A short fantasy set in a world where women have very few rights.
Laurel knelt with her hands tied before her. The end of the rope was held in the hands of the man she hated above all others: Elric.
She stared at the ground and tried to control the rebellion raging within her. Her heart pounded, and she ground her teeth. It was rare for a woman to be allowed to test at the temple. She had been chosen. Elric had, of course, been flattered. It was obviously his training, not her own hard work antil the High Pzriest arrived.
She focused her mind on what she knew. I’istel was the war god of her people. Only men were priests within his temple, and only men made up his army. In fact, women were not even allowed to look directly at his priests. It was a death sentence for a woman to look upon the High Priest. It was rumored that during testing they were allowed to look upon him. The women who passed I’istel’s trials were never seen again.
Whatever situation she’d find herself in after the trail would be better than Elric’s abuse.
The I’istel’s temple floor had seemingly random geometric patterns on the floor making it easy to keep her eyes demurely on the ground. Did the pattern have any meaning? Often, patterns were hidden in plain sight if one knew how to look. The glyph Hazzad appeared in the random titles. Why would the glyph that meant ‘look’ be hidden on the floor?
The wind stirred slightly at the priest’s approach. Elric went down on his knees beside her. She chanced a glance at Elric’s face. His eyes were up and seemed almost fever-glazed. If she passed, he would receive rewards unlike anything he could acquire anywhere else. It was not even the money, but the extra status he would get for finding a woman tribute.
She resisted the urge to look higher. This was another test.
“Is she ready?” the High Priest asked in a gravelly voice.
“As ready as she is able.” Elric tugged the rope.
“You sound doubtful of her abilities,” the High Priest said.
“It is not her abilities which trouble me, but her temperament,” Elric said.
Laurel held her breath. Her temperament had gotten her into no end of trouble. Her temperament had been what had prompted her to leave her family and travel here. It was what caught Elric’s notice on the slave blocks. Would it be what ultimately ruined her one chance?
“Woman, do you wish to be tested for entry into the temple?” The High Priest sounded bored.
Laurel remained silent, knowing the question was a trick. She had no say in her fate. Whatever preferences or feelings she had about the matter, she had to hide them. She gritted her teeth and forced her eyes to stay on the ground.
The High Priest chuckled. “Yes, let’s test her.”
Elric, still on his knees, dropped the rope and backed out of the room. She could hear him shuffle back toward the entrance.
“Come, girl.” The High Priest walked deeper into the temple. “The first test will be of your fighting skills.”
Laurel rose silently and followed the priest, making sure to keep her head bowed. They passed into an inner chamber. The high priest stopped at the door. “Begin.”
She surveyed the chamber. It was square with columns on each corner. The white marble floor had an eerie glow. In the middle of the ground lay a sword. On the far wall hung a bow and a quiver of arrows.
She rolled into the room, escaping from the ropes and arming herself with the sword in one motion. She rose to her feet in the empty area. Everything in her screamed that she was not, in fact, alone. If she didn’t locate the enemy, she would fail.
She crouched, pivoted, and listened, slowing her breathing and tasting the air. The faintest scent of warm animal came from her right. She pivoted, seeking the animal.
Laurel heard the scratch of a claw on the marble. The attackers were invisible. She stabbed out where she’d heard the slight scuffle. A squeal and a gush of blood rewarded her effort. She slashed again, and a giant rat appeared dead on the floor.
She continued to listen and scan. The smell of fresh blood masked the rats’ scents. They could be anywhere. Her back tingled.
Claws dug into her back, and a snort of air hit her neck, pushing her forward. Before it could bite her, she stabbed to the rear and rolled. The weight left her back and landed with a thump. She reached her feet and lunged forward and stomped. It squealed.
She was at a disadvantage on the floor. The column ahead drew her gaze. The extra height would help her, but the sword would be useless. She needed the bow on the wall, but the giant rats could be anywhere.
Slashing as she ran forward, she plucked the quiver and bow off the wall and armed herself. She slashed in a circle as she did so. A snarl said she had hit something. Good. One less opponent.
Next, she scrambled up a column. She braced against the ceiling and drew her bow. The ground’s eerie glow twisted her stomach, so she closed her eyes and listened.
