The Dark Priestess
Man does not deserve the light. It is given to them by the Gods through the Priestess. And on the fifth cycle of the orange sun, the Chosen will cross the threshold into everlasting darkness and the gift of light will be renewed. If the Chosen fail, the suns will be lost to the world.
My world is bright. It's beautiful. It's free. And I hate it.
"If someone sees you playing with that…"
Sliding my fingers over the ridges in the wooden pole in front of me, I turn with my sword leaning over my shoulder. "I'm not playing, Esther."
Sighing, Esther steps forward holding a pail in each of her hands. "For a woman…"
"Stop it," I say. "You're better than that."
"I'm not, Gwynevere, and neither are you."
"I'm not having this argument with you again," I say before lowering my sword and walking past her. I miss the old Esther. The one from five years ago.
"Are you coming today?" she says stiffly.
"Yes, Esther," I say. "I'm coming."
"Are you going to behave?" she asks, wrapping her hand around my wrist. I look up into her soft, hazel eyes. I blink staring into them. It always surprises me how much she looks like her sister. I never really noticed it before.
My lips curl up into a small smirk. "Always."
She sighs heavily and gives me an incredulous look. "Not today, Gwyn, please."
Nodding to appease her, I turn away and head around to the front of the small farmhouse. She lets me go. On my way, I stop by Nessie's pen. When she sees me, her little tail starts wagging fiercely. Smiling, I bend over to pat her on the top of her head.
"The pig and the horse are the only things that get you to smile," a familiar voice says.
Closing my eyes, I bite my lip trying to calm myself down. It's hard pretending you don't hate someone. "Shouldn't you already be in the city, Noah?" I ask without looking at him.
Nessie sniffs the air, I touch her nose, and she makes a happy squeal, but my smile is gone by the time I look at Noah. He's leaning against the pig's pen with an annoying smirk on his face.
"I'm here to escort you and Esther," he says casually, but I catch a glimpse of something else in his face. His dark blue eyes stare down at me as he lifts an eyebrow. "Is that a problem?"
"We don't need an escort, Noah."
He eyes the sword that dangles from the sheath at my waist. Rubbing my hands on my plain brown dress, I lean against the pen to glare at him. He's never been supportive of my…hobby.
"You know you can't bring that, Gwyn," he says.
"And why not?"
"Because they will kill you for it," he snaps, suddenly angry.
"Don't you mean, you'll kill me for it?" I say before glancing at the uniform he's wearing. Dark grey cloth with a black belt. Three suns in different shades of silver overlap and glisten on his chest. I've always thought it was weird that the King's Guard wears that Priestess' symbol and not the king's.
"We all play our parts," he says simply before stepping away from the pen. Running his hand through his thick hair, he meets my eyes. "I know this time won't be easy for you—"
"It'll be easier than last time," I say.
He smiles, but it isn't real. "Rayna accepted her fate. Why can't you?"
I scoff and my eyes narrow into angry slits. "Because it isn't right."
"And the alternative is better?" he snaps, taking a step toward me.
"If you believe in the alternative."
His eyes widen and he shakes his head. "Don't play with fate, Gwyn. You'll lose. We're leaving in ten minutes. Be ready."
With the suns beating down on us, Noah walks away from me with his hand on the hilt of his long sword. I watch him go and my eyes stay on his sword before glancing at my old, rusty one. Sighing, I hurry to the stables. Daphne nays the moment she sees me.
"Hey, girl," I say softly. "Wanna go for a ride?"
Stroking her thick black mane, the horse rears up and whimpers happily. Guiding her from the stall and out of the stable, I double check that my sword is secure in the sheath on her back before swinging my leg over her.
I'm only settled for a second before I hear them calling my name. Glancing over my shoulder, I see Esther and Noah rushing toward me.
Squeezing my legs together, Daphne takes off in a gallop as I call over my shoulder, "I'll meet you there!"
I hear Noah swear under his breath. Esther calls after me one more time and her voice is almost pleading. I wonder if they suspect something.
The suns are hot and the sky is an annoying blue. The red sun is almost at its apex. The yellow sun glints in the distance with the orange just starting to rise. We pass a few neighbors all traveling on the only road that leads to the city. As the road gets more congested, I slow Daphne down to a walk.
