by Rob Steiner
Fatimah awoke to a crowd of grim but curious faces staring down at her. She tried to sit up, but fatigue hit her with the force of a falling tree. She lay back down, hardly able to move her hand to brush the loose red hairs from her eyes.
She opened her eyes again and focused on the faces around her. Her cheeks felt hot under the gaze of the most powerful priests in the Beldamark. Her Master, Eblin of Luesing, looked down on Fatimah with a small grin playing on her elderly face, the thin white brows above her blue eyes arched. Lilla of Bryndis, the Master of Healing and Ailments, stood over Fatimah, studying her like a shepherd inspecting a sick lamb. And the Holy Seat herself, Melahara of Fedalan, stood at the food of her bed, hands clasped behind her back and wearing a glare that made Fatimah feel like an Acolyte again.
“Well,” Melahara said, “the girl doesn’t seem to have gone mad.”
Lilla held a candle up to Fatimah’s face, studying her eyes. “No,” Lilla said, “her mind is clear. Fortunately she did not Wield enough to cause permanent damage.”
Fatimah tried to rise again, and this time she was able to support herself on one elbow. She was on a bed in the Heiron’s hospital ward, though it was a private room away from the twenty beds in the common ward. The walls were filled with shelves holding jars of colorful liquids, powders, and herbs. A table in the corner was littered with bowls, more jars, and parchments. Rays of sunlight shown through a window above Fatimah’s bed, illuminating dust motes floating in the air.
Fatimah asked Eblin, “What happened to me?”
Eblin smiled. “Wielding Ahura for the first time will fatigue most Tuathans. Even the tiny bit you Wielded.”
Eblin poured water from a pitcher into a tea cup and handed it to Fatimah. She did not know how thirsty she was until she drank the cup down in two gulps and asked for more.
“You Wielded Water,” Eblin explained. “You used some of the water in your body to put out Deacon Olma’s candle. Which, by the way, made her quite angry.”
Fatimah nodded as she gulped down a fourth cup of water. This one seemed to satiate her thirst for the moment, so she asked, “But it was hardly a drop. Why am I so thirsty?”
“Because you did it wrong,” Eblin said. “You used the water in your own body, when you should have drawn Water from Ahura. You were lucky you did not call for a bucket of water. You might have drained all your blood.”
Fatimah shivered, berating herself for trying to Wield when she knew how dangerous it could have been not only to her body but her mind. Her studies were rife with tales of Tuathans who had Wielded too much of Ahura at once, driving them mad with no hope of a return to sanity.
But the temptation of trying something that no Tuathan had done in a thousand years had been too great.
“How long was I asleep?” Fatimah asked.
“Over a day.”
When Fatimah felt her eyes go wide, Eblin said, “Do not fear, priest. With time and practice, you will be able to Wield far more of the Aspects of Ahura than you can imagine. We all will.” Eblin’s elderly face was bright with more excitement than Fatimah had ever seen.
Eblin’s enthusiasm and happiness were infectious. Fatimah smiled, and then tears welled in the corners of her eyes. This was what her people had dreamed of for the last thousand years, ever since—
Fatimah’s chest froze, and she looked at Eblin. “But the Barrier is down. Angra has returned as well.”
Fatimah remembered the chill she felt at simply glimpsing the black band that stained the morning sky.
Eblin nodded. “We know. But we are already working on a plan….”
Eblin glanced at Melahara and Lilla, who were whispering back and forth over the parchment on the table in the corner of the room. Melahara then looked at Fatimah and said, “That is why I summoned you yesterday. Can you stand yet, priest?”
Hearing the Holy Seat call her “priest” was such an honor after spending the last eight years being called “child” that Fatimah forced her feet off the bed and stood on shaky legs that threatened to betray her. But she held her balance, walked to the table, and bowed. Fearing that she would simply topple over, Fatimah straightened a little sooner than protocol dictated.
