This is Chapter 1 of The Priestess, the Protector. We meet our main character, Mirian.
I stepped up to the altar and glanced into the blood-spattered bowl. Only a few fresh drops. With that small of a sacrifice, it was no wonder the others weren’t better healers. High Priest Vaktril’s brown eyes brooded at me from across the altar. “Priestess,” he grumbled his acknowledgment.
Beside him, Prophet Neijen, his face solemn, held out a small knife. Without changing his expression, he winked. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. Vaktril’s lips vanished as he pressed them together. The crowd of villagers and temple workers shifted in their seats behind me, creating a constant murmur of creaking wood and muttering voices.
I reached across the altar and accepted the knife. A bright blue gemstone on the end of the handle balanced the long, thin blade. I held the blade in the flame of the Candle of Purity, letting it lick around the steel. With the knife purified, I rested the tip against the palm of my right hand. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back. A pinpoint of heat radiated from where the tip of the blade rested on my palm. My stomach danced with exhilaration. A surge of energy coursed through me, the Goddess blessing me. Incense filled my nose. My pulse raced. My grip tightened. I took a deep breath.
I plunged the knife through my hand. Pain seared up my arm and through my body. My breath caught. My heart stuttered. The blade nicked a bone, then sliced through a tendon. My index finger curled in against the handle. Half my hand went numb and cold as the blade severed the nerve. Blood slid down the steel protruding from the back of my palm, clinging to the tip before forming drops. Each one dripped into the bowl with a sticky splat.
Exhaling, I recited the prayer of sacrifice. “May this blood offering replace the suffering of others this week. May Aliyah bless me with the power to remove the infirmities of those in need. Aliyah’s love.”
I basked in the warmth of Aliyah’s energy coursing through me. My entire arm throbbed in tune with my heartbeat, but I pushed the pain from my mind. I strained, listening. It had to be today. I’d studied and prayed every day for months so I could perform the purification ritual this morning. Aliyah would speak to me. I just knew it. My hand burned as I waited.
Seconds ticked by. My heart slid into my stomach. Finally I tightened my grip on the handle and pulled the knife out. It went blade down into the bowl of blessed water as I held my hand out to Prophet Neijen. He pressed a bandage on each side of the wound while High Priest Vaktril wrapped a strip of cloth around my hand and tied it.
Vaktril muttered his weekly admonition, “Mirian, there’s no need to penetrate your entire hand. An offering of a few drops of blood is sufficient.”
I held his gaze for a moment before turning toward my prayer mat. When I became the prophetess, he wouldn’t dare scold me.
* * *
I returned to my small room after the service ended, avoiding the chattering clusters of villagers and temple workers. Why was She still rejecting me? The throbbing in my hand hammered its way into my thoughts. I pulled the wrapping off to reveal the drying blood caked on my palm. More oozed from the deceptively small wound.
The familiar trigger of Aliyah’s healing power surfaced in the back of my mind. Drawing from my life force, I focused it up into my left hand. I pressed my finger against the wound and released the energy. Skin softened like cold honey warming in the sun, until it took on a liquid appearance. Tendons, nerves, and finally flesh flowed back together, sealing closed until the wound disappeared. I flexed my hand as I turned it over. There was no sign of the injury at all.
I changed into my work robes, brushed out my hair, and tied it back. After situating my prayer mat in the narrow space between my bed and the opposite wall, I sat down to meditate, starting with the invocation. Hands pressed together, fingers extended upward, I brought my thumbs to my lips, then my forehead. “May Aliyah’s love guide my thoughts,” arms lowered, one hand over the other, forming an X over my heart, “protect me from impure desires,” fingers spread outward and upward, just above shoulder level, “and fill me with her holy grace. Aliyah’s love.”
I tried to clear my mind and concentrate on my breathing, but my thoughts drifted outward, searching for any reason that the goddess would be displeased. Surely it couldn’t be —
Bam, bam, bam!
My eyes popped open and the air whooshed out of my lungs. Scowling, I got to my feet. My blood simmered. I jerked the door open. Larinn, the high priest’s thirteen year old daughter, leaned against the wall across from my door. She clutched a piece of flatbread in her hand, tallaberry jam smeared across her face and the sleeve of her robe. Her foot was raised as if to kick the door again.
“Fath– I mean, High Priest Vaktril wants to see you.”
“Me?” He never wanted to see me. The feeling was mutual. “Let me change and I will be there at once.”
“I’m supposed to bring you right away.” Her bright yellow hair stuck out in every direction.
“I can’t go to his office in this work robe. It will just take a moment.” Goddess, she was a mess. I grabbed the brush from the table near the door and pushed it into her hand. “Use this while you wait.”
Larinn and I walked along the hallway toward her father’s office, her hair slightly less disarrayed than it had been. The silence between us grew awkward. She stretched her arms out to the side, her mouth gaping open in a yawn, and I noticed a small rip marring the shoulder of her robe. I pointed to it. “If you like, I can show you how to repair that so it won’t come apart again.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your robe. It’s torn right there. I can show you how to repair it, as well as show you how to get the stains out of the sleeves. You don’t want to offend the goddess with messy robes, do you?”
She rolled her eyes and sped up a few paces. I shook my head. She was always so rude. One would think the daughter of the high priest would be better behaved.
At the end of the hallway a carved statue of Aliyah stood on a pedestal. Various types of wood gave natural tones to her pale skin, white hair, green robes and dark green eyes. Light from a window in the ceiling lit the statue, revealing a silver dust shimmering across it. To the right, Neijen’s door stood open slightly. He never closed it completely. I had spent many afternoons talking or just sitting in there with him.
