THE TEMPLE OF FYRE
Janet Lane Walters
New Concepts Publishing
Ria stuffed the scroll she’d taken from the shelves beneath her caftan and tightened the sash to make sure the cylinder holding the rolled papyrus remained hidden. Beads of perspiration covered her forehead. She rubbed the sleeve of her robe over her face. The night air held sultry remnants of the heat of the day. Usually, the thick walls of the temple complex kept the rooms and corridors cool. Tonight was different. The usual night breezes were absent so the heat remained. Perhaps the approaching solstice was the cause?
Or, maybe her fear of discovery caused her heart to thump against her chest and her muscles to tighten into confining bands? She was in a place where she had no right to be without the presence of one of the priestesses. Acolytes were forbidden full access to the scrolls found in the scriptorium. She drew a deep breath. She’d acted out of necessity. The scroll beneath her caftan was one she’d discovered during another of her night searches. She wasn’t permitted to read this one, but she had and the words had stirred questions her tutors had refused to address.
On the morrow, her ability to control the flames of the fyrestones would be tested. She would be ordered to call flames from a pair of scarlet crystals and blend her blaze with those raised by the priestesses of the circle. Then, the chief priestess would assign her a task. Ria believed the things she’d read in this particular scroll would help her during the ordeal. The test was not without risk. One slip and the flames she sought to control could turn her into a living torch.
She crept to the scriptorium door and peered into the hall. With senses alert, she listened and searched the shadows cast by the flickering torches on the white plaster of the walls. Sensing no one was near, she scurried along the corridor toward the living quarters of the priestesses and acolytes. With luck, she would reach her room without being discovered.
Her hand pressed against the scroll she wanted to read again. The words of this particular one were vastly different from the lessons she’d been taught by the priestesses. Had they lied? Were the ways to use the fyrestones described in these writings true, or were they only a fable invented by some ancient scribe?
There were other scrolls that told tales that seemed unreal. The aged priestess in charge of the scriptorium had laughed when Ria had asked about dragons with eyes the color of the scarlet fyrestones. The old woman had scoffed when Ria had showed her passages describing wands wielded by wizards that sent lashes of bright or dark flames to control people.
There was no one she could ask if this scroll contained truths. Questions weren’t encouraged. Still, she wanted to believe what she’d read in this scroll about the uses of the stones, for they told of helping the people and that appealed to her.
Ria sighed. Since the day she’d been bought from the slavers by the chief priestess, her life, though interesting had been lonely. Not for her the crowded classrooms, or the dormitory where she could form friendships with the other acolytes. She had her own chamber and a private bathing room. During her lessons, she’d been the only student. Even her meals had been taken with the priestesses, not the other acolytes.
Why had she been kept isolated from the other acolytes? What make her so different? Like Ria, most of the others had been brought to Rosti by the slavers. At twenty, she was a year or two younger than most of the young women who had entered the temple with her.
She’d learned to call fire from every color of the crystals and learned how to blend the flames to form sheets of fire. She could impose maps and pictures on the sheets and knew the ways of sending spears of flame to various places. From the tiny flames of the white, to yellow, orange, and scarlet fyrestones, her progress had been steady.
A peal of laughter made her stiffen. She ducked into a shadowed alcove. After the evening meal, acolytes were to be in their rooms, not wandering in the halls. A pair of senior priestesses, their orange robes gleaming in the light from the hall torches, appeared. The women hurried past Ria’s hiding place and entered the harras.
Ria trailed behind them. The noises from the studs’ quarters stirred her curiosity. The men seldom left the harras, except for exercise in the garden, or when they were summoned to the room of one of the priestesses. Until Ria passed her final test, she wasn’t allowed into the rooms where the men were kept. Several times, she had spied on the studs, but only during the day and never in the evening when the priestesses visited. She paused beside the beaded curtain and peered inside.
Her eyes widened. Most of the men were nude or scantily clad. Priestesses reclined on low couches. Studs offered beverages and finger foods. Ria watched as one of the men fondled a priestess’ breasts. Another man swayed to the sound of a flute. He held his organ in his hand. Ria felt a stirring low in her belly. Her breath caught in her throat.