“You have summoned me and I have obeyed, Holy Seat,” Fatimah said formally. “How may I serve?”
Melahara glanced at Lilla, who bowed to the unspoken command, left the room, and then closed the heavy banded door behind her. Eblin gathered her wool skirts, hobbled over to the bed, and eased herself down onto one of the corners. Fatimah was left to stand despite her Wielding mishap.
Melahara said, “As it is obvious you are aware of the return of Ahura and Angra, I will skip that part and go to our plan on what we will do about it.”
Fatimah kept her gaze on the marble floor, too embarrassed to meet the Holy Seat’s eyes. “Mother Seat, I apologize for Wielding without—”
Melahara waved an annoyed hand at Fatimah. “Never mind that now. Eblin, explain to Fatimah her task.”
Eblin smiled at Fatimah. “Would you like to meet the Recindians?”
Fatimah stared at Eblin a moment. Contact with the world outside the Beldamark was forbidden. For one, the outside world was a dangerous place for Tuathans. People on the continent had once burned Tuathans at the stake for perceived evils after the Faith Wars and the rise of the Barrier. Even today, in some backward enclaves of their civilization, they shot suspected “Mystics” with their muskets.
But to be asked to meet the Recindians, a culture that she had studied throughout her years in the seminary… From the technologically powerful Compact, to the theocratic Mazumdahri, to the superstitious Turicians, to the prideful Edellians. Their languages, their customs, their history—Fatimah thought she new them all better than most Recindians knew themselves. To actually talk to a Recindian and not simply observe them through the Window…well, that was something she never thought the Holy Seat would allow.
Fatimah opened her mouth, but only gibberish seemed come out. “I, I, yes, I would very much like a meeting—but with, er, who would I…?”
Eblin laughed, the lines around her eyes deepening. “No doubt you have many questions, priest. Before you ask them, let me tell you what your task is.”
Eblin’s smile disappeared. “With the Barrier gone, our people will need help battling our ancient enemy, the Fomorians, who are sure to emerge like a dormant plague. But the Recindians, the Compact in particular, will also need our help, for they have no idea what they are about to face. Their culture has evolved a phobia of anything ‘supernatural,’ so they will not believe the threat they face until it overwhelms them.”
After studying the Compact for so many years, Fatimah doubted they would even believe the threat then. Pathism had inspired them to create wondrous technologies like steam engines, wiretypes, and muskets, not to mention a government based on popular consent—a rarity in all the world. There was much to respect about Pathism. But to Fatimah, it lacked a soul. She worried that Pathism’s denial of the ‘supernatural’ would keep the Compact from opening their eyes even when the Fomorians were turning their families into harrowers, or worse, Tainted abominations.
She supposed it was not their fault for evolving such beliefs, for it was their culture’s response to a terrifying event—the apparent abandonment of humanity by Ahura a thousand years ago. After the Barrier went up, the Recindian Mundanes in the lands of the Compact went from believers, to lost sheep, to doubters, to what they were now—hagan‘dhor in the ancient Tuathan tongue, or “faithless” in modern Recindian.
Eblin continued. “Yesterday we sent a rider through the Guardians to the border with Markwatch with a message for the Recindian Compact’s Speaker.” Eblin grinned mischievously. “Along with a little proof that we are who we say we are. We have extended to him an invitation to meet us here, in Fedalan, to discuss our common resistance to the coming Fomorian threat. Since you are one of the few Tuathans who knows the Recindian languages, not to mention my Apprentice, you will meet the Speaker at the Markwatch border and escort him here to Fedalan.”
Eblin shifted her woolen cloak around her small frame to keep out the autumn chill that not even the tall fire in the hearth could abate. She said to Fatimah with a weary smile, “I must say that I am quite jealous of you. You will be among the first Tuathans to officially meet a Recindian in several hundred years.”
Fatimah blinked. “You will not be meeting them, Master?”
Eblin shook her head. “After 83 years, my health is not what it used to be. Even for a small journey of ten miles. But I will be here to meet them when they arrive.”
