Priestess of White Excerpt
Auraya stepped over a fallen log, taking care that no crinkle of crushed leaves or snapping of twigs betrayed her presence. A tug at her throat warned her to look back. The hem of her tawl had caught on a branch. She eased it free and carefully chose her next step.
Her quarry moved and she froze.
He can’t have heard me, she told herself. I haven’t made a sound.
She held her breath as the man rose and looked up into the mossy branches of an old garpa tree. His Dreamweaver vest was dappled with leafy shadows. After a moment he crouched and resumed his examination of the underbrush.
Auraya took three careful steps closer.
‘You’re early today, Auraya.’
Letting out a sigh of exasperation, Auraya stomped to his side. One day I’m going to surprise him, she vowed. ‘Mother took a strong dose last night. She’ll sleep late.’
Leiard picked up a piece of bark, then took a short knife from a vest pocket, slid the point into a crack and twisted it to reveal tiny red seeds inside.
‘What are they?’ she asked, intrigued. Though Leiard had been teaching her about the forest for years there was always something new to learn.
‘The seed of the garpa tree.’ Leiard tipped out the seeds and spread them in his palm. ‘Garpa speeds the heart and prevents sleep. It is used by couriers so they can ride long distances, and by soldiers and scholars to keep awake, and . . .’
Falling silent, he straightened and stared into the forest. Auraya heard a distant snap of wood. She looked through the trees. Was it her father, come to fetch her home? Or was it Priest Avorim? He had told her not to speak to Dreamweavers. She liked to secretly defy the priest, but to be found in Leiard’s company was another matter. She took a step away.
‘Stay where you are.’
Auraya stilled, surprised at Leiard’s tone. Hearing the sound of footsteps, she turned to see two men step into view. They were stocky and wore tough hide vests. Both faces were covered in swirls and dashes of black.
Dunwayans, Auraya thought.
‘Stay silent,’ Leiard murmured. ‘I will deal with them.’
The Dunwayans saw her and Leiard. As they hurried forward she saw that each carried an unsheathed sword. Leiard remained still. The Dunwayans stopped a few steps away.
‘Dreamweaver,’ one said. ‘Are more people in the forest?’
‘I do not know,’ Leiard replied. ‘The forest is large and people seldom enter.’
The warrior gestured with his sword toward the village. ‘Come with us.’
Leiard did not argue or ask for an explanation.
‘Aren’t you going to ask what’s going on?’ Auraya whispered.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘We will find out soon enough.’
Oralyn was the largest village in northwestern Hania, but Auraya had heard visitors grumble that it wasn’t particularly big. Built on the summit of a hill, it overlooked the surrounding fields and forest. A stone Temple dominated the rest of the buildings and an ancient wall encircled all. The old gates had been removed over half a century ago, leaving misshapen stumps of rust where hinges had once been.
Dunwayan warriors paced the wall and the fields outside were empty of workers. Auraya and Leiard were escorted along equally empty streets to the Temple, then directed inside. Villagers crowded the large room. Some of the younger men wore bandages. Hearing her name, Auraya saw her parents and hurried to their side.
‘Thank the gods you’re alive,’ her mother said, drawing Auraya into an embrace.
Her mother sank to the floor again. ‘These foreigners made us come here,’ she said. ‘Even though your father told them I was sick.’
Auraya undid the ties of her tawl, folded it and sat down on it. ‘Did they say why?’
‘No,’ her father replied. ‘I don’t think they intend to harm us. Some of the men tried to fight the warriors after Priest Avorim failed, but none were killed.’
Auraya was not surprised that Avorim had been defeated. Though all priests were Gifted, not all were powerful sorcerers. Auraya suspected there were farmers with more magical ability than Avorim.
Leiard had stopped by one of the injured men. ‘Would you like me to look at that?’ he asked quietly.
The man opened his mouth to reply, but froze as a white-clad figure moved to stand beside him. The injured man glanced up at Priest Avorim then shook his head.
Leiard straightened and looked at the priest. Though Avorim was not as tall as Leiard, he had authority. Auraya felt her heartbeat quicken as the two men stared at each other, then Leiard bowed his head and moved away.
Fools, she thought. He could stop the pain at the least. Does it matter that he doesn’t worship the gods? He knows more about healing than anyone here.
