The Nightingale's Song


 
The Nightingale's Song
 
by Armond
 
 
Anuvar, a glistening jewel in the sea, gifted by the Goddess to Her people. Yet their ears have become deaf to Her song, and a doom hangs over the Isle. The famed singer Orlando typifies their plight; the Goddess gifted him with the most amazing talent to stir men’s souls, yet he squanders it for wenching and wine. An horrific crime sets the troubadour on a different path, but will it lead to the redemption or damnation of the Isle?
 
 

 
 
Author’s note: the songs and verse in this story are a mix (in that I mixed their lines together) of (in no particular order) Rumi, Mirabai, Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, Ben Johnson, and, urm, me.
 
 
I.

1. Samhain

“I dreamed again last night.”

Jacob craned his head around from the milk cow and scowled.

“Blast and bother! Not another of those.”

Meg and her brother knew what he meant without naming it; the Goddess had been 'gifting' her with dreams of apocalyptic horrors ...droughts, plagues and invasions. Meg shook her head and resumed brushing Roc, one of their work horses.

“Naw, not one of those. But ...sadder maybe? I dreamed of the most beautiful nightingale, but ...she couldn't sing,” Meg choked. “Her voice ...someone stole it. It was horrible.”

“Do not do this, woman” Jacob said.

“Do what?” Meg said, in her innocent voice, but Jacob would have none of it.

“You know full well what I mean. Torture yourself. Which you've done night and day since you came here. It's Samhain, and you ache to be in Anuvar for it. To be speaking the Invocation for the festival. And speaking of the festival, the Widow Themba says-”

“-Her again?” Meg snapped. “Somehow you always manage to find your way over to her place; if I didn't know better I'd say she's bewitched you.”

“She has not! Her and me are just friends,” Jacob said. “Any way, she told me Orlando will be singing for it this year.”

Orlando! If ever the Goddess gifted a mortal, with talent, it was he. A voice so smooth and pure, she bet songbirds flocked to him to hear his croon.

Some years back Meg heard the fellow in concert and was brought to ecstatic tears! If only he didn't squander his talents for such base pleasures! For the lad's reputation for chasing women was almost as great as that of his singing.

“Orlando, humph! Anuvar, humph! I told you when I moved here, I would never return to the Moon Temple again! Ever!”

Jacob returned to milking Lora, and muttered,

“...famous ...last ...words...”
 

 
 
2.

“Drink to me ...only with thine eyes ...and I will pledge with mine ...”

His voice floated to the audience, slipping smoothly into their ears, wrapping their minds in silk.

“Or leave a kiss but in the cup ...and I'll not look for wine...”

Sighs of 'Orlando' escaped the lips of his female fans; the men wished they were him.

The crowd surrounding him was the largest of the Samhain festival; and Anuvar's numbers were always massive. For the Moon Temple Sisters, lords and ladies from their capitol city, and visitors near and far traveled to eat harvest fare, drink frothy autumn ale. To dance, sing, and praise the Goddess for the passing year and the one to come.

At first glance, the crowds tonight might seem bizarre, frightening even, as all wore ghoulish masks. Yet this was Samhain, when the wall between living and spirit world was thinnest, and men and women wore hideous masks to ward away evil ghosts.

The famed singer was unaffected by the fantastical masked throng. Indeed, his mask was most outlandish of all: a one-of-a-kind horned devil mask made of bright red gold. Not that he needed to identify himself; women swooned for him from Port Town on the southern horn of their isle to the highlands of the northern tip. No, the reason the troubadour spent a king's ransom on his mask was because he could. His voice could call down pieces of gold from the heavens, it seemed.

“The thirst that from the soul does rise ...does ask a drink divine...”

That voice drifted, past the enraptured crowd, and into the festive market stalls, where people meandered this last lazy evening of fall.

“But might I of Her nectar sup ...I would not change for thine.”

Finding at last two lovers, Sasha and Tanya, masked in gold and silver, wandering hand in hand.

“Oooo, listen!” Tanya moaned, in her low alto growl. “It's Orlando! I've waited so long to hear him again!”

“You are my favorite singer,” Sasha whispered into Tanya's ear.

“I'm a poet, not a singer. Were you to hear me sing you would know the truth of my words,” Tanya answered. “Come! Let's hurry!”

Sasha grabbed a handful of Tanya's silver-blonde hair and yanked her close to growl, “why don't we find a shady spot nearby and put his love songs to good use, hmmm?”

“Goddess!” Tanya said. “Can this be the prim Captain of the Moon Temple Guards who never unbraids her hair?”

When Sasha shook her free-flowing copper hair, Tanya giggled. “I've created a monster!”

Orlando's voice wafted to the lovers:

“I sent thee late a rosy wreath...”

“Mmm,” Tanya moaned, leading Sasha to a nearby park with shadowy trees. “If you show me your rosy wreath, I'll show you mine.”

Sasha was a woman of actions not words; she pulled her hand-fasted mate down into a bed of autumn leaves and set to work.
 

 
 
3.

“Not too bad.”

Orlando yawned and tied the purse bag to his belt. It groaned with the gold coins showered on him after he finished his last set. With lute tucked underarm, he swam his way through the crowds toward the inn where he stayed.

The Samhain revelers would party past dawn, but he had other revels in mind — a pretty wench awaited him in his room. A most delicious dish, made all the more spicy by the fact she was newly wed ...to another man.

He almost felt sorry for the poor fellow; for Orlando would bring the girl to such ecstasy, her husband would forever after leave her frustrated and longing.

Then, he heard a voice: a copper haired lass in a golden mask, walking with another, and speaking something to her. He wasn't sure the words the lass spoke, but the vibration of her voice permeated his body, causing something deep within to sing back. A resonance he hadn't felt since first he made his way as a young singer.

Without thinking, Orlando stepped in front of the woman. He tossed his devil mask to the ground, raised her mask of gold,

...and kissed her.

His soul exploded with music!

...with joy!

...with ...pain?

No! Not his soul; it was his groin that now burned, and when Orlando could pry apart his teary eyelids, he realized he was on the ground and doubled over.

“You bitch!” the troubadour sang in a soprano squeal.

The women howled in laughter.

“Oh, my, Orlando, I've never heard you sing that song before,” the blond-headed one said. “Perhaps you should add more lyrics; 'awwoooooo' seems a bit redundant after a while.”

“Yet be proud,” the copper haired lass said, “I doubt you've ever hit so high a note!”

“You'll pay for this. By the Lady you will pay.”

The copper-haired lass' hand was fast around his throat. Who was this woman? Her grip was so strong, he couldn't breathe.

“Count yourself lucky, friend, that nothing more is damaged than your pride. Threaten me again, and I will cut off your balls.”

The woman released his throat, and she and her girlfriend drifted away into the autumn eve. When he could breathe again, Orlando grabbed his lute and skulked away into the dark.

Tanya and Sasha were still chuckling as they meandered down Anuvar's crowded streets.

“Should I be jealous?” Tanya said. “You were just smooched by our most eligible bachelor, ten years running; women throw themselves at his feet across our fair island.”

“Him? Ew.”

“I mean, did you see the look on his face as he kissed you?” Tanya pressed. “He was enthralled!”

“Ewwwwww!”

“Eww?” Tanya's eyebrow arched. “I've reduced the Captain of the elite Moon Temple Guard to saying 'eww'?”

“I'd rather you reduced me to 'mmmmm',” Sasha said. “Let's go home.”

“Why do you suppose he did it,” Tanya said, ignoring Sasha’s urgent tugs on her arm to lead her home.

“Why did he kiss me?” Sasha said. “I have no idea.”

“No, not that, silly. Why did choose the path he did?” Tanya said, turning to look back down the street they had just walked. The whoops and shouts she heard told her the Samhain celebration would not be winding down soon.

“I mean, the Goddess gifted him with such a glorious talent to inspire Her people. Yet he squanders it for wine, women and coin. Why?”

“Because he's a typical male?” Sasha grinned.

“No, seriously, his path could have been profound and enlightening, instead of one ruled by base cravings.

“I'm having some base cravings of my own,” Sasha said, licking the crook of Tanya's smooth neck.

“Again? You are a randy one tonight!” Tanya answered in a husky tone. “Yet still, it saddens me. Some of my best poems were written with his voice singing in my head. I've often thought ...dreamed even, of Orlando, singing my words to our people. His voice could reach into their hearts in ways I'll never be able to! Think of it! It would have been wondrous!”

Slowly the ecstatic spark left the blonde's eyes and she shook her head. “But to see him as we did tonight ...fills me with despair.”

“Talk about a romance killer,” Sasha answered. “All I can think of is him clutching his balls and howling, which doesn't, ya know, put me in the mood.”

Tanya looked down a street where vendors still hawked their festival treats; a wry smile crossed her face.

“You go on ahead and warm up the bed,” Tanya said. “I'll have a surprise for you.”

“No surprises, lover, I just want you,” Sasha whispered into Tanya's ear.

“You'll want this, trust me,” Tanya said, pulling away. “Now scat; I'll be right behind.”
 

 
4.

“About damn time; did you get lost?”

Sasha threw on her robe when the knock came. She had fallen asleep waiting for her lover's return. In her waking haze, she thought it odd Tanya would knock.

“Captain, it's me, Sargent Issin.”

“Jules?” Sasha tightened the robe belt and opened the door. “What's up?”

“There's been ...trouble. Hurry and dress; we must go to the hospital ward.”

Sasha saw how stiff the big woman stood, and how red her eyes were. From ...weeping? Jules never cried; what was wrong?

“Very well. Let me write a note for Tanya and-”

“-Captain ...Sasha ...it's Tanya. Someone attacked her and she's ...please! We must hurry.”

The next minutes were a daze to the young captain. She dressed -she must have- and remembered sprinting to the hospital, to find two of her guard, the twins Ona and Sheala, waiting.

“She lives,” Ona said.

“Yet hurry,” Sheala added, guiding the captain down the infirmary hallways. They stopped in front of a room where an elderly healer waited.

“I've done all I can, but ...she won't last much longer.”

“She's dying? No no no!” Sasha's heart stopped. “What happened?”

“Someone tried to rape her,” the healer said. “Tanya fought the bastard off, but he beat her, badly, and she bleeds inside. Hurry.”

And then Sasha was there, at her lover's side. Words froze in the young woman's mouth; her love, her heart, lay battered before her. Face bruised, lips split, eyes swollen shut. Sasha didn't know what to do — hug her? Shake her awake? Gently, she took Tanya's hand in hers, and Tanya's less swollen eye opened.

Sasha. I'm sorry...”

“Sorry? Why should you-”

“-Shouldn't have left you.” Tanya whispered. “Went back to buy you Highlands chocolate. Your favorite.”

“C-chocolate? What happened?”

Tanya coughed, and blood edged from the side of her mouth. “Man came from behind ...dragged me into an alley ...tried to ...tried to...”

“What did he look like?” Sasha said.

“Don't know. Wore mask. Red gold. A ...a devil.”

Orlando!” Sasha hissed.

“Only saw mask, and...” A coughing fit hit the battered woman; more blood. “...so cruel ...so much rage...”

I will kill him!”

“No! Don't let hate consume you, love. I've worked so hard to get you to enjoy the gifts the Goddess grants us. Don't let my death destroy-”

“-Death?” Sasha threw herself across her lover. “Tanya! Don't leave me!”

“Stubborn stubborn Sasha. Death is an end, yes, yet the Goddess teaches it is a beginning, too. Let ...my passing ...be a new beginning for you...”

“I won't let you go! I won't!” Sasha howled.

But Tanya was already gone; her body had given its last breath.

After many minutes passed, Sargent Issen pried the captain from the dead body. But no tears flowed down Sasha's face; instead, her eyes shined.

“I will find him. I will rip his cock off. Then I will jam it down his throat until he chokes to death.” Sasha strode to the hallway.

“Captain! You cannot! Capital punishment is against the Goddess' law!”

Sasha paused. “Then I suggest you find him first.”
 

 
 
5.

“I know not how I lost my mask. It was of no consequence.”

“You would have the court believe you lost it?” Atael said.

“You have searched my room at the inn, yes?” Orlando said. “Presumably you could not find it, or you would not be asking me these questions. I demand you release me. I've told you I didn't do the deed. I have a lucrative singing engagement in Port Town I cannot miss.”

“Witnesses described it as fashioned from the finest red gold of the Anatol Isles. The mask's worth would be tremendous,” Atael said. Then the Moon Temple's chief law scribe pressed the point. “And you would have us believe you tossed it away; that you couldn't be bothered to pick it up from where you'd dropped it?”

“Money's never been an issue for me,” Orlando said, pushing his dark curls from his face. “Whenever I need more, I sing, and it comes.”

“How convenient for you,” Atael said, turning to the judge — Arch Priestess Miriam. “And from your previous statements, we are to believe you sought no retribution when Captain Catoriel rejected your advance. That you ...oh let's see, how did you phrase it?”

Atael glanced at the scrolls on her desk. “Ah, yes, that you, quote, 'found another wench who would do'.”

“I don't know what came over me, nor why I kissed the Captain as I did.” Orlando looked down into his hands. Then he looked up again. “And I would never force a woman to bed me against her will. Ever. You see, all come willingly to me; it is my gift from the Goddess. After the Captain and ...the priestess -Tina?- ...left me, I did find another, and spent the night with her. She will verify it.”

“Yes, your alibi. Let us examine that. Guards, bring forth witness Elin Osol.”

Ona and Sheala led a young -and well endowed- woman into the Moon Temple Justice hall. The lass looked up at the stone figure who dominated the room; Blind Justice, with scales in one hand and sword in the other. Elin swallowed, and sat.

“You are Elin Osol, married to the Baker Mahinder?” Atael said, after the girl took the witness chair. When she said “I am”, the prosecutor continued.

“Do you recognize the defendant?” Atael motioned to where the troubadour sat.

“Who does not know of the great Orlando?” Elin said.

“The witness will restrict her answers to 'yes,' 'no,' or 'I don't know,' Miriam said. Elin peered at the hooded woman, swallowed again, and lowered her head.

“Sorry ma'am. Yes, I know him.”

“He claims he was with you at the time Priestess Aeliana was attacked. Is this true?”

Elin glanced at Orlando, and then shook her head.

“You answer no?” Atael said.

“He was not with me that night.”

Orlando jumped to his feet. “But I bedded you! You moaned in ecstasy beneath me. Of all women, I chose you!”

“Silence!” Miriam shouted. “Witness Olson, would you swear an oath to the Goddess that you speak truth?”

Elin bit her lip, then gave a jerky nod.

“She lies, Arch Priestess!” Orlando shouted.

“I said SILENCE! I have heard enough. Remove the prisoner; return him to his cell. And send word to Captain Catoriel to come to my chambers.”

Atael approached Miriam's judgment seat, and addressed her in a low voice.

“You did not have the baker's wife swear, I noticed; only asked if she would. Why?”

“Bearing false witness in the Goddess' name is a crime. As Her chief representative, I must act when I hear it. Yet, saying you will bear false witness is not a crime.”

“The Arch-Priestess has a nuanced view of the law, I see.”

“These are nuanced, times, Atael.” Miriam glanced up at the Goddess' face of justice. “Do you believe he did it?”

“I do,” Atael nodded, unsure if the peppered-haired woman was addressing her or the statue. “But I'm the prosecutor; I believe everyone is guilty of something. Orlando? He should be punished for his monumental arrogance alone.”

Miriam gave a tiny smile. “You are wise, Atael. Thank you for your work. I will render judgment soon.”

Sasha entered Miriam chamber after Atael left. Her copper hair was braided tight and she wore her crisp formal white captain's uniform. All was in order, except for the young officer's eyes, which gleamed. Sasha knelt to one knee before Miriam and bowed her head.

“Arch Priestess.”

“Arise, Captain and sit; we must talk.”

When Sasha was seated in the chair before Miriam's desk, the older woman sat back in her chair and folded her fingers together.

“I will cut to the heart of the matter; I will find him guilty. The standard punishment is imprisonment. Will this satisfy you?”

Sasha shook her head. “I would kill him.”

“Yes, I know; twice your own guard has restrained you from slaughtering him in his cell; it is why you were banned from the trial.”

“Mark my words, I swear by the Goddess I will see the last breath leave Orlando's lips.”

“That you will not do; even I cannot bend the Goddess' rules if you were to do so. However...” Miriam leaned forward. “If you could pick Orlando's punishment -short of his death- what would you choose?”

“I ...I don't understand. Are you saying that I-”

“-Can determine his sentence. Yes. What penalty would you impose?”

Sasha clinched the arms of her chair, drove her nails into the wood.

“She was my heart, my soul; she was everything dear to me. To us all! So …I would take everything from him.”

“Could you, er, be more specific, Captain?”

“The Lady blessed him with a voice that could move rocks to tears; Tanya talked about the good such a man could do. Yet he uses it to seduce women and earn fame and coin...”

Sasha stood and paced the chamber.

“When I rejected him, for once in his spoiled life he did not receive what he desired and he lashed out, to try to rape...”

A sob fought to find its way from her throat, but she beat it down with a growled no!

“Tanya was helpless; she was the Temple poet for Goddess sake! And he beat her to death. You ask what I want? That all he values be ripped from him. I would see him helpless, nameless, and...” inspiration came to the captain,

...songless.”

Miriam sat silent several minutes before speaking. “I can grant you this, if...”

“If what?”

“Captain. You and I have never much cared for each other. Ever since I forced Meg out, you've kept you distance.”

Sasha stiffened. “I am very close to her.”

“Of course; she was as a grandmother to you, all knew this. Listen - the portents and arguers tell me difficult times are coming. I need the support of all in the Temple, if we are to guide our land through the trouble. Most importantly, I need the undivided support of the Moon Temple Guard. To be blunt, I need you to have my back.”

Sasha had not been promoted to her position by being stupid. She knew what Miriam was asking. There was a faction of priestesses who opposed Miriam. The women were angered at how she forced Meg out several years ago, and troubled at the questionable teachings and methods of their new Arch-Priestess. Miriam had not been able to win them over with bribes; now she sought muscle. Before Tanya's death, Sasha would have rejected Miriam's offer and sought to have her tossed from her office. But now...

“And if I give you my unquestioning support, and that of the Guards-”

“-Then Orlando will be punished before your eyes tonight, exactly as you wish it. Do you so swear?”

Sasha knelt before the Arch-Priestess again. “By the Goddess I swear it!”

“It is well. Have Orlando brought to the Temple Altar at midnight. There is deep magic to be worked tonight.”

Sasha blinked. “But ...isn't it forbidden for a man to see Her Holy of Holies?”

“Worry not, my captain, I know a loophole.”
 

 
 
6.

Tanya touched many many lives.

None more than Sasha's Moon Temple Guards. When the mysterious identical twins appeared at the Temple -looking like they had been raised by highland wolves- it was Tanya who took them under her wing. She taught them their letters so they could pass the Guard's literacy test. More importantly, though Ona and Sheala had amazing wilderness and tracking skills -and were uncanny with their whips- it was Tanya who schooled them in the social graces of the Temple.

Jules became a fan of Tanya's the night the skinny girl managed to match her ale for ale. The big woman loved the poet so much, she had Tanya write the vows for her handfasting with Hans. Jules poured her feelings out to Tanya as the poet composed the vows; Jules shared feelings she had never spoken to another soul.

Like Sasha, they needed closure to Tanya's death. And so, it was they who accompanied Sasha as she 'escorted' Orlando from his cell to the Altar room in the dark of midnight.

Though they dragged the blindfolded -and naked- man, he did not resist, for earlier that evening they spiked his tea with powerful herbs. Orlando stumble-swayed in a drunken gait. The Guards paused as they entered the inner most room of the Temple, to take in the vast marble columns, made all the more foreboding in the flickering light.

