A Secret Temple
The young priestess inhaled the perfumed smoke from the fire. Throwing some more herbs on the flames, she breathed in again. It still didn't smell right.
"Golla, may I assist you?"
"Yes, please do, Mother." The younger woman moved away from the cermonial fireplace. The older woman took her place and reached for the bags of herbs. Her old hands chose a bag and brought out some dried leaves.
Sprinkling them on the fire made a cloud of smoke rise. Golla could feel the aroma - it was precisely right. The old woman breathed contently and turned away from the fire.
"Come, let's walk." Golla followed her along the ceremonial path from the fireplace. The age old slabs of stone were trodden down along the painted way, making it a narrow ditch. Outside the safe path, the stone was still raw and untouched by human foot.
Leaving the temple, they continued walking over the bare yard in front of the stone-buildning. People were milling around. Farmers waiting to perform sacrifices to get better crops. Young men and women wanting to get the goddess' advice in love-matters. Some people carried newly born children, standing in a queue to get the small ones blessed by the priestesses.
The old woman led the way and Golla just followed. They ended up at the cliff overlooking the farm-land that streched out below them. Behind them they heard the sound of waiting people. From the vastness in front of them, they heard the sound of birds and the soft whisper of wind.
"Golla. You've been a priestess for how many months now?"
"Almost seven, Mother."
"Yes, seven months. Do you have any explanation to as why you still can't perform the morning ritual correctly?"
The younger woman stood silent with downcast eyes. She'd asked herself that same question many times. It was the strangest thing. When they were rehearsing in the priestesses' sleeping-hall, she'd known everything perfectly. But as soon as they were performing the rituals at the temple her mind went blank.
"No, Mother," she whispered.
"No, I have no explanation, Mother."
"Golla. I'm not angry at you. It's just that even the adepts know the morning ritual by heart after their first weeks here. You, on the other hand, seem to forget it as soon as you step onto the Path to the Fire."
"I know. I know. I can't explain it. It's terrible. I can't understand how I managed to become priestess at all." It was a short tantrum, but Golla felt that she'd bared her deepest fears and sorrow.
The Mother looked out over the landscape again. She knew how Golla managed to become priestess. She knew all about the long years of training that transformed the village girls into the priestesses. She'd followed countless of them through their training. She'd seen the disapointment of the many girls that failed and had to leave the temple. She'd seen the happiness of the few girls that would be initiated.
The memory of Golla's initiation came to mind. As far as she could remember, Golla had performed the rituals quite well. In their training hall she'd done the right moves, composed the right herbs for the burning and followed the correct etiquette for the ceremonies.
She had performed admirably when they'd became priestesses also. The five choosen girls had one by one walked the Path to the Fire just before sunrise. Assembled by the unlit fireplace, they had meditated for some time. At the steps to the temple, the other priestesses had gathered, singing the hymns.
When morning broke the girls had risen and started the fire together. Then one of them had performed the morning-ritual. That had been Strassa. She'd then taken care of the fire while the other had returned to seated meditation. By noon it was Lura's turn to perform the mid-day ritual. She took care of the fire until sunset.
The Mother could imagine how it had felt by then. The stiffness of the legs, the pain of rising and the unbelieviable tiredness.
When the sun set, Ptera had done the ritual of darkening. The hours had dragged on until the moon was perched atop the Column of Midnight. Flera had done the ritual of night.
Golla had been the fifth girl. She'd spent the whole time on her knees, in deep meditation. But no matter how deeply sunken into oblivion she was, the pains of the body must have pierced her. The Mother remembered her own initiation. The growing conviction that she'd wouldn't manage to rise. That she would fail the sisterhood.
How lonely it must have felt for her to know that the other four girls had done their parts. That she was the only one left and that she had the most difficult ritual of them all.
As the moon had traversed the sky and left the Column of Midnight, the priestesses outside the temple had put new energy into the singing. Their voices had risen loud and clear towards the star-speckled sky.
