The Kingdom of Arluun lay sweltering under a parching sun. The people of the capital city of Arluun tried not to go outside much during the day. As a concession to the summer's heat, shops were often open late into the evening when cool breezes descended from the forested mountains to the north. The services in the Cathedral of Light went on at their normal times, however. High Priestess Kylie Norfan would never tolerate a deviation in schedule for something as minor as a heat wave.
Celora sighed softly as she adjusted the silk stole that trapped the heat against her sweating neck. She desperately wanted to remove the formal vestments and strip down to the light dress she normally wore for the summer heat, but the High Priestess would very likely have someone watching to see that she complied with protocol. Of course, none of Kylie's minions would be chosen for these mid-day services. Only those that had displeased the High Priestess seemed to be chosen to lead the ceremonies during the hottest part of the day. Her favorites would no doubt be attending the whims of the High Priestess, drinking cooled juice and fanning her loftiness. And since no one had displeased the high Priestess quite as much as Celora, she seemed to be the only one to be chosen for the noon service.
She sighed again, careful not to let anyone near her hear the sound. It wouldn't do to let them know how she suffered in the heat beneath the crushing weight of the formal vestments. Celora had wondered why High Priestess Kylie hadn't demoted her among the ranks of the priesthood when she had been punished for desertion. Now she wondered if the High Priestess had not allowed her to maintain her rank as a senior priestess just so she would have these heavy vestments to wear in the summer heat.
Almost a year before, a band of demons had invaded the eastern edge of the Kingdom. A wounded warrior had brought the message to the city, dying of his wounds before he reached the palace of the King. Celora had been out at liberty for the evening and had seen the man fall to the street from his weary horse. She had tried to heal him but he was too far gone for her spells to prevent the end. His dying words told of the horde crossing out of the Haunted Hills and into the unprotected villages of Arluun. With his dying breath he asked Celora to carry his warning to the King. Celora had immediately mounted the warhorse and ridden to the palace to carry the message in the place of the warrior, sending men back for his body to do him honor. For her quick action and dedication, the King had thanked her and sent her along with the forces riding out, to heal and to fight the dark magic of the demons. An advisor was tasked with the message to the High Priestess, but that message was never sent.
When Celora returned with the victorious army to a hero's welcome and the King's praise for her actions, it was to find herself the target of censure within the priesthood. High Priestess Kylie would not go against the King's wishes openly, but that had not discouraged her from finding small punishments for Celora, such as this service in the sweltering heat. There were no people attending the service; Celora and her two attendants were the only souls in the Cathedral's main halls. Everyone who had a choice in the matter found cooler places to hide through the main heat of the day. She sighed again, louder this time. Her attendants looked at her without moving their heads. They were being watched as well, Celora surmised. She forced her mind back to the words and movements of the service, letting the attendants, whose names she didn't know, settle back into their roles. After all, no sane reason to draw this out any more than necessary.
The service eventually drew to a close, leaving them with their freedom. Celora dismissed the attendants after they had assisted her in removing the heavy vestments and formal crown. She felt as though she were floating away in cold air as the weight and trapped heat of the vestments were removed. Celora suppressed a sudden urge to giggle at the sensation. The two younger women bowed to her as she blessed them. Celora watched them go, remembering what it had been like at that age, new to the Church and unfamiliar with its politics.
She had come to the Cathedral at the age of seven, to enter the priesthood. Most of the girls chosen to serve the Light came from noble families. Celora was an orphan, without a family name to identify her within the castes of the Kingdom's society. Such children often found themselves with minor roles within the churches of Arluun, earning their keep according to their talents and abilities. Celora had proven unusual by the time she entered puberty. She was uniquely gifted in holy magic, though just how gifted had not been truly apparent until the previous summer's adventure fighting for the King. She had always been able to learn the spells taught to the priests without hesitation or mistakes. While other postulants struggled to perform even the rudimentary spells of healing and worship, Celora performed them effortlessly. She had risen to high levels within in the priesthood because of these talents, in spite of being a no-one from nowhere.
Clad now in a light summer dress appropriate to the priesthood, the colors of the church of green and gold done in cotton and lace, Celora left the robing room and reentered the main hall. She circled the main altar after bowing deeply in reverence, and moved to the back of cathedral toward the statue of the Goddess. She knelt before the statue and prayed silently for several minutes. When she finished, she remained on her knees but opened her eyes and looked up into the face of the statue. She was so lost in thought that she didn't hear the stranger approach from behind.
The hooded and cloaked stranger stood quietly and observed the young priestess. Celora had white hair surmounting her pale elfin features. She was tall for a woman; slender, yet possessing an aura of strength. The stranger could feel a thrumming of power in the cathedral, partly from the being the focal point of so many prayers for so long, but also clearly emanating from this pretty woman. Finally, after several minutes of observation, the stranger spoke.
