Authors: India Edghill
“Samson, why should the Prince of the City’s brother bestow such gifts upon you?” Orev found this generosity even odder than the wedding had been.
Samson glanced up at him and smiled. “Orev, did you drink too much wine? You spoke with the man—he wishes only to create mischief and to avoid violence. Now let us go away from here as fast as possible.”
Clearly Samson had not imbibed nearly as much wine as Orev had feared. “So you’re taking Aulykaran’s advice?” Orev asked.
“Don’t you think it wise? It was your advice as well.” Samson began striding faster, and the mules picked up their steady pace.
They traveled in silence for a time, the full moon casting enough light for them to follow the road safely. At the crest of a long rise, Samson stopped, and they all looked back.
Behind them Ascalon glowed like a pearl beneath the moon. Outside the city wall, the wedding pavilion blazed harsh, its torches warring with the silver moonlight.
“How long do you think they’ll feast without the bride and groom there?” Samson asked, and turned to smile at the veiled woman sitting upon the gray mule.
“Until the food and the wine are gone.” They were the first words Orev had heard the bride speak; words muted by her heavy veil. Then she said, “Lift my veil, husband. It is time you looked upon your bride’s face.”
With gentle eagerness, Samson gathered her wedding veil in his hands, lifted the mass of gold-shimmered cloth until she was revealed to his eager eyes. Orev could not see the bride’s face, but he could see Samson’s, watch as amazement replaced ardor. Silent, the bride reached up and freed her veil from Samson’s grasp, flung it back to hang down behind her.
“Samson? What’s wrong?” Orev’s question was answered as the bride turned her face towards him.
So that is what the High Priestess planned—to cheat Samson of his heart’s desire. But why?
Samson’s bride turned back to her husband. “Now you know how Derceto keeps her promises. Do you mean to send me back to the Temple?”
“Do you wish to return there?” Samson asked, and she shook her head.
“I am no longer a priestess, but your wife. Unless you repudiate me?”
Samson stared at her, and for a breath his face seemed carved of stone. Then he laughed, a sound harsh and forced. To his hard-won bride, he said, “There is a tale my people tell, of a man who labored long to win one wife and was given her sister in her stead.”
“And what did that man do, when he uncovered the ruse?” She regarded Samson calmly, awaiting his judgment.
“Labored another seven years to earn the other sister,” Samson said.
Orev drew in a deep breath. “Why did the Temple—”
“Trick Samson into wedding me? Because I am of lesser value than she whom your heart desired. And because there is a task I am to undertake.” She lifted her hands to her tight-braided hair, pulled out two hairpins of intricately carved ivory. She held them out, flat upon her palm.
“Take care how you touch these, unless you wish to sleep forever.”
“You are to slay me?” Samson regarded the ivory hairpins, took them carefully into his hands.
“That is what High Priestess Derceto ordered. The Five Cities fear you beyond reason, Samson. They live in terror of your bandit army, your ambition to rule as king over them.” She glanced back down the long road to Ascalon. “I think we should go on now. Later we can decide what to do.”
Samson offered the hairpins back to her; after a moment’s hesitation, she accepted them, wrapped them in a length of her veil and knotted them tightly in the cloth.
“My wife thinks we should travel on,” Samson said, and his voice held no emotion that Orev could interpret. “What do you think, Orev?”
I think we should not have come to the Five Cities. I think you should never have asked to wed a priestess of Atargatis. I think you should send this false bride back to her Temple and return to your father’s house
. But it was far too late for Samson to turn back from his fate now. So after a moment, Orev said the first words that came to his tongue.
“I think that drunken sot at the wedding feast was right, Samson. Those weren’t riddles.”
Leaving the House of Atargatis proved harder than she had thought it would be. She had forgotten that she had known nothing else but Temple life since she was a small, frightened, furious child, that she would be turning her back upon all things familiar to her.
That she would no longer walk through her life hand in hand with Delilah.
She had asked that her heart-sister come to help her prepare for what awaited her, but Delilah had refused. That had sliced keen as ice through her heart, but Aylah understood Delilah’s anger and pain. And perhaps it had been better this way, better that they not see one another on this fateful wedding day.
