Author’s Note: This story is in a stage of rough revision, and not completed. Much to be done but ready for some early feedback. I am particularly concerned about the way I wrote it in the First Person Point of View, as the protagonist writes in a journal, and as her memory stream through the action scenes. It is awkward to read. Yet changing it at this point is a major headache, though I began a feeble attempt to do so. Not worth it, I fear. So this may be its only ‘published’ version. I may get around to adding the final chapters a bit later, but the last part hasn’t been transcribed into the word processor yet.
A ROARING DEEP WITHIN
BY KARIN E WEISS (Original written for an online Writers Workshop in 1994)
January 2015 Edit draft 1
Since the world began the moon has watched earth’s creatures gaze up at her. She continues to watch, marking our hours, our days, our months, years, seasons and ages. Her face is sometimes veiled in clouds and sometimes gone from view. But even then she’s watching though we see her not. In stones and waters and animals and plants her magic reaches us, if we have the sense to look and listen, to ask the right questions. Many have named her Grandmother Moon. Many have worshipped her while others have tried to claim her power for themselves and perverted it. Many have been born, fought, and died to preserve her mysteries. And ever she watches over all. Ever again, another cycle begins. But who is to say what is the beginning and what is the end?
ONCE UPON A TIME… winter solstice – December 21
A full moon rose over the mountain_ its great silver globe cast magical light across the dry winter wilderness. In the deepening moon-shadows of the forested mountain which bordered the ancient land between three seas, all was still.
A large male lion dozed upon a mound of fragrant heather that blanketed a granite overhang. Far below him on the mountain, a gleaming white stone temple nestled among cliffs that fell straight to a rocky beach. Beyond lay the wild sea, the moon lay her shimmering path through its cresting waves.
The lion slowly raised his massive head, shook his tangled mane and savored the midnight breeze. He caught a scent_ tangy, wildly enticing. His nostril flared. He felt fire surge through his body kindling excitement in his legs and tail, and then it ignited a sixth appendage_ protruding from its cover, throbbing with desire. Every muscle in the lion’s huge body tensed. Every sinew strained for action.
He listened and waited.
Then he saw her.
She was magnificent_ the tawny golden coated, sleek muscled, wide eyed and steel clawed vision of his virile dreams. He had never seen her before, but he knew she was there for him. She rolled in the grass, writhing and moaning with desire.
He slowly rose and stood his full height, watching her from his perch on the ridge.
She knew he was there but she pretended not to care. She got up and preened herself, licking her great paw and stroking her face, then licking her breast and hind legs, finally tasting the warm juices from her vagina.
She recalled how it had begun last night. During hunting under the bright moon, her loins had begun to ache with a fiery pain that was at once agonizing and thrilling. She suddenly felt an urge to find the big lone male she had glimpsed now and then on her forays into the heights of the mountain. She prowled the landscape until she found him asleep on his rock.
With a toss of his mane, he descended gracefully, stepping over shrubs and leaping from boulder to boulder. He landed on a flat rock only yards from the grassy slope where she sat looking up at him.
Wild golden eye met wild golden eye unblinking.
Slowly she turned her back to him and lay flat on her stomach, hind legs treading rhythmically on the turf, tail fanning the air.
He leapt upon her in one bound, grasping the nape of her neck in his mouth. Those fearsome teeth that could pierce and kill with one well-aimed incision now grasped her neck without so much a making a scratch. He positioned himself above her, spanning her body, and angled his throbbing member to fit beneath her tail. Pushing his pelvis forward and back, forward and back, he felt his rigid penis enter her pulsing vagina. At that instant he felt the wild rush of semen surging from within him to make contact deep inside her. She felt the shock of his ejaculation and reported it with a resounding yowl, suddenly turning around to hiss and strike at him with her unsheathed claws.
He got the message. Quickly he backed off a safe distance and watched her once more.
Now she was writhing and growling and twisting in a furious, frenzied dance of ecstatic rage. He still wanted her, but knew he could not approach her now. So he lay down and waited. Gradually she calmed down and began to lick her hind quarters, driving him nearly insane with desire. Yet each time he tried to come near her she spat at him and drove him off. He waited and watched. She lay down a rested, eyed him warily and growled to warn him not to bother her, then she closed her eyes and fell asleep. He waited and watched.
In time she woke and their dance began again. In this way they continued throughout the night and the whole following day until both were spent. That evening they lay down to sleep, sharing the patch of grass for the last time. When he awoke at moonrise, she was gone.
Three and a half moon cycles later, at the dark of a New Moon, in the season of Spring Equinox a tall woman stood alone on the edge of the high cliff where the lions had mated. Her vivid red robe billowed around her shoulders like giant wings. Her silvery blond hair framed her face like a halo. Golden filigree bracelets flashed on her arms as she raised them to the sky where a great falcon soared in spirals until it came to rest on her wrist. “The time has come, Mataar.” Niami said to the big bird. Then she walked down from the crest to the temple compound on the south face of the mountain, the falcon riding on her shoulder.
Inside the castle a setting sun shone through the latticed windows of her tower chamber.
A group of women waited for her there_ old and wizened, many having come great distances to attend the birth. These were Wise women of an ancient sisterhood in which this younger woman was given special honor, for she was the Chosen One. Within her womb she carried the child who, it was prophesied, would become a great shaman in a time of healing the earth from the wounds of war.
The falcon perched high on a rafter to watch the midwives prepare for the birth. The sun set behind the mountain and twilight descended. They lit candles, for there would be no moonlight on this night of a magical New Moon.
The old women gently removed Niami’s garments and carefully set them aside, rubbing her body with sweet herbed ointments and soothing oils. Her bronzed skin reflected the candle-glow, accenting her smooth muscular legs and arms, the large protruding roundness of her belly, the fullness of her breasts. They guided her to a long marble tub of clear warm water. In it was a bench to squat upon comfortably. She lowered herself onto it and breathed deeply and fully.
From high on its perch, the falcon observed a pearly mist envelope the room. In the center of the circle of women, the priestess squatted in the tub, her mane of hair tied back, her face aglow.
Niami felt movement from inside her womb, and then gradually the sharper sensations of labor began. She breathed in rhythm to her heartbeat and felt the child begin its journey out into the world. Unmindful of pain, she sent the child reassurance and thoughts of loving comfort. She felt no fear. She felt little pain. She was aware the entire time of tremendous power flowing through her and into the infant being born. She watched the girl-child appear from between her legs, momentarily swimming on its own in the tepid bath.
The priestess reached out and took the babe to her, wiping away the afterbirth and kissing the sweet body all over from its downy head to its tiny pink toes. The attending women helped her out of the tub, dried her and the infant with warm towels and wrapped them in luxurious covers on a bed by the window. One of the old women buried the caul in the temple gardens under the biggest tree, in a quiet, solemn ritual of blessing.
The young mother’s pleasure was complete when her tiny girl nestled in her arms, firmly grasped her breast and sucked contentedly at her nipple. The falcon flew down from its perch to sit on Niami’s shoulder. The babe looked up into its piercing black eyes and gurgled with delight.
A dense mist hung over the valley on a black velvet Spring night…The Mountain, shrouded in a blanket of impenetrable stillness, held everything close. Mystery prevailed and enchantment waited in silence. Thick mud oozed around the craters of her footprints where a great cat tread upon the riverbank.
Her steps were ponderous from the weight of new life within her womb. Seeking the solace of her familiar shelter, the mountain lioness knew the time for her labor was near. At last the entrance to her cave appeared through the curtain of watery mists and she heaved a sigh as she settled herself in its pungent warmth to wait.
When night descended to its mystical depths, the great cat awoke to urgent movement and pressure within her. Circling on her moss-covered floor-bed until her tongue met the orifice beneath her tail, she engaged without protest in the travail of birth. Silently and secretly, through the long moonless night, she toiled to bring her newborn cubs into the world.
Powerful contractions of her uterus ejected its contents. She licked away the birth membrane covering each kit and carefully chewed the bloody afterbirth, neatly biting off the umbilical cord just far enough from each little tummy to prevent injury. She tended and nursed and each cub until she was certain of its wellbeing. Then she turned her attention to the next arrival. Her rough tongue worked over the tiny ears and noses and paws and tails, delicately checking each for signs of sickness or deformity. She could taste and smell the health and vigor in her newborn babies and she felt a deep sense of pride.
As the rising sun warmed the land and cleared the mists, there were five suckling cubs hungrily feeding in an orderly row at the nipples on their mother’s soft furred belly. The great queen rested, letting the warm rush of satisfied desires overtake her at last. She began to doze.
Three clear whistled notes sounded from below her on the mountain. Lazily she wondered what strange bird was calling.
Six moon-cycles later, as Autumn leaves began to turn color and a waxing Crescent Moon hung in the early evening sky, Niami watched her baby sleep peacefully in a cradle.
Tears of anguish streamed down the young mother’s cheeks. Soon Kiamat would come and take her infant girl away. This was the prearranged agreement to assure the child’s safety during the expected siege. The invaders were likely on their way to the castle even now. Vipira, the sorceress, and her priests from the dark side of the mountain would surely try to kill the babe whose birth had been prophesied to bring defeat to their evil tribe.
Now the door creaked opened and a sharp-eyed old crone entered the chamber. She nodded silently to the priestess, who gently lifted the baby and kissed her tenderly, letting her warm tears wet the little face. She took, from around her own neck, a delicate crystal amulet on a silver chain, and gently placed it around the neck of her little girl.
The child sighed softly and slept on as she was handed from mother to god-mother.
On a sylvan morning later that Autumn, a waning Crescent Moon and one brilliant star shone above the lioness in her cozy den. She was resting after a long night of hunting food for her litter of four cubs and one human infant.
She felt the tug of little mouths on her full teats and purred loudly at the satisfaction she enjoyed for the moment. But ever alert to the sounds of the dawning day, tension held like a wound spring within her massive body. She vibrated wild power.
The great cat was aware of a different sensation where the little human mouth suckled one tit. Deep in her animal consciousness she wondered what she was to do about this strange little creature for whom she felt the same protective concern as for her own offspring. The lioness felt no fear of the humans, yet she remained wary.
Her inner vision shifted to the warm moonless night when she had come back from hunting to discover a human odor permeating the den. She found one cub missing but no intruder in sight. As she began to follow the scent of human footsteps, she heard three distinctly whistled notes unlike those of any bird she knew. The sound soothed her anxious mind, and she suddenly felt reassured that her cub was alright.
The next morning she again heard the whistle while watching her four remaining cubs playing.
They found the baby wrapped in a bundle of furs all alone and tugged it toward the den but she ran to stop them and investigate. Sensing possible danger, she led her babies away a safe distance, then sat and watched for a long time.
