Friday, March 2, 2012

Handmaidens of Petra: Prologue and Part I

The Handmaidens of Petra and the Shield of Halav
(or, “How I Spent My Winter Festival Holiday”)
Prologue: A Wager
“You must be gentle with my broom, Little Flower, or you will wear the bristles down to nothing, and then what shall we do to keep the snows off these temple steps?”
Jasna looked up at the old patriarch’s admonishment. She hadn’t been sweeping that madly.
“It isn’t like anybody ever attends services here, anyway,” Jasna muttered. At the old patriarch’s sigh, she immediately regretted having actually spoken the words aloud.
“I beg forgiveness, Father.” She actually meant the words that time. “It’s just… Elder Licinius is an ass.”
“Jasna! You mustn’t speak of church elders in such a manner.”
The girl stood a bit straighter. “Elder Licinius is a pompous ass,” she said.
“That is much better,” the priest of Koritiku said with a grin and a nod. “‘If you are to speak a truth, you must speak the whole of the truth.’ So, what does the blowhard have to say that has you taking your anger out on my poor broom?”
“i sort of… overheard him… discussing something with Sir Stick-in-the-Mud, who was asking about the Song of Halav again. Honestly, they insisted on fixing it in writing six hundred years ago, you would think the Thyatians would actually take the time to learn it.”  The girl swung at a clump of snow, sending the blob arcing away towards the temple  promenade.
“Jasna, the broom….”
She clutched the broomstick tighter. “Elder Lecinius said that it was all a lie. A story, blown up by a scared people in the dark days before they made great cities and iron.”
“Jasna, my Little Flower, it is just a legend. Those events… if they did happen, happened thousands of years ago. Thousands, my dear. That is perhaps a hundred and fifty times the time you have even been alive. Twenty-five of my lifetimes ago. That is a very long time for a story to grow. You’ve been to the docks. You’ve heard the fishermen. And those are merely tales a few hours old.”
“So, you don’t believe in the Song, either?” The girl pushed at a clod of snow, nudging it closer to the edge of the step.
“I would be a bad Traladaran if I said I did not.”
“You cheated and stole before you became a priest,” Jasna said. “You are a bad Traladaran.”
The old man chuckled. “Yes, I suppose that is the whole truth.”
“It is true, though,” Jasna said, and the priest looked up at the fire in the girl’s voice. “Maybe not all of it, but the core of it.”
“Now you begin to sound like one of crazy old Sergyev’s Returnists.”
“It is true,” Jasna insisted. “And I’ll prove it to you!”
The old priest looked at the girl for a long time, until her breathing slowed and the color eased from her cheeks.
“Shall we make a wager, then?” he asked.
“What sort of wager?” the girl asked, her balance shifting, subtly, to the balls of her feet, taking her weight off the broomstick.
“Prove me wrong, and I will relieve you of snow-clearing for the rest of this winter.”
“And if I cannot?”
“Then you must tell that pompous ass Lucinius that he is in the right.”
Jasna’s hands tightened on the broom handle, the knuckles going white as the snows she was supposed to be clearing from the temple steps.
“Very well,” she said. She spit on her hand and held it out to the priest, who spit on his own and then clapped his bony hand in hers.
“With honor,” she intoned, as they shook
“With honor,” the priest said, his own tone solemn.
There was a beat of silence between them, and then they both laughed as they broke the handshake, wiping hands on robe and tunic.
The priest made his way slowly to his feet. He waved off the girl’s offer to help. “Just finish the steps, and then you may be off.”
He turned, and shuffled back into the temple, letting the heavy wooden door creak shut behind him.
“Do you really think she will be able to do it?” asked the figure in the shadows by the door.
The old priest smiled, and kept walking towards the low altar at the front of the sanctuary. “I think she stands a much better chance than that lot of fools you have chasing this errand.”
“They seem better able than the pack of fools the Knights of the Griffon have scratching around,” the figure said. “What makes this ‘Little Flower’ of yours so special, that a child could succeed where grown adventurers keep failing? You think it is her conviction? If this venture relied on crazed belief, then Sergyev would have found the artifact himself thirty years ago.”
The old priest turned, leaning heavily on his crooked staff. “My dear Aleksyev, my Little Flower is certain because she knows something you or I do not. After all, we shook and declared the deal in honor.”
“As if there is honor among thieves,” Aleksyev sneered.
The priest of Koritiku laughed. “That is precisely the point, my friend. Jasna will cheat, and I would expect nothing less of her.”
Petra’s Home for the Wayward and Orphaned
“The timing is perfect!” Jasna whispered. “We can meet at Fiala’s father’s inn, and --”
“No, the inn is full to bursting.” Fiala’s voice sounded as if she sat on the bed right next to Jasna. Of course, she wasn’t.  She spoke to the small red stone pendant that Silva had given each of them, which carried her voice to the matching pendants. On this night, the eve of the eve of the new year, Jasna spoke to all of the other Handmaidens in town, as well as the two from Eltan’s Spring, in the northern mountains.
“First,” Fiala continued, “all those strangers are in town from the southlands, then the Goblin-Crushers from the Duke’s Road Battalion showed up on that hush-hush Order of the Griffon business, and now the Baron’s feast…”
“I wonder what is going on with that?” Anya asked. “They always quieted down when Mother and I brought them food or drink.”
“That’s what we have to meet about!” Jasna said. “I think I’ve figured it out. Just… get to the marketplace in town, and I’ll contact you there.” The stairs down the hall were creaking. The matron would be by any moment to check that the girls were asleep. Jasna wiped the bead of blood from the stone, and it’s golden-red light flickered and went out. Just in time, she flopped over on her back, tugging the thick goose-down comforter up to her chin, her eyes cracked wide enough to see the glow of the lantern come and go by the doorway as the matron made her rounds.
Jasna curled deeper under the blankets, smiling. Dawn could not come soon enough.
She dreamt of terror and fire. Of standing on high walls, a bronze-bladed spear in her hands, slick with the blood of her grandfather, from whose hand she had pried the weapon. Her brothers has been called to fight with the new king, leaving the old men and mothers and children to guard the clanhold. But the Beast Men had swept around from the south, around the relief column, and they howled and milled about at the base of the hill, gathering up the courage for another charge at the fortifications. The Queen had called it a ‘palisade.’ It was a blessing from the Immortals, and she did not regret the blisters she’d gotten in helping to make the tall fence of wooden posts. Another blister broke open as she tightened her grip on the spear. The howls had grown different, bolder. They were forming up into lines again.
“Tauros steady my hand this battle. If not you then Tyche. And if my blood soak Terra’s land, I pray, Cthonos to guide me.”
The Beast Men howled anew, and Jasna screamed her defiance right back--
She blinked. She was on her back. Not on the ground, but on one of the hard bunks. The circle of faces around her did not have snouts or sharp, yellowed teeth, just wide round eyes, mouths open in shock, not hunger.
“You’ve been dreaming,” one of the girls said.
“Loudly,” said another.
Jasna sat up. Her blankets were all over the floor. She shivered. Her nightgown was damp with sweat, and her hair stuck to her face and neck.
“Apologies,” she said. Her tongue felt swollen, her head stuffed with straw and cobwebs.
“Matron would have been by with the copper pan soon enough, anyway,” the first girl said. “We won’t have to rush to get down to the dining hall.”
“So glad my nightmare could be of some benefit,” Jasna said. She glanced down at her hand, which was still clenched as if she held the spear. She willed her fingers open, revealing the pendant, the red stone secured in the twining of gold.
“Well, isn’t that pretty?” sneered yet another girl. She was big, the eldest in their dorm. “If you don’t give me your share of porridge, I’ll tell Matron and she’ll make you give back that bauble from wherever you stole it.”
Jasna snapped her fingers closed. “I didn’t steal it! It was a gift.”
“What boy would possibly give you such a thing?” the bigger girl snapped.
“You’re just jealous because the only gift horses give comes out their hind end!”
Most of the girls giggled, and the elder one closed a thick fist. But the clanging of a wooden spoon against the big copper frying pan announced the presence of the matron on their floor.

