She started to sweat, lunging out at blank shadows, not sure where to attack first.
She came awake with a start, heart pounding. Foremost in her mind was that Sidra was somehow under threat and that only the silver dagger could save her. The sleeping room was lighter than it had been earlier and Tari could feel that it was not long before sunrise. Swiftly she slipped out of bed and knelt on the floor, finding her small chest of belongings by touch. Moving quietly, she drew the chest towards her and opened the lid. Faded flowers from summer expeditions collecting herbs from the lower mountain pastures filled the box. At the bottom, hidden beneath the brittle stalks and dead petals lay the dagger. As she touched the leather sheath, Sidra stirred.
At once all her mother’s warnings, reinforced by the recent dream, came back to her. No one should know about this dagger. The feeling that Sidra was in danger came more strongly and Tari shook her head indecisively. The Temple rules were clear; no weapons were allowed in the precincts, except for those the guards wore. If she gave the dagger to Sidra, the girl might get into trouble.
“What are you doing, Tari?” Sidra asked sleepily.
Tari hid the dagger beneath the dried flowers and closed the lid. “Just looking for something,” she replied brightly. “Come on. It’s time to get up. Yule Greetings to you!”
Tari sighed quietly as she sat with Undine and Sidra on one of the raised benches at the edge of the Main Shrine. The chamber was vast and could hold the entire population of the Temple as well as a large number of guests. The floor and walls were made of white marble shot with amber streaks and the supporting pillars were draped with ivy and mistletoe. Pine branches scented the air with resin and lay on the altar stones at each of the eight chapels around the edges of the room. In front of these sat the eldest priest or priestess for each deity, looking down at the multitudes below.
The priest of Taur stood in the centre of the room on the raised octagonal Dias. He was in mid-flow, praying to each of the gods in turn, beseeching them to drive back Winter and bring the rich Summer months to Aura Vere. Tari found prayers tedious. Sidra’s eyes were closing. Only Undine seemed unaffected, sitting bolt upright with a look of polite interest on her face. The priestess of Aqua was so remote; why she bothered to keep Tari and Sidra on as acolytes, Tari did not know. She was, however, grateful to be allowed to continue to serve the goddess.
A nagging thought dragged Tari’s attention away from the ceremony. She thought of the silver dagger, hidden in the chest beneath her bed. The sense of danger surrounding Sidra threw long, invisible shadows between them. Blinking rapidly, Tari focused her eyes on the priest of Taur and put the thoughts from her mind. The man irritated her, so Tari turned her attention to the guests seated on the benches before Taur’s priest.
There was the High Priestess. She wasn’t really a guest but she spent more time intriguing in the palace than she did in the Temple. She was dressed in a shimmering gold robe that accentuated her broad hips and flat chest. Tari’s gaze moved on to the king and queen of Falna, resplendent in their purple robes and silver crowns. The queen was pretty with golden hair and big blue eyes. The king was reasonable to look at but there was something about his jaw that lacked strength.
Undine nudged her and Tari realised that Taur’s priest had reached the end of his prayer and was starting the section that needed responses from the gathered masses. Dutifully she murmured the ritual words, hearing Sidra stumble over the archaic phrasing. Lowering their heads they waited for the moment when Taur’s priest proclaimed the lightening of the world. Tari had never felt any different and wasn’t sure how the priests could really know the exact moment when the sun started to dance nearer the earth. She knew she wouldn’t notice for a few weeks yet. Then the singing began and she joined in the traditional Yuletide song.
“I’m so hungry!” Sidra whispered as they made their way to the antechambers where the feasts were being held.
“Me too!” They had eaten nothing since they had risen in the traditional Yuletide fast. Now they could feast until they were ill. “Let’s find somewhere to sit down.”
Tari guided Sidra into the first of the antechambers.
“Tari!” shouted a girl. “Over here!”
Tari turned her head to see a table full of Suryanese girls some of whom she recognised. One of the girls waved at her.
“Lally!” She waved back and led Sidra over to the table. “How are you?”
“Very pleased we don’t have to eat in the same room as those dreadful kaerling men! Here, Karu, move up.”
The girls shifted along the bench allowing Tari and Sidra to sit opposite Lally.
“This is Sidra,” Tari introduced her friend. “She’s new. This is Lally and this is Karu.”
The other girls introduced themselves and handed them platters of meats and vegetables. They ate hungrily, conversing noisily.
