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 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 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 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 the 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 scarlet.
“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.”
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 you 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.