"You seem to revere this statue," said the stranger in a woman's clear voice. "Is she someone special to you?" Celora started at the sound of the stranger's voice and she stood quickly and faced the woman. The stranger was surprised to see that the woman had amazingly blue eyes, almost a violet shade. They were dark and mysterious, and yet flashing with power and resolve. She thought to herself, it's really no wonder the High Priestess feels threatened by this woman. Who wouldn't feel threatened by someone with this thunderous potential, who is yet so humble and unaware of her own strength?
"I beg your pardon," Celora said. "I'm afraid I did not hear you enter."
"You were meditating. I apologize for interrupting you," she said.
"You are most welcome here," Celora said. "The statue is a representation of the Goddess Melissa, believed to be the manifestation of the Light itself. I enjoy praying and meditating here when it is quiet." She smiled. "My name is Celora, and it is my privilege to serve here."
"I am pleased to meet you Celora. I have traveled far to come here today."
"Are you here as a pilgrim? Or do you perhaps bring a message for the church?" Celora asked.
"Actually my message is somewhat more personal, for you."
"Me?" Celora laughed. "But I am no one and have no kin, who would send a message to me?" The stranger lowered her hood and Celora gasped and quickly knelt before the woman. "Lady, I had no idea who you were, please forgive me." Melissa laughed her clear musical laugh and held out her hands to the young priestess, drawing her to her feet.
"Please don't kneel to me Celora," Melissa said. "You shouldn't need to bow to anyone except those you choose to serve. Although, to be honest, your service is why I have come here today."
"Oh my… I am sorry my Lady, if I have disappointed you." Celora tried to sink to her knees again, but Melissa caught her.
"No, Celora," she said. "You have in no way disappointed me." Melissa smiled. "I have come to summon you to help me with a quest of the highest importance."
"Are you certain you aren't here for the High Priestess? I am not important, and in fact I am disgraced in the eyes of the High Priestess, I am shamed to admit." Celora was startled when Melissa snorted in derision.
"Kylie is very full of herself, but she lacks the talent to heal more than a paper cut," Melissa said "If it weren't for her family's connections to the throne, she would still be scrubbing floors." Celora stifled a giggle and looked around guiltily. Melissa stepped past Celora to gaze up at the statue. Celora gazed from one face to the other and back. Melissa was the very image immortalized in white marble, but even more stunning in living color. Her dark brown hair was a rich chestnut color, her lips red, and her eyes green. Actually, now that she really looked, Melissa wasn't a beautiful woman. Rather, she was pretty but with an inner light that transformed her to more than beautiful. Standing here beside her, Celora thought she looked like a real human woman, and one that she could honestly like.
"I really wish my husband hadn't made these statues," Melissa said with a sigh. "It was a nice tribute, but they're rather embarrassing."
"Your husband made the statue?" Celora balked at the concept. The statue had been in this cathedral over two thousand years.
"Oh no, dear," Melissa said. "Don't mind me, I was just thinking out loud. Oh my, it's rather warm in here, isn't it." She opened her cloak and then removed it. "Now, I need you dear; I need your help."
"Of course, my lady, I am yours to command. But I really must ask you to give this message to the High Priestess…"
"No, Celora, there simply isn't time," Melissa was firm. "I do not need Kylie's permission to request your aid. You may inform her of our departure, but not the reason for our journey." Celora smiled.
"It would be hard to reveal what I don't know, my Lady."
"If you will forgive me, that is one reason that I have not told you of our mission," Melissa told her. "I understand your desire to avoid more conflict with your High Priestess, even if that is not possible. But I do not wish to encounter any difficulties from her that might jeopardize our mission. Do you understand?"
"Not entirely, my Lady," replied Celora softly. "But I will do as you ask. When must we leave?"
"The day after tomorrow will be the latest we can leave," Melissa said. "Could you be ready tomorrow morning?"
"Of a certainty, where shall I meet you?"
"I will meet you here by mid-morning, say ninth bell?" Melissa asked.
"I shall be here," Celora told her and then bowed again. Melissa nodded to the young woman and watched her walk away to prepare. I hope you are ready for this trial, my dear, she thought.
Celora made her way to her small room in the Priest's Wing. The first floor housed the postulants and novices and was frequently in an uproar when full members of the priesthood came through. That commotion almost always resulted in sudden silence, studious attention to books and scrolls, and often to penances being issued. It also made Celora smile on many occasions even though she was required to be calm and firm when doling out the required discipline. The younger members of the church knew her for a sympathetic heart, and knew that she would often pretend not to see minor infractions when she was alone. Because of this, Celora was a welcome sight for the postulants and novices. She only wished that were true on the second floor, where her own quarters were.