“Those kaerling men are quite handsome,” Karu was saying.
“I can’t stand them!” Lally shuddered. “They ask you so many questions that just don’t make sense.”
“I liked the man who questioned me,” Karu smiled. “He kept touching my hand.”
“Didn’t you have a priestess with you?” Tari asked, shocked.
“Yes, but she had a headache as soon as the kaerling started talking to me, so she wasn’t paying much attention.”
“I can’t believe you let him touch you.” Lally pulled a face.
“It was nice. He sort of stroked my hand. And he stroked the back of my head as well and asked me to let down my hair. The priestess didn’t notice a thing!”
“Are you going to be a priestess of Lyra?” Tari asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you’re certainly acting like one!”
Karu looked hurt. “I think he was really good looking and he made me feel special.”
Sidra snorted rudely.
“You don’t like them either?” Lally shook back her luxuriant black locks. “Why?”
Sidra shivered. “We met one of them at Port Olin in the Autumn.” She wrinkled her nose. “He disappeared into the hills and forests a lot of the time looking for a woman he claimed was his sister.”
“Which one was this?” Lally stopped eating.
“Gar, I think. I only met him once but he beat up some of my kin.”
“He raped and murdered one of the clan leader’s wives. So her relatives sought revenge.”
Tari felt a cold shiver tiptoe down her spine. The urge to fetch the dagger now was so strong, she nearly left the table.
“How many did he beat up?” asked Lally.
“Ten?” Tari was amazed. “One man beat ten? How is that possible?”
Sidra sighed. “I don’t know. They said he moved like lightning and used no weapon.”
“Magic?” whispered Karu.
Sidra shrugged. “All I know is that they’re evil and give me the shivers.”
“You never told me this before,” Tari stared at the girl.
“I don’t like to think about it.”
“So, you’ve travelled, have you?” Lally resumed eating, turning her attention to the fish pastries.
“That’s what Suryanese do!” Sidra laughed and helped herself to mashed tubers.
“We’re Suryan,” said Karu. “But we’ve never travelled.”
“What do you mean?”
“We were left here as babies or small children because our parents were poor.”
“Or because our mothers didn’t know who our father was!” Lally grinned.
“Well, I’m here because my family is too large,” Sidra admitted.
“Where have you travelled?” Lally asked.
“All over Falna.”
“Really? Where’s the most amazing place you’ve been?”
Sidra thought for a while as she ate the mash. “I think the most amazing place I’ve been is somewhere in the forest to the west of Aura Vere. I’ve only been there once but it was an anniversary so we made a special pilgrimage.”
“What, to a shrine?”
“Not exactly. It’s a waterfall, a huge roaring monster in the middle of the forest.”
“What’s special about it?” Karu wanted to know.
“Our stories say that Hakim heard the gods there. They met him between the earth and sky at night in fire and water.” Sidra sounded dreamy. “It’s true, the waterfall does reach to the sky. You cannot climb up to the top, though there are large steps carved in the rock, as if made for a giant. You have to leave the wagons just off the King’s Highway and go by foot along a ravine. It’s several days journey and we camped there by the cauldron pool; lit fires at night to see if the gods spoke to us. But no one has heard their voice since Hakim came.”
“That’s really poetic,” Lally breathed. “Why couldn’t your family keep you?”
“We have no money. We make ends meet by shoeing horses and breeding goats but there is never enough to go round. I really wanted to marry into Mahesa’s clan because he is rich and his people never go without food.”
“Why didn’t you?” asked Tari.
“I have no dowry,” Sidra looked wistful. “I am not pretty, so father said I had to come to the Temple.”
“You are pretty!” said Lally, outraged. “Besides, it’s not prettiness that counts. It’s who you are as a person.”
When they had eaten their fill they made their way to another antechamber where there was singing and dancing. After watching the antics of the drunken priests for a while, the Suryan girls decided to show everyone how to really dance. Tari watched from the side, knowing only simple, ritual dances. Even though Karu and Lally had been brought up in the Temple they seemed to know instinctively how to move. It was a sensuous dance that went well with their rounded, lush bodies. Even Sidra, who had not yet come into the fullness of her curves, looked enticing and extremely feminine. Tari was standing near the door watching the dancing progress, debating whether or not to break the rules and fetch the silver dagger, when two men entered.
