Twilight darkened the sky before Ashiera found a hiding place in a dark alley doorway. The stench of rotting fish and the brine-laden air made her swallow against the burning fluid that rose in her throat. Rustling noises brought a prayer that none of the alley’s denizens would attack her. She dozed, woke and dozed again. Memories of the past rose in broken fragments, but each time she woke, she found more pieces were joined.
Sieper. Bits of the things she’d heard years ago in the marketplace were remembered. Rumors of his ability to read the weather surfaced. How could he possess such a talent? The Mistress touched women, never men. Did he serve the Lord of Shadows? He’d spoken of ownership and of her as being a reward from the Cabal. Had Sieper been one of the men who had lurked and awaited the arrival of the gray priests?
She sighed. Would she ever regain all the memories of the time before her capture?
She rolled the too long trouser legs and used a scrap of cloth torn from her gown as a belt. The sleeves of the shirt hung well below her hands and she pushed them up. How fortunate she’d been to find Sieper’s clothes on the line. As she’d fled through the alleys, she’d peered into the streets. The few women she’d seen had been escorted by one or even several men.
While she waited for true dark, she fingered the scar on her wrist. Her hand flew to her mouth and she stifled a scream.
An obese man, head shaved and scalp oiled, faced her. He held a metal rod with a serpent curled around the staff. A globe of swirling mist topped the rod. Her body trembled. The evil in the priest’s thoughts nauseated her. The serpent raised its head. The fangs bit into her wrist and sent molten fire through her veins. An endless scream echoed in her head and she sought darkness as she had before.
When Ashiera emerged from the place where night was eternal, a few stars shone in the sky. A pale sliver moon had risen. She struggled to her feet and exercised muscles stiffened by the cramped position.
Flee. Leave the city.
The urgency of the command made her lose all caution. “Who are you?”
The Place of Choosing. You must go there.
“Where is this place?
As she left the wharf area, she slid from shadow to shadow. Now and then she heard footsteps, but whoever walked the streets moved with the same caution she employed. Finally the waterfront lay behind and she strode along a broad avenue where the Seat of Judgment stood behind a high wall. The Seat was no longer a refuge since the gray priests resided there now. Shepas barked warnings. Several times she froze and fought the urge to run and, perhaps draw attention to her flight.
At last, she reached the market near the north gate. Guards in gray uniforms trimmed with waxy yellow marched two by two in front of the gate. Was she trapped? Was there no way out of the city?
She slipped between two stalls and slid beneath a peddler’s wagon. The cold of the rough stone cobbles seeped through her clothes and made her shiver. She leaned against one of the wooden wheels and, despite her discomfort drifted to sleep.
Voices woke her. She peered around the wheel and saw two men.
“’Tis the first day of the last lunar of the year. An auspicious day to begin our journey.”
“Father, watch your tongue. ‘Tis the first day of Dar. If you plan to remain on the road, you must learn the words our new rulers have ordained.”
The first man laughed. “Peto, my son, you will do well. An old man has trouble remembering new ways. Are we set to leave?”
“The wagons are loaded. The cart is stocked. Our permits have been bought and signed. All we must do is pay the gate tax.”
“You go. ‘Tis my last trip as master peddler. Time for an old man to sit by the fire and tell his grandchildren tales of the road.”
“Then harness the bovies while I’m gone.”
Ashiera watched until the younger man left. She crept from her hiding place. Surely one who failed to learn the new ways would help her.
“Months, not lunars,” the old man muttered. “Not allowed to speak about the Mistress.” He led a pair of massive brown beasts to the first wagon and fastened them in the traces. “Blessed be the Mistress. Years ago her seer predicted a son for Sari and me. A miracle for a woman past her fortieth year.”
“Peddler,” Ashiera whispered.
He turned. His dark brown hair was touched with strands of ebony. “A woman in men’s clothes. If the priests find you, they’ll drag you to their pens.”
She pushed up the sleeve of her shirt. “I’ve been there.”
He drew closer. “You!” A reverent tone crept into his voice. “You are the one who said I’d have a son.”
Ashiera had no memory of his face among the many seekers at the Seat of Judgment. “I pray my prediction brought you joy.”
“He has.” He touched her wrist. “Why did they mark you?”
She shuddered and pushed the dark memories away. “My mind fled under their torture.”
He dropped his cloak around her shoulders. “Tales are told of the ones who resisted and died, and of one who accepted, but none of you. How can I help?”
