In the days following