Yet she understood the situation wasn’t that simple. Circlians and Dreamweavers had always hated each other. Circlians hated Dreamweavers because Dreamweavers didn’t worship the gods. Dreamweavers hated the gods because they had killed their leader, Mirar. Or so Priest Avorim says, she thought. I’ve never heard Leiard say so.
A metallic clunk echoed through the Temple. All heads turned toward the doors as they swung open. Two Dunwayan warriors entered. One had lines tattooed across his forehead, giving the impression of a permanent scowl. Auraya’s heart skipped as she recognised the pattern. He is their leader. Leiard described these tattoos to me once. Beside him was a man in dark blue clothing, his face covered in radiating lines. And he is a sorcerer.
The pair looked around the room. ‘Who leads this village?’ the Dunwayan leader asked.
The village head, a fat merchant named Qurin, stepped forward nervously.
‘What is your name and rank?’
‘Qurin, Head of Oralyn.’
The Dunwayan leader looked the plump man up and down. ‘I am Bal, Talm of Mirrim, Ka-Lem of the Levenark.’
Leiard’s lessons were coming back to Auraya. ‘Talm’ was a title of land ownership. ‘Ka-Lem’ was a high position in the Dunwayan military. The latter ought to be linked to the name of one of the twenty-one warrior clans, but she did not recognise the name ‘Leven-ark’.
‘This is Sen,’ Bal continued, nodding to the sorcerer at his side. ‘Fire-warrior of the Leven-ark. You have a priest with you.’ He looked at Avorim. ‘Come here and speak your name.’
Avorim glided forward to stand beside the village head. ‘I am Priest Avorim,’ he said, the wrinkles of his face set in an expression of disdain. ‘Why have you attacked our village? Set us free at once!’
Auraya suppressed a groan. This was not the way to address a Dunwayan, and definitely not the way to address a Dunwayan who had just taken a village hostage.
Bal ignored the priest’s demand. ‘Come with me.’
As Bal turned on his heel, Qurin looked desperately at Avorim, who put a hand on his shoulder in reassurance. The pair followed Bal out of the Temple.
Once the door had closed the villagers began speculating. Despite the village’s close proximity to Dunway, its people knew little about the neighbouring land. They didn’t need to. The mountains that separated the two countries were near impassable, so trade was undertaken by sea or through the pass far to the south.
The thought of what Qurin and Avorim might say to upset Bal sent a shiver of apprehension down Auraya’s spine. She doubted there was anyone in the village, other than Leiard, with enough understanding of Dunwayans to negotiate a way out of this situation. But Avorim would never allow a Dreamweaver to speak for them.
Auraya thought back to the day she had first met Leiard, nearly five years before. Her family had moved to the village in the hope that her mother’s health would improve in the clean quiet of the country. It hadn’t. Auraya had heard that Dreamweavers were good healers, so she sought out Leiard and boldly asked him to treat her mother.
Since then she had visited him every few days. She’d had a lot of questions about the world that nobody could answer. Priest Avorim could only tell her about the gods, and he was too weak to teach her many magical Gifts. She knew Leiard was strong magically because he had never run out of Gifts to teach her.
Though she disliked Avorim she understood that she ought to learn Circlian ways from a Circlian priest. She loved the rituals and sermons, the history and laws, and counted herself lucky to be living in an age the gods had made peaceful and prosperous.
If I was a priestess, I’d be much better than he is, she thought. But that’s never going to happen. So long as Mother is sick she’ll need me to stay here and look after her.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the opening of the Temple doors. Qurin and Avorim hurried inside and the villagers moved close.
‘It appears these men are trying to stop the proposed alliance between Dunway and Hania,’ Qurin told them.
Avorim nodded. ‘As you know, the White have been trying to form an alliance with the Dunwayans for years. They’re having some success now that suspicious old IOrm has died and his sensible son, I-Portak, is ruler.’
‘So why are they here?’ someone asked.
‘To prevent the alliance. They told me to contact the White to communicate their demands. I did, and I . . . I spoke to Juran himself.’
Auraya heard a few indrawn breaths. It was rare for priests to speak telepathically to one of the Gods’ Chosen, the four leaders of the Circlians known as the White. Two spots of red had appeared on Avorim’s cheeks.
‘What did he say?’ the village baker asked.
Avorim hesitated. ‘He is concerned for us and will do what he can.’
‘Which is what?’
‘He didn’t say. He will probably speak to I-Portak first.’
