Swallowing the lump in her throat, Etain followed the priestess through the doors into a small, dim room. It was indicated that she should sit in the plain, high backed chair in the room, so she perched nervously, folding her hands in her lap to keep them from shaking. Etain glanced around. There was a brazier with glowing coals in the corner of the room. A small cushion was placed next to it, and the priestess sat cross legged upon it. Taking a handful of herbs from a small dish, the priestess intoned, "open your mind, child. Be not afraid."
Smiling at Etain, the priestess sprinkled the herbs onto the coals. A sickly sweet smell rose from the brazier, filling the room with a bluish smoke. Etain closed her eyes and took a deep breath, almost choking the air into her lungs. Suddenly, she was falling, though she had not left the chair, Etain felt as though she would fall forever through the strange blue haze filling her conscious. Suddenly, there was a spark in her mind, a spark that gasped and guttered, then flared suddenly into a searing flame. Just as suddenly, it was gone, leaving Etain gasping, down on hands and knees before the chair, stomach roiling and threatening to revolt. Her hair fell around her face, strands sticking to her sweaty cheeks. The brazier was out, and the priestess was kneeling by her side. Concern was evident in the priestess' eyes as Etain stirred, but as soon as the girl managed to lift her head and look at the woman, a smile broke over her face. "Congratulations, chosen. Come, let us go forward."
Etain's head was still swimming, but she managed to stand, allowing the priestess to take her hands as before and lead her through a small door beside the brazier. Here there was a steaming tub of water, and two acolytes, who undressed her and bathed her, rubbing sweet oils into her skin and hair. Etain rose from the tub, dripping, and an acolyte wrapped a towel around her body while the other ran a comb through her hair. She felt her hair being pulled back and braided as she was wordlessly directed to don garments made of plain, undyed fabrics. The natural fibers of the robe itched at her skin as she pulled it up over her shoulders.
As Etain was dressing, the priestess explained, "the fabric is undyed to represent potential. Each god and goddess has their own color their chosen wear, therefore you will wear undyed fabrics until one lays their hand on you. Each god will mark their chosen in a different way when they are selected. You will reside in the divine district until you have been chosen and completed the training the god's priests will give you. After that, your activities are the whim of your god. You have been picked to be an instrument for them. You will change things, lead people, create success for our land. Now, let us go once more, we will inform your parents, Merchants' daughter. They will surely be pleased."
The priestess of Sandor lead Etain down a long hallway, and opened the door into a small sitting room, indicating Etain should go before her. The girl heard a small cry, and suddenly smelled her mother's perfume as she was wrapped in a tight embrace. Dimly, Etain was aware that the door had shut behind her, and the priestess had left them alone to visit with each other. While the girl was glad of the privacy, she much would have preferred the priestess' calming presence in the room with her, especially while dealing with her parents.
"I'm proud of you, girl," Alric rumbled. "I truly am. To have another gods chosen in our line surely will bring glory to our family." Alric's father had been a gods chosen, and it was he who had brought the Merchant's Guild to the high ranking position it was in today.
"Bridgeta will look after you, child," her mother said, tears welling in her eyes. "Do not forget where you have come from while you are in the divine district."
Her mother released her from the tight embrace, and the three lapsed into a slightly uncomfortable silence. The gods test marked Etain's passage into adulthood, and it was obvious that her parents did not know how they should treat her. Obviously searching for something to occupy her hands, Etain's mother poured tea from the steaming pot that had been left on a warmer on the side table. Etain accepted the cup from her mother and sipped at the herbal brew, glad of something to moisten her suddenly dry throat.
Etain and her parents continued making polite small talk. She asked of her father's trading season, and his plans for the next routes and the next investments he would make. As Alric settled into his rumbling gait of conversation, Etain heard a polite knock on the door. She answered the it, finding the priestess standing there, smiling. "Are you ready, young chosen? You can come with me down to the courtyard now, if you like. Say goodbye to your mother and father. You will see them later." Etain bade her parents goodbye, and, breathing a sigh of relief internally, followed the priestess out of the door and into the hallway.
As Etain and the priestess descended the stone stairs into the courtyard, she glanced around. Of the roughly five hundred teenagers who had come of age this year, she saw very few of the tan-gray undyed robes among the varying colors of yellow robes of Sandor's priests. She joined the throng that was mingling underneath the large pear tree in the center of the courtyard. Its' branches hung low with golden, ripe fruit, and Etain looked up in wonder through the branches. The skies began to darken, and large, fat raindrops began to fall on the chosen children.
On any day but today, rain would have been regarded as an ill omen for a religious event, but the rain that fell on the young adults today symbolized purity and potential, the heavens themselves anointing the group. Every once in a while, one of the doors leading out into the courtyard would open, and another saffron clad priest would bring a surprised, slightly stunned teenager out to join their peers. Etain watched them carefully, marking the children of different guilds. Shortly, one very familiar figure was lead out, gray tunic just barely big enough to accommodate his broad shoulders, dark hair still wet from the bathing. Etain couldn't contain her smile as Rance shook his head, obviously trying to clear it of the incense that the priests had burned. He lifted his head, looking around, and immediately made his way to Etain. "You too, chickadee?"
"Me too, you great oaf. I'm so glad you are here with me!"
"I never would have dreamed this when we were kids, would you?"
Etain and Rance, while being from different guilds, had been allowed to play together and formed a fast friendship after meeting at a midwinter party when they were children. Few guilds rivaled the Merchant Guild in power in Norborough, but Rance's family, the leaders of the artisans' guild, came close. Etain still would not have been allowed to keep Rance's friendship if he had not been the leader's son, however, Alric had profited on his daughter's choice of friends, as the Nantale family had contracted exclusively through his guild for their trading needs.