Celora had many friends among the lower ranks, mostly girls that had no major family connections. Her friends in the upper ranks, where she found herself in the past three years, were few and wary of the High Priestess's wrath should they appear friendly to those she did not favor. Consequently, the walk through the second floor was often a test of personal faith and control. Celora felt unfriendly eyes upon her, though she was always greeted with the required courtesies, they would frequently be given with hard eyes and unfriendly tones.
Fortunately, the heat was keeping most of the other women in cooler parts of the Cathedral, such as the baths or the gardens. Celora met no one in the hallways. She opened the door to her room, a cramped space barely large enough to contain a bed, a small desk, and a wardrobe. She left the door open to encourage air to move through the stuffy room while she worked to pack her few belongings. She picked through the items in her wardrobe and selected all of her personal clothing, totaling only a pair of dresses and some spare undergarments. She would add the clothes she wore now, of course, and her only pair of shoes that didn't belong to the church. She would leave behind the robes of her office, as this would not be an officially sanctioned journey. She added the small prayer book given to her when she became a novice and a book of poetry she had bought for herself with a few coins she had saved.
These things, she packed into a leather satchel that had been hers since she had served the King's army the year before. There were a few items already packed within that satchel: a silver adorned steel mace and the book of battle prayers given to her by the King's bishop, and a silver necklace. The necklace was a many rayed star with a single white zircon set in the center, suspended from a fine silver chain. The necklace was the only personal possession she had from childhood, from her mysterious past before she had come to the church. It was her only treasure, and one she kept hidden away. She took the necklace out of its cotton cloth wrapping and looked at it for a long moment. She stared at it trying now, as she had so many times, to will herself to remember her past. She was so intent on the task that she failed to notice the quiet footsteps that paused outside her open door. She also failed to notice when they moved away again.
Celora sighed and put the necklace around her neck, fastened the clasp, and then tucked it safely inside her dress where it would not be visible. She then carefully folded and packed her clothing into the satchel, leaving her weapons at the top where they would be handy. The she placed the satchel inside her wardrobe and closed the doors. She took a deep breath to steel herself for the unpleasant task she now faced. Melissa may not place any value on the High Priestess's approval, but the church was Celora's home and she wanted to obey the rules so she could return to it once this journey was completed. So she reinforced the steel in her spine as if marching into battle, and left her room, closing the door again behind her. She walked back down the long hallway to the main stairs. The third floor of the wing housed the archives and the High Priestess's quarters. Her quarters included a pair of offices, one for the High Priestess and another for her assistant, a suite of private rooms, and a private garden terrace that overlooked the city and the river beyond. Or so Celora had been told. She had never seen the private rooms or garden herself, of course.
She climbed the stairs to the third floor, and approached the desk outside the offices of the High Priestess. It struck her as odd that the assistant to the High Priestess also needed an assistant to judge who was a worthy use of time. Celora walked up to the desk and waited to be noticed. The man behind the desk was a clerk employed by the First Minister, as the assistant to the High Priestess was known. He was not a member of the Church proper, but rather a member of the lay order of monks that served the priestesses of the church proper. Technically, he was required to show Celora deep respect. But because he served up here in the rarefied environs of the High priestess, Celora could not immediately take the man to task for his apparent lack of respect. Instead, she simply waited, standing so that her shadow fell across the man's desk, until the monk deigned to notice her.
After nearly two minutes, he looked up at her. "How may I help you, Priestess?"
"I wish to have a brief audience with Her Holiness, if you please." Actually, Celora didn't care whether he pleased or not, yet she resigned herself to playing the game by its established rules.
"Oh dear," replied the monk. "I am sorry to inform you that Her Holiness is occupied by affairs of state and must not be disturbed. Perhaps you could schedule time with her on Sixday during the general audience?" He looked positively smug, thought Celora.
"I quite understand," she told the monk. "Perhaps I could have just a moment of the First Minister's time?"
"Of course, the First Minister would undoubtedly be willing to help you," said the monk. Celora could already hear the implied "but." "But unfortunately she, too, is too busy to be interrupted." The man had the nerve to smile up at her as if he were enjoying their game to much to be contained. Probably quite true, Celora thought. The sound of a woman laughing came faintly through the door behind the monk's desk. Plainly, the First Minister was enjoying whatever business it was that occupied her.
"I am afraid that my message must be delivered today," Celora continued serenely. "Perhaps I could leave a written message to inform Her Holiness that I must leave the Cathedral for a time?" The monk's eyebrows twitched and his nose wrinkled slightly, reminding her of a weasel scenting a morsel of food.
"That would be the best course if there is an urgency," the weasel-monk replied. "I have writing materials here if you require them?"