No one came for it and, after another full day of watching and listening to the pitiful cries getting weaker, the mother lion walked cautiously to the bundle of furs, picked it up in her mouth and carried it into her den. Once again the notes trilled, this time with a slightly sweeter sound which calmed and reassured her.
Gently, she had torn away the dirty swaddling and neatly licked clean the furless skin, tasting its acrid urine and salty feces, smelling its sweet breath. She briefly considered eating it, but then it began to tug and suckle one of her teats and she had no further thought of making a meal of the baby.
Some days later there had been a great battle near the human compound, with loud noises and much smell of blood and metal in the air. She had kept her babies and the infant close by her in their cave all that day and night. But after the melee was over, the notes that told her everything was alright were played daily, at daybreak and nightfall.
And so they all kept safe in the shelter of their mountain cave as more moons passed and the seasons turned.
Under a waxing Quarter Moon one late morning the following Spring, Kiamat watched the perky girl-baby and her lion-cub companions at play. The crone’s wrinkled face contracted with suppressed laughter at four furred cubs cavorting with the sky-clad toddler.
The child showed no fear of the young beasts, nor they any distrust of her. They tumbled in the grasses, the child’s chubby hands grasping fuzzy ears and tails pulling at the cubs who, in turn, snuffled and mouthed her tan, naked body. Although the animals were considerably larger than the baby girl, she commanded their respect in a way that prevented harm.
Nearby on a rock outcrop lounged the mother lion basking in the sun.
Kiamat had lived many years of her long life in the company of the great beasts of the wilderness. She recalled her own youth as an apprentice to another aged shaman when she had learned the language that speaks to all wild creatures without words.
Music and rhythm were the secret universal language she learned and now used for reassuring the lioness.
Over uncounted years she had learned how her own body’s rhythms responded to the cycles of nature. Now, as an old woman, although her physical strength was waning, she knew how to adapt to the varying moods of the seasons. This allowed her to survive to an age beyond most humans.
The lioness twitched her ears and sniffed the air, sensing the presence of the watching crone. Kiamat noticed the big cat’s alertness and whistled the three sonorous notes. The large golden eyes of the cat turned directly on the old woman who met their piercing gaze with one of equal intensity. An understanding passed instantaneously between them: “We are both here to watch these babies and keep them from harm.”
Kiamat came to visit the lioness and her brood daily that spring and summer, always keeping a respectable distance. Often she would whistle softly or drum lightly on a small frame drum. The soothing sounds reassured the babies as well, and soon enough they became curious and crept closer. Before long she attained their trust and was allowed to pet the lion cubs and hold the little girl. The child was more interested than her playmates, recognizing in the elderly woman something of her own kind. She grew to love the rough touch of the old woman’s calloused hands which felt very similar to her lion mother’s scratchy tongue.
Finally a day came that Autumn, around the annual festival of Samhain when Kiamat came to take the child away with her. At first the mother lion raised her hackles and growled a warning to prevent this sudden change in their routine. But then the woman whistled the now familiar three-note refrain and the wild beast’s fears were soothed.
Though the little girl cried as she left her beloved playmates behind, she soon grew enchanted with her new adventure
The lioness and her cubs watched the child leave with the old woman and gave no further protest. The big cat understood she had served her purpose and now the child would be cared for by its own kind. She let out a single low-throated roar to bid farewell, and there followed the three notes of peace and blessing. The lioness settled back on the rock and yawned a great gaping sigh of relief.
About fourteen years later, in the Spring, three weeks before Beltane (May 1)
A beautiful young woman sat before a small writing desk in the parlor of a neat cabin. The cabin nestled among larger buildings of the Temple compound at the cliffs that overhung a churning sea below.
The young woman wrote in a journal:
At the Spring Equinox, on March twenty-first, I turned sixteen and entered womanhood. Three weeks from now, at Beltane, on May first, I am to be initiated into the Amazon priestess-hood of the Great Mother Moon Goddess, Cybele. I chafe at the thought.
I watch the rising of the sun through the barred window of the place in which I have been confined. It is a cozy little cottage just to the side of the large temple complex, and it is comfortable enough. I only chafe because I hate being confined. My mood grows more petulant and I grumble at the bowl of porridge that sits before me on the little table where I write my memoirs for the ceremony.
“Take this tasteless gruel away before I throw it at you!” She suddenly shouted through the grilled paneling of her locked chamber.
“But Ariana, you must eat if you are to be ready for your honoring rite on the feast of Beltane. There you will have plenty of delicious fare,” cajoles the elderly woman attending me in my cozy prison.
Eating is not her interest. Getting out of confinement is.
At sixteen, the Anatolian Amazon tribes say girlhood is over and womanhood has begun. But she felt herself already well grown, having had, as you will hear, a good many experiences usually reserved for adults.
Some say I am too young to know what I know, but I believe it is meant to be this way. Why should girls enter the world of womanly responsibility unprepared and inexperienced? In any case, my experience has shown me I want to be free of the cursed vows to priestess-hood. I want to live like the plain folk of the mountain village. I want to have a cottage and a garden and a passel of children at my skirts. I want, most of all, to be with Donnar forever. I will not let them take him into the temple service nor will I go through the damned initiation for a daughter of the goddess.
She understood why she was being kept isolated, for what Donnar and she had planned was indeed most shamefully disrespectful of the laws of the sacred temple.
For that we deserve to be penalized. Yet we had expected our punishment would banish us from the compound, thus letting us gain freedom of our vows. Foolish, I know. And now, Donnar sits imprisoned in a hut on the men’s side of the compound while I rage here.
She absentmindedly takes another spoonful of the mushy porridge which, moments ago she vowed not to eat. But she is hungry.
I feel empty inside and it helps to at least swallow food when I can’t fill my longing to be with Donnar. The Goddess cannot be so all-caring as they say she is, if she will do nothing to help Donnar and me escape this dread fate. What care I about Niami’s serene and strict counsel? Who am I that I should have to take her vows?
“Arianna! For shame!” The old woman jailer has guessed at the girl’s written complaint. “You well know all that Niami has done to help and protect you throughout your young life,” she scolds.
Ariana feels shamed and nods to let her see she heard and acknowledges the truth of what she said.
But there is the real question that nags me. Who am I? Strange memories haunt my dreams at times, yet why should there be anything unusual here? I am simply an orphaned child of peasant laborers taken in at around two years of age to live in the mountain woman’s camp. That is all. It is that simple. And, therefore, all the more reason for me to have my liberty to live a plain and simple life. I’m no goddess’ daughter, I’m a common peasant.
Yet the persistent question gnaws at my soul: Who am I really? Why do the elder priestesses whisper about me when they think I’m not listening? And perhaps most mysterious: where did I get the precious crystal that nestles between my breasts now and has always hung on its silver chain about my neck?
The crystal is what keeps me coming back to the temple. In my mind the crystal is my real mother, since I can’t recall any other. The crystal’s voice soothes me in my night fears and it has always led me in my daytime’s ventures. Often it has kept me safe from harm or helped me escape dangerous situations. I cannot give up my crystal, and for this I am pulled between my love for the Goddess and my desire for marriage to Donnar.
But while I fume I will write my story for any who may be left to read and care after this time of dreaded initiation is past.
CHAPTER THREE: FIRST JOURNAL MEMORY:
My earliest memory involves the crystal. I think I was about three years old: I was rolling about in the tall grass, laughing and playing with the lion cubs who came down daily from the den in the mountains above our valley.
Suddenly my crystal began to glow so brightly that the little cubs were startled and ran off. I was left sitting naked among the waving grasses and staring at the beam of light coming from my crystal. It lit up the white eight-petaled lilies that bloom in the meadow behind my grandmother’s hut. It seemed the flowers were singing and I sat for a long time enchanted by the lullaby sung by the flowers with the butterflies and bees joining in harmony.
When grandmother Kia came to fetch me, she was haloed in the golden light of my crystal too, and for a moment I thought she was some unearthly Being come down to visit us.
A world of pure magic surrounded my early childhood there in my grandmother’s little secluded cottage. I took it all for granted without a thought of loss or danger. What bliss!
I remember when the “Aunties” would come and take me riding on their great horses. Oh!
How I loved the feeling of the wind blowing through my hair, the pungent smell of the massive horse’s coats mixed with the tang of the women’s sweat. I can still hear the clatter of the mare’s hooves over the gravel on the beach where we raced. I rode sitting behind Grianne, and my best and earliest friend, Mara, rode behind her mother, Hypatia.
The muscles of the Amazon’s legs shone with sweat against the shining coats of the horses, and I can still feel the strength that flowed into me from just holding on and riding with them.
To this day there is nothing that helps me forget my troubles as fast as a race along the beach on my mare, Falah. The best part is how Dargon, the big lion races with us. He could easily outrun the horses, but he prefers to keep pace and just kind of jog alongside. He actually looks like he’s laughing as we run with the wind.
Sometimes I think the animals are better friends to me than any people I have ever known.
But I know some very wonderful people.
I know some bad ones too. Yes, there is certainly both Good and Evil in our world and the battles between them seem never to be fully decided. But that will come later in my story.
Grandmother Kiamat was my first teacher and always my fierce defender whenever I got into trouble, as I have too frequently done.
Grandmother taught me how to call the animals, how to listen to their thoughts, how to speak with them. All the mountain women do this, but Kia is the best. Animals come to speak with her all the time_ the deer, the squirrels and rabbits, the little birds: When I lived with Grandmother Kia as a child, they all stopped regularly by our cottage to get treats and kind words. Even the wolves would send a messenger to us on rare occasions. And, of course, the sacred pride of lions living in the caves above the mountain stream_ they visited us daily.
Kia whistled, sang, chirped, grunted, and even growled and roared with the animals. I soon learned to do the same. Now I think of all the animals as our kin. Especially the big falcon named Mataar, because he can read our minds and understand our talk. With Mataar, Kia doesn’t speak in animal sounds but with her own voice in the language of our people. He speaks to her in mind-pictures.
But Kia’s most special way of communicating to the animals is with a little flute that trills hauntingly beautiful music. When I was seven years old she helped me make one such flute of my own. I carry it with me everywhere, and often just playing it helps me overcome sadness, fear, or loneliness. The music brings me comfort. It also brings animals to keep me company, so I am never really alone. Even here, in my gentle prison the birds, squirrels, rabbits and deer come to my window to speak with me. They tell me, each in their own language, about the happenings in my beloved forest where I so long to be free and running now.
“Ariana, you have some company” My jailer now calls from the sitting area of my prison hut. “Can you put aside your pen and scroll to come and speak with Grandmother Kiamat?” It is, of course, not a matter of choice. I have to obey.
