My fingers pried the folio apart, sending up dust motes which spun in a thin finger of sunset. The gentle light illuminated the long, high-ceilinged library with its crammed shelves and musty smell. The day was nearly over, and I had missed my chance to sun myself by the banks of the brook. I pretended to peer at the volume but my mind was elsewhere; what could be so important that the Priestess would pluck us from our duties to search for it; what could some dry old history of Moritani architecture contain?
By now my fingers were coated with soft grey dust and my nose itched. I took up a handkerchief and began to clean my hands. I heard the soft voice of the librarian Sister as she directed the others to pack scrolls and books away and retire for the day, but I gave the title of the folio a glance. It had been half-concealed underneath a wooden window seat, under a stack of ancient accounts.
"Moritani buildings at the turn of the century."
I'd have to check it: We'd been ordered specifically to search for books on Moritani structures. It smelt of mildew, time and dead insects. But when I turned the first page, a loose scroll came away in my hand. This paper was thin and white. Newer than the rest of the folio. I unrolled it gently and read the first lines, tracing the tiny letters with my fingertip.
"May this fire be contained,
these words to lock;
Karak Na Grei, Forun La Olomonis"
I frowned. What kind of nonsense was this? It sounded suspicious and subversive, the kind of thing that could get the Temple into trouble. I looked up: the Sisters were still packing up, some clustered talking in the doorway. The distant scent of the evening meal drifted in and mingled with the old-book smell. Temple life went on as always, regardless of what I did. I smiled and returned to the scroll.
This is my key,
to read in my tongue;
Karak Na Grei, Forun La Olomonis.
May my spell be unlocked and my spirit freed;
Karak Na Grei, Forun La Olomonis."
The paper burst into flames.
A sharp, fast pain wrenched at my hands and I dropped the thin sheet; the unnatural fire was too bright and blinded me; I cried out. Dazzling heat subsumed me. Through my panic and fear I smelt burning and heard shrieks from the Sisters of Wevc.
But the voices calmed to soothing, cooing wonderment and the dazzling pain gave way to the twilight streaming through the library windows and illuminating the soft shapes of the Sisters. My vision cleared and my head thrummed with a rhythmic, dull agony and I saw that instead of the paper, there was a pile of delicate ashes on the table in front of me. Several sisters talked of the Priestess and left, taking the librarian with them.
I swallowed a frightened sob. The remaining women hurried me away to the healing Sister while my head beat out a percussion of pain. Moritani buildings at the turn of the century lay forgotten.
Sobbing in fear, I let the panicking sisters draw me to the infirmary in a flurry of tears and noise and speculation. The healing Sister was more pragmatic. Once she had listened to my confused explanation she picked up a small lense and began to examine my eyes.
"I can't see anything wrong with you, Amber."
"The paper... just burnt, Sister, and it burnt me. It hurt-"
"What you mistake for pain was just shock, young lady. You are unharmed, unmarked by any fire-" She said, pulling apart my eyelids and gazing into my eyes. Her own were blue and pouchy, nestled in wrinkles.
"I know what I felt!" I said. "I was burning! And anyway, how do you explain the parchment? It burnt right to ashes!"
The Sister frowned and moved back.
"There are many old books in the temple library and all come from disparate sources. Some must have been owned by readers more illustrious than our own Sisters, the kind of readers that could have also collected strange potions and powers; the kind of readers that the Moritani would have you hanged for consorting with."
"Magic?" I whispered, but she glanced towards the open window and shook her head.
"Best not to speak of such things. The Moritani would like to shut us down as it is. If they think there are magical scrolls in the library that will only give them an excuse."
I couldn't resist an involuntary shudder. The Moritani had banned magic when the first conquered Hetges, some years before I was born; it wouldn't take much for them to find the Temple guilty of sorcery. I tried to shove the unease at this thought away, but it sank to the bottom of my stomach and lay there heavily.
I was given a few spoonfuls of a bitter concoction to calm my headache, and told to avoid bright sunlight for a few days. I was sighing and wiping my face with my sleeve when the Priestess arrived, her face red from exertion. She was a tall, strong woman with finely-shaped bones in her face. Everyone was in some awe of her.
"Amber Clay, I must speak with you. All of you- out!"
The healer just smiled in response and departed. The Priestess was able to turn her full glare to me.
I shrank back towards the workbench when she began to speak.
"Novice Clay, I've heard some strange reports from my women. I must hear the full story from you."
She watched me in silence while I told her, then said finally, "all right. You've had a strange ordeal and no doubt the shock has compounded the matter. Sister healer is correct in her assumptions of explosive powers—such things have been known. You may retire early today—you will be back to normal on the morrow. However..." here she hesitated, and I took a deep breath and watched her. A flash of worry passed over her face, but it was quickly replaced with the usual stern calm.
"However, Novice Clay, I am going to ask you to keep this to yourself. If anyone asks you, there was a small accident involving a candle, but no one was harmed- you were merely shocked."
She looked at me expectantly, and I nodded.