Etain hugged her friend. "We're in this together, right?" she whispered into his shoulder, still a bit afraid to be alone in this new, strange time.
"Of course we are, chickadee. Of course we are."
The priests lead them to the tall dormitory at the back of the courtyard. All told, there were thirty five of the teenagers left, less than ten percent of those that had been tested. Etain's priestess explained to her, "You will sleep here until you have been chosen by a god. Most initiates are chosen at night, and sometimes they are not aware that they have been called until they find themselves in their god's temple the next morning. I will warn you, the streets of the divine district are not any more safe than the streets in Norborough proper at night. Once the sun has passed behind our walls, at times, there seems to be a dark force at play. You must take great caution on the streets. I cannot make it any more clear than that. Some have called the passage from the dormitory to your god's temple the first test that the chosen must undergo. I do not believe this, but what I do know is that you each are very important to the future of our country, and losing any of you would be a shame. Tonight, we will have a feast for all of you prepared in our hall, then you will all sleep on the first floor of this dormitory. I do advise you lock your doors at night, if a god lays their hand on you at night, you will find your way out, have no fear of this. The main temple of each of our gods is within the district, all centered around the fountain square. Each temple has a dormitory like this one, and will train you in the way of the god who chooses you."
The teenagers were lead into a hall where there were long tables laden with food. "Please, sit and eat," they were told by the priests, "tonight, this is in your honor." Rance kept Etain close as they took their places at one of the tables.
"You doing okay, chickadee?"
Etain smiled at him and nodded, filling her plate with the simple, yet delicious food that the priests had prepared for them. The teenagers talked amongst themselves as they ate, introducing themselves to the peers that they had not yet met.
A swarm of acolytes entered the hall, clearing away dishes and place settings as the priests ushered the chosen to the main hall in the dormitory. Each teenager was given a small pouch of incense.
"There are undedicated altars in each of your rooms, you may burn an offering each night if you choose. Whether or not you dedicate the offering to a god is your business, as is which god you choose. We will watch over your rooms at night. You will spend your mornings in general lessons on the realm and theology, your afternoons are yours to do with as you choose, but you may not venture out of the divine district. Is this understood?"
The group murmured an assent, and all were shown to their rooms. Etain locked the door behind herself and looked around. There was a small stand with a washbasin and a pitcher, and a wardrobe containing more of the same undyed clothes that she was wearing. The altar, was, as promised, in the north of the room. It was a rough-hewn wood, but Etain thought it was a place closer to the gods than her personal altar at home ever had been. Changing into a shift, Etain knelt before the altar and lit a cone of incense, obeying her father's wishes and whispering a prayer to Bridgeta, taking a small bit of solace in the familiarity of the words she mouthed. Laying down on the pallet as the incense burned itself out, she blew out the lamp and pulled a blanket up over her head.
For a long while, Etain was unable to sleep that night, and so she listened to the regular footsteps down the hall, acolytes and priests walking lonely shifts. She thought she smelled sweet herbs similar to what had been burned during the gods test, but she could not be certain. Eventually, Etain drifted off to sleep, and was startled out of her doze by a knock on her door the next morning as all the teenagers were roused for breakfast and morning devotions. They all knelt in the great hall together as the bells rang out over the city, Etain counting her peers through lowered lashes as she spoke the names of the gods. There were still thirty five left in the hall, no one had been chosen by a god in the night. Not a few of her friends had dark circles under their eyes it seemed that none of them had slept well in the unfamiliar circumstances. The lessons prescribed by the priests began with the basics that each of them had learned with their respective guilds and families- the history of the realm and the city, and the foundation of each god's favored guild. After a simple midday meal, as promised, they were allowed to do what they wanted with themselves. Etain and Rance found themselves engaged in a game of chess, the two friends desperate for something familiar with which to distract themselves.
"Check" Etain threatened, moving her rook into place.
Rance chuckled and easily took her rook with a knight that Etain had forgotten was even on the board. "Think again."
Etain growled under her breath, and was quickly outmaneuvered by Rance's remaining pieces. Eventually, Rance let out a triumphal, "checkmate!"
Glancing around desperately for a way out of the situation, Etain saw none and, acknowledging her defeat, tipped her king over onto the board. Rance's gleeful smile faded, and he looked at Etain curiously.
"You should have completely dominated me there after that early check, Etain. Is something wrong?"
Sighing, she shook her head, bringing her feet up onto the chair and wrapping her arms around her knees.
"Yes there is, chickadee. Don't lie to me, you know I can tell."
"It's just all so strange here. Everything is so different from home- some of it is in a good way, but I don't even know why I'm here. I passed some sort of test and I don't even know what I did or how I did it, and now I'm at the whim of whichever god wants me!" Etain laid her head on her knees, tears welling in her eyes.
Rance put two fingers under her chin and made Etain look into his eyes. "You're here because you are something special. Do not ever stop believing it. I know it sounds corny, but it's the truth."
Etain couldn't stop her giggles, and she swatted at Rance's hand. "You're just playing me like you do with all the girls. Don't think I don't know your patterns, Rance Nantale."
Still, Etain's mood was lightened, and she and Rance continued playing chess until the evening bell that called them to their devotions and dinner. Going to bed that night, Etain resolved to herself that she would not dedicate the offerings she burned any longer, she would leave it to the whim of the gods. If they wanted her, they could call her. As the incense burned out, Etain's head touched the pillow, and she was asleep.