“Priestess, I am frightened.”
Lisette Derrickson’s voice was small and quiet in the sparsely furnished room. Despite her statement, she continued preparing for the ritual, removing her clothes and bathing herself in pungent oils derived from the blue, fleshy berries of juniper. She looked younger than her age of seventeen years, seated among the billowy, pale folds of cloth that she would wear. Yet Lisette was a girl by virtue only, since her breasts were full and her hips suitable for child-bearing.
Hossil Braemar, dressed in a priestess’ robes of blue and white, turned where she stood, a lit splint in one hand and a candle in the other. She stared searchingly at the girl sitting on the edge of the bed and did not answer right away.
“There is nothing to fear, Lisette,” the acolyte finally replied, lighting the candle in her hand and setting it in a small alcove. “Ol will accept you or he will not.” She blew out the splint.
“But what will become of me if I am rejected?” Lisette asked. The girl thought it easy for her teacher to be so calm. Hossil, after all, had a place in Ol’s temple; Lisette did not.
“Lisette, how long have you been in Dargon, at this temple?” Hossil asked.
“Have you seen anyone here who is not content?”
“No, but –”
“And are they all priests?”
“No, but –”
“But what, my young apprentice?”
Lisette hesitated. She wanted her answer to be rational, to sum up the logical reasons for her doubt and to make the priestess understand them. In the end, however, she could only answer, shamefaced: “I do not wish to fail.”
Hossil frowned. Stepping forward, she took a seat next to her protege. “Lisette, you cannot fail,” Hossil whispered, putting an arm around the girl’s bare shoulders. “Ol accepts you for who you are. He will ask you into his service if that is your destiny, but not every servant serves him in the priesthood. Do you understand this?”
Lisette swallowed her burgeoning tears and nodded, but in the back of her mind she could not dispel the fear of failure, and it fluttered like dark wings at the edge of her vision. She had already begun to imagine the wonders of her life as a priestess of Ol. It was not the life of the farm girl she had been.
Two bells later a man and woman carried Lisette into a dimly lit chamber, bearing her body on their shoulders like a precious relic that would shatter if dropped. She was wrapped in the fine linen from Hossil’s chambers, two stalks of the golden-flowered meilore plant grasped in each hand and crossed atop her rising and falling breasts.
Even though she saw only the ceiling, Lisette knew it as the ritual room: a grim, square enclosure large enough to hold a gathering of fifty men. The walls were black, veiled in shadow, and the only light came filtered down from a well set high in the vaulted ceiling. An altar stood in the center of the room, plain and unadorned.
Lisette tried easing her breath as the pair set her down on the altar’s uneven surface. She struggled to keep inhaling, feeling as if a great weight was pressing down upon her chest. She did not move her eyes to glance at the acolytes. She knew them to be two of the dozen she had already met, but as part of the ritual she must not acknowledge or communicate with them.
The door closed and the sound of a bolt sliding into place echoed in the room. Lisette exhaled forcefully, feeling her muscles loosen for the first time since the morning. She did not move her gaze from the skylight, its brightness stinging her almond-shaped, green eyes. She had not been allowed outside for a sennight, performing the necessary ablutions for the ritual only by candlelight or in complete darkness. The sun was a welcome, if temporarily unpleasant, visitor. The scent of the oils and the meilore lay heavily in her nostrils, causing waves of lightheadedness to pass over her. After her six months as a resident of the temple, her moment had finally come.
She lay on the stone slab for a bell, by her reckoning, but there was no way to tell for sure. She had been told when she prepared for the ceremony that this room was constructed to dampen external sounds, such as the tones of Dargon’s city bells. She waited patiently for the Touch; she prayed silently for the Touch. But all she received was the slight shifting of the light above her, dimming as the sun crept across the sky. When the altar became uncomfortable against her skin and her arms ached from holding the meilore stalks, she sat up, removed the linen, and eased herself to the floor in order to stretch.