"Yes, thank you." The monk handed Celora a small sheet of parchment and a fountain pen, then pushed the ink pot closer to her. She wrote briefly:
Most Holy Mother,
An urgent matter has arisen that requires a journey. I do not know at this time how long I will be absent from my duties here. I pray your forgiveness for the lack of sufficient notice, but I have just been informed of the need and rushed here to perform my duty to you.
I serve as the Goddess Melissa commands, and shall return immediately to serve at your discretion.
Your humble servant,
Celora returned the pen and ink to the Monk, thanking him softly. She noticed how he tried to read the message as she wrote it, and decided a mild demonstration might be called for. She passed a hand silently over the parchment, causing the ink to dry. Then she folded the parchment twice, closing it as if it were a private letter to royalty and sealed it with her ring of office. When she lifted her ring she heard the monk's sharp intake of breath as he saw the melted wax that now sealed the letter, marked with her initials and the impression of her ring. She handed the letter to him casually as if her feat had been something unremarkable that anyone could do.
"Please see that this is delivered to Her Holiness as soon as her schedule permits," Celora said quietly. "And I thank you for your kind assistance, Brother…?"
"David," the monk stammered. "Brother David, Holy Priestess."
"Brother David. I will be certain to report to my superiors just how helpful you have been to me," she told the monk. "I am sure they will find a suitable reward for one so valuable." She smiled sweetly, daring the man to find the hidden venom in her words. She nearly laughed at the weasel, now that he had been reminded that she had magic beyond most of the other women here, he remembered his courtesy. Quite the lap dog, she thought. It galled her that she had to play these games, but Kylie Norfan ran the Cathedral and all the structures within its walls. Celora knew that she was required to play a more subtle part in that organization because the high Priestess despised her for her lack of status and the way she had dared to overreach her non-entity status when serving the King. Most people would have taken pride in a subordinate shining so in duty to the crown, but Kylie Norfan took Celora's excellence as a personal affront for some reason that Celora had never understood.
Well, she thought, my duty has been performed to the extent that they will permit me to do it. She bade Brother David a good afternoon and went in search of her meager evening meal and rest. She knew that the morrow would bring great changes to her life. If only she knew how much her life would change.
Celora rose early the next morning, at first a bit groggily thinking that she needed to prepare for morning services. But after a few minutes, her encounter in the Cathedral the day before came back with full force. She felt a surge of excitement that churned her stomach into an acidic mess within seconds. This won't do at all, she told herself firmly. She took several deep breaths to center herself and regain her normal serenity. When she felt settled, she headed quickly to the baths to perform her morning ablutions.
Celora had the bath to herself for a change, and was able to clean herself and dress is solitude. It was an unusual occurrence that left her feeling vaguely uneasy. At this time of the morning, there should have been dozens of women going about their morning business. She was puzzled by the absence of the others, but not so much that she was alerted to any threat. Celora returned to her room, where she deposited the damp towel on a chair by the door from where it would be gathered later by novices assigned to laundry duty. She checked her satchel, making sure that everything was as she had left it. Walking quietly and swiftly, she left the living quarters and headed for the main hall where she was to meet Melissa.
She entered the hall from a side entrance. As she moved near the statue of the Goddess, Celora suddenly saw that the hall seating was filled. She stopped suddenly, afraid she had committed some gaff and that a service was in progress. From what she could see, the entire priesthood was present. She saw very few friendly faces in that crowd, and those she saw would not meet her eyes. Celora turned suddenly to leave, sensing her peril at last. She was startled to discover that the way she had come was now blocked by Inquisitors, priestesses of significant magical ability tasked with constraining criminals and heretics. She was suddenly very frightened that things had gone very badly for her. The Inquisitors motioned for Celora to go before them and approach the main altar.
As she passed the statue, Celora made a quick obeisance to honor the Goddess and the Light. As she did so, she was stunned to see that thick leather straps had been tied to the outstretched arms of the Goddess and now hung limply to the marble floor. She had no idea why someone would tie those straps to the statue, but had an idea that question would soon be answered. She moved on again when the Inquisitors indicated she should.
A large golden throne now occupied the dais where the altar normally stood. Upon that throne waited Her Holiness, Kylie Norfan, High Priestess of Arluun. She was smiling very slightly, and Celora shivered at the sight. Celora stopped before the throne and knelt as custom dictated. She waited silently for the High Priestess to speak.
"It grieves me to see you thus, daughter," the High Priestess said at last. "I have been informed of your crimes just this morning." That seemed unlikely, thought Celora, it would have taken hours to move the altar and replace it with a throne, let alone summoning all the sisters in silence.
"I crave your pardon, Holy Mother, but of what crimes have I been accused?" Celora kept her eyes down to maintain the semblance of humility and serenity.