Jasna sat, kicking her feet under the table, watching the stack of bowls at the back of the dining hall. Just a few more, and Matron would release them to go about the morning shopping. She turned the square of parchment about in the empty space before her on the table. Further down the length of the table, Sula, the big dark-haired Traladaran girl, met Jasna’s eyes and made a deliberate show of tucking into the second bowl of porridge before her.
Let her think she’d won. Jasna did not even like porridge, and she could get anything she wanted to eat at the marketplace, anyway. If it served to keep the older girl from bullying her or calling ‘thief’ to the Matron, then the scales came out even in the end.
Another three girls approached the Matron’s station at the back of the room, where the old woman stirred the big cook pot.
Please, Jasna thought, be finished. Do not ask for a second helping. One bowl was filled, two more joined the stack. Suddenly, Jasna wished she hadn’t given the bowl to Sula. Then she could have finished hers, added her empty bowl to the stack, and be free to pursue her task. She turned the square of parchment over. And, eventually, do her part in the day’s shopping for the orphanage.
Finally, another of the girls finished, and the matron clapped her hands. “All right. Those finished, you have your allowances. Those finishing, be sure to see the steward for your shopping money. I will see the kitchen detail in the back. And remember,” she said as benches scraped and the murmur of voices began to grow, “back for the lesson at noontide.” At the groans of dismay, the matron wagged a finger. “Does Ixion stop the sun shining, just because of the festival holidays? If he can work, so can you.” With that, she turned and went through the big door by the great hearth, her voice rising as she began to give orders to the half dozen cooks.

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