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by Diana L. Paxson
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For months, news of earthquakes and rumors of worse destruction to come had been running like wildfire throughout the Sea Kingdoms. In Ahtarrath, such terrors had at first seemed distant, but the past few nights, Temple dwellers and city folk alike had been plagued by faint tremors in the earth, and persistent, dreadful dreams. And even now, as the song continued, she could sense uneasiness in the other singers.
Can this truly be the prophesied Time of Ending? Tiriki wondered silently. After so many warnings?
Resolutely, she rejoined her voice to the rising architecture of sound, whose manipulation was perhaps the most powerful tool of Atlantean magic.
“Moving, we become more still,
Impassioned, we are bound by will,
Turning in perpetuity
While Time becomes Eternity...”
The shadows thickened, contorting the swirls of incense that at last spiraled into the chill air.
The music stopped.
Light blazed forth from the Stone, filling the shrine as completely as darkness had before. Light was everywhere, so radiant that Tiriki was surprised to find that it carried no heat. Even the torches shone more brightly. The singers released a collective sigh. Now they could begin.
First to take off his hood and move toward the Stone was Reio-ta, governor of the Temple. Beside him the blue-robed Mesira, leader of the healers, lifted her veil. Tiriki and Micail stepped out to face them across the Stone. In that light, Micail's red hair shone like flame, while the wisps that escaped Tiriki's coiled braids glistened gold and silver.
Reio-ta's rich tenor took up the invocation...
“In this place of Ni-Terat, Dark Queen of Earth,
Now bright with the Spirit of Manoah's Light,
Confirm we now the Sacred Center,
The Omphalos, Navel of the World.”
The richness of her husky contralto belied Mesira's age. “The center is not a place, but a state of being. The Omphalos is of another realm. Many ages the Stone lay undisturbed in the sanctuaries of the Ancient Land, but the center was not there, nor is it in Ahtarrath.”
Micail voiced the formal response, “Mindful that all here have vowed that what is, is worth preserving, and to that end bending might and will...” He smiled at Tiriki, and reached again for her hand. Together they drew breath for the closing words.
“We arrive forever in the Realm of the True, which can never be destroyed.”
And the rest responded in chorus, “While we keep faith, Light lives in us!”
The otherworldly illumination throbbed as Mesira spoke once more.
“So we invoke the Equilibrium of the Stone, that the people may know peace once more. For we cannot ignore the portents we have seen. We meet in a place of wisdom to seek answers. Seeress, I summon thee” Mesira extended both arms to the grey figure who now stepped forward. “The time is come. Be thou our eyes and our voice before the Eternal.”
The seeress drew back her veils. In the intense brilliance of the Stone's light it was not difficult to recognize Alyssa, her black hair hanging loose around her shoulders, her eyes already dilated by trance. With strange, half-bowing steps, she moved into the altar's radiance.
The singers watched nervously as the seeress rested her fingertips upon the Stone. Translucent patterns of power pooled and eddied within. Alyssa stiffened, but instead of retreating, she moved even nearer.
“It is...it is so,” she whispered. “One with the Stone am I. What it knows, ye shall know. Let the sacred song bear us to the doors of Fate.”
As she spoke, the singers began to hum softly. Micail's voice soared in the cadence of Command, calling the seeress by her Temple name.
“Neniath, seeress, dost thou know me?
I, Osinarmen, do address thee.
Part us from dreams as thou dost wake
By the answer thou wilt make.”
“I hear.” The voice was quite different from Alyssa's, sharp and ringing. “I am here. What wouldst thou know?”
“Speak if it please thee, and we shall attend.” Micail sang the formal phrase in one sustained exhalation, but in his voice, Tiriki could hear the strain. “We come because the Stone has called us, whispering secretly in the night.”
A moment passed. “The answer, thou dost already know,” the seeress murmured. “The question lies before the truth. Yet the door that was cast open will not be shut. Stone upon stone rises higher, doomed to fall. The forests fill with tinder. The power which has waited at the heart of the world shifts...and it hungers.”