She released arrow after arrow in quick succession with the reward of a grunt or squeal with each one. After a dozen arrows, she stopped. No other noises came from the floor. She opened her eyes to see eight, giant dead rats sprawled across the ground.
The High Priest said from the door, “Are you ready for your next test?”
Her legs were cramped, and the adrenaline from the close call had her hands shaking. She needed a moment to collect herself.
Without waiting for an answer, he called, “Begin!”
A tremor rocked the column. She leapt to the ground, rolling to soften her landing. Sharp cracks resounded through the hall. The patterns in the stone broke open with small islands of stone surrounded by large crevices. The room crumbled around her.
A doorway appeared directly ahead and began to close.
She sheathed her weapons and began the dance from plate to plate, twirling and kicking. She landed lightly on each. The farther she went the more unstable the plates became until she could only rest for a moment before the plate she stood on began to disintegrate. Twirl. Step. Twirl. Step. She was no longer thinking, merely reacting to the feel of the stone and the visual cues. The last stone buckled as she landed, and she leapt instantly.
She crossed the six-foot gap to the threshold of the door with the built-up power of the dance. As she touched the frame, the room shimmered and became solid rock once more.
The priest stood to her left with his arms crossed and his feet braced apart. “The next trial has begun.”
Laurel’s heart beat wildly. She held her breath to try to sense what the next test would be. There was nothing. Maybe this was when she should dare to look at the High Priest.
She raised her gaze up his slender body to his eyes. They were clear blue. He watched her with a small smile tugging at his lips. His smile said ‘you will fail.’ The smile shook her.
“Are you worthy?” The words echoed in her head. They must be from the High Priest.
“Yes,” Laurel said, holding his gaze. His face betrayed nothing but smug amusement.
“Prove it,” he said and laughed.
Laurel’s stomach twisted. She was missing something. Something big.
The glyph Hazzad shimmered in her mind’s eye. Could that be a clue? It meant ‘look,’ but so far her gaze had found nothing but the High Priest. The glyph could also mean ‘look closer’ or ‘look inside.’ That interpretation still didn’t help her.
Not knowing what to do, Laurel sat down and assumed the meditation position and let her mind attempt the hyper-vigilant state she so desperately needed. She knew she would only get so much time before she failed.
Her eyes unfocused and focused to randomly take in the details of the room. The bodies of the rats had disappeared. The stone floor was white and sparkled in the random bit of sun that filtered from the windows far above. There was no pattern she could see. The columns were plain with no ornamentation. The same with the walls.
She noticed the mural on the ceiling. Whether it had been there the whole time or had just appeared, she wasn’t sure. It looked like the standard story of I’istel. How he came to his god-hood. The pictures showed I’istel as a cloaked figure standing outside of the temple. The next panel had a cloaked figure in the temple and the symbols for ‘secret’ and ‘test.’ When she looked closer, there was also the glyph for Hazzad.
Was she meant to look closer at the story of I’istel?
Time passed with no more insights, but she knew her time was running out. She had only a moment more before the test was over and she failed.
Failure meant she had to go back to Elric. With I’istel no longer a possibility, she would be sworn to a fighter-ring and would have to fight for her life every day for the amusement of the crowd. Only if she caught the eye of someone of power would she not die in the ring. That man would own her. She had the choice of dying in the ring or becoming the plaything of a man who would expect complete obedience. Her temperament would mean she would die by his hands.
She shuddered at the thought of her options.
How would being owned by a man be any different from blind obedience to I’istel?
Laurel realized what was bothering her in the room. The priest, something about the priest. His face looked like…the connection would not come. She cleared her mind and let her mind flow freely.
It was the High Priest’s face that was odd. It was almost like…if she looked deeper. His face was refined and delicate. Most of I’istel’s priests were. It seemed odd that a war god would have effeminate priests. Unless they were not men. Shock coursed through her.
“You are a woman!” Laurel exclaimed without thinking. She covered her mouth in shock.
“My daughter, you have passed.” The High Priest smiled.
Laurel bowed. “I don’t understand. Why could I not look upon you before?”
“You would have seen too much,” the High Priestess said.
“No man would expect a woman to lead a temple?” Laurel asked.
“No,” the High Priestess said. “No man looks past appearances.”