When the moon had touched the Column of Strength, their song had taken another leap and become even louder and stronger.
Golla had risen to her feet. Cumbersomly, yes, but she'd managed to rise. Taking a step towards the fire even though her body had protested with pains.
She was the fifth girl, choosen by the goddess by lottery. She was the Choosen one. And she would perform the last and most important ritual. The fire was burning high on the ceremonial fireplace. Embers from the whole day was glowing beneath the burning logs. The heat was intense.
The other girls had performed their rituals to hail the small increments of day and night. Golla carried the weight of performing the important ritual of Eternal Night, the night that we all are destined to walk into at the end of our lifes.
She flung herself over the fire. Covering it with her body and putting out the flames with her own flesh. The involountary scream was drowned out by the priestesses' high pitched voices on the stairs.
They had taken care of her wounds. She'd been in bed for more than an week. Constant pains had kept her from sleeping soundly. Every movement hurt. She wept until days end. No matter how carefully she'd move, the pains would shoot through her. The Mother remebered her own pains. The endless days, the long nights. The fits of sleep, no more than a few minutes at a time. And always awakening to pain.
The Mother returned to the present. Golla seemed to be satisfied to stand there in silence. She was very patient in that way, the Mother thought.
"Golla. I've talked with the other high priestesses. We've reached a conclusion. You are to leave our temple."
"But Mother. You can't. I've dedicated my life to the goddess, it would rob me of the will to live..."
"Shhh, child. You're not to leave us forever. We want to send you on an errand for the good of our temple. It would do you some good too."
It had been heated discussions about Golla every time the council had met for the last seven months. Some of the priestesses wanted to take away the simple silver rings that marked Golla as priestess. "She's not able to perform our duties. Let her be novice again." Some had argued for even harsher measures. "Make her an outcast. As long as she's here, she'll cloud the minds of the younger ones and crumble our powers in the eyes of the peasants."
It was true that the people talked about Golla. Since she was the one that the goddess had choosen to snuff out the fire with her own body, she was regarded with high esteem. So the talk was even more intense when she started to forget the ceremonies. And the talking grew even more intense when she started to faint by the altar. To be fair, it only happened twice. But it was bad enough.
The talk that had reached the Mother's ears was subdued, but beneath the surface she could detect a mounting confusion. It all boiled down to the question: Why was Golla performing as she did, when the goddess herself had choosen her to be her guardian?
It was difficult to keep her at the temple when she behaved as she did, but they couldn't throw her out either - especially not when the goddess herself had choosen her. It was a sensitive situation, but it had to be solved.
The Mother had let the others argue and scream at each other. When they no longer had any arguments to support their different views, she'd spoken up.
"You are all right. We can't let her perform her duties, she's not capable of it, but we can't take away her priesthood either. I propose that we send her away from the temple." The idea had made the discussion flare up again. The priestesses rarely left the temple-mountain. Especially not the chosen ones.
Once the argument had died down again, the Mother had explained her reasoning and the council had agreed.
"Golla. Many years ago a group of priestesses left this temple. It was during the War of Two Swords. The land was in turmoil and the temple was threathed to be completely destroyed if the winds of war turned. The Mother and the council of priestesses decided to send away a third of the priestesses and novices to the south. It was a desperate plan. We've worshiped the goddess at this temple since the birth of Day and Night, but not even the goddess herself can always keep us safe from the ways of man.
"To send away a group of believers was almost sacrilege, but it was the only way to be sure that our sisterhood would survive. If the temple was destroyed, the exodus-group would come back and rebuild it to the glory that befits the goddess."
Golla listened almost breathlessly. She and the other novices had been told stories about the temple's long and proud history, but this one was new to her, even though it happened more than an 150 years ago. She wondered why she'd never heard about it before. The Mother continued: "It was a sad day when the group left this temple. They had all vowed to keep the cult of the goddess alive. They all vowed to come back and reunite with her - here at this temple. The vows are all written in the Book of Winter. Every priestess wrote her name in that book before leaving the temple. Then they walked out of here, their hoods heavy with the falling snow and only a few donkeys to carry their rations.