Several questions followed. Avorim raised his voice. ‘The Dunwayans do not want a war with Hania — they made that clear to us. After all, to defy the White is to defy the gods themselves. I don’t know how long we will be here. We must be prepared to wait for several days.’
As questions turned to matters of practicality, Auraya noticed that Leiard wore a frown of worry and doubt. What is he afraid of? Does he doubt that the White can save us?
Auraya dreamed. She was walking down a long corridor lined with scrolls and tablets. Though they looked interesting, she ignored them; somehow she knew that none of them contained what she needed. Something was urging her forward. She arrived in a small circular room. On a dais in the centre was a large scroll. It uncurled and she looked down at the text. Waking, she sat bolt upright, her heart pounding. The Temple was quiet but for the sounds of the villagers sleeping. Searching the room she found Leiard asleep in a far corner.
Had he sent her the dream? If he had, he was breaking a law punishable by death.
Does that matter, if we’re all going to die anyway?
Auraya drew her tawl back up around herself and considered her dream and why she was now so certain the village was doomed. On the scroll had been one paragraph:
‘Leven-ark’ means ‘honour-leaver’ in Dunwayan. It describes a warrior who has cast aside all honour and obligations in order to be able to fight for an idealistic or moral cause.
It hadn’t made sense to Auraya that a Dunwayan warrior would dishonour his clan by taking unarmed villagers hostage or killing defenceless people. Now she understood. These Dunwayans no longer cared for honour. They could do anything, including slaughter the villagers.
The White were powerfully Gifted and could easily defeat the Dunwayans in a fight, but during that fight the Dunwayans might kill the villagers before the White overcame them. However, if the White gave in to the Dunwayans’ demands others might copy them. Many more Hanians could be imprisoned and threatened.
The White won’t give in, she thought. They’d rather some or all of us were killed than encourage others to take a village hostage. Auraya shook her head. Why did Leiard send me this dream? Surely he wouldn’t torment me with the truth if there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
She considered the information in the scroll again. ‘Leven-ark’. ‘Cast aside all honour’. How can we turn that to our advantage?
For the rest of the night she lay awake, thinking. It was only when the dawn light began to filter softly into the room that the answer came to her.
After several days, tempers were thin and the stale air was heavy with unpleasant odours. When Priest Avorim wasn’t settling disputes among the villagers he was bolstering their courage. Each day he gave several sermons. Today he had told of the dark times before the War of the Gods, when chaos ruled the world.
‘Priest Avorim?’ a young boy asked as the story ended.
‘Why don’t the gods kill the Dunwayans?’
Avorim smiled. ‘The gods are beings of pure magic. To affect the world they must work through humans. That is why we have the White. They are the gods’ hands, eyes and voices.’
‘Why don’t they give you the power to kill the Dunwayans?’
‘Because there are better ways to solve problems than killing. The Dunwayans . . .’ The priest’s voice faded to silence. His eyes fixed on a distant point, then he smiled.
‘Mairae of the White has arrived,’ he announced.
Auraya’s stomach fluttered. One of the White is here, in Oralyn! Her excitement died as the door to the Temple opened. Bal stepped inside, flanked by several warriors and his sorcerer, Sen.
‘Priest Avorim. Qurin. Come.’
Avorim and Qurin hurried out. Sen did not follow. The radiating lines on his face were distorted by a frown. He pointed at the blacksmith’s father, Ralam.
The old man rose and staggered toward the sorcerer, hampered by a leg that had been broken and badly set years before.
The sacrifice, Auraya thought. Her heart began to race as she moved forward. Her plan relied on the Dunwayans being reluctant to break their customs, despite their intentions. She stepped in front of Ralam.
‘By the edicts of Lore,’ she said, facing Sen, ‘I claim the right to take this man’s place.’
The sorcerer blinked in surprise. He glanced aside at the warriors guarding the door and spoke in Dunwayan, gesturing dismissively at her.
‘I know you understood me,’ she said, striding forward to stand a pace from the sorcerer. ‘As did your warrior brothers. I claim the right to take the place of this man.’
Her heart was hammering now. Voices called out to Auraya, telling her to come back. The old man tugged at her arm.
‘It’s all right, girl. I will go.’
‘No,’ she said. She made herself meet Sen’s eyes. ‘Will you take me?’
Sen’s eyes narrowed. ‘You choose freely?’
‘Come with me.’
Someone among the audience shrieked her name and she winced as she realised it was her mother. Resisting the urge to look back, she followed the Dunwayans out of the Temple.
