Walking into the Great Hall of the temple, Sorenan’s footsteps echoed against the black marble. All about him, acolytes dressed in white moved in eerie silence as they attended to their tasks. Faces obscured by veils, a group walked ahead of him with their heads bowed and hands folded into their wide sleeves. The only evidence that the figures were female was the unmistakable swell of the breast and curve of the hip that even the pale long robes of the order couldn’t hide. If it were the marketplace, the veiled women would have been the object of covert glances. It was uncommon outside of the temple proper to see more then a few of the Silent Sisters at a time, even in the city that held the main temple of the order of the Goddess.
Sorenan watched as a youth approached him. His hair had been allowed to grow out into flowing raven’s wing black curls, only the difference in his dress distinguished him from the other prepubescent neonates in the corridor. Startling blue eyes looked up at the warrior in a delicately featured face that bore the stamp of the High Priestess’s proud lineage. “You are late,” the son of the High Priestess said bluntly, “Mother will be displeased. Come.” Together, they made their way to the inner sanctum of the temple complex. The silence deepened as they progressed until it took on an almost physical quality.
Standing before the wide altar with her back to them, the High Priestess raised a silver goblet over her head. She lowered it and poured a libation over the stone altar. The acolyte at her right took the cup as she passed it to them. The High Priestess took a small bowl of grain from the acolyte to her left and raised it up over her head. She lowered it and poured the grain on the altar before handing the bowl back to the acolyte. The trio made a small gesture with their hands before the acolytes turned and began to walk for the entrance that Sorenan had passed thru. The female acolyte’s gaze briefly strayed to the face of the High Priestess’s son before looking away with a subtle blush.
The High Priestess stood with her back to the pair, her chestnut brown hair falling in waves down her back. “Jorn, join the others. Your father comes today with an important lesson,” she said quietly, looking briefly to her right at some point behind her. The lad sketches a quick bow to his mother and darted for the doorway to the right of the raised platform the altar stood on. “Don’t run, Jorn,” she called after him. Slowly, the High Priestess of the Great Goddess Julara turned to face Sorenan. Green eyes looked over his dusty clothes and features as though reading a map of where he had traveled. Though her expression was calm, a flame lit in her eyes made Sorenan uncomfortable. “We keep the old ways here, warrior,” she said gravely when her eyes finally reached his, “It would be wise of you to respect them. Punctuality is not too difficult of a thing to ask, is it?”
Sorenan felt his stomach twist. Something about the way the woman held his gaze and her soft voice echoed in the chamber made him suddenly feel vulnerable. “No, Lady,” he said in a tone that mimicked her own as he gave a low bow, “I most humbly apologize.” A small frown twisted her ruby lips into a slight grimace of distaste.
“Words are cheap, man,” she said, striding past him in the direction that he had come, “It is action I expect of you. Come.” Sorenan recognized the order given for what it was and promptly fell into step a pace behind her. “You were dispatched to deliver a message to the people of the northern reaches,” she said, “Did the elders there receive you?” Sorenan shook his head.
“No, Lady, they refused me ... and your Emissary,” he replied, lengthening his stride to keep pace with her as she made her way down the passages back to her office. “They said that they intend to continue their raids into your holdings, claiming it as divinely given to them,” he continued, watching as she clasped her hands behind her back, “They additionally said that your priesthood’s presence in their territories was … unwelcome.”
The dark haired woman halted and looked over at Sorenan with a gimlet gaze. “What, precisely, did they say?” she demanded. Sorenan swallowed despite himself. He didn’t like the fact that he was about to tell the woman who is recognized as the living daughter of Julara, avatar of her mercy and wrath, that her priestesses and priests were being executed on sight. While his faith was lapsed, there was enough present to make him uneasy with telling her the death threat delivered by the elders of the tribes north of the city. She again looked at him as though reading him and the grim frown returned.
“Death is it?” she said, “I suppose it was naiveté to have expected otherwise. Am I correct to believe that the sons of Omurath have turned away as well?” Sorenan blinked. The sandy haired man hadn’t expected her to be aware of the news he had only become privy to in the last hour prior to his arrival at the temple gates. The flicker of surprise that flashed over his face was answer enough for her and the High Priestess turned away. She began to walk again.
