Three men sat around a table in the corner of a near deserted tavern. One of the group, a man in his late twenties with a beard, was talking in an animated fashion, and he gestured wildly with one hand while the other held a tattered looking parchment. “This is it, I tell you! This will open the door, and give us access to the treasures within!”
One of the others, a younger man wearing a hooded cloak that covered his greasy black hair, snorted loudly. “That is only one half of the puzzle. Any idiot who has done his research knows that! And keep your voice down! We don’t want half the town to know about it!”
The bearded man scowled but lowered his hands, which forced the parchment from view. “So how do we complete the puzzle? Click our fingers and hope for the best?” The voice was laced with sarcasm.
The dark-haired man looked towards the third man. “We should not have brought him with us; he is dim-witted and rash.”
The third man, who was distinguished looking and wearing what appeared to be an expensive cloak, did not immediately respond. The others waited patiently. “We three have skills that complement each other.” He looked towards the bearded man and then the man with greasy hair. “You two must learn to co-operate; we are not going to succeed if I have to keep you apart like children.” The voice was calm, level, and almost soothing. “Now, to the matter at hand. We are missing something; the parchment will get us so far, but we do not have the means to get inside.” The other two looked at him expectantly. “That, my dear companions, is where I come in.”
The morning after the argument with her father Lia woke feeling surprisingly refreshed; despite her frustration she had slept deeply. She rose, washed and dressed, that time in orange trousers and a light-grey blouse. Later that day she was meeting Michael, with whom she had had an on-off relationship with over the last two years. The reason it was on-off was purely Lia’s choosing; despite his masculine form and handsome face, Michael was still a boy in her eyes, and she needed much more to even consider settling down.
After applying her rouge, Lia pulled open her sparsely populated jewellery box and critically reviewed its contents. Michael had seen all of her accessories except for one item, a piece she hadn’t worn for years. Lia took hold of her grandfather’s amulet, put it around her neck and looked at it closely in her mirror. The amulet was solid gold, in the shape of a dragon, with two small rubies in place as eyes. There was something about it that made Lia cringe, although she had no idea why; the rubies were beautiful, and the dragon not unattractive. She sighed, took it off and placed it back into the box; her father had insisted she never sell it, despite its worth and the difference the coin could have made to their lives. Lia decided to opt for a plain gold chain with a very small sapphire dangling from it; her mother always said it showed her eyes to their greatest effect.
On the way to Crossmoor’s busy market district, Lia passed a man with sandy hair and the conversation in The Piebald Lamb the day before came to mind. The man was probably five years older and too short to be her target, but it renewed her appetite to acquire the silver that had been promised to her should she find Olbane Jonson.
Lia had agreed to meet Michael at their usual place: a statue of two men bartering, which was close to his father’s merchants’ premises. For once, the scribe’s daughter arrived first, and she decided to sit next to a nearby fountain and watch some birds having a bath.
Lia was humming a tune about the first day of spring when she was surprised by a pair of hands around her waist. “What’s a gorgeous girl like you doing in a place like this?”
Lia turned and moved to kiss Michael, but pulled away at the last moment. She grinned at him.
Michael smiled back. “Not fair! I’ve been slaving away all morning, carrying sacks of grain in the heat while you laze in bed, and I don’t even get a kiss for my troubles!”
Lia pouted. “And don’t you wish you were in there with me! Well, I’m not the type of girl who kisses anyone before receiving a gift.”
Michael’s face took on an expression of mock-hurt; he then reached into his tunic and pulled out a small package, which was wrapped in cloth.
Lia’s eyes grew wide with excitement. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Kiss me and you’ll find out.” He placed the package back into his tunic, and goaded her into making a move for it.
Lia pouted once more. “Actually, now that I think about it, I am not sure that is what I want.” She sat back down on the fountain and partially turned her back on him.
“Revan’s mercy, Lia!” Michael swore. “You are impossible!” At times Lia played by her own rules, which caused him nothing but frustration.
Lia decided to give a little; the chocolate was worth that, if being physically close to him might have complicated matters. She walked over to him, placed her arms on his chest, then kissed him. When the kiss was over, Lia sat back on the fountain and chewed on a piece of the chocolate.
“Francisca’s tribulation!” he swore again and felt inside his tunic for the now missing package. “I cannot win! Am I doomed for all eternity to come second to a beautiful woman?”
At the last exclamation, Lia looked up at him in surprise. “That was very profound, for you at least! Where did you hear that line?”