In the room's center stood the Altar, a massive stone table, and on each side, a three-meter wide shallow saucer on a stone tripod. Golden flames burned and sparked in the trays. Behind the Altar loomed a colossal bronze statue; a woman clothed in a toga with the left breast expose. In her left hand she held the crescent moon as a sickle, and on her right open palm, a songbird sat.

Miriam strode into the chamber draped in the purple and silver robe of the Arch-Priestess. The two priestesses accompanying her -Naomi and Janina- gasped at the sight of the naked man.

“Sacrilege!” Janina said. “No man may see Her Holy of Holies and leave the Temple alive!”

Miriam held a hand up for silence. “Worry not, priestess, when this ceremony is concluded, you will see no sacrilege has occurred.”

Orlando was dropped at Miriam's feet. His head flopped to one side and drool rolled from the side of his mouth.

“Arch Priestess?” Naomi asked. “What ceremony are we conducting? You said we were to perform a purification ritual, yet-”

“-As you have surmised from the presence of this man, we are not performing a standard ritual. Tonight, we are the Goddess' instrument of justice.

Miriam scanned the faces of the women. This is a ritual only those deemed worthy by the Lady are allowed to have knowledge of; no one ...NO ONE! may speak of what happens next. To explain the disappearance of our prisoner, our official story is Orlando has escaped.”

Sasha shook her head. “Neither I nor my guard shall break trust, honored one; we seek justice.”

“Then let us have it,” Miriam said, and lifted her arms to the bronze statue.

“Hear my plea, great Goddess! Use my body as a vessel. Fill me with your power. That I may give this one the sentence he deserves.”

Miriam spoke and a great vibration answered. Energy waves showered down in a sub-octave humm, encircling the High Priestess in a rainbow sparkling aura.

Miriam turned back to the prone figure before her.

“Your name, I erase!”

Miriam touched a finger to Orlando's forehead. Sparks flew and Orlando's body spasmed.

She next laid her hands on his chest.

“Your form, I change!"

His skin, his muscles, his bones, warped, melted, rearranged. A howl of pain sprang from his ...no! her lips, for when the glow that encircled Orlando's body receded, a petite black-haired girl lay where man had been.

Last, Miriam reached to Orlando's stomach, and then through the girl's skin and into her body.

“Your music, I take!”

Miriam yanked her hand out. When she opened it, something winged and white, flew up through the Temple sky window and out into the night.

In a recent skirmish with a northmen raiding party, Sasha and her guard cornered the men in a farmhouse. Rather than risk the lives of her women, Sasha ordered the twins to shoot flaming arrows into the farmhouse windows, to smoke the men out. To her horror, the men waited too long to leave the burning building, emerging engulfed in flesh eating flames. The echoes of the screams would haunt the captain's dreams for years.

Yet their screams were as nothing next to the eardrum shattering shrieks that poured from Orlando's mouth. The girl clawed at her stomach, and her howls were so loud, the Temple columns started to vibrate in resonance.

“Silence her, or she will bring the Temple down around us!” Miriam shouted.

Jules connected her huge fist to Orlando's jaw, whiplashing the girl's head and cutting off the screams.

Another sound hum fell from the bronze statue and onto the Arch-Priestess. Her eyes rolled back into head and her mouth opened.

Deliver this girl to she who stood here before me.”

Then Miriam swayed, and Sasha rushed to catch her.

“Miriam? What was that?”

“I ...she ...the Goddess ...spoke to me! Through me.”

“But I don't understand what you said,” Sasha said.

“She who stood here before me ...was Meg." As the Goddess power fled her, Miriam's voice became raspy. "The Goddess has spoken. This one must be taken to Meg.”

“But when I sought retribution, I did not envision this,” Sasha said, looking at the small feminine -a now bloody- figure before her. “I had hoped for more-”

“-More what?” Miriam said. “For I have given you exactly what you wished. This one is now nameless, helpless and songless.”

“I had hoped for more suffering.”

"Her suffering has just begun, but..."

Miriam's mind scrambled for more loopholes. Interpretations. “She shall ...hmm ...be given to Meg as ...a slave ...to work on her farm. The great troubadour shall spend the rest of her days as little more than a domesticated animal in a backwater farm. And...”

Miriam thought through more shades of gray. “...You, and your guard will take her. For though the Goddess decreed this -thing-” Miriam looked down at the girl, and spat, "is to be delivered alive, She said nothing beyond that. Will that be enough ...satisfaction, Captain?”

Sasha thought for some moments. “It is a long way to Meg's farm.”

“Indeed, Captain.”

“Much can happen along the way,” Sasha said. “If ...she ...tried to escape, harsh ...measures would be needed. Often.”

“All I ask is she be alive when delivered. Whether that means fully, somewhat, or barely alive, I leave to you. Will this be enough?”

“Tanya is dead, so nothing could ever be enough,” Sasha said. “But I will take what I can get.”

“Tarry not with Meg. I will need you -and your Guard- with me from now on, I fear.”

“It will be as you say, for I have sworn it,” Sasha bowed, and then turned to her Guards. “Ladies? We are going on a journey which will prove most satisfying! Prepare the prisoner; we ride at dawn.”

Jules lifted the unconscious girl and slung her over her shoulder like a sack of grain. She clubbed the girl's back with a forearm. “Beat poor Tanya to death did ya? We'll see how ya like be'in on the other end of the stick this time, lass.”

After the guard left, Miriam turned to her priestesses. “Witness! A man neither saw Her Holy of Holies, nor did a 'man' leave here alive.”

The priestesses nodded in unison. “Witnessed, Arch-Priestess.”

“Nuanced understanding indeed,” Miriam murmured, as they exited the Altar room.

Once they had, the gold flamed tripods -for a moment- sputtered and bellowed black smoke.
 

 
 
II.
 

 
1.

"So honored one, do ye wish this creature? The Arch Priestess decreed she is to be given to you as a beast of burden."

Jules shifted in the seat of her wagon to turn away from the north wind, her heavy gray cloak flapping about her.

None of this made sense to Meg. The woman who robbed her of her position gives her another human being? That was so against the Lady's teachings it staggered her mind to think on it.

This creature at her feet -a girl, she gathered, through the grim, dried blood, and excrement- what had she done to merit this treatment from the Arch-Priestess?

And Sasha's absence. She rode with Jules, but wouldn't say hello to the woman who adopted her? Was she ashamed of what Miriam had ordered her to do?

“Where is my granddaughter? I would see her.”

“She feared seeing you would stir emotions.”

Meg wondered if the people in Anuvar adopted a new language since she left. Because, the sergeant's words were indecipherable.

“Of course emotions would be stirred! I love her!”

Jules looked away from Meg's gray-eyed gaze. “She is a changed woman. She ...allows no emotion but vengeance to enter her mind.”

“Bah. Absurd. What craziness is this? And what does Tanya-”

“-Is dead.”

“W-what? No!” Meg felt she had been kicked in her stomach.

Jules lowered her head. “I am sorry to tell you so bluntly, revered one. Forgive me.”

“H-how did it happen?”

“This one...” Jules spat on the shivering moaning girl. “Killed her.”

Tanya gone! The pain Sasha must be suffering. And Miriam sent her the murderess? Meg's mind could process no more.

“Meg, please decide,” Jules said in as soft a voice as the big woman could manage.

“Things are changed in Anuvar since you left the Temple,” Jules said. “There is ...unrest. Ill tidings. The Moon Temple Guard is needed more and more to keep peace. I must hurry to catch my comrades; will you have this one?”

Meg squinted at the figure huddled on the ground next to the wagon. Tanya's killer, if she believed the sergeant.

Bruises and gashes covered her body from head to toe, and her feet looked little more than masses of bloody blisters. Had they run the girl here? Or dragged her?

“She’s more dead than alive if you ask me.”

“It tried to escape along the way and was punished. Do you want it or no?”

The elderly woman hobbled nearer to where the girl lay in the dust, to confirm she was even breathing. This one looked so small and young. Hard to imagine her managing to kill a mouse.

“And why did Miriam send the girl to me? Does the so-called Arch Priestess expect me to redeem her?”

“Miriam has worked wonders; if you have doubts, ask this one. But Redemption? For this scum? There can be no redemption for it,” Jules said. “If the law permitted it, I would choke the life from her now.”

“But the Lady's law does not permit it, Meg said, then gave a sigh.

'Why bother?’ she thought. Why would she want to be saddled with this? She should refuse. Then the girl would die soon enough, which is better than she deserved; Tanya! Poor sweet dear!

Meg started to say no, when a quiet voice spoke in her.

Touch her, Meg.

Meg blinked. She felt the Goddess' presence in all she did, but this contact was a bit more direct than she was used to.

She had been Arch-Priestess of the Moon Temple for decades and passed judgment on many dark souls. If the Goddess wills it, she would look at this one; a quick search of the girl's soul.

Meg grabbed the girl’s grimy face and peered into her eyes, the gateway to the soul. She prepared to ram her perception through, but found no need, for there was no resistance. Soul sensing was not mind reading, but a deep empathetic divining, and what she sensed from this one was a shattering; she was a broken vessel.

Sparkling blues, greens and purples flashed in Meg’s mind, like shards of glass... At one time, this soul was capable of wondrous magic. Overlaying the brightness, Meg also sensed decay, wasted life. At the center of this one was a gaping hole. Something had been ripped away. But ...where were the stains of evil? The black aura?

Meg pushed deeper and sensed fear, anger and bleak despair, but no darkness.

Listen!

An image flashed in her mind: a tiny brown bird -a nightingale- lying on muddy ground, with dark red blood from a wound, pooling beneath it. Barely breathing. Silenced.

The bird of my dream!

Meg's consciousness snapped back; whatever crimes this one committed, Meg was certain murder was not one.

She held her palms open over the girl and felt a strong tingling. Years of working with the Goddess craft told her iron bands of magic encircled the girl.

She stepped back to regard her again; gaunt, and shivering, dressed in dirty rags, with hollow eyes.

“Well?” Jules asked Meg sighed. Had she energy for this? Why couldn’t the world let her die in peace; it discarded her easily enough. But by the Goddess, she had seen…

“I will keep this one, to see if she may be of use.”

“As you wish, priestess.” Jules leaned forward in the wagon to place the girl’s leash into Meg's creased hand. Then she raised her hand in the Goddess salute. “Fair thee well, honored one.”

Meg watched her shake the reins of her horse team and turn the wagon west, to the Temple of the Moon. Three days hard riding, if the weather stayed put.

She looked again on the crumpled girl and shook her head.

What could this mystery mean?

Energy drained from her as the full impact of Tanya's death hit her. She would be numb at first, and then the grieving would start. Tanya!

No, she had no energy to investigate the girl now, no matter what the 'quiet voices' said. But soon she would perhaps? For the first time in many moons, Meg was intrigued. Movement from the sky caught her eye: snowflakes. A soft wet snow started to fall, and would soon cover the lonely farm in white.

“We’ve not much time, come!” Meg pulled the girl to her feet as gently as she could and helped her walk. Every step drew a moan of pain, but Meg could tell nothing was broken, thank the Goddess.

“I am sorry for your hurt, but there is nothing for it.” Meg said, “Soon enough I shall lay you on warm soft hay to tend your wounds. But first, to the well. You reek of excrement.
 

 
 
2. Winter Solstice

“Gel? Where have you got to? Light is precious today and there's work to be done!”

Jacob had fetched Meg to wake the girl when she had not shown up for breakfast. So funny! A man his age too shy to rouse the lass. Funnier still -and endearing- was how Meg's brother now acted as a protective father and worried at the girl's absence.

Meg had grown fond of her too; how could she not? Though Jules claimed the girl was guilty of murdering Tanya, Meg was convinced it was not so. In truth when they delivered her, she seemed little more than an abused animal. Her physical injuries, though grave, turned out to be the lesser of her wounds. Her mental state was another matter. As the care they showed the little one took hold, she started to function again. That was when the trouble started...

First she tried to hang herself from the barn rafters. By the luck of the Lady, the girl was inept at tying knots, and ended up dislocating a shoulder.

To prevent a repeat performance, Meg used her Goddess craft to lay a geas on the girl, which prevented her from taking her life. In retaliation, the girl stopped eating. But self-starvation is a near impossible suicide to work, and she finally relented and ate.

Meg struck a deal then, promising that if the girl obeyed her and worked hard, she would feed the girl and treat her well. The girl agreed with a jerky nod, and from that moment forward she obeyed Meg's commands without question.

Which made the girl's tardiness this morning all the more mysterious. Meg called a few more times, but the girl failed to appear. She limped across the frozen ground to the barn, and opened the door a crack.

“Child?”

She smelled her before she saw her, a dank blood odor. Meg opened the barn door wide to let in the white morning light, and saw her curled up in the yellow straw, clutching her stomach.

“What’s the matter, lass?”

“I bleed.”

Meg started at the soft sound of the girl's voice, her first spoken words since she arrived. Until that moment, Meg hadn't known if the girl could speak. Meg knew the problem; it did not take a priestess to figure it out.

“It's your moontime, lass? Why didn't you tell me? I'd have had a loin pad ready, though I haven't had to use one in years.

I'm bleeding,” she moaned, which to Meg sounded more surprise than pain.

Meg squinted to see the girl face; her short black hair contrasted the red flush of her cheeks. She was ...embarrassed?

“Why act so? It's not as if this is your menarche, a girl your age? You have had these before, yes?

“No. Never, I was a m-” The words halted in her mouth as if someone clamped a hand over it. She shook her head and reached out to Meg. “Please? Help me?”

Meg was going to challenge her still — it was not possible the girl had never had a period before- but something in her voice melted Meg's resolve.

“You aren't dying, lass! Go and wash; I'll sew clean rags together. Then help Jacob herd the flock to forage in the high pasture. Exercise will do you good.”

When the girl sat up, Meg saw the tears glistening.

Thank you.”

'What a wonder,' Meg thought, as she hobbled back to the farmhouse.

Though it was the coldest, darkest day of the year, those simple words of gratitude from the girl's soft voice made Meg’s heart vibrate warm and bright.
 

 
 
3. One week past Imbolic

Sheep have it so easy.

For sheep appeared to stay warm no matter how much the wind howled.

The girl wrapped her woolen coat tighter, but it did no good.

Nothing did; she was always cold. Ever since they changed her and ripped away her mu-

"-No! I won't think about it. It does no good.”

She returned her thoughts to the flock. They were as they always were, oblivious, foraging, and warm in their fleece.

She blinked as the north wind smacked her face. Gray sky. Snow coming, Meg said this morning.

Meg. Who used to be the Arch-Priestess; she remembered her. The girl longed to tell her all, longed to...

Well, she simply longed to hold her, for she sensed rock solid strength and calm in the elderly woman, and the girl needed that; she felt so utterly alone. But she couldn't; some magic stopped the words in her mouth. Just as Meg's magic stopped her from killing herself. What was she now, some puppet to be changed and danced however one with power wanted?

"No. Stop. No. More. Bitterness."

The girl shook her head and looked back to the brown pasture to glance at the sheep. Grays and browns. That was her life now.

"WHY?"

As always when she posed this question, the answer she got was a sheep's bleat, crow's caw, or wind.

"I didn't do it."

She had gone over it again and again, thinking, maybe she had done what they said. Maybe she lost her mind and didn't remember attacking Tanya.

She knew the woman's name; knew all their names, for she remembered every tiny detail of trial in the weeks that had passed.

She pictured the priestess: platinum blonde hair and silver mask - she had never seen the woman's face, only Captain Catriol's. Only Sasha's. A woman she had been drawn to by the sound, the vibration, of her voice alone.

Sasha, who now hated her so much, she had wished this hell on her.

She hadn't remembered how it happened; it was all a hazy dark blur. But the women who brought her here -the big one Jules, the twins Ona and Sheala with their terrible whips, and Sasha, had happily told her all the details of her change, as they did other things to her.

Empty empty. My music is gone.

"Stop. Just stop."

She couldn’t even tell herself to stop, because she couldn't remember her name. Like her music, like her body, her name was gone.

"But I didn't do it!"

No matter how hard she tried to figure out if she had somehow committed the horrible crime, her thoughts always ended back to that answer. She was certain; she was innocent.

"Then why?"

A bird landed on her knee. A nightingale.

Who sang, the sweetest song the girl had ever heard. She wasn't sure how long the bird sang -she lost track of time- but when the bird finished, the girl found her face wet with tears.

The bird's notes acted as medicine to her, temporarily giving her relief from her emptiness. If only the nightingale could sing again.

She tried to think. When she was that ...other person, whose name she no longer possessed, when she was him people knew that to hear more, they must pay in gold. What did she have to give?

"Friend... I... loved your singing so, I long to hear more. But I have nothing to give you, I-"

The little bird cocked her head and flew away.

The girl fell to the ground, clutching her stomach; the silence -the return of her emptiness- hurt a hundred times worse than anything the Moon Temple Guard had done to her. She couldn't move; she barely could breathe.

Then ...the nightingale return. With friends. A dozen, no, dozens of nightingales, flocked around her, and sang.

Somewhere, between her ecstasy, in between the laughing and crying, it occurred to her, they returned for no payment or profit. They did it, just to sing.
 
 

 
 
4.

Torvald motioned for his men to move faster. His orders were to march inland two leagues, no more, then return in their skiff to report. For generations, the Isle had been protected by the cursed goddess they worshipped; stopping every attempt they made to conquer it. Yet now rumors spread by returning raiders that their goddess no longer protected the Isle’s shores, the land was fat with riches, and its people easy pickings.

King Jarl wanted to know the truth of these reports, for if so, then he would muster his army in the late spring and take it.

They sailed leagues and leagues along the coast, and found no fortresses or watchtowers; the place seemed indeed unguarded. Perhaps the myth of the protecting deity was all the defense they possessed.

Already his men sensed the prizes the land offered, thousands of prime acres for the taking, with a population of readymade slaves. His bowman Dag voiced what all his men thought, we bring blood and death in a glorious march across this land!

Sasha peered down from her hiding spot on the embankment. Below, she counted six ...no, seven men, pulling a skiff onto shore.

"Sigr er dauá°a blá³á°"

Sasha's translation skills could have been better, but she definitely picked out blood and death.

No doubt who they were: "Northmen," Sasha whispered to her great steed, Sunshine.

The captain studied the men as best she could in the moonlight. At first she reckoned they were marauders come to the Isle for a quick strike; more and more of the eastern villages had reported attacks by such raiding parties in the weeks since Samhain. They petitioned the Arch-Priestess for help, and in a show of support, Miriam dispatched Sasha and her Guard to their eastern coast. Miriam ordered Sasha to not engage the northmen if she encountered them; the exercise was for optics only.

Though the Sun Temple stood close by, the monks there were a non-military lot, lacking the ability to protect their own monastery, much less neighboring villages. Miriam’s agenda was to poach some of their followers and —therefore- increase the Moon Temple tithes.

Yet Sasha’s agenda since Tanya’s death was unchanged; the strange gleam still glowed in her eyes.

Vengeance.

She spread her guard along the coast line several nights in a row, to note where any raiders may come ashore. Sasha equipped her women with signal mirrors this night, as the waxing moon held enough light to permit their use. If northmen were spotted, Sasha’s orders were for the signal to be flashed to all the Guard, and they would gather at the rendezvous point to decide their next action.

“I should signal the others, shouldn’t I,” Sasha whispered to Sunshine. Who gave no response in return.

Seven men. Sasha’s sword hand stroked the handle of her saber.

As she studied them longer, she noticed how they wore similar clothing -uniforms?- moved in an organized formation, and salutes were given to their leader after he spoke.

This is a military detail!

Sasha thought further. Reconnaissance? But for what? An invasion?

“If I do retreat to gather the others, I may lose track of them,” Sasha whispered to Sunshine, her grin spreading. “I cannot allow them to return to their mainland with their report, right Sunshine? It is my duty to stop them.”