Tiriki felt a momentary unsteadiness, but could not tell if it came from beneath the flooring stones, or from her own heart. She looked to Micail, but he stood frozen, his face a grimacing mask.
Reio-ta forced out words. “Darkness has broken loose before,” he said with grim concentration, “and always, it has been contained. What must we do this time to bind it?”
“Can you do aught but sing again while silence grows?” Alyssa shook with unexpected, bitter laughter; and this time the earth shuddered with her.
A ripple of fright shook the singers. They cried out as one, “We are servants of Light Unfailing! The Darkness can never prevail!”
But the tremors did not cease. The torches flickered out. Scarlet lightnings shot from the Stone. For a moment Tiriki thought the cavern around them was groaning, but it was Alyssa's throat from which those horrific sounds came.
The seeress was speaking, or trying to, but the words came garbled and unintelligible. Fighting their dread, the singers inched closer to Alyssa, straining to hear; but the seeress shrank away from them, arms flailing against the Stone.
“It climbs!” Her shrieks echoed far beyond the circular chamber. “The foul flower! Blood and fire! YOU ARE TOO LATE!”
As the echoes diminished, the strength faded from the taut body of the seeress. Only Micail's swift movement prevented her from falling.
“Take her” Reio-ta gasped. “Mesira, go with them! We will f-finish here”
Nodding, Micail bore the seeress from the chamber.
The alcove by the entrance to the shrine where they brought the seeress seemed strangely quiet. While the earth beneath them had finally stilled, Tiriki's spirit was still shaken. As she entered, her acolyte Damisa, who had waited here with the other attendants during the ceremony, looked up with anxious green eyes.
Micail pressed past her, touching Tiriki's hand in a swift caress that was more intimate than an embrace. Eyes met in an unspoken assuranceI am here...I am here. We will survive, though the heavens fall.
From the chamber beyond came a babble of voices.
“How are they?” murmured Micail, with a nod toward the sound.
Tiriki shrugged, but held on to his hand. “Half of them are assuring one another that we did not understand Alyssa's words, and the others are convinced that Ahtarra is about to fall into the sea. Reio-ta will deal with them.” She looked at Alyssa, who lay upon a bench with Mesira beside her. “How is she?”
The face of the seeress was pale, and the long hair which this morning had shone like a raven's wing was now brindled with streaks of grey.
“She sleeps,” Mesira said simply. In the soft light that came through the doorway, the healer's face showed all its years. “As for her waking...it will be some time, I believe, before we know whether this day's work has harmed her. You may as well go. I think we have received all the answers we are going to get. My chela is fetching a litter, that we may take her back to the Healers Hall. If there is any change, I will send word.”
Micail had already removed his vestments and slipped the emblem of his rank beneath the neck of his sleeveless tunic. Tiriki folded her veil and outer robe and handed them to Damisa. “Shall we too call for bearers?” she asked.
Micail shook his head. “Are you up to walking? I need to feel the touch of honest daylight on my skin.”
The hot bright air of the outdoors was a blessing, baking the chill of the underground chambers from their bones. Tiriki felt the tightness easing from her neck and shoulders, and lengthened her steps to keep up with her husband's longer stride. Through the red and white stone columns of the Temple that marked the entrance to the underground shrine, she glimpsed a string of roofs tiled in blue. Farther down the slope, a scattering of newly built domes in cream and red were set amid the gardens of the city. Beyond them, the glittering sea stretched away to infinity.
As they emerged from the portico, the sounds and smells of the city rose around thembarking dogs and crying babies, merchants calling out their wares, the spicy smell of the seafood stew that was a local favorite, and the less salubrious odors from a nearby sewer. The fires started by last night's quake had been put out, and the damage was being dealt with. The destruction had been less than they had feared. Indeed, fear was now their greatest enemy. Even the stinks were an affirmation of ordinary life, reassuring after their confrontation with the uncanny power of the Stone.
