Priestess Chapter 19 – Alert!
“Please sir,” The young acolyte hovered in the doorway.
Goran turned, surprised to see one of the temple staff in his office in the barracks. He’d managed to get all the details worked out for processing and training the new recruits that Borlan’s Edict had brought them – young men had been lining up to enlist almost before his speech was over. It’d take days to process them all, weeks to get the training under way and all the men assigned to their new postings once their skills and talents were assessed. And a number of very special recruits who’d need close watching. Some of them had tried to run for it, but most of them had been rounded up soon after their slaves had been freed. Lord Kevan and his friends – that ring of perverts and wastrels – would be learning to do some honest, decent work for a change.
And working all through the night kept him busy and away from his bride. Maybe today he’d try to talk to her a little, maybe today she’d be ready to talk a little, smile a little, maybe today he’d find the words to tell her how he felt. Maybe today, tonight when he went back to their chambers….
Goran nodded to the acolyte, wondering what she wanted here in the barracks.
“Please, sir, my lord, Commander… The High Priestess was wondering if you know where the High Priestess is. I mean, the First High Priestess, the Lady Tiarna, was wondering if you knew where the Second High Priestess, the Lady Aliera, is….”
Goran’s gaze sharpened, “Are you telling me that you can’t find Aliera?”
The little messenger nodded, “Yes, sir, she didn’t go to the Temple for the morning Observances, it was her turn, and she’s not in her quarters, and Tiarna, the Lady Tiarna I mean, she wondered if ….she sent me to ask….” She shrank back as Goran strode past, then scuttled after him, trying to keep up with his long strides.
Goran paused as the Crown Prince came towards him, “Goran, I was thinking we could use some of the veterans from….”
Goran’s raised hand stopped him, “Aliera isn’t in the Temple complex. Have you seen her anywhere this morning? Is she visiting with Her Majesty?”
Kendred paused, his brow wrinkling, “I saw Mother a few moments ago in the Great Hall, she said nothing of Aliera. Have they looked all around the Temple? Maybe she’s just gone shopping, or she’s visiting in the hospice or something?”
“She missed the morning Observances. She was supposed to lead the ritual, she wouldn’t have missed the Sabbath Observances.”
Kendred’s puzzled and worried expression mirrored Goran’s, “Are you going back to the Temple? I’ll tell Father and Melric, and we’ll have men search the City.”
Over the next few hours a cold fear grew as the searchers all came back with no news. Goran searched the Temple complex twice over, noting the cold bed in their quarters – it was obvious she hadn’t slept there. After he left she’d gone – where?
Gradually a few messengers garnered tiny scraps of news – a young priestess in a dark cloak walking towards the docks, but all the Temple staff had been accounted for, a woman going on board a ship, a young lord with her….
And Lord Kevan was missing. One of the few who’d slipped through the net.
Tiarna comforted Merila as Borlan paced the floor. Goran leaned against the wall, arms folded, face graven in stone. Kendred and Melric were eager to be moving, doing something to find their sister.
Goran felt the ice grow inside him. He’d failed his King, he’d failed his duty, most importantly he’d failed Aliera.
“She – she couldn’t have been thinking properly….” Merila sobbed into Tiarna’s shoulder, “She was so young, too young, we should have waited another year or two. She wasn’t ready.”
“She was determined to have him,” Borlan’s voice was heavy, “She’d never been told no before. Maybe we were too soft on her – but with the Offering in her future we just couldn’t be too strict with her.”
“I am at fault. I wasn’t good enough for her. I drove her away.” Goran ground out the words.
Brenn surveyed them all grimly, “Well, I’m not official Consort to the High Priestess yet, and I’m not a lord or a king or anything, and it’s not my place to say it – but I think you’re all talking a load of total rubbish!” Six blank faces looked at him in shock. “The girl’s young, and maybe a bit spoilt, but I saw enough of her to know that whatever she wanted, or however she felt, she’d never have turned her back on the Goddess. The girl was born and raised for this, she found strength and comfort in the rituals, no matter how she felt or what she wanted she’d never have deserted her duty.” He nodded at Goran for a moment, “When all this is over, and we have her safely back, you and I need to talk about women. I can give you a few pointers.” Goran just stared at him, stunned to hear so many words from someone who was usually as terse as Goran himself.
Brenn looked at the King and his sons, all fine strong warriors who topped him by a head, “Now, sire, you know your daughter. And you’ve been watching that straw-haired pretty boy she fancied. Who would you trust? Her or him?”