He looked slightly hurt at that. “I… I’ve been going to the open-air theatre. The performance last night was surprisingly interesting. I suppose it just came out.”
Lia laughed. “You should go there more often, then. We might make something of you yet!” She put a second piece of chocolate in her mouth and threw the remainder of the package back at him, which he clumsily dropped on the market floor. While he bent down to pick it up, Michael looked up at her. “It is all for you, Lia.”
She frowned and wondered if he meant the chocolate or not. “Chocolate is not cheap, Michael; are you sure I am worth it?”
Michael frowned back and Lia suddenly felt sorry for him; he had turned down many other women in his relentless pursuit of her. He was a worthy and good man, but no man was worth sacrificing her life for. She offered a compromise. “Shall we pick up a bite to eat?”
Lia and Michael had some stew in the nearest inn, The Merchant’s Head, where the food was cheap but usually edible.
Michael started conversation in-between spoonfuls. “What are you doing this evening?”
Lia paused. “I am meeting Carly. It’s her only night off this month, and we were going to go to the music festival on the west side of town.”
Michael’s eyebrow rose slightly. “I must admit I am surprised every time you mention Carly. You and she are like chalk and cheese.”
Lia chuckled. “I know, but beneath all that piety she has a wonderful heart, and is my oldest friend.” Lia and Carly had been friends since early childhood, after their mothers had met at the market when they were both pregnant. Carly was now an acolyte in the temple of Revan, having entered His service when she was fourteen. Despite the fact Carly was always busy with her duties and studies, they still found the time to meet. Bringing her attention back to the present, Lia looked across at Michael. Sooner or later she was going to have to let him down; she was fond of him, so it would not be easy, particularly as she knew his feelings ran deeper than a crush. “Michael…”
“Do you mind if I tag along? With my new interest in all things cultural, I might enjoy it!” The grin on his face was wide.
Lia sighed inwardly. Perhaps she could find somewhere quiet that evening to speak to him. “Of course; we are meeting just before sunset.” She finished her last spoonful of the broth, which wasn’t particularly good; it seemed The Merchant’s Head was having a bad day in the kitchen.
Carly Waterford had her head in her hands and was trying to force down feelings of panic. It was only three days before her Test, the trial rite before being accepted as a Priestess of Revan. After four years of intense work and having no life to speak of outside of the temple, the most important day of her life was rapidly approaching. If she failed, she would have to endure a life of cooking, cleaning and serving. While the life of a Priestess was also about complete sacrifice and giving ones’ life to Revan’s service, at least she would have a degree of autonomy and be released from menial duties.
Carly pushed aside her tattered copy of The Ethos of Revan and looked across the old and battered desk she was sitting behind. There were numerous other books there, all open at various pages, along with dozens of sheets of parchment containing her notes on subjects ranging from treating disease to negotiation. Despite feeling almost out of control, Carly did her best to meditate and drew on Revan’s goodness to calm herself. She then opened her eyes, placed the books into a neat pile and arranged her notes by subject matter.
Carly sighed and decided she felt a little more comfortable. The academic side of the Test was not her major concern: she had always worked hard. It was the practical element, where she would have to demonstrate her use of Revan’s Grace, that Carly was terrified of. Priestesses of Revan often found themselves in hostile situations, as mediators or healers, and Revan’s grace allowed them to do things that ordinary folk could not.
Harnessing Revan’s Grace was not straightforward. It came through a connection between a member of the church and her God and was almost instinctive. Not all acolytes could draw on and use this power and young people who could not would never progress to the next level. Their role in the church was to serve Revan through manual labour until the day they met Him personally. It was because this connection was instinctive that caused Carly the most anxiety; she had only ever felt it once, over a year ago, when she interrupted a man who had broken into the temple library. He attempted to hit her over the head with a cudgel when she instinctively used Revan’s Grace to place a protective barrier between them. Unfortunately for Carly, the shield was not completely formed, and although it undoubtedly saved her life, it did not prevent the blow from rendering her unconscious.
While it had been a distressing experience, at least Carly knew she could find a connection, but in some ways that event only made her situation more frustrating. What an acolyte had to face during the Test was a closely guarded secret; no Priestess or acolyte who had failed was permitted to discuss with an acolyte what happened during a Test, but rumour had it that it involved something written and something more sinister. All Carly knew was that the Test was not the same for each person, and if she couldn’t find a connection, she would fail.
Carly decided to take a short break and picked up her personal ledger. The acolyte thumbed through the pages and found the entry for that day, where she noticed a circle with three letters within it. “Lia! I knew I’d forgotten something!”