A young man and woman rush toward us. Brother and sister. Twins. Green eyes and dark brown hair. Madeline strokes Daphne's neck as Bennet stares up at me with comprehension.
"Don't," I say calmly before glancing around us. "Not yet."
"Will it work?" he asks, and I nod.
"It has to, Ben," Madeline says softly.
"Fall back now," I order, "and meet at nightfall at the Crow's Tavern. I'll be checking in with everyone. Just remember your part and everything will be fine."
"What if we succeed?" Ben asks.
"We will," I say, ignoring his real question. Tightening my grip on Daphne, I scan the faces of the people around us. Everyone is smiling, happy, calm. They don't have a care in the world. There are only five families— well, four this year— in all of the kingdom that have a reason to be sad today. The rest can continue to enjoy the wonderfully bright suns and blinding light. Tilting my head up, I glare into the midday sun. I only look away when I feel a hand on my leg.
Madeline smiles at me before pushing her long curly hair out of her face. "You need to talk with Tikon," she says quietly. "He was…he was being weird yesterday, saying things. I think he's having second thoughts."
Of course, Tikon is. I should have known better than to include him in this. "I'll handle it, Maddie," I say. "Now, you two go."
They both nod and hurry back to where their families are. I try to still my trembling fingers. Everything will be fine. It'll be okay. It has to be.
An hour later, I start eavesdropping on the people walking beside me. A middle age man and what looks like his daughter. He's holding her hand tightly, and I wonder if he's feeling lucky that he's still able to do that.
"Who was Chosen this year?" he asks, tilting his head.
"Oh, there was the brother and sister from Twistpool," she says wistfully. Clenching my teeth together, I try not to say anything. It's bad enough to have someone you know Chosen, but to have two people?
"And then there was that mother from across the Marsh, right?" he adds, and his daughter nods.
"Oh! Oh!" she exclaims. "The old medicine man from one of the outlying villages."
The father laughs lightly. "Right. Seems like an odd pick. I can't see anyone from an outlying village being worthy. Who's the fifth, honey?"
Both their faces scrunch up thinking, and I can't keep the horror off of mine. "I can't remember," the girl says, and her father shrugs.
"Tommes," I say, and they look up at me as I stroke Daphne. "The five year old boy from the royal house."
"Right," the man says, snapping his fingers at me. "Thanks."
Rolling my eyes, I squeeze my thighs and Daphne moves quickly around the family in front of us and gallops for a bit on the side of the road. When I spot Katherin, we come to a stop quickly. I wave and she hurries over to me, maneuvering around all the people on the road.
"We have a problem," she whispers.
"I was afraid of that," I say and hop off of Daphne. Holding her reins in my hands, I step closer to Katherin.
"I've checked in with Dales, Cherisa, Palis, and Tikon," she says. "I haven't seen Josephine or the twins."
"I saw the twins," I say, glancing around to make sure no one is listening. "Is the problem Tikon?"
She nods. "Dales saw him talking with Noah early this morning."
"Noah?" I say, shaking my head. "I saw him before I left. He and Esther both seemed on edge."
"Tikon probably wouldn't name us," she says. She pauses to bite her thumb nail and I grab her hand. The look on her face gets my heart to beat faster. "But he could have told Noah what we are planning on doing."
"No," I say, trying to think of anything that would calm her down. "Tikon is indecisive. He would have told Noah to meet him somewhere in the city so he could think about what he wants to do on the way there. What is Tikon worrying about? Is he afraid we will get caught?"
Katherin closes her eyes and sighs loudly. A couple of people glance over at us and I have to force myself to smile at them.
"What?" I ask.
"You do realize you are the only one of us that is completely sure that nothing will happen," she says softly. She smiles tenderly and I look away. "There's a small part of all of us that are afraid."
"You know what!" she hisses.
"Come on," I say. "Don't be ridiculous. It's just a legend."
"How do you know?"
"I just do," I say a little more harshly than I intended.
I hold my hand up to block the strong rays of the red sun. Sweat tinkles down my back and I try to take a slow breath. We can't start freaking out now. We haven't even reached the city yet. Rubbing my forehead, I meet Katherin's soft brown eyes. Her blonde curls stick to her forehead. For the first time since we decided to go through with this, I see just how scared she is.