“Dear Kia,” I greet her and hug her small form in my firm arms. She feels as frail as a bird under her robes. I recall, with a twinge of sadness, how strong she always seemed when I was a child. I used to imagine she was like a guardian angel, never aging. I anticipated she would always be there to call upon for help and advice.
“Ari, my love, “she whispers now in a voice weakened with the years. “Why do you set yourself against all your friends? The boy, Donnar, is preparing for his ritual sacrifice willingly enough. Why do you continue to resist and make trouble for Dina, who only wishes to help you?”
“Grandmother” I protest, “I am writing my memories as you have instructed. I am abiding by the rules. What else do you require of me?” But I know she can read right through my pretense. She knows I have steeled my heart from the Goddess. Yet I do not think she knows Donnar and I still have plans to escape from the ritual.
“It is not for you to determine when and how to serve Her. Your fate was set at your birth and these things you will soon understand. Please do not try to escape from your destiny” says Kiamat in a stronger voice than I have heard from her in quite some time.
I have underestimated her. She’s still able to read my mind as well as she has always done. “I promise I won’t make any more trouble before the day of sacrifice and initiation” I say to her. We embrace again and she leaves me to my scrawling of memories.
But before I can set quill to parchment, a deep male voice at the door interrupts my thoughts.
“Ariana, its Aragon. Let me in.”
I open the door to my dear teacher, oldest of the temple eunuchs and Kia’s special friend. He limps into my small parlor, leaning on his great tall staff that is twice his own height now that he’s become stooped with age. He puts me in mind of a gnarled old mountain goat.
“Argon, how kind of you to come by. How is your health? Are your joint pains improved since I was able to find the arnica root for Kia’s salve?”
“My health is as good as an aged mage can hope for” answers the dark-skinned wizened man in his gruff way. “It is not my health that I’ve come to see you about, although I do thank you for the healing root. But, Ari, let us sit and recall some better times, for I fear that you have forgotten our teachings of all these years past.”
Argon lowers himself onto a mat and crosses his legs, sitting straight as a rod in his most commanding posture, his blue eyes piercing but filled with kindly concern. At this moment he looks more like the wise counselor of my childhood again, but with white hair flowing down his shoulders rather than the sleek black braid of his younger days. I know I must attend to his words and stifle my impulse to argue and defend myself.
“You still wear your moonstone at least” he says, cocking one bushy eyebrow cynically at the glittering crystal on my chest. “It’s a wonder you have not discarded it along with all our other sacred teachings. Yes, Ariana, I am quite suspicious of you since the events of the last month. What has overcome you?” Now a troubled concern creases his forehead, the tangled brows knit together like two hairy white caterpillars mating.
“Grandfather, I do not forget. The crystal guides me, still comforts me. But I cannot understand why I must undergo an initiation when I do not want to be a priestess.” I can hear the childish petulance in my voice, and I try for a more reasoned approach: “I only want to live as a normal woman, raising a family with Donnar. We are not, either of us, of the royal or sacred lines. He is merely a goatherd and I… I’m nobody at all. I’m just an orphaned foundling.”
“There is a great deal you do not yet know, Ariana” scolds Argon gruffly. “Do not jump to conclusions before you have found your true answers.” But he says nothing to illuminate whatever he refers to.
I know he won’t tell me any more until they determine I am ready to know. I suddenly feel exasperated by the secrets and mysteries of my life, which before have simply tantalized me. “Why are you and Kia scolding me for things I cannot help then?” But again my complaint sounds childish and I try to change the subject before I say things I will regret.
Taking a deep breath and make a request I know Argon will not refuse. “Could you at least tell me the story of our Goddess and the crystal again? It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it.”
CHAPTER FIVE: ARGON’S TALE; THE MYTH OF THE GODDESS
Argon clears his throat to recite the sacred story:
“In the days when the earth was young, the Goddess walked among men” he begins in his deep sing-song story-telling voice.
I sigh, knowing each word before he says it, so often have I heart this tale told. Soon, however, I find myself enchanted as if I’d never heard it before. I am again the little girl sitting at her teacher’s knee.
“A great stone fell from the sky. It fell to the earth upon a barren land where no trees, no flowers, no grasses grew. Where the stone fell, it fertilized the earth and from its shining surface rose the great mountain we call our home. And on the mountains appeared fruit-bearing trees, seed-bearing grasses, and fragrant multi-colored flowers. Around the foot of the mountain flowed the waters of the sea, caressing and protecting all the creatures that came to live on the Mother Mountain.
“Among those creatures walked a maiden with dark eyes and silver white hair so beautiful it nearly pained the eyes to look upon her. It was whispered among the animals that she was born whole from the sky-stone itself. The bear and lions and deer called her their Moon Maiden and they loved her with such a devoted passion that they would willingly kill themselves for her if the fur, bones, or meat of their bodies would help her survive. But she almost never asked this of them. They would have fiercely protected her from enemies or predators, had such been around at the time. But there were none, for this was a peaceful time when even the animals lived in harmony among their many kind. The Moon Maiden spoke with the animals in their own tongue and she lived with them in great delight.
“Yet she longed for companionship with some of her own kind. So one day she went to a cave by the seashore. There she modeled a small form from some of her moon blood mixed with clay. The form was shaped like herself, but an infant. She gently bathed the little figure in the sea and she blew life into it from her own sacred breath. From a bone in her finger, she chipped a small crystal which she hung around the child’s neck on a silver chain. Then she left the babe in the cave where a great mountain lioness lived with her brood of cubs. The little girl grew up among the lions, nursed and nurtured and trained by them in all the magic of the wilds.
“Meanwhile, Moon Maiden traveled the land searching for others of her own kind. At last, upon a wide plain high above the sea, she came upon a single tent around which many great wild horses roamed. Moon Maiden went into the tent. It was very large, with numerous tall peaked pavilions divided by transparent veils of colored gauze. We would say it looked more like a temple or a castle than a tent, but no one seemed to occupy it. The Moon Maiden called out but there was no answer. She quietly went from room to room, passing through the misty curtains of rose and green and gold. She found a sumptuous meal set out ready to be eaten, so she sat down and ate. In another room she found a luxurious bed covered in silken pillows ready to be slept upon, so she lay down to take a nap since she was weary from her long search.
“As the Moon Maiden slept, a handsome prince came upon the tent in his travels. He, too, entered and called and searched and ate the food and then, at last, found the beautiful maiden asleep upon the bed of silken pillows. He immediately fell in love with her so desperately that he could not restrain himself. He fell upon her as she slept and attempted to make love to her. But as he held her in his arms, he felt her turn rigid as a rock, then sharp as a blade, then cold as ice. And he found himself holding, not the beautiful maiden of his longing, but a large jagged quartz crystal. In his horror and grief he tore his hair, wailed in agony, and with a sharp edge of the stone he cut off his own male parts.
“Where the emasculated prince ran shrieking across the mountains, his blood soaked into the earth. Wherever it fell, beautiful narcissus flowers and pomegranate trees bloomed. His wounds healed quickly and he devoted himself to watching over the Moon Stone in the great tent on the plain. But from time to time he would mount one of the wild horses and ride through the countryside in hopes of finding some other folk for companionship, for he was lonely.
“At last, one day as the eunuch prince sat at the tent’s entrance, a rider came toward him across the plain. She appeared gradually, riding her proud mare through a shrouded mist. At either side of the bareback rider paced a majestic mountain lion, a male and a female.
“As her form became clearer the eunuch’s heart raced, for he thought it was his beautiful Moon Maiden returning. But it was not the Moon Maiden; it was her daughter. The lovely young woman wore at her throat a chip from the Mother Stone. In her arms she cradled a mountain lion cub that had been injured in a fall. She placed the cub into the eunuch’s arms and asked him to care for it until she could return. Then she left with her animal companions to scout the mountain for dark forces that had invaded and begun prowling the peaceful land.
“This Warrior Maiden was to become the first High Priestess, called Cybele_ avenger of her Mountain Mother’s enemies.”
And so ends Argon’s tale. We say nothing more, but look deeply into each other’s eyes. I know he has given me a hint of my own fate, for until now I had not heard him tell that the Moon Maiden’s daughter wore a crystal chip like my own.
I watch Argon’s hunched form disappear into the woods and tears wet my cheeks. I am not sure what it is I feel, whether shame for my obstinate rebellion; sorrow for the loss of a once peaceful world; or regret for the implied ending of my own selfish dreams.
I lay down on my cot and another memory comes flooding over me. It is of the day that my blissful innocence was shattered.
SECOND JOURNAL ENTRY: A MEMORY OF CHILDHOOD AT AGE SEVEN.
I was seven years old, still living with Kiamat among the wild animals. A gray rain veiled the forest and a hushed breeze whispered through the leaves. I was alone because Kia had gone to market in the village.
I walked to the bank of the stream behind our cottage and kneeled down to peer into its clear waters for the ancient turtle who lived there. Shadows hid the river bottom, but I could see my own reflection on the surface: large brown eyes, high cheekbones, long black hair falling in waves around my face, wide and friendly mouth. I saw that I was growing bigger, losing the chubby baby cuteness, getting kind of tall and skinny.
I had no particular feelings about how I looked at that time in my life, just curiosity. I felt completely satisfied with myself, content with my life. No fears. No sense of danger.
The shadowed waters failed to reflect the brown-robed and hooded man who snuck up behind me.
Large boney hands grabbed me from behind, one holding the back of my neck so I could not turn around to see who it was. I screamed loudly, once, before another hand clamped across my mouth. I bit and kicked and scratched and wiggled with all my might. But the hands held me firm and soon my eyes were covered by a rag that stank of mildew and another stuffed into my mouth. I smelled and tasted foul breath, a stale mix of garlic, onions and ale. Voices grunted, no words were said, but I sensed there were at least two or three attackers.
Then I felt them fumbling at my neck and knew they were taking my crystal, trying to break the silver chain. It held fast, but I could feel it cut sharply into the back of my neck.
More hands were tying my arms and legs. They were lifting me, carrying me away. I continued to writhe and squirm so they had some difficulty holding on to me.
Suddenly a great roaring, hissing, grunting, snarling came from behind us. I was carried a short way, bouncing around in the panicked grasp of my fleeing captor. Then I felt myself fall sharply as if thrown down. My head hit a rock and I felt very dizzy but I did not lose consciousness.
As I struggled to free myself from the ropes binding my hands, time stopped. I heard loud shrieks and cries swirling like a tempest around the place where I lay blindly struggling. Gradually the noise subsided and one lone shrieking voice faded into the distance. At last I broke free, tore off my blindfold and looked about me.
There stood Gorvan, one of my young lion playmates_ a mere two-year-old cub but massively strong nevertheless. His mouth dripped blood and tatters from a dirty brown cassock dangled from one sharp fang. Behind him lay the mangled corpse of one of my abductors.
