Voice of Gods Excerpt
The man staggering through the hospice door was covered in blood. It streaked his face and clothing,and leaked from between fingers pressed to his brow. As the occupants of the greeting hall saw him they fell silent, then the noise and activity resumed. Someone would take care of him.
Looks like that someone will be me this time, Priestess Ellareen thought as she glanced at the other healers. All priests, priestesses and Dreamweavers were occupied, though Dreamweaver Fareeh’s bandaging of his patient’s arm had quickened.
When the newcomer saw her approaching he looked relieved.
‘Welcome to the hospice,’ she said. ‘What is your name?’
‘What happened to you?’
‘Let me see that.’ He reluctantly allowed her to lift his hand from his brow. A cut to the bone seeped more blood. She pressed his hand back over the wound. ‘It needs some stitches.’
His gaze slid to the nearest Dreamweaver. ‘You’ll do it?’
She suppressed a sigh and indicated that he should follow her down the corridor. ‘Yes. Come with me.’
It was not unheard of for a visitor to the hospice to request a Circlian healer, but it was unusual. Most who came here were prepared to accept any help. Those who did not like or trust Dreamweavers went elsewhere.
Dreamweavers worked with Circlian priests and priestesses readily enough, and vice versa. They all knew they were healing many people who would not have received any help before. But a century of prejudice against Dreamweavers could not be erased in a few months. Ella had not expected it to be. Nor did she even want it to be. Dreamweavers did not worship the gods, so their souls died when their bodies did. She had great respect for them as healers — nobody who worked alongside them could deny being impressed by their knowledge and skill — but their dismissive, distrustful view of the gods irritated her.
I don’t approve of blind intolerance either. The tendency in some people to fear those different from themselves to the point of irrational hatred disturbed her more than the common violence and miserable poverty that brought most patients to the hospice.
Recently a new group that called themselves ‘true Circlians’ had begun harassing the hospice workers. Their arrogant belief that their worship of the gods was more worthy than hers irritated her even more than the Dreamweavers’ indifference. The only issue she agreed with them on was the Pentadrians. Unlike Pentadrians, Dreamweavers never claimed to follow gods — gods that didn’t exist — or used that deception to convince a continent of people that Circlians were heathens and deserved to be exterminated.
At least this man isn’t too proud to seek our help, she thought as she led him down the corridor into an unoccupied treatment room and directed him to sit on the end of a bench. Scooping water into a bowl from a trough of constantly flowing water at one end of the room, she warmed it with magic. She took some cloth from a basket, shook a few drops of wound-cleaning oil onto it, dipped it into the water and cleaned the man’s face. Then she began stitching the cut.
A young priest, Naen, stepped into the doorway when she had nearly finished.
‘Your mother just arrived, Priestess Ella.’
She frowned. ‘Tell her I’ll see her as soon as I’m finished with this patient.’ Yranna, make her stay put until I’m ready. And let her not be in one of her moods.
:Naen will make sure she does not interrupt you, Ellareen, a voice assured her.
Ella straightened and looked around. There was no sign of the woman she had heard. Am I hearing voices, like that crazy old man who comes in here all the time?
:No, you’re not crazy. You’re as sane as most mortals. Saner, even. Even if you do talk to me all the time.
:Talk to . . . are you . . . Yranna?
:It can’t be.
:Well . . . you’re a god. A goddess. Why would you talk to me?
:I have a task for you.
A thrill of both excitement and fear ran down Ella’s spine. At the same time she heard one of the priests in the greeting room raise his voice.
‘There is a crowd blocking the street outside. They won’t let us leave the hospice . . . no, we can’t . . . best to wait it out.’
Not the ‘true Circlians’ again, she thought as she tied the last stitch.
:Yes. They have surrounded the hospice.
Ella sighed, then felt a chill of realisation.
:But . . . this blockade must be different to the others, or you wouldn’t be asking me to perform a task for you.
:What is it?
:I want you to immobilise the man you are treating. Use magic, drugs — whatever it takes.
Ella froze and looked at the man sitting before her. He stared back at her, his pupils wide. It wasn’t just the pain making him edgy, she realised. It was fear.
Her mouth went dry and her heart began to race. He might be more Gifted than her. He was certainly physically stronger than her. If this went wrong . . .
Don’t think about it, she told herself. When the gods ask for something to be done, I can only do my best to oblige them.
The force of her magic knocked him against the wall, driving air from his lungs. Pushing him down onto the bench, she held him there, hoping that he was too caught up in fighting for air to use any Gifts he might have.
But he’ll recover his wits soon enough. Yranna suggested drugs . . .