“I must reach the
“’Tis a far way to travel.” He nodded. “Small steps must come first.” He harnessed the bovies, then opened the door of a brightly painted wagon. “Years ago, my spouse traveled with me. Our son was born in this bed.” He lifted the mattress and a wooden frame. “For storage. A small space, but once we’re past the gates, I’ll let you out, though you must stay in the wagon. We travel with some who fawn on the priests.”
Ashiera traced the sign of the Mistress in the air and took hope from the golden glow. “Blessed be. Have you water? I would drink before I hide.”
He filled a cup. “I’m Penro.”
“Thanks be.” She savored the water and drank a second cup before climbing into the cubby.
When Penro replaced the frame and mattress, she fought the urge to scream. Memories of her imprisonment by the Cabal filled her thoughts. Before the snake had marked her, she’d been kept in a small dark pit for days. The stale air, the cramped position and the absence of light in this hiding place seemed the same.
The cart moved, then stopped for what seemed like hours. Her nails bit into her palms and her heart thudded. If they found her, what would she do? Finally, the cart rolled forward. The gentle rocking movements lulled her to sleep.
When she woke, the cubby was hot and the air flat. Sweat made her clothes cling to her body. She gulped deep breaths until her head spun. Frantically she pushed against the wooden frame. Tears rolled down her face. Then a rush of cool air reached her.
“’Tis night.” Penro helped her from the small space. “You slept through the day. Couldn’t wake you when we stopped at midday. There’s food and drink on the table and some coins I’ve collected from those who won’t betray you. I’ve the names of several inns on your way where the Mistress is honored in secret. My friend, Thamis, has clothes for you.”
Ashiera stretched her aching body. “Are there many who oppose the priests?”
He shrugged. “In every village and hamlet there are those who keep Her in their hearts, but there are no leaders. The warriors from the Hall of Defense were defeated. Her servants in the nomes across the mountains have refused to join the battle. The taxes for women tear families apart. Few have coins to pay so their daughters can escape the pens.”
Ashiera sat at the table. “Taxes for women?” She dipped a spoon in the bowl of stew. Though she wanted to gulp, she ate slowly.
He nodded. “Each man of Keltoi can have but one woman of child-bearing age in his house. For all others he must pay a tax.”
“Indeed ‘tis that.” He filled a mug with hot, spiced tea. “Where once daughters were a blessing, they’re now a curse. Rumors of hidden places in the forest and hills spread among the people, but what parent would send a child into the wilderness?”
Ashiera considered his words. Always more women than men were born, but there had been places among the servants of the Mistress for those who chose not to take a spouse. She shook her head. “Their ways are evil.”
He nodded. “Finish your meal. I’ll return soon with Thamis.” He slipped from the wagon.
Ashiera felt sadness enshroud her. What happened to those girls who were taken by the priests and put in the pens? A flash of memory shook her. The girls had been auctioned for nights of service with any number of men. Some were sent to serve the priests in their houses. She shuddered. “Mistress, why has this evil come upon us? How did we fail You?”
When Penro returned, a short man with dark brown hair followed her. He dropped a bundle on the bed. “Thamis, she is the one,’ Penro said.
“Blessed be.” The symbol Ashiera sketched glowed.
“Thanks for your blessing.” Thamis bowed. “Penro said you were more my size than his. I’m honored to serve someone who belongs to the Mistress.”
She opened the bundle. “My thanks to you.”
“Two of my daughters served in a House of Healing. My youngest son died defending them.”
“The priests carried the war even to the healers?”
“Even there,” Penro said. “They slaughtered the sick. ‘Tis said they gain power from pain and death.”
Anger made Ashiera tremble, but now wasn’t the time for action. Quickly she changed into Thamis’ clothes. She embraced Penro. “Your house will prosper.”
He bowed. “If you have a need, I will come.”
“Listen to the winds for a call.”
She followed Thamis outside. Keeping to the shadows, she walked with him to the yard where stolid bovies mingled with fleet equises. He whistled. A shaggy pony trotted to the fence.
Thamis opened the gate. “’Twas a present for my grandson, but you have a greater need.” He dropped a blanket over the sturdy beast’s back and hung a pair of panniers over its rump. “Supplies for your journey and goods suited to a journeyman peddler.”
“Thanks be to you and Penro. Your family will grow and fare well, but they must take care in the days to come.” She traced the globe and crescent. Then she tugged on the pony’s rope and led him for nearly a kil before mounting.