She shivered when she saw the black leather garb of the kaerlings. Get the dagger! Get the dagger! The thought pulsed through her mind insistently. The two men were smiling at the dancers, enjoying the performance. One had blond hair, so pale it was almost white. His brown eyes were warm with pleasure but his pale, chiselled face made Tari cringe. The other man was sandy-haired with sad, blue eyes. His whole demeanour was that of sorrow. When the dance ended, the two kaerlings joined in the applause. The musicians at the back of the room struck up a rustic tune and the Suryan girls found partners from among the priests and acolytes. As the dance began, Tari shivered and turned to see a third kaerling in the chamber. They were standing just behind her now and she could hear what they were saying over the sound of the music.
“She’s interesting.” The newcomer nodded towards Sidra as her partner swung her around.
“A bit flat-chested for me,” said the blond man. “Quite pretty when she smiles though.”
“Don’t suppose either of you have interviewed her yet?”
The sandy-haired man shook his head. “Never seen her before, Gar.”
Tari stared at the third kaerling. Had she heard correctly? Was this the same Gar that had raped and killed one of Sidra’s clan? She looked at him intently. He was stockier than the two younger men but still tall and muscular. His sculptured features were marred by jagged scars that ran from cheekbone to jaw. Brown hair fell across his forehead and his eyes were grey-blue. Tari did not like the way he was staring at Sidra. All three looked like predators, but there was something about Gar’s stance that made her skin crawl. She felt torn between returning to Aqua’s Shrine to retrieve the dagger and silence the voice in her head, and staying here to make sure Sidra was safe from the kaerlings.
Undine entered the room and Tari caught her eye.
“Where is Sidra?” the priestess mouthed.
Tari pointed to the dance floor as the music swirled to an end.
Undine glided between the dancers who were applauding the musicians and spoke to Sidra. The girl nodded, thanked her partner and followed Undine out of the room.
“Where’s Sidra gone?” asked Karu as the Suryan girls gathered round Tari.
“Undine, my priestess needs her. Shall we find drinks? You look thirsty.”
They trooped into the other chamber now set out with puddings and sweetmeats. The girls drank diluted wine and helped themselves to jellies and stewed fruits. Tari ate little, noticing that Gar walked through the room, leaving the other two kaerlings in the dancing chamber. Once again, she nearly ran out after the kaerling, risked being noticed by him, just so she could fetch the dagger that somehow, would protect Sidra. But the Suryan wanted to talk, so she stayed and gossiped.
Tari’s feet ached in the soft suede boots as she made her way up the rock steps to Aqua’s shrine. Pulling the fur cloak tightly about her shoulders, she shivered in the frigid air. Snow had fallen earlier, making the stone steps slippery. She stepped carefully, feeling cold after the warmth of the feasting chambers. Clouds hung low in the sky, threatening more snow before morning. The wind tugged at her robes and teased her hair. The sense of danger had subsided and she wondered now, if she had imagined it. At last she reached the shrine and opened the door. A light showed in Undine’s room but her own chamber, which she shared with Sidra, was dark. Hastily, Tari stepped across and peered in. It was silent and empty. Even without a candle, Tari could sense there was no one there.
“Tari? Sidra?” Undine called.
Panic shot through Tari’s stomach.
“It’s Tari.” She pushed Undine’s door open.
The priestess was sitting at her desk, writing.
“Is Sidra with you?” Undine asked, laying aside the quill and turning to face her acolyte.
“No, I thought she was with you!” Tari’s throat closed up.
Undine blinked her almond shaped eyes in surprise. “I took her with me as Mother Kalare was taken ill. The Infirmary were short of staff due to the celebrations, so Sidra was my runner. She helped me make Mother Kalare comfortable and then I sent her back to you.”
Tari thought of Gar and the look on his face.
“What’s wrong, Tari?”
“She never came back to us. One of the kaerling men was looking at her…” Tari felt tears fill her eyes. “She hates the kaerlings. Gar raped and killed one of her relatives and beat up the men sent to avenge the death…”
Undine’s pale face turned white. She rose to her feet and wrapped herself in a cloak. “Come with me,” she said tightly. “We must find out where she is.”
Snow flakes fell erratically as they descended the slippery steps. Tari felt as though she was in a nightmare from which she could not escape. She found herself sitting in Mother Kalare’s reception room with a fire burning that did not warm her. Undine assembled the sober priests and priestesses and had Tari tell them of Sidra’s disappearance. Without a word they vanished to search the Temple. Outside the wind howled and Tari was left to sit behind Mother Kalare’s desk and receive negative reports one after another. It was still dark when Undine returned with Illan in tow. Tari realised that with Mother Kalare sick, Illan was responsible for the administration staff.