This time Sunshine did nod his head and snort. He was ever ready to charge into danger.

One against seven was long odds. There was a greater chance she would die if she did attack.

At least that was what she hoped.

She threw her leg over her saddle and drew her saber. Leaning close to Sunshine’s ear, she whispered,

None but the Lady lives forever, Sunshine, charge!”

Her great warhorse leaped.
 

 
 
5.

Rain beaded on her black silky hair, the drops glistening from the yellow candlelight of the farmhouse.

“Ma'am?” A soft soprano voice asked. “I am done.”

Meg looked up from the brownish-yellow parchments spread before her — her journals from her Arch Priestess days. She avoided them for two solid years, ever since she had been forced out of office by Miriam. Meg wanted to remember now - some seedling had sprouted in her soul these past months, she couldn't fathom why ... perhaps Imbolic, Spring’s first stirrings? Maybe enough time had passed for the bitterness to fade? Or maybe it was the girl...

Goddess alone knew. Meg had a notion, though; something was coming, and she needed to be ready.

“Bellah and Roc are in their stalls and rubbed down? The chickens in their coop with feed?”

The girl nodded 'yes'.

“Good girl. Go clean for supper. And do something with your hair! It looks like birds are nesting in it. I've never seen a girl so pretty who cared so little for her looks! And hurry; Jacob is cleaning up and will be ready soon. Don't make him wait at the table.”

The girl nodded again and started to leave, but Meg stopped her:

“One more thing — Jacob and I grow weary of calling you 'gel.' I don't care what crime you did, you ought to be named! Even the animals are named! Since you will not speak yours, I've ciphered a new one. It came to me by a dream — I'll call you 'Gale'”

“Ma'am?”

“Yes?”

“Why ...Gale?”

“As I said, it came in a dream, about a nightingale. I thought to call you Nightin, but settled on Gale,” Meg said, smiling. “Do you wish another, or to tell your birth name?'

The girl responded as always — head down, frustrated voice: “I cannot speak it; it is gone. All gone.”

“Then it's settled; Gale it is.”

G-a-l-e.”

The girl rolled the word in her mouth, savoring it.

“I said it!” She clapped her hands. “I am named again!”

“Heavens, child, it is but a name; I didn't expect you to burst into song.”

The girl fell to her knees at Meg's words, clutching her stomach.

“What's wrong? Are you ill?”

“Gone gone. The music is ripped from my soul! I'm so hollow! Why did the Goddess let them? Why?”

“Of what do you speak?”

“I cannot say! I am not permitted to! The words will not come to my mouth. It would be better I die than to have that taken from me...”

She let out a long sigh. Then stood, straightened her rough blouse, and bowed her head to the old priestess.

“You have shown me such kindness by your gift and I repay it with anger. Forgive me.”

“Oh pooh, think nothing of it.” Meg said.

She wanted to ask so many questions now, but held her tongue; the girl was fragile yet, for all the way she had come since she arrived. So instead, she swatted the girl's behind.

“Now, go, Gale of the Twigs In Her Hair. Get cleaned up for dinner, or you will be known as Gale the Hungry tonight.”

The girl nodded, but stopped. “Ma'am?” Her hazel eyes were wide and wet.

“Yes?”

She knelt before Meg and kissed her hand. “Thank you.”

The girl flashed another doe-eyed look, then ran out the door.

'A name. A simple name. Yet from the way she acted, you would have thought I'd given her all the gold in the Isle,' Meg thought. And by the Lady what did she mean about stolen music?

For the thousandth time, Meg wondered what wrong the tender girl did to deserve enslavement. She heard a *harumph*and saw Jacob standing in the doorway, clean-faced and fresh shirted.

“If ...Gale ...could harm a flea, then I am High Priest of the Sun Temple!”

“You heard? You like the name?”

He bobbed his bald head up and down. “It fits. Yesterday, I spied her in the high pasture as she watched the sheep — I took a short cut through the forest and she didn't know I was near — and I saw something odd and wonderful.”

“Eh dear brother, did you see? Did our Gale met some secret lover meet her there?”

“No, no lover,” Jacob answered in his slow thoughtful way, missing Meg's sarcasm. “What I saw was ...Gale surrounded by a flock of nightingales.”

“Surrounded? In what way? Had she disturbed their nests?”

“Not at all. They were ...singing to her, I think.”

“Singing to her?”

“Yes,” Jacob said, stroking his gray-bearded chin. “And she was laughing and crying.”

“Singing to her? You are sure?”

“Yup. Dozens and dozens of songbirds, a choir of 'em. Singing. To her.”
 
 

 
 
6.

“Captain? Can you come with me to Militia headquarters. You must see something.”

Sasha sighed. Must she? She was bone tired, and her leg wound still ached from her attack on the northmen scouting party two weeks ago. Yet if Sheala told her she needed her to come to the Anuvar Militia headquarters, then come she would. The building was starting to become a second home for the Moon Guard; crime was on the rise in the city and her women was stretched thin aiding the militia to keep a lid on the situation. Just what they were keeping a lid on was a mystery. For months, the city had been restless. Uneasy. Waiting ...for something.

“Can it wait until morning, corporal? I'm dead on my feet.”

Sasha's words were true in more ways than one; since Tanya's death, Sasha threw herself into her work, and didn't stop until late into the evening each day. More than that, though, the life seemed to have gone out of her. Nothing brought a smile to her face, and her guard feared there would one day take her own life when her despair overwhelmed her.

Sheala shook her head. “There's another attack on a Moon Temple Priestess, only this time, we heard her call for help; Jules arrived before he could hurt the lass. She pretty much handed him his ass.”

Another attack? Sasha stiffened; her wounds were still too raw. “And why must I see this bastard?”

“Because ...he wore a red gold devil's mask.”

What? Blood pounded in her ears and her throat went dry.

“I would see this man. Now!”

Sheala gave a weary smile and nodded. “I have brought a mount for you.”

Sasha understood now why her blonde corporal wore her riding leathers. She threw hers on, and soon the two galloped away.

The Militia officers held the man detention room, where they questioned him. A militia officer, Captain Lucas, filled Sasha in on all they'd learned.

“His name is Baugla; he was hired to be the Temple stable master a month before Samhain when the old master passed on. He confessed to all, to attacking the priestess and ...to attacking Priestess Aeliana.”

“He could be lying. Perhaps he is twisted in thought, and seeks to continue Orlando's sick work? Do we know if the mask is even Orlando's?”

“You saw the mask of the troubadour the night of Priestess Aeliana death.” Lucas opened a desk drawer, pulled a mask from it and tossed it on his desktop. “You tell me.”

And there it was! The mask that had haunted her since Tanya's death. Every time she closed her eyes she saw it.

“It is Orlando's mask,” Sasha whispered. “But what of the baker's wife? She testified Orlando was not with her that night.”

Lucas nodded. “Your own sergeant -the big woman I would not wish to tangle with in a dark alley- has gone to fetch her.”

Within minutes Jules arrived, leading Elin to where Sasha and Lucas sat.

“You wish to question me?” Elin bit her lower lip. “I ...I told all I knew at the trial last fall, and so I don't know why-”

“-Another attack has occurred,” Captain Lucas told her. “Another priestess, attacked by a man wearing a red mask.”

Elin's hand flew to her mouth. “Oh no!”

“Oh no indeed,” Lucas said. “We would have been looking for him, we could have prevented this second attack, but we believed we had the criminal already. Because you swore, under oath that Orlando wasn't-”

“-Orlando was with me!” Elin blurted. “That night, we spent it in his room.”

“But why, lass, why?” Jules said. “Why did you lie at his trial? When your testimony would prove his innocence?”

“Because my husband is a jealous man, and would have cast me out into the street if he learned I was unfaithful. I couldn't tell the truth, don't you see?”

Elin burst into tears. “I didn't know another woman would be hurt! I swear it! Please! You must believe me.”

“You did know Orlando was innocent, though,” Lucas said, “and yet stood silent as he was sentenced for another's crime. Is this not so?”

Elin fell to her knees. “Mercy, I beg mercy.”

“Sergeant?” Lucas said, “Would you do me a favor and take Mistress Olson to one of our holding cells? I haven't decided what I shall do with her yet.”

“As you wish,” Jules said, and dragged the weeping woman from the room.

“I would see this Baugla. I would ...talk ...to him.”

“Hmm. Yes. In a moment perhaps,” Lucas said. “I am troubled though. You've noticed how crimes are being committed in our city at an alarming rate; more than I've ever seen before.”

Sasha nodded. She did not tell Lucas just how troubling matters were becoming. For she has learned of sobering news from across the island - a drought continued in the northern highlands, threatening the late winter wheat harvest. To the south, a strange sickness has beset Port Town, with a dozen or more falling ill each day. And to the east, the Brothers from the Temple of the Sun have heard rumors of an invasion plan by the north men across the channel.

“My own forces are stretched to the breaking point,” Lucas said. “Truly mystifying. Mistress Olsen's perjury is not an aberration; it is as if all in Anuvar have lost their moral compass.”

Sasha nodded again. She too had found, that no matter how hard her guards worked, day by day they lost ground.

“Even so, I still wish to see this man.”

"I will speak plainly Captain, for I respect you. The city still buzzes from your lone attack on the northmen party. You are rightly a hero, yet, I wonder..."

"Wonder what, Captain Lucas."

"I have watched you these past months..."

"Why Captain," Sasha said, "I didn't know you cared-"

Lucas ignored her sarcasm. "...and ever since the death of Priestess Aeliana, you seem to seek out trouble and violence rather than avoid it."

Sasha's back stiffened. "What is your point?"

"Why do you wish to see prisoner Baugla?" Lucas said. "I have already questioned him, already received a signed confession. So why?"

"As I said, I wish to-"

“-Kill him, yes? As you did Orlando?”

Sasha's head snapped back. “I did not kill Orlando, exactly...”

“What does that mean? I admit, I found the singer to be the most arrogant man I've ever met, but as you now see he was innocent,” Lucas said. “If he is still alive, he should be released from where you have secretly imprisoned him to resume his life.”

An image -a memory- flashed in her mind. Of the red haunted eyes of a young woman. Orlando wept the length of the three day ride to Meg's farm. One would think she cried from their treatment of her, for they had whipped and beaten her until she could not stand.

Funny thing was, she almost seemed to welcome the pain they gave as a distraction.

They taunted her unceasingly: “Sing great Orlando! Great troubadour! Sing us a love song and we will let you go free.”

Far more than her wondrous metamorphosis, it was Orlando's lost music that devastated her most. Sasha could see -literally watch- the horror, playing out in the girl's eyes as she realized her music was gone.

At the time, it gave Sasha far more satisfaction than the physical pain she inflicted. But now?

“I assure you, the troubadour lives yet, but releasing Orlando is no longer possible,” Sasha said, as she stood. “Some things cannot be undone.”

“Rumors have been flying around the city for months about some deep magic worked as punishment on him. Speak truth: what injustice was done to him?”

“Injustice, Captain Lucas?” Sasha's eyes turned steely. “No more so than my Tanya suffered. Nor more so than we shall all experience in the days to come, as we realize the Goddess has abandoned us.”
 

 
 
7. Vernal Equinox

“Ma'am? Would you teach the Goddess to me?”

This was something new; Meg paused kneading the bread dough to consider how to answer, and the girl stepped in to resume the task.

In the months since Miriam had gifted the girl to her -and while she questioned Miriam's motives, she considered her Gale a gift from the Goddess- they had not spoken a whisper of religion.

For Meg, she didn't need to speak of it; her practice was so deep and embedded, it was second nature. She tried to make all she did in her day, from meditating at her solitary altar, to cleaning the chicken coop. an act of devotion to her Lady. When she served in the great Temple, she tried to introduce each novice the her beloved Creatrix in perfect love and perfect trust.

Such easy words -no musty scroll stacks to read through filled with twisting words. Bah! Let the Sun Priests get tangled in their battling dogmas. Perfect love, perfect trust. So easy and yet so hard.

Over the years Meg had seen them all, all the ways young girls approached the Moon Goddess, from the pie-eyed ones wishing to find a great 'Mama' in the sky who will vanish all cares, to the ambitious ones, wishing to become sorceresses mighty in the Goddess craft. Her job was to start them on the right path; a job, she often reminded herself, she failed to do with Miriam.

So she could read them, yes, but Gale was a mystery outside experience; what could she want? Forgiveness for her unknown crime? Peace from what tormented her soul, this hollowness she now spoke of? What?

Meg stopped herself from mentioning the girl must have received remedial Goddess instruction at her Menarche Ritual, for that had most definitely been skipped.

“Why do you wish me to teach you about Her, sweetling?” Meg said, placing the dough in a cabinet to let it rise.

“I want to understand. To know why it happened. Maybe if I knew ...I could ...I could...”

Meg knew the end of the girl's sentence would never come; whatever geas was on her was powerful indeed. But she didn't need to finish it, her silence screamed the words,

Sing! Sing!

“And why do you think this old priestess can help you now?”

“Because I met you when you were Arch-Priestess, and ...I was too...” The girl looked down to the floorboards, “...too stupid ...to ask you then.”

“You knew me?” Meg had not considered this. “But I'd have remembered you, hey? Personal grooming issues aside, I've never seen a beauty such as yours.”

Meg hadn't; the girl's body was petite but well proportioned. Her hair's color looked identical to glossy raven's feathers, and her eyes soft and hazel. The Goddess had been generous indeed.

As girl struggled to speak, Meg realized she was wrestling with her geas, a fight that played across her face. Finally, she spoke:

“I was not ...as I am.”

Meg blinked. Six tiny words, but a mountain of information; the most she had conveyed since she came to the farm.

“Enough! It is time I knew,” Meg said, resolving to do something she had avoided since she left the Temple. She would use her high craft.

“Come sit with me by the hearth, Gale.”

The black haired girl sat cross-legged in front of Meg, her hemp pants drawing up to show smooth calves above her soft leather boots. A crackling fire warmed her back.

"Wait here while I fetch something." Meg said, hobbling to a chest that stood in the far corner of the living room. The lid popped open as Meg unfastened its latch, sending a cloud of dust into the air. Meg rummaged a moment, then stood again, with a tarnished brassy bowl in one hand, and a sanded, thick wooden stick in the other. She walked back to where the girl sat and lowered herself to the floor; her joints popping as she did.

"O but I'm getting too old for this. Now …relax, there is nothing to fear here,” she said, when she saw the worried look on the girl's face. “Just stay still and take deep breaths.”

Meg rubbed the outside rim of the rune-covered bowl, working slow steady circles. Soon, it emitted a bell like hum that grew louder with each circle the elderly woman made. As the hum grew, sound waves washed over the girl, and about her head and body, an aura formed, sparkling, green, then blue, then bright purple.

'Holy Goddess!' Meg's hand faltered at the fiery display, causing the hum and aura to fade. No ordinary magic this, but the energy of the Lady.

Meg had used such high magics once as Arch Priestess: a woman, sick in mind and having murdered her husband and child, came to Meg for help. The woman feared that even if she were locked in prison, she might kill again. She begged Meg to end her life. This Meg could not do, for the worship of the Lady forbade it. Meg did help the wretch - through the Goddess' power, Meg turned her into a doe, and set her free to roam the highlands.

Meg remembered well the brilliant aura that surrounded the woman as she was transformed. It looked like the aura surrounding the girl, only the girl’s was much brighter.

"Poor thing! What’s been done to you? Who are you or ...what were you?”

“I cannot-”

Meg put her finger to the girl's lips. “-Say. I know. Yet whatever has happened to you, poor tormented one, to know more of the Lady can only serve you better. Ask your questions and I will try to answer.”

“I would reach up to the heavens and touch Her. I would call to the Moon and speak with Her. Teach me to do that!”

“Ah! Always,” Meg grunted, shaking her head. “They always reach for the stars first.”

“But isn't she in the stars? The sky?” the girl asked.

“Sure,” Meg said, pushing a black strand of hair away from the girl's face. “But She's here, too, in this room, this moment.”

“Show me! Bring Her to me!”

“But love, it takes patience. For you must learn to open to Her. To sweep away the barriers we place between our souls and the divine takes time, practice-”

The girl gripped Meg's arm. “I must speak with Her! Use your magic to break through my 'barriers' or whatever they are. Do it! I beg you! I am so hollow!”

“Hush now. To do what you ask would take more magic than I, Miriam and all the Sun Temple priests combined possess. What you ask for is a true miracle. I've known of one who came close to doing it-”

“-Then let us find this wise woman or holy man, ma'am.”

“I suspect he no longer has the power. He was young in his career then, unjaded by worldly success, and the Goddess' fire was still in his voice. I heard the troubadour Orlando sing 'The Lai of the Nightingale'...”

Meg remembered, the birds quieting to hear his voice, the winds ceasing, so they could listen, the sunset of that spring evening, stopping a moment to catch the song.

“The story is of no monumental import, two forbidden lovers, meet at night, to gaze on each other from their windows. Yet Orlando's voice threw open the window to his listeners' hearts, so the lovers' longing poured in. And when he sang of the nightingale's sad death at the hands of the cruel husband, all listening -from youngest babe to oldest man- wept. You know the ballad I speak of perhaps?”

“I do,” the girl whispered. “How could I have forgotten?”

“Tanya loved his songs most,” Meg said, growing wistful. “Were the young Orlando to sing the Priestess Aeliana's poems to you, then you might have your wish and know the Goddess.”

Meg shook her head, trying hard to shake away memories. “But Orlando isn't with us, is he?”

“Nor Tanya either,” the girl answered, her eyes again glistening with tears.

“So you are stuck with this old bag of bones to teach the old fashioned way to the Lady. Will that do?”

“Yes, ma'am,” the girl whispered.

“Enough! I care not for what crime you've committed, I will no longer tolerate you calling me ma’am. It’s Meg, if you must be formal, or if you would, I’d be honored if you'd call me grandmother.”

The girl blinked several times, then lunged to wrap her arms around Meg.

“Thank you …grandmother.”

Meg warmed at the sound in that last word. She felt the power embedded in its tone, and how it pierced her heart. The girl's voice held magic for certain. What did the Goddess intend for this one? She shook her head, reminding herself as she always did, that the plans of the Creatrix were not for the keening of mortal minds.

“It is well. Since your ear is over my heart, let us start there. Listen to my heartbeat. It is just you and I in this room. Together. Nothing else matters. Just you and I and the Goddess. Let go and let Her ...in. Listen to my heartbeat...”
 

 
 
III.
 

 
1.

“She is performing a ritual in the Temple. Please return tomorrow.”

“Wrong answer, priestess,” Sasha said. “Fetch her now.”

The Captain was dressed her riding leathers, and wore a chain mail shirt. Her tight-braided copper hair hung down her back, and her gleaming broad sword rested on her shoulder.

“Captain!” Naomi answered. “The Arch-Priestess is working a cleansing ritual at this moment. I cannot disturb her, for if she is not successful, the consequences will be grave.”

“I am already dealing with grave consequences. Let me tell you of them, priestess, as my guard from around the island have reported.”

Sasha swung her saber so it clanged against the Temple entrance pillar the priestess stood beside.

“One: A sleeping sickness has beset Port Town, with hundreds falling ill each day, lapsing into comas from which none have awakened.”

“Two.” Another saber clang. “The drought in the highlands that started after Samhain shows no sign of ending. The winter wheat crop is dust and soon livestock die too.”

“Three.” Clang. “To the east, the Brothers from the Sun Temple report a fleet of northmen gather across the channel, in numbers too huge to count.”

Sasha leveled her saber at Naomi. “Panic grips the streets of Anuvar; I've come from the market street, where my women, and the militia guard, suppressed a riot. Because of the drought and shut down of Port Town commerce, food staples of grain and meat are unaffordable to all but the richest, and the people are upset. Apparently they wish to eat. So don't tell me Miriam is unavailable; her Captain would see her now.”