A few yards ahead of us was another lion, Dargon_ the huge male with a massive mane who has grown up in the temple compound and is said to be my own age. He stood over a second corpse, not hardly recognizable as a human. Dargon loped over to me, snuffled my hair, grunted his sympathy, and watched while I finished unknotting my bonds.
I was shaking with shock and also with relief at the ordeal ending. I wanted Kia and began crying for the first time during the entire event. I had to get away and find Kia before someone came back looking for those men. I put my arms around Dargon’s neck and shed tears into his furry ruff.
“Find Kia” I directed the lions once my tears had subsided. They turned toward the path to the village, which was in the opposite direction from where the men would have come. I followed, determined to report the encounter to Kia without breaking down in childish sobs. “I must look brave” I told myself.
The lions, father and son, flanked me into the village where we soon found Kia at the communal well. She was speaking with a tall woman whom I had never seen before. I took a deep breath prepared to explain my bedraggled appearance and launch into my tale.
But Kia smiled broadly to see me approaching with my wild companions and didn’t seem to suspect anything amiss. She turned to the stranger and said, “As unplanned as this is, it seems an appropriate time for you two to meet.” Then she called me over to them, saying “Ariana, come and meet Niami, our High Priestess and the queen of the Amazon tribes.”
I temporarily forgot my fright upon seeing the striking woman. Something about her stirred feelings of sadness mixed with joy within me. She reached out invitingly and I let myself be taken into her embrace. Her scent was vaguely familiar and the touch of this woman’s graceful hands brought tears to my eyes_ the tears I had sworn not to shed here.
At this point Kia noticed the scratches on my face and arms, the disheveled appearance of my hair and clothes. She cried out in alarm, “My dearest Ari! What in Goddess’ name has happened to you?”
At last I told my tale. Between Kia’s murmured horror and the tall woman’s probing questions, I was able to report the entire debacle without going into hysterics. The women gave Dargon and Garvon their due praise and reassured me that I had handled myself in the best way possible. They pronounced us all brave, which made me feel rather proud in spite of my earlier shame.
I didn’t know it then, but my tale of nearly being kidnapped heralded the next phase of our tribe’s recurrent war with Vipira, the Sorceress and her priests on the Dark Mountain.
The following morning I wake up to the sounds of a thunderstorm brewing over the mountain, but the rising sun sends warm rays through my window. I have slept fitfully although my bed is comfortable.
I hear my aged jailer fusing about the grounds outside and feel a twinge of regret over my outburst at her yesterday morning. She is a sweet old lady who doesn’t deserve my wrath. But where else to vent it now? She is just unfortunate to be given charge of my confinement during this month before my initiation ceremony. Fortunately for me, she seems a bit deaf and somewhat dull, despite her uncanny ability to read my thoughts. Her disabilities may shield her from my temper tantrums, so I feel less guilt for ranting and railing at her.
“More company, Ariana” she calls in her croaking frog’s voice. Then I hear her say to my visitor, “Mara, you are certainly up with the birds this morning. I’m not sure Ariana is awake yet at all.”
“I’m awake if not completely up” I call out the window to my good friend who is walking quickly up the path to my vestibule. “What’s chasing you, Mara?” I ask as she throws open the door and bounds into the room wearing a troubled frown.
“That accursed Rhoda!” she exclaims. “I heard her saying to one of the priestesses that she plans to take Dargon and Gorvan on a hunt. But she does not know the lions, tells everyone she’s afraid of them. Why would she want to hunt with them? She’s out to make more trouble is my guess.” Mara hardly stops for a breath. “What should I do?”
“I wouldn’t worry about the lions” I say, climbing out of bed to put on my day robe. “Dargon and Gorvan are perfectly capable of watching out for themselves. If anyone is in danger it might be Rhoda herself, thinking those beasts will bend to her mean will.”
But inside I don’t feel quite so confident. The lions are used to obeying. They don’t question people’s motives and could be tricked into a trap.
Mara reads my thoughts and says, “The animals trust all of us. Gorvan almost let himself be a priest’s offering last fall, remember?”
I nod but say nothing while I go on with my morning ablutions. Splashing the icy well water over my face helps me think more clearly. I brush and braid my hair while Mara paces the room saying, “With you confined to the waiting hut, I’m the only one who can get to her. She has everyone else wrapped around her spikey-clawed fingers. She has them convinced she has completely recanted her sorceress mother’s ways. They think she will actually become a full-fledged priestess in a few years_ at least the novices and mid-class girls do. I’m not so sure that Niami or the senior priestess are so fooled, but they don’t watch her very closely at all.” Mara stops talking for a moment to think. Then she adds, raising an eyebrow suspiciously, “I’ve seen her sneaking around the eunuch’s quarters.”
This last gets my attention. Mara is about to go on talking when I break in. “What? You’ve seen her at Argon and Navarro’s quarters? That’s where they are holding Donnar!” I feel a chill down my spine. “Where is Radam? Is he skulking around with his sister? Something does feel very suspicious.”
“I haven’t seen Radam in weeks” says Mara. “He seems to have gone off by himself shortly after we performed the purification and healing sessions for them.” She pauses. “But it’s the lions I’m concerned for right now” she says, returning to the matter at hand.
I feel ashamed for having discounted the potential danger to our lions in my anxiety about Donnar. “What do you suggest doing? I feel so terribly helpless imprisoned here! I’m so sorry it has to be left to you alone, but you do know the lions as well as I do.”
“I’m going to take them out on a hunt right now, before she gets to them” Mara says decisively. “But may I borrow Falah? My horse, Phythian, has thrown a shoe and needs to be reshod.”
I quickly assent to her request and agree_ with profound relief_ that it is a good plan. I wish Mara luck, and we promise to keep our eyes and ears open for other hints of trouble from Rhoda.
I watch as Mara sprints out of the garden gate and Dina stands ready to lock it after her. I feel my frustration at my useless entrapment more sharply than ever. But then another memory stirs, triggered by our conversation. I sit at my table and pick up the quill to write.
CHAPTER EIGHT: A JOURNAL MEMORY: AGE NINE.
I am reminded of another time that Mara and I intercepted a plot against the lions. It was the seventh autumn that I lived with the Amazon tribe. At nine years of age, Mara and I were already inseparable friends. Every day, after practicing trick riding across the meadows, we would scout around the edge of the woods that bordered the tribe’s fields.
On one such foray we came across heavy boot-prints leading into the wood. We dismounted and tethered the horses in order to scout on foot quietly, as we knew to do when hunting small game. But this time we carried no bows and arrows, only our hunting knives sheathed at our belts.
The wood seemed unusually still. Birds sat silently, hidden among pine boughs. Squirrels and gophers peeked cautiously out from behind the trunks of oak trees or from the red and brown leaved branches. Even the leaves beneath our feet seemed muted, not crackling.
A deep voice spoke: “Who goes there?” Then silence. Heavy breathing. Not ours.
Two brown-robed priests broke a trail, shuffling noisily in our direction. We held still as stones and they did not see us shielded behind a clump of deep red sumac.
“Don’t be so jumpy, Grog” said one to the other. “Those lions aren’t after us here. It’s us will soon be after them when Vipira returns from her meeting with the brothers of the Dark Mountain. We’ll get revenge on them for what they did to Org and Dork, summer before last. Maybe we can get that girl with the crystal too.”
Their voices faded into the forest so we heard no more. But we had learned enough. Making certain they were gone, we raced to our horses and sprang onto them running.
We galloped into the temple courtyard shouting. “The lions are in danger! Vipira’s army plans to capture and kill them!” Breathlessly, we recounted what we had overheard.
All the leaders of the temple compound gathered to discuss what to do. Perhaps because it was my first time taking part in a serious discussion with the tribe’s leaders, I can remember the conversation that followed as clearly as if it just happened:
The Amazon warrior, Hypatia, guessed Vipira and her priests would try to abduct some cubs to bait the older lions. She reminded us that the lions are extremely protective of their young and would not hesitate to follow a trail left by the priests.
Grianne, followed up on her comrade’s line of thought, adding that the full moon meant the big lions would be off hunting and mating. “It is a perfect time to get into the caves and steal cubs undetected. We have done so ourselves, but with much different motives,” she said.
“The lions trust us because Kia speaks to them first” added Argon.
Navarro guessed the priests would set traps along the trail to catch the big lions following their scent. He suggested we set our own traps to ambush the priests as they came down the trail, so we could chase them into their own snares before the lions got there.
Mara made us all laugh when she remarked that the lions had no doubt learned to like the taste of those brown-robed priests since the event of my near abduction when I was seven.
“But how do we know which den and which path they will choose” pondered Niami.
“Still we must stop them before they hurt the little cubs” I chimed in. “I think it will be Dargon’s cave since it is closer down the mountain. There are only two paths to the caves and both lead past Grandmother Kia’s cabin. One crosses the brook and the other goes around the gorge,” I explained, although they all knew this as well as I did.
“We should split into two groups and each scout one of the paths” said Hypatia. She felt sure the priests wouldn’t be prowling until nightfall so we had some time to prepare for them.
Since I knew the area like the back of my hand, I offered to go and alert Kia. I also pulled out my flute and played a few notes to begin warning the lions immediately.
“If the lions are anywhere within range they will be alerted by that” teased Grianne, grinning at me. “That was smart of you, Ari.” She patted my arm like a comrade, which made me feel really included.
“Now let’s all ride to Kia’s together and set up our own traps,” said Argon.
But I knew that, more than capturing the lions, the priests of Dark Mountain wanted my crystal. That’s when I came up with my secret plan. “I’ll go up to Dargon’s caves to get the cubs first thing,” I said to the group. But in private I told Mara to take our horses higher up the mountain to Gorvan’s den and wait there for my signal to come down. I did not tell the other’s the rest of my plan.
A fine mist rose around me where I sat by the big stone in the meadow by Garvon’s den. The cubs wrestled and sniffed around me in the tall grass. I made no attempt to hide. A full moon rose above the trees and cast its shimmering path on the sea far below. The trees spoke of mysteries as they swayed against the moonlit heavens with wind moaning softly through their beckoning branches. An owl hooted nearby. Bats swooped high overhead. A wolf howled in the distance, answered by another closer by.
While I listened to the night sounds I also listened to my crystal. I had asked it to alert me when the intruders were near, and to show from which direction they would enter. For a long time the crystal remained silent and for a moment I feared it would not speak to me there on the mountain. Then I felt a soft vibration at my breast and the voice in my mind told me Vipira and two henchmen were coming from behind the rocks, on the path through the gorge. My heart jumped into my throat and I caught my breath to keep from making any sound.
