Friday, March 17, 2017

Dacia's War: Departure (Part XX VI)

Al-Uzza looked at the party readying to go north. She scowled with displeasure at the glaring sunlight and the dry dusty scent in the air from the desert. Though Al-Uzza was born on the sands, she grew up in the halls of the temple proper, given to Julara as a tribute and as a way to make one less mouth to feed. She vaguely recalled her mother as a stern woman and had a dim recollection of her brothers. The black haired woman stood on the portico of the temple, waiting for the junior priestess assigned to her as secretary to arrive. The veil that Lady Al-Uzza wore was the deep blue-black of the higher ranking priestesses. A band of silver thread was woven into it on the left hand side, glistening like water in moonlight. Upon the hem where that narrow band ended at the front of the veil, there was a tassel of silver. This and the silver band marked her as the local high priestess of the district she was assigned to.

The tassel rested against her chest, winking in the light and distracting her for a moment from her bitter musings. She glanced down at it. As she set a finger against the beaded tassle, she marveled at how it felt cool to the touch despite the sun's heat. She considered her gown, of much finer fabric than what she had worn as a mere secretary, though that was also of high quality. The linen and silk fabric should have been uncomfortably warm, but it some how retained the coolness of the temple within it. Al-Uzza smoothed a hand over her shoulder when a voice behind her gave a small cough.

Al-Uzza looked over and beheld a young woman dressed in the pale grey of the acolytes who served as the keepers of lore. The woman wore a satchel of dun colored leather over her tunic, hanging on the left side. Al-Uzza knew the satchel well, for it was hers up until recently. Now, the woman standing at her left shoulder bore it and the combination of heavy books and precious writing tools. Al-Uzza's shoulder ached slightly in sympathetic memory of how the strap dug into her when she was sent to bear messages on the Empress's behalf. The young woman's hair was shorn and a grey kertchief covered the stubble. Al-Uzza gauged her companion's age as to be that of sixteen at best and shook her head with a slight look of distaste.

"Remember your vows," Al-Uzza said sternly to the acolyte as she looked forward, "Speak only when spoken to, maid. I will not tolerate frippery and foolishness. Am I clear?"

The young woman behind her answered in a voice that was quiet, almost timid sounding, "Yes, my Lady. I shall do as you command in accordance with Our Lady's will." Al-Uzza felt a measure of satisfaction with the apparent meekness of her secretary. The soldiers who had marshaled for the journey to the north had finished going over their orders. The mules and ponies that served as their beasts of burden had been loaded with their goods. A man dressed in robes the color of the burning sunset moved amongst the party. Al-Uzza frowned as he looked over at her.

Althos of the brothers militant was not a handsome man. But something about him made Al-Uzza highly suspicious of him. Perhaps it was the casual way he smiled at everyone in his party or the way his expression changed so quickly from that easy companionable smile to a look of sober consideration. His head was bald. Al-Uzza could not tell if it was because it was freshly shaven or if he was truly bald. Althos somehow managed to look rakeish in Al-Uzza's eyes, which simply meant he was not a hideous creature and was therefore suspect. He approached Al-Uzza. No smile touched his lips when he walked up to her.

"Lady Al-Uzza," his gravelly voice said, sounding jarringly harsh to her ears, "the party is ready to depart when you are. I have made sure that all beasts are well prepared and all provisions are secure." She wanted to say something stinging to him because of all the men present, it was Althos that made her uncomfortable and she wanted to diminish him somehow. She could not, however, find the words.

"Let us depart then," she said, "The sun is rising high in the sky and enough time has been wasted." Althos gave a graceful bow as he motioned Al-Uzza towards her mount. He stood at the side of the roan nag and made a step for her with his hands. Al-Uzza looked at the horse and found herself wishing that she had a block for mounting rather than the man's hands. He looked at her expectantly. With a small noise of annoyance, she set her left foot upon his hands and then moved to mount.

Though Al-Uzza was not a diminutive woman, she was surprised by how Althos aided her with out any sign of strain. She sat upon the back of the horse and looked down at the monk. He had turned away to help the acolyte upon her mount before Al-Uzza could possibly have considered he had looked at her bare ankle. He vaulted lightly into the saddle of his own horse and moved to the head of their group. Althos looked over his shoulder at the newly elevated priestess with an expectant expression.

Al-Uzza made a gesture in a forward direction. Althos arched an eyebrow. Deciding that her silent response indicated that she felt it was not necessary to invoke the blessing of the holy Yulara herself upon their journey, Althos deemed it necessary to call out to the members of the party to pray for the blessing of the Lady of Rivers on their travel through her lands. His voice was a loud, cawing cry as he shouted, "May the Mother of Life look kindly upon us and guide us in our wanderings over her green fields." The people around Al-Uzza answered with some muttered words, a few giving her uncomfortable glances as they did so.

Lady Al-Uzza could hear her clerk mumbling something indistinctly behind her. The priestess realized that she had broken some sort of taboo in failing to call for her goddess's blessing. She remained proudly silent, however, because the idea of somehow acknowledging her error was something that Al-Uzza believed would undermine her authority. Althos looked to the right. Upon a high balcony, he saw the Empress standing. He pressed his right fist to his left shoulder in a salute while bobbing his head in something that looked almost like it would have been a bow if he had been standing. Mina extended her hand in a gesture of blessing.

She watched as Al-Uzza looked up at her. For a moment, Al-Uzza's expression betrayed her loathing of her Lady. Then the party began to move and the haughty woman had to turn her attention upon keeping the horse following Althos. Mina watched as the party moved out of the temple gates. "I fear this will not end well," she sighed. A messenger scurried in the temple gates, the yellow band tied around his arm identifying him as someone coming from the black sands. Mina sighed and walked into the temple, unsure if the sense of weariness passing over her was because of her sense of foreboding about Al-Uzza, the desire to be done with the matters of war, or the fact that her sleep had been troubled the night before.

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