Naomi flinched with each sword clang, and the blood drained from her face as she stared at the tip of Sasha's saber. Yet she had no compromise to offer the fiery captain.

“Please!” Naomi pleaded, hands outstretched in submission. “I understand how terrible all has become. So now I ask you to understand Miriam is doing all she can to hold things together. She cannot see you.”

Sasha did not lower her sword. “Define 'hold things together,' priestess.”

Naomi spoke in a whisper. “The Temple fires burn black.”

Sasha knew what the priestess' words meant - the sacred altar fires of the Moon Temple had turned from golden yellow to black. Which meant -if the ancient prophecy were true, the end time of the island would come. As any child knew, the Goddess gave this land to the people as a showing of her love. But, it was long foretold, if the Altar fires of the High Temple of the Moon burn soot black for seven days, She has deserted them and their doom would follow — plagues, famine, invaders and then the sea itself would rise to swallow them.

“Thrice since Samhain has this happened, but the Arch Priestess had been able to turn the fires from black to gold by working the purification ritual. Yet each time the blackness returned, and each purification proves harder; she barely survived the last, and was bedridden for a week.

“Speak not to me of fairy tales; I have real problems to contend with,” Sasha said. “I must speak with Miriam!”

“I know Meg taught you to respect our traditions, Captain, so why do you doubt?” Naomi asked. “Is it that you do not believe, or choose not to, because you seek death?”

Sasha pressed her saber tip to Naomi's neck. “Watch your words, priestess.”

Naomi gulped but continued. “All speak of it; since Tanya's passing you court death, seeking the most dangerous missions and throwing yourself in harm's way for no good cause. At Imbolic, you alone engaged a party of northmen on the channel coast. You could have let them pass -you had been ordered to- yet you attacked. And slew them all.”

“I do not seek...” Sasha lowered her saber a touch. “...why do you say these things?”

“You have stopped living! You are a deathseeker! It clouds your judgment. For if you were in your right mind, you would know Miriam is fighting the greater problem. Tanya cherished life and would be so saddened to see what you've-”

Sasha's sword rose again. “-Speak not of my love; you haven't the right! Tanya was-”

The words died on Sasha's lips, for the Arch-Priestess walked out of the Moon Temple Altar room.

'Walked,' is a poor description, though, Miriam was supported by a priestess on either side. 'Carried' or 'dragged' more accurately describe the Arch-Priestess’ condition.

Sasha almost dropped her saber in shock; Miriam had aged decades. Her hair -what remained of it- was pure white, and her head looked little more than thin flesh stretched over a skull. The purple robe of her office was covered in soot.

“Couldn't do it, couldn't...” Miriam rasped.

One of the priestesses holding Miriam up finished the Arch-Priestess' sentence. “The fire turned gold again after the ritual, but only a moment. Then it burned pitch black.

“Seven days, Sasha ...We have …no more time,” Miriam whispered. “Meg. She ...could do it ...if anyone can. Ride! Bring her back ...and give her this. I know now, it is -and always has been- hers.”

Miriam tried to remove the silver pendant she wore of the Goddess holding the horns of a crescent moon. The pendant of the Moon Temple Arch-Priestess. When she proved too weak, Sasha stepped forward and lifted it from her.

“Go ...go ...go...” Miriam muttered, as her eyes fogged black.

“We must take her to the healers,” Naomi said. “I fear this is the end. Will your women be able to fetch Meg in time? They are weary already from their riot duty today, I fear.”

Sasha tore her eyes from the pendant she held and stood tall. “We are the Moon Temple Guard. We will not fail.”
 

 
 
2.

“I'm uneasy about this. What if we see her? What shall we say?”

Sunshine still was snorting hard, all their mounts were, for they had ridden hard for two days. They had slowed to a cantor, and would stop to set camp soon. Sasha patted her steed and craned around in her saddle to look at her sergeant.

Jules was married to an Anuvar blacksmith, and the big brown-headed woman looked capable of slinging her husband's heavy anvils about without difficulty. Few things could make Jules' voice quiver with fear, yet Sasha had heard just that in her voice.

“Why worry of her? The end of the world has come, I am told; she is the least of our worries.”

Too late Sasha remembered not only Jules, but several other of her guardswomen were handfasted and had left loved ones in Anuvar under a cloud of doom. And they worried for them. She alone had no one waiting.

“Sorry, Jules, I wasn't thinking. We will return with Meg before the seventh day, I swear it.”

“Aw, think nothin of it, Cap'n. We all know ye ain't been right since your Tanya passed on.”

And that pretty much summed it up, Sasha thought. She wanted to be angry at the big woman's words, but she couldn't; she hadn't 'been right' since Tanya died, and doubted she ever would be again.

What we did to Orlando was wrong,” Jules said, picking up her earlier thread. “I hurt her bad, and Lady forgive me, I liked it. I kept seeing poor Tanya's face that night, and it made me beat her harder. Now, since knowin Orlando is innocent, all I see is her face, bruised and bleeding, her eyes, lost and scared, and...”

Sasha wasn't sure what else the big woman said, for her words trailed off, but she thought she heard weeping.

Sasha was almost jealous of her sergeant. She wished she could feel remorse, guilt or anything, but she couldn't; she had gone numb. At first, her hate for Orlando at least gave her fire in her belly, for it was so easy to despise his arrogant face. And when he was changed, and she realized her songs were gone, ahhh! the horror in Orlando's eyes was a salve to Sasha's bloodied soul.

Then that satisfaction was taken away, too, when she learned the man Baugla was the guilty one. And he provided no satisfaction; the coward hung himself in his cell rather than face punishment.

Sasha was shaken from her musings by the hoof beats of her trackers Ona and Sheala.

“Ho! Captain, we have followers,” the lithe blonde Ona said.

Sasha hand went to her saber. “Where?”

“They parallel us, a hundred yards or so away,” Sheala said, pointing her sword to the dense trees to the left.

“How many?” Sasha asked, peering into the shadowy trees.

“At least thirty men. Local bandits, we reckon. But they are poorly armed and disorganized. ”

Sasha wasn't sure which of her identical twin trackers spoke; in the fading light it was even harder to tell them apart.

“Let us ride ahead of them and ambush!” Sasha said, stretching her sword arm and popping her neck. “They will not expect that.”

“Can we risk it, Cap'n?” Jules said. “And we must bring the new Arch-Priestess to the Temple in four days’ time. Our loved ones are depending on us.”

Jules is right, dammit, Sasha thought. Maybe I do have a death wish.

“Very well. Once darkness settles, we will change course and lose them,” Sasha said. “We must mark this location, for they may present a problem on the return trip.”

“Aye Cap'n,” Jules said with a Goddess salute.

“And ladies? We cannot risk a fire,” Sasha said, “So there will be no hot bubble baths tonight.”

“Like that ever happens,” Jules chuckled.
 

 
 
3.

“Why do you sit there? You are Arch-Priestess! Move! Pack!”

Meg was not, as the Captain of the Moon Guard was suggesting, frozen with fear. Oh, she had a right to be; she had learned so so much in one sitting:

Plagues, droughts and invaders threatened the island.

The Temple smoke burned black.

And ...the girl living with her these last months was none other than Orlando, who in a ritual that profaned the Goddess Altar, had transformed him into her, and ripped the music from the poor troubadour's soul. A worse rape Meg couldn't imagine.

Such tidings would paralyze an Arch-Priestess in the prime of her powers, and Meg's prime was well astern in her life.

Yet she was not just any Arch-Priestess, she was Meg, who’s trust in the Goddess was absolute. And who takes matters one step at a time.

Meg rose, walked to the kitchen, and stoked the stove with kindling. Then she ladled water from the well barrel into a kettle and set it on a burner.

Arch-Priestess,” Sasha growled. “What are you doing?”

“Brewing tea. Would you like some?” Meg asked. “Gale ...I mean Orlando ...made rolls last night that would be yummy with it. Let me just find the gooseberry jam we-”

“-Are you insane?” Sasha shrieked. “we don't have time for this.”

“You forget yourself, Captain!” A spoon was suddenly in Meg's hand; she shook it at the young warrior. “I am so sorry to hear of Tanya's death. You must be devastated. But you will not disrespect me!”

It did not matter Sasha had faced combat, and death countless times, the Arch-Priestess had always been able to make her feel like a petulant girl — as she did now, with only a spoon in her hand.

“Sorry, ma'am.”

“And did you ever think we might need to think a few things through before we fly back to Anuvar?”

Sasha scrunched her forehead. “Like what?”

“When did the troubles in the land begin? And when did the altar fires first darken?” Meg asked, still shaking her spoon. “I need to know the exact date.”

“After Samhain. After Tanya was...” Sasha's words suddenly wouldn't come out.

“...And after Orlando was transformed?” Meg asked. “How soon after?”

Sasha remembered returning to Anuvar after they dragged the girl here, and first learning of the sleeping sickness in Port Town. And hadn't Naomi said the Altar fires first blackened after Samhain too?

“Immediately, Arch-Priestess.”

“And did you also not tell me when Orlando was changed, the Goddess spoke to Miriam? Telling her to send Orlando here?”

“Yes. I did think it strange,” Sasha said. “What does it mean?”

“It means it would be unfortunate to rush from our farm without her, to find out too late we needed her to help us in the Temple.”

The door flew open and the petite girl came running in. “Grandmother! There are Moon Temple Guards here! The ones that-”

She stopped speaking when she saw Sasha standing in the farmhouse living room. The girl backed into a corner and whispered,

“You!”

Sasha stared at her, for she could not help but find her to be pretty. No, with her glossy black hair and hazel-doe eyes, she was stunning.

What am I thinking? This one is not who she seems.

Sasha shook her head. She was sure that even with her transformation, the vain arrogant Orlando lived on inside.

“The great troubadour remembers me? I am filled with gratitude and honor.” Sasha's bow was obnoxious and over the top. “If we are finished with our delightful reunion, we must go, for chaos reigns in Anuvar. Pack what clothes you need -both of you- for we leave as soon as the horses are rested.”

“Grandmother! Please don't make me go!” the girl ran to Meg and clutched her. “They... hurt me ...and they'll do it again! They hate me.”

The girl shook with fright, and Meg remembered the condition she was in when delivered; barely alive. Why hadn't Sasha begged forgiveness?

And, come to think of it, Sasha hadn't called her Meg -or grandmother- once. Why? Had her heart turned to stone? Yet another item to add to the list of tragedies.

“They will not harm you, Orlando-”

“-My name,” the girl gasped, for she could not speak it herself.

“Aye, I know who you were, and I also know you are innocent of any crime. I wish I’d known some of this when you were sent to me, so I could have helped you through …O Goddess …so many difficulties.”

Meg stroked the girl's hair. Then her eyes flashed and she leveled them at Sasha.

“But they will not harm you. Correct, Captain Catoriel?”

“Of course, Arch-Priestess.” Sasha bowed again. "Neither I, nor my women, shall harm her in any way. Beyond that, I promise nothing.”
 

 
 
4.

In an eye's blink, all changes.

For now instead of tending to the solitary business of Jacob’s farm, she sat driving a wagon eastward to the Temple of the Moon, and possibly the island's ending.

Let go, Meg and let the Goddess in, Meg thought. Then she said aloud, “Thy will, Lady, Thy will,”

Accompanying her -and surrounding the wagon- were elite warrior women, resplendent in purple riding cloaks, bright chain mail, dark leather pants and boots, and hair fixed into a single braid down their backs. The Moon Temple Guard: Sasha, Jules, the uncanny twins, Ona and Sheala, and the others.

She knew it must frustrate the warriors to travel at a wagon's pace when the world hung in the balance. The new Arch-Priestess was in her seventieth year of life, though, and there are certain things you give up with age, like riding a saddled mount.

Meg cast a glance to the final character in this adventure. The doe-eyed lass sitting beside her. The transformed one. She whose music had been stolen. She to whom birds flocked, lighting on her shoulder to chirp and whistle.

It was the kind of wondrous tale the great troubadour Orlando would have sung about in a ballad, except, the girl was Orlando, or had been.

She begged to be left behind, pleaded to stay with Jacob; Meg though gentle, insisted she come. She couldn't imagine the thoughts swirling in the girl's head.

“What are you thinking, lass?”

Orlando jumped at the sound of Meg's voice. The poor thing is riddled with fear, Meg thought. If she were a bird -a nightingale- she would have flown away.

The girl looked right and left before she whispered, “They despise me. On the journey to your farm, they treated me as something less-than-human. As a ...a freak...”

Meg's eyebrow rose. Is this how Orlando now thinks of herself? But then, how else would she? Her change in the Temple was instant and brutal. Then she was cast into the hands of those who pleasured in abusing her. How would anyone react to that?

“Orlando, you may be many things -and we shall soon see what- but a 'freak' is not one of them. You are beautiful.”

It was so; even wearing one of Jacob's old tunics and rough hemp pants could not disguise the lithe figure beneath, and her face grew more radiant with each passing day. She was Goddess touched for certain.

“Beautiful?” The girl touched a hand to her cheek.

Meg watched, fascinated at the thoughts playing on the ex-male’s face. While it was true she lived for months in her new body and was well used to it, Meg saw this thought never occurred to her. That she might have become the very thing she often hunted as a man.

“Beautiful?”

The girl shook her head. “If true, then why can't they bear to look at me? When I look at them, they turn away.”

“Can't you see? They are ashamed of what they did,” Meg said.

The girl was silent a moment, then motioned to the figure in front of their troop. She who sat tall atop the mighty steed Sunshine. Sasha's copper braids glowed lustrous in the evening light. The rays of the setting sun sparkled on her golden chain mail shirt and polished shield fastened to her saddle.

She is not ashamed. She feels nothing at all. When I was... was…”

It took Meg a moment to realize Orlando was struggling with her geas; still unable to speak her name. Meg wanted to remove it, but thought it best to undo the Goddess magic in the place it was cast on the girl.

“...before this happened ...” the girl growled, “I heard the captain's voice, and it called to my soul, so strongly, I had to kiss her. But now? I hear nothing but granite when she speaks. What could make her so?”

Meg blinked at the girl before she answered. “Don't be dense, gel, you, more than anyone, know what happened.”

“She lost Priestess Aeliana, yes, but shouldn't she be over that by now?”

Meg drew away from the girl. “You've never lost someone you loved?”

“No ...not really.”

A thought occurred to Meg. “In fact, you've never loved anyone, have you?”

“There were plenty of young maids I fancied and-”

“-Truth, Orlando, speak truth,” Meg said, and there was Goddess power in her words.

“There was one, once, when I first started singing as a troubadour, one whose love filled my being. But I ...was afraid to commit myself ...and ran away-”

“-And so you've never given your heart to another. Trusted your soul to another. All those love songs you sang; hundreds, and you never knew true love at all!”

Meg clucked in disgust. “No wonder you can't understand Sasha's hurt; you are a fraud!”

The girl's reply came soft:

“Yes. I am. I never sang for joy. For love. Only for coin. And now, when I would sing just to sing, I cannot and never will again.”

Minutes passed before they spoke again, the sounds they heard were the clop of horse hoofs on the forest path. The creak of the wagon, and the ever present birdsong that filled the air when the girl was near.

“There is a small book in my pack, Orlando. It has 'to Meg, the true Arch-Priestess' inscribed inside the cover. Fetch it.”

The girl dug around a while in Meg's rucksack before finding the book. When she tried to hand it to the elderly woman, Meg shook her head.

“It's for you to read. It is filled with the poems of the Moon Temple's Poet Laureate, Priestess Aeliana.”

The girl stared at the worn book. “Tanya's writing?”

“Indeed. She gave me it the day I left to live with Jacob, after Miriam stole my position. Read it, and see for yourself why Sasha's heart has turned to stone at the loss of her mate.”

The girl nodded, and began paging through. After some moments, she took a sharp breath.

“What is it?” Meg said.

“This ...this...”

“Don’t stammer, girl, read.”

Do not leave me alone, a helpless woman.

My strength, my crown,

I am empty of virtues,

You, the ocean of them.

My heart's music, you help me.”

The girl's voice infused Tanya's words with power, and Meg found her eyes had teared.

Sharp cries of “no no!” broke the spell.

“Orlando? What is it?”

“These words ...they cry out to be sung! And I can't because my music is gone!”

A fit came on her; she fell to the wagon floor, writhing, pulling her hair, and screaming,

“Gone gone! Cruel Goddess! Why did you curse me so!”

Meg was quick to speak the words of a sleep spell and when she touched her forehead, Orlando lapsed into charmed slumber.

Meg stroked the girl's cheek and shook her head.

Of all Tanya's poems, she found that one first, the old priestess thought, it was as if Tanya penned the words for Orlando alone.

“What is your purpose with this one, Lady? What game do you play?”
 

 
5.

“Wake up, lass, I smell a stew cooking!”

Meg waited until the day's ride ended to rouse Orlando. The sun had long fled the day, and the Moon Temple Guard set up camp with speedy efficiency. Horses unsaddled, brushed and set loose to pasture, tents raised, and a fire crackling; when Ona and Sheala reported finding no threats, Sasha allowed the fire.

Scents of fresh herbs, spring green onions, mushrooms, parsnips and rabbit, gathered by the twin trackers, filled the night air. Meg touched her index and middle fingers to the girl’s forehead.

“Orlando! If you don’t hurry it will all be eaten.”

“Yes ma’am,” She yawned, first stretching her arms above her head and then pulling her dark curly hair from out of her face.

The girl sat up, surprised by the darkness.

“You slept for some time, child. Come, let us put food in our bellies.” Meg paused. “I'm sorry; I gave you Tanya's writings as a comfort, and not to give you more distress. Let me have the book back, child.”

The girl realized she still clutched the small book in her hands. “No. Please. I've never seen lyrics like these.”

“They are called poems, not lyrics.”

“No ma'am, Tanya's words must be sung.”

“At least leave it for now, lass, and come. For I was not joking; they will hog the stew!”

The talk around the cook fire was somber that evening, as it had been every night of their ride. They spoke in hushed tones of the ancient prophecy that might be coming true, and their yearning to be with family and loved ones rather than on the trail. Though they were Moon Temple Guards and would do their duty, they were human too, and filled with worry.

The chatter died when Meg and Orlando walked to the cook fire. Meg let the awkward silence stand long enough for the girl to receive a generous helping of the pungent stew. Once she made sure the lass had eaten, Meg spoke.

“I want to introduce someone to you.”

All chewing stopped and eyes focused on the gray-haired and gray-eyed woman.

“This is Orlando; though you knew her by another face, once. You know her well, for you wronged her. Sisters, we are ever reminded by our Goddess to live in humility. To do otherwise is to build walls between our souls and Her presence.”

Meg stood from the log stump she was seated, her voice ringing strong and clear in the starry night.

“I know not what this journey brings. If it is the will of the Lady that we die, then we die. I tell you, though our land is beset with peril to north and south and east, and though black smoke pours from the altar fires of our Temple, our test of spirit is now and here. Who among you is brave enough to ask forgiveness?”

Silence was the Arch-Priestess' answer.

“But this is the vaunted Moon Temple Guard, and she is but a tiny thing,” Meg motioned to the figure beside her; the girl clutched her knees to her chest and stared at the flickering flames. “Is there not one?”

After a deafening silence, Jules rose and walked to Orlando.

“I was wrong, lass, to treat you as I did. Even had you been guilty, what we did made us no better. But you were innocent, and O how we abused you...”

The big woman fell to the ground before the wide-eyed girl, touching her head to the ground. “Please forgive…”

Orlando’s hazel eyes glistened in the fire light. The sorrow in the big woman's voice resonated in her. She wasn't sure what to say, and after a moment, reached out and stroked the big woman’s ruddy face.

Ona and Sheala next asked forgiveness. On the trip to Jacob's farm they set on the girl with their bullwhips. Standing on either side, first Ona would strike, and when the girl tried to run in the opposite direction, Sheala's whip would bite her flesh.