Malera’s husky laughter rolled toward Ria. Before the chief priestess could discover her, Ria ducked into the hall leading to her chamber. When she reached the doorway, she carefully parted the beaded curtain and slipped into the room. If she’d been caught, Malera would have been furious. The chief priestess’ temper outbursts often ended in an injury for the culprit.
Ria sank on the bed. The scene in the harras filled her thoughts and stirred her curiosity. What would have happened next? Though she’d been betrothed before her clan had sold her to the slavers, he had died and the women hadn’t yet instructed her on the ways of a woman and a man.
A frown wrinkled her brow. The lessons of her teachers arose. Acolytes were forbidden to interact with men, except for official business. A priestess was permitted encounters, but she must never allow a man’s organ to enter her body. Such a surrender would destroy her ability to control the flames she drew from the fyrestones.
Memories of her first training session with the chief priestess had been a series of commands. Once again, Ria had heard Malera’s throaty voice raised in warning.
A priestess is not permitted to bear a child. To give birth means the loss of power. She must find a daughter among the acolytes. For that reason, I called you from the plains before your clan brought you to the marriage bed. If I hadn’t, your talent would have been lost. When my days as chief priestess end, you will take my place. Though you are not of my body, you are the child of my spirit.
At first, those words had brought Ria pleasure and a sense of smugness. If all the acolytes in the temple, she was special. Lately, she’d begin to question her mentor’s motives. Ria remembered no call. All she knew was her betrothed had died suddenly, and the next day, her clan had sold her. Had Malera sent the slavers?
Ria pushed her questions aside. She lifted a white fyrestone from the bedside table and gazed into the multi-colored depths. With care, she called a flame and lit the candles on the low table. She drew the purloined scroll from beneath her caftan and extracted the rolled papyrus from the metal container. After finding a comfortable position, she carefully unrolled the scroll to read again the words that had intrigued her.
Since the prime temple in the hills was abandoned, a circle has been established in each hamlet. The circle of fyrestones and their wielders will call forth the flames to protect the people. These crystals should be used to heal, to cleanse, and to bring peace and plenty to the hamlet. Male and female will be trained to use the stones for the benefit of all.
Ria sighed. Should she believe her mentor or the words of the scroll? How often had Malera told her the commoners were there to serve the priestesses? Ria ran her finger along the next lines.
There are five varieties of the opaline crystals bearing fire in their depths. All hold the power of the sun. The smallest is the white. This stone holds all the colors of the flames in its core. Any of the people of the land can use this fyrestone to kindle a blaze on the hearth and to light candles to illuminate the darkness.
To use the yellow, orange or scarlet, the wielder must be trained. The rare blue stone needs two to call the flames, Male and female who must be united in body, heart and mind. Woe comes to the person who tries to use the blue crystal without the triple bond.
What did it mean? Until she’d seen this scroll, she’d never heard of a blue fyrestone. She lifted the white she’d used to light the candles and studied the swirl of colors. She saw yellow, orange, and scarlet. She also saw blue.
Unable to answer the questions plaguing her, she hid the scroll beneath her bed. After bathing, she sought sleep. Tomorrow for the first time, she would take her place in the circle and play a role in the temple rituals. She would control the flames raised by the priestesses who drew on the yellow and orange, and blend them with the fire of her scarlet. Curiosity about the coming test surfaced and colored her dreams.
* * * *
Ria stood at the window of her chamber and stared into the inner courtyard. She glanced at the sky. Before long, the sun would approach midday. That moment marked the time of her final challenge before becoming a priestess of the Temple of Fyre.
Though she’d bathed before going to bed, she smelled the scent of fear on her skin. She wet an herb-scented sponge and washed. As she donned the white caftan worn by all acolytes, her hands shook. Once she completed the test, she would be entitled to wear the scarlet robes of a high priestess. Only Malera and the two priestesses too old to work in the circles were so honored.
Her stomach clenched and she feared she would be ill. She rubbed her hands on a towel and sat on the edge of her bed to await the summons to join the circle. Once she reached the temple’s inner chamber, she would take her place on the topmost tier and direct the flame as Malera ordered. For a moment, the room wavered. She inhaled deeply and sought to calm her stuttering heart.