"Since then we've heard nothing from them. Not a sign of if they're dead or alive. Not even the goddess has given us any signs. Some of my predecessors has argued that the goddess' silence stems from the fact that her believers left the temple. That they didn't have faith in her powers to protect us and thus the godess has turned her back on them. Others argue that the goddess has left the question open for us to solve. Since it was the priestesses that decided to send the group away, it's also up to the priestesses to find out what happened to them.
"The council has decided that now is the time to find out what happened to our exodus-group. We've decided that in this important matter, only a choosen one can be trusted. We've decided that you should lead a second group, and bring clarity to what happened to the first one."
Golla felt her cheeks burn, her pounding heart resounded in her ears. They wanted to be rid of her. She spoke vehemently: "So you're going to kick me out of here anyway. Why not kill me at once instead? I've dedicated my whole life to the goddess and you repay me like this? It's not fair, it's not..."
The Mother patiently waited for Golla to run out of air and arguments. She was used to waiting. "Golla. Calm your leaping emotions. Use your mind instead. We don't want to 'get rid of you.' You're this year's choosen one. The goddess has chosen you for a reason. Now, you seem to be unable to perform the rituals. So the goddess must have another reason for picking you. I think I know what that reason is. It is to find the lost priestesses."
Golla's face was clouded by consternation, but it cleared up when she wrapped her mind around what the Mother just had said. "You really want me to find them? It's not an excuse to kick me out? And everything you've said is true?"
The Mother just nodded, shook, and then nodded her head again in answer to the questions. Golla put her hands to her face to hide a joyful smile. "I'm really going to serve the goddess. I'm so happy. I really thought you would exile me."
They would set out in the morning. Golla and her company would go straight south for many weeks, that was all they knew. The exodus-group wouldn't have stopped close by. The War of Two Swords had raged over large areas of the neighbouring land. It would have been futile for the group to settle down in the vicinity of the temple.
Golla had been studying the Book of Winter intensely. It contained the dark history from during the War of Two Swords. It was years of poverty and harshness. Some of the priestesses' deeds that were written in the book were't especially brave. She understood why she'd never heard about the book or the stories contained therein before. It painted a grim picture of the goddesses' followers. Some parts described how the priestesses had cut the throaths of wounded soldiers. They were afraid that the soldiers' enemies would raze the temple if they found that they helped the other side.
The chapter that described the exodus, she knew almost by heart now. All the twenty-four priestesses had written their names in the book, below a short prayer for their safe return - and the vow to follow the goddess eternaly. None of the novices had written their names, but from the preceeding texts, Golla had drawn the conclusion that there would have been about fifteen of them.
Being a full third of all the priestesses and the novices at the time, it showed how few the followers had been in those days.
In a meeting with the council, Golla had asked how long they thought the search would take. They laughed. Not a cruel laughter, but a laughter of recognition. "We too have contemplated that question and have come to the conclusion that only the goddess knows," said the Mother.
And that had been their answer to almost every other question she wanted answered: "Only the goddess knows."
The council had tried to assemble a group of priestesses to follow Golla on her journey. Sending her away all alone would be foolish, but none of the others came forward voluntarily. Instead, a group of twenty priestesses was chosen by lottery. Sorrow and anger showed in the faces of the ones that had been picked. None wanted to leave the temple. Especialy not with Golla as leader.
On the day of departure, all the priestesses came to the yard in front of the temple. Golla and the others climbed up on their horses. The Mother wished them a good and swift journey. "We will not rest until all the priestesses of the goddess are assembled again," Golla said and rode out from the temple that was her birthplace in the service of the goddess.
To the south
They followed the coast. Their horses kept a steady pace along the well-trodden way that ran about a mile inland from the sea. The breeze from the ocean carried a slight scent of salt and seaweed with it.