She next paced the confines of the room, running her fingers across the rough surface of the walls. They were cool and moist beneath her hand. The oils on her body left her chilled, although the overall temperature of the room was not uncomfortable. She circled the altar a dozen times more, eventually settling in one of the room’s dark corners, leaning against the union of the two walls behind her. Her wrap lay in disarray on the stone slab, the flowers dropping their petals limply.
Lisette crouched, lowering her head into her hands. Her doubt began uncurling its dark claws. How long did the priests wait before they came back for an initiate, she wondered? Bryan, son of Rissomer, had not been gone a bell before emerging anointed. Sheirel Beiren had barely been locked into the room before they had returned for her. She didn’t know of anyone who had failed during her stay at the temple. How long before she had to face Hossil and announce her failure? Lisette had not asked to be a priestess. She had not asked to come to Ol’s temple and leave her family. But everyone said she had shown signs. She exhibited an empathy with the land in a way much deeper than the ordinary farmers of her village. She had always found it strange that a simple farmer’s daughte r like herself would be accepted into the order, but once she had been admitted … she did not like to think about how much she liked life at the temple. Would her teachers announce her failure at midday service?
Lisette shifted her feet, finding it impossible to get comfortable against the unyielding stone wall. Once admitted to the temple, she had given herself completely to the rituals and teachings of the order. She had discovered the beauty in Ol’s teachings, and the wonder in the power of his creations. She had done everything she could do to be ready for this day.
Looking around her at the emptiness of the room, at the wilting plants … she realized that it had not been enough.
Her shoulders sagged with relief. Lisette gasped, realizing the source of her fear. It opened its dark bloom to show her its heart: a part of her had been afraid of the god’s Touch. She had been scared of what Ol might ask of her. If the Touch was not going to come, she would not be forced to face Ol’s demands of her, demands that she might not be able to meet.
“No!” she said, chastising herself. This weakness shamed her. She had already sacrificed the comfort of her village, her family, and her friends to come to Dargon to join Ol’s order. She was not ready to stop trying … she would not stop trying. But what if Ol did not want her?
Lisette bit her lip. She would have to return home, humiliated, and find a husband and have her own children. She had no other skills or calling that would be useful at the temple. Wiping her eyes, she stood up and raised a spark of defiance. This would be her path. The humiliation would be brief; she would learn to live with the failure. She remembered the day when she had left her village, when everyone in the small hamlet had turned out to see her parting. As she had hugged her family, she couldn’t help but hear some of the gossips already deciding how long it would be before she returned in defeat. It would be as they had expected.
“I do not need the priesthood,” she muttered. She would make her own choices and bear the consequences. Her error had been in dreaming too big and she would not make that mistake again. Lisette could live with having a family and caring for them. She would hone new skills and perhaps, one day, Ol would choose one of her children. Yet even if he did not, she would never see her offspring as failures.
And in that moment of independence, at the point where her heart was comforted and she saw new paths opening before her, that was when she felt the Touch. It came as a shock to her: a cool, invisible finger that traced a bead of moisture between her breasts, following a trail down her torso to her navel. Then it disappeared. She inhaled sharply, shivering at the ghostly caress.
She turned around in fright and stepped back, clasping her hands to her shoulders, covering herself in the motion. “So now you come,” she murmured. “Now, when I renounce you?” In her retreat, she backed into the side of the altar.
The Touch reappeared behind her, starting at the shoulder and moving downward along her spine. Again it vanished. Lisette felt herself shudder in unexpected pleasure. She stopped moving, her thoughts of independence returning.
“I do not need your order, Ol,” she announced. For the first time since arriving at the temple, she truly felt that she didn’t need the god’s blessing, the god’s proof of her worth. She could find her own way.
Yet, despite her strong words, she wished for the Touch to return.