Carly looked out of the window and studied the sun: it was about the time of day she and Lia usually met. Carly knew she should spend the time studying, but she did not take her friendships lightly. A short while later Carly left the temple to meet Lia.
The music festival was an annual event in Crossmoor and always attracted troupes of entertainers, both for notoriety and the coin that was on offer for the best performances. Because a lot of the best troupes were in Crossmoor the festival also drew lots of travellers who wished to impress them, as well as the occasional local who wished to escape their responsibilities and have a life on the road.
The people of Crossmoor made a significant effort to ensure the town put on a suitable welcome, particularly as the large number of inns and merchants would turn over a tidy profit. Lia always enjoyed the festival and it was a good excuse to drink too much and do a spot of people watching. That year Lia was looking for one person in particular: the young man from Susanon known as Olbane Jonson. She was already on her second cup of wine and wondering if Olbane Jonson even existed when Michael found her.
“Good evening! I see you have not waited for either Carly or me to get started.”
Lia shrugged and took another sip of her wine, which wasn’t bad considering the low cost. “Carly is always late and I am not about to stand around here like a statue waiting, am I?”
“Guess not.” Michael inclined his head towards Lia’s wine cup. “Do you want another one of those?”
Lia nodded. “Sure. Although make the next one watered; you know what Carly is like.”
While Michael got the wine Lia made short work of the remainder of her second cup. She needed a little more courage to let him down and as Carly was late, Lia had the perfect opportunity to do so. She spotted a recently vacated bench a few yards away, sat down and waited for Michael to join her. A few minutes later he returned with two cups.
Lia smiled at him briefly and took a drink. “Michael, there is something I need to talk to you about.”
Michael sat down. “Sure, Lia. What’s on your mind?”
Lia shifted around a little. “I’ve been thinking about our friendship.”
He grinned. “And what a fabulous friendship it is!”
Lia’s expression grew strained. “I am trying to be serious.” The danger signals were obvious, even to him. “I really like you Michael, but as a dear friend; I am not ready to settle down, and I cannot let you wait for me any longer.”
Michael didn’t say anything, but by the look on his face, she had been too direct.
“Lia!” a voice came from behind them and broke the tension. It was Carly: the high-pitched, anxious tone couldn’t be anyone else’s.
Lia silently cursed Francisca. She then moved in closer to Michael and lowered her voice. “We can talk later. Please do not hate me.” Michael did not seem to be as shocked as he was moments before, but he did look as if he had run to Susanon and back.
Doing her best to put on a smile, Lia turned and looked towards her friend; Carly struck a diminutive figure, with shoulder length brown hair practically tied back in a ponytail. She was dressed in an ordinary looking white shift, which was typical of an acolyte. Carly managed to move through the crowd, but was nearly knocked over by a large man, who apologised profusely when he recognised her shift. Carly gracefully accepted the man’s request for forgiveness and then caught Lia in an embrace, something which surprised the blonde girl; Carly usually avoided physical contact.
“It is so good to see you, Lia!” Her voice was thick with emotion and for a moment Lia forgot about Michael.
Lia gently withdrew from the embrace and looked at her friend. Carly’s large brown eyes, which often took on a slightly alarmed expression, searched Lia’s. “Are you alright, Carly?”
Carly looked away. “I think so. I’ve just got a lot on my mind at the moment. I am sorry for my rather excessive greeting.”
Lia hugged her. “You never have to apologise for anything, my friend.” The scribe’s daughter looked across at Michael, who looked a little more composed. “I was just having a drink with Michael. Would you like something?”
Carly nodded. “Some watered wine, please.”
Lia resisted the urge to swear; she couldn’t remember the last time Carly drank wine. Lia walked to the counter and paid the wine-seller for a cup of watered wine for the acolyte. While she was there, Carly and Michael were sharing some small talk. It appeared to be rather strained and uninterested small talk, but at least they weren’t sitting there like gargoyles waiting for her. Before returning to them, Lia looked around the festival and forced herself to take a short break from her friends. The evening was passing quickly, and the revelry was starting to get into full swing: there were more people looking worse for wear due to the copious amounts of wine and ale being consumed, and the quality of volunteers attempting to impress the travelling troupes was getting worse. Before re-joining her friends, Lia muttered a curse under her breath; where was Olbane Jonson?
Lia handed the cup to Carly and was intrigued to know what was on her friend’s mind. She cast her mind back to their last meeting, and something Carly had said suddenly clicked into place. “Carly, is this week what I think it is?”
