I had never been able to see my own future, not the way I could see it for others. Even now, on my unanticipated return to Rycroft, a part of me rebelled at the thought of facing a past I believed long behind me. If I had known then what a luxury it is to go home, I might not have dismissed it so.
As an initiate to the Order, I learned from women far wiser than I that the past was a wraith that could come back to haunt the future. I imagined it looming overhead like a hidden cloud, waiting, maybe over many years, to rain upon me when I least expected it, not a soft, white thing, but an angry, vengeful thundercloud. Perhaps I had lived too long in the calm now, because I once again began to feel the storm approaching. Entering the village, I steeled myself to face it, but despite the many prayers I had said for courage, that long-forgotten anxiety crept its cold tendrils into my soul.
I escaped the painful memories this place forged in my childhood, and had taken a chance to make my future a safer, happier one. But now I had come full circle, and it was the temple above Rycroft village that held the balance of my future within its cold, imposing walls.
I followed the path past the village with the other initiates, and climbed carved granite steps meticulously shaped by skilled stonemasons. Upon a stone archway were the effigies of the three Gods we Sinnotians worshipped. Lo, Creator and Destroyer, an armoured warrior with the head of a wolf, carried an array of weapons, but it was the large war-hammer in his hand my eyes gravitated to. Beside him stood Era, the graceful feline-faced goddess of emotions, and of life and death. Finally, at Era’s left hand, stood Tyrus, master of elements. He was the God I most often found myself drawn to, his wise, owl-like features faced the valley directly upon Rycroft.
An expectant hush fell over the group, followed by soft murmurs from the young women. They praised the Gods in whispers, for this sight we beheld as we moved forward, heading for the path into the mountains, awed even the noble-born among us. Like a flock of white doves, innocently seeking an arbour to rest in, we wore the modest robes all initiates of the Order wore, to signify their intentions to serve the Gods. But only a select few would ever don the red robes of a fully-fledged priestess. The final testing awaited us. I already knew that most of the girls would return home dressed in the same clothes they had worn before their training began, and all I could do was to hope I would not be one of them.
I glanced over my shoulder, catching a final glimpse of my birthplace, and the anxiety melted away; it was behind me now. A veil of calmness enveloped me as I turned my gaze to the temple looming ahead. Its exterior was a thing of perfection, as if the Gods themselves had used a hot sword to cut through the stone. Barely a window could be seen from this low vantage point. A shiver ran across my skin. Like the tip of my tongue verging on speaking a forgotten word, an elusive vision teetered on the edge of my sight. The sensation faded away before fruition, however, and was replaced with awed anticipation for what I was soon to encounter.
It would take several days to test the initiates in their obedience, faith and humility. At the end of the ordeal, I hoped to find myself clad in the red robes of a Priestess of Oraccles.
Give me strength, I begged the Gods as we settled into the long climb. My legs began to burn and the summer sun was growing hot with the afternoon. The priestess ahead turned and eyed each one of us. Most of the initiates did not notice her quiet surveillance, but when my eyes met hers, her gaze narrowed before she looked away and sharply directed the girls to quicken their pace. Her scrutiny left me wondering whether the testing had already begun.
Days of inflicted pain, humiliation and cruelty brought me close to the brink of madness, closer to my gift, leaving me weary in body and spirit. I did not know which part of me hurt more, but when my eyes met those of the head priestess, the superior who would decide my fate, the keen pain of expected failure rose in my chest. Her dark eyes seemed to swallow me whole. I felt both hot and cold at once; days of obedience, suffering and fasting had blurred the days into one long torture. I longed to sit and weep, but my body was too sore to do anything but kneel slowly, stiffly into a submissive position. Many girls had failed, and now I was to learn my own fate. My ears were ringing and I almost cried out when my knee, cut open on a sharp stone during one of the tests, sent pain reverberating throughout my body. I kept my eyes upon the superior’s face. Lined and calm, her expression betrayed nothing.
I flinched when an unexpected vision assaulted my senses, propelling me from the room and into a place I barely caught a glance of. A trace of darkness; a laugh, a dark green eye. Each small glimpse offered me no more than a confusing jumble of images I could not piece together to make a whole picture. Swaying, I wondered if I was ill. My body throbbed and the days of fasting, beatings and silence became as fractured and unreal as my visions. The testing had taken its toll, but I needed only make it through this last moment. As I fought to return to myself, I worried again that I would make it this far, only to be rejected because of what I was: a peasant.
The superior rose. My awareness had been completely focused on her and I had not noticed an inch of the marble-columned room I had been brought to. The distracting sparkle of candlelight danced on a pool of water and I looked away quickly, not wishing to see the future reflected in those waters. The superior’s thin lips moved, but I heard no sound. The ringing in my ears worsened and my heart rate trebled. When she stood before me, she lifted her hand and smeared something powdery against my forehead. Her touch sent waves of premonition into my mind, making my skin shiver and creep. Fighting the urge to succumb to the sight left me weak and trembling.
I was not altogether myself when I managed to overcome the visions. My chest constricted when a distant voice – certainly not the superior’s worn croak – spoke to me, gently whispering, ‘Esther . . . Esther,’ over and over.
All the while the superior’s mouth moved, but I knew nothing of her words. The room tilted and the first spark of emotion lifted the older woman’s eyes from blankness. For a moment I believed I was succumbing to the visions her touch was invoking, but I slipped instead into waiting darkness.