I dreamt of fire. The flames had surrounded me, burning hot and bright as they had attempted to close off my escape, but I had awoken before the fire could touch me. Even now, lying in the pre-dawn light, I could still imagine the heat on my skin, and my forehead was dotted with sweat. It had not been the first time I had been visited by such troubling visions.
When I finally willed myself out of bed, I smoothed out my nightgown and combed through my auburn hair which fell in waves down my back. I was a child of nine years, said to be small and scrawny for my age.
I knew it was early, and my mother wouldn't yet be awake, but my nightmares made it impossible to go back to sleep. Rattled and restless, I stepped out of my room, and made sure I closed the sliding door softly behind me.
In the gloom of the small house, I stood very still and listened. The only sounds I could hear were the early songs of birds outside, but nothing stirred. I glanced to my left, taking note of the door to my parent's bedroom. For a moment, I considered walking over and waking my mother, yearning for someone to talk to. But I thought better of it, deciding that she didn't need to be burdened with my silly fears. Therefore, I tip-toed across the woven floor and left the house via the back door that opened onto the garden. In the pale morning light, dew glistened upon the herbs and vegetables that had been so carefully tended to. I took in a deep breath of the crisp air, then climbed over the low fence.
Behind the house rose a hill that was but the beginning of one of the green mountains that made up the valley my family lived within. Up this I climbed, the grass rustling with a sound like soft breath and tickling my bare feet. Atop the hill stood a grove of slender birch trees, and their leaves rattled playfully in the breeze as if beckoning me to them. Once I reached the top, I turned and looked out upon the land that was still shrouded in morning mist. The floor of the valley was dotted with homes and farmland, separated from each other by grassy fields and hills. It didn't exactly count as a village, more of a loosely-scattered community. A dirt road ran through the center like a slender snake and wound its way out of my sight to the east. I often wondered where that road led. If I followed it, what new lands would it take me to? I had never seen the world outside of the valley, and never had a reason to despite my curiosity. Mine was a safe and quiet life.
As I sat and watched the brightening sky, a breeze came up the slope and tousled my hair. The sun burned away the mist, and its warm rays caressed my face as many songbirds rose in voice to greet it. At that point, I turned and ventured into the birch grove behind me. Broken twigs and fallen leaves crunched beneath my feet. I ran my fingertips over the smooth, pale trunks, weaving between the trees aimlessly, going wherever the unseen paths took me. Already I felt my heart lightening, forgetting about my terrifying dream. This grove was my special place where I could escape to for peace and quiet, but only when I had the chance to sneak out of the house undetected.
Above the branches, a lark sang, stopping me in my tracks. The tawny bird seemed to be watching me with its beady eyes.
"Hello!" I said out loud, even though I knew the bird couldn't understand me. "Can I fly with you?"
Instead of answering, the lark took wing, alighting to another tree deeper in the grove.
"Maybe next time," I said somberly to myself. Sometimes I wished I could turn into a bird at whim, to fly above the valley and feel the wind beneath me. But that was just a child's dream.
I turned at the familiar voice which had been carried to me by the wind. I felt a slight pang of disappointment at the discovery of my absence, but it would do no good to ignore the call. Waving good-bye to the bird, now long gone, I left the grove and slid down the hill.
A woman stood on the back porch, watching me with her hands on her hips as I climbed back over the garden fence. I could feel her gaze upon me, and I approached warily. My mother, Tera, was lean-limbed from her physical labors, with a strong jaw and skin tanned by the sun. Her dark brown hair was tied in a loose braid that hung over one bare shoulder.
"Look at you," she muttered under her breath, kneeling down to smooth out my hair. "Have you been playing in the grove again?"
I fidgeted slightly, not making eye contact with her. "I wanted to fly with the birds," I explained lamely. It wasn't a good excuse, but I wanted to keep my nightmares a secret. She already worried too much.
"Fly?" An amused light played across my mother's gold eyes, eyes that I had inherited. "You have quite the imagination, Kaina." She stood and looked me over, undoubtedly noting my grass-stained nightgown and dirty feet. "This won't do. If you want breakfast, wash up and get dressed."