“It will soon be time, warrior,” she said, “That the death bringers will walk with my children. It is not your faith that I need but rather your arm. A great evil is amassing north of us and shall soon move south. The gods have placed us as a general would his troops in an effort to out maneuver that evil and defend against it. I am not a warrior and have need of the eyes of one. Do you understand what I am saying?”
Sorenan frowned. “Why me?” he asked as she lead the way into her office. The High Priestess poured two cups of cool tea. She pulled off two leaves from the sprig of mint sitting beside the teapot and floated one upon the tea in each cup. As the light slid thru the cut glass windows, Sorenan could see the beginnings of gray at her temples and the start of age in her face. A delicate hand picked up one cup and gestured to the other on the tray as she moved to gaze out that window.
“Because my husband and I trust you, Sorenan,” she said quietly, letting the duties and role of High Priestess of Julara slip aside. Mina looked over at Sorenan. “We can speak freely here. Between the wards and the hour, we won’t be disturbed. Jorn will bring his father when the lesson is done,” she said before looking down into her cup of tea. “I prayed for you,” Mina said after a long moment, “Julara had told me you were in danger.” Sorenan sighed.
“Mina …” he started and she raised a finger, pressing it to her lips. Sorenan fell silent. They drank their tea in brooding silence. “You should know that this isn’t going to work,” he said finally in frustration, “No matter what you and Marcos do, some one is going to find out. There’ll be outcry.” Mina looked over at Sorenan.
“Do you really think we’re that naive? That we could simply hide this with silence?” she said with a smile, “Ah, Sorenan. What ever shall I do with you?” Sorenan shook his head. Mina sat down in her chair and gestured to the one at the other side of the desk. As he sat down, she continued, “There is a prophecy that speaks of three stars coming into alignment. We are those three stars. Not that planetary alignment that happened the day I became High Priestess.” Sorenan frowned. It was an old argument that he didn’t want to bring up again, thus he said nothing and sipped his tea. Mina frowned as he looked down into the cup.
“You shall see, love,” Mina said, lightly touching his left hand where it rested on the desk “I know you do not trust the Gods as I do, but it will come to pass as I have seen it.” Sorenan sighed tiredly. He suddenly felt bone weary, as though the last few weeks of effort all came together in a single moment. Mina watched his face closely. “You're tired,” she said gently, “Have you been sleeping?”
Sorenan looked up from the cup. Concern was written on her face as she looked at him in all tenderness. He thought of the bodies he saw hanging from the walls of the razed temple in the north. He looked away, unable to help the sudden rush of grief and horror. Sorenan put down the cup of tea as his imagination painted the gruesome scenario fresh again. In his mind's eye, he saw Mina's face on one of them and he choked back a sudden sob. Mina's eyes widened. “Sorenan,” she said, suddenly unsure what to do as he covered his eyes.
“They slaughtered them,” he said, unable to hide the choking horror he felt suddenly “All of them, even the girls.” Tears began to roll down his cheeks. “It was an abattoir,” he sobbed, “And the tribesmen, they were proud of it. They bragged... They bragged of how many they raped before they killed. They brought in Sisters from smaller temples and ...” His voice broke and Sorenan wept. All he could see was his lover's face on the dead and envisioning her enduring the torture that those women had borne.
Mina was shaken by the force of Sorenan's outpouring of emotion. She had not expected the hardened man to come to her, weeping with grief for what he had seen. She put her tea down and rose. As she walked around the desk, his shoulders shook as harder sobs wracked him. “Oh,” she sighed, “Oh my love. I'm sorry.” He leaned against her as she rubbed his shoulders in a soothing gesture. “I shouldn't have sent you,” she whispered.
Sorenan breathed deeply of the scent of her clothes. He wrapped his arms about her waist, comforting himself with the fact that she was real and safe. This woman that he would willingly die for was, for the moment, free from harm.