The whisper of sandals on the stones of the floor brought Ria to her feet. She stared at the doorway. Malera parted the beaded curtain. “Come. ‘Tis time.”
Ria’s hands tightened. She walked toward the older woman. “Are you sure I’m ready for the trial?”
Malera smiled. “I chose you from the slavers’ pens. For five years, I’ve nurtured and honed your abilities. You are the daughter I dared not birth.”
Ria took the chief priestess’ hand and brushed her lips across the back. She tasted anger roiling inside her mentor. A part of Ria recoiled from the strength of Malera’s emotions. Who had angered the chief priestess? Would the fermenting fury guide Malera’s choice for the test?
“When I call fire from the stones, how will I use it?”
Malera’s thin smile increased Ria’s inner quaking. A glint of smug satisfaction in the chief priestess’ dark eyes tinted Ria’s thoughts with uneasiness. What did Malera plan? Suddenly Ria was afraid. She looked away to keep her mentor from reading these emotions.
“Do not fret. The task will be within your abilities.”
“When you joined the circle for the first time, what was your task?”
Malera pursed her lips. “A most enjoyable one. My mentor bade me cleanse the temple of the malcontents who tried to destroy the rights of the women who use the fyrestones. Though several of the women had escaped, I succeeded in destroying most of the rebels, leaving only those who had fled years before for my mentor to purge.”
Ria frowned. “What did the malcontents do?”
“They gave fyrestones to men who were unfit to use the crystals and to women who were untrained in the proper ways of this temple.”
“How could anyone not trained here use any crystal other than a white?”
“The rebel priestesses diluted their power. They joined with men. They permitted studs to use the stones. They were fools. A wise woman never cedes her power. She does not share control with anyone. As the only temple in the land, all must obey us.” She lifted Ria’s chin and gazed into her eyes.
Malera’s eyes narrowed. They compelled obedience. Something inside Ria made her resist the compulsion. Confusion filled her thoughts. Acid flowed in her gut. A need to rebel arose, but how could she act against the chief priestess’ guidance? The older woman had rescued her from forced service in one of the pleasure houses. Malera had shown the kindness Ria’s mother had withheld. Ria’s hands clenched. Just because the old man chosen as her betrothed had died under mysterious circumstances, she’d been declared cursed and sold to the slavers. No one had cared about her fate until Malera.
The chief priestess released Ria’s chin. “’Tis time for you to face the test, as all who are selected to serve the temple must.”
Ria nodded. “I am ready.” As the knowledge of how she wanted to use the crystal solidified, her stomach fluttered. Even if she must defy her mentor, she would use the stone to help, not harm.
Malera led Ria into the large rotunda where those who came to petition the priestesses waited for a summons. Tiles reflecting the colors of the fyrestones covered the floor. Benches lined the side walls. Tables where the petitioners placed gifts of food, cloth, spices and gems flanked the doorway to the inner chamber. Here also, the tithes from each hamlet were collected.
When Malera parted the curtain made from strings of white crystals like the one Ria had used to light the candles, her stomach clenched. She stepped inside and faced the circle. Three priestesses stood on the first tier and Ria studied the fyrestones in the depressions carved in the limestone of the circle. They glowed with power.
The chief priestess led Ria to the topmost tier where a single scarlet crystal glittered in the cup. With a flourish, the chief priestess handed Ria a scarlet stone. “This is the one you used in practice and have imprinted with your spirit. Use the crystal well.” She retreated to the base of the tiered circle. “Prepare for the testing.”
Ria drew a deep breath. She noticed a glint of scarlet in Malera’s hand and wondered why. Ria raised her crystal. The sun edged over the opening in the roof above the circle. “Let us begin.”
The three women holding yellow fyrestones called fire. Then two spires of orange appeared. Ria stared at the stone balanced on her palm. The sun centered in the opening. She basked in the warmth. Her crystal glowed and a flame rose. With care, she blended the yellow and orange tongues of flame with those from the scarlets.
“Seek the hamlet of Gydon,” Malera said.