Riding at the head of the party brought a special pleasure for Golla. She had uninterrupted view of what lay ahead. Sometimes she could almost pretend that she was all alone. For the last years she had always been surrounded by people. In the novices' sleeping-hall they'd slept twenty girls. Their sounds and smells always were present, even in her dreams.
As priestess she'd moved into her own alcove in the Priestesses' Hall. Now she could close a blind against the rest of the world, but the sounds of other people still intruded. Sometimes she longed for solitude more than anything else.
That was one of the reasons for wanting to become priestess in the first place. The absolute solitude to stand by the fireplace in the temple only devoting herself to the goddess. Once, as a child she'd witnessed the morning ritual by a priestess. The woman had looked frail and old when she hobbled to the fireplace, but as soon as she began the ceremony, it was as if she had grown stronger and younger. She had stood tall by the dry firewood and her movements had been easy and gracious.
To Golla it had felt so right. It had looked so peaceful. She wanted that peacefullness, too. When she was chosen in the village to go to the temple, she had wept with joy.
Now something was wrong. She couldn't feel the solitude standing there by the fireplace. Instead of feeling peace, she felt a mounting panic. Her mind raced, filled with pictures of irrelevant things. Her breathing quickened, and she couldn't keep her mind on the ceremony. Then everything failed. She forgot everything and made a fool of herself - and disgraced herself in front of the goddess.
They rode hard. Golla egged the others on. She wanted to prove herself to the goddess. Some of the others complained about the speed. It seemed as if they saw the journey as an opportunity to take it easy and to relax. Golla held the opposite view.
Wherever they rested from the journey, they created amazement and interest. People came to have their babies blessed. Farmers brought cows and pigs to be blessed. Even merchants wanted them to bless their shops.
At first Golla had tried to explain that the priestesses couldn't do that. If the people wanted blessings, they had to travel to the temple themselves, but it was hopeless to make them understand. It was like trying to divert the smoke from a fire by blowing at it.
From the sheer overwhelming force of the people, they did bless children, animals and brides and bridegrooms, but not shops. The priestesses did urge everyone to take a pilgrimage to the temple and get the full blessing of the goddess.
They worked their way southward. Days, weeks, and even months passed without them finding any real traces of the exodus-group. The villages became more scarce, smaller, and filled with people in ragged clothes. Everywhere they stopped, Golla took her time to talk to the old people of the village. Asking them about stories from the War of Two Swords. If they rembered any stories about travelling priestesses.
Sometimes she was lucky - the local lore held clues about the goddess' followers and the way they went, but mostly she discovered that the village had been founded long after the end of the war, and nobody had heard about the exodus-group.
Her comrades were caught in a growing dispair. They wanted to get back to the temple. Especially at night, as they were assembled around the campfire, the talking revolved around their mission. "It's a wild goose chase." "We'll never find them - it's been 200 years since they left the temple." "If they had survived, they would have come back to the temple long ago."
Golla was surprised to find them to be such small-minded people. She scolded them. "We're acting on the goddesses' wishes. We can't go back until we've turned every stone in the country in our effort to bring our sisters back to the temple."
The frowning on their faces and the sour looks told Golla that they didn't enjoy her views on the matter. Some of the older ones didn't like to be commanded by a newly initiated priestess. And especially not Golla, who didn't even manage to perform the morning ritual.
The younger ones didn't like to be put in place by someone they recently shared sleeping hall with.
Golla never knew just how great the resentment and distrust they harboured against her was. Not until she woke up one morning to find that they all left her behind. The previous evening they'd had a great fight about turning back. "We've been on the road for almost a year. We're not any closer to finding them than we were when we left the temple. Let's go back." The old priestess had spoken for the whole of the group.