As if on cue, my stomach grumbled, so I promptly entered the house and went into the washroom. The room was small, with a high, narrow window and a wood tub in the center set upon a crude stove dug into the ground. I picked up the large bucket of water that sat in a corner and got the bath started. It was heavy work, but, despite my small stature, I was deemed old enough to take baths on my own. Once the water was heated to my liking, I pulled off my nightgown and stepped in, scrubbing my feet and hands as thoroughly as I could and washing my hair.
Once I was finished, I put on fresh clothes and met my mother in the dining area. A fresh pot of tea, cooked rice, and a simple soup were already set on the low table. My hair still damp, I sat on a cushion across from my mother, as it was customary to sit on the floor in this land.
"When do you think Father will come home?" I asked as we ate our simple meal.
"It depends," said my mother. "You know how busy he can be."
I knew my father was a trader, a common job for men of our societal standing in Ralos. Several times a year, he left to travel the region, selling the wares he had traded, and was often gone for weeks, or even months, at a time. I missed him terribly whenever he was gone, as did my mother. But if it wasn't for him, we would barely be getting by.
Mother helped with money in her own way. She had me assist her in the garden or journey into the hills and wooded pockets of the valley to collect herbs and other useful plants and vegetables. Most of this we kept for ourselves, but my mother always set aside a portion to sell or trade with the neighbors. Many people in our valley loved the special blend of tea she made, and it was usually in demand.
We ate the remainder of breakfast silence, the topic weighing heavily on both of us. Afterwards I helped clean the table and followed my mother into the garden. There we watered the plants, picked the ripe specimens, and checked on the progress of the new ones. The peppermint seemed to be doing well this year.
As we worked, and the sun rose into the sky, a man on a horse-drawn cart pulled up to our house. It was the mailman, and we rarely saw him except for when he was delivering Father's letters. I waited anxiously by the front door while Mother received the parcel. After he was paid a few coins for his service, the man rode away.
"Is it from Father?" I asked eagerly. But I quickly realized that it couldn't be. The item my mother held in her hands was not the usual folded paper Father tended to use. It was a roll of pristine parchment, tied with red ribbon and stamped with a gold seal. I did not know of anyone who used such beautiful material.
I followed on Mother's heels as she went inside, watching her carefully open the scroll with a small knife. Her face was passive while she read its contents, but I caught a faint twinge of muscle in her jaw. The silence that hung in the house was nearly unbearable. I had to bite my lip to keep from blurting out questions.
At last, she rolled up the parchment and smiled at me. "It looks like we will be getting a visit from the temple," she announced brightly.
I did not understand what that meant, but I knew it was important. Once, a strangely dressed group with a red and gold carriage had ridden past our house without stopping. When I had asked my mother who they were, she had only said, "They come from the temple."
"Why?" I had asked.
"It is a blessing to have them come to our valley," Mother had said. "You will understand when you are older."
Two years had passed since then.
"When, Mother?" I now asked in the present. I felt like I had butterflies in my stomach, but I didn't know why.
"In a few days, according to the message," she explained. She knelt in front of me and stroked my cheek. "I will want you to be well-behaved when they come, Kaina. This visit is very important."
"The temple . . . They work for the Phoenix, right, Mother?" In Ralos, the Phoenix was viewed as a god, and an entire religion revolved around it. I didn't know much about the Phoenix beyond its association with fire and the sun, and the few times a year we visited a small shrine in the valley dedicated to it.
Mother nodded. "Yes, exactly."
"But why would they want to visit us?" I asked. My gaze moved about our modest home, not understanding what would make us worthy of such an important occasion.
"It is tradition," she told me. "You will understand when they come."
Her answers were just as vague as they were two years ago and did not sate my curiosity. But, knowing my mother, she wouldn't tell me any more than she needed to, no matter how hard I pressed. I gave a soft sigh in resignation.
"Do you think Father will be back in time?" I then asked. If this was as important as Mother said it was, it would be awful for him to miss it.
Mother's smile faded slightly, and she stroked my cheek once more. "I dearly hope so," she said softly. "All we can do is wait and see . . ." Despite her encouraging words, I could see the pain in her gold eyes at his current absence. Then she stood and tucked the scroll into her sash.
She spoke very little for the rest of the day, and we passed the hours cleaning up the house and preparing the collected herbs and vegetables. Doing chores was the only way I could keep myself from dwelling too long on the news. I wondered why I was feeling anxious, as I didn't even know what happened during these "visits". If Mother knew, she wasn't willing to tell me. Even she seemed nervous.
For all I knew, several days were an eternity.