"The First Minister will read the charges." The First Minister, Kira Silver, stepped out from her place beside the throne and unrolled a parchment.
"Celora Witchborn, you are charged with recklessly abandoning your sworn duties to the Church. You are charged with immodestly claiming to serve the Goddess while instead seeking your own glorification. You are charged with practicing fell magic within the precincts of the cathedral. And you are charged with theft. How do you plead?" A low murmur rose among the lower ranks seated to the rear of the Hall.
"Before I answer the charges," Celora said as she rose gracefully to her feet. "I ask to know the accuser and the specifics of the charges."
"I am your accuser," Kylie Norfan said spitefully. "That is all you are required to know. First Minister, you may proceed."
"Yes, Holy Mother. We have been made aware of your intention to leave your service in the Church to pursue some frivolous journey, sinful in nature no doubt. Is this not the letter you penned?" She held up the parchment that Celora had written the previous afternoon.
"That does appear to be my writing, I concede," answered Celora.
"In this letter, do you not claim to be serving the Goddess Melissa?"
"Yes, I did write that," Celora stated calmly.
"It is common Church knowledge that the Goddess has not walked the world in physical form for more than two thousand years. How then could you be serving her, unless this is nothing more than another way of seeking undue attention and personal glory?" Celora was actually stunned by this accusation. She had never sought personal glory; indeed, she avoided drawing attention to herself by habit.
"Holy Mother, First Minister, I was praying in the Hall yesterday at the statue of the Goddess," Celora answered slowly yet clearly. "I was visited by woman who appeared to be the same woman portrayed by the statue. I believe her to be the Goddess herself."
"Perhaps we should a charge of insanity to the list," the High Priestess said snidely. There were many chuckles of agreement from the front ranks of the sisters, and murmurs from the rest.
"Celora Witchborn, after penning this letter you were seen to perform unholy magic of fire and smoke, do you deny this?" Celora inwardly rebuked herself for arrogance and pride for her little display of power before the monk.
"I do not deny performing magic when I sealed the letter," she answered. There were cries of protest now in the ranks of the sisters. "However, I do deny the magic was fell in origin."
"Your magic was enough to send poor Brother David to the infirmary in need of care for smoke inhalation and to be exorcised of the demons brought forth." This was clearly manufactured to sway the lesser sisters. Celora remained silent, her head held high and defiant.
Outside the Cathedral, the light of day was dimming as a thunderstorm approached the city.
"The final charge was of theft, I believe?" Celora asked.
"It was," Kira Silver replied. "Call forth the victim of the theft." One of the Inquisitors behind Celora stepped forward slightly and spoke.
"The inquisition calls forth Sara Nightblood." Oh this should be fun, thought Celora. Sara was one of the High Priestess's favorite lapdogs.
Sara Nightblood rose from one of the seats near the front of the Hall and approached the throne.
"Sara Nightblood," said the Inquisitor. "You are sworn before the Goddess and the Light to tell the truth. Do you understand this?" The young blonde girl nodded, and then blushed before answering "I do."
"Sara, you reported losing a necklace?" Kira asked.
"Yes, First Minister," Sara answered.
"Can you describe the necklace for us now?"
"Of course, First Minister," Sara answered, sounding for all the world like a girl without an original thought in her head. "It was a silver star, with a white faceted stone set in the center, hung on a silver chain." Celora involuntarily put a hand to her throat. How could they claim this was theft? She'd had the necklace since she was a child.
"I lost the necklace weeks ago, or thought it was lost," continued Sara. "And then yesterday, I saw Celora in the bath wearing the necklace. My necklace, I mean."
"Do you possess such a necklace, Celora?" Kira asked.
"I do, First Minister. The same necklace I was wearing when found as a small child in the villages of East Arluun. If I may ask Sara to tell us how many rays the star has? And what type of stone is set in the center?"
"It had six rays, and it was a piece of white quartz I suppose," answered Sara. Celora withdrew her necklace from its hiding place in her dress and held it up.
"The necklace I have had in my possession since childhood has seven rays and is set with a white zircon, which is only found in the Haunted Hills. A stone obtained at great peril by a very few traders, and highly prized. Surely this would be worthy of remembering if it truly was your necklace?" The white zircons from the Haunted Hills were prized because of the strange blue radiance they displayed in the light of the full moon. A fine stone could fetch thousands of gold pieces, though the one Celora wore was a small stone.
"Enough!" roared the High Priestess. "The mere fact that you have the necklace shows your guilt." The murmuring was reaching new heights in the audience. Plainly, many there did not agree with the High Priestess's logic. "Return that necklace to its owner." One of the Inquisitors removed the necklace carefully from Celora's neck and then handed it to Sara. Celora felt anger rising and struggled to maintain propriety as she watched the only link to her mysterious childhood given to a liar.