“We were cruel to you, feasting on your pain and fear,” Ona said, bowing low. “We are forever sorry.”

“Though we know you can never forgive us,” her sister said, “know this, in harming you as we did, we have brought dishonor and shame to our order. After this mission, my sister and I will resign from the Moon Temple Guard; we are not worthy.”

“I ...no ...please! Don't quit,” Orlando said. “I can tell you were Goddess called to this vocation; it is your passion. Never lose it! For I have learned if you do, your life will be empty.”

Sasha stood from her seat at the fire and crossed her arms. “As poignant as this scene is, we’ve had a long day’s ride, with two more before us. So I ask …no, I order all of you, to sleep.”

“Don't you have something to say to the gel, Sasha?” Meg said.

“Are you asking that I, too, beg forgiveness? Folly! Will that make the Temple fires burn gold again? Saying I’m sorry? Will that bring my beloved back?” Sasha demanded.

“Or answer me this, troubadour,” Sasha said to Orlando. “Did my guards' touching repentance to you give you back your body? Your name? Your song?”

“No!” the girl's eyes flashed. “I am how you wished me — helpless, nameless and without voice.”

“Exactly,” Sasha answered. “Such sentiments are a useless waste of breath!”

“And so the answer is what?” The girl walked to where Sasha stood by the fire and looked into her eyes. “Seek vengeance? Did doing this to me give you peace for Tanya's death?”

Sasha's back stiffened. “Don't you dare speak her name, you-”

“-Haven't the right? After what you did to me, I most certainly do. Did destroying my life give you peace for her death? I hope so. I hope after you took everything from me, after you unmade my body into this,” the girl motioned to herself, “and shredded the music from my soul, you at least got peace. Did you? Tell me!”

The fiery redhead glared at Orlando, and then, without answering, walked across the camp to where she left her saddlebags, pulled a woolen blanket from a side pouch, and lay on soft ground beneath a cottonwood tree.

And far away in the forest dark, a nightingale started to sing.
 

 
 
6.

Perhaps it was the sudden thunder storm which swept in from the west that explained it. The constant thunder would have drowned out the rustle of the men sneaking to their camp. And the gail-force winds could have blown the bandits' scent far away.

Or perhaps it was because the expert trackers Ona and Sheala must eventually sleep, and the men attacked when another Guardswoman stood watch.

Or maybe it was just bad luck.

Whatever the cause, the outlaws caught the Moon Temple Guard unaware. A snap of a twig underfoot jolted Sasha awake. She was on her feet with saber drawn in an instant.

“Women arise! We are attacked! Form a ring around the Arch-Priestess.”

The charge of men did not materialize. It is one thing to attack a camp of slumbering travelers. Quite another proposition to face armed -and pissed- Moon Temple Guard, even if they did outnumber them. A silent standoff ensued; the men muttered and cursed, and the Guardswomen unlimbered swords and bow and whips.

They were a motley crew, these thirty odd men; unskilled, unfed and unled. Hard times in Anuvar forced them to commit crimes, and once caught, the Militia banished them from the city. They were not looking to pick a fight with trained soldiers.

What they wanted was the easy strike - to waylay travelers and demand a 'toll' to pass; typically the toll equaled the number of coins the travelers carried. Better still, they looked for prime 'woman flesh', for though all other commodities may be worthless, there was always a market with the northmen raiders for pretty girls.

A scream of 'stay back' came from the nearby forest. Meg hobbled to Sasha. “Orlando! She's out there! She went to relieve herself when she rose and-”

Sasha didn't wait for more; she raced to where Sunshine stood ready. “Sergeant! Hitch the horses to Meg's wagon and take her away from here! Protect her with your life. Ona! Sheala! Persuade our guests to leave; you know what to do.”

The twins started cracking their whips over head in a rapid staccato as they walked to the men. Who stumbled backwards to escape the vicious stings.

“Where will we meet, you, Cap'n?” Jules said, as she and the other guards heaved gear into the wagon.

“Rendezvous checkpoint 7.” Sasha said, as she mounted Sunshine bareback. “If we are not there tonight, go on without us.”

“But Cap'n, we should-”

“-It was an order, Jules, do not wait for us! Meg must reach the Temple before the seventh day, or we all may be dead.”

A second scream ended the discussion. Sasha nudged Sunshine's flanks and he sprang into a gallop.

Sasha and Sunshine followed the screams and came on a group of men in a forest clearing. Some of the outlaws pinned the girl to the ground, while others tore away at her clothes. Sasha drove her war horse into them, sending them sprawling. She leaned low with arm outstretched and in one swift move swung the girl up and behind her on Sunshine. The girl grasped hard around Sasha's waist, and the captain felt the heaves of the girl's chest; she breathed rabbit fast. One man grabbed Sasha’s leg and held fast, until, with a sharp crack of metal on bone, Sasha brought the pummel of her saber down on his head.

“She's the toll, ya see.”

Sasha turned to face the speaker, a squat man, with wiry red hair and oily eyes.

“Giver her to us and you go free.”

The remaining would be rapists grabbed what weapons they could. Some held daggers, others grabbed rocks.

I could kill them all.

She could; she had attacked the scouting party of northmen -trained warriors- and survived. These thugs? There was no chance they would even scratch her. And didn't they deserve it? She wasn't there for Tanya, but she had reached Orlando in time. Maybe.

It would feel good.

Would it? Would it bring Tanya back? And Orlando, the one she 'saved'; it was Sasha who put her in this position, wished the arrogant singer be struck down and made helpless. A wish the Goddess granted, for the look on the girl's face as Sasha pulled her onto Sunshine, was purest terror.

Tanya's dying words echoed in her mind.

Don't let hate consume you, love.

But she had; hate had eaten her since Samhain.

No! No. More.

She leaned to whisper in Sunshine's ear.

“The wind brags to me she is faster than you. Prove her wrong! Fly Sunshine! Catch the wind!”

Sunshine reared in reply, and in a blur, they were gone.
 

 
 
7.

If Sasha's great mount didn't catch the wind, it was not for want of trying. When Sunshine slowed, they were far from the outlaws.

“Orlando? Are you hurt?”

“Not too bad.”

That didn't sound good to Sasha. “Did they, um...” Sasha wasn't sure how far the men had gotten in their assault.

“Not too bad.”

Sasha nudged Sunshine's flank -her bareback signal to him to stop- and he halted by a stream. When she swung down, she saw the girl had wrapped around her waist with one arm, and held something clutched in her free hand; a small book. Somehow, the girl had clutched it even as she was attacked. She would ask her about it in a moment; now she needed to see to Orlando. The girl sounded like she was in shock.

After Sasha helped her down from Sunshine, she surveyed the damage. Shirt and pants ripped but intact. Scratches, and a bruise or two, but nothing bleeding. Sasha mustered the courage to ask the key question:

“Did they enter you?”

“No. No!” Orlando shuddered. You saved me before that, thank the Lady.”

“You are wise to thank Her, for I am unworthy of it. Never forget it was I who wished your condition on you; this would not have happened but for me.”

“Don't speak so!” Orlando said, grabbing Sasha’s hands. “You could have left me but you came. I did not want to die that way. And -dammit!- if I want to, I ought to be able to give you my thanks! So, thank you, Captain.”

“Stop saying those words! I am not some shining hero. Even now, even after all the suffering I have caused you, I would kill you in an instant if it would bring Tanya back.”

Sasha put her hand under Orlando's chin and raised her face.

“What do you think of your hero now?”

“If it would bring Priestess Aeliana back, I would beg you to do it.”

Was she joking, Sasha wondered? Was this the old arrogant Orlando, trying to gain some petty satisfaction by taunting her?

But her eyes, her beautiful eyes, Sasha thought, are clear and true.

“You cannot expect me to believe you would offer your life to me? The one who wished you as you are? Who stole your song voice?”

Those words opened a wound, and Orlando sobbed, “O, Captain, of all your wrongs, it is the taking of my music that I cannot forgive.”

“Only that? Now I know you lie. For you cannot be saying you like being the helpless -and dazzling, Sasha added in her mind- girl you've been transformed into. That the great Orlando is untroubled by the loss of fame. I don't believe it.”

“Believe or no; it matters not to me. You have no idea how I struggled -am struggling still- with my new body. But I've learned food still tastes like food and air is still air. And, yes, to be stripped of my birth name is terrifying. Even now I can't say Or ...Orl...”

She clenched her fists and teeth, “say my old name. There are other names. Meg called me Gale, which I can say and I …like the sound of it. But my music? Why, Captain, why did you take that?”

“I thought you killed my lover, and took from me she whom I treasured in life above all other things. And so I wanted to take your most precious treasure.”

Looking into those wet hazel eyes, Sasha knew she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Yet now, she wanted to take the young woman in her arms to hold, to sooth, to say, don't cry love, your songs will return.

But she couldn't do that because she loved Tanya, and not this one, didn't she?

Sasha stepped back a space. “I'm curious; tell me about the book you hold.”

Orlando's eyes brightened. “This book is why I would trade places in death with Priestess Aeliana. This book is filled with the most wondrous lyrics ...er, poems ...I've ever read, and-”

Sasha snatched it from Orlando's hand. “These are her poems! Where did you get this?”

“Meg gave it to me to read because she thought I-”

“-You profane her work!”

“No! I would have before my change, but now, I would honor her! Her words need to be sung to the people so-”

“-Enough! Speak no more. Sunshine is rested, so we ride to meet the others and see how they fare.”

Soon they galloped again through the forest, once Sasha found her bearings. Neither spoke until the noon hour passed; it was Orlando who broke the silence.

“Captain? No matter what I do, or who I am, I disgust you. I'm sorry you must endure my presence.”

Hard-hearted Sasha! Tanya's voice whispered. After all she's suffered, cannot you offer Orlando at least some small tenderness?

Sasha halted Sunshine, and turned back to look at the girl. “It is I who should be ...I'm the one who needs to ...”

Sasha could no more say the words 'I'm sorry' than Orlando could say her old name. But still she should do something. She nudged Sunshine into a cantor. As they traveled, Sasha tried other words.

“The answer is no.”

“Hmm?”

“Last night you asked me a question,” Sasha said. “No. Destroying your life did not bring me peace. Nor does battle nor ...killing. Nothing does.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Came Orlando’s sad gentle answer from behind her.

I am so stupid! the warrior thought. In trying to offer conversation, I’ve had made her sadder. Try again.

Sasha nudged Sunshine to a halt once more. She turned to face the girl.

“Orlando, you are welcome.”

“Welcome?” Orlando was confused.

“For saving you. You said you had the right to thank me, and you were right. So, You’re welcome.”

Orlando chuckled. “I’m trying to think if there are any other unfinished conversations that we’ve had in the past for you to complete. The only other time we talked, I think I was screaming aaaoooowww. I don’t think you need to answer that one, Captain.”

Sasha recognized Orlando was trying to make their talk light, but she had an impulse to do something else; she stroked the girl's soft cheek.

“Stop calling me Captain. I'm Sasha, if you wish.”

“S-a-s-h-a.”

Orlando spoke the word as a caress, and Sasha's body shuddered to hear it.
 

 
 
8.

“Next time, you hold it in, at least until someone can come with you to guard you. You hear me, gel?”

Meg's words sounded harsh, but the ancient priestess smothered Orlando against her bosom.

“Yes, grandmother.”

Sasha and Orlando met with the troop at the rendezvous point near dusk; the two arrived as the Moon Temple Guard pitched camp. Meg, and all the Guard, were safe.

“I could have lost you,” Meg murmured, kissing the top of Orlando's head. “You are unharmed, lass?”

Orlando nodded. “Sasha saved me before they did; she is amazing!”

“None is her equal, male or female. How many?” Meg asked.

“How many what?”

“Kills,” Meg answered, with worry heavy on her face. “How many did she kill when she rescued you?”

Orlando's brow crinkled. “Um, none, though she could have easily killed them all.”

“None?” Some of the worry wrinkles smoothed on Meg's face, and she gazed across the campsite to where Sasha brushed Sunshine. “That is the best news I have heard this journey. Now go to Jules for your ration of dinner. It's a cold camp tonight -we can't risk a fire to give away our location- so it's dried fruit and hardtack tonight. You go on; I need to read more of my Temple scrolls while there's light.”

“Do you think you can do it?” Orlando asked, “purify the Temple?”

Since their trip's beginning yesterday -just yesterday? The peace of the farm seemed years past- Meg poured over her personal collection of Moon Temple ritual lore to scrounge a solution to their island's crisis.

It is foretold, her scrolls told her, if the Altar fires of the High Temple of the Moon burn black for seven days, the Lady has deserted them and four plagues are doomed to fall on Anuvar: sickness, famine, violence and water - the sea would rise to swallow them.

Which made no sense to Meg, for she knew the Goddess would never desert Her people. If anything, they had left Her.

Purification wasn't the answer, Meg felt, for the ritual was so simple, she figured even Miriam couldn't have screwed that up. No, something was needed to rouse the people's hearts and bring them back to Her. But as to what that might be, her scrolls were maddeningly vague.

“Grandmother?”

Meg blinked. She had fallen deep into thought, and Orlando's voice blew threw her as a fresh wind. Such power her soft voice held!

Orlando. The transformed one. The silent troubadour.

How much of this cataclysm centered on her? For Meg was certain the Temple fires started to fail the instant Miriam misused her Goddess craft on Orlando. Yet the Goddess allowed it. Why?

Is Orlando the key?

“Are you scared child, that our end may be coming?”

Orlando shook her head. “I thought the pain of losing my music would lessen as time went by, but it hasn't; day by day it grows worse. I long to die.”

Meg couldn't reconcile the despair she heard from Orlando with the beauty who spoke them.

“Go on, girl, eat some dinner, such as it is.”

The hardtack wasn’t the worst thing, Orlando had eaten, but she wondered if the energy used to chew the biscuits wasn't more than the energy gained from digesting them.

The talk was subdued among the Guardswomen. Not for of any lingering awkwardness between them, that fled last night. Instead they spoke of the impending doom and fear for their loved ones: Jules for her blacksmith husband, the twins for their aging mother, the other guards for siblings, friends and lovers. Sasha, though sitting with her fellow warriors this evening, spoke not a word, but would, on occasion, stare at Orlando, as if she were trying to work out a puzzle.

It surprised Orlando how easily she forgave them. But, listening to their earnest talk, she knew they were good people who had done something wrong. She even understood the why of it, too, for, having read some of Tanya's work, she knew what a treasure the priestess was to them.

Though Beltane was days away, a chill wind blew on their encampment, made all the more cold by their lack of a cheery fire to gather round.

Jules, never one to let a mood stay sour long, changed the subject. “If ye don't mind lass, I've an itch to ask you a question. What's it like, goin from be'in a man to a wee lass? What's the biggest difference?”

Biggest difference? Orlando paused. What was it? “I’m ...so much smaller? I guess that would be it, maybe.”

“Ya, sure,” Jules said, “but what about your looks. I'd kill for a face like yours, instead of the horse head I've been gifted with.”

“I haven't really seen my face,” Orlando answered, touching a hand to her cheek.

“Are you serious?” Sheala asked. “Your change was months ago. Surely you looked in a mirror.”

The dark-headed girl shook her head. “Jacob had a scratched old silver plate hung over the wash bowl that kinda showed me my new face, but-”

“-You don't know?” Ona said. “Honey, you're a looker. Men will drool when they see you.”

Orlando hadn't considered this, and her mouth flopped open when she did. Which made the women chuckle.

“But what of your periods?” Sheala said. “Have you had the pleasure of those?”

The women roared with laughter at Orlando's sour confirmation look.

“Welcome to the club, darlin',” Jules said. “ Unlike our male comrades, Mother Nature grabs us by our guts once a month and shouts 'remember me?' I'd love to tell you they get better, but I try not to lie to my friends.”

“It's time to turn in ladies,” Sasha said, breaking her silence. “Tomorrow we ride into Anuvar, and who knows what chaos. So get some rest; we'll need to be at our best.”

With a murmur of assent, the women gathered their blankets and left to find soft patches of spring grass to bed on. Jules, Ona and Sheala lingered with Orlando.

“We want to ...to thank ye lass, for ...” the big woman stumbled with her words; she was far more comfortable cracking heads than speaking from her heart. “For being so good-natured with us, when you've every reason to still hate us. But if you ain't inclined to hate us, we'd love to count ye as our friend.”

Ona and Sheala seconded Jules' request.

They are good people, Orlando thought, good folk who lost their way and are trying to find it again. Like I should be doing.

“I would be honored.”
 

 
 
9.

Sasha tossed and turned in her sleep, and woke in the heart of night. She listened to the quiet sounds, of crickets nearby, an owl hooting far away, and heard movement from across the camp.

Worrying of another attack, the captain jumped up without a sound, and crept through the dark to the figure huddled near Meg's wagon. It was Orlando.

“Why are you awake?” Sasha whispered.

“I'm freezing.”

“Mmm. When the Guard is bivouacking in the winter, we often pair up to keep warmer at night. Perhaps you could sleep next to Meg and get warm.”

“I …no …uh...”

“Oh? Is the great Orlando too proud to lay next to an old woman?” Sasha could not keep the contempt out of her voice.

“The great Or- Or- ...I have no pride left.” The girl said in a halting voice. “You still hate me, don't you.”

Something in Orlando's tender voice sounded deep into Sasha.

“I ...I detested you ...more than anything in the world. Your cocky arrogance was so easy to despise. Your image became the lightening rod of my hate.”

She paused, realizing how incongruous it was to say those words to the dark feminine creature before her.

“I…I guess your reluctance to sleep next to Meg stirred those feelings in me. Why wouldn’t you lie next to the gentle woman unless it is because you are too proud?”

“Meg snores something fierce.”

“That’s true,” Sasha laughed. “She's as legendary for her snoring as she is for her standing with the Goddess! I hear her sawing logs at even this distance.”

Once again, I am wrong about her, Sasha thought. I am an idiot!

“Perhaps ...you could lie with me for the rest of the night? There’s no love lost between us …I can imagine the horrible things you wish on me ...but I could at least warm you.”

The girl stared at Sasha with a puzzled expression. Then, looking at the ground, she said, “yes, please.”

Soon the two were close and covered by Sasha’s woolen blanket. The girl faced away, her small body tucked against Sasha's. She felt the girl's shivering lessen, her muscles relaxing with the warmth.

"Sasha?” the soft voice asked.

"Hm, Orlando?”

"I'm so sorry.”

"Again with the sorry?" Sasha was confused. “What are you sorry about this time?”

"Tanya.”

"But ...you've nothing to be sorry for there; you had nothing to do with her death.”

"You are so...empty.”

“Yes, I ...find myself at night ...wishing to join my lover in death. I'm hollow ...and it’s so hard to make myself go on. My women need me and so I continue, but ...”

Sasha felt gentle hands take her own and squeeze them.

"This makes no sense! Why do you care? You should hate me.”

"I'm empty too. I hurt too. I know...”

What was she saying? That she did not hate her even after all Sasha had done to her? That she could care about Sasha because she felt loss too? But what life’s love did she lose?

Sasha felt stupid the moment the thought entered her head, for the girl had already told her. “Your music.”

"Gone. Gone."

Orlando shivered again in Sasha's arms. "Kill us both. Or, if you cannot leave your women, help me end my pain at least. You owe me.”

Sasha understood; they were bonded in their pain. She hugged the girl tighter, whispering the words that came flooding out at last:

“I’m so sorry ...forgive me, Orlando ...I'm so sorry... forgive...”

The girl's shivering stopped and after a time, her breathing grew rhythmic — perhaps she was falling asleep at last? Yet the way the girl lay in her arms was how Tanya did when they slept, and for the first time since her lover's death, Sasha wanted to talk.

“Why did you do it?”

