Authors: India Edghill
But now there are more of these Hebrews, always more. I wonder if I dare claim that Our Lady’s House needs warriors of its own?
Warriors loyal to the Temple, not to the City . . .
Derceto considered the matter, thought of the outcry if Atargatis, the Lady of Love and Light, suddenly demanded armed men to serve Her. Even for the High Priestess of Atargatis’s Great House in Ascalon, there were limits beyond which she must not venture—not if she were wise.
Derceto considered herself wise.
Temple guards? No. Not yet. But I will ask Sandarin for aid—before witnesses, so he cannot deny me without risking accusations of impiety
. Yes, that might work. Derceto frowned, and then rubbed her forehead. Once it would have been to smooth away the lines left by discontent. Now it was to soothe her aching head.
She leaned her head against her hand, then called softly for her waiting handmaiden. Mottara understood without need of words; she went silently away, soon returning with a linen bandage wet with cool water and a small clay bowl. Silently, Derceto reached for the bowl as Mottara held it out to her. From the liquid filling the bowl rose the sharp scent of willow, familiar and comforting.
, Derceto thought bitterly,
I can still have willow-bark tea
. Warriors for the Temple would have to wait.
“And men gave great treasures to see the dark priestess dance, the priestess named Delilah. To gaze upon her as she danced before all men’s eyes, wild and free as hot summer wind . . .”
Our days were kept too full for introspection, and so I soon folded Aylah’s keen-edged words of seers and fires away in my mind, as if they were garments not needed for a season. To learn all we must know occupied our days—for we were Rising Moons now, and much was expected of us by our elders. Newly consecrated to Atargatis, we set our feet upon the long path all those called to serve Our Lady must walk. Now began our true transformation from girl to priestess.
Lessons claimed all the hours of our days. Dance, of course, for me and for Aylah, long hours of careful practice, until each step, each supple movement, became perfect. And now that we were Rising Moons, we had to learn custom and law, trade routes and Temple history. The lore of the Five Cities must be mastered, as well as all the rituals and prayers due Our Lady.
But history and trade seemed pallid things compared to the Lady’s Wisdom; knowledge we both longed and feared to learn. One day we would be Full Moons, our bodies vessels for Our Lady. When we sat dutifully listening to dull matters of roads and taxes, our minds
wandered—at least mine did—to the more enticing lessons: how to touch, to kiss, to summon the goddess for Her worshippers.
The Lady’s Dance already burned in my blood; I found it hard to sit and listen to Master Indiones drone on about the lore of metal-craft and the difficulties of controlling the secrets of ironworking when I could think of what the Mistress of the Lady’s Arts had told us that morning.
“There are seven kinds of kisses, and you will learn all of them . . .”
“Now, the Five Cities have laws that are fair and just, and ask only that all who dwell in the land of Canaan abide by those laws. But this new people, these Hebrews, do not abide by any law, but do as pleases them. And at first the Five Cities had looked upon the Hebrews as a mere nuisance, as easy to destroy as a buzzing fly—”
“Has Wise Indiones ever tried to destroy a buzzing fly?” Aylah whispered in my ear as Indiones droned on. I thought of how hard flies were to catch or kill; swatting the vexing insects merely seemed to encourage their attacks. I pressed my lips tight so that I would not laugh aloud and earn extra lessons as punishment. Temple Eunuch Indiones had instructed the Temple’s children so long no one remembered who had preceded him. There was very little Indiones did not know about the history of gods and men—but his nature was solemn and his reprimands severe.
“But although the Five Cities had offered fair bargains for the land the Hebrews coveted, the trade was refused. Now, as you all know—or should know, as I have repeated it often enough—no other people dwelling in Canaan may have a smith of their own. Any man who wishes to sharpen a blade must come to a Philistine smith. Who rules iron rules all. Write that down. Now, the Hebrews have a strange god . . .”