“I’m sorry, Tari,” Illan brushed the snow from his cloak. “We’ve searched the Temple and she’s nowhere to be found.”
“We must look outside then,” said Tari heading for the door. “He may have taken her out into the city.”
“Tari,” Undine’s voice halted her. “There is a blizzard out there. We will have to wait until morning.”
“That’ll be too late!” Tari found she was crying.
Undine and Illan looked at each other and Tari knew they feared the worst too. She spent the rest of the night on a pallet on the floor in Mother Kalare’s sleeping quarters. Tossing and turning she listened to the sound of Undine’s regular breathing. Towards morning she finally slept. When she woke, it was broad daylight and Undine had gone.
Tari hurriedly washed and smoothed her feasting robes as best she could. She made her way to Mother Kalare’s study which was full of hung-over priests and pale priestesses. Undine sat behind the desk with Illan standing beside her. Several of the priestesses were weeping.
“I’m sorry, Tari,” Undine had tears in her eyes. “Illan and his search party found Sidra first thing this morning.”
Illan advanced towards her as Tari stopped dead, feeling ice take up residence inside her.
“I want to see her,” the girl said firmly.
Illan shook his head, touching Tari’s shoulders. “You don’t need to see her,” he said gently.
“But I want to!” Tari shouted.
“Tari, she was raped and then had her throat slit. You need to remember her as she was when she was alive.”
Tari hated Illan then, hated the mute priests and weeping priestesses. She wrenched herself free of Illan’s grasp and ran. Gasping for breath in the cold morning air and fighting her way through snow drifts, she attained Aqua’s shrine. She fell to her knees by her bed and pulled out the metal box. Without hesitation she drew forth the sheathed dagger.
She paused, wanting to make her oath binding. She could not shed blood here in her sleeping chamber. Aqua did not always require blood sacrifices as did many of the gods; an oath or a gift of produce was usually enough to bring about an answer to a supplicant’s prayer. Tari stepped out into the main room and stood before the bare altar. It didn’t seem right to take the oath here either.
Heart hammering, hands shaking, she pushed through the curtains behind the altar and stepped into the shrine. The dampness chilled her skin and lungs, bringing tears to her eyes. The stillness of the inner shrine was broken by the ceaseless murmur of running water. Not even in the severest of winter storms did Aqua’s shrine freeze. Tari stared at the motionless statue of the goddess, feeling the blank, almond shaped eyes of Aqua pierce her soul. In the gloom, the pale stone of the image glowed, the smooth skin of her sculpted face shimmering in the moist air. Again, the girl was struck by the similarity of Aqua to the obsidian carved guardians of the gates with their high cheek bones and almond shaped eyes. The common belief was that the guardians were carved images of the elves who built the Temple.
Tari sank to her knees, searching for the right prayer but nothing came to mind. The liquid song of water filled her thoughts and the desire for revenge eased.
“No!” Tari knelt upright and raised the dagger. “I will avenge you Sidra!” She vowed, unsheathing the slender blade and drawing it across her right palm. “I will avenge your murder!” She gasped as hot, burning pain seared her hand and blood dripped onto her dress and the slick stone beneath her knees. “I ignored the dream that gave me warning. Now Sidra is dead and it was my fault. I will find her murderer and I will kill him. I will not be without this knife again.”
Aqua stared down impassively. Tari almost hoped to hear the goddess’ voice but at the same time felt terrified at the binding oath she had just taken. The blood flow increased and she lowered her hand into the pool at Aqua’s feet. The ice cold water made her whimper and she bit her lip, forcing herself to endure the pain. Her hand lost its feeling and the blood flow eased.
She pulled her hand out of the pool and patted it dry on her skirt. Next she washed the dagger blade and dried it carefully on her cloak. As she sheathed the knife, the silver-grey curtains whispered and Undine entered the inner shrine.
Tari jumped. Why hadn’t she heard Undine’s footsteps in the outer shrine?
“What are you doing in here?” The priestess pushed her hood back, letting her long, dark hair spill out.
Tari thought quickly. She could not lie to Undine, but she could not tell her the truth.
“Well?” Undine’s face was expressionless and Tari wondered if the woman was angry. “Are you going to tell me?”
“I wanted to pray…” Tari muttered, trying to hide the dagger.