“Hmm?”

“Tanya wanted to know why you chose the path you did. She said when your career began, your voice moved even the most stone-hearted to tears, but it changed when you started singing-”

“-fluffy love ballads, bawdy drinking songs and crap...”

“Yes. Why?”

Orlando was silent for so long, Sasha feared the girl either refused to answer or had fallen asleep. When she did speak, the tone she used sounded like disgust to Sasha.

“Meg was right to call me a fraud. When I first started singing, I would lose some of myself in the music, and I felt ...I touched ...a vast presence-”

“-the Goddess?” Sasha asked. She felt the girl’s head nod against her chest.

“Meg's been teaching me about Her, and I think it was. At the time, all I knew was it was loving and overwhelming. Each time I sang certain songs and touched Her, I felt the tiny drop of me, slipping away into the sparkling ocean of Her. It scared me so much, I stopped singing those songs.”

Orlando's small body started quivering again. At first Sasha thought the chill had returned, but she soon realized Orlando was crying.

“Sweetie? What is it?”

“I'm a coward. If I hadn't fled from my calling, maybe over the years I would have inspired our people to seek the Goddess rather than wenching and drinking. And then maybe the sickness that afflicted the monster who killed Tanya wouldn't have happened and then she-”

Sasha flipped Orlando onto her back and pushed her finger onto the girl's lips.

“Oh no! You are not allowed that 'maybe;' it is mine. For if the 'heroic' Captain of the Moon Guard had been with her lover that night, instead of in her bed, Tanya would be alive this day. I failed her.”

Orlando blinked up into Sasha's green eyes; a sad smile spreading across her face.

“Aren't we a pair.”

Sasha smiled back in spite of herself, and then pulled the girl back into spooning position. Again she felt the girl's body relax. But again, she wanted to talk. It was a game she and Tanya would play at night. Tanya desperately wanting to sleep and Sasha keeping her awake.

“Why did you do it?”

“Umm? I thought I just answered-”

“-No, why did you kiss me on Samhain," Sasha said. "Did I seem but another adoring fan, another pretty face?”

“You were masked,” was the yawned answer.

“What? Oh yes, that’s right” Sasha remembered, she had been wearing a golden mask, and Tanya a matching one of silver. “Then why did you kiss me? If not my face, then what?”

“Your voice,” came a sleepy reply.

“My voice? You were moved to kiss me by the sound of my voice?”

“It called me. Your voice. Your sound grabbed my soul and wouldn't let go. I had to kiss you.”

Sasha felt the pull of sleep now, too, yet, she could not help thinking how nicely the girl fit against her body. When Tanya lay so, she would speak some line of her latest poem. Sasha grew to love this time best of the day, for it seemed to her the most intimate of prayers.

“Which poem of Tanya's did you like?” Sasha mumbled, as the drowsiness clouded her mind.

“They are all amazing!”

“Yes, but...” Sasha yawned. “which do you like best?”

“Well, if I had to pick one I suppose it would be-”

“Nuh-uh,” Sasha murmured. “Say it.

When Orlando spoke next, her words sounded sing song; lilting.

“The moon is set, Pleiades gone,

the time is going by, and yet I sleep alone.”

Sasha sighed; Orlando had chosen 'I Sleep Alone,' which was her favorite. Such a sad wonderful lament, for it was the Goddess herself, crying out for her people.

“Where do you hide, my heart, my love,

Come back to me, come back to me.”

As sleep claimed her, Sasha could have sworn the words were not spoken, but sung, in the clearest sweetest voice she had ever heard.

Come back to me …come back to me...
 

 
 
10.

For the first time since Samhain, Sasha dreamed.

She sat on a grassy hill overlooking a moon-sparkled ocean. Someone had just bitten her ear and was giggling.

“You were ever the stubborn one! Do you know how long I’ve been trying to talk to you, lover?” said a woman dressed in a shimmering white tunic.

“I …I don’t understand, Tanya …how long?”

“Since I died, silly.” Tanya twirled the ends of her long silver blond hair with her finger, a habit that always annoyed Sasha, and one she so desperately missed now.

“This is …a dream then? You’re not real?” Sasha asked, suddenly sad.

“Yes this is a dream, but you tell me if I am real!” She bit Sasha’s ear again, hard.

“Ow!”

“That’s for being pig-headed and building stone walls around your heart. I warned you not to.”

“But …I missed you so much…” Sasha said, running her hand gently across Tanya’s fair face.

“I’ve been with you all along,” Tanya said, “Our love can never die, and through it, part of us is together always. But…”

Tanya’s head turned to the sea; she stared out over its infinite horizon, the blue of her eyes matching its depths.

“We look upon the ocean of Her,” Tanya said with longing in her low alto tone.

Sasha looked past Tanya at the blue sea below. She saw a trail of lights, like flickering candles, walking on the white sandy beach in to the shimmering water. She looked back to Tanya, and noticed a brightness now surrounded the fair-skinned woman.

“You wish to …go, Tanya? To the sea?

Tanya clasped her arms around Sasha. “I must, love, though I could not leave you alone and lost. But now you may love another …one who needs you as much as you think you need me…”

“I cannot love another! I cannot!”

Tanya wiped away Sasha’s tears with her long slender fingers.

“Lover, when I met you, you were as stiff and proper a Temple Guard as they came. I thought you had an iron rod up your ass. I don't mean to boast, but I showed you how to live, with passion. Now, there is one who needs you to care for her. Help her. Love her. If you do, you just may find you can be happy again.”

The brightness around Tanya grew, and she stood and looked to the sea. Tanya pulled her lover to her feet and brought her lips back to Sasha’s.

“Will I never see you again?”

“I'm not supposed to, not this turn of the wheel, but,” Tanya flashed a wicked smile, “like any vain author, if someone -who shall go unnamed- performs my works, I might pop in to hear the applause.”

“But-”

Tanya silenced her with a kiss, and then whispered, “I will always love you, Sasha, and we will meet again ...love again ...many times …many lives…”

She pulled away now and began walking to the bright blue.

“Tanya” Sasha cried, “Don’t go…”

As Tanya neared the other lights, she turned to blow a final kiss goodbye, calling in her playful voice,

“Stubborn, stubborn Sasha! Your joy lies in your arms!”
 

 
 
11.

Sasha woke to the sound of someone weeping. After a moment, she realized it was her.

Black silky gauze covered her eyes; it dawned on her it was Orlando’s hair — the lass still lay in her arms, fast asleep.

Sasha nudged her. “Wake, Orlando!”

The girl yawned and, seeing the tears on Sasha’s face, she wiped them away.

Sasha held the girl’s small olive skinned hand against her face. “You're the second one today to wipe my tears...”

Orlando blinked a confused look.

“Never mind. It is day’s first light, and-”

“-Such a dream I had last night!” Jules' voice boomed across the camp. “Me mum came an tol' me one of her bedtime tales. I've not heard her voice since she passed, so many years ago.”

“I did too,” came a chorus of responses from the waking guards. They gathered and chattered with excitement. They all dreamed of cherished loved ones who died, and they heard a singing in their dreams. A glorious voice that even now brought wetness to their eyes, though they didn't remember the words.

“Gel! Was it you?” Meg said.

Orlando bit her lip. “I can’t sing now ...can’t.”

“Last night, I dreamed of she who was the Arch-Priestess when I was a novice wet behind the ears. She was as a mother to me. And so I ask again: Did. You. Sing?”

Yes,” the girl moaned. “I don't know how, but last night, I sang.”

“What does it mean,” Sasha asked the Arch-Priestess.

“It means we have no time to waste. For it is the morning of the seventh day. The altar smoke burns black. And a nightingale will come to the Temple.”

“A ...nightingale?” Sasha asked.

“Yes,” Meg said, and looked at the girl. “For the great Orlando must sing one last time.”
 

 
 
12.

The company traveled fast, making good time as it pushed west to the Temple.

At a fair distance from Anuvar, Ona spotted a black thunderhead pillaring high into the sky. As the troop drew closer, they realized what they looked on — sooty smoke pouring from the top of the white granite Temple to feed the immense black void.

Goddess!” Meg whispered.

“The cloud was tiny when we left,” Jules, said, “now it is our end! I pray to the Lady my Hans has the good sense to be somewheres safe!”

Sasha had journeyed ahead to scout the situation and rode Sunshine at full gallop back to the Company.

“I've gone to the city. The streets are filled with fear. There's looting in the market section. And a rumor runs through the crowds that the coastal towns have already been flooded by the rising sea.”

“This chaos is beyond our ability to contain, Arch-Priestess” Sasha said, leaning forward on Sunshine, “We should be able to get you through to the Temple. I hope you know what to do when we bring you there.”

“I trust the Goddess, and, have an idea on what is needed.” A grim look spread across Meg's wrinkled face as she glanced back to Orlando in the wagon. “The cost may be high.”

Sasha's brow furrowed when she saw the stare Meg gave Orlando. The girl looked so small and her eyes were wide with fear. What did Meg intend for her?

She shook her head and turned to Jules. “You and Ona ride with Meg. Orlando?”

“Yes, Sasha?”

“To protect the Arch-Priestess, I want Jules and Ona in the wagon. If fighting starts, the less 'friendly heads' in the path of their swords, the better. So you ride with me.”

Sasha saw where the girl's gaze lay; she stared at the violent anarchy of the Anuvar streets. Since the girl had already been assaulted on the journey, Sasha could guess the fearful thoughts running through her mind.

“I will protect you,” Sasha said. “I swear it.”

“I know you will,” Orlando said, and reached up to the captain. “I trust you.”

Sasha grabbed her hands and swung her over to sit behind her again on Sunshine. And when the girl's hands clasped around Sasha's waist, it felt right. On impulse, Sasha turned and kissed Orlando, who blinked a confused but smiling expression.

“It was for luck,” Sasha said.

“And felt far better than a kick in the balls.” Orlando answered.

Sasha burst into laughter. “I would hope to the Lady it was so. Otherwise my kissing technique is woeful.”

Their exchange pricked the dread from the moment, for when Sasha looked to her women, she saw they smiled too.

Good! We need to ride in loose, Sasha thought, and not tense and distracted.

Sasha trotted Sunshine to the front of the company once more. Her copper red hair fluttered in the western wind, and her green eyes sparkled. She drew her gleaming saber and pointed to the massive blackness looming over the landscape.

“You see what we face, you know the prophecy. So! It comes down to this. We enter with swords drawn. Above all else, we must deliver the Arch Priestess to the Temple. She is our one hope; she alone can appease the Goddess. But only -if-we-get-her-there. Let it never be said of the Temple Guard they failed their charge. Ladies...

...let us ride.”
 

 
 
13.

They rode at full gallop, with Sasha, Sheala and the other Guards in front of the wagon. At first they met scattered resistance, as any would be attackers fled before the pounding hoofs. As they rounded a corner, they halted in front of a barrier of barrels manned by a dozen men. Not the rabble they'd met on the trail; these were uniformed and well-armed Militia men.

“Halt!” A tall lean fellow wearing, lieutenant stripes on his sleeves, stepped forward. “By order of Captain Lucas, all roads to the inner city are closed.”

“Good sir, I am Captain Catoriel of the Moon Temple Guard. We have urgent business at the Temple and must pass through.”

“So you say,” the lieutenant said. “Yet yesterday, a group of women disguised as Guard tried to pass this very check point. We detained them, and under questioning, they admitted they planned to pillage the treasury, for they'd heard it was unguarded.”

“I understand your caution, sir, yet we must pass. You do not have authority to block us; move aside.”

“The real Guard has that authority, yes, but you look too hard worn to pass for the elite Guard,” the fellow answered.

“We've been six days on the trail fetching the new Arch-Priestess. Who must reach the Temple or all is lost.” Sasha growled. “We do not have time for this!”

Everyone in the city is either trying to flee or cowering under beds. Sasha wondered how they managed to run into the one remaining company still doing its duty.

“I have often heard it said, in sword play, none can best Sasha Catoriel. If you are she, then prove it.”

Sasha vaulted from Sunshine and hit the ground with saber drawn. The lieutenant blinked, but raised his blade in response. After saluting, they banged steel.

Parry, riposte, retreat, glissade, advance, parry, parry, advance, advance, lunge...

Soon, the lieutenant was stumbling backwards, and was backed against the barrels.

“You are ...playing with me...” the man gasped. He had never seen such movement. Nor did he now, for her moves became too fast to follow.

“Playing? Nay, I am...” the lieutenant's sword clattered to the pavement. “...disarming you.”

“Captain Catoriel! My apologies!” the man said when he caught his breath. “The barrels are sand-filled and too heavy for the few of us guarding the barrier to move. I will send for reinforcements-”

“-No time. Jules?”

“On it Cap'n. A shame we don't have ropes to use the 'orses; we'll have to move it with elbow grease.”

The big woman gathered the Militia men at the post, and set them to pushing a barrel. Then she put a shoulder against it; the barrel groaned and scooted a few inches. “Push lads, push!”

The men pushed harder, and the barrel moved enough to tip it on an edge. They soon rolled it several yards to the side.

“One more, 'n we'll be able to ride the wagon through.” Jules said, gathering her breath before she set to another barrel. “C'mon, fellas, don't be outdone by a tiny lass like me.”

“Tiny lass? I've seen giant momma bears with less strength than you!” a militiaman muttered.

“What's that? You calling me a bear, sonny?” Jules growled, as she put her shoulder to another barrel.

“Er no, I meant-”

“Push!”

A wry grin crossed Sasha’s face. The sun overhead was almost obscured by the black smoke of the Temple. Plagues beset the land. The hour of the apocalypse was on them, and still, Jules found a way to harass the men. Incredible.

Soon the path was clear and the troop made its way to the heart of Anuvar City, where white pillared buildings -the Justice Hall, Mayor's Chambers, and Treasury, formed a circle around the Moon Temple. For Anuvar was built on a wide sloping hill, with the Goddess' Temple atop the summit.

When they reached the inner circle, they found the road block they had encountered really had been the only one not abandoned. For the parade grounds were filled with the people of Anuvar.

They sat in silence, waiting...

For death? Sasha wondered.

The scene was eerie, chilling. She knew it would have crushed Tanya to see her people so, lost and resigned, and was glad her lover was not here to suffer through this.

A large man -a living mountain, it seemed- stood up in the crowd. “Jules! Praise be the Lady, you're here!”

“Hans?” Jules shouted.

Sasha heard similar shouts for other of her guard; Ona and Sheala's highland mother waved from the right. Other spotted husbands or siblings in the crowd.

Her Moon Temple Warriors turned to her. They did not ask, and Sasha was so proud of them for that.

“Ladies, your mission is finished. Go, be with your loved ones. You are released.”

“But Cap'n,” Jules said, “I'll stay with ye, ye know that.”

"You all would.” Sasha gathered them, giving each a kiss. “It has been my everlasting honor to serve with you. Now go. I will take Meg ...and Orlando …to the Temple. And then, we will see what we will see.”

Her Guardswomen gave the Goddess salute, and then dispersed to their families in the crowd.

As the trio wound their way to the Temple steps, people recognized Meg and shouted out. “It's the old Arch-Priestess! Come to save us!” or “Meg! Praise the Lady you've returned!”

Meg waved and muttered “nothing like a spot of pressure; end of the world and all that,” as she hobbled up the stone stairs. Jacob's farm seemed a million miles away. She pulled the Arch-Priestess pendant from beneath her smock; the silver Goddess figure glowed in the gloom.

The priestesses Naomi and Janina waited at the entrance, despair filling their eyes.

“Thank the Lady you've come, holy one,” Naomi said. “Your purple robes are ready; let us prepare you and-”

Meg waived them quiet. “Take this one,” she motioned to Orlando. “Prepare her for the Delirium.”

“Arch-Priestess?” Janina screeched. “I don't understand. Why a minor ritual? You must perform the Purification, else the seventh day will pass and the prophecy will be fulfilled.”

Meg stood straight, and her voice echoed with Goddess power. “It shall be as I say!”

“B-but Arch-Priestess! The Delirium must be performed by an ordained priestess of the Moon, and this one-”

“-Damnation! You pick a fine time to be technically correct, woman. Would that you had shown the same spine with Miriam, we might not have come to this day.”

“We did try...” Naomi answered.

Meg sighed. She was being too hard on them, but it was the end of their world, so she did not have the time to 'guide with a gentle hand’.

“Orlando! Step before me.”

“Yes?” Her hazel eyes were wide with fright, but they had looked so since the troop approached the city.

“Kneel.”

After Orlando knelt before her, Meg turned to the priestesses. “I have instructed this one in the Goddess Path.” Then Meg laid her hands on Orlando's silky hair.

“Do you swear, to devote yourself to our Lady? Mind, heart and soul?”

There was a much longer 'official oath', Meg knew this, one which took hours of chanting. But in the end, it boiled down to those words.

Orlando's eyes widened. “I'm not sure what's going on here.”

“Answer!” Meg commanded with power.

Orlando's soft voice quivered. “Where I once fled from Her, I now swear, all I am, I give to Her.”

“Witness,” Meg said to the priestesses.

“Witnessed,” they answered, for Orlando had given a proper response.

“By the authority vested in me, I name you ...er ...I don't know your birth city, gel.”

“It's a highland town called ...Rossignol.”

Meg snorted; she couldn't help it. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am, grandmother.”

Meg stroked the girl's face. “It is well. By the authority vested in me, I name you Priestess Rossignol of Moon Temple. Now take our newest Order member and prepare her as I instructed.”

“Yes, revered one.” Naomi and Janina bowed.

“Go with them, Orlando. I'll be along in a moment to explain what will happen.”

The girl nodded but walked to Sasha first. “Thank you.”

“You're thanking me? But why? I'm the one who-”

Orlando stood on tip toes to kiss the lean red-head, and silence her.

“No time for that debate. I wish there was, because I think we ...you and I ...could have...”

Orlando shook her head, and then let Naomi and Janina lead her into the Temple. She paused before she left the room, to mouth a plaintive 'good-bye' to Sasha.

Sasha's hand still rested on her lips, recalling the sweet caress. “What ritual is it she is to perform, grandmother? A lesser ritual?”

“Ha! Miriam called it so because she saw no 'profitable' use from it. No power. In essence, the rite works to expand a priestess' consciousness, to experience the Goddess' love.”

“Is that what we need? It would seem a purification is more appropriate, than-”

“-You would question me too? SILENCE!” Meg's voice echoed to the Temple ceiling, reminding Sasha that Meg's 'sweet old woman' act was sometimes just that.

“The Goddess is NOT being subtle. Do you think some magic words mumbled by me will save our people? Did that work for Miriam? It is Orlando! It has always been Orlando. Do you not see Her hand at work here?”

Sasha wasn't sure she understood anything. She swallowed hard. “What happens in the ceremony?”

“A priestess performing the Delirium is anointed with special oils, and given herbs to alter her perceptions — to expand them,” Meg said. “Then the temple drums are beat in a rhythm meant to carry the priestess away...”

“Away? Where?” Sasha asked.

“To oneness. To Her.”

“But, how will this turn the Altar fires pure again?” Sasha asked, now wondering if Meg might have taken mind-expanding herbs.

“Oh, it won't. But I'm going to alter the ritual. I will have Orlando sing.”

The stratagems of high priestesses are beyond me, Sasha reflected. So she concentrated on what the warrior in her understood.

“Is there danger?”

“Oh yes. The herbs are powerful and the experience profound. Some priestesses, once they join with Her ...never come back.”

“But that means you are sacrificing her! Leading her like a lamb to-”

“-I am not! I cannot, for a sacrifice must be freely given. Orlando alone can choose to do so.”

The feeling washing over her was the same as when she lost Tanya, for Orlando, she reckoned, was meant to die. Bitter irony! Where once she cursed a thousand deaths on the troubadour, now she wished but a little more time with her. Yet like Tanya...