I made sure the crystal was tucked securely in my vest and my collar was firmly closed around the chain. I knew they would be surprised and thrilled to find me lazily napping there by the lion cubs. I tried to appear completely unaware of their approach. I heard them climb through the brush. I was surprised to see the tall thin silhouette of the sorceress, herself, as she made her way over the ridge. She and her companions didn’t notice me at first because they were busy setting up the net with which they planned to catch the cubs. Two cubs began to growl and another prepared to pounce on the intruders.
At that moment I sat up and said, “What are you doing?” I looked directly at Vipira and tried to sound curious rather than raging mad. Vipira nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of my voice, but I acted as if I were just startled from a sound sleep and momentarily confused. It gave her time to compose herself. I could almost see the wheels turning in her mind at this unexpected luck. Here was the object of her greatest desires nearly being handed her on a platter of silver moonlight.
She signaled the priests to stop what they were doing, so the cubs were ignored for the moment and I saw them run to the safety of their cave. Vipira came toward me, her arms outstretched to hug me. “Well, if it isn’t our little Ariana!” she said, grinning crazily. “I didn’t mean to startle you my dear. We were only going to trap some snakes for our Samhain ceremonies this month. Our snakes have died off and we knew of a clutch of young vipers around these old stones.” She lied as smoothly as a snake slithers over stone.
Vipira is, after all, Niami’s stepsister and likes to consider herself kin to the tribe she so wickedly plots to overthrow. I pretended to accept her embrace, but quickly slipped out of her grasp when I felt her hand begin searching my neckline.
Then I gave one sharp whistle and down from the mountain charged Falah. Mara, on Phythian, rode close behind carrying her warrior’s shield and waving her double-headed ax. My horse plowed through the group of thieves, tossing them to the ground. I grabbed hold of Falah’s flying mane and jumped on her back shrieking my best battle cry, brandishing my short dagger.
Unfortunately Vipira slipped silently down the path of the streambed and escaped detection of our waiting ambush there. But we chased the two priest-henchmen back down the path of the gorge from which they had come. It was a hilarious sight to see them scramble and roll in the tangle of their nets and robes right into the pit-trap they’d set for the lions. It was an easy matter for our warriors to pull them out and capture them for trespassing on our sacred mountain.
Looking back, we saw the big lions watching from the cliff edge with the little cubs at their side. I whistled a cheerful few notes to assure them all was well. Dargon lifted his big head and gave a mighty roar of victory.
But this was only the beginning of our latest war with the Dark Mountain Tribe.
I set my quill aside and reflect on what I’ve just written. It seems such a long time ago that these events happened. Yet, seven years is not really a long time at all. When I was nine I certainly felt myself to be filled with my own power. I believed I could do anything. I knew no fear despite the close encounters I had already had with death. Perhaps it is so for all girls before we become Moon Maidens, as they call us after we begin having our monthly moon blood.
Now my dear old nanny “jailer” brings me my noon meal, which I am in a much better mood to eat than I was yesterday. The visits from friends and news of outside happenings have lifted my spirits. Shortly after Mara left this morning, our faithful falcon Mataar stopped at my window to say that Mara did indeed take the lions out onto the mountain before Rhoda was able to find them.
As I eat, my mind meanders over my present situation rather than my past. I am surprised to feel almost grateful for this opportunity to reflect. Seems my life is always filled with activity, both pleasant and unsettling, and I rarely stop to think beyond the immediate event or crisis. It feels good to have time to ponder deeper meanings_ even forced upon me, as this opportunity has been.
Now I worry about what Rhoda is up to, and I fear it is nothing good. Especially since Mara saw her around the eunuch’s quarters. Is she visiting Donnar? I have long suspected that she has her eye on him for her own greedy purposes. Alone with my thoughts, I search my true feelings about him and about our relationship.
Poor Donnar. He is really quite simple and doesn’t know how gullible he can be. He’s well aware of his masculine charms however, and is easily seduced to exercise them with women. I wonder how he will make it as a temple eunuch, given his randy nature. That makes me grin at the irony of his situation. He has rather innocently bumbled into the mysterious melee of our tribe’s crisis, challenges, celebrations and catastrophes.
Much as I enjoy Donnar’s sexual vitality, I have learned not to trust him to be faithful in love. Nor do I expect that of any man. I, myself, cherish my freedom to roam upon the fields of romance as I do on the hills of the hunt. This has long been the way of our tribe, and it is one secret of our long peaceful survival in these wild lands, for we do not succumb to the evils of jealousy and possessiveness, though we may feel those emotions as any other would.
But such is the very core of Vipira’s domain. Jealous possession is the poison she spews over everything she touches. Rhoda radiates that same energy, I think, despite her efforts to appear friendly.
But her brother, Radam, puzzles me. He is not at all so devious as his sister. He seems to be afraid of her sometimes too, I think. Perhaps he might prefer to stay here and be initiated into our tribe. He might be a good friend and positive influence on Donnar, for he does not seem as sexually driven.
This thought brings me back to Rhoda_ what evil is she really up to? And how can I help Mara waylay the latest threat to our lions? It finally occurs to me to ask my crystal. I’ve been so self-absorbed in writing about the past and worrying about the future that I’ve almost forgotten to live in the present!
I clasp my moonstone amulet in my right hand and hold it over my heart. I feel it pulsing softly in rhythm with my heartbeat. I empty my mind, hold myself still until all around me grows distant and I feel like I’m floating in space. I form an image of Mara in my mind and ask to be shown where my friend is now.
The vision is faint at first, then becomes clear. I draw in my breath when I see Mara sitting in the sacred grove side by side with Radam. The two are conversing intensely, excitedly gesturing with their hands. They wear serious expressions, as if they are worried or anxious. I wish I could hear what they are saying, but I must wait to get that directly from Mara herself. Where did she find Radam? I thought he was on a vision quest in the mountains or something.
A movement in the trees behind them catches my eye. My heart stops beating for a second. It’s Rhoda! It looks like she’s spying on them and up to no good. I’m sure they have no idea she’s there. How can I warn them?
Suddenly Mataar appears in my vision, but when I actually hear his crackly voice, I jerk out of my trance. I find him sitting on a branch outside my window. I immediately think-talk to the falcon asking him to warn Mara and Radam of Rhoda eavesdropping on them. The big bird flies off in a flash of glossy feathers.
I wait a couple of minutes and then ask to be shown what is happening. I see Mataar fly in and imagine him making a ruckus, since Mara and Radam notice him immediately and they turn to the bushes where Rhoda had been skulking. She is gone. I give a brief prayer of thanks to the Goddess
What a wondrous thing it is that I can sit here in my prison and still have such easy access to the outside world. It is no ordinary thing, my precious crystal, yet I manage to wear it as if it’s just a trinket. I certainly am not deserving of such magic power. Why have I been entrusted with such incredible secrets?
The question reminds me of the first time my crystal spoke to me. I pull out the scroll and quill to write:
CHAPTER TEN: THE SECRET OF THE CRYSTAL (Age Nine)
The crystal has been so much a part of me for as long as long as I can remember that I rarely even give it a thought. But one day it spoke to me.
“Find the Mother-Stone” it said.
The voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. It came from inside my head, but I had not breathed such words, had not thought such a thought, and had no idea what it meant. I looked around me. I was sitting beneath a favorite tree in the courtyard, resting after noon meal. No one was with me, not even any of the animals.
“Mataar, was that you?” I called up into the tree. No answer. There was no big falcon in sight. I decided I must have been dozing off and had a dream. I leaned back to doze again, but before I could close my eyes I felt the crystal move on my chest. I looked down. It was aglow with an unusual light. “Find the Mother-Stone.” The words came much clearer, stronger.
I was transported by an unknown power into a private world of light and color. I felt no fear, but was transfixed where I sat, awed. “Where do you wish me to look?” I asked the stone, holding it cradled against my heart. I spoke these words in my mind, not out loud.
The voice of the crystal directed me to go to the Labyrinth Court and follow the maze to its center. “There you will find a key” it said. I got up and did as instructed.
The Labyrinth Court is a sacred space where we perform certain magic rites. A pattern made of semiprecious stones is laid into the tile floor in a large spiral that twists and winds in upon itself. I knew no one was allowed to wander its path without sanction, but I felt no fear of being found in disobeyance on that occasion. The voice of the crystal was my sacred authority. Although I had never walked the maze before, my feet found the correct turnings.
When I reached the center of the maze, there on a small stone alter lay a single silver key. I picked it up. It felt cool, yet it vibrated an inner warmth to my fingers. “Now what?” I asked the pulsing crystal at my breast. Into my mind came an image of the narrow golden door at the back of the temple’s main altar. I went there. The key fit the lock and the door swung open.
A raised platform of black marble stood in the center of the small octagonal chamber. It was lit by sunlight from clearstories in its high ceiling. On the platform, cradled on a fine cloth of royal purple, rested a large quartz crystal rock. It sparkled every hue of the rainbow from its hundreds of facets. I was momentarily blinded by the glory of color and light. Then, as my eyes adjusted to the brilliance of that holy chamber, I was drawn closer to look at one spot that seemed slightly darker.
“Hold me there,” the voice of my crystal said.
When I set my little crystal against the darkened spot, it nestled into the small roughened area, fitting perfectly, as if it belonged there. The small crystal vibrated gently and hummed with a softly soothing melody. Holding my precious crystal against the broken fragment of that powerful rock, I realized that my crystal had originally been part of the Mother Stone.
But I could make no more sense of my discovery, and when I asked Grandmother Kia about it she only scolded me lightly for having gone into that sacred place alone. It seemed like she didn’t even hear my question. So it remains a mystery how I came to wear a crystal chipped from the tribe’s ancient sacred Mother Stone_ the stone that dropped from the sky.
But in uncovering that mystery I was shown that my crystal could speak to me. I began to experiment with the crystal’s voice. I asked it questions as I went about my daily chores exercising and grooming the horses, or feeding the goats. “Who will be next to come into the stables?” I would test it. And whoever it named would soon be the next person to join us there. Or I would ask it to show me where my friend Mara was and I would be given an image of her practicing her target shooting, or helping her mother tend the gardens.
Once I got a picture of her walking hand in hand with a young boy in the woods. The target shooting and gardening I asked her about and she confirmed. I decided not to mention her tryst in the woods. I must confess I felt a wicked sense of power, thinking I could spy on my friends and know the secrets of those around me.
But I was soon shown that such use of the magic was not appropriate. When I tried to see into Grandmother’s doings, the stone simply remained blank. When I tried to probe the secret rites of the Priestess Niami, the stone nearly knocked me unconscious with a blast of light and heat. After I shook myself awake, it said, “Never pry into powers beyond your knowing.” I have obeyed that command but for one or two times which I will recount later.
Glancing out my window I see the skies growing gray with approaching storm clouds. Then I hear another visitor approaching quickly through the first splashes of rain.