"Celora Witchborn," the High Priestess said with obvious relish. "You are to be lashed in punishment for your crime. And then you are to be expelled from the Church for your sins. Sentence will be carried out immediately. Inquisitors, tie her in place." Celora was too stunned at this farcical justice to protest as the Inquisitors led her to the statue. The purpose of the leather straps was now apparent as they were used to tie her wrists and then to haul her higher so that her feet barely touched the floor. In this position, with her back to the crowd, she would at least be spared the humiliation of displaying her tears. But there would be no way to avoid the strokes of the lash.
The light from outside the Hall was nearly gone. The proceedings were lit mostly by the ceremonial sconces along the altar dais and the candles near the statue. The darkness fit the hopelessness that swept down upon Celora. She nearly cried out when her dress was torn from her shoulders and left to hang from her waist. Her pale skin shone whitely in the failing light as though she were blessed by inner illumination. Her strange white hair was bound by a leather thong and thrown forward over her shoulder so that it wouldn't interfere with the lash. The disciplinarian, a monk with his cowl raised to conceal his identity, stepped forward and unfurled the lash with a whistling crack that made Celora flinch. She forced herself to be calm with every fiber of her being.
Just trust in the Lady and all will be well, she thought. The disciplinarian monk stepped close and touched her back with the lash. Celora fought not to shrink from the touch. "I will enjoy this, orphan." She recognized the voice as that of Brother David. Apparently this would be part of the care he was receiving. Or perhaps this was the reward chosen for another favored lapdog. Oh I am surrounded by evil, she thought wildly. Celora prayed that the Light would accept her soul, because she was certain they meant to kill her. If they didn't kill her here and now, being expelled from the Church surely would.
The first stroke of the lash rocked her to her core. The pain sliced across her back in a line of liquid fire. Celora was sure that her back had been laid bare to the bone. "Holy Goddess, I pray thee receive this offering of my devotion to you," Celora prayed aloud. The second stroke landed and forced her to remain silent a long moment to contain the agony. There was a peal of thunder directly overhead outside the Cathedral. The sound masked the third stroke of the lash.
Celora lost count of the lash strokes after twenty. Still she did not cry out, though many in the audience did. And not just her friends; many of the priestesses of her rank, normally cool to her, now wept openly to see her treated this way. The disciplinarian looked to the High Priestess to see if these strokes were enough. Kylie Norfan appeared excited by the suffering being inflicted. She leaned forward, licking her lips, and gestured impatiently for the monk to continue. But the lash never fell again.
A bolt of lightning struck the domed roof of the Great Hall, piercing easily inside to strike the upraised hand of the statue. From the statue, the wild lightning arced across to strike the monk in the chest as he was drawing back to renew the lashing. He was thrown twenty feet across the marble floor to lay smoking at the foot of the dais. There were screams as chunks of ceiling fell among the front rows of the audience, though no one appeared to be hit directly. Chaos reigned for several minutes, while the timid ran from the Hall, the High priestess screamed for more blood from the victim, and the still form of the monk continued to smoke. Silence slowly gained control of the Hall, except for Kylie Norfan's ranting. A shaft of sunlight shone down through the new hole in the dome, bathing Celora and the statue supporting her in radiance. The High Priestess fell silent as if controlled by a spell.
"That is quite enough," A voice said. "You claim to serve the Light and the Goddess? And yet when one among you, known to be pure of heart, reports that she has been called to serve the Light and the Goddess, you perpetrate this evil upon her in order to exalt yourself?"
"Who dares to speak? Who dares to accuse the High Priestess?" Kylie Norfan shouted, thrusting herself to her feet and searching the Hall with maddened eyes.
"I speak," the voice seemed to come from the statue itself. Everyone stared in wonder as the statue took on the color and warmth of a living being, lowered its arms, and caught Celora in a tender embrace before she hit the floor. The statue seemed to shrink as it did this, becoming at the last a normally-sized woman cradling the wounded priestess.
"I am Melissa of the Light, the Seeker, and wife to the Creator. I curse all those who knowingly participated in this crime against my servant Celora Witchborn." There were cries of fear and anguish now from Kylie's supporters.
"You, girl," Melissa said sternly to Sara. "Come here and return my servant's necklace. Your false testimony shall be the curse that follows you the rest of your life. No one who hears you will trust your words no matter how truthfully you answer." Sara groveled on the floor, and handed the necklace to Melissa with trembling hands and then quickly retreated.