"Yes, Priestess," the words came out as a cracked whisper, but she seemed to relax a little. I continued, "What about the book on architecture you wanted? Should I-"
She shook her head with a sharp jerk. "I'm calling off the search now. You should go and get some sleep and forget about this whole business."
I tired to heed her advice and only lingered for a short time at the Temple heart-stone I touched the pink-veined marble and asked gentle Wevc for no more burning scrolls. The great heart chamber was cool and echoed with the calming music of the fountains; I tried to let the peace of the vast stone room sooth me. I glanced up at Wevc's fat smiling face, his image in statue form on the wall. The face of the god was kind and surely promised only peace and comfort.
I collected my candle and turned into my rough pallet early, before any of the other Sisters had left their studies and prayers. I was glad when I could put out the little flame, feeling as if I could now extinguish my unease left over from the unexpected magical flames of the afternoon. The dormitory was dark and quiet and still, but sleep arrived broken and nightmarish.
Darkness. Smothering darkness, not enough air- where am I? I have seen no living person for months, now. No. There is a light outside, a lamp. I fling myself towards it, but I am buffeted by the soft walls of my cell. The narrow window is too high to reach, but I don't care. I am awake!
"Treon!" I scream, my voice dry and croaking. "I'm awake- I always said you wouldn't be able to keep me silent forever! Treeeeeon!" I leap backwards into a contortion of a somersault and land on the yielding, padded floor. My heart beats as fast as a small animal's and my limbs shake uncontrollably. The lamp light in the corridor passes- footsteps hurry away, and I toss and turn and writhe alone and in the darkness. The madness passes and I open my eyes. There is someone else here with me, not in the cell but in my mind. I sit up and stop shaking, staring into the heart of the other. The other is a woman; young; and far away in some ancient stone hall, surrounded by forest. I smile.
"You. You found the key! You're with me now. I won't be alone." I claw at my face with rage and joy and confusion, until the blood runs into my matted beard and I laugh and laugh and laugh...
I sat up straight in fear, my heart pounding, and I was in darkness, too. But soon I could make out the slivers of moonlight through gaps in the shutters, enough to show me the still shapes of the other novices on their pallets, and I could hear their gentle snores. My breathing slowed and I lay down again, snuggling into my blankets and praying silently to Wevc for no more strange nightmares of imprisoned, laughing men.
When I was called to the Priestesses' office the next afternoon I was worried that she had more to say to me, but it was only that my brother had come to see me. The fact of a visitor was a lucky thing for me, otherwise the Priestess would have taken the opportunity to berate me for lazing all day. As it was, she settled for staring very sharply at me before sweeping imperiously away. Of course she was probably listening at the door.
"I thought you were off on another job," I said, watching Caspar pick at his fingernails. He was sitting crammed into one of the Priestesses' spindly carved chairs. He almost looked like he was ready to leave at that moment; he was dressed in his scruffy assortment of leather armour, his sword was at his side, and a bulging kit bag was shoved under the chair.
"I'm leaving this afternoon. Right after I've spoken to you, in fact," he said. I noticed he was giving me an odd look; his expression a little nervy.
"You've got some bad news for me, haven't you," I said. "Don't bother lying-"
"I wasn't going to lie to you. Amber, you're not going to like it, but I'm leaving Klok. You could say I've stirred up a dragon's nest or two of trouble-"
"I know. I've heard the gossip. You should stay away from the taverns, then you wouldn't get into trouble," I said.
"Thanks for the advice, but it's too late. I'm going to Stronghold-"
"Stronghold!" I cried. "But that's- oh, more than two weeks ride away- and everyone says it's a cold, desolate, rough place- why in Hetges go there?"
He sighed. "I knew you'd be like this. Overreacting."
"Wevc!" I snarled.
He looked round furtively. "Don't blaspheme. I expect the Priestess is eavesdropping!" he hissed.
I shrugged. "I don't care."
"Look, Amber, I have to go. I'm in trouble here, and not doing well at making ends meet. I'm going to Stronghold- I've had an offer of work there, as a guard- a proper guardsman's job."
"You could get better, you know. You're a good fighter, and educated too-" I said, crossly.
"The educated bit is sketchy, everyone knows that. I just don't have the brain for that kind of thing. Look," he said again, slowly. "After a few years I should be able to get settled there. Get a decent place to live. I'll send for you-"
"What, I'll leave Klok?" I demanded.
He smiled. "Isn't that what you've always wanted to do? You hate the gossips and the blockheads here as much as I do. And do you really want to spend the rest of your life rotting away in this hag-house?"
I narrowed my eyes at him. "But how long? You'd better reply to my letters."
"I won't have an address for a while," he said. "As I said, I need time to get settled. I'm going to be working as a guard for the miners in the hills above the city at first, and it'll be at least a year or two of traveling about the hills before I can work my way into a better position."
"How long?" I repeated. Caspar was always vague on time-frames and unreliable on them too.
"I really don't know. Within three years. I'll try and get messages out to you when I can, but until I get settled, this is goodbye," he said.