High Priest Vaktril’s door loomed to the left of the statue. Larinn knocked once on Vaktril’s door and waited for his response before opening it.
I’d only been in the high priest’s office a handful of times. Sunlight streamed through a large stained glass window, creating tiny rainbows that danced across the bookcase behind the desk. Dark red velvet drapes hung on either side of the bookcase running from floor to ceiling. A sweet, rich odor, like the forest after a rainstorm, permeated the air. I lowered myself onto the edge of a chair in front of the desk.
From across the desk, Vaktril stared at me over his fold hands. “Mirian, it is time for you to take your calling as a healer seriously.”
Who did he think he was talking to? My mouth pinched downward and my jaw clenched. He was jealous. I forced my voice to stay calm. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, High Priest.”
“It is time for you to leave the temple and go out into the world. Your calling as a healer and a priestess requires you to help those in need wherever they are, not just here in the temple. Besides, you would have far more opportunity to show off your abilities in a larger city than here in Tillias.”
A wave of cold washed through me. I knew he didn’t like me, but I never thought he’d try to get rid of me. “I’m hardly interested in showing off, High Priest. Besides, my work is here, at the temple. I’m sure you are aware there is much more that I do than healing. I tend the worship hall, polish the statues, make sure everything is prepared for daily worship, dust and clean–”
“Yes, yes. We all see how busy you are.”
“The goddess tells us, ‘Those that labor in my name shall be rewarded, and their blessings shall be great.‘ The Virtue of Service, chapter four, verse seventeen. I can think of nothing more important than to fulfill my duties here at the temple. Showing off is beneath a true servant of the goddess, wouldn’t you agree?”
His icy gaze bore through me. “Mirian, the House of Trior has fallen ill. We received a messenger this morning. The Duke, Duchess, and their son are near death. They are unable to travel, but sent an offering to Aliyah in hopes we could send our best healer. Since the goddess blessed you with such a strong ability, it’s obvious you are her choice.”
“But… how will I attend prayer services? How will I offer my sacrifice? Who will tend the worship hall? When… I mean, ‘Turn not from the appointed times of worship, for those that forsake me so shall I forsake them.‘ The Virtue of Humility, chapter two, verse twelve.” My throat tightened. This couldn’t happen. I’d given up everything to stay here at the temple and now he was going to use my goddess-given ability against me?
“You can pray and offer your sacrifice while you are away. As to your other duties, I am sure that Larinn would be more than capable of performing them.”
“Larinn?” My voice cracked. “Have you seen her lately? She can’t even keep her robes clean and repaired, let alone take care of the worship hall.”
“Watch your tongue, Priestess. It is not your place to question my decisions.”
“It’s true. I’m not even sure how she came to be considered one of the priestesses. She has no healing gift at all.”
His face reddened. “Silence! You forget your position here. You’re –”
A knock at the door interrupted him. He relaxed his frown and took a deep breath. “Enter.”
Prophet Neijen slipped through the door. He shuffled across the room, leaning on his staff. He’d used that staff for all the years I’d known him. A white linen robe hung on his narrow frame while a tight skull cap covered the back of his head.
“Poppa,” I whispered. “Thank the goddess you’re here.”
“Calm yourself, Priestess,” Neijen said.
Priestess? We only used our formal titles during ceremonies that required it. My nerves jittered as he sat in the remaining chair.
“Vaktril, what is going on in here?” he asked. “Did you tell her?”
“Just what you told me, Prophet. Duke Kristoff and his family are very ill and requested a healer, and that Aliyah has honored her by choosing her specifically to go. Instead of accepting, she chose to argue and insult Larinn.”
My mouth dropped. “That’s not… I mean, he didn’t…” Wind and fire! The corners of Vaktril’s mouth turned up, but his eyes still shot daggers at me. I crossed my arms over my chest and glared back.
Neijen leaned forward. “Mirian, you came of age well over two years ago. In fact, isn’t your nineteenth birthday coming soon?” I nodded, and he continued. “Before I was prophet, I was a priest. I traveled between towns, helping where I could and teaching the ways of Aliyah. If I hadn’t, I never would have found you children after the fire.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. “Aliyah has selected you for this job. She told me this morning, along with some other news you might be interested in. It’s about your sister.”
I hadn’t seen or heard from Sarintha since our fight nearly three years ago, on my birthday. She moved away right afterward without so much as a good-bye or an apology. “What about her?”
“Aliyah informed me that your sister went to Trior when she left here. She also told me that if you are to represent the goddess, you must resolve the conflict with your sister.”
My mind tried to process the information. Aliyah chose me. Sarintha was in Trior. If I made up with her, I would be prophetess. But I would have to leave the temple. Could I do it? I hadn’t been any further than Tillias, just up the road. Now She wanted me to go to Trior. I felt stupid being afraid, but I couldn’t help it.
I hung my head. “But Prophet, are you sure She wants me to leave?”
His hand lifted my chin. “Mirian, you have to go. Aliyah has commanded it. ‘Any who refuse their calling, so shall they be cast away from me.‘”
In a broken whisper I muttered, “The Virtue of Service, chapter four, verse eighteen.” I bit my lip. My entire body felt numb. I didn’t remember the walk back to my room, just standing outside the door with Neijen beside me.
“Get your things ready,” he said, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. “You will leave in the morning.”