Carly looked surprised for a moment; every now and then Lia would catch her off guard. “Yes, it is. My Test is in three days. I must admit it is worrying me.”
Lia knew what Carly meant. Even as a child, her friend had a tendency to worry at the smallest thing, and if she was really worried about something, she almost made herself ill. Carly didn’t look ill, but Lia wondered what was going on under what was a relatively calm façade. She didn’t know too much about the Test, but Lia knew that acolytes were left to themselves to prepare; after all, when they were accepted into the Priesthood, they would spend a lot of time alone, sometimes in dangerous situations.
“So what are you doing here? I would have understood if you hadn’t shown up.”
Carly shook her head. “A Priestess of Revan always keeps her word, Lia, and I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I stood you up.”
It was Michael’s turn to ask a question. “So what is worrying you so much? From what I understand, you have always kept up with your studies.”
Carly smiled wryly. “It is not the theory I am concerned about, although of course I am not completely happy with my preparation.” Her smile disappeared. “It’s the practical element I am terrified of.”
Myths about Revan’s church and its indoctrination ceremonies were part of local folklore. Some stories included graphic descriptions of what folk believed acolytes were exposed to. Lia’s calming voice interceded. “Carly, if anyone is destined to become a Priestess of Revan, it is you. I am sure you will cope with whatever they throw at you.”
Carly smiled weakly but didn’t look convinced. “I will be in His hands, Lia. I can ask for no more.” Her tone was not confident, but Lia let it go.
The three finished their drinks and Carly volunteered to go and refill their cups. Moments later Lia wished she hadn’t.
“Lia, what have I done? Is there nothing I can do to convince you I am the one for you?” Michael’s voice was emotional and Lia found her eyes filling with tears.
“It is not your fault, Michael. You are a special person, but I am not ready to settle down.” She sounded like some womanising man in a tavern corner, who was breaking off yet another short-term fling. “I want a life outside of Crossmoor…”
His voice raised a level. “Did you not think that I might too? You never asked!”
Lia managed to keep her voice calm. “You love working for your father, even though he is a task-master, and you will love taking over from him when the time comes. I cannot ask you to throw that away.”
Michael’s mouth opened, but no sound emerged. There was a long, uncomfortable pause. “Perhaps you are right.” He got up to leave. “I have lost interest in the festival, so I will bid you goodnight. Please pass on my best wishes to Carly.”
Despite wanting to call him back and make things better, Lia decided to let Michael go; she hoped in a day or two he would understand.
“Has Michael gone?” Carly had returned and was struggling to carry three cups.
Lia nodded. “He has.”
“I suppose you finally told him then.” Carly sat down next to Lia and smiled softly.
“I did, but it came out too quickly and I’ve hurt him badly.” Lia attempted to hide her stricken face behind her cup of wine and finished it in almost one gulp. She then took what was going to be Michael’s cup from Carly. The acolyte hid her disapproval well, although it was unlikely Lia would have noticed if she hadn’t.
Carly gently put an arm around her friend’s shoulders. “You had to do it; he couldn’t go on thinking you were going to settle down and marry him.” She paused. “Michael is strong. He will recover, find someone else and settle down, which is for the best.”
Lia took another drink. “You are probably right, as usual.” The scribe’s daughter composed herself, rose from her seat, and changed the subject. “Shall we wander around a little? We could go and watch the stage where the no-hopers perform; that is usually fun.”
Carly smiled. “Alright, but no heckling this year! I had to pray for forgiveness after the way you treated that man at the last festival.”
Lia laughed and the tension left her. “Well, he was one of the worst singers I have ever heard, and I often go to The Piebald Lamb, so I am something of an expert!”
The two young women moved closer to the stage where the travelling and local hopefuls were performing. In truth, there was never more than a handful each festival that came close to being approached by a troupe, but that didn’t stop people trying their hardest. The current performer, an overweight middle aged man, was drawing little interest; his choice to sing what was in fact a poem, and a rather downbeat one at that, had allowed most observers to take an opportunity to refill their cups or answer a call of nature. Lia looked at Carly and screwed her face up. “This was not a good idea, Carly.” She then grinned slyly. “Why do I let you talk me into these things?”
Carly instinctively took the bait. “What? This was your idea!”
Lia laughed and turned around, ready to find something more interesting. Unfortunately for her, she wasn’t looking where she was going. The last thing she saw before darkness overcame her was a rather shocked young man running in her direction.