Ria molded the fire into a sheet. A map of the land from the ocean shore in the south to the northern mountains appeared. Using a finger of fire, she sought the farming hamlet near the hills beyond both wastes and the grove. Houses appeared, then people, mostly women and children. Three elderly men and several youths led scraggly beasts to a pasture beyond the walls. Some of the buildings looked as though they’d been scorched by fire in the past. The gardens were ill tended. The people looked beaten. Ria smiled. She could help them.
“This is your task,” Malera said. “For years, the hamlet of Gydon has failed to send the tithe to the temple. You will destroy the fields, the flocks, the herds and the orchards to force the people to leave.”
“Where are the men?” Ria asked.
“Sold into slavery to pay the tithe. Twenty years ago, there were those living near Gydon who attempted to use the fyrestones in ways opposed to the chief priestess’ dictates. I cleansed the temple of their ilk, but three remained until my predecessor challenged them and won. Gydon must become a lesson for all the people of Fyre. They must see what happens to those who defy me.”
Ria held the flames steady. “How can those who remain pay the tithe? Don’t you see how poor the people are?”
“They have children to sell. Young girls for the temple. Older girls, women, and boys to serve in the pleasure houses. Destroy the flocks, fields, herds and orchards. Lay waste to all. Show the hamlets of Fyre what happens to those who refuse to pay the tithe.”
Defiance built within Ria. How could she use the flames to punish the innocent? “Do any of the rebel priestesses still live?”
Malera smiled. “They are dead and their studs with them. Do as I command.”
“Priestesses should use fire to help. I’ve visited the scriptorium and have read many scrolls. What you tell me to do is wrong.” Ria saw the thin line of scarlet flame flow from Malera’s hand. Ria felt the chief priestess’s attempt to use the fyrestone she’d been given. “No.” Ria braced and fought her mentor.
The gathered flames coalesced. The pictures faded. Spires of yellow, orange and scarlet shot higher and higher until they filled the opening in the roof. For an instant, Ria faltered. A blazing arrow of scarlet shot toward her. She felt a burn along her skin. With determination, she gathered her waning strength and held against the battering of Malera’s mental thrusts.
Ria staggered. Screams echoed in her head as one by one, the priestesses fell from the link. When the flames died, she saw the fallen women. Were they alive or had her defiance killed them? She held her breath until they stirred. She looked down. The crystals in the cups of the circle were blackened cinders.
Malera moved toward the circle. “Traitor. Even before the slavers brought you to Rosti, I chose you as my successor. When your were a child, I watched you in the flames. I saw you grow. I sent fire to kill the old man they wanted you to marry. And so you came to me. I have nurtured and cherished you, and betrayal is how you repay my care.”
Ria left the top tier and made her way down the levels. “I cannot harm the innocent for any reason. You are evil.”
Malera fisted her hands on her hips. “You have betrayed not only me, but the temple. There are no stones to replace the ones you turned into cinders.”
Ria met the glare from the chief priestess’ dark eyes. “I did what I was meant to do.” She stepped through the beaded curtain and strode across the rotunda. The slap of sandals on the tiles came from behind her. Gooseflesh rose on her skin.
“We have been betrayed,” Malera cried. “Acolytes and priestesses, join me. Drive her from the temple. Stone her. As was done in the past, the temple must be cleansed of those who deny the proper ways.”
Terror gripped Ria’s shoulders in a vise. She heard the footsteps of those who followed. Though cries for flight beat steadily in her thoughts, she refused to show her fear. Ria reached the outer door and stepped into the lane. The first rock thudded against her back and drove the breath from her lungs. She staggered but managed to stay on her feet.
As though the flames she’d sent skyward had triggered a solar flare, the sun brightened. Ahead of her, the wide lane leading to the temple was deserted. She glanced over her shoulder and knew she would never reach the market square before the women were upon her. Panic engulfed her. She ran. Rocks slammed into her body. One smacked her legs. She fell. The caftan tore. On hands and knees, she slid across the rough cobbles of the path.
* * * *
Malera stood over Ria’s body. “Traitor.” The chief priestess turned to the acolyte who had been the last to join the stoning. “See what happens to those who defy me. Next time, do not be so slow or you will face the same punishment.”
Another of the young women shrank back. A third knelt beside the body. “She lives. Should we call the alders to take her to the slavers?”