I looked at him sadly. There were deep lines on his face and the brown hair on his temples was sparse. I fingered my own light brown hair sadly, trying to meet his eyes which were just as blue as my own. I realized he wasn't the boy who I had grown up with anymore. He was growing up himself, at last, and wanted to make a real life. Soon there would be plenty of lines on my own face too, as I mouldered away in the temple. I hugged him miserably then left him at the gate of the cloisters, watching him stroll away through the woods, back towards Klok and the Moritani road. Soon he had disappeared and I was biting my lip hard to keep back tears of loneliness and fury.
The promise of leaving Klok was tantalizing, even for the wilds of Strongold. But Stronghold was a new place and a chance for freedom. I would never be free in the Temple. I'd been here three years now, since my great aunt had died, and sometimes I worried I was beginning to forget what real freedom was like. It had been five years since I'd lost my parents to a plague. Six since I'd been happy. I wandered morosely back into the cloisters, skirting the court-yard garden. When I was just a child, Caspar had begun teaching me how to fight with a toy wooden sword. Memories of laugher and speed and bruises and more laughter echoed in some distant part of my mind. I pushed them away before my sadness showed itself to the acolytes and novices quietly reading on the benches around the fountain.
I turned from the tantalizing rustle of the forest beyond the gate and sighed. The afternoon light was gentle in the gardens, nurturing the flowers and warming the faces of the basking Sisters. Why couldn't I feel that peace too? Something wild in the wind and whispering trees always made me restless.
I scowled and halted my slow progress. One of the acolytes, Sister Morni, was waddling towards me, her fat, slightly hairy face preoccupied. She trod over a border of herbs forgetfully and released a pungent scent.
"We've travelers in the refectory. I need your help in the kitchens, come on, girl!" She smoothed down her blue robe and turned towards the service wing.
I mentally cursed the Temple's vows of hospitality as I scuttled after her. As the most junior novice in the enclave I was always called on to fulfill menial tasks like this.
Despite my annoyance, I couldn't suppress a little curiosity for the travelers as we passed them. Klok was at the end of the Moritani road. Beyond it was just forest, and after that, mountains. Travelers were rare.
They were seated at one of the long, rough wooden tables in the refectory. From the set of their shoulders and their dazed expressions I could see that they were weary. Both of them had worn jackets and scuffed shoes. Likely they had come a long way, but from where? Perhaps from Stronghold, or Maresvin? One was younger than me, barely more than a boy, a slender young man with soft, curling blond hair. He scratched at the bridge of his rounded nose. I saw him mutter something to the other traveler, but couldn't hear either the question or the response. The other man was a few years older. Where the boy was fair and slender, this man was strongly built and grim and dark. His face was hard but I thought I caught an air of unease in it, and veiled anxiety as he glanced at his companion beside him, but then his eyes shifted and he looked up, straight into mine. They were black and curious. I flashed a brief smile and looked down at my shoes.
"Amber! The potatoes won't peel themselves, you lazy girl!" called Morni. I turned my attention away from the interesting guests and slouched into the kitchen, picking up my knife and starting work on the potatoes with a groan.
Later, tired and sweaty from the heat and labour of the kitchen, I ate my own dinner. I sat just close enough to the visitors to eavesdrop on their conversation but far enough away that Morni and the other Sisters, eating their own meal in a reverent silence, wouldn't reprimand me for my ill-mannered curiosity. Both looked ravenous; the younger of the two was shoving food into his mouth, almost in a frenzy, and now I noticed how worn their clothes were, and unkempt their hair. Their purses had seen better days. No wonder they took charity with the Sisters. The man was eating more slowly, savouring each mouthful just as hungrily as the boy bolted his. Again the man must have noticed my eyes on them.
"Mind your manners, Kridko," he said, sharply, elbowing his companion. "We're not alone. Good evening, Sister," he said to me..
I wondered if I should not have watched them, but I replied, "Good evening, sir. But I'm no Sister, not yet, anyway. Have you come far in your travels?"
"Too far. And with too little food-" began the boy, swallowing his mouthful hastily.
The man glared at him. "Kridko forgets his manners- but our food supplies were indeed growing scarce. We're grateful for this meal, madam."
"And where did you travel from?" I probed.
"Amber," came a warning from Morni beside me. The man did not attempt to reply, and I concentrated on my plate, crossly. I couldn't even make conversation with a stranger to relive the dullness of my life. Oh, I knew I was lucky enough that before she died my aunt had arranged for me to join the Sisters, leaving the requisite dowry to them in her will. My parents had died in debt, taken by the burning-fever; I could easily have ended up working as a tavern girl, or worse.
My thoughts were still bleak when I lay down to sleep, on my narrow hard pallet in the dormitory. The other novice, a plump, simple-minded girl from the countryside, was snoring heavily next to me. The sound thundered off the high vaulted stone ceiling. I groaned and tossed and turned about on my mattress.
I woke with a yelp to the uncomfortable shock of being shaken. Sister Morni was bending over me, clutching a candle. A drop of tallow fell onto my hand and I almost yelped again, but she hissed at me, a haggard, worried shape in the dense darkness.
"Shhh! Get dressed and follow me. There's no time for questions."