For who knows what Samson may do, once the deception is unveiled?
He might beat her, or kill her. Or he might send her back to the House of Atargatis, where she would have to face the fury of a disappointed High Priestess. Aylah hoped he would do none of these things, hoped he would accept her in Delilah’s stead.
And of course, he may not live to lead me away from Ascalon. I do not know what Derceto plots, but I doubt I am the only playing-piece upon her game board
Aylah lifted her hands and touched the pins that bound up her long pale hair. Ivory set with amber, the sharp ends deep crimson, like a
bloody sunset. Henna-dyed, one might think—unless one knew the deadly truth.
You have erred, Derceto. You think me as pious, as dedicated, as poor Delilah. You think I will murder at your command
Well, she would not. This marriage to Samson was her one chance to escape the opulent, stifling life of a priestess. And if Derceto plotted, so did she. It had taken very little deliberation to decide who she should enlist as her ally. Aulykaran. Indolent, elegant, good-natured—and clever.
When she had revealed Derceto’s plan to him, Lord Aulykaran had readily agreed to aid Aylah—and when Aylah gazed steadily at him, and asked him why he would do this, Aulykaran had merely smiled and said, “You underestimate the pure joy of meddling in other people’s affairs, my lady Sun. Now tell me why you wish to disobey the High Priestess and leave behind not only a soft life and great fame, but your dearest sister.” Aulykaran still smiled, but his eyes regarded her keenly, judging.
“If I had not offered to become Samson’s bride in Delilah’s place, Derceto would have given the task of slaying him to Delilah. If the Temple asked such a thing of her, it would kill Delilah’s heart. I cannot let that happen. And as for why I wish to go with Samson—well, I am no true priestess. I long for a quiet life as wife and mother. This is my chance to gain that life.”
Aylah had regarded Aulykaran, gauging how much she must offer him. “If you truly will aid me in this—help me get safely away, and Samson and his harper friend as well—you may have whatever you would ask of me.” To bed Lord Aulykaran would be no hardship, especially if it ensured his cooperation.
But Aulykaran had only said, “To see Derceto’s face, and my brother’s, when Samson once more slips through their cat’s-cradle plots will be payment enough. Now, I suppose you have the entire affair planned out, and need only tell me what my part in this entertainment is to be, while I need only follow your commands. But I do have one last question for you, Priestess Aylah, before I consent to oblige you in this.”
“And what is that?”
“Have you no fear of what Samson the mighty warrior will do to you, once you unveil your face to him, and he learns he has been cheated?”
Aylah smiled. “No. The Temple has taught me well how to delight a man, and whether he truly loves Delilah or not, Samson is a man, my lord. I will please him, for I will be a good loyal wife. I will make his home happy, and I will joyously bear his children. Delilah—she is not meant to be a man’s wife. She would yearn always for the Temple, and for Our Lady’s Dance.”
Aulykaran regarded her steadily; for once no laughter brightened his eyes. “A good answer, Priestess. Very well, I will help you—and Samson, of course. He seems a good man, and the gods know there are few enough of those in any land. Now tell me what you would have me do.”
Her faith in Aulykaran’s abilities had proven right. His indulgence in whatever chanced to amuse him, his dedication to pleasure and mischief, meant that nothing he chose to do seemed odd. Aylah watched from behind the heavy bride’s veil as Aulykaran guided the wedding’s rituals into the most harmless path.
Even the wedding riddles had been turned into mere foolish jests—and Aulykaran had carefully ensured that no one else gained the chance to ask anything more serious, more difficult to solve.
We both owe you much, my lord Aulykaran. I know it, and I think Samson knows as well
For she had swiftly decided that Samson was no mindless strong-man. She had watched him closely and realized that, despite the endless cups he waved about, Samson actually drank very little of the overrich wedding wine. And when he had laughed, and swung her up into his arms to carry her from the fire-bright pavilion, his hold upon her was firm and steady. Nor did his breath smell too strongly of wine.
He seemed kind as well. He had carried her to the mules Aulykaran had assured her would be awaiting them, lifted her onto the nearest
beast’s back. Then he stood, his hands resting upon her waist, and said, “This is truly what you wish?”