Slowly, she lowered her arms. When the ghost returned, it was in the form of lips that graced her neck, vaporous hands that grasped her arms and supported her. She leaned back, her long hair sweeping behind her. Soft lips, smooth and gentle, nibbled their way along her shoulder, down to the tender space between her arm and her breast. She raised her arms above and behind her, arching her back into a presence that stood before her, pressing itself back into her.
“Ol … ” she whispered.
Lisette felt herself lifted from the ground then, the hands moving to support her, raise her towards the skylight. The hand on her shoulder became an arm, embracing her; the other moved lower to support her body. That one rested on the back of her thigh, the ghostly fingers reaching beneath her.
She spun in an otherworldly embrace, light blooming around her. Lisette felt warmth flow around her and smelled the sharp, brisk scent of spring. She opened her eyes to see flowers falling from the skylight. Rose petals and daffodil sheaths, tulip leaves and peony blossoms, drifting slowly in that wondrous light, filled her head with a perfumed aroma that caused her soul to swell in her chest.
Her vision of the room blurred in the spinning, replaced by images of a forest, sunlight dappling the ground in a clearing through leaves both broad and full. Grass scents replaced the flowers; it was the thick, heavy scent of summer. Along her lower back and legs she felt the brush of a thousand stalks of grass, tickling her with their curious heads. As she smiled, a shower passed over the clearing, its beads settling on her body in a rainbow sheen. Lisette spun and the drops became streams that coursed over her. They ran along her arms and off her fingers, down her stomach and around her toes. She felt a number of them gather in the natural depressions of her body, gingerly pressing against her. They became a force that teased and touched, movements that caused her to cry in ecstasy.
When she opened her mouth, more trickles of water pressed between her opened lips, enveloping her face in their embrace. The ghost lips found their way to her breast.
Lisette nursed the world and made love to it, both at the same time. Swells of pleasure consumed her, building like an ocean breaking on the shores of a firm and yet comforting shore. She lapsed into unconsciousness with the greatest of the waves, falling into a slumber where she dreamt of the soft caresses of water.
When she awoke, she found herself on an unfamiliar beach with an unfamiliar ocean at her back. The smell of the sea was strong. She stood up slowly, discovering that she was on a narrow strip of rocky shore with the chill sea air descending on her naked body. Off in the distance a forest started, stretching to the left and right, hugging the coastline. Leaves were bright in the fiery blaze of autumn and they fell from branches of silver birch and tall oak. In imitation of the sea, the leaves tumbled like a wave along the ground, racing to meet her at the water’s edge. Ol’s Touch had disappeared, leaving a sense of yearning in its place. Lisette was propelled by her wonder at the being that created such a need. She took her first step, leaving a depression in the sand behind her.
Lisette picked her way through the rocky headland, into long and tawny grass. She parted the billowing stalks with her determined stride, passing copses of birch that huddled like old spinsters gossiping at the market. As she approached the woods, she turned her head away from a wave of fluttering leaves and tried to cover herself against the wind. It had gotten so cold so quickly. She then passed into the shadow of that mysterious wood.
Her breath started showing in a pale cloud and she shivered. She did not let the frigid land daunt her. She followed where her heart led, needing to understand the path she walked. She stepped over fallen trunks, through brush that was brown and dying. The deeper she ventured, the closer the trees grew together. The graceful birch yielded to thicker-trunked oaks and elms. She stroked their gnarled bark as she passed, their giant forms towering above her.
The leaves on these trees were gone, revealing clawed fingers that shook at a grey and clouded sky. The further she walked, the greater the landscape changed beneath her feet. The ground, once a soft bed of rotting leaves and undergrowth, became a mat of needles, ragged and littered with stones that pushed up from beneath the soft mantle. After some time, Lisette found herself climbing over boulders, as the landscape of oaks and elm gave way to clusters of spruce and fir trees amid rocky defiles. She pushed on as she sought to continue her search, the stones cold and unyielding under her hands. There were ample opportunities for Lisette to panic, she knew this, but fear did not penetrate her heart. Although she did not know where she headed, a part of her knew to travel inward and onward, yearning to explore Ol’s Touch.