“Navarro! How nice of you to come by my humble abode.” I say to the handsome, broad-shouldered man striding into my parlor. I curtsy in a faint attempt at humor.
He bows deeply, holding his plumed green forest hat out at arm’s length_ a few drips of rain water falls to the floor but we ignore that. He bends on one knee and kisses my hand, saying, “How fares my princess in her dungeon today?”
We both laugh merrily as he rises and we embrace warmly. “It is so good to see you.” We say in unison, and burst out laughing again.
Navarro and I share a mutual streak of slightly sarcastic appreciation for each other’s mysterious and puzzling situations. He is a foreign prince, captured by the Amazons during a border war with his people two decades ago. Since then, he has become in sequence: first the chosen sacred-marriage partner of the High Priestess, Niami; then her avowed true love; than a willing self-castrated eunuch in service of the Goddess; and finally the top advisor and official administrator to her majesty’s realms.
Through all this, Navarro tells me privately, he has never made a decision for himself, but has felt himself led by some mystical talisman to a fated destiny. He jokes about it the same way I joke that my mysterious crystal and unknown origins decree my destiny without my consent. We both view ourselves pawns of some higher power.
Thunder rumbles in the distance while we sit, each with our own thoughts for a moment.
Now I am reminded of Mara’s earlier visit and say, “I’m told the sorceress’ daughter visits your quarters daily. Why?”
“Not daily, but she has stopped by a few times to see the young lad awaiting his doom,” says Navarro, trying to make light of the matter. “But you can hardly expect him to welcome that woman’s flirtations under the circumstances.” Thinking a moment, he adds, “I am sure you could still rouse his interest, my beauty, were you free to visit. But since that cannot happen, he wiles away his days in a stupor of self-questioning.”
This hardly helps quell my worries regarding our planned escape. But of course I say nothing of this to Navarro. Instead, I ask him another question. “Have you heard Rhoda speak o riding out with the lions? I’ve been told she has bragged about doing so recently and wondered how that can be, given her avowed fear and distrust of the animals.”
Thunder cracks. I watch Navarro’s brow furrow in a surprised frown. “I have heard no such plans from her, but I did see her at the stables asking to ride one of the older mares yesterday.” For a minute of silence we listen to the rain drumming on the roof of the cottage. Then he adds, “It has seemed odd to me that she does not ride easily and is afraid of animals, but I suspect she has been brutalized by the wretched lion-baiting and other animal torture those dark priests do.”
“I have wondered about that too. When Donnar and I first met them years ago, both she and her brother spoke to us of some very bizarre sexual rituals.” I pause to think. “Donnar and I were exposed to some of those terrifying practices ourselves last fall, although we managed to escape before they were able to do anything really awful.”
“You were very brave to break free as you did. We would not have found you soon enough to stop them, I fear,” says Navarro. He shakes his head dolefully at the recollection of that near disaster.
The sky has grown dark, lightning flashes, thunder rumbles and booms as we continue our discussion. I say, “It really is no wonder neither of them are at ease around the animals. And Radam is crippled_ perhaps that was not the result of a simple fall as he claims. Maybe it was caused by having to participate in a lion-baiting?”
“I had never stopped to think of that,” says Navarro. “It is hard for me to find sympathy in my heart for those mean-spirited rascals. But, of course, they are a product of their upbringing under Vipira’s spell. It hardly seems possible to image that woman being anyone’s mother, such a darkly vicious beast that she is. And, of course her children would be seen as spawn of the devil whom she worships.”
The storm is letting up. Rain falls gently, splashing on leaves by my window with a gentle shake and shush. I am saddened by this conversation and say, “It does make it easier for me to forgive them when I think of how awful it must have been to grow up in that hellish place.” But recalling current events, I add, “yet I don’t trust them. And right now I have a suspicion that Rhoda is up to something no good. I don’t know whether Radam is involved though. Have you seen anything of him since the purification rites last month?”
Navarro shakes his head. “It seems he took off on his little donkey into the mountains following the defeat of his mother and her tribe last Samhain. I suspect he is perhaps recounting his own sins.”
“He does make me feel sad. He seems such a pathetic fellow even though he tries to act tough.” I reflect out loud. “I’ve always felt he has a soft spot in him that he tries to cover up in front of his sister. She is by far the more ruthless of the two of them.”
Saying this, I am reminded of yet another puzzle and I ask Navarro, “Is it true that Vipira is Niami’s step sister? Who is their mother?”
Navarro looks at me in wide-eyed astonishment. “It is Kia, of course. I thought you knew she is the High Priestess’ mother and the tribe’s old queen.”
He tousles my hair and gets up to leave. “Perhaps it is time for you to dig a bit farther into your own background, Ariana, and put aside the questing of others’ secrets!” We both laugh and hug a quick farewell. I watch him splash cheerfully through the puddles on the cobblestone path. Then I turn back to my desk.
I am stunned by the revelation Navarro just left me with. I had no idea and am awestruck, wondering how I failed to make that important connection in all the years I lived with Kia. Once again, the nagging question rings in my mind: “And then, who am I?”
The question has nagged me as long as I can remember, but whenever I have tried to get information from Kia or others, it seems they do not want to tell me. Even my crystal remains silent on that question.
Does it portend something awful that I should not know? Could I, too, be the spawn of some sort of devil? It gives me chills to think about it, yet if it is so, it might give me greater reason to evade their plans to initiate me into the priestesshood.
I find a wicked hope in this conjecture, and then feel shamed again, knowing all the kindness and protection I have been given here. Why must I nag at myself so? Why can’t I be content with all I have been given!
CHAPTER TWELVE: MY EARLY LIFE AS A TEMPLE NOVICE
The sky has cleared of storm clouds and the sun warms my back. I feel compelled to do as Navarro has suggested, to search more deeply into my own background. I shall look now at my early years here as a Temple Novice.
In my eighth year with the Amazons, I had just turned ten and it was time for me to move from grandmother Kiamat’s cottage to live permanently in the temple compound, where I would enter the first years of training for priestesshood.
This was a bittersweet time for me, as I was eager to join the other young girls in learning the arts of sacred dance and music and art and ritual. But my heart ached at the thought of leaving dear Kia and the freedom of our wilderness home. Of course, I could visit her whenever I chose, and the animals will come to the temple compound for visits on occasion, just like they do at the cottage. My dearest animal companions, Dargon and Garvon, are in permanent residence there besides, so I knew I would not be lonely.
Nevertheless, it was a time of sadness and loss.
Grandmother Kia prepared me to deal with loss by instructing me in my first sacrificial rite. Together we went to the pasture and spent an afternoon romping with the goats and their young kids. It was early summer. A waxing quarter moon hung in the clear sky above us. The First Quarter moonphase is traditionally a time for letting go of things past, cutting ties that bind us to outworn attachments. It is a time to break free and move forward into the unknown future.
Then, in early evening, Kia helped me select a particularly pretty little kid from among the flock. It was one to which I had developed some personal attachment. I had assisted at its birth and helped feed it when its mother took ill. Now I carried the trusting baby goat gently in my arms, murmuring soothing words. A low stone altar sat in a clearing by the edge of the stream.
There I laid the small one down and spoke to it quietly. I asked it to forgive me if I hurt it now, and to know that I would honor its spirit as a power in my life ever after. I asked it to permit me to take its life now, as I had been privileged to help give it life earlier that spring. I promised that the Goddess’ spirit would guide it soon to return into another life.
The little goat looked at me calmly and bleated softly, licked my hand, and laid its head obediently on the stone block. With my sacred hunting knife, I slit its throat cleanly once and the kid died without any struggle. Tears were streaming down my cheeks so profusely that they dropped onto the stone and washed the goat’s blood directly into the earth at our feet.
This was my first lesson in letting go of something I loved. It makes me sad yet to remember that day. The Goddess does not ask us to sacrifice unnecessarily, but at certain turnings of the yearly wheel and at significant turning points of our earthly lives she asks that we show our devotion by giving her something which we cherish.
Actually, the blood that most pleases the Goddess is that which flows naturally from women’s own bodies, our sacred menstrual blood. I was not yet of age to give her my moonblood, however, so my little goat provided for me. Later that evening, when we roasted its flesh to conclude our ritual, I had great trouble swallowing it even though I understood that by doing so I would take the goat’s spirit into me as a source of power.
On the day following our private sacrificial ceremony, Grandmother Kia and I travelled to the temple compound on foot. The temple lies just a short distance down the mountain from our cabin in the woods. We followed the streambed rather than taking the well-travelled horse trail. Along the way we sang songs and stopped to visit with several of our animal friends. I told them I would miss the woods, but wanted them to visit me at the temple. They promised to come, which they have always done and do even now while I sit caged in my waiting hut.
Life at the temple compound was different from living in the woods, but it was every bit as exciting sometimes. Here we lived according to a routine that was quite strictly enforced. Up by cock’s crow, morning ablutions and prayers before eating breakfast. Then each neophyte priestess was assigned certain tasks to do during the forenoon. Then noon meal and a ritual meditation matched to the season and the monthly lunar phase. The through the afternoon, we attended classes taught by the eunuchs and senior priestesses, with a short break to run or play ball or otherwise exercise before evening meal. Then, in the evenings, following the Day’s End Ritual and supper, we were to study and get to bed with nightfall.
This could all get a bit tedious, except that about once a week we had some special celebration or gathering to break the routine. There was always time for laughter and pleasant visiting among the acolytes and neophytes. The temple priestesses were very kindly and never scolded us for being silly. Indeed, the eunuchs encouraged us in making up games and riddles and telling stories of all kinds, some even quite wicked. The High Priestess, Niami, was the only one who did not take part in the daily play and foolishness. But she was often seen to watch us from her tower window with an approving smile.
My best friend, Mara, was at this time beginning her training as a warrior priestess, so she was not in many of the same classes with me. Although we all rode horses and were taught how to wield the weapons of basic defense in warfare, only the warrior class studied the arts of war. But Mara and I still found days when we were able to go out on long rides through the fields and forests as we used to do on our scouting expeditions in earlier years.
I never found the opportunity to ask her about the youth with whom I’d spied her walking in the woods, and she never hinted to me of any romantic interests in her life. In fact, we rarely thought about boys in those days. Our idea of romance at the time was to be with each other riding our horses in gleeful abandon across all the temple’s lands on the mountain. But we were always careful to stay within our tribe’s boundaries and not wander into those of the Dark Mountain Tribe on the opposite side.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: (Early evening,)
I have just eaten quite a delicious supper of roast guinea fowl with asparagus and pilaf. I have to admit that my confinement is not much of an ordeal at all. I find myself more relaxed and at ease than I can remember feeling in a very long time_ Perhaps not since my earliest days at the temple compound, before I met Donnar, Radam and Rhoda.