"Gwyn," she says softly, voice low. I take her hand in mine.
"It's a legend," I say. "Darkness won't come. Think about Anne."
A ghost of a smile touches her face, and I feel bad about bringing up her sister. I do, but I can't let doubt sink in now, because once it does, I'll never be able to get it out. This is happening today. I am not waiting another five years for more innocent people to give their lives for nothing.
We both look up, startled. Tikon walks slowly toward us. His white baggy shirt is untucked and dirty. His lip is bleeding and swollen. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he places his other hand on my shoulder.
"What happened?" Katherin asks. "Are you okay?"
"I need to talk to you, Gwyn," he says. "Now."
Handing Daphne's reins to Katherin, I step away from her and her rambling questions to follow Tikon off the path and down the hill. He walks until we get to the small creak that runs parallel with the path. He stops in front of it, staring down into its clear waters.
I don't miss how twitchy he is, and I regret again allowing him to be a part of this. I thought everyone in our group felt the same way about the legend. I guess I was wrong.
"Tikon, what's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, Gwyn," he says, turning to face me. His eyes are wide. For some reason, the look on his face makes my heart beat faster. The light breeze around us shifts and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end.
"What have you done?" I ask. My hand goes to the belt around my dress and freezes when I realize my sword is still with Daphne. I lift my arms slowly in a defensive manner. Something isn't right. Meeting Tikon's eyes, I see what I should have been looking for this whole time. He isn't waiting until we get to the city. He must have already made a deal with the King's Guard. I hear the soft chime of amour coming over the wind and my eyes narrow on Tikon.
"What did you tell them, Tikon?" I say.
"I'm sorry," he says again just as he pulls a small dagger from his belt. "The more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't want my sister's death to be in vain, Gywn. Think about Rayna, Gywn. Both of them died so that we could live on in this world. They died so we could be happy and free."
"Do you hear what you are saying?" I yell. "She was sacrificed, Tikon! Murdered!"
"So we could live!" he screams. Taking a step forward, he raises his dagger. It's small, sharp and has the Priestess' orange sun carved into its hilt. Tikon clearly has made a deal with the King's men.
"You don't know that," I say, trying to calm myself down.
"You don't know either," he spits. "If the world falls, then my sister died for nothing."
"And what, Tikon? You're going to kill me?" I ask quietly. There's a splash and the sudden sound of hooves over the air. Behind Tikon three men on horses appear over the small hill and race toward us.
"I'll be forgiven," he says, "if I take out the leader."
"Me," I say, and he nods. Then he lunges toward me, and I'm still in shock that he'd actually make this move. Stumbling backwards, I just barely catch my balance before he takes another swipe at me. His blade skims my left arm and I jump to the side. When he next swing misses, I grab his arm and twist. He doesn't let go of the dagger like I'd hoped. Instead, I end up twisting his wrist so the point of the blade is aimed at him. His eyes go wide.
"You didn't think this through," I say, holding the dagger steady. "You know Rayna's father trained me."
"Don't," he breathes hastily. "Please, Gwyn."
"I'm sorry," I say just as the tip touches his chest. He cries out. "But I can't risk you giving the others away."
"I won't—" The blade slides into his chest and with a little more effort it makes it to his heart. He bleeds out and takes his last breath just as the soldiers surround me. Staring down at his body, I try to push my guilt away. I really can't risk him giving us away.
"Gwyn?" one of them says. I tense, pull the dagger from Tikon's body, and stand up. All three soldiers dismount. Two of them pull their swords free just as the tallest one steps forward. He pulls off his shiny metal helmet. Cursing under my breath, I take in his dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and medium build.
"I thought you were escorting Esther to the city, Noah," I say, shifting and wiping the blood on the dagger off on my dress.
"By the Gods, Gwyn," he says. His voice is calm at first, probably due to shock, but his features darken and narrow quickly, and I see why he's been promoted so fast. He has a strange commanding presence. I feel myself shrink back a little. "What the fuck have you done?"
"He attacked me," I say, shrugging. "I was only defending myself."
"She's the traitor, Sye," one of the other men says. "We should end her now and be done with it."