Perhaps Micail felt the same. At any rate, he was leading her the long way around, away from the tall buildings of the Temple complex and down through the marketplace, instead of following the white-paved Processional Way that led to the palace. The gleaming flanks of the Three Towers were hidden as they turned down a side street that led toward the harbor, where shopkeepers haggled with customers as they would on any normal day. They attracted a few looks of admiration, but no one pointed or stared. Without their ritual robes, she and Micail looked like any ordinary couple doing errands in the marketplace, though they were taller and fairer than most of the people of the town. And had anyone considered troubling them, the decision in Micail's strong features and the energy in his stride would have been deterrent enough.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. They had fasted for the ritual, and it was now close to noon.
“What I really want is a drink,” he responded with a grin. “There used to be a taverna near the harbor that served good winenot our local rough red, but a respectable vintage from the land of the Hellenes. Don't worrythe food will not disappoint you, either.”
The taverna had an open loggia shaded by trellised vines. Around its edges grew the crimson lilies of Ahtarrath. Their delicate fragrance scented the air. Tiriki tipped back her head to allow the breeze from the harbor to stir her hair. If she turned, she could see the slopes of the Star Mountainthe dormant volcano that was the island's core, shimmering in the heat-haze. Down the slope there was a band of forest, and then a patchwork of field and vineyard. Sitting here, the events of the morning seemed no more than gloomy dreams. Micail's fathers had ruled here for a hundred generations. What power could overwhelm a tradition of such wisdom and glory?
Micail took a long swallow from his earthenware goblet and let out a breath with an appreciative sigh. Tiriki was surprised to feel a bubble of laughter rising within. At the sound, her husband lifted one eyebrow.
“For a moment you reminded me of Rajasta,” she explained.
Micail grinned. “Our old teacher was a noble spirit, but he did appreciate good wine! He has been in my mind today as well, but not because of the wine,” he added, sobering.
She nodded, agreeing. “I've been trying to remember all he told us of the doom that claimed the Ancient Land. When the land began to sink, they had warning enough to send the sacred scrolls here, along with the adepts to read them. But if disaster should destroy all the Sea Kingdoms...where would a refuge for the ancient wisdom of Atlantis be found?”
Micail gestured with his goblet. “Is it not for that very purpose that we send out emissaries to the eastern lands of Hellas and Khem, and north as far as the Amber Coast, and the Isles of Tin?”
“And what of the wisdom that cannot be preserved in scrolls and tokens?” she mused. “What of those things that must be seen and felt before one can understand? And what of the powers that can be safely given only when a master judges the student to be ready for them? What of the wisdom that must be transmitted soul to soul?”
Micail frowned thoughtfully, but his tone was relaxed. “Our teacher Rajasta used to say that however great the cataclysm, if only the House of the Twelve was preservednot the priesthood, but the six couples, the youths and maidens who are the chosen acolytesby themselves they could re-create all the greatness of our land. And then he would laugh...”
“He must have been joking,” said Tiriki, thinking of Damisa and Kalhan, Elis and Aldel, Kalaran and Selast, and Elara and Cleta, and the rest. The acolytes had been bred to the calling, the offspring of matings ordained by the stars. Their potential was greatbut they were all so terribly young.
Tiriki shook her head. “No doubt they will surpass us all when they complete their training, but without supervision, I fear they would find it hard to resist the temptation to misuse their powers. Even my father” She stopped abruptly, her fair skin flushing.
Most of the time she was able to forget that her real father was not Reio-ta, her mother's husband, but Riveda, who had ruled over the Order of Grey Robe mages in the Ancient Land; Riveda, who had proved unable to resist the temptations of forbidden magic and had been executed for sorcery.
“Even Riveda did good as well as evil,” Micail said softly, taking her hand. “His soul is in the keeping of the Lords of Fate, and through many lifetimes he will work out his penance. But his writings on the treatment of sickness have saved many. You must not let his memory haunt you, beloved. Here he is remembered as a healer.”