Now I am reminded of Mara again, and our current mysterious crisis. I take up my crystal once more, focus inward to still my mind, and ask to see what has transpired since about an hour ago. The crystal warms in my hand. It vibrates and gives me an image of Mara riding Falah at a slow canter through the East Meadow. Behind her follows Radam on his little donkey. Rhoda is nowhere in sight, but Mataar flies just overhead. He seems to be leading them somewhere.
I’m relieved to see they are alright, but I’m frustrated at not knowing just exactly what is going on. I suspect they are trailing Rhoda. But I am really surprised at seeing Radam with Mara. He seems to be genuinely helping her, for I pick up no trace of malice or subterfuge in his manner. Actually, he looks rather handsome to me for the first time! Maybe I’m just getting desperate after two weeks without any romance!
It occurs to me that I might use my magic crystal to spy a bit into the dark queen’s world. Maybe I can find out where Rhoda is going and what she’s up to. I won’t be able to do anything about it, but the information might be of use to Mara when she returns to report to me on her adventure.
I close my eyes and ask the crystal to bring me an image of Rhoda, or whatever might be relevant to our present search. I get more than I bargained for.
There is Rhoda with Donnar at the eunuch’s quarters! They are sitting very close together on a bench in the courtyard. Donnar has his arm around Rhoda’s shoulders. She seems to be crying. Maybe I’m just bitter, but I get a very clear sense that those are false tears. This is confirmed to me when she suddenly throws her arms around his neck and pulls him in for a long kiss. He is clearly not resisting one bit. I am trying to control my rage…whether at him or her or myself for being gullible with him, I’m not sure.
But now Rhoda suddenly stands up and looks around as if she senses they are not alone. Is it my séance, or is someone else spying on them too?
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: (Journal Entry; late winter near Candlemas. Age 12)
Waiting to hear from my friend Mara, I sit down to write and take my mind off events that trouble me, but which I can do nothing about. I will write now about a more serene and happy time in my life at the temple compound.
When we were twelve, both Mara and I began our monthly bleeding and we were given our Moonblood Ceremony together. The women of the tribe make a big event of a girl’s first menses, but I suspect they made it even more special for us because we were the first young priestess candidates to have been initiated at temple for several years.
Through the winter months of January and February, the women prepared for our ritual celebration in secret. We had dutifully collected the discharge of our first menses on linen cloths especially prepared for that purpose, and then carefully saved the bloody rags in silver casks grandmother Kia gave us. Other than this, our part in preparation consisted of keeping out of the way. We were told we mustn’t try to discover their plans ahead of time or the ceremony would lose its magic power.
We passed the time keeping up with lessons, riding our horses and listening to the eunuchs tell tales around the winter fires.
On the day that our ceremonies began, Mara and I were wakened at daybreak by a chorus of chanted song. Startled from sleep in unison, we sat up in our beds which were side by side in the girls’ dormitory. Hugging each other, we watched Niami and the Amazon priestesses, arrayed in their ceremonial robes, circling our quarters in a solemn parade.
We noted that a disseminating moon hung low in the Western sky as the sun came over the Eastern horizon. We had been taught that this is the first moonphase following full moon, when gifts are dispersed and wisdom disseminated.
The morning light haloed the women’s faces to appear like angels. Their song was accented by flute accompaniment performed by grandmother Kiamat. Behind the women stood our lion companions, Dargon and Gorvan, plus several younger lions from the mountain cave and the old female lioness, for whom I had always felt a special fondness. Above, in tree branches songbirds joined the chorus and Mataar croaked his own special tune. Other animals gradually come from woods and meadows to join the throng. Mara and I were thus royally serenaded and welcomed into the world of womanhood.
Our ceremonies continued, becoming more wonderful as the day went on. We were bathed in the sacred springs and massaged by loving hands with scented oils. We were dressed in newly created robes of softest deer hide, decorated with all manner of beadwork and feathers that had been worked with loving patience. On our unbound hair we wore garlands of fresh flowers woven with bands of sacred willow branches. We were fed the most delicious fruits, breads, vegetables, herbal teas and fine wines.
We were told short stories of instruction in the arts of love-making and in the importance of a woman’s sacred power in that act. For the Amazons taught that sex must be an act of love as well as one of lusty desire, even between partners who are not committed to each other beyond a short tryst. They emphasize the woman’s power to guide the male’s amorous advances, and help the male control his naturally aggressive urges. Finally, they taught that an unwanted sexual advance was punishable by confinement; any hostile assault by banishment, and a rape by death. Women and girls were instructed in maneuvers of self-defense for such events, (in addition to our regular battle techniques) and, finally, that every woman was free to choose her mate, and to allow for flirtations and short trysts, especially during High Holiday celebrations. Furthermore, jealousy must be curbed and dealt with honestly, with open communication rather than secret retribution.
Of course, we had already been instructed very thoroughly in the physical aspects of sexuality and the facts conception, pregnancy, and birthing in midwifery classes. But we were still quite innocent about the more salacious aspects of sex. That seemed a lot for us to take in at that age, but those sexual lessons have proven to be most helpful for me on several occasions since.
Then we were given gifts, crafted for us by the women, which symbolized our newly awakened womanhood. We each received special medicine bags, hair ornaments, necklaces and armbands, ceremonial sandals, ritual drums, and a sacred pipe. Stories were told, songs were sung, and dances were danced for three days and nights with hardly a break, except to eat more and sleep briefly. Thus feasting and rejoicing, we joined the ranks of full-fledged women, Mara to the warrior’s ranks and I to the priestess’s, as a waning quarter Moon shown in the heavens_ the moon of independent challenge and courage.
The closing ceremony involved our taking our blooded rags from their silver casks and soaking them in clear river water to extract some of the red fluids. Finally we sprinkled our first Maiden’s Blood upon the ground in the central temple courtyard where we each planted a small evergreen tree to represent our own maturing fertility. At last, Grandmother Kiamat retrieved the containers with the remaining blood-soaked rags, which she keeps for future medicine. It is believed that, while all women’s holy blood has healing Magick, the blood of a girl’s first menses has special power for ailments of the heart.
As the ceremonies closed, Kia embraced each of us and gave us our secret ceremonial names which are used only for the most sacred occasions.
What a contrast our gentle menstrual ceremony was to the violent initiations we witnessed two years later in the dark mountain caverns of Vipira’s domain.
But now, I hear hoof-beats down the path and expect that Mara has finally returned to report on today’s events.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: (later evening)
Hearing someone approach my hut by the front road on horseback, I put aside my journal and get up to greet them. Expecting Mara, I am surprised to find it is Radam who has come instead. I remind myself not to reveal that I have seen them together through my crystal.
“What a great surprise to see you, Radam” I call through the door as he limps up the walk toward me. Again I am surprised I find him quite attractive_ not handsome exactly, but ruggedly good-looking. He holds his shoulders straighter, walks confidently, his limp now more a swagger, and his skin is tanned from being outdoors. He has also grown a nice beard, I see. In the past I hardly bothered to look at Radam, even when I was nursing his wounds. Perhaps I’ve been so blinded by my adoration of Donnar that I haven’t been aware of others. I guess I can let go of that infatuation now that I’ve witnessed his indifference to our plans.
Radam grins_ his smile is a little crooked, due to a scar on his right cheek that only adds to his rather enigmatic sexiness. His eyes are bright with a keenness I’d not expected in him. He takes my hand, saying, “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, Ariana, but Mara asked me to come by and fill you in on some events that have taken place this past few hours. She had to get back to do her stint on warrior watch this evening.” Then he kisses the palm of my hand very gently before letting it go.
I am momentarily speechless at this casual demonstration of affection from the usually shy, awkward young man. Before I can respond, his expression turns to embarrassed concern and he takes a couple steps back to put proper distance between us. “I have been too presumptuous. Please excuse that impulsive move on my part. I am just so glad to see you again. You know, your healing ritual did more than staunch my wounds. It somehow healed my heart as well. I am forever grateful to you!”
“I won’t ignore or forgive that lovely gesture.” I finally gather my voice to blurt out. I realize that didn’t sound as I intended, and I quickly amend my words_ “because I am truly delighted to see you.” I reach out and take his hand to reassure him of my warm feelings. “I had heard that you were in the mountains doing a vision quest.” I’m aware of a high charge of energy moving between us and my cheeks grow hot when I meet his intense gaze. “Come and sit in the garden,” I say, recalling my manners. I lead him into the courtyard as my attendant brings us tea.
“It is true,” Radam begins, “that I was on the mountain in quest of visions for my own future and purpose. That has long been a need of mine, but I never before had freedom to do so. My sister has been like a watchdog over me since I was a child. I believe our mother charged her with that duty the day I was born. You are acquainted with my sister’s wicked ways, so you can understand how I fell under her spell all these years. It wasn’t until the Amazons took us from that dungeon and separated us for our individual healings last fall that I experienced myself free of Rhoda’s control.”
I am amazed at his openness and honesty with me. When he stops to ponder a moment, I break in on his reverie. “I’m glad we were able to rescue both of you from those horrid rites of passage that Vipira’s priests were performing with you. I can’t imagine what kind of person could even conceive of such evil.”
Radam laughs ruefully. “The kind of person who is my mother, Vipira.” He rubs his hand over his eyes as if to wipe away shameful memories. She is cursed with the dark vision of jealousy and possessiveness, and she has tried her best to instill those same qualities in her children. I fear they took deep root in Rhoda, but I have always been repulsed by their ways and tried to resist. When we met you and Donnar at the waterfall four years ago, I felt hope for the first time. You showed me that all people are not bent on hurting one another.” He looks up at me with such warmth that I nearly feel compelled to take him in my arms.
I resist that impulse and return to my original question. “Please tell me how it is you have come to see me today, and what news you have of events away from this little prison of mine.” I reach out and gently pat his arm, then sit back to listen.
Taking a deep breath, Radam begins by saying, “I’m afraid I may bring you disturbing news, but I hope I can reassure you that things are being taken care of. Your friend, Mara, came upon me on the mountain as I had just begun to break camp and return to the temple. She asked me to join her in the Grove to talk. We sat on big log that folks use for a bench there, and Mara explained about my sister’s strange activities regarding the lions. I had to agree it was highly unlike her to want to hunt with them, for Rhoda is only brave when she feels she has the upper hand. She is generally very uncomfortable with the big cats since our experience with them has only been one of brute violence.”
I picture what I’d seen with my crystal as Radam goes on with his report. “It occurred to me that Rhoda may be in touch with our mother telepathically, and colludes in her never-ending plans to capture the Amazon priestess power animals. Mara concurred, and suggested that you might be in danger again too, since the amulet you wear is known to be Vipira’s primary object of desire.” He cocks an eyebrow at me as he adds, “The lions have always been the best way to get to you.”