Malera ran her hands along the handle of her flail. “Let her lie.” She pointed upwards. “The sun will drink her essence and the carrion crows will dine on her flesh.” She indicated the dark forms that circled against the blue sky. “See, they gather for a feast.”
Two huge birds, the color of the midnight sky, landed on the path. Their orange beaks gleamed. One hopped forward and focused its gaze on Malera.
The chief priestess laughed. “Soon you will eat.”
The bird’s wings spread like ebony fans. “No,” one of the acolytes cried.
Malera pointed to the temple. “Since you have no stomach for what must be done, go to the temple and tend the priestesses the traitor harmed.”
The young woman backed away. “What about the fyrestones she destroyed? What will we do for the solstice rites?”
“Soon, the stone seekers will arrive.” Malera stroked the thongs of the flail. Most years, they arrive before the solstice.” She raised the flail and lashed Ria’s back and legs until blood seeped through the caftan.
The acolyte who knelt beside Ria jumped back to avoid the thongs. Something flew from her hand and skipped across the cobbles. “Why did you beat her?”
Malera laughed. “How else will the carrion crows know a feast awaits?”
The young woman covered her face with her hands. She scurried to the temple.
Malera spat on Ria’s body. “I am the chief priestess, the chosen leader of the Temple of Fyre. This land is under my control. The commoners bow to me. Rewards and punishments are mine to mete.” She spun, strode to the temple and hurried to the harras. The fires raging in her body needed to be quenched as only the studs could do.
* * * *
Ari paused at the edge of the grove and peered at the sky. The sun stood just beyond midday. Stay or go? If he pushed the burros, he could reach Rosti just as the sun set. Should he take the chance? The rocky plain between the grove and the hamlet was home to the lopestas that emerged to hunt after the sun set. One stumble on the rocks could turn a profitable season into a disaster. Tomorrow would be soon enough to head for Rosti. He would have a tenday to sell the fyrestones and depart before the solstice began.
He staked the burros and lifted the near empty panniers from their backs. He piled digging tools and the tent beside the wicker baskets. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead.
The scarlet fyrestone he’d worn on the day the pair of stone seekers had found him pulsed. He pressed his hand against the lump beneath his tunic. What did it mean? He stared toward the distant walls of the hamlet. His eyes widened. A plume of fire rose toward the sun. What were the priestesses attempting? Had one of their fires escaped from their control?
Not his business. The only traffic he had with the temple was for the sale of the opaline crystals he carried in his haversack. With the fyrestones he’d found, he would have enough coins for supplies and to buy some answers to the questions that had bothered him for years. Who was he and why had he been abandoned in the grove? Which hamlet had been his birthplace?
He started a fire and ate the remainder of the lopear he’d snared that morning. After setting several snares, he dozed until sunset. He checked his snares and cooked two grass hens, ate one and slept.
When pre-dawn lightened the sky, he loaded the burros. He set off across the rocky plain, taking care to avoid large piles of rocks where the lopestas burrowed during the day.
At the gate into Rosti, he paused to pay the entrance fee. “You’re in early,” the guard said. “Any luck?”
Ari nodded. At least the guard asked out of curiosity, and not the prying questions asked when a man left the hamlet. Ari often wondered if there were bonds between the guards and the thieves who preyed on solitary stone seekers.
“A bit,” he said. “Found whites and a pair of yellows before the site played out.” That had been the first of his finds, but he wouldn’t mention the others. “Sale will bring me enough for supplies and a few nights at an inn.”
The man stepped closer. “You’re the first stone seeker to arrive. With crystals in your pack, the priestesses will welcome you. Did you see the flame yesterday at midday, the one that rose above the temple? Heard one of the priestesses tried to kill Malera. Someone said all but the white fyrestones turned black and have no power.
Ari laughed. “Then mine should bring a good price.”
The guard nodded. “Might reward you with more than coins. Could offer a night with one of the priestesses. Or you could be chosen to join them for the solstice celebration. Hear they like the things a man does.”
Ari forced a grin. That was one reward he had no intention of collecting. If he gave a priestess too much pleasure, he could become a prisoner in the harras.