“What is that?” Undine approached, her movements as fluid as water.
Reluctantly Tari held the dagger out to the priestess.
Undine stared intently at the plain, leather sheath. Without a word, the woman withdrew the blade. Her eyes opened wide and she turned her gaze to Tari.
“Do you know what this is?”
Tari could not lie, not to Undine who had allowed her to remain in Aqua’s shrine. Feeling guilty at breaking the promise to her mother, she started to explain. “My mother told me a story when she gave it to me. I can only tell the secret to the person I pass the blade on to.”
Undine sheathed the dagger, and pulled Tari to her feet.
“Go to your sleeping chamber, you will catch a chill in here.”
Tari thankfully returned to the warm dryness of her room and slipped out of her wet clothes, putting on a clean sleeping robe. She bound her hand in a strip of fresh linen to absorb the slow blood flow from her palm. Undine lit a brazier and heated water in the pot, finding a blanket to place around Tari’s shoulders. When the water had boiled the priestess poured it into two mugs onto dried herbs. The tea steeped and the fragrance of the herbs filled the air. Undine sat on the only chair in the room and looked at Tari.
“I understand you are upset because of the dreadful way Sidra died. But why have you bound yourself with an oath to Aqua?”
“It was my fault Sidra died.” Tari struggled to get the words out, her throat felt constricted. “I had a dream – I should have given the dagger to Sidra, at least she would have had a chance to defend herself…”
Undine’s eyebrows shot up and then she smiled. Tari felt confused at the priestess’ reaction.
“At last,” Undine seemed pleased. “I knew Aqua would speak to you. She always speaks to water diviners.”
“You mean, my dream, that was Aqua speaking to me?” Tari felt a rush of relief. If Undine was convinced Tari could hear the goddess speaking, then no one could remove her from the shrine.
“The gods and goddesses have many different ways of speaking to us, Tari. Some speak through omens, some through the fall of stones, some through dreams but only a few allow their voices to be heard by the human ear.”
“But I failed her,” Tari’s momentary relief was washed away by guilt. “I didn’t obey the dream.”
“Aqua will understand why you did not heed her dream. The rules of the Temple are clear. That you chose to obey them, rather than her dream, does not anger her.”
“But isn’t she angry over the death of an acolyte?”
“She is grieved. But she does not hold you responsible.”
Tari did not question that the priestess understood Aqua’s thoughts.
“She will not hold you to your oath.”
Privately Tari was relieved, but was determined to try and keep her side of the promise.
“Now, this dagger.” Undine unsheathed the knife and held it in her hands. “How did you come by this?”
Tari swayed between confession and lying. She stared at Undine’s almond shaped eyes and high cheek bones. Why hadn’t she seen it before? The priestess was the image of the goddess. That meant Undine was an elf. Maybe the very elf she should return the dagger to. Relieved of having to break the promise made to her mother, Tari exhaled.
“Any secret of yours is safe with me. Trust me, Tari.”
Tari recounted everything her mother had said and at the end, Undine was silent. They sipped the herbal tea. Tari relaxed as the hot water filled her belly. She felt a great sense of a burden lifting. She had carried this secret too long.
“Are you the person the knife belongs to?” Tari asked at last.
Undine shook her head. “No. Although my people are related to the elves, I am not from the tribe that made this dagger.”
“But you look like the statue of Aqua and there is a resemblance in your face to the guardians at the gate. They were all carved by the elves, weren’t they?”
Undine smiled. “It is true I have a similar bone structure to those ancient statues, but I cannot claim ownership to this dagger. You need to look after it,. I will help you find the rightful owner of this blade.” Undine returned it to her. “Wear it around your neck, you never know when you might need it.”
“But that’s against the Temple rules!”
Undine raised her eyebrows. “I know. You know. No one else knows.”
“Aqua knows.” Tari’s fingers felt stiff as she tied the cord around her neck.
“I don’t think Aqua minds. She would rather have a live acolyte than a dead one.”
Freya doesn’t write about imaginary worlds; she writes about imaginative ones. These are worlds that could be real in a parallel universe or another time dimension. She does not promote escapism; instead she takes her readers into a refreshing place so that they return to their normal lives feeling strengthened and refreshed.
Freya’s first novel, Dragonscale Leggings, is a parody of the genre she loves best; fantasy. In it, she gently pokes fun at the Arthurian legends, the common concepts of dragon slayers and dragons and how they should (or shouldn’t) behave.