“But don't you fear for her? You who call her granddaughter? You who-”

Meg put a finger to Sasha's lips. “Yes, granddaughter, I do, as I fear for you every time you leave on a mission. But ...perfect love, perfect trust. Let go and let the Goddess.”

Sasha knew when Meg spoke those Goddess words, their talk was over. For when she spoke them, the discussion closed. Yet she would ask one last question.

“When you ordained Orlando, what did you mean when you asked if she was serious?”

“Ah,” Meg smiled, “Orlando was serious, but the Goddess? Now there is a Lady with an infinite sense of humor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because Rossignol, in the highland dialect, means nightingale.
 

 
 
14.

The great drums of the Temple beat doom doom doom, as the priestesses led her to an ante chamber deep in the Temple. There, they bathed her, first in a pool of seawater, and then in one of fresh water, hot and steamy.

After they dried her, her dark olive skin was rubbed with oil infused with fennel, sage, and Ylang Ylang, from faraway Anatol Isles. A slow tingle spread from the crown of her head to her delicate feet, relaxing her so deeply, the girl no longer felt her muscles were connected to her bones. The priestesses had to react fast to keep her from sliding onto the floor. Finally, she was clothed in robes weaved from the purest cotton of the elvish lands across the sea.

Meg signaled to Naoma, who left the room to return with a small crystal vial on a silver tray. She approached the girl and unstopped the vial. Orlando, already dazed, gave a languid look to Meg; after the high priestess nodded, the girl allowed Naomi to drop the liquid onto her tongue. She puckered at the bitter, acidic taste.

Last, she was taken into the inner most room of the Temple, the room she was first transformed in. She was blindfolded then, but now she saw all: vast white marbled columns, lining the walls and stretching far far up.

In the center stood the Altar: a massive marble table and on each side, a three-meter wide shallow saucer on a stone tripod. Flames flickered on the tripods, and billowing black, thick smoke poured upward, through the huge open sky window, feeding the ever-growing cloud of darkness that loomed over all.

Behind the altar stood the bronze Goddess statue. Through the twin hazes of smoke and mind altering herbs, Orlando could just make out the expression on the Lady's face. Fierce, loving, and alive.
 

 
A priestess ran to Meg with panicked eyes. "The sea! The sea is rising! It has crested the flood dikes and pours into the city! We must flee!"

“Silence! We are at the critical moment and you would ruin everything!” Meg's eyes glittered with light and when she touched the priestess' forehead, her fingertips sparked.

“You will not speak until the ritual is concluded.”

The woman's arms went slack and her mouth flopped open, but not a sound would come.

Meg breathed a relieved sigh when she saw Orlando was still entranced. She removed the girl’s robe and positioned her on her knees before the altar. The drums beat faster faster! and Orlando struggled not to sway, for between the frenetic beats, the oil and strange drops and the smoke, she was spinning with vertigo. She lost track of time and space and direction.

Do you wish to sing again, Orlando?

It sounded like Meg's voice, but she wasn't sure...

Yes yes yes I would sing again!

What would you give to sing again?

Everything!

Then tell Her! Sing, Orlando! Sing to the Goddess!

Images formed in her mind — of sound, of waves — and she heard a voice ...cool whispers fell on her as rain, asking asking...

She had felt this before when she was first a singer and she had turned away. Not this time! Not this time!

She smashed her arms on the stone floor, shouting:

“Lady! Take my body, I long for you! Take my soul, I burn for you! Take me back, let me sing for you!”

Vibrations poured into her — music filled her, until she must surely burst. She writhed on the stone floor, moaning, screaming, in agony, in ecstasy.

Then, it was there! And it had to come out!

She rose and looking to the sky window, she birthed it; she sang.

At first a wordless tune, low and soft but growing in volume and intensity as it rose in pitch, until the marble columned walls started to vibrate.

The center of the massive cloud above convulsed, winding in on itself, tighter and tighter, until, with a shattering thunderclap, it exploded outward, a black circle growing wider and wider, a wave blowing across the land.

Brilliant sun beamed through the sky window, spotlighting Orlando.

And her voice, Her voice flowed:

My tears of loneliness have filled the sea,
Come back to me, come back to me...

At the passing of the cloud, a cheer rose from the throngs outside the Temple. It silenced, as each person heard Orlando's voice as if singing to he or she alone.

I birthed the mountains to bring you close,
Come back to me, come back to me...

In crowds throughout the isle, where fearful people gathered in temples at the hour of doom, they each, they all, heard her song, her clear pure voice.

I cast the stars to ease your nights,
Come back to me, come back to me...

With each verse the people were filled with longing; with each note they remembered, Her.

Come back to me…

They were loved; they had been away from Her for so long, too long.

Come back to me…

Weeping, tears of sorrow, of joy, their hearts cried , “I am coming, O Goddess I am coming…”

And Sasha, burst into tears, finally and truly grieving for her lost lover, for it was Tanya's words Orlando sang! And she knew somehow, she knew Tanya heard Orlando too and was ecstatic.

The song ceased.

All was silence in the Temple, except for the sound of the flickering altar flames. Flames burning the purest silver-white.

Blinking away wetness, Sasha looked for her singer, and saw a small figure on the floor in front of the altar. Sasha ran to her and swept her into her arms. Orlando’s face was sallow and the brightness faded from her eyes.

“What is it? Orlando, speak! What is wrong?”

Meg and the other priestesses gathered round now. Sasha shot Meg a pleading look.

“Grandmother! Help her!”

“She ...she gave everything she had. There may be nothing left.”

“No, no, not again!” Sasha cried. “Do something!”

Meg turned to Janina. “Go! Fetch the healers, fast as you can!”

“Why so sad, love?” Orlando asked Sasha in a whisper. “Did you hear? Did you hear?”

“I heard, and it was glorious. But don’t go Orlando ...don't go. Stay here. With me. Stay!”

Music ...I hear music ...I am music ...I…”

Orlando’s eyes fluttered shut for the last time.
 

 
 
 
 
IV. Epilogue
 
 

 
1. Beltane
 
"Be at ease, Captain, and release your women. Come, sit, and give your report."

Sasha stood, unhearing. Her mind still swirled at what she saw when they arrived back in Anuvar, minutes ago.

After Orlando sang, the smoke cleared and the water receded. The new Arch-Priestess reckoned that was not all the good news that happened when the nightingale sang her song to the Goddess and She answered. So Meg sent the Moon Temple Guard to the ends of the Isle.

Sasha, Jules and the twins traveled east; Sasha sent other Guardswomen details south to Port Town and north to the highlands.

A snap of Meg's finger brought the captain back to the present.

“Sasha, let them go, they are exhausted.”

“Yes, sorry.” Sasha said. She turned and saluted Jules and the twins, who returned her Goddess salute.

“Try not to drink too much ale, Jules,” Sasha said, plastering a smile on her face.

“No no; too early for that, Cap’n,” the big woman answered. “Instead, I must rest and prepare for Beltane. Hans and I always look forward to the festival, but after what happened, this year will be special.”

“Beltane? That’s…”

“Today, Captain, why don't you spend it with us?” Ona, whispered; concern written on her face. For all had seen as they approached the Temple — the triple moon flag hanging half-mast, in remembrance of a priestess who passed over.

“It would do you good to ...to forget and enjoy,” Sheala added.”

Sasha nodded and mumbled her good-byes.

She walked across the council chamber floor to where the Arch Priestess sat. Sasha melted into the chair in front of Meg with a sigh; she loved Sunshine to pieces, but after days of hard riding, a simple wooden chair felt wonderful; small pleasures. It was all the Goddess granted her, it seemed.

"Sasha," Meg said. "Before you start your report, I should tell you of Orlando. I-"

"-No! Duty first! I must report.”

Meg ordered her Captain on the mission to take her mind off Orlando’s condition. It hadn't worked; Sasha fretted the entire journey about the near death coma the girl lay in. The flag confirmed the outcome, but Sasha could delay hearing the tragic news for a few more moments.

“Well, Captain? Give it,” Meg said. She knew how famously stubborn Sasha could be, for hadn't she raised her when the wee orphan was left on the Temple steps?

“Yes, ma’am. My detail that traveled south reports the epidemic in Port Town has ended. Mayor Tomlun said a great wind blew through the town, from the northwest, and the stricken started recovering with its passing.”

“Wonderful news, praise the Lady! When did the storm pass through the city?”

“Three days ago. Also, my northern troop returned with news from the drought stricken highlands: a gentle storm settled into the mountain plateau bringing life-giving rains. The drought has lifted, the loss of livestock is small. With steady rains through summer, the wheat harvest should be bountiful.”

“Mark my words, Sasha, it will be our best harvest ever. And the rain started three days ago, yes?” Meg asked.

Sasha nodded her head. “Last, I visited the Temple of the Sun on the eastern shore. The High Priest said a mighty storm, traveling west to east, blew to sea, and scattered King Jarl’s invasion fleet. Not one ship reached our shores.”

“This miracle …also happened three days hence?” Meg asked.

“Yes. The High Priest sends his gratitude that we have appeased our Goddess. He said he hoped his advice was useful. I assume you know to what he refers? ”

Meg snorted. “Pigs, lass. High Priest Feinis suggested we sacrifice pigs.”

Sasha’s face reddened. “We did sacrifice someone, though, didn’t we? Orlando sang with the voice of the Goddess and the blackness went out as a great cleansing storm. She sang, and our people were healed, our invaders were repulsed and our land received life-giving rain. She sang her life away for us!”

“Sasha, it’s all right! Listen! She knew what she was doing-”

-All right? It will never be all right again!” Sasha shouted. “I lose Tanya to evil, and then …here’s the funny part, a few days ago, the one I thought had taken my love from me - the one I damned - I found I liked her! No, more than that, I cared for her, when I believed my heart could never respond to another.”

Sasha stood and pushed back from her chair. “I wished to the Goddess for Orlando to suffer and die, and the Goddess -for the first time in my life- granted my wish. I even watched her last breath leave her lips, as I swore I would do.”

“Yes, that is true, I suppose.” Meg said, wondering on the ways of the Goddess. “Orlando is gone.”

Sasha staggered a step at the confirmation. Then she knelt beside Meg's chair and put her head in the old woman's lap.

“Why of all my thousands of wishes throughout my life, did she grant me this one?”

Meg stroked Sasha's copper hair. “Granddaughter, you’ve been under soul numbing pressure since the night Tanya died. Sheala is right; go to Beltane and loosen up-”

“Are you serious?” Sasha raised her head, and her eyes reddened “Have you heard a word I have said? What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing, granddaughter, all is well. The only thing amiss is my Captain needs to relax. Go to the festival, take a friend or partner…or… I know …you could go with Gale.”

With each word Meg spoke, Sasha became more enraged …until Meg’s last.

“W-what did you say?”

“I said, take my newest priestess Gale Rossignol. It would do you both good.”

“She’s alive? But you said Orlando was... and the flag flies at half-mast and-”

“-Miriam passed over last night, Goddess bless her soul. The woman found peace at the end though,” Meg said, growing thoughtful.

“So Orlando is-

“-Gone. When the girl awakened yesterday morning, she announced ‘I am Gale.’”

Where moments before Sasha knew numbness, now there was energy.

“She …Gale ...is alive and well?”

“Alive, yes” Meg answered, “but ‘well’ is a relative term. She is fit and hale, yet…”

“Yet what?”

“I visited long with her yesterday and this morning. She’s ...well, she's a living miracle, for when she sings, it is the voice of the Goddess. All our people must her hear sing. But-”

“-Enough with the 'yets' and 'buts', what's wrong with her?”

“You will first notice how innocent she is-”

“-Innocent? Orlando?” If Sasha had been drinking a beverage she would have spewed it. “We are talking about one of the biggest womanizers in our history.”

“No, we are not. Orlando is gone. Oh, she remembers in full her life as the troubadour, but she is not he. It is what she gave to regain her voice.”

“While sad,” Sasha said, after she puzzled on Meg’s words, “I think …Gale will eventually recover from this and-”

“-This was the least of her changes, Sasha.”

“Then what? Tell me!”

Meg sighed. There was no easy way to do this.

“Remember how I said some priestesses never come back from the Delirium? Well, Gale did return, mostly...”

“Mostly?”

Meg fingered the Goddess pendant hanging from her neck. “She is connected to Her still. She hears Her. And, to do so requires an infinite opening of her being. Where we have barriers we erect between our finite nature and the Lady, Gale's are gone.”

“What does that mean, grandmother? How does she act because of this? Speak plain.”

“Do you remember how Tanya would be when she was touched with Goddess inspiration?”

Sasha did. There would be a light, a glowing in her lover's eyes, and ...she was so enraptured she was apt to walk into a sign post. When the muse was on her, common sense deserted Tanya.

“I remember it well.”

“Gale is likewise affected, only she is like that almost all the time. She must be always listening, receiving, and singing.”

"But you can’t live with your head in the clouds day and night!”

“No, you can’t,” Meg answered, staring into Sasha’s eyes. “I …do not know how long our nightingale will remain with us before the Goddess’ song carries her away.”

Sasha blanched. “But we’ve only delayed her death then! She was innocent! Why did the Goddess let this happen to her?”

“Why? No mortal can know the mind of the Lady, but, think on this — Orlando was given a great gift, just as we were given this blessed land. Orlando took his gift too lightly, just as we began to take the gift of this glorious Isle for granted. A doom came on him, so also with us. We had all abandoned the Lady…”

“And so she would have destroyed us?”

“Think not of it so. It is better to say that in not inviting Her to us, other things rushed in to fill Her place. Orlando changed that — she called to the Goddess, and the Goddess came and through Orlando’s voice, She comes to us still.”

“Yes, but at what cost? She sacrificed herself and soon will die.”

"She sacrificed being Orlando. It was her choice before the Goddess, and now she is ecstatic, for she is filled with music! She lacks but one thing.”

"What? What thing does she lack? For I will find it for her, no matter the cost," Sasha swore.

Meg leaned closer to the copper haired warrior. “She needs someone to anchor her, here.”

“Anchor her? What do you mean?”

“She will not eat, sleep, or dress if she is not told, she will simply sing,” the gray-haired woman continued. “I left a plate of food for her this morning, and I bet you silver and gold it sits untouched in her room as she plays her lute and sings. She needs somebody to watch her. Care for her. And most important, give her a reason to stay with us longer.”

Meg leaned back now in her chair, with a 'cat that ate the canary' look on her face. “As she is now …um, a …spiritual treasure ...of the Temple, and as you started Gale down this path …perhaps it is your duty to be that reason? Your duty to …love her?”

Sasha grew silent. Finally, she stood, wrapped her arms around Meg and kissed both her cheeks.

“I must fly, grandmother, for I have important errands; I must fetch Beltane gifts for a songbird.”
 

 
 
2.

Hush! Hush! It is morning, it is spring!

Hear the thrush serenading the sky!
Quick, quick! On your feet, out the door!

For the music is drifting away...

Sasha stood outside the room, mesmerized by the girl’s song, by the joy of it. Some moments after it ended she shook herself free from its spell and knocked.

"Come in," came the soft answer.

Sasha opened the door, to see Gale dressed in a loose white robe, reclined on her couch, plucking her lute.

Her hair had been washed, braided and scented. Sasha smelled jasmine as she walked to the olive-skinned beauty. As she drew near the girl, she saw Gale's body shined with oil, Lady help her, someone —Sasha suspected Meg ordered it, the conniving Arch-Priestess- had even applied a charcoal liner around the girl's doe eyes. Sasha's eyes were drawn like a magnet, to the rounded and oiled breasts that lay open before her.

Lady help me, but she is gorgeous!

Gale’s face brightened into a grin and she sighed 'Sasha' .

An attendant left by Meg to care for her snapped out of her song trance. “How long have I been standing here?”

“I don't know, how long have you been standing there? It is near dusk.”

“Dusk? No! It is lunch time and…” the servant looked at a tray on a nearby table, filled with uneaten fruit and cheese. “Nooo! I forgot to have her eat! The Arch-Priestess will have my head!”

Sasha showed mercy to the bespelled woman. “It seems you've been standing a long time, sister. Go rest your feet, I will watch our songbird priestess.”

“Now you mention it, my feet are swollen …and ...uh …she will be safe with you? Because Meg said she needs to be watched and ...what am I saying …you are the Captain of the Guard. Of course she’ll be fine with you…”

The woman was beet red and stumbling to the door. “Good bye, sweet lady, you sing so divine…” her voice trailed down the hall.

Sasha struggled to contain her laughter fit, and almost succeeded. "O Lady Gale! I am yet another fan, and come bearing gifts.”

First, Sasha dropped a blue bag on the floor, and then from behind her back, she produced a dozen roses, which she handed to Gale.

The girl placed her lute on the table, took the roses and breathed in. “These are beautiful. But who are they for?”

“You, silly, I've a proposition for you.”

“Hey! Your hair is unbraided and you are wearing a dress! A red dress. Whoa momma! Goddess, I missed you.”

“Um, Gale? Not that I mind, but you ought to get in the habit of covering your chest.”

“Er, why? Oh ...these...” Gale cupped her breasts and looked down at them.

“You can’t be that clueless. You've had them for months! You must realize you have the kind of breasts men -and *ahem* some women- drool over.”

When Gale gave her another doe-eyed look, Sasha rolled her eyes.

“Or maybe you can.” Sasha pulled Gale to the table with the uneaten food. “Now …what's all this? When was the last time you ate?”

Gale scrunched her brows. How long had it been? After looking at the food Meg had ordered her to eat this morning, she bit her lip and lowered her head.

“Oops!”

“Oops? Sit!” she ordered. Gale plopped in a chair and Sasha took one beside her. She picked a juicy strawberry from the plate and brought it to Gale's lips.

“Sasha, I can feed myself just fine-”

“-Eat!” Sasha pushed the red fruit into Gale's mouth.

“Mm. Mmmmm. Hey! I'm hungry!”

Sasha rolled her eyes again and brought a goat cheese hunk to Gale’s lips.

"Do you know what today is?”

Gale shook her head as she chewed.

"I guessed not. It's Beltane, and the festival starts in a few minutes. Meg's giving the invocation.”

"Belta...?!”

Sasha silenced her with a blood orange slice. "I was hoping you would accompany me.”

Sasha knew she rushed matters. Yes, Gale's eyes brightened when Sasha entered her room. And yes, they shared tender moments on the trail, and bonded in their suffering.

But Sasha also was mindful she was the cause of Gale's suffering. She altered the troubadour's life so profoundly, in truth Orlando was dead.

She had no idea if Gale would even be interested in her romantically. The poor thing's gender had been switched; it was sudden, magical, and -to be honest- violent. Sasha had never heard of such a thing, and hadn't the faintest idea what rules applied. Orlando lusted after women, of that there was no doubt; even Sasha could confirm it. But would Gale lust after men? Or, maybe she wouldn't be interested in sex at all, either from men or women.

Still ...Sasha wasted a year working up the courage to approach Tanya, intimidated by the poet-priestess' dazzling mind and profound devotion to the Lady. Scared that Tanya would not share her orientation, and would reject her. Yet when Sasha did approach, they sparked; she discovered a kindred soul, a caring friend, and an adventurous -and randy- lover. She lost an entire year they could have had! She would not make the same mistake again.

Nor could she afford to with Gale; from what Meg said, she might not have the time to wait. One thing alone held her back from grabbing the young priestess and ravishing her on the spot. The lingering feeling she was being unfaithful to Tanya. Yes, Tanya told her to love Gale, but that was a dream, right?

“Well?” Sasha asked finally.

Gale stopped chewing. “Us? Together?”

“That's the idea, magpie, since, you know, it's hard to go on a date separately.”

“A date?” Gale's eyes leaked moisture and she looked away. “You're doing this out of guilt, or pity.”