Borlan gathered his thoughts, “Her, of course.”
“So if there were any dirty dealings going on, who’s more likely to be doing them? Wasn’t he due to leave for that new posting of his – not that that was going to happen after the edict. Who’s more likely to maybe lure an innocent girl out to the docks to say a fond farewell? And to kidnap her, mayhap, as revenge?” He didn’t suggest what else could be done as part of that revenge. The city had been searched inch by inch – no body had been found anywhere nearby. He didn’t want to think beyond that. “Who’s more likely to be dirty dealing, and untrustworthy? Who’s more likely to desert their duty?”
“That BASTARD!” Borlan surged forward, “I’ll have him drawn and quartered!”
“He’s mine.” Goran’s hand rested on his sword hilt.
Voices rose in a hubbub – the young princes, Merila and Tiarna were also claiming the right to have a personal – and terminal – chat with Kevan. The whole family headed for the door, each one determined to be first on the hunt.
All voices stopped as they turned to look in surprise at Brenn. He wasn’t used to dealing with royalty, but he’d spent years organising stroppy miners. The noise level was about the same. He took a deep breath, “Now just you lot all listen here. There’s no way you can all take off like this. You, my dear,” he nodded at Tiarna, “You have to keep the Temple running until her safe return. And you, my lady,” a slight bow to Merila, “You have a palace full of nobles and courtiers and visiting dignitaries. Someone has to keep them all occupied. We don’t want word of this to get out, do we?” There was a group shudder at the thought. “Now your Majesty, you have many duties – it’s the day after the Edict, I’m sure there’ll be petitioners and requests all lined up waiting to see you.” Borlan nodded reluctantly. “And at least one of the princes has to be there in the Barracks to keep an eye on the new recruits and organise matters there. So that leaves Commander Goran, and perhaps one of the young princes, and myself.”
The shock of being organised by Brenn, and the obvious good sense of his words, kept everyone quiet as they moved to follow his organisation. Tiarna went back to the main precinct of the Temple to organise the new intake of novices, and the care for the newly freed slaves. Borlan, Merila and Kendred returned to their palace duties. As the coach clattered over the cobblestones Borlan turned to Merila, “I knew that man had good sense. Tiarna always did choose well.”
Goran and Melric and a select squad of the palace guard followed Brenn to the docks. Most of the slavers’ ships had been seized after the Edict – a handy start to the navy Borlan had planned to build. They commandeered the fasted of them, and had a productive, if brief and rather forceful, discussion with the captain. He’d soon been quite happy to tell all he knew about the ship that had departed in the early hours of the morning. That captain had planned to sail west along the coast, past the newly captured territories, picking up a cargo of slaves as they went, and head for the free markets in the lands further to the west. He didn’t know anything about a woman coming on board at the last moment, but he thought they’d left earlier than they’d intended, and in haste.
They sailed west. All day Goran scanned the horizon, refusing food and drink, never leaving his place at the rail. “Lad, you have to eat. You’ll do her no good if you can’t swing a sword by the time we find her.”
“If we find her.”
“We will. Now eat. And drink some ale. You’ll need it.” He’d need it one way or another, Brenn knew. If they didn’t find the girl, or if they were too late, as seemed increasingly likely, then Goran would need something to dull the pain he’d carry all his days. Brenn shook his head, youngsters these days had no idea – imagine leaving a bride alone like that. On Sabbath eve. After a tender moment that should have led to an even more tender moment. No, the youngsters today….no idea, truly.
Melric was all over the ship, he couldn’t be still, “We’ll find her, I know it. I feel it. After all, they can’t know we’re following. And we’re making good time…”
“We all have the same ocean. And the same wind.” Goran never took his eyes off the horizon.
The soldiers checked their weapons and waited. They’d see action soon enough – until then they rested and quietly menaced the crew, all of whom were now members of the King’s new navy – they’d seen the advantages of instant enlistment. And all eyes kept scanning the horizon.
Finally they saw it, a tiny sail. A glance from Goran had the sailors working to force another knot or two of speed from their vessel – nobody wanted to see what he would be like if he didn’t catch that ship. They’d seen what the captain looked like after a short ‘questioning’ session.
And at last they closed on the vessel. Goran and the soldiers drew back, so that nothing warned the crew of their danger. And then they were alongside, and the grappling hooks came out….