Small, white mounds of snow appeared on the ground, hiding in shallow hollows and shade. They numbed her toes as she walked through them, but still she climbed. At last, the clumps of trees gave way altogether and she found herself on the bare slope of a mountain, christened in gleaming snow. The mount was not tall, but was wide and rounded, capped with a peak of rock that shrugged off snow in the wind gusts.
Just beneath the crest of the mount she came to a cave. Teeth of snow and ice rimmed its mouth, grinning. She entered it without hesitation, her teeth chattering and all feeling in her extremities gone. Lisette knew that a deeper understanding waited for her.
A labyrinth of various-sized stones and boulders greeted her, all illuminated by the diffuse light streaming in from the cave mouth. The wind was less here and Lisette felt relieved to be out of its piercing chill.
On one of the rocks perched an eagle, its predatory head watching her closely. The bird’s body, while still powerful, was thin and gaunt, speaking of a harsh survival. She wound around the boulders and came forward to stand before the creature, watching it curiously. Its beak was sharply curved, ending in a wicked point as long as her thumb. Its keen grey eyes that held an intense intelligence — and even deeper hunger — did not flinch from her probing gaze. The great bird clenched one of its barbed talons, scraping the boulder. Finally, it stretched its great wings, beating them weakly several times, and let out a feeble cry.
Lisette started hunting around her for something to feed the animal. She ventured to the back of the great cave and to its sides, peering under rocks and in the crevices that pierced the walls. There were no rats or other creatures that she could find. After a fruitless search, she returned to the eagle.
Then a thought struck her and she knew what she had to offer it.
Cautiously, she leaned forward and extended her wrist, holding it beneath the eagle’s sharp beak. The bird nipped at her skin, drawing blood. Lisette felt a burning pain, but also a deep pleasure at having found a way to help. She lifted her arm and let a thin stream dribble from the wound into the creature’s opened mouth. It swallowed feverishly for several moments, but still the blood seemed too thin and insubstantial to provide it with sustenance. It was not enough.
Lowering her arm, Lisette peered intently into the eagle’s eyes. She read its hunger and its desire, but knew that the creature would not take what was not offered. Understanding came as a warmth crawling over her body, seeming to start at her feet and work its way upwards. She realized she was not looking for more pleasure from Ol, but rather to repay him for what he had given her. She had been right. She did not need Ol now … but now he needed her.
Without further thought, she lowered herself onto the ground before the great bird, exposing her body to its hunger. The eagle swooped off its perch and landed on her thighs, the hooked talons gripping at her skin. One claw probed at the space between her legs. She was surprised at its hard, warm touch, contrasted against her own cold skin. The creature turned its head to look at her from one glossy eye. Then, quickly, it swiped its dagger-like beak across her abdomen. Skin tore and blood flowed, growing into streams that ran down her thighs. Lisette felt the blood curl around her features and into the crevices of her body, its warmth both shocking and pleasing.
There was no pain in the animal’s devouring. Lisette simply closed her eyes and said nothing — did not cry out — content to have ended Ol’s suffering.
When Lisette opened her eyes again, it was to find herself back in the ritual room of the temple, lying on the stone slab. Her wrapping was torn and slashed, barely covering her, and the stalks of meilore were crushed beneath her arms. Two acolytes stood beside her, watching intently.
She recognized them: Atil Gravik, the man with a balding pate and a thin beard encircling his mouth; Hossil, her long, blonde hair falling about her shoulders.
Lisette tried to speak but found she could not. Her throat was dry and hoarse. She licked her lips and realized they were severely chapped.
Atil leaned forward and kissed her, opening his mouth to hers, and she tasted water flow from him. Then he drew back and Hossil was in his place, kissing her and giving her more water at the same time. When Lisette had finished drinking, she smiled, and Hossil looked at her with bright eyes.
“Welcome to Ol,” the acolyte said.