What?” Sasha grabbed Gale's face and turned it to face her own. "You listen to me, my pretty thrush-”

“-I'm a nightingale, not a thrush, if you mugmmm-”

Sasha gagged Gale with another strawberry. “Hush! I was not asking you on a pity date! I care for you.”

“Don't ...just don't ...pretend, hmm? I've read nothing but Tanya's words since I woke yesterday. She is amazing! Holy. You deserve someone like her and not one who wasted years singing drinking songs for coin and swill.”

Is this what was bothering her? Some ridiculous notion she was unworthy? Good Goddess! The girl had, just three days ago, saved the entire frickin island and almost died doing it. She might still. Unworthy? Sasha had a mind to throw the girl over her knee and spank her for such silliness.

Mmmm. That might be fun...

Sasha shook her head. “I am not taking no for an answer. Which brings me to my second gift.”

Sasha pulled out a short creamy dress and a pair of golden flat sandals. “Daylight's burning, sweetie. Stand.”

Sasha's willpower was tested next, for when she pulled Gale's robe over her shoulders and let it slip to the ground, she saw the Goddess had blessed Gale with silky smooth olive skin and curves to die for.

Gale looked into Sasha's green eyes and whispered, “You like?”

O Goddess yes! Sasha shivered from the words; the girl's voice held so much power!

“I like very much.” Sasha hoped she would show Gale just how much later. For now, she dropped the dress over Gale's head. After Gale slipped on her sandals, her eyebrows arched.

“Why is my dress so short? Is it hot outside?”

“Not particularly,” Sasha said. “I just wanted to see your legs.”

Gale reddened, but smiled too, a coy one.

“Come fair one,” almost almost Sasha called her 'lover.' “The fires of Beltane are on us. Let us dance and drink and ...sing.”
 

 
 
3.

Meg had a problem.

As she looked out over the vast crowd gathered in the parade ground, she knew it for certain.

The mood of the revelers was bright, festive. Folk wore rainbow-hued ribbons and sparkling jewelry.

They were content, for, their island was safe, the Goddess loved them, Beltane was here. All was well.

Even better, since the moment Gale sang their doom away, it was standing room only in the Moon Temple, and candidates for the Order arrived by the cartloads.

Yet, Meg knew, this wasn't a happy ever after. 'Forever' endings were a myth. The wise old priestess knew this time was instead an opening, when, for a moment, Gale's song awakened their hearts to let the Goddess in again.

As she listened to her Under Priestesses chant the rites and speak their homilies, Meg feared they would send the people's heart's into slumber again. Oh, they spoke the proper words: this was the season where the Sun Lord and Lady joined, bringing new life to the earth. Fertility. Coupling.

Their words were dogmatic and uninspired, and the crowd grew restless. Meg could hear their thoughts: when will they stop blathering so we can party?

The Order suffered under Miriam —in the past days, Meg learned the depth of it- and she wasn't sure which of her priestesses were true to the calling. Meg would not live much longer -she knew this- yet she must leave the Moon Temple in the hands of those who will inspire the people to keep awake. To Her.

Meg had resigned herself to giving her 'perfect love perfect trust, I let go and let Goddess’ homily. Sure, she overused the sermon in her previous tenure, it was true, but she felt it would spark the crowd's interest. Moreover, she wanted to see which of her priestesses were most affected by the message. For those would be the ones she would work with.

Then, she spotted a familiar couple in the crowd, two most dear to her, and another idea came to the Arch-Priestess. She felt guilty about putting the girl on the spot, but...

“Priestess Rossignol! Come forward!”

It took some moments -for the girl approached the podium as a shy skittery fawn would- but finally she arrived at Meg's side. With the Captain of the Moon Temple Guard behind her, looking pissed at the interruption of their date.

“M-meg?” Gale said. “What do you want?”

“Nothing painful or horrible, lass. I would like you to sing a short song to end the ceremony, and to kick off the celebration.”

Gale blanched, and whispered, “I don't know the chants for the holiday. I was drafted into the Order by a tricksey Arch-Priestess, and haven't yet learned-”

“-Bah! Worry not of that. Sing whatever springs to mind.” Then Meg announced, in her Goddess amplified voice, no less, “good people of Anuvar! In closing, our sister Gale will sing.”

Gale stepped forward without hesitation, now, for this was singing; her clear crystal voice rang out:

Have you ever heard the tale of poor Durbin of Danawy?”

The crowd silenced in an instant, for they knew that voice! It was she who sang to them in the darkest hour.

Gale smiled. She had worked countless crowds as Orlando; she knew what she was doing.

“Well have you?”

Finally, several 'no, we haven'ts' came from the crowd. Gale winked at Sasha and launched into a lilting comical tune about a poor fellow who always seemed to bumble into the most 'terrible' fixes, cornered by hungry dragons, or trapped aboard sinking pirate ships, or whatever. Each time he would gnash and wail that the Goddess had deserted poor Durbin and he would surely die.

Then she sang the chorus:

Wake! Durbin, wake! I am here, I am with you. Open your eyes and see.

Look! Durbin look! My arms never left you. Open your heart to me.

By the second verse, the crowd was caught; they clapped and swayed and sang along with Gale, their voices loud and hearty in the late spring twilight. When she finished the final verse, the people roared their pleasure.

Meg noted the scowl on several of her priestesses, who were no doubt thinking how impious the song was. Meg also marked the ones nodding their heads, recognizing the girl had placed the Lady's message in the hearts of the people in a way a thousand sermons could never do.

Meg was about to say the closing prayer, when a voice cried out, “The Lady speaks to you, beautiful priestess. We've heard what others say we should do for Beltane. Now tell us what She says.”

Meg wasn't sure what to do. Gale could sing a tidal wave away, but talking? It wasn't her strong suit. Meg held her breath. Because Gale did something odd: bird like, she cocked her head, as if listening. Her voice echoed across the parade ground.

“She says … wherever you are, whatever you do, be in love.”

The crowd cheered again, and fled to the dance circles, taverns and market stalls. As they dispersed, Meg heard them singing the verse still, Wake Durbin wake! I am here I am with you...

Her mind was spinning; she needed to sit. Meg believed her own words, of perfect love, perfect trust, were the simplest, most direct expression of devotion to the Lady. But what Gale said! O Goddess!

Meg felt a priestess wrap an arm around her shoulder to help her stand.

“Arch-Priestess Meg! Her words! So simple, yet ...be in love ...be in love. If you are always in love, then you are always in the Goddess!”

That was true. The message was so clear, Meg wondered if the Lady had spoken the words to Gale. She turned to ask the girl, but found she was not there. She searched and found them, her adopted granddaughters, who both, in a way, came to her as orphans. Both suffered terrible loss. She saw Sasha and Gale, walking hand-in-hand across the grounds. Meg looked skyward and mouthed 'thank-you.'

Then she turned to the middle-aged priestess who held her. Phyllis, she recollected. She was a quiet one, but most sincere and devout. By the expression on Phyllis' face, Meg knew she 'got it.'

“Amazing indeed,” Meg said. “Phyllis, I am fine dear, just a bit too old to whirl around the May Pole tonight. You should, though. Go, enjoy the holiday, but tomorrow, come to my chamber, for I would speak to you on plans I have for the Temple.”
 

 
 
4.

“You were amazing!”

“Hmm?” Gale asked, as they wandered hand in hand, from booth to gaily lit booth.

“You. That song. It seemed so light and yet was so powerful.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

Among the crowds, the girl had become wide-eyed and demure again. Sasha wondered why.

“The old Orlando would have needed a cart to carry the coin he’d have gotten from such a performance, eh?”

“The old Orlando was a fool. Their souls cried out for my song, and I was blessed by the Lady with the power to give it to them. I only wish I had been doing this years and years ago.”

“Are you happy, Gale?” Sasha feared the girl’s answer, for she had suffered so much at the warrior’s hands.

Gale squeezed Sasha’s hand and looked her in the eye. “Yes. I’ve never been happier.”

Sasha shook her head at the Beltane evening, for it was disconcerting; it seemed equal parts familiar and foreign.

Familiar because, though the weather of Samhain was cool and crisp, and Beltane humid warm, this reminded her so very much of her last night with Tanya.

Foreign, because Gale was not Tanya, nor, it was clear, was she even the old Orlando. She was someone new …and wonderful.

As they meandered about, Sasha started to see what Meg warned her of, for the girl's mood adapted to whomever they were near. If someone were happy and laughing, why then, Gale's face showed it too.

And if they passed one who was somber -rare tonight, but there were a few- then the girl's mood turned melancholy.

Curiosity got the better of Sasha. “What's wrong,” she asked, seeing wetness on Gale's face.

“So sad, so sad.”

Sasha rolled her eyes; she didn't mean to be insensitive, but Gale was going to have to give her a little more to go on than that.

“What is, sweetie?”

“Him,” Gale whispered, and motioned to a brown-haired man, with a cup of ale in his hand, looking at a crowd of people dancing.

“He's so alone. He longs to be with them,” Gale nodded to the rowdy dancers, “But he's too shy. It's why he hates holidays, for he always celebrates alone.”

“How do you know this?”

His song. His song.” Gale answered, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Sasha had a thought; she pulled Gale away from the man and next to the dancers, and Gale's face brightened. It clicked; Sasha understood.

“You hear souls! You hear them sing.”

Gale nodded. “In my room it was not a problem, but here it's overwhelming.”

This must be another aspect of what Meg meant; Gale was always listening to soul songs and couldn't shut it off.

Sasha pulled Gale away from the dancers and by chance took her to the same park where she and Tanya made love at Samhain. Again Sasha shook her head at life’s circle. She pulled Gale down beside her and wrapped her arms around her.

“I'm the one who burdened you with this curse,” Sasha said. “I'm so sorry. Sorry for everything.”

“Now your song is sad. But maybe I can ...fix that?” Gale's lips brushed over Sasha's; a chaste kiss.

Sasha puzzled a moment, as she remembered the way Orlando kissed her on Samhain: bold and with tongue action. Gale's rebirth had indeed returned her innocence.

Sasha pondered this only a moment, before she pushed Gale down to the spring grass and gave her serious and wet kisses.

“What is my soul saying now?”

“Same as mine, I expect,” Gale said, with a lazy smile.

Sasha cuddled and caressed her little olive-skinned songbird, but she didn't push her too far. She so wanted to, wanted to do far more with Gale, but couldn’t bring herself to…

“Darling, can you hear the soul singing of every living person?”

Gale blinked. “Not sure I know what you mean...”

“I mean, you hear every living soul, yes?”

The girl's forehead wrinkled at that. “When I sang at the Altar, I was filled with music, with the songs of each and every soul. Not living or dead, all of them. They became a chorus, singing together. Became Her voice. Became Her. It overwhelmed me. Dissolved me. After I returned ...I can still hear the ocean of Her…”

This was what Sasha battled, the siren song of the infinite, calling to claim Gale.

Battling the infinite, Sasha thought. Those are long odds. Captain Catoriel has never backed down from a fight before, and I won’t now.

Sasha jumped up, and yanked Gale to her feet.

“I have cool wine waiting in my flat, songbird. If you would like, we could go there to rest, or whatever. If you are ready to leave the celebration.”

Another fit of shyness overcame the girl, and her eyes looked downward. But she murmured, “I am.”

They ran into Jules and Hans on their way, who nearly smothered them in their enthusiastic embrace.

“Loved your Durbin song, lass,” Jules said, “me ‘n Hans have been humming it all night.”

“Thank you. The story’s from Tanya; I just adapted it.”

“Say! If ‘n it’s not too early to book ye, I’d be grateful if you’d sing at my daughter’s-”

“-son’s,” Hans chimed in.

“Our child’s anointing ceremony,” Jules said.

The old Orlando would have been insulted; he did not do anointings, and never sang at handfastings. But Gale was not Orlando.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Jules.”

“Thank ye, lass, it’ll mean so much if'n ye do…” The big woman —and bigger man- teared up like babies.

“But Jules? You don’t have children,” Sasha said.

‘Not yet, Cap’n, but we aim to remedy that when we go home,” Jules said with a wink. “It being Beltane and all.”

“Thanks for the warning; I’ll inform the militia,” Sasha said.

“But why would ye do that, Cap’n,” Hans said, with a baffled look on his ruddy face.

“If I didn’t, they’d think the rumbling from your house was an earthquake.”

Hans and Jules almost fell to the ground, they laughed so hard. And when Jules slapped Sasha on her back, the warrior’s teeth rattled.

“It’s good to have you back, Cap’n. Earthquake, oh my Lady but that’s good.”

Sasha and Gale heard them laughing still as they walked on. They met Ona and Sheala, too, who were with their ‘dates’; Ona’s was swarthy and dark-eyed, while Sheala was arm in arm with a blonde haired and blue-eyed man.

“That was weird,” Sasha said, after everyone wished each other warm farewells. It seemed the twins, too, were eager to retire with their dates, to do what comes natural on Beltane.

“What was,” Gale asked, as they wound their way back to the Temple Compound.

“I don’t know, I wouldn’t have thought their dates would look so different.”

“Why?” Gale said. “They are different, why wouldn’t their men be too?”

“Hmm? They’re identical twins, sweetie, so-”

“-But their souls are not; their songs are like night and day.”

“Really?” Sasha laughed. “I am a fool; I’ve always thought of them as the same person doubled. I’ll make a point of getting to know them individually starting tomorrow. Tonight, however, is reserved for getting to know you, Gale.”

The girl blushed, but squeezed Sasha’s hand.

And then, they were there, at Sasha’s flat. As they walked in, Sasha was again reminded of that night, half a year ago, when Tanya didn’t come home — come here.

“You’re sad again,” Gale said.

“I was just thinking of-”

“-Tanya. I know. Listen. I’ve had a glorious time. Thank you. But I should go home now.”

No, no, no! Sasha thought. She wasn’t sure which home the girl meant, her flat, or Home.

“Um, wait, I uh …have a question.”

“Yes?”

Think quick Sasha, the warrior thought. Think of anything, but keep her here.

“That song you sang. You said the words were Tanya’s? I’ve read everything she wrote and I don’t remember it.”

A faraway look came to Gale’s eyes. “It’s something she composed …after.”

After? After what? Her death? And … didn’t Gale say she could hear the soul songs of all? Living or dead? That would mean Gale…

She grabbed the girl and almost shook her.

“You can hear Tanya, can’t you? Can’t you!”

“Yes, I can.”

“What is her soul singing, right now?”

Gale cocked her head once more, like a bird.

“That you are a very stubborn woman, and …that she told you your joy is in …front of you? I don’t know what that means.”

I do. She’s telling me I am stalling, and get busy.”

“Busy? I don’t-”

Before Gale could utter another sound, Sasha swept her up in her arms in a single movement and carried her to the bed. Where she tossed the girl, and then climbed on top of her.

"I claim you, Gale Nightingale, here and now! This moment! I’m going to cherish and care for you; from now forward we will never part. When you travel the Isle to sing to our people, I will be by your side.”

Gale so wanted to believe Sasha’s words, and the warrior’s soul song filled her with joy, but…

“What of your duties as Captain of the Moon Temple Guard? What of your missions?”

“I have but one mission now; you.”

“You are doing this out of guilt, hey? Or duty, because Meg must have told you I needed to be watched and-”

“I should be punished, for the horrible acts I did to you,” Sasha said. “But no, neither guilt nor duty moves to do this. It is selfeshness. I am taking you for my handfasted mate, for me. We will have Meg perform the ceremony tomorrow.”

“You wish to marry me?” There was awe in Gale’s voice. “Why?”

“Because I love you, you silly bird.”

When the tears rolled from Gale’s eyes, Sasha grew concerned. “What’s wrong?”

“Your song. Your song! It’s so beautiful, I-”

Gale raised her lips to Sasha’s, murmuring, “I love you too.”

“Then stay with me. Don’t leave me, Gale. Please.”

Gale knew what Sasha was asking, and it wasn’t about staying the night. It was about Her song. Calling.

“I’ll try love. I will try so hard, and I will stay as long as I can. Will that be enough?”

Sasha wanted years and years with her songbird, but that was not to be, so…

“I’ll take what I can get love, and…” Sasha pulled Gale’s dress over her head and dropped it on the floor. “I will heroically battle the odds by giving you reasons to stay here longer.”

“Heroically battle-?”

Sasha quieted Gale with a long slow kiss. “Tanya taught me a few things, lover, and now I have the pleasure of showing you. Now I am the musician and you are the instrument. I'm going to start here."

Sasha took Gale's earlobe in her mouth and in turns bit and sucked it. She let it go and whispered hotly in Gale's ear.

"...and then …I'm going to slowly slowly work my way all the way down.”

“O Sasha!”

“Say not a word, my love. I’ve caused you great suffering, and now, I will start to make up for it by giving you endless mind blowing orgasms.”

“Orgasms?” Gale’s voice cracked and grew husky, her nipples hardened and her back arched. Sasha ran her finger between Gale’s legs and found her already wet.

“Oh you’re going to be a fun one in bed! We’ll be at this well into the morning. And you won’t be singing to the Goddess.”

Gale blinked. “I won’t?”

“Nope,” Sasha said, “you’ll be moaning to Her.”

O my Goddess,” Gale growled.

“I think we can do much better than that. Shall we see?”
 

 
 
5.

Meg stood below the Temple compound apartments with an amused smile upon her wrinkled face. She wondered if she looked like a mother duck with little ducklings. That is certainly how she felt, as she and Phyllis led this latest crop of new Temple recruits on a tour of the grounds.

Since the day Gale had sung the doom away, literally hundreds upon hundreds of girls and women had sought to be trained as priests. All of the Moon temples across the island had been inundated - Meg wondered if the Temples of the Sun were seeing the same thing from the men of the island. She guessed they were.

So many new recruits had arrived, even the Arch Priestess had to pitch in with their indoctrination. Meg didn’t mind — the fresh exuberance of the new devotees made her feel young again.

“And these are our living quarters.”

Meg’s hand swept up towards the several storied white granite building, dotted with the hanging plants and banners that some of the priestesses decorated their balconies with.

“Normally they are spacious,” Phyllis added, “but due to the large number of new trainees, we will be putting several to a room.”

“What’s that?” One dew-eyed and white robed trainee asked.

“What’s what?” Phyllis said.

“That!” She pointed to a balcony where a flock of nightingales sat, chirping and singing.

“Oh, perhaps the occupant of that apartment sets birdseed out? I am not sure.”

Which, Meg knew, was a lie, but a white one. The Arch-Priestess was thrilled when she realized Gale stayed with Sasha through the night, but she wanted to protect their privacy. If the novices knew the Goddess’ troubadour lived there, they too would flock to see her. And hear her.

“Are there any more questions before I release you to enjoy our morning meal?” Meg said, as she herded the group back to the main Temple hall.

“Hmm, I still don’t know,” asked a young brown-haired recruit, her eyebrow raised.

Uh-oh Meg thought, the analytical one again. “Know what, dear?”

“You said in the Temple that when we are trained, we will not need to have faith, or believe in the Goddess, because we will have direct knowledge of Her, we will ‘feel’ Her presence.”

“That is true, it is always better to know than to believe you know.”

“But what will that feel like? Can you tell me that? How will I ‘feel?’”

This one had been asking questions like this throughout the tour, as if it were possible to describe the infinite with mere words.

“How will you feel?”

“Yes! Is it good, bad, scary, exciting, what? I really really want to know.”

“O Goddess help me!” Meg said out of habit.

Suddenly a song voice, exploding with lustful passion, pierced the morning air:

“O-H …M-Y …G-O-D-D-E-S-S...”

Meg resisted mightily the urge to grin and look to Sasha’s apartment balcony, where she guessed the cry had come, the one where songbirds gathered.

Instead, Meg looked to the heavens, and with as solemn a face as she could muster, said, “thank you, Lady.”

Meg turned to the now wide-eyed recruit who asked the question. “It is just like that. It is ecstasy.”

The end.



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