It was a short battle. Goran swept the deck like a force of nature, driving all before him. Melric and the soldiers right behind him. Brenn followed them at his own pace – soldiering is a young man’s game. He’d stick with slow and steady.
In a few moments the crew were huddled together swearing their innocence of everything.
“Goran!” He turned at the call to see Melric pick up a rag from the deck – a white rag that he shook out to reveal Aliera’s white robe – the sign of the High Priestess. Goran turned to the cowering men.
“I found one more!” Brenn came up on deck, driving another captive before him. A quick shove and Lord Kevan sprawled on the deck.
“Was she down below?”
“No sign of her. Just him trying to hide in a cupboard.”
“Melric’s found her robes.” Which left the question of what she was wearing now. And the bigger question…”Where is she?” Goran loomed over Kevan, glaring at the quivering lump who was now trying to crawl behind the crew members.
“Where is who – erk!”
Goran scooped Kevan up with one hand, holding him by the throat as he held him suspended above the deck and shook him like a child’s toy. “WHERE IS SHE? What have you done with her?”
“Uh, Goran? I like your technique, but you might need to let him breathe if you want him to answer you.” Melric leaned against the mast, watching with interest as Kevan turned puce.
Kevan hit the deck with a thud, collapsing into a gasping heap. Goran drew his sword, putting the point to the captain’s throat, “Tell me now or die. What did you do with her?”
“We – nothing, I swear! My lord, sir, I – please, we didn’t – the noble lord was going to – he threatened her – and she – she – ”
“She WHAT?” A trickle of blood ran down the man’s neck as he babbled, “She – she was afraid, and the noble lord he – it wasn’t my fault, I just look after the ship – he was a passenger, he paid for passage to the next port, he said he knew how we could make some money – he brought her on board, I didn’t know who she was, I swear – and then he brought her on deck and – he said he was going to – he threatened her – and – and she – she – she jumped overboard.”
Priestess Chapter 20 – Overboard
“What? Where? Where is she now?”
“We couldn’t find her – we sent the longboat back, but by the time we’d heaved to we’d lost sight of her. There are sharks in these waters….” he whimpered as the blade pushed deeper, “Or perhaps the lady got herself safely to the shore. We couldn’t find her.”
“Where was this? What shore?”
It took hours to tack back along the shore. The captured crew – and Lord Kevan – had been sent back on their ship with some of the guardsmen. The captain, his throat roughly bandaged, was helping them with their enquiries. He was very keen to be helpful, especially as he was now Goran’s only target. It was very important to him that the huge warrior wasn’t disappointed. “I’m sure it was just along here – I remember that cove. Yes! It was here, along this shoreline.”
They searched till darkness – every beach, every rocky oucrop, along the foot of the cliffs, everywhere. And found no sign of her at all.
Aliera huddled naked in the dark, the rocks cold against her skin as she listened to the waves lapping below her. She was praying that there’d be no other sounds – no footsteps or angry voices or victorious shouts.
When those grasping hands reached for her on board the ship she hadn’t stopped to think. On pure instinct she’d turned and thrown herself over the side. The sharks that followed the ship would be gentler than the men on that deck.
There was one last flash of light, then she’d hit the water and the darkness closed in.
Aliera sank in the water, welcoming that cool embrace. As she went lower the green-blue light seemed to be another world. This was a world where nobody would hurt her ever again. She relaxed, drifting down, letting go of all her fears. This was the best way. She’d made such stupid mistakes, she wasn’t worthy of her rank, her position, Goran….
She’d never told him she loved him. The love had always been there, she knew that now, but as she became a young woman he seemed to draw away from her, and then Kevan came along….
She sank lower. Kevan would never be able to hurt her now.
And Goran would never know she loved him. She didn’t deserve him, anyway. But he’d been so wonderful during the Offering, he’d helped her get through that ordeal. She must have done something wrong, she must have failed him somehow – that’s why he didn’t want her any more.
The water was so calm, so welcoming. So safe.
But she’d made her Offering.
And she was High Priestess of the Goddess.
And she was daughter of a line of kings and queens who hadn’t just given up and sunk below the waves when things went badly.
And she was bride to Goran, and she’d felt his hands on her, she’d gloried in his touch, in that sweet invasion.
And, dammit, she wasn’t going to let some nasty little slime like Kevan rob her of all that!
Aliera, spoilt and indulged princess, died in the water that day.
