Author’s Note: It’s been a busy two weeks, and I’ve still got a busy month ahead! I’m pretty surprised that I’ve been able to get this chapter finished in time, but here it is. I’ve had to tweak it several times, and it ended up being a bit longer than I’d intended, but I’m happy with where it’s at now. For the moment. 😉 Enjoy. And as always, please feel free to like and comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts, even your critiques (as long as they aren’t abusive 😉 ). Thank you all for taking the time out of your day to read this! You all are helping me bring my stories alive.
Febe remained uneasy after her walk in the garden during the blizzard that raged beyond the wards. She could certainly dismiss the brief glimpse of a man standing among the howling wall of white. There was no reason for a man to be this far up into the mountains. She’d been told that this Temple to Vivacel was a place for women. Although this special temple was forbidden to men, Vivacel wasn’t like Isa. According to her followers, she loved men as much as she loved women, and she had other temples where men served solely as priests of Vivacel. Yet here, no man could pass beyond the outer wards, and few men could withstand the harsh temperatures outside those wards. Febe must’ve been imagining things.
Cycles passed and Febe’s work upgrading the facilities was enough to consume her attention. She still couldn’t relax enough to act on the friendly overtures of the other women. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to trust another person. True sisterhood was a foreign concept to her.
Her discomfort with the others was what found her once again seeking the solitude of the garden. It sat on the side of the temple that faced out into the frozen stillness of the mountain landscape beyond the wards, within view of the temple approach. The women of the temple seemed to rarely linger in this garden, perhaps because there were no walls to blind them to the starkness of the world beyond their sheltered temple. For some reason, Vivacel had left this window open to the bleakness outside. Febe wondered if she’d done it to keep the women here. From what she could see of the snow-covered peaks, there was really nowhere for them to go.
She shook her head at that discouraging thought. As far as she knew, she was the only one who wasn’t wholly content in this temple. Even her discomfort came from her concern about whether Vivacel could be trusted. If she’d been as secure in her faith as the other women, she probably would have been able to make a nice home here from the start.
Instead, her gaze constantly scanned the horizon, searching for some means of escape from an uncertain future with a goddess dictating her fate. For once in my life, I’d like to decide my own destiny!
Despite a raging blizzard the night before, the angry winds were now silent, Zephrona’s breath seen only in occasional low-lying flurries that swept the carpet of snow blanketing the craggy mountain peak. Those flurries probably weren’t any fiercer than the gentle eternal breeze that carried the fragrance of flowers into and around Vivacel’s temple. When Febe’s gaze landed on large tracks marring the pristine white coat of snow near the craggy peak, she jumped to her feet and approached the ward, squinting to try and bring the tracks into focus.
Though she had little experience in this sort of thing, she suspected that the blizzard the previous night would have covered up any old tracks. These must be new. They stopped well beyond the approach to the temple, but it appeared as though someone had walked up, studied the temple, and then turned around and made a second set of tracks leading away from the temple. Those tracks disappeared between the stone face of the peak, which suggested that there was an opening that wasn’t visible from Febe’s vantage point. This entire time, she’d believed that the temple was surrounded by stone. Now she knew that there was a way out.
Excitement fizzed through Febe’s blood. Though they were a distance away, the tracks looked like they could have been made by a human. She hadn’t seen any other large animals beyond the temple. In fact, she hadn’t seen any animals anywhere near the temple. Within its walls were small animals such as rabbits, rodents, and cats that Vivacel’s followers allowed to prosper as long as their numbers remained balanced. Those tracks couldn’t have been made by anything that small and still be visible to Febe from where she stood by the ward.
Febe considered what this meant for her. She’d been abandoning escape plans because she had no idea where to go if she did leave the relative safety of the temple behind. She couldn’t just wander aimlessly on the mountain looking for a path down. Eventually she’d run out of the supplies she’d been secretly pilfering, or she’d freeze to death because the rat-eaten furs and blankets she’d managed to dig up in the bowels of the temple’s extensive underground storage tunnels would not keep her warm enough to face long exposure.
But if there were other people nearby, she could follow their tracks to find them. They’d made it up to the mountain, and had not approached the temple asking for supplies to continue their journey, so they must have some means of surviving. Even if they were men, the priestesses would have supplied them generously, rather than allow them to die on the mountain.