I slept poorly that night, tossing and turning while my mind created endless scenarios for what was to happen, most of them overly imaginative. Eventually, I gave up on trying to sleep and stared up at the dark ceiling, attempting to still my restless thoughts.
Just when my eyelids were finally beginning to grow heavy, I caught the sound of somebody knocking at our front door. I sat up, initially fearing that it was the representatives from the temple, but I knew it was much too soon. Curiosity gnawed at me, and I opened my bedroom door just enough to peek outside. I watched as my mother answered the door, a robe wrapped around her. She took a step back, and a man entered the house wearing a straw hat on his head and a large pack over his shoulder. When he removed the hat, I held back a tiny gasp.
Even as my mother held the man in a tight embrace, I threw open my door and rushed forward, crying, "Father!" Mother stepped aside for me, initially surprised that I was still awake. I hugged my father about his waist and smiled. He had an earthy scent to him that reminded me of no one else, and I was happy to smell it again.
My father gave a throaty chuckle and rubbed my head with a calloused hand. "Kaina, is that you? Look at how much you've grown! Has it really only been two months?"
I pulled away, my face beaming, and looked up at his familiar face. His black hair was cut short, and he had gentle brown eyes. His once clean-shaven tan face had stubble on it now and was gruff yet kind. I always thought that his wide smile was his best feature.
"We have missed you very much, Pano," my mother said softly. Her gold eyes were glistening.
Father turned to her and embraced her once again. They kissed softly, causing me to avert my eyes momentarily. My mother sighed when Father placed his hands on her stomach.
"It's made no trouble, dear . . ." she whispered.
I was no stranger to what "it" was. My mother was going to have a baby. I knew I wanted a sister someday, but Mother had told me that it was just as likely to be a boy.
"What would I do with a little brother?" I had asked doubtfully.
"The same you would with a little sister."
After Father had set down his pack and hung up his hat, he knelt in front of me. "As happy as I am to see you, it is well past your bedtime," he said as he gently stroked my cheek. "If you go back to bed now, I will tell you all about my adventures tomorrow. We can even have a picnic. Does that sound good to you?"
I wanted to hear everything then and there, but I knew he was right. He had traveled far and would also need sleep. I nodded and hugged him tightly. "Good night, Father. I love you."
He chuckled and hugged me back. "I love you, too, Kaina. Now, go to bed." He kissed my cheek and patted my shoulder.
I smiled at him and returned to my room with a spring in my step. Two months had felt like a very long time. I could not wait to hear his stories. The next few days suddenly did not seem so daunting anymore, and all concerns about the inevitable visit left my mind.
We allowed ourselves to sleep in the following morning and packed a brunch to take into the verdant hills, sitting beside a trickling stream. It was a fair day, with only a few puffy clouds hanging high in the blue sky. While we ate, I listened as Father told us of his latest expedition. He spoke of trading in the next valley, in a village at the base of the Embra Mountains. He had traveled to a fishing town by Lake Seri, and visited many other places that I had never heard of before. I listened to all of this in an enraptured state, never once taking my eyes off of him.
"Can I come with you next time?" I asked eagerly.
He regarded me with an apologetic look and said, "I would if I could, Kaina, but you are far too young for such travels."
I gave a pout. "Then . . . when I am older?" It made my heart sink, but was not unexpected. When would I ever be old enough to see the world beyond our valley?
Father looked ready to say something when Mother spoke.
"Pano . . . we received a message from the Sinati temple the other day. They have declared their intent to send a representative." She looked proud, but somehow anxious.
"Really?" Father looked at me, then turned his eyes back to Mother. "That is great news . . ."
Mother clasped his hand. "But now you are home," she declared. "We hadn't heard from you for a week, so I had worried they would arrive before you returned."
My father smiled. "Then the Phoenix must have willed my return for this."
I was feeling fidgety at their cryptic talk. But something told me that it wasn't my place to ask too many questions. My recent inquiries had revealed nothing, after all.
Mother soon changed the subject and told Father about all that had happened in the valley since his departure. While none of the news was particularly exciting, every bit of it was of some interest to my father, as he wasn't always home. I didn't contribute to the conversation, now worrying myself again about the temple's message.
Seeming to sense my serious demeanor, Father picked me up and put me on his strong shoulders. I felt the breeze caress my face as he jogged alongside the stream, and soon I was laughing the hardest I had in a long time. We chased each other over the hills until our sides hurt.