Once outside, Auraya felt her courage weakening. She could see Dunwayan warriors gathered in a half-circle around the gap in the village wall. Late-afternoon light set their spears glittering. There was no sign of Qurin or Priest Avorim. Bal stepped out of the half-circle of warriors. Seeing Auraya, he scowled and said something in his own language.
‘She offered herself in exchange,’ Sen replied in Hanian.
‘Why didn’t you refuse?’
‘She knew the ritual words. I was honour-bound to —’ Bal’s eyes narrowed. ‘We are the Leven-ark. We have abandoned all honour. Take —’
A warning was shouted. All turned to see a priestess standing in the gap in the wall.
The priestess was beautiful. Her gold-blonde hair was arranged in an elaborate style. Large blue eyes regarded all serenely. Auraya forgot all else but the fact that she was looking at Mairae of the White. Then Sen took her wrist in an iron grip and pulled her after Bal, who was marching toward the woman.
‘Stay there, or she dies,’ the Dunwayan leader barked.
Mairae regarded Bal intently. ‘Bal, Talm of Mirrim, Ka-Lem of the Leven-ark, why are you holding the people of Oralyn prisoner?’
‘Did your priest not explain? We demand you stop your alliance with Dunway. If you do not we will kill these villagers.’
‘I-Portak does not sanction this action you have taken.’
‘Our argument is with you and I-Portak.’
Mairae nodded. ‘Why do you seek to prevent the alliance when the gods want our lands to unite?’
‘They did not proclaim that Dunway should be ruled by the White, only that our lands be allies.’
‘We do not wish to rule you.’
‘Why, then, do you ask for control of our defences?’
‘We do not. Your land’s army is and will always be for I-Portak and his successors to control.’
‘An army without fire-warriors.’
Mairae’s eyebrows rose slightly. ‘Then it is the dismantling of the Sorceror Clan that you protest against, not the alliance itself?’
She looked thoughtful. ‘We believed dismantling the Sorceror Clan had the support of its sorcerers. I-Portak saw great benefits in sending Gifted Dunwayans to the priesthood. There is much that we can teach them that they would not learn in the clan house. Healing, for example.’
‘Our fire-warriors know how to mend a wound,’ Sen snapped, his voice loud in Auraya’s ear.
Mairae’s attention shifted to him. ‘Not how to cure a child’s illness, or assist in a difficult birth, or clear an old man’s sight.’
‘Our Dreamweavers tend to those duties.’
Mairae shook her head. ‘There cannot be enough Dreamweavers in Dunway to tend to those needs.’
‘We have more than Hania,’ Sen said stiffly. ‘We did not seek their deaths as Hanians did.’
‘A hundred years ago Dunwayans were as eager to be rid of the Dreamweaver leader, Mirar, as Hanians were. Only a few misguided Hanians sought to kill his followers. We did not order it.’ She paused. ‘Dreamweavers may be Gifted healers, but they do not have the power of the gods to call upon. We can give you so much more.’
‘You would steal from us a tradition that we have kept for over a thousand years,’ Bal replied.
‘Would you make yourself an enemy of the gods for that?’ she asked. ‘Is it worth starting a war? For that is what you will do if you execute these villagers.’
‘Yes,’ Bal replied heavily. ‘It is what we are prepared to do. For we know that it is not the gods who demand the end of the Sorceror Clan, but I-Portak and the White.’
Mairae sighed. ‘Why did you not speak out earlier? The terms of the alliance might have been altered, had you approached us peacefully. We cannot accede to your demands now, for if others were to see that you had been successful, they, too, would threaten innocents in order to get their way.’
‘So you will abandon these villagers to their fate?’
‘That is on your conscience.’
‘Is it?’ Bal asked. ‘What will people think of the White when they hear they refused to save their own people?’ ‘My people’s loyalty is strong. You have until the end of the day to leave, Talm of Mirrim. May the gods guide you.’
She turned away.
‘Our cause is just,’ Bal said quietly. ‘The gods see that it is so.’ He gave Auraya a disturbingly impersonal glance, then nodded at Sen. Auraya went cold as she felt Sen’s hand grasp the back of her head.
‘Wait!’ she gasped. ‘Can I speak before I die?’
She felt Sen pause. Mairae stopped and looked over her shoulder at Bal. The Dunwayan smiled.
‘Speak,’ he said.
