by Rob Steiner
After marching five hours, Eblin called a halt that was greeted with quiet sighs of gratitude from the Tuathan masses.
Fatimah ensured there were enough priests to maintain the shield, and then made her way to the back of the column to await Melahara’s return. Melahara had received word from Pomar, through Ahura, that they found Taran and were returning to the column. Upon hearing this, Melahara gathered all the priests that the column could spare, along with a squad of Heshmen, and went to meet Pomar. Melahara forbade Fatimah from accompanying her, ignoring Fatimah’s inappropriate protests. When Melahara’s sharp denials did not silence Fatimah, Eblin did so in a harsh tone that she never used even when Fatimah was an Acolyte.
“It is not your place to question the Holy Seat’s wisdom, priest,” Eblin had said. “Now do your duty and stop your childish whining.”
Fatimah had gritted her teeth and returned to her place among the priests maintaining the shield.
Fatimah reached the end of the column and sat in front of the shield’s blue, translucent edge. Several Tuathan families also sat nearby, and she gave them reassuring smiles. One of the children, a dirty-faced boy of five years, gave her a piece of cheese, for which Fatimah thanked him and ate gratefully. The boy gave her a shy smile and ran back to his mother.
The dark clouds had weakened, and the first stars of dusk sparkled through the breaks. Ahura and Angra shone like beacons in the sky, bathing the road in a strange mixture of color and darkness. Fatimah watched the shadowy road behind the column, waiting for Melahara’s return.
As soon as Fatimah saw the blue-white glow of the shield approaching, she stood and walked outside the main shield toward the approaching figures. Night had almost settled over the land, so it was not until she was within a dozen paces that she could see Taran walking among the priests and Heshmen, one of whom carried Pomar. Behind them were Edoss and his men, all more grim-faced than usual.
Fatimah broke into a run and stopped in front of Taran just before she was about to throw her arms around him. His hands were bound behind him and though he smiled at her, his eyes were sad.
And then she smelled the Taint. Decay, stale blood, feces, and all the smells that would make a human sick, all combined into one. It was weak, but unmistakable. It came from Taran. She backed away from him.
“You see, child,” Melahara said. “I told you he could no longer be trusted. You, too, can smell his betrayal.”
Fatimah’s voice failed her, the words frozen in her mind. She looked at Taran, who stared back at her with those sad eyes.
“Is it true?” she asked him.
He opened his mouth, but no words came. He did not have to answer, for his expression told her all.
She slapped him across the face, then slapped him again, and then a third time. “I trusted you!”
Melahara grabbed Fatimah’s hand when she was about to strike a fourth time. “Control yourself, priest,” she said. “He will be judged after our people are safe.”
Melahara cast a glance back at Edoss, who now stood at Taran’s side. The small man’s glare made him seem taller.
Fatimah turned around and ran back to the main shield, through the resting Tuathans, stopping only when she reached the front of the column. The priests surrounding the current shield holder gave her questioning looks, but she ignored them.
How could he have turned against them? He was her friend, she trusted him…and all this time he was a harrower? But it did not make sense. How could he Wield Ahura and Angra? Was he really in league with the harrowers who attacked Fedalan, and who followed the Tuathans now?
Fatimah heard the crowd behind her murmur, and she turned to see Melahara leading the bound Taran to the covered wagon. She ordered him inside, and he climbed in without a word. Dylan Edoss entered the wagon with Taran. Several Heshmen and priests stood outside, along with Lee Cursh and every one of Edoss’s remaining Shadarlak. Both groups eyed each other in ways that made Fatimah wonder if a cough from one would cause the other to attack.
“This is terrible,” one of the Acolytes said to another several paces away. “Why would the Zervakan betray us?”
“I heard he was never with us to begin with,” the second Acolyte said, her tone filled with conspiratorial certainty. “I heard he only pretended to be with us so he could infiltrate the priesthood. He was a harrower all along.”
Fatimah whirled around and stalked toward the gossiping Acolytes. When they saw her approach, both bowed their heads.
“Isn’t there some food you two could be handing out to the people?”
They both bowed again and said, “Yes, priest,” then scurried off to the food wagon to help with the distribution. Upon seeing Fatimah’s anger, several more Acolytes standing nearby rushed off to assist their sisters.
Fatimah went back to the group of priests who were maintaining the shield. Bessi Gyhll was currently holding the shield, her freckled face rapturous.
“I will take over now,” Fatimah said to Bessi. The young priest ignored her at first, so Fatimah stood in front of her and said loudly, “Bessi, I will take over now.”
The dreamy expression on Bessi’s face turned to confusion and disappointment. “I just took over the shield a few minutes ago.”
“And you will give it up now,” Fatimah said.
Bessi had been ordained a year after Fatimah, so Fatimah had the privilege of seniority on her. The girl reluctantly nodded her head. Fatimah raised her right hand to Ahura, recited the shield incantation, and then reached over to Bessi’s hand. The younger priest handed control of the shield to Fatimah. Fatimah was vaguely aware of Bessi collapsing into the arms of two priests who carried back to Eblin’s wagon. Fatimah was too busy reveling in the peace and joy that flooded her senses.
Taran’s betrayal was now a distant memory.