A dark-eyed youth arrived with a platter of flat cakes and little crisply fried fishes served with goat cheese and cut herbs. His eyes widened a little as he took in Tiriki's blue eyes and fair hair, her only legacy from Riveda, who had originally come not from the Ancient Land, but from the little-known northern kingdom of Zaiadan.
“We must try not to be afraid,” Micail said, when the servant had gone. “There are many prophecies other than Rajasta's that speak of the Time of Ending. If it has come, we will be at great risk, but the foreshadowings have never suggested that we are wholly doomed. Indeed, Rajasta's vision has assured us that you and I will found a new Temple in a new land! I am convinced that there is a Destiny that will preserve us. We must only find its thread.”
Tiriki nodded, and took the hand he held out to her. But all this bright and beautiful life that surrounds us must pass away before the prophecy can be fulfilled.
But for now, the day was fair, and the aromas rising from her plate offered a pleasant distraction from whatever fate might have in store. Willing herself to think only of the moment, and of Micail, Tiriki sought for a more neutral subject.
“Did you know that Elara is a fine archer?”
Micail raised an eyebrow. “That seems an odd amusement for a healershe's apprenticed to Liala, is she not?”
“Yes, she is, but you know that a healer's work requires both precision and nerve. Elara has become something of a leader among the acolytes.”
“I would have expected the Alkonan girlyour acolyte Damisato take that role,” he replied. “Isn't she the oldest? And she's some relation to Tjalan, I believe. That family does like to take charge.” He grinned, and Tiriki remembered that he had spent several summers with the Prince of Alkonath.
“Perhaps she is a little too aware of her royal background. In any case, she was the last of them to arrive here, and I think she's finding it hard to fit in.”
“If that is the hardest thing she has to deal with she may count herself fortunate!” Micail downed the last of his wine and got to his feet.
Tiriki sighed, but indeed, it was time for them to go.
When the innkeeper realized that the couple who had been occupying the best table on his terrace for so very long were the prince and his lady, he tried to refuse payment, but Micail insisted on impressing his signet on a bit of clay.
“Present that at the palace and my servants will give you what I owe”
“You are too kind,” Tiriki jested softly, as they were at last permitted to leave the taverna. “The man plainly felt honored by a visit from the prince and wished to make you a gift in return. Why did you not allow it?”
“Think of it as an affirmation,” Micail smiled, a little grimly. “That bit of clay represents my belief that someone will be here tomorrow. And if, as you say, he would prefer the honor, well, there is nothing to force him to redeem the debt. Memory fades. But he has my seal for a keepsake”
Slowly, they walked back to the palace, speaking of ordinary things, but Tiriki could not help recalling how the screams of the seeress had echoed from the crypt.
When Damisa returned to the House of the Falling Leaves, the other acolytes were just finishing a lesson. Elara of Ahtarrath was the first to see her come in. Elara, dark-haired and buxom, was a native of this island, and it had fallen to her to make the newcomers from the other Sea Kingdoms welcome as they arrived.
On each island, the temples trained priests and priestesses. But from among the most talented young people in each generation, twelve were chosen to learn the greater Mysteries. Some would one day return to their own islands as senior clergy, while others explored specialties such as healing or astrology. From the Twelve came the adepts, who served all Atlantis as Vested Guardians in the Temple of Light.
The house was a low, sprawling structure of oddly aligned corridors and oversize suites, rumored to have been built a century or more ago for a foreign dignitary. The acolytes often amused themselves with suggesting other explanations for the stone mermaids in the weathered fountain in the central courtyard. Whatever its origins, until quite recently the strange old villa had served as a dormitory for unmarried priests, pilgrims, and refugees. Now it was the House of the Twelve.
Some of the acolytes welcomed Elara's help while others resisted her, but Damisa, who was a cousin of the prince of Alkonath, was usually the most self-sufficient of them all. Right now, thought Elara, she looked terrible.