Immediately my guard goes up. What is he suggesting? “The lions have been my dearest companions ever since I can remember.” I tell him. “I can’t imagine being without them, and I am as prepared to give my life for the lions as I would for any of my friends.”
“Such loyalty is unheard of where I come from.” Says Radam with a bitter sneer.
He shakes his head and continues. “As Mara and I were deciding what we could do to prevent another crisis, we suddenly heard this great squawking in the tree above us. It was your tame falcon creating a ruckus. He flew down to the ground and hopped toward the wood behind us, flapping his wings and screeching. When we finally gathered our wits to go and look, we saw only a flash of red fabric disappearing through the trees. I recognized my sister’s cloak at once however, and we too pursuit. We failed to catch her, but I found this near the edge of the wood where she ran.” He holds out a small piece of leather with a snakelike buckle attached.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It’s part of the clasp from the sheath in which Rhoda carries her dagger. It must have torn off if she hurried to put the weapon away in haste. This suggests to me that she was preparing to use it on one of us.” He thinks for a moment, shakes his head and goes on. “I’d guess Mara was her intended victim, and I doubt she intended to do murder as that would be most foolish, but just to threaten and get something she wants.” Again he stops to think, then says, with a growl in his voice, “She very likely hoped to recapture my allegiance with some devious spell too, so the dagger could have been meant to threaten me.”
I can see he is trying hard to understand his sister’s intentions, and I make no attempt to offer my thoughts. But he seems to have read one anyway. His gaze has been focused on the ground before us, and now he suddenly looks directly at me. He bites his lip and says, “Perhaps she mistook Mara for you since your friend was riding your mare and wearing a cloak similar to that which you wear when riding. It is more likely Rhoda would try to hurt you than Mara.”
“I’m so glad Mataar found you and prevented whatever catastrophe Rhoda was about to create!” I exclaim with rather forced cheer. I shudder inwardly to think if I hadn’t happened to consult the moonstone just in time.
“The big bird took a perch and waited until we rode off on our respective missions. Then he flew reconnaissance for Mara on her way to scout the forest. She had sent the lions off in that direction before we began our talk in the Grove, so we know they are alright. My mission was to come here first and report to you.” Radam reaches out to squeeze my hand once more, and gets up to leave saying, “Now that part of my mission is accomplished, and I go to pursue my investigations further at the eunuch’s quarters with Donnar.”
“Thank you so much for coming to me.” I reach out to give him a quick hug.
But the hug turns into an embrace and Radam murmurs “I truly love you my dearest Ariana. I want you to know that whatever happens, I am your loyal friend now too. I am prepared to fight to the death for you, the temple priestesses, and your sacred cause.”
“Please take care of yourself,” I reply, blinking away threatening tears. “Be sure to keep me informed of whatever you learn.” My heart is beating rapidly as I watch Radam mount his trusty little donkey and ride down the path toward the eunuch’s quarters at the opposite side of the compound.
The feeling welling up in me now, for Radam is deeper than anything I have felt for Donnar. I recall that Donnar has never professed love for me in any such sincere way, only desire. Yet the vow we made haunts me and I feel tremendously uncertain. Our promise to each other was made in the heat of danger and fueled by a mutual rage at being obliged to follow other people’s plans. We vowed to rebel together against the High Priestess’ wishes. Our love has always derived from a mutual excitement over external events and I realize now that we hardly know anything about each other on a deeper level. We have never confided with such honest openness as Radam and I did just now. But a promise has been made. I must see this through somehow.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: (Journal) (age 13, autumn, near Samhain)
The old woman brought in my supper tray with an array of fruits and some hard rolls while I was taking my evening bath. I needed to calm my nerves a bit following Radam’s unexpected visit. As I eat, I will write the tale of how Donnar and I met, for I won’t be able to sleep yet anyway.
One afternoon in the early fall, when I had been living at the temple for about three years, I was sent on an errand into the village about three miles away in the valley. I was thirteen, and considered myself quite capable, so I left early in the morning while all others, including the lions were still asleep. Only Mataar_ who never seems to sleep and watches over everything_ saw me leave and followed.
Stars glimmered in the early predawn sky like sequins in the heavens, and a sly smile of a moon rose on the eastern horizon. This is the waning crescent moon that looks like a fairy boat that leads the sun across the sky. It can only be seen at this early hour before the first light of dawn, and because it precedes the dark nights of the New Moon, it is said to portend dark magic and mysteries of the netherworld. I shivered a little on seeing it follow me down into the valley.
As I was making my way through the heavily wooded mountain pass, I suddenly sensed I was not alone. Silently I inquired of my moonstone and it gave me an image of a man in hunting clothes, carrying a longbow. The man was just a yard or two ahead of me and had not yet discerned my approach. I quickly slipped behind a cluster of birch trees, expecting to let him pass me by unnoticed. But I was not quick enough, and some movement of my short green tunic caught his eye. He came toward me in stealthy, but long strides and stood looking down at me before I had wit to turn and run.
His smile seemed sinister even though he spoke kindly. “What are you doing out on the mountain at such an early hour by yourself, young maid?” He asked in a voice smooth as viper’s skin. And then, before I had a chance to make my excuses, he spied the crystal at my breast. I saw his face change color from ruddy brown to a sickly gray, and he was upon me like a hawk on a field mouse.
I think he expected the lions to come crashing from the bushes, and I cursed myself for not waking Dargon to accompany me. I’d only thought to make my journey and be back before noon meal. Now I was trussed and slung like a sacked deer across this giant man’s shoulders. I could do nothing but wiggle and make muffled moans through the gag in my mouth. Then I felt a sharp crack over my head and I blacked out completely.
I slowly woke from a drugged sleep to find myself bound to a hard bed in a darkened room. A setting sun shown briefly through a barred window high on the wall before it was hidden behind gathering storm clouds. That told me it was late in the day, but I didn’t know what day. How long had I been unconscious? I felt cold, numb, dizzy, and sick. I choked back tears and an urge to vomit. My hands and feet were bound. I could not move. I panicked and struggled against the bindings, but didn’t have strength to break them. I moaned softly.
Lightning flashed and thunder reverberated through the massive stone walls of my prison. I could barely make out shadows moving on the grey walls, and somewhere footsteps echoed down a passageway. A dim light flickered from beneath a heavy door, and in its feeble glow I was able to perceive a pair of feet walking to and fro in the room. They wore soft slippers and made no sound. I let another moan escape my lips as I struggled against my bindings to relieve the throbbing pain.
The figure in slippers glided over to the bed and I could make out the silhouette of a man wearing a priest’s robes. He lit a candle and looked down on me as I lay naked on the hard bed. His face, in the candlelight, looked distorted, demonic. I fought to stifle a scream as he bent nearer to loosen the bands holding my wrists. I could smell the stench of his breath which reeked ofa combination of alcohol, tobacco, and strong garlic_ a now familiar smell from my previous near abduction five years earlier.
As I averted my face I found myself looking into another pair of frightened eyes. Next to me on the ‘bed’ (which proved to be a stone slab table) lay a young boy about my own age. He also was bound hand and foot and stripped nude. Blood ran out of his nose and oozed from a deep cut on his cheek. When our eyes met I felt reassured and no longer alone. I also had a vague sense that he looked familiar. Where had I seen that curly red hair before? Then I recalled the crystal’s image of my friend Mara walking with a boy in the woods. This was that same boy, I was sure.
My momentary comfort soon turned to terror, however, as the robed man approached us again. I knew he meant to do something horrible, although I did not believe he intended to kill me and my companion. At least not yet. I quickly formed a plan, although I could not be sure how much I could count on the boy to help.
Until now I had remained quietly passive, but as the devilish priest approached again, I began to scream and shriek and hiss at him like the very she-devil he probably feared me to be. My ravings stirred the boy into action as well and he began to howl and bark like a wild dog. Our clamor startled the priest, who jumped back and dropped his candle. That was our lucky chance, for the flame caught on his long robes, which were made of heavy linen and started to burn around his legs and feet. He ran out the door and down the corridor in his mad panic, leaving the heavy door ajar.
My bonds had been unloosed by the priest in preparation for his carnal ritual, and I was easily able to pull out of them. Then I turned to the youth beside me and gently undid the ropes holding him. He was at first unable to move his legs, but I rubbed him briskly and slapped his calves and thighs until enough circulation returned that he was able to stand on his own. We each found a fur coverlet to wrap ourselves as we slipped quietly into the darkness of the passageway to hide in the shadows. Heavy boot stampings soon came back, but we remained hidden behind a post against the corridor wall until they entered the room we’d just left.
Undetected, we groped our way along the cold stone wall in the opposite direction of more loudly approaching boot falls. We escaped through an empty drainage tunnel out into the safety of the stormy night. Behind us we heard the shouts and curses of our captors while thunder crashed around us to cover our own voices and lightning flashed to show us which way to run.
But I froze in place when, touching my throat, I found the chain with my crystal was gone. In a panic I turned to run back into the fortress viaduct. My companion tackled me from behind and wrestled me to the ground as I fought to free myself from his arms. Gradually he succeeded in quieting me, and I was again grateful for the loud storm that concealed our noisy struggle. Catching my breath, I whispered hoarsely, “I must go back and find my moonstone crystal. It is my guide. Without it I cannot survive.” I admit I was being a little overdramatic to convince him of the earnest nature of my plight.
The boy put his hand over my mouth to silence me. Then, from a fold in his fur robe, he produced my beautiful crystal amulet. The silver chain had been cut, but that could be fixed. Nearly sobbing my relief, I shouted, “Where did you find it? How did you happen to have my magic stone?” And in a wild burst of suspicion and anger I lunged to take it from his grasp.
It fell to the ground between us and I heard its familiar voice in my head saying, “There is no need to fear this young man. But you must both make your escape now before it is too late.”
I picked up my precious crystal without saying more, and we ducked around through the underbrush between flashes of lightning and then bolted across an open field as the grey rain poured down in solid sheets to drenching us and shielding us from the sight of any who might attempt to pursue through that maelstrom.
We knew not where we ran, but soon found ourselves in the shelter of a cave. It was the crystal that led us there, but I don’t recall hearing instructions. When at last we had a moment to rest, the boy and I looked at each other for the first time since waking on the stone slab. I wa overwhelmed by embarrassment, remembering we had been naked and still were so beneath our wet fur robes. He must have shared my embarrassment for he turned his head and blushed rather modestly.
“I’m Ariana,” I finally thought to say. “Thank you for saving my crystal.”
“My name is Donnar,” he said, flashing a winning smile. And he added, “thank you for saving my life.”