Grabbing a bottle of sleep vapour oil, she poured some onto a cloth and held it against his nose until his eyes glazed over. It would subdue him for several minutes, but what then? The blockade might last for hours.
I need a sleep inducer. She searched the room and found a nearly empty jar of sleepease powder. Mixing up a thin draught from the remnants, she carefully poured it down his throat. It roused him to a semi-conscious state; he coughed, then swallowed the mixture before subsiding into unconsciousness again.
She stood back to assess her handiwork, and realised she had no idea how long such a small dose of the drug would work for. A half-cupful induced a full night’s sleep. The dose she’d given might last an hour, if she was lucky. She could find more sleepease, but it was dangerous and difficult to administer to a fully unconscious patient. It might get into his lungs. She looked down at the man.
Yranna said to immobilise you, she thought, not kill you. What did you have planned, anyway, Mal Toolmaker?
On impulse, she grabbed a few strips of bandages, tied his hands and feet and gagged him. To hide this, she took a blanket and covered the man, leaving only the top of his head showing.
But this would not stop him attracting attention when he woke up. The others will want to know why I did this. What am I going to tell them? She was not sure they would believe her if she told them the goddess had instructed her to immobilise a patient. Well, they might eventually, but in the meantime they’ll probably set him free to do whatever he intends to do.
He’d suffered a blow to the head, so it would be plausible to say he’d experienced dizziness or disorientation. Sleep drugs were not the usual treatment, however. She would have to come up with other ways to explain that.
‘Ella!’ a familiar voice called from within the corridor.
Ella spun around. Her mother must have slipped away from Priest Naen. She hurried out of the room before the woman could discover her with a bound and gagged patient.
In the corridor a thin greying woman wrapped in a clean, well-made tawl of fine cloth, scowled disapprovingly as she saw Ella.
‘Ella. At last. I need to have a little talk with you.’
‘So long as it is little,’ Ella said, keeping her attitude businesslike. ‘Come back to the greeting hall.’
‘You must stop working here,’ her mother told her in a low voice as she followed Ella. ‘It’s too dangerous. It’s bad enough knowing you’re constantly under the influence of these heathens, but now it’s worse. The rumours are all over the city. I’m surprised you haven’t already had the sense to leave this —’
‘Mother,’ Ella interrupted. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Mirar is back,’ her mother replied. ‘Or haven’t you heard?’
‘Obviously not,’ Ella said.
‘He was — is — the leader of the Dreamweavers. A Wild, you know. They say he wasn’t killed a century ago; he survived. He’s been in hiding and now he’s returned.’
‘Who says this?’ Ella asked, trying not to sound too sceptical.
‘Everybody — and don’t give me that look. He’s been seen by many people. And the White aren’t denying it.’
‘Have they had a chance to?’
‘Of course they have. Now, you listen to me. You can’t work here any more. You have to stop!’
‘I’m not abandoning people who need my help because of a rumour.’
‘It’s not rumour!’ her mother exclaimed, forgetting that she had already called the claims of Mirar’s return such. ‘It is the truth! What if he comes here? Think what he might do to you! You might not even recognise him. He might be working here now, in disguise! He might seduce you!’
Ella managed, with difficulty, to keep the smile from her face. Seduce indeed! ‘Dreamweavers do not interest me, Mother.’
But the woman wasn’t listening. As the possible threats to Ella’s person grew more preposterous, Ella steered her mother toward a bench in the greeting hall.
‘And now look what’s happened,’ her mother said abruptly, sitting down. ‘Because he’s returned, we’re stuck in here. Isn’t there a back door to this place? Can’t we —’
‘No. When this happens there are always troublemakers waiting outside the back entrance.’
‘If you were a high priestess they wouldn’t dare.’
Ella smothered a sigh. Tell me, Yranna, are all mothers like this? Are they ever satisfied with their offspring? If I managed to become a high priestess would she decide I ought to be a White? If by some miracle I became a White, would she start nagging me to become a god?
She gave her mother the usual answer. ‘If I were a high priestess I would have no time to see you at all.’
Her mother shrugged and turned away. ‘We hardly see you anyway.’
Only every second or third day, Ella thought. How neglectful I am. How deprived are my parents. If I ever get like this, she thought, please, Yranna, have someone kill me.
‘Have you heard who is going to replace Auraya?’ her mother asked.
‘Surely you must have heard something by now.’
How is it she can make even that sound like a failing?
‘As you’ve pointed out so many times before, I am only a lowly priestess, unworthy of notice or respect, or even the deepest of Circlian secrets,’ Ella replied dryly, expecting to be scolded for her sarcasm.