“Damisa? What has happened to you? Are you ill?” She flinched as the other girl turned to her with a blind stare. “Did something happen at the ceremony?” Elara took a firm grip on Damisa's elbow and made her sit down by the fountain. She turned to get the attention of one of the others. “Lanath, go get her some water!” Elara said in a low voice as all the acolytes surrounded them. Elara sat down, pushing back the black curls that kept falling into her eyes. “Be quiet, all of you!” she glared until they moved back. “Let her breathe!”
She knew that Damisa had been called to attend Lady Tiriki early that morning, and she had envied her. Elara's role as chela to the Blue Robe priestess Liala in the Temple of Ni-Terat was a pleasant enough assignment, but hardly glamorous. The acolytes had been told that their apprenticeships were determined by the placement of their stars and the will of the gods. It made sense that Elara's betrothed, Lanath, was assigned to the Temple astrologer because he had a good head for figures, but Elara had always suspected that Damisa's royal connections had got her the place with Tiriki, who was not only a priestess but Princess of Ahtarrath, after all. But she did not envy Damisa now.
“Tell us, Damisa,” she murmured as the other girl drank. “Was someone hurt? Has something gone wrong?”
“Wrong!” Damisa closed her eyes for a moment, then straightened and looked around the circle. “Haven't you heard the rumors that have been going around the city?”
“Of course we have. But where were you?” asked little Iriel.
“At an equinox ritual, attending my lady,” Damisa replied.
“Those rituals are usually held in the Great Temple of Manoah,” observed Elis, who was also a native of the city. “It wouldn't take you this long to get back from there!”
“We weren't at the Temple of Light,” Damisa said tightly. “We went to another place, a sanctuary built into the cliffs at the eastern edge of the city. The portico looks ordinary enough, but the actual Temple is deep underground. Or at least I suppose so. I was told to wait in the alcove at the head of the passage.”
“Banur's bones!” Elara exclaimed, “That's the Temple ofI don't know what it isno one ever goes there!”
“I don't know what it is, either,” Damisa responded with a return of her usual arrogance, “but some Power is down there. I could see odd flashes of light all the way up the passageway.”
“It's the Sinking...” said Kalaran in a dull voice. “My own island is gone and now this one is going to go, too. My parents migrated to Alkonath, but I was chosen for the Temple. They thought it was an honor for me to come here...”
The acolytes looked at one another, shaken.
“We don't know that the ritual failed,” Elara said bracingly. “We must waitwe will be told”
“They had to carry the seeress out of that chamber,” Damisa interrupted. “She looked half dead. They've taken her to Liala and the healers at the House of Ni-Terat.”
“I should go there,” said Elara. “Liala may need my assistance.”
“Why bother?” glowered Lanath. “We're all going to die.”
“Be still!” Elara rounded on him, wondering what had possessed the astrologers to betroth her to a boy who would run from his own shadow if it barked at him. “All of youcalm down. We are the Chosen Twelve, not a pack of backcountry peasants. Do you think our elders have not foreseen this disaster and made some kind of plan? Our duty is to help them however we can.” She pushed her dark hair back again, hoping that what she had said was true.
“And if they haven't?” asked Damisa's betrothed, a rather stodgy, brown-haired lad called Kalhan.
“Then we will die,” Damisa recovered herself enough to scowl at him.
“Well, if we do,” said little Iriel, with her irrepressible smile, “I am going to have a few strong words to say to the gods!”
x When Micail and Tiriki returned to the palace they found a blue-robed priestess waiting at the gate, bearing news from Mesira. Alyssa had awakened and was expected to make a good recovery.
If only, Tiriki thought darkly, we could do so well at healing her prophecy...
Yet she kept a smile on her lips as she accompanied Micail upstairs to the suite of rooms they shared on the upper floor. The veil before the alcove that held the shrine to the goddess, and the hangings that curtained the doors to the balcony stirred in the night wind from the sea. The whitewashed walls were frescoed with a frieze of golden falcons above a bed of crimson lilies. In the flickering light of the hanging lamps, the birds soared and the flowers seemed to bend in an invisible breeze.