Aliera, High Priestess to the Goddess, Princess of the Blood Royal, wife to Goran – High Commander of the King’s forces, rose through the water like an arrow sped from a bow. Her lungs were bursting, a red haze danced before her eyes, but she wasn’t giving in to it. It was Aliera the fighter who rose to the surface.
When she reached the air, gasping, the ship was some distance away. She struck out for the shore, letting the currents carry her along the coast. Finally she staggered up onto the beach, desperate to find somewhere to hide from the longboat that was methodically searching the shoreline.
Her refuge was a cave, its mouth a low niche in the cliff face. At high tide it’d be under water, the seaweed in the cave showing how high the waters rose.
And now she crouched on a shelf of rock, watching the rising waters lap through the mouth of the cave and straining her ears for voices and footsteps crunching on the sandy rocks. She’d heard the searchers on the beach, but the invading waves covered the sound of their approach. She was shivering, but from cold, not fear.
Aliera had a pile of rocks under her hand, ready to throw. And in the other hand, a sharp shell held like a dagger. She was a fighter now. If they tried to take her, she’d cost them dear.
By the time she relaxed, the cave was chest-deep in water, its entrance submerged. But it wasn’t totally dark – a faint light filtered down from above. Aliera climbed higher to escape the water, then higher, until at last she crawled out onto dry ground and blinked in the sunlight.
She lay on the clifftop and scanned the ocean – far to the west a tiny ship sailed on. They’d gone – she’d escaped!
Now all she had to do was find out where she was, get some transport and travel several hundred leagues home, and explain what had happened. And she had nobody to help her and no money. And no clothes.
Well, Aliera the fighter liked a challenge.
Of course, this was a pretty big challenge for a beginner. She decided to prioritise.
Clothes came first.
Grass is a lot harder to weave than you’d think. Leaves aren’t nearly big enough when you really need them. And twigs are scratchy. Aliera felt like a walking hedge, and still wasn’t decently covered, but then she had some luck – she’d reached a road, barely more than a track but at least it had to lead somewhere. And in the mud at the side of the track was an old piece of sacking.
Aliera, treasured princess, had worn silk, satin and the finest of soft cottons. Aliera the warrior wore muddy sacking – and felt proud of herself for making it into a rudimentary garment.
Now, that was clothes dealt with. Food was beginning to work its way to the top of the priorities list.
Aliera the warrior began stalking an unsuspecting blackberry bush.
* * * * * * *
“It’s been five days. How can she – all alone – I mean….” Melric’s voice trailed off. He tried to imagine his sister, his precious, fragile sister, all alone on some beach trying to survive, or wandering lost and terrified in the woods. “She – she’s never been alone before. I can’t….I don’t know how….if she….”
Brenn glared at him, “We’ll find her. She has to be along here somewhere, she can’t have gone too far. And five days isn’t that long. We’ll find her….soon…..” Even Brenn couldn’t keep the determination in his voice.
For two days they’d searched every beach and every rocky outcrop along the coast. Then they’d started moving further inland.
It was poor country, farms were few and far between. Small huddles of cottages clung to the coast, most people found fishing marginally more productive than scratching a living from the thin soil. They’d worked their way along the coast, going through every hamlet, every hovel, looking for a girl who was trying to find her way to the city.
And the place was crawling with them.
Thanks to Borlan’s Edict, which had spread far and wide by now, young men were heading to the city to join the army. And young women were going the same way, to serve the Goddess. For many it was the first time they’d gone anywhere, a wonderful release from the drudgery of their lives. They travelled alone or in groups, some accompanied by family members. So many young women, and none of them the right one. For a whole day they’d followed reports of a girl with blonde hair, only to find an excited young woman and her grandmother on their way to the Temple.
The next day had been the same, and the next. Melric had lost his sunny cheerfulness, Brenn had become more determined. Goran had barely spoken a word for days. He’d eaten only when Brenn forced the food on him, and if he’d slept at all it was while he stood on the deck, straining for sight of the next cove.
Today they’d moored in a small bay, near another fishing village. Goran, Brenn and Melric had each taken some of the soldiers and gone out searching the surrounding area, but at the end of the day they’d all returned defeated. They walked along the narrow main – and only – street of the village, sharing the meagre scraps of knowledge and rumour they’d collected. Melric had heard word of yet another blonde girl, “But I doubt it’s her. She’s heading for the city like all the others, and she’s working on farms for food – milking cows, mucking out cowsheds. Aliera’s never touched a cow in her life. Maybe we should go back to where she went overboard, try the other way. She could be confused, going in the wrong direction….” He kicked at a stone as they neared the beach, and the waiting longboat that would return them to the ship.