"You," Melissa pointed at Kylie Norfan, "you have no right to the seat you hold. You have not a tenth the worth of this poor child you have wrongfully tormented. You are not fit to lead the Church, nor are you fit to remain in our presence. Go. Now. And do not return." Kylie's face went completely ashen as her doom was pronounced. She backed away slowly and then ran from the Hall towards her chambers.
"As for the rest of you," Melissa continued in a kinder voice. "I am taking Celora with me now. If she should ever return to you here, see that you honor her as she deserves. Go now in peace." They did. They left the hall as quickly as they could while bowing and genuflecting. At last the Hall was empty again, but for Melissa and Celora.
Melissa wept for long minutes while she held the girl. She was devastated by the need for this charade, even though she understood the reasons. Kylie Norfan would have become a terrible threat to them if she had become aware of the reason for their journey. She craved power to an extent found only in the insane, and had access to loyal followers who were skilled in magic. Celora's sacrifice had stopped the threat for now, but still she wept for the pain the young woman had borne with such dignity.
"Why do you weep, my Lady?" Melissa wiped her eyes to find those luminous violet eyes looking up at her in wonder.
"I weep for your pain, so wrongfully inflicted Celora," she answered. "Can you heal yourself?"
"Only a little," she answered after a moment. "I used most of my strength controlling the pain. It was prideful, I know, but I didn't want to give that woman the satisfaction." Melissa smiled.
"Oh my," exclaimed Celora. "I meant to say I wanted to uphold the dignity of the Church, Great Lady." Melissa laughed for a long minute, wiping tears away.
"Oh my dear girl," she finally said. "Everything you do exalts the Church, even when you call that woman a bitch." Celora's face flamed scarlet.
"I most certainly did not call her that," Celora exclaimed. "I may have thought it, but I am certain I did not say it." This only made Melissa laugh harder. Finally Celora smiled and chuckled softly, stopping when the slight movement returned awareness of her injury. She concentrated, lips moving as she mouthed the spell of healing for her back. Melissa felt a surge of warmth across her lap where she supported Celora's weight. When it had passed, Celora slumped back, clearly exhausted by the effort.
"We really should leave this place," Melissa said. "Can you move?"
"With help, yes; I was unable to completely heal, but I closed the wounds. I will heal the rest when I have recovered enough strength. I seem to have lost some blood, and that will take time to replace." Melissa helped Celora to sit up. The priestess tried to cover herself with the remains of her dress, but was unsuccessful.
"We need to get you dressed again, did you pack a spare?" Celora gestured at her satchel lying nearby on the floor. Melissa left her sitting on her own and brought the satchel over to her. Celora opened it and pulled out one of her dresses. "Here, lean on me and we'll get this done together."
"I shouldn't presume, my Lady." Celora blushed as she spoke.
"Nonsense," Melissa said firmly. "You need assistance and we are companions. There is no presumption."
"Thank you, I do need the help," Celora said shyly. Melissa helped the young woman to her feet, and then to remove the torn and bloody dress.
"Before you cover up again, may I see your back?" Celora nodded, and turned away while holding the dress to her chest. The lash marks were closed and no longer bleeding, but Celora's back was a mass of bruised tissue and undoubtedly intensely painful. Melissa said nothing, but helped the woman to pull her dress on the rest of the way and then to button it in place so she wouldn't strain herself. Celora reached down to lift her satchel, but Melissa was quicker.
"Oh no you don't," she said. "I'll carry that until you have recovered." Celora nodded her thanks. Melissa led her to a side entrance of the Cathedral. They moved slowly, going as fast as Celora was able to move. Melissa knew they wouldn't be able to make any headway on foot. They would simply have to do the best they could and hope they were in time.
The hay cart rolled jarringly over the cobblestones, causing Melissa to wince every time she heard Celora's sharp intake of breath. The trip was obviously hurting the woman, yet she never complained once. When they'd left the Cathedral, Melissa had found a horse drawn cart with half a load of hay nearby and convinced the owner to sell it to her for a few gold coins. Probably more that it was worth, but Melissa's only concern was Celora's comfort. And getting to their destination as soon as they could. The hay would provide a soft bed for Celora if Melissa could ever persuade the girl to rest.
Celora had insisted on riding on the seat beside Melissa as they proceeded through the city toward the eastern gate. At first Melissa thought the priestess was displaying a deep sense of pride, a refusal to submit to her wounds. But when they had left the vicinity of the great Cathedral, she learned the truth.
"I will truly miss this place," Celora said. "It has been the only home I have known for so long. Thank you for letting me see it one last time." Melissa felt bad for thinking the girl prideful, when obviously she was trying to drink in a last impression of her home in anticipation of leaving. She wondered whether the girl thought she was leaving for good.
"Of course, dear," Melissa answered. "Perhaps you should climb in the back and lay down?"