Auraya looked from Mairae to Bal and drew up the words she had practised silently for days. ‘This can go one of four ways,’ she said. ‘Firstly, the Dunwayans could give in and let the White have their way.’ She glanced at Bal. ‘That’s not likely. Neither is it likely that the White will give in and wait for a better time to make an alliance, because they don’t want anyone copying you.’
Her mouth was so dry. She paused to swallow.
‘It seems like the White have to let the Leven-ark kill us. Then either the White or I-Portak will kill the Levenark. We’ll all be seen as martyrs to our land or cause.’ She looked at Bal again. ‘Or will we? If you die, the Sorceror Clan will still end. You fail.’ She looked at Mairae. ‘There must be another way.’
Everyone was staring at her. She forced herself to look at Bal once more. ‘Make it look as if the Leven-ark failed. You cast aside all honour and came here prepared to sacrifice your lives to save the Sorceror Clan. Are you prepared to sacrifice your pride instead?’
Bal frowned. ‘My pride?’
‘If you let the White escort you out of Hania in shame — if you appear to have failed — then we need not fear others will copy you.’ She looked at Mairae. ‘If he agrees, will you change the terms of your alliance?’
‘To allow the Clan to continue?’
‘Yes. Even I, living in this tiny village, know of the famous Dunwayan Fire-Warrior Clan.’
Mairae nodded. ‘Yes, if the Dunwayan people wish to keep it.’
‘Alter the terms of the alliance — but not straightaway or others will still see a connection between the Leven-ark coming here and the change. Arrange for something else to prompt the change.’
Bal and Mairae looked thoughtful. Sen made a low noise, then said something in Dunwayan. At Bal’s reply he stiffened, but said nothing more.
‘Anything else you wish to say, girl?’ Bal asked.
Auraya bowed her head. ‘I’ll be grateful if you don’t kill my family and neighbours.’
Bal looked amused. He turned to regard Mairae. Auraya fought a growing suspicion that she had just made a fool of herself.
I had to try. If I thought of a way to save the village and didn’t try it, I’d . . . I’d end up dead.
‘Are you willing to let the world believe you failed?’ Mairae asked.
‘Yes,’ Bal replied. ‘My men must agree, though. If they do, will you change the terms of the alliance?’
‘If my fellow White and I-Portak agree. Shall we consult our people and meet again in an hour?’
‘You will not harm any of the villagers before then?’
‘I swear, in the name of Lore, they will remain unharmed. But how can we trust that you will change the alliance after we have left?’
Mairae’s mouth relaxed into a smile. ‘The gods do not allow us to break our promises.’
Bal grunted. ‘We must be satisfied with that. Return in an hour. We will give you our answer.’
As Mairae entered the Temple the villagers fell silent.
‘A peaceful solution has been found,’ she announced. ‘The Dunwayans have left. You may return to your homes.’
At once the Temple filled with cheers.
Auraya had followed Mairae, Avorim and Qurin into the room. ‘You little fool!’ a familiar voice cried. Her mother rushed forward to embrace her tightly. ‘Why did you do that?’ ‘I’ll explain later.’ Auraya looked for Leiard but he was nowhere in sight. As her mother released her she suddenly realised that Mairae was standing beside her.
‘Auraya Dyer,’ the White said. ‘That was bravely done.’
Auraya felt her face heat up. ‘Brave? I was scared the whole time.’
‘Yet you didn’t let fear silence you.’ The woman smiled. ‘You demonstrated a rare insight. Avorim tells me you are an intelligent and exceptionally Gifted student.’
Auraya glanced at the priest, surprised.
‘Yes. Have you considered joining the priesthood? You are older than our usual initiate, but not too old.’
Auraya’s heart sank. ‘I would love to, but my mother . . .’ She glanced at her parents. ‘She is ill. I look after her.’
Mairae looked at Auraya’s mother. ‘The healers in the Temple are the best in the land. If I send one here to tend you, would you allow Auraya to join us?’
Feeling light-headed, Auraya looked back at her parents, whose eyes were wide with astonishment. ‘I would not like to cause so much trouble,’ her mother began.
Mairae smiled. ‘Consider it an exchange: a new priestess for a fully trained one. Auraya has too much potential to be wasted. What do you think, Auraya?’
Auraya opened her mouth and let out an undignified squeal that she would recall with embarrassment for years to come. ‘That would be wonderful!’