Noah hesitates before gripping the hilt of his sword tightly. I smirk. He would do it. His face tightens as he reads my thoughts in my eyes. I'm not surprised he would be willing to kill me. He betrayed someone he supposedly loved once. So why not betray me, too. Besides I hate this world anyway. I hate how bright and beautiful it is. I hate it all because of what the suns rays mean.
Noah glares at me and I take a step forward. His men react quickly. My smile grows when I realize I'll be able to at least take one of them down with me.
Noah moves faster than I expect and steps between his men and me. I freeze with my dagger at his throat. "Is this what Rayna would have wanted?" he whispers.
I press the dagger harder against his neck to stop the trembling in my fingers. My previous hard expression lessens as tears swell in my eyes. "We'll never know, Noah, because you went back on your word and let her die."
"I did what she asked me to do, Gwyn."
My gaze bounces from one eye to the other. "I don't believe you, Noah."
Stepping back, I drop the dagger. Noah's men glance anxiously at me. They probably aren't sure what to do with a woman who would dare to use a dagger against the King's Men. They probably think I'm crazy. Maybe I am.
"We'll take her to the city," Noah says loudly. "She will have a fair trial."
"The informant said there were others, Sye."
Noah looks down before meeting my eyes. I stare at the line of sweat glistening on his forehead.
"I'll find out what she knows," he says. He grabs my hands and binds them with rope one of his soldier's gave him before tugging me back to his horse. "Let's go. One of you ride in front and one of you behind. Stay ten persons."
Nodding, one of the soldiers moves the length of ten persons in front of us and the other falls behind.
"You're going to torture me for information, Noah," I say smugly and he pulls roughly on my arm. "I hear woman prisoners don't fare well in the King's Guard."
Noah sighs deeply, annoyed. "What have you gotten yourself involved in," he growls. "Rayna—"
"Stop saying her name!"
His eyes snap to mine. I roll my shoulders, trying to make the uncomfortable feeling settling on my chest go away. It doesn't help.
"I loved her, too," he says.
Scoffing, I look away from him. My jaw tenses and I squeeze my fingers together. When I look back at him, he's staring at my hands.
"You two were going to be married," I say, and his shoulders tense. "She was Esther's sister. She was my best friend, and you didn't stop the ceremony. You were supposed to do one thing, Noah. One thing. Get her out of there."
"I made it to her," he says as we reach the King's Path. It's a little ways off from the peasant path, but I know here, we won't run into anyone. No one except for soldiers uses the King's Path.
"What?" I say, shocked.
"I got to her," he says, staring up into the sky. A firebird glides through the wind and I stare after it until I can no longer see it. "She was sitting by a window when I found her. Alone, in that white dress and covered in gold. She looked beautiful." He pauses and takes a breath. "She argued when I told her why I was there. She fought me and pulled back when I tried to push her to the exit. She didn't want to be saved, Gwyn. She told me she wouldn't be able to live with herself if her fear of dying destroyed the world."
"It's just a stupid legend," I snap and try to blink away the tears threatening to spill over. "She never believed in it, Noah. She's the one who convinced us it was a lie."
"Obviously, something changed her mind," he says slowly. "She was gone for a year, Gwyn."
"She died for nothing, Noah."
He runs his hands through his hair and shakes his head. "What do you have planned, Gwyn? Who else is involved? Katherin? Dales?"
"No one else," I say quickly. "It was just Tikon and me"
"Now, why don't I believe you?"
"Believe whatever you want," I say, glancing at him. "You did five years ago and look how that turned out."
"I can't change the past, Gwyn," he says, "but I can protect the future."
"Do whatever lets you enjoy the suns, Noah."
"Get on the horse," he snaps, heaving me up without warning. The horse grunts, startled as I position my legs on either side of it. I'm used to riding bareback and the feel of a saddle under me is strange. "They're going to kill you for this, Gwyn."
Peering down at him, I smile. "Good because I don't want to be part of a world that sacrifices people on a whim."
Sweat is pouring down my back by the time we make it to the city. Noah stopped asking me questions when he realized I wasn't going to say anything. I take a breath, trying to stop myself from panicking. The plan can still go on without me. Once everyone meets up, they will realize pretty quickly that something went wrong on my end. They will move on. We planned for every contingency.
It takes us an hour to get past the city gate. There are more people than the city can hold, but it's like this every year. Some reason people like to watch the sacrifices die.