Dutifully, we scratched the words into the wax of our tablets. I could not imagine why we needed to know anything about iron, or Hebrews, or any gods other than our own. My mind drifted back to the Lady’s Arts.
“Your body is a living temple. Men will worship it . . .”
“A hard law, fit for a hard metal,” Aylah said as we left the classroom and our lesson in the customs and judgments of the Five Cities.
“What law?” I asked, and Aylah sighed, as if she despaired of me as much as Indiones did.
“Didn’t you listen at all, Delilah? Remember, we are to concentrate our minds on the lesson before us at the time.” Aylah made her voice prim, and I laughed as she went on. “The law that no one save a man of the Five Cities may work in iron.”
“Oh, that. Well, why should those who are our enemies forge blades the equal of ours? Should not our own soldiers possess the best weapons?”
Aylah slanted a glance at me, her eyes gray and hard as iron itself. “The world changes, Delilah. Do you think only weapons are made of a metal harder than bronze? Does a man with an iron plow wish to carry it from his fields to a Philistine forge to have it sharpened? Do you think the way to win men’s hearts is by making their lives harder than they must be?”
I shook my head, although in truth, I did not understand why Aylah cared about such matters. “But do you think it right to set a sword that may slay one of our own people into the hand of an enemy?”
“Your people,” Aylah said. “Not mine.”
There was no bitterness in her voice; she merely told truth, as she saw it. I caught her hand in mine. “My people are your people, heart-sister. Does not everyone here love you?”
I knew that the Temple cherished Aylah, that the Dark Moons, the eldest priestesses who waited to join Our Lady in the Land Beyond, hoped for great things from my heart-sister. With Aylah’s beauty and her quick wit, her graceful dancing, she could rise high. I knew in my heart that Aylah was being groomed to one day take her place as High Priestess. I never said so, fearing that voicing the words would be tempting Fate to set snares across her smooth path.
But what I dared not say, Aylah spoke freely, careless of even a teacher or a priestess overhearing, let alone one of the gods who joy in meddling in the affairs of men and women.
“Yes, everyone here is kind to me. Perhaps they think to see me wear
the crown of Goddess-on-Earth one day, and wish me to look upon them with favor.” Aylah smiled, a movement of the lips only. Her eyes remained cool and keen as iron blades.
So sure was I that Aylah’s destiny was to become High Priestess it never occurred to me that she might be jesting—or that she might not wish to wear that crown. All I could think of to say was “Hattah does not seek your favor.”
“Hattah,” said Aylah, “is a clever woman, and wise, too. Why else do you think she is Mistress of the Baths?” As I stared, Aylah looked at me and laughed, softly, as we had been taught. “Close your mouth before something flies into it and steals your words,” she said. “Come—it is past time we must go and let my lady Tannyair instruct us in the proper way to adjust our veils on all occasions, and you know what she is like. If we are late, she will moan and wail about how the Temple ran more smoothly when she came to it, and how in
day no girl dared act carelessly or lack respect.”
“And how Rising Moons scrubbed the Temple steps on their knees—”
“With their own hair—”
“And never spoke unless Atargatis Herself granted permission!” I finished. For a moment, guilt lay in my stomach like a cold, heavy stone; how could I speak so lightly of Our Lady and those who served her?
Aylah laughed at my impious words. “Yes, if Holy Atargatis is angered, Her priestesses make Her displeasure known.”
Aylah’s reckless words made me uneasy, but at least she was again happy—so I decided that Atargatis had not been angered after all. I did not tell these thoughts to Aylah, for I could hear her words echo in my ears as clearly as if I had:
“Perhaps Our Lady Atargatis was not angered, but if any of Her priestesses overheard us, they would be angry enough for both themselves and the goddess.”
No, I decided, it would be far wiser to accept Our Lady’s gift of laughter—and hasten on to Priestess Tannyair’s class.
The most visible sign of our new status as Rising Moons was the outline of serpents entwining our arms. I had longed to wear those serpents beneath my skin since I had first set eyes upon one of Lady Atargatis’s favored priestesses. And I was willing to pay the price unflinching.