What if it’s the necromancer and his men? What better reason for them not to approach Vivacel’s wards? The fact that Morbidon’s servants could be the ones just beyond the reach of Vivacel’s magic was enough to give Febe pause in her escape plan. It was one thing to approach tired pilgrims or even unknown travelers, and quite another to find herself back in the clutches of the very nightmare she was trying to escape.
Who else would come this far? Who else would know of this place? Vivacel had reassured her that Morbidon would never find her here. Could it possible that the goddess was wrong?
There was only one person who could answer these types of questions. Febe turned away from the ward—and the tantalizing hint of freedom beyond it—to seek out Lengala.
Up until this point, she’d been very careful about what topics she’d brought up with the head priestess. Lengala made her nervous. The ageless woman reminded her far too much of a kinder, softer version of her mother. They weren’t the same temperament, but they seemed like two sides of the same coin: cunning, powerful, manipulative. Lengala ruled her people through gentle persuasion rather than fear, but no one questioned that she was in charge, which made Febe suspect that there was hard steel beneath the surface of the head priestess.
Febe’s soft-soled shoes were barely audible on the cream-colored marble floors as she entered the vast temple and made her way to the nave. Vivacel’s influence was clearly evident within the walls of the temple as greenery sprouted from every alcove and a massive ash tree dominated the center of the nave, just before the cella that contained Vivacel’s statue and altar. The canopy of the tree spread beneath a huge domed ceiling made of glass so clear that the sun’s rays filled the room, reflecting off the cream and white marble.
When storms hid the sun from Vivacel’s temple, a false sun glowed just beneath the dome to provide the same brightness. Now, in the natural light, it was dormant—a simple globe of silver with runes glowing on its sides.
Lengala was within the cella—as Febe had been told by a passing novitiate that she would be. The priestess stood before Vivacel’s altar, holding a silver goblet aloft to the statue of the goddess. Realizing she was in the middle of a ritual offering, Febe checked her steps and retreated back around the trunk of the ash tree, taking a seat at the base of it to wait for Lengala to finish.
Febe had never been pressed into joining the worship of Vivacel. For that, she’d been grateful. Growing up, she’d had to sit through far too many services for Zephrona and had never understood the purpose of them. She was no more eager to worship Vivacel than she had been to worship the goddess of the wind.
Lengala began chanting in a language Febe didn’t understand, but the hair rose on the back of her neck as the priestess’s chant steadily increased in volume until she was almost shouting the words. The sun seemed to glow even brighter as she chanted, and the air grew thick and heavy, as if the light was coalescing around them, suffocating Febe as it pressed against her skin.
Then silence fell, and Febe slumped against the tree, realizing that she’d been tensing against the force of Vivacel’s presence as all her muscles ached. She breathed out slowly, feeling light-headed as sparkles of light danced before her eyes.
“The goddess seeks to cradle you in her light, but you fight her touch.” Lengala’s voice was gently chastising as she stepped around the tree trunk and stood before Febe.
Febe swallowed and climbed to her feet, pressing a hand against the trunk for support as her shaky legs took her weight. “I’m not comfortable with being cradled.” She’d blurted out the words without examining them first. It was an unusual lapse, and one she instantly regretted, as it revealed far too much about her.
Lengala’s expression changed from chiding to sympathetic. Febe wondered if it was real emotion, or a mask like her mother had perfected. “I understand, child. Not everyone is ready to receive the goddess’s love when it is offered.” She held out a hand to Febe. “She will be here for you, when you’re ready.”
Febe glanced down at Lengala’s hand. It didn’t waver as a moment passed, and then another while Lengala stood patiently holding it out for her to take. Finally, reluctantly, Febe placed her hand over Lengala’s palm. The other woman closed her fingers around Febe’s hand and turned to lead her out of the nave.
Lengala didn’t release her hand as they walked past the columns and out into the entry hall of the temple. “You’ve come to ask me a question.”
Febe felt like a little girl as she walked hand-in-hand with the older woman. She vaguely recalled her nanny leading her about in such a fashion, but it had been so long ago that perhaps that comforting memory had only been a dream. “I wondered if you ever get pilgrims here who weren’t brought to you by Vivacel.”
Lengala glanced at her, her expression giving away nothing. “Occasionally some make the climb to the peak, though very few can handle it, and even fewer know the location of this temple. It was built here to hide it from Morbidon’s underworld gaze. He detests revenants.”
Febe shuddered at the mention of the god of the dead’s name. The name of her betrothed. “But some people know enough to come here?”