He led the burros past the guard and turned into the first lane where stables abounded. He stopped at the one Jorg had always used. His thoughts turned to his dead partner, and once more, he regretted being unable to save the old man’s life. Jorg had clutched his chest and fallen to the ground. Ari hadn’t known what to do.
The stableman accepted enough coins for a tenday. Once again, Ari thanked Jorg for teaching him to keep a secret stash of coins. Ari led the burros into a stall. He draped the blanket roll over the gate and hung the tent beside it. He hung the panniers on hooks and set the digging tools on a ledge. The stableman lifted a stone block and the trough filled with water. While the man brought hay and grain, Ari curried the burros. Once he finished, he hoisted his haversack and lifted a sack of dirty clothes.
After leaving the stable, he sought an inn. In the choosing, he heeded Jorg’s advice. Never stay at the same one you used the last time. Always seek one with a ground floor chamber and a private bathing room.
The second one he visited met his requirements. “You’re in luck,” the skinny innkeeper said. “In a few days, the place will be crowded with folks arriving for the summer solstice. Five coppers a day for the room. Meals are extra. For one silver, the laundress will see to your clothes.”
Ari nodded. He counted out the coins for the room and laundry. Though he had no intention of remaining for the solstice, he paid for a tenday, two beyond the festival. Once he sold the fyrestones and bought supplies, he would seek Jorg’s old partner. Besides the twenty coppers Ari gave the old man on each visit to Rosti, this time Ari was determined to purchase information. Once he knew all the particulars of the rescue, he would leave the hamlet. Being near the temple during the twice-yearly rites made him uncomfortable. The scarlet crystal, his heritage, always reacted. He feared one day, the stone would raise a flame and consume him.
He followed the innkeeper down a narrow hall and noticed two exits he could use to come and go without crossing the common room. The thin man opened a door at the end of the hall. Ari noted the heavy bar he could use to keep people out. He nodded. “This will do.” He dropped the sack of dirty clothes in the hall. “Have these washed. I’ll add others after I’ve been to the temple.”
“She’ll have most ready by morning. Will you take your meals in the common room or have them brought here?”
“I’ll have the evening meal brought, but I’ll decide when later.”
“Will you need a companion? I’ve a connection to one of the pleasure houses.”
“Perhaps. First, I have business to conduct.”
Once the innkeeper left, Ari barred the door. He dropped the haversack on the bench beneath the window and secured the shutters. He opened the pack, and one by one, extracted the fyrestones from the pack’s false bottom. As he touched each stone, the core color flickered. He placed each of the colors in a separate pouch and placed them in the large leather one he hung from his belt.
When he left the inn, he strode down the cobbled lane to the market square. He noticed his mentor’s aged and crippled partner beside one of the food stalls. Though Ari wanted to question the man, he knew he couldn’t until after the crystals had been sold.
What would Bil tell him? The man had been Jorg’s partner when they’d stumbled across the small boy near the edge of the grove. The scarlet fyrestone and the copper necklace had been the only clue to Ari’s identity, a clue he didn’t think the men had pursued.
Ari’s hands clenched. Who had left him there? Who had given him the stone? He’d never heard of a man being able to use any of the fyrestones except the white. Though several times, he’d dreamed Jorg had used one, Ari couldn’t remember finding one when the old man died.
The savory aroma of meat pies made his stomach growl. He purchased one and a mug of ale. The nutty flavor of the beverage soothed the fiery spices of the pies. Around him, conversations flowed. He ate quickly. Once the stones were sold, he would order a feast and a woman from one of the pleasure houses to share the food and attend to his needs. He’d been without a woman’s company since the week before the winter solstice. As he sauntered toward the temple, snippets of words reached him.
“Flame near touched the sun.”
“Saw that. Could have ended the world.”
“Heard the priestesses took sick. They’re not hearing petitions.”
“After the solstice when the rites are changed.”
Ari reached the edge of the square and followed the fyrethorn hedge to the arched entrance to the temple lane. The hedge lined both sides of the wide cobble-paved path. The brilliant scarlet blooms on the bushes hid deadly red thorns. Ari frowned. The odd thing was nowhere but here near the temple had he ever seen fyrethorn growing. He often wondered why.