When he had changed into a fresh robe, Micail went off to confer with Reio-ta. Left alone, Tiriki ordered soft-footed servants to fill her bath with cool, scented water. When she had bathed, they waited to pat her dry. When they had gone, she walked out onto the balcony and gazed at the city below. To the east, the Star Mountain loomed against the crisp night sky. Groves of cypress covered the lower slopes, but the cone rose sharply above. The perpetual flame in the Temple at its summit appeared as a faint, pyramidal glow. Scattered points of light marked outlying farmsteads on the lower slopes, dimming one by one as the inhabitants sought their beds. In the city, folk stayed up later. Bobbing torches moved along the streets in the entertainment quarter.
As the air cooled, the land gave up scents of drying grass and freshly turned earth like a rich perfume. She gazed out upon the peace of the night and in her heart, the words of the evening hymn became a prayer
Oh Source of Stars in splendor
Against the darkness showing,
Grant us restful slumber
This night, Thy blessing knowing.
How could such peace, such beauty, be destroyed?
Her bed was hung with gauze draperies and covered with linen so fine it felt like silk against the skin. No comfort that Ahtarrath could provide was denied her, but despite her prayer, Tiriki could not sleep. By the time Micail came to bed, it was midnight. She could feel him gazing down at her and tried to make her breathing slow and even. Just because she was wakeful was no reason he should be deprived of sleep as well. But the bond between them went beyond the senses of the flesh.
“What is wrong, beloved?” His voice was soft in the darkness.
She let out her breath in a long sigh. “I am afraid.”
“But we have known ever since we were born that doom might come to Ahtarrath.”
“Yesat some time in the distant future. But Alyssa's warning makes it immediate!”
“Perhaps...perhaps...” The bed creaked as he sat down and reached to caress her hair. “Still, you know how hard it is to know the timing of a prophecy.”
Tiriki sat up, facing him. “Do you truly believe that?”
“Beloved...none of us can know what our knowing may change. All we can do is to use what powers we have to face the future when it comes.” He sighed, and Tiriki thought she heard an echo of thunder, although the night was cloudless.
“Ah, yes, your powers,” she whispered bitterly, for what use were they now? “You can invoke the wind and the lightning, but what of the earth beneath? And how will that be passed on, if all else falls? Reio-ta has only a daughterand II am unable to bear you a child!”
Sensing her tears, he clasped her closer to him. “You have not done sobut we are still young!”
Tiriki let her head rest against his shoulder and relaxed into the strength of his arms, drawing in the faint spicy scent of his body mixed with the oils of his own bath.
“Two babes have I laid upon the funeral pyre,” she whispered, “and three more I lost before they could be born. The priestesses of Caratra have no more help for me, Micail.” She felt her hot tears welling up as his arms tightened around her. “Our mothers were sistersperhaps we are too close kin. You must take another wife, my beloved, one who can give you a child.”
She felt him shake his head in the darkness.
“The law of Ahtarrath allows it,” she whispered.
“And the law of love?” he asked. He grasped her shoulders, looking down at her. She felt, rather than saw, the intensity in his gaze. “To beget a son worthy to bear my powers, I must give not only my seed but my soul. Truly, beloved, I do not think I would even becapablewith a woman who was not my match in spirit as well as in body. We were destined for each other, Tiriki, and there can never be anyone for me but you.”
She reached up to trace the strong lines of his cheek and brow. “But your line will end!”
He bent his head to kiss away her tears. “If Ahtarrath itself must cease to be, does it matter so greatly if the magic of its princes is lost as well? It is the wisdom of Atlantis we must preserve, not its powers.”
“Osinarmen...do you know how much I love you?” She lay back with a sigh as his hands began to move along her body, each touch awakening a sensation to which her body had learned to respond as the spiritual exercises of the Temple had trained her soul.
“Eilantha...Eilantha!” he answered and closed his arms around her.
At that summons, spirit and body opened together, overwhelmed and transfigured in the ultimate union.
Excerpted from Marion Zimmer Bradley's Ancestors of Avalon by Diana L. Paxson. Copyright © 2004 by Diana L. Paxson. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.