"You will stay with us for a long time now, won't you, Father?" I asked sleepily as we lay on the fragrant grass together.
Father kissed my forehead and held me close against him. "I promise," he whispered. Then he picked me up in his arms and we returned home.
We spent a lot of time together that day. It was the first time we had been a complete family in months. But, sooner or later, Father would have to leave the valley once more in order to support us. Despite this unavoidable truth, I slept well that night and was not bothered by any nightmares.
The next morning dawned clear and bright. I woke to the sound of carefree birds singing outside my window, and the voices of my parents in the other room. I rubbed my eyes, yawned, and got up. Eager for breakfast, I left my bedroom while still in my nightgown and called for my parents. But instead of waiting for me in the kitchen area, both were standing at the front door, speaking with someone I did not know. Alerted to my presence, they turned towards me. I stopped.
"Kaina," my mother said, almost breathlessly, "we did not know you were up . . ." She then smiled, but even in my half-awake state I could sense something else behind it. Was it nervousness? "It turns out . . . the representative from the temple has arrived earlier than expected. This is Mistress Saifiri of the temple in Sinati . . ."
The woman who stood before my parents was tall and slender, her skin a rich shade of mahogany. She had long black hair that was wound into a braid that started high on the back of her head and was interlaced with red ribbon. Gold bangles adorned her wrists and ankles, and jewelry dangled from her ears and neck. She wore a sleeveless red silk dress embroidered with motifs of yellow and orange, and the hem of her skirt was lined with rubies.
Saifiri bowed her head and smiled. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Kaina." Her voice was as smooth as silk, deeper than any woman I knew, and had a trace of an accent I was unfamiliar with. "May we resume our meeting somewhere more comfortable?"
"Of course, Mistress," my father said, and he led our visitor further into the house.
My mother hastily poured four cups of tea and set them on the table, then rearranged the cushions so that Saifiri would sit on one side with the three of us on the other. While the woman settled herself down, my mother hurried over to me and gently ordered me to dress. Without questioning her, I returned to my room, brushed my hair, and put on the first dress that I could find. Butterflies were dancing in my stomach. Trying to calm my nerves, I came back out and took a seat between my parents, who were already starting to drink their tea.
The Mistress, as she was called, took a delicate sip from her cup. "Divine," she said with a smile. "I have heard that this valley produces some of the finest tea in the province. The rumors are not unfounded, I see."
My mother inclined her head. "We would be honored to give you a portion of what leaves we have as a gift when you depart," she said.
I slowly looked at the woman's face, which featured a slender nose, high cheekbones, and eyes the color of lavender. I had never seen anyone more beautiful. Her regal bearing and lavish attire entranced me. But why was she here?
"I would be honored by your gift, Tera," Saifiri said to my mother, and then her eyes drifted over to me. "How many years are you, Kaina?"
"N-nine," I replied meekly. I clasped my cup with both hands and tried to hide my anxiety behind a sip.
She turned her attention back to my parents. "Is Kaina your only child?" she asked them.
The two exchanged looks. "For now," said my father. "My wife is currently with child."
"This is good," the woman said with a nod. "I wish many blessings upon your family and future happiness."
My parents bowed their heads and spoke their thanks. I remained silent.
Saifiri took another sip of tea before speaking again. "Your daughter is the appropriate age to begin training as a priestess," she announced. "Is this what you wish for her?"
I blinked, stirring. What was she talking about?
"It is, Mistress," said my mother after a beat. "There is little more she can gain here that she has not already learned. We wish that she be brought in by the temple, so that she may make a better life for herself."
At that, I jolted to my feet. "What?!" I cried. "You want me to join the t-temple?" My eyes flicked from one face to the other. Surely this was a joke?
"Your surprise is understandable, Kaina," Saifiri said with surprising calm. "You must understand that this is the path your family – and tradition – has chosen for you. It is a great blessing to be a servant of the glorious Phoenix, which provides for us all."
"B-but I don't want to leave my family!" I declared. My mind was swirling and I felt dizzy. "This is my home . . ."
A hand touched my back and I looked to see my mother gazing at me. Her eyes were sad, but she was smiling. It was bittersweet. "Your father and I love you with all our hearts, Kaina," she said softly. "But . . . this is better for all of us. You have been given a remarkable opportunity to serve a higher calling. Nothing would make us happier than knowing you've been given a better life than we can provide. You will make new friends and see the world, like you have always wanted."