Not only was Fatimah going to meet a Recindian, but it would be the actual Speaker of the Compact, leader of the most powerful Recindian nation on the continent! But a disturbing question came to mind.
“Master, what if he doesn’t come?”
Eblin nodded. “We were worried about that too. But we received word yesterday that Calaman suffered a harrower attack similar to the one that destroyed Grayven last night. We noted it in the message, which should pique his interest.”
Fatimah started. “Grayven and Calaman were attacked?”
Melahara, who had been silently listening to Eblin until now, said, “There are harrowers, and possibly Fomorians, in the Beldamark.”
Such a declaration from the Holy Seat had the impact of a Recindian cannon. Tales of harrowers and Fomorians had always been told by older siblings to frighten younger siblings, and there were even the occasional accusations thrown about by neighbors who held grudges against each other. But in the thousand years since the Tuathans retreated into the Beldamark behind the protective magical walls of the Guardians and the Barrier, there had never been a documented finding of a harrower, much less a Fomorian, in the Beldamark. But if Grayven, the Beldamark’s second largest city, had been destroyed….
“From what the survivors have told us,” Melahara said, looking down at a parchment on the table in the corner, “there was a ‘black cyclone that descended from a clear night’ within moments of the Barrier’s fall. It raged through the center of Grayven, obliterating every home and building there. Yesterday the same thing happened in Calaman.”
Eblin shook her head in disgust. “Our enemies already grow strong while we can barely extinguish a candle without falling unconscious for a day.”
Melahara said, “It is the nature of Angra. It has always been a quick path to strength, and our Fomorian cousins have apparently wasted no time.” Then to Fatimah, she said, “Which is why we must create an ally out of the Compact. It is the most powerful nation on the continent, and will be able to rally the other nations once the Fomorians build their armies of harrowers and Tainted.”
Fatimah shuddered to think of entire armies filled with black-eyed harrowers, former humans magically enslaved by Fomorians and given the ability to Wield Angra. There would also be the twisted, tortured monsters Tainted by Angra Wielding. Any living thing could be Tainted by a harrower, from grass to human beings, and the result was an entity that was warped into nightmarish shapes that could only be called the embodiment of madness. It was a mercy for Ahura Wielders to destroy such creatures, one of the only ways in which the Aspects could be Wielded to take life. Though “alive” was not an accurate term for the harrowers and Tainted.
Melahara cleared her throat, looking almost uncomfortable. “There is another matter that we need to discuss. One of a delicate nature.”
Melahara glanced at Eblin, and then said, “Now that we know for certain that Fomorians exist in the Beldamark, we must keep our guard up around everyone…even fellow priests.”
“Mother Seat, are you suggesting there are Fomorians among the priesthood?” Fatimah asked. “We all went through the Trials, we all were judged by the Guardians. How could a Fomorian have come through that without being revealed?”
Fatimah wanted to laugh at the absurdity of a Tuathan priest being a secret Fomorian, but only last night she would have laughed at the thought of the Barrier falling, or meeting the Recindian Compact’s Speaker. The world had taken a surreal turn, but Fomorians among the priesthood…?
“Some followers of Angra,” Melahara said carefully, “are not exclusive to the Fomorian race. History tells us that many mundanes followed the Black Ring. What is not well known is that some Tuathans did as well.”
Even though the Holy Seat and Master Eblin, two of the most respected priests among the Tuathans, were telling her something was true, Fatimah still could not accept it. “I do not understand. Why would a Tuathan follow Angra? Tuathans cannot Wield Angra, so what is the point?”
Melahara smiled sadly, said, “Tuathans were once mundane, too. We still have mundane desires and passions, and some of those desires are for power or immortality. Tuathans may have evolved better ways to control those desires, but we still have them deep in our souls. Some Tuathans have, in the past, fallen for Angra’s lies and temptations, even priests. There is no reason to believe that none will now.”