"No. We'll not go back without final proof about what happened to them." Golla was angry with them and disappointed. The arguments had been shot to and fro, late into the night. Golla had finaly said, "We'll have to settle this in daylight. Let's go to sleep now." Drinking a final cup of tea, they all tucked in for the night.
She woke up with heavy head. The sun was high in the sky already. The camp was abandoned. Rising made her head spin. She must have been drugged. That's why she hadn't noticed them leaving.
They'd taken her horse, but at least left some rations. She would never manage to catch up with them. She cried. It was not fair. She was the chosen one, they could not disobey her. Then she became angry. It wasn't her they disobeyed. It was the goddess. They lacked faith in the goddess. She on the other hand would not let the goddess down. She would carry on the search. Then she cried again. How would she travel without a horse? How would she be safe from thieves and other dangers when she was all alone? Her problems rose as high as the mountains along the horizon.
Mountains. Her vision cleared when the tears dried. Mountains. Remembering the awesome view from the temple back home, a thought appeared. Wouldn't the exodous-group try to find an similar place to worship the goddess? The mountains - they had to be in the mountains.
"My Goddess. I will not fail you." She shouted and laughted, arms streched towards the sky. "I will not fail you. I am the chosen one!"
Hunger tore at her stomach. Her skin was scratched by thorny brushes, her senses were numbed by thirst.
Two weeks now she'd journeyd into the mountains. Aiming at the highest peak, she'd set out with high hopes. It was a terrible terrain to walk in.
Her rations were gone long ago. She really had tried to conserve them and eat berries and leaves, but she wasn't used to being out in the wilderness - she didn't dare take any chances with the wild food. Water was no problem in the beginning, there were lots of small streams, but she had nothing to carry the water in, so she could only drink when she found a stream.
Three days ago she'd found the ceremonial stone. It was partly burried by moss and shrubs, but she recognized the features. The ornate embossing showing that the goddess protected this place. She'd sent an joyful prayer to the goddess for showing her the right way.
Since then, the underbrush had become more scarce. She still climbed upwards. The sun burned on her back while cold winds from the mountains chilled her front. She walked in an semi-feverish state. No more berries. The streams were far and few between.
Every night when she went to sleep, she feared that she would not wake up in the morning. Stuffing her mantle with feathers to get a better insulation wouldn't hold the coldness away from her for long. Often she fell asleep in the middle of a prayer to the goddess. She was ashamed for that every morning when she woke up, freezing and stiff.
After a particulary strenuous climb over a rockfield, she emerged on a large heathland. The distance to the mountain-top she set sight on still looked overwhelming. The sight made her burst into tears. She would never make it. Her promise to the goddess would decay together with her body here on the high heathland. Back at the temple, her name would spoken with distaste. It would be used to describe an promise-breaker. A faithless.
Turning around, she looked out over the valley she had come from. A fog dwelled in the bottom, obscuring some of the forest. Only the tallest pines pierced the fog like arrowheads or a palisade. It looked harsh. It looked impenetrable.
But she had done it, she had made it all the way here. Turning again towards the mountains made her heart sink again. It was so far. Looking around her, she glanced over another ceremonial stone before she understod what it was. It was partly sunken into the earth. The weathered face was inscribed with the same ornate symbols as the other stone.
Did this mean that she had walked right through the sacred area and was on her way out? Or did it mean that she was getting closer to the center? She didn't know. Suddenly everything seemed to lack meaning. She sat down, with her back against the stone. It shielded her from the wind. As the sun had warmed the stone, a gentle heat seeped through her mantle and into her back. The sun in the sky warmed her face and chest. It was like an warm embrace. The goddess was there, comforting her. Whispering encouragement with a voice almost like the wind. Trying to rise proved impossible, she was too tired. It was as if the goddess spoke to her: "You can't stay here. When night comes you'll freeze to death. Rise. Move."
Her body was so heavy. She couldn't obey the goddess. She had failed her. Golla fell asleep, with tears of fatigue drying on her cheeks.
(This message has been edited by moderator (edited 07-23-2001).)