A fine time to ask!
Aylah had thought, as she silently inclined her head, assenting—and to her astonishment, Samson had smiled.
“A fine time to ask you, I know,” he had said, and for a cold breath Aylah had feared he could hear her thoughts. “But I could hardly ask it when all the wedding guests stared at us, and your High Priestess watched you. I was told you came to me willingly. Was that truth?”
He had regarded her as steadily as if he could see through the glittering threads of her veil. Aylah had drawn in her breath deeply, calmed herself before she answered. “It was truth,” she said. “And it would be wise to take me away from this place now.”
She did not speak again until Samson halted, turning to look back down the long road to Ascalon. The city gleamed pearl-bright against the dark sea glittering beyond; the wedding pavilion flared, torchlight warring with moonlight.
This may be the last time I shall look upon Ascalon, the last time I shall see the Temple
. The full moon’s light transmuted the Temple’s rooftops from brazen gold to silver and shadow. Somewhere beneath those shining rooftops, Delilah lay upon her bed . . .
Delilah, who would not even come to help dress me for my wedding
. Aylah had not expected Delilah to be at the wedding itself, of course; one glimpse of her would have ruined Derceto’s scheme.
But I had hoped she would at least clasp my bracelets, pin my veil to my hair. I suppose even I am a fool at times
For Delilah mourned not only the loss of her heart-sister, but the loss of a man she had seen only twice. A man Delilah did not admit, even to herself, that she desired.
But I know you hunger for Samson’s love, Delilah, even if you do not. Of course you would not come to adorn me as bride—to yield me to a man you yourself yearn to claim
Still, to leave Delilah without saying farewell—
No. I will not think of that. Delilah must remain safe, and I must . . . I must take great care what I do next
. For Aylah now played her own game, not Derceto’s, and the next move would win or lose all. She drew upon the long years of Temple training
to summon calm acceptance.
I must forget that I have lost Delilah, no matter what I do. Derceto has ensured that, whether I obey her or defy her. I must claim my own life now
When she was certain she could speak softly, her voice uncolored by fear or sorrow, she said, “Lift my veil, husband. It is time you looked upon your bride’s face.”
She had known that this would be the crucial moment, that all the rest of her life, and of Delilah’s, depended upon what Samson did when he learned he had been tricked. This was a man who had slain many men, whose strength and power caused the Five Cities to tremble for fear of what he might do . . .
Samson stood before her, gathered up the veil that wrapped about her like silent flame. The gold woven through the cloth weighed heavily upon her; she would welcome release from the stifling burden. He lifted the veil, and soft night air caressed her face. She forced herself to breathe, to remain calm. To study the face of the man gazing into her eyes.
His own eyes shone—first with passion, then, as he stared at her, with the cold glint of fury.
Now he realizes he has been cheated. Now he may strike out, and if that is all he does, I shall be fortunate
. Unlike Delilah, Aylah had been beaten many times when she was carried across the wide world as an unruly slave; she knew how to endure blows.
But the accusation, the anger that she had expected to lash out at her, did not come. Samson said nothing, merely stood and looked upon her, and she saw the rage fade from his eyes. It was his friend, the dark lame harper, who spoke first, asking what troubled Samson. Aylah turned to face Orev, who fell silent as he, too, saw whom Derceto had given into Samson’s hands . . .
At last, Samson laughed—a bit harshly, but still, he laughed. And as he spoke, telling her that she need not return to the Temple unless she wished to, Aylah listened to his calm voice and smiled. Nor did her revelation that she had been sent to be his death cause Samson to lose
He is truly strong, your Samson
. Aylah spoke the words only in her mind, wishing silently that Delilah could hear them.
For this was not a man so simple-hearted he felt neither fear nor anger.
This man is so strong he can control his own rages—as if anger and lust were unruly stallions he must curb
. She studied Samson as he led her mule along the road away from Ascalon.
You are angry, Samson, but you will not loose that anger upon me. I wish I could tell you the whole truth—that Delilah would rather die than leave the Temple. I will make you a better wife than Delilah ever could. Perhaps, in time, you will come to love me—at least enough to keep us both content