They walked on in gloom. None of them wanted to voice the terrible thoughts they shared – the sharks, the waves pounding on the jagged rocks, one helpless and terrified girl who’d never even reached the shore – a girl they’d never see again. But that picture grew stronger every day.
There were a few people on the beach, mending nets and staring curiously at the ship that dwarfed their tiny fishing boats. A knot of onlookers clustered around the longboat, chatting with the waiting sailors.
“Are you going towards the city? Would you take a passenger? I don’t have any money but I can work for my passage – I’ll help the cook in the galley, or scrub the deck, or mend your clothes – I have to get back there, and it’s taking so long to walk.”
They couldn’t see the speaker, she was one of the group by the longboat. Each man froze for a moment, then they glanced at each other and hurried forward.
“My family will pay you when I get there. I have money, I swear it. If you let me travel on the ship you’ll all be paid handsomely.”
As they reached the beach the crowd fell back a little, and they could see the speaker. A girl in a rough, ragged shift with a shawl that seemed to be made from a piece of old sacking. Grubby, bare feet. Long straggly hair tied back with a piece of string. Another peasant girl heading for the Temple.
And then she turned her head.
“Ali!” Melric leapt forward, sweeping his sister into his arms and spinning her around, “Ali! We’d almost despaired of finding you! Are you alright? Did that animal touch you? What have you been DOING? We’ve been searching everywhere!”
Brenn, more practical, ran his eye over her to check for injuries, “Are you well, girl? Were you hurt when you hit the water? No sharks? Not hit on the rocks? We’ll need to get you on board and feed you.” He gave her a quick hug, then nodded at the sailors to ready the boat for them.
Aliera finished reassuring Melric and Brenn and then turned to face Goran. He hadn’t moved, his face was expressionless – grim and set. His eyes followed her every move, but he’d said nothing, made no move to go to her.
Aliera’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of him. She knew he must hate her now – all the stupid mistakes she’d made. And this one was probably unforgiveable. He hadn’t moved towards her, he was probably sorry she’d been found. She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry, and faced him, chin high, waiting for him to turn away in disgust. She deserved whatever he chose to say to her. All she could do was accept it with courage.
Goran could barely breathe. He’d been so sure she was gone – he’d spent five hellish days seeing her broken body every time he closed his eyes. And now, praise to the Goddess, Aliera was here, alive and well. And he saw how she braced herself when she turned to face him. He almost didn’t care. She could hate him every day for the rest of their lives, just as long as she was safe. But he couldn’t take it if she ran from him again – he’d have to be even more careful to keep away from her, so that she didn’t feel pressured to escape again. He eyed her, careful to keep still, keep back, even though he ached to reach for her.
Brenn watched them both, wishing he could knock their heads together. Young people had no idea. And they wasted far too much time. “Well, we’d best be heading back to the ship, the sun’s getting low. We’ve missed the tide, but we can all have a good meal and get some rest at last, and tomorrow at dawn we’ll be off back home. We’ll all be glad to see the city again, I’ll warrant.”
The old Aliera would have quietly gone back to the ship and hoped that one day she could rebuild at least a friendship with Goran.
Aliera the fighter took a deep breath and stepped forward, “Do you want me back?” She looked straight at Goran, “Do you want me at all? Or do you hate me now?”
Goran stared at her, trying to take in the words. Hate her? How could she ever think…
“I know I’m a disappointment, I know I wasn’t brave enough during the Offering. I know you don’t want me – but I’ll do better, I promise, I – I – I want to be a proper wife to you – if you want me…..but if you don’t want me I’d rather stay here. I can’t take it if you hate me. Please….”
Even warriors can only go so far. Her throat closed up as she tried to choke back the tears that threatened. And it was all for nothing. She gave a hopeless shrug and started to turn away.
Goran stood frozen, trying to understand. Hate her? How – how could he ever…..
She barely heard the word, hardly more than a whisper on the breeze.
Louder this time. Aliera paused, then turned back, “No? No, you don’t want me? You don’t…..not ever?”
Goran forced the words out, “No – don’t go. Please. I can’t lose you again.”
A shiver ran over her skin, “You want me?”
They stood frozen, then Aliera flew straight as an arrow into his arms. And they closed around her.