But her mother wasn’t listening. ‘It’ll be one of the high priests,’ her mother said, mostly to herself. ‘We need someone strong — not some frivolous young girl with a liking for heathens. The gods did right to kick that Auraya girl out of the White.’
‘She wasn’t kicked out. She resigned to help the Siyee.’
‘That’s not what I heard.’ Her mother’s eyes shone with glee at the gossip she was privy to. ‘I heard she refused to do what the gods asked of her, and they took her powers from her.’
Ella gritted her teeth. ‘Well, I talk to Yranna all the time, and she mentioned nothing about that. Besides, a good healer doesn’t spend work hours gossiping.’
Her mother’s eyes narrowed and her chin rose. Before she could speak, however, Ella heard her name called. She looked up and felt her stomach sink as she saw Priest Naen and Priest Kleven approaching. Both were frowning.
‘What happened to the man with the cut brow, Ella?’ Kleven asked.
‘He . . . he became angry when he heard we were trapped here.’
‘So you sedated him?’
Leaving her mother sitting on the bench, she rose and hurried over to Kleven, lowering her voice.
‘Yes. He was . . . very angry. I used sleep vapour, and when he showed no ill effects I gave him a tiny dose of sleepease.’
‘Sleepease? On a man suffering a head blow?’ Kleven exclaimed quietly. He shook his head and started toward the corridor. Ella felt her heart skip a beat, and hurried after him.
‘Anyone suffering a head injury who displays strange behaviour should be watched closely,’ Kleven told her as he entered the room. He drew the blanket from Mal Toolmaker’s head, exposing the gag.
‘What is this?’ he said. Pulling the blanket away, he exclaimed as the bandages tying the man’s hands and feet were revealed.
‘He attacked me,’ she told him.
He looked at her sharply. ‘Are you all right?’
She shrugged. ‘Yes. He didn’t touch me.’
‘You should have told me about this.’
‘I was going to but . . . Mother distracted me.’
He nodded, then turned back to the unconscious man. A chill ran down her back as he began to untie the bandages. ‘Is that wise?’ she asked hesitantly.
‘Naen will watch him. How much sleepease did you give him?’
‘Not much. A small spoon’s worth.’
The man’s eyes fluttered in reaction to Kleven’s touch.
He wasn’t waking up, but he would soon.
‘Stop,’ she found herself saying. ‘You can’t let him wake up. You have to drug him again.’
Kleven turned to stare at her questioningly. ‘Why?’
She sighed. ‘It’s incredible, but you have to believe me. I was warned about him and ordered to immobilise him by . . .’ She grimaced. ‘I know you’ll find this hard to believe — by Yranna.’
Kleven’s eyebrows rose. ‘The goddess?’
‘Yes. She spoke to me. In my mind. And no, I don’t usually hear voices in my head.’
The priest considered her thoughtfully. She saw the doubts in his eyes, but could not tell whether he hesitated to believe her or to risk acting against a god’s orders.
‘How am I to know you’re not making this up?’
‘I can’t prove it, if that is what you mean. But I can point out that I have never acted with anything but good sense before — or shown signs of madness.’
‘You haven’t,’ Kleven agreed. ‘But it does not make sense that Yranna would speak to you but not the rest of us. If this man is a danger to the hospice, we all need to know.’
‘That puzzled me, too,’ she admitted. ‘Perhaps the danger has passed . . . but I’m not willing to take that risk. Are you?’
Kleven looked at the sleeping man dubiously.
‘Can I offer any assistance?’
They turned to find Dreamweaver Fareeh standing in the doorway. Ella groaned inwardly. Kleven hadn’t finished untying the bindings, and as the Dreamweaver noticed them his eyebrows rose.
‘A troublesome patient?’
Kleven looked at Ella. ‘In more ways than one.’
The Dreamweaver looked at the sleeping man, then at each of them, and nodded. He began to move away. Kleven sighed. ‘Ella here says she was instructed by Yranna to immobilise him.’
Ella turned to stare at the priest in surprise.
‘Ah,’ was all Fareeh said.
Why would Kleven tell him that? Slowly the reason dawned on her. If he doesn’t, Fareeh would know we are keeping something from him. That might change how he deals with us. She shook her head. This balance of trust and distrust between our peoples is so easily tipped.
‘Do you believe her?’ Kleven asked.
The Dreamweaver shrugged. ‘I do not believe what I cannot confirm with my own senses, so belief is irrelevant. Either she is wrong, or she is right. Either situation is alarming. I can suggest only that you bring both patient and priestess to the greeting hall so that we can all help to watch and deal with any trouble that arises from this.’