Fatimah knew she risked the Holy Seat’s ire by continuing to argue, but she felt like there was something Melahara was holding back.
“You think some of our own people brought down the Barrier,” Fatimah said.
Eblin glanced at Melahara, an eyebrow raised. Melahara sighed, and then nodded.
Eblin turned back to Fatimah. “We do not know for sure. All we know is that the Guardians were somehow used. And none of the priests conducting their vigils at the Guardians returned the night the Barrier fell.”
Fatimah felt almost as weak as she had when she regained consciousness. So it was true. Only Tuathan priests knew enough about the Guardians to activate the Aspects of Ahura in them. Only Tuathan priests could enter the Guardians for prayerful vigils that maintained the Aspects, a ritual that Fatimah had performed at the Grayven Guardian just last week.
“They were all Fomorians?” Fatimah asked in a weak voice.
“Not likely,” Melahara said. “There are twenty-five Guardians throughout the Beldamark, with a priest saying vigils in each one at all times. The odds of all twenty-five containing priests loyal to Angra at one time are too great, never mind the implausibility that twenty-five of the two hundred priests in the Beldamark are traitors. Maybe two or three, at most. No, we believe the priests saying vigils that night are most likely dead.”
Fatimah shuddered, and then realized with a jolt of sorrow that a priest named Keahra from her home town of Kulon Fields, who had been ordained on the same day as Fatimah, had been assigned to the Grayven Guardian the night the Barrier fell. Fatimah grew up with Keahra, played in the same small caves just outside Kulon Fields, and traveled to the Heiron in Fedalan together to join the priesthood.
Rest with Ahura, my friend, Fatimah prayed silently, refusing to even entertain the thought that Keahra was a traitor rather than a martyr.
“So you must be on your guard when you escort the Speaker here,” Melahara said. “Not only are there traitors and harrowers among us, but there are also those Tuathans who do not trust the mundanes, who will think this alliance is a bad idea. They still have not forgiven the mundanes for driving us into the Beldamark a thousand years ago. And they still believe that the mundanes will only wage war against us once we reveal ourselves to them.”
Fatimah nodded, still numb to the thought of Keahra’s death and Tuathan traitors. Melahara stared directly at Fatimah. Fatimah was still new enough of a priest to flush a little under the Holy Seat’s gaze.
Melahara said, “I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining the secrecy of what we have just told you. My first choice was to have Eblin escort the Speaker, but…”
Melahara glanced at Eblin. The old Master’s bright blue eyes were as intelligent and sharp as ever, but her wan, sagging face showed that her elderly body did not match its youthful mind. Eblin coughed a bit, and then pulled the furs even tighter around her neck.
“I could make the journey if I wanted to,” she said with her characteristic stubbornness. “I just don’t want to slow everyone down.”
Melahara gave Eblin a fond smile, and then turned to Fatimah. “Though the fall of the Barrier has no doubt been a shock to our people, they have held on to their wits so far. But if word of traitors in the priesthood were to get out, there would be panic. We must stay strong and patient, we must begin the education of our people into the Wielding ways again. But it must be a slow process. Tuathans cannot learn to Wield out of fear, but out of love for Ahura. Fear will only lead more of our people to the Black Ring, and that is what almost destroyed us once before.”
Fatimah knew all of this, but politely let the Holy Seat talk. It was not the place of a newly ordained priest to interrupt the Holy Seat.
“Once we receive the Compact Speaker’s response,” Melahara said, “we will tell you the time and date of your meeting.”
“In the meantime,” Eblin said through a raspy voice, but with a wink, “I suggest you practice your Recindian.”
Despite the sorrow and fear she felt after learning about Keahra, Fomorians, and the danger to the Beldamark, Fatimah left the Heiron’s hospital ward with a quickness to her step that took her all the way back to her small, one-room apartment in the tower’s third floor.
She was going to meet Recindians.
© 2012 Rob Steiner