So when I sat before the Painter of Skins who would create the symbols upon my flesh, I vowed silently that I would not utter a sound, no matter how great the pain. I remembered my lessons in creating peace within myself and called upon that skill now, as the artist took a thin piece of kohl and traced the pattern upon my skin.
Once the image seemed good to her, she took up a bone needle and dipped it into a little pot of ink. After warning me not to move, lest the pattern be ruined, she set the point of the needle against my skin and began tapping the dark ink into the outline she had drawn.
The constant prick-prick-prick of the needle hurt, but I kept my face smooth and my lips closed over words of complaint. Some of the other girls squeaked like trapped bats as the Painter of Skins traced serpents upon their smooth flesh and tapped ink through their soft skin.
When at last the patterns had been finished—a process that began at the dark of one moon and ended at the dark of another—serpents coiled from my wrists to my elbows, outlined in midnight ink. Someday, if I were fortunate, that outline would be filled in with deep ebon-blue, later still be shadowed scarlet, and perhaps even gilded, did I rise high enough in rank.
That goal drove me to work hard at the new lessons assigned to us. Each Rising Moon embarked upon her course of study—some learned the virtues of herbs and plants to heal or harm; others the mysteries of the stars and sky, to gauge the weather from the scent of the air or patterns of the clouds. For Aylah and me, half the day now was given to studying the dances we must know to please our goddess . . .
And Her patrons. For men and women of wealth and power needed
the Temple’s sacred dancers to perform at banquets and at festive occasions. Patrons paid much to hire Our Lady’s dancers, whose art might gain the goddess’s favor upon a wedding or a naming.
So it was twice important that those of us chosen for the Lady’s Dance learn its steps well.
Even before we set our feet upon the dancing-floor, the half a dozen Rising Moons who had been chosen to dance learned that all they had already been taught meant nothing now. We all gathered in the Dancing Court—one of the oldest courtyards in the Great House of Atargatis—eager to begin. The dancing-floor was smooth-polished stone dark as deep night, the labyrinth pattern of the Dance formed of yellow tiles inlaid into that shining black stone. So many feet had danced that intricate pathway in the long years since it had been laid down that the tiles glowed pale as lamplight.
Flute-players and drummers waited for us, as did Dark Moon Priestess Sharissit. Once she had been Lady of the Dance, the most sought-after of the Temple’s dancers; now she served as Priestess of the Dance and taught those chosen to follow the same path she had done.
“So you are my new students.” Sharissit regarded us intently, as if she would look into our hearts. “And like all the others I have taught, I suppose you think you already know how to dance?”
Silence; no one dared answer. I looked into the Dance Priestess’s eyes, and heard myself saying, “If we already knew how to dance, my lady Sharissit, we would not have been given into your care, that you might instruct us.”
The Dance Priestess studied me a moment. “A good answer—and as you are so bold, I am certain you will be pleased to be chosen first to show me what you can do when the music calls.”
Aylah’s fingers brushed my hand, and I sensed her rueful amusement. Now that it was too late, I wished I had remained silent rather than trying to be clever; I only hoped I had not angered the Dance Priestess.
Sharissit lifted her hand, and the musicians began to play. Without saying a word, our teacher walked to the beginning of the dancing path; she stood there a moment, then gracefully, unhurriedly, began to dance. I watched her closely, knowing this was the first lesson. I memorized the steps, the turns, even as I admired Sharissit’s skill. A Dark Moon she might be—past her fruitful years—but she still became the Dance itself when the music called.
When the music ended, Sharissit stopped, then turned and pointed at me. “Go to the beginning of the labyrinth and dance. Let us see whether you have the same talent for dancing as you have for clever answers. And the rest of you may stop smiling and giggling behind your hands. Your turns will come next. Before I can teach any of you, I must see what you must unlearn first.”