Stopping by a guard's stable, I stare up at the tall castle that sits at the edge of the city with the ocean at its back. I wrinkle my nose at the smell of the city. I wish it smelled worse.
"Get off," Noah demands and I glare down at him, refusing to move. He grabs my arm and pulls. I slide off awkwardly unable to use my hands for balance and almost end up crashing into the side of the stable, but Noah catches me. He drags me forward as a stable boy takes the horse.
Leading me through the city, I try not to glare at people, but I hate them all. I hate that they can all be happy today. People are going to die. And for what? For these people who couldn't care less? For the father and daughter who couldn't even remember that a five year old boy was going to die for them today?
The city is clean, organized, and strangely safe. The King's Guard keeps everyone in line and obeying the laws. The courtyard has a stone gallows that serves as a memory to the people that had once been executed for crimes. The death penalty was removed over centuries ago. I guess the sacrificing of innocent people is enough death for everyone. Sure, the city and the world is perfect, bright, safe, but is it all worth it?
Noah's grip around my arm irritates me because he used to feel the same why I did. Rayna, Noah, and I used to spend days talking about how the legend was fake, how blind people where to follow something that required us to kill each other. One simple scroll has the legend written on it and it's in the Priestess' possession. She reads it to us every year, but how do I know what she says is the truth?
Pushing open a door, Noah drags me into a dark room. Immediately five guards stand up and try to seem like they are actually doing something useful.
"Gods, Noah," the bulky one says. "We thought you were Commander Calvis."
"Don't worry, Konas," Noah says, forcing a smile. "I'm just transporting a prisoner."
Konas looks at me, and I cringe. He's a big, ugly fellow. He leans toward me and I almost gag at his breath.
"By the Suns," I say. "Don't you ever wash?"
The other guards laugh, but Konas doesn't look as amused. He pulls me from Noah and I hear Noah sigh. Shoving me against a bookcase, Konas leans in against me. His fingers trail down my side and stop at my waist.
"Konas," Noah says, placing his hand on Konas' shoulder.
"Has she talked yet, Noah?" Konas says, his eyes drop to the start of my dress as his hand starts pulling it up from the bottom. "I'll get her to talk…and more."
"I've been there," Noah says. Konas looks over his shoulder at Noah before laughing loudly.
"I knew one day you'd grow a pair," Konas says. He drops his hands and shoves me back to Noah, who then puts his hand around the back of my neck. I fight off the urge to pull away.
Noah smirks at them. "I'll be back." He shoves me forward and up the stairs at the back of the room.
"Where are we going?" I whisper at the top.
"Shut up," he growls quietly. He opens another door and ushers me in with his hand. He points to a bed and I sit down. Noah begins pacing the room with his hand on his chin. Suddenly, he stops, rolls his eyes, and kneels down in front of me. "Give me a name, Gwyn. Let me help you out of this."
"What are you talking about?" I say, stunned. He can't actually think I'd give anyone away. He knows me better than that. Taking a blade from his waist, he cuts the ropes off my hands. Then he wraps his hands around mine.
"Please, Gwyn," he says. "Who are you working with?"
"No one," I shout. He looks at the door and back to me.
Moving his hands up my arms, he holds on tightly. I've only ever seen this look on his face once before, five years ago. "We're running out of time, Gwyn."
"So be it," I say.
"Don't be so stupid!" he yells before taking a breath. We both glance at the door when we hear footsteps on the stairs. Pulling off his shirt, he grabs my dress and pulls it up roughly.
I grab his hand. "Noah! What are you doing?"
"Trust me," he says as he uses his other hand to unlace the front of my dress. With one hand holding my dress above my hip and the other pinning my arm to the side, the door to the room opens and slams into the wall. Noah doesn't jump up like I expect him to. Instead, he stays blocking me from view.
"You get to work quickly, don't you, Noah?" I hear Konas say before he laughs.
Noah looks over his shoulder. "What is it?"
"King Goldten has requested to see your prisoner," Konas says. I feel Noah's body tense above mine. My heart hammers in my chest and my hold on Noah's arm tightens.
"Why?" Noah asks.
"Apparently," Konas says. "He's looking for another sacrifice."
A/N: Hey, started a new story! I wanted to try something a little more in the fantasy realm. Let me know what you think!