Tears built in my eyes but I held them back. "But . . . what about you . . . ?"
"We will be all right," said my father, holding my hand. "Soon, we will have a son or another daughter, but they won't replace you in our hearts. If you join the temple, the state will ensure that we are taken care of. Your service will benefit all of us. Do you understand?"
I pulled away and fiercely shook my head. I didn't know what to say, so I ran out the back door and clambered up the hill to my birch grove above the house. The tears I had been holding back stung my eyes and made it hard to see. I stumbled blindly over roots and fallen branches until I finally stopped, collapsing with my back against a tree trunk. In the distance, I heard my parents calling my name, but I ignored them.
As I sat there, burying my face against my knees, I struggled with the fear and confusion that swirled within me. I didn't fully understand what all of this meant. How could I willingly leave my family? What if I didn't want to become a priestess? Why were my parents allowing this?
I quickly lost track of time. It might have been a few minutes or an hour before I caught the sound of soft footsteps approaching. I didn't need to look up to know that it was Saifiri. The woman slowly knelt down beside me.
"I am sorry that you had to find out like this," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "Truly, I am. But Ralosian tradition states that any girl who turns nine years of age is eligible to be taken in by the temples of the Phoenix to serve as a priestess, and only if the family desires it. Your mother and father want you to experience this opportunity because they love you."
"W-will I be able to see them again . . . ?" I asked through a tight throat, but I still did not lift my head.
"I would be lying if I said you could. The temple you would be assigned to would become your new family, but you would be allowed to write to your parents whenever you wish."
I sniffled. Something told me that I couldn't escape this fate, and I asked, "W-when do I have to go . . . ?"
"Soon," said Saifiri. "We have a long road ahead of us. You may bring with you any items that you absolutely need."
I knew that there were no such things in my possession. What I truly needed was my family, and they were not to come with me. I thought about my spare yet familiar room, the garden, and the grove, and knew I would probably never see those places again.
After wiping my face, I stood and silently followed Saifiri back to the house where my mother and father were waiting. Saifiri spoke a few quiet words to them on the back porch before allowing me to embrace them tightly.
"I want you to have this, Kaina," my mother whispered, handing me a slender cord with a red stone. It was one of the necklaces she often wore. "This way, you will have something to remember us by." She smiled through teary eyes and kissed my cheek. The necklace hung like a weight around my neck, but the stone itself was not heavy.
"I know that this is hard," said my father when it was his turn, "but you must be strong. You are going on an adventure, and adventures require great courage."
"But you just came back," I whimpered. It felt too cruel to be forced to leave my family forever at this moment.
"I know," he said sadly. "But at least we got to see each other again." He smiled, and I knew he was right.
"Don't you ever get scared, Father?" I asked weakly.
"Always. But you are my daughter, so be brave like me."
I forced a nod. "I-I'll try . . ."
"Are you ready?" my mother asked, stroking my cheek.
I was not, but I had no other choice, so I nodded reluctantly. After hugging my parents one last time, I turned to face Saifiri and, with a motion of her hand, she bid me to follow her. Parked on the road that ran in front of the house was a colorful carriage that reminded me of the one I had seen pass through two years ago. It was painted red and gold, with lanterns hanging at the front and a collection of trunks secured to the back. Two large oxen, their curved horns capped in gold and bells hanging from their necks, were the transport's beasts of burden, and they whipped their tails lazily against flies.
At the carriage's open door stood two men dressed in red and black robes. Their heads were hooded, so I could not make out much of their faces. I looked back over my shoulder. My parents watched.
Saifiri offered me her hand. "Do not be afraid."
Carefully, I took her hand, and we walked up to the carriage together. The hooded men helped us in, lifting me with surprising gentleness. Inside, low benches topped with luxurious cushions were built into the front and rear walls, and a small lantern hung from the ceiling. Saifiri sat down at the front and patted the bench across from her. I did as I was instructed, and took one more glance out the door before it closed.
The carriage jolted into motion and my heart began to race. Outside, my parents waved good-bye and I stuck my hand out the window to wave back. A lump formed in my throat, and my home slipped away, the carriage's wheels rumbling over the road.
In that moment, everything I knew was behind me. An uncertain future lay ahead.