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 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 stirred questions her tutors 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 nearby 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 which told tales that seemed unreal. The aged priestess in charge of the scriptorium had laughed when Ria asked about dragons with eyes the color of the scarlet fyrestones. The old woman scoffed when Ria 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. 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. Of 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 died suddenly, and the next day, her clan 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.