Lengala nodded. “Vivacel reaches many worshippers through her temples below. Some are guided here by her hand, some by the priests and priestesses who serve her. They send those they believe will most benefit from being here.”
“Do any others come here? Maybe by accident?”
They’d almost reached Lengala’s office by this time, and the priestess finally released Febe’s hand, stopping and turning to face her. “There are tribes that make their home in sheltered valleys nearby. Occasionally they explore this far, but rarely do they approach us. Some fear us, but most simply respect the goddess enough to avoid trespassing without intent to worship.” Her pale gaze was steady on Febe’s face.
Febe tried to keep her own expression neutral as excitement filled her. She’d been worried that the tracks might have been from Morbidon’s servants, but Lengala had said that the temple was hidden from him. If his servants knew about it—and he truly hated what Vivacel’s followers were doing here—then surely he would have sent minions to destroy it, which meant the tracks were probably from the local tribesmen. Even better, there were sheltered valleys nearby that must have resources to keep her alive and maybe even people who would help her make her way back to civilization. If she could escape to one of those tribes, she might be able to find a way to forever avoid both the god and the goddess and their plans for her.
Febe asked more questions about the general area, trying to make it seem that she was only making friendly conversation. She feared that Lengala might still be suspicious, since the priestess’s eyes had narrowed on her more than once, but Lengala provided the information without any hesitation. By the time they’d finished their tea within Lengala’s well-appointed office, Febe’s determination to escape had solidified into a full-blown plan. It would dangerous, and the odds of her simply dying of exposure or starvation were very high, but it was worth the risk if it put her destiny back in her own hands.
Unwilling to wait until any potential tracks were swept away by another storm, Febe put her plan into motion as soon as the dinner bell rang. Normally, she would collect a tray and return to her room to eat it. She wasn’t the only one who did so, avoiding the raucous crowd in the dining hall, so no one had discouraged her from it, which worked in her favor this time. As soon as she got back to her chamber, she pulled her pack from beneath her bed and placed the bread from her tray into it beside the dried meat, fruit, nuts, jars of preserves, and loaves of travel-cake she’d already packed. She felt only mild guilt about stealing the food. She’d done worse to preserve her own life and freedom in the past.
She poured her goblet of water into her waterskin and added that to the pack, grateful that carrying water was a commonplace occurrence among those who worked the fields and gardens surrounding the temple.
A full pack and layers of clothes and furs in place, Febe took a deep breath and braced herself, wrapping the woolen scarf she’d found in a trunk in the storage rooms tighter around her lower face. The scarf smelled musty and old and within her room, the heat was stifling, but she expected she would soon be grateful for any heat provided by her collection of discarded clothes and blankets.
She opened her door and peeked out into the corridor. As it had been when she’d returned with her tray to her room, it was silent. Anyone who ate in their room was closed behind their heavy wooden doors, meditating, or reading, or praying to their goddess. She was certain Lengala would be safely ruling over her followers in the dining hall as she’d been when Febe had collected her tray from the servers.
Despite her certainty that the rest of the temple was empty, she feared that eyes followed her as she made her way through the corridor and out into the empty nave. She remained in the shadows cast by the marble columns that surrounded the nave and separated it from the aisles on either side as she headed down the aisle running alongside the nave, avoiding the gaze of the silver statue of Vivacel, fearing that the goddess might be able to actually see from such a thing. Fortunately, she didn’t feel the weight of the goddess’s presence as she had earlier during Lengala’s ritual.
The entry hall was also empty, and the huge double doors that opened out onto the temple approach loomed before Febe—a challenge, daring her to seize her own fate and freedom. The door was heavy, and she was sweating beneath the many layers she wore, but she still managed to get it open enough to slip past it and out onto the temple approach.
Unlike the rest of the grounds, the front of the temple was relatively austere when it came to growing things. Just a few simple trees dotted the grounds inside the wards. Beyond them stretched the carpet of snow, blank and blinding even in the setting sun, except for the tracks, which had remained clear despite the small flurries.
Sighing in relief that she’d have a path to guide her, Febe set out, wincing as the ward passed over her and thrust her into the icy air and unforgiving winter.
Lengala stood in her office, staring out the window as the small figure struggling to forge its way through the thick snow. She will probably die out there.
She will live. She follows my plan.
Lengala bowed her head, pushing away her pity for the young princess. As you will it, My Goddess.