"Perhaps I will," Celora said. She was glancing about them at the townsfolk who were staring openly, or in some cases bowing deeply to them. "I am weary."
"Weary of your injuries? Or of the attention you are receiving?" Melissa asked archly. Celora blushed.
"I am sure they are bowing to you, my Lady." Melissa laughed. She was trying not to taunt the girl, but her innocence was delightful.
"If you say so," Melissa said, returning her gaze to the road ahead. Celora climbed slowly and carefully over the seat and into the rear of the cart. She sighed as she lay down on the hay and settled into a comfortable position. And this way, people won't be blocking the way to gawk at you any more, thought Melissa. She pulled her hood up again to conceal her face, feeling safer as she did so and the townsfolk no longer paid any heed to them as they passed.
The rest of their journey through the city passed without incident, and they soon reached the city gate. The guards at the gate appeared bored, leaning on their pikes and watching dully as citizens came and went through the gate. No one questioned Melissa as she drove the cart through and onto the dirt road leading away from the gate toward the eastern villages. She hoped to reach the village of Tawny Creek before evening. They could stay at the inn there for the night, and then reach the forest the following afternoon. Melissa snapped the reins and startled the placid old mare into a livelier pace to make some time, now that the road was smoother. Celora was sleeping deeply as far as she could tell, leaving her time to herself for thinking.
Tawny Creek was a village of nearly two hundred souls, boasting an inn, a smithy, and a mill. These all provided service to the farms lying nestled in the gently rolling hills. The watercourse for which the village was named ran along the eastern edge of the town and had a distinct yellowish tone. At the height of summer, such as now, the creek was narrow enough to jump across with little chance of getting wet. This was a favorite pastime of the younger children in the village, though they often found an excuse to fall in to the narrow stream to alleviate the heat and dust.
Melissa guided the cart through a copse of trees near the village as the sun was edging toward the western horizon. She could see lights in some windows in the village, giving it a homey and welcoming look. Looking around, Melissa thought this is the place alright. She pulled on the reins until the weary mare stopped, tied off the reins to the flimsy hand brake, and then climbed down from the seat to stretch her legs. She walked up beside the mare and patted her, murmuring soft words of praise for her efforts. She was aware of eyes upon her back, and of someone watching from the trees.
"It's not considered polite to come upon a weary traveler from the shadows without announcing your intentions," Melissa said softly.
"Your pardon, Lady, I meant no offense," came the response. The voice was gruff and rough as though the speaker were unused to talking. "I was merely looking to see who might be traveling the road this late in the day." Melissa turned to see a large muscular man with oily dark hair trailing down from a shapeless leather hat. He wore a leather vest trimmed in fur over a bare chest, leather pants, and tall buckskin boots, also trimmed in fur. There are animal rights activists positively spinning in the graves right now back home, thought Melissa. There was a long, finely carved bow hung over his shoulder, and the feathered ends of arrows showing above the opposite shoulder.
"Good evening," Melissa said to the man.
"Good evening to you," he replied. "I am called Ronin by folks hereabouts."
"Pleased to meet you Ronin," she answered. "I am called the Seeker by folks in many places, but you may call me Melissa." Ronin grunted in response, not being rude just acknowledging her statement. "I see by your attire that you are a woodsman. Are you a hunter or pathfinder perhaps?"
"Perhaps," he replied enigmatically.
"That would be good for me and my companion," Melissa told him. "We are in need of a guide through the Haunted Hills and beyond."
"There ain't anything beyond," Ronin told her. "And I have no interest in guiding any city-bred travelers through demon lands."
"Yet you go there freely, is that not true?" Melissa asked in a tone that was more statement than question.
"Aye that's true enough," he admitted grudgingly. Melissa dangled Celora's necklace from her hand casually, as though unaware she held it. Ronin gazed briefly at it, then stared sharply at it. "That appears to be a rather unique necklace you have there."
"This?" Melissa responded in apparent surprise. "Yes, I suppose it is. I've certainly never seen another like it. I might be willing to trade it for your service, but I'm afraid it doesn't belong to me."
"Might I ask who it does belong to?"
"To my companion, the young woman sleeping in the back of the cart there," Melissa said, gesturing with the hand that held the necklace. Ronin stepped closer to the cart and gazed in at Celora's sleeping form. His breath caught when he looked at her, but he said nothing. Melissa concealed a smile.
"Well, if you are certain that you won't guide us," Melissa continued, "I suppose we shall lodge at the inn for the evening and try to find another guide in the village. Nice meeting you, Ronin."
"Travel safely, Melissa," he said after a long moment. Melissa climbed back up to the seat of the cart, took the reins, and shook them to get the mare walking again. She didn't look back over her shoulder. She did not need to look to know that Ronin stood in the road for a long while watching them pass into the distance.