The older priest nodded. ‘Good advice.’
Ella watched anxiously as Kleven lifted the unconscious man with magic and carried him out into the hall. Visitors and healers alike, bored and eager for distraction, watched curiously as this stranger was laid upon a bench. But as time passed and the man did nothing but sleep, their attention soon strayed.
Watching the stranger, Ella wondered what he had planned to do. Were you going to attack us? Were you going to slip out of the room while we were distracted and open the back door to let your people in? Every time the man moved, Ella’s heart lurched.
When the man’s eyes finally fluttered open she rose, ready to face any kind of attack with magic.
‘Sit down, Priestess Ella,’ Kleven said calmly, but firmly. She obeyed.
The stranger struggled up onto his elbows, staring groggily about. His gaze fell on Ella, and he shuddered.
‘Wha’ hap’n’d?’ he asked. ‘Sh’, she t’tack’d me.’
‘Stay calm. You are not in any danger,’ Kleven said soothingly. ‘Take a moment to recollect yourself.’
The man’s gaze roamed the room. ‘Still here. Wh— . . . am I a pris’ner?’
He began to struggle to his feet. Kleven stood and steadied the man.
‘Let me go.’
‘All in good time. You’ve had a small dose of a sleep drug. Just let it wear off.’
‘Sleep . . . why’d you drug me?’
‘One of us believed you intended us harm. Is that true?’
The expression that crossed the man’s face sent shivers down Ella’s spine. Guilt! she thought. He was planning something.
‘No. I just came to . . .’ He reached up and touched his brow, flinching as his fingers found the stitches. He drew in a deep breath and straightened his back, then stood up. He swayed a moment, then took a few steps. The drug was wearing off quickly, and nobody was moving to stop the man as he walked with growing confidence across the room and back.
‘I’m right,’ he said. ‘Can I go now?’
Kleven shrugged and nodded. ‘I can see no reason why we should keep you here . . . except that there’s a hostile crowd outside. You’ll get another one of those scratches, at the least, if you try to leave.’
The man looked at Ella pointedly. ‘I’ll risk it.’
Kleven shrugged. ‘We won’t stop you, we can only warn you. I will release the door.’
Nobody stirred as the man started toward the door. Ella frowned. She ought to be glad he was leaving, his plan foiled. But something nagged at her. Why would Yranna let this man go if he had threatened the hospice? Yranna had said . . .
Then she realised what it was.
‘Stop!’ she cried, jumping up. The man ignored her.
‘Ella . . .’ Kleven began.
As the man put his hand to the door Ella drew magic and sent out a barrier to stop him. He pressed the invisible shield and turned to glare at her angrily.
‘Ella!’ Kleven barked. ‘Let him go!’
‘No,’ she replied calmly. ‘Yranna told me to immobilise him. She didn’t say why. Maybe it was to prevent him harming us. Maybe it was to prevent him leaving.’
The man backed away from the door and turned to face her, his face contorted with anger. She felt Kleven take hold of her arm.
‘Ella. We can’t . . .’
His voice faded and she heard him draw in a quick breath. A rapping came from the door. Kleven let her go.
‘Drop your barrier, Ella,’ he murmured. ‘Rian of the White is here.’
She did as he asked. The door swung open. A man wearing an undecorated circ stepped over the threshold. Rian, the red-haired White, regarded the stranger with ancient eyes.
‘You’ve led us quite a chase, Lemarn Shipmaker.’
The stranger backed away, his face pale. A high priestess stepped into the hospice. At a nod from Rian, she gestured at the man. He walked stiffly past her and through the door, obviously guided by an invisible force.
Rian turned to regard the hospice occupants. ‘The troublemakers have prudently found other places to be. You can leave safely now. Or stay and continue your work or treatment, as you wish.’
From around the room came several sighs of relief. Kleven stepped forward and made the formal twohanded sign of the circle.
‘Thank you, Rian of the White.’
Rian nodded, then looked at Ella. ‘Well done, Priestess Ellareen. We’ve been looking for this man for months. The gods are impressed with your loyalty and obedience. I would not be surprised if I heard you had been offered a timely high priestess position.’
She stared at him in astonishment. He turned away, obviously not expecting a reply, and stepped outside.
A timely high priestess position? Surely he isn’t hinting that . . . no, he wouldn’t.
But the Choosing Ceremony for the next White was only a month away. What other reason was there for a promotion to high priestess to be timely?
I have only to wait and see.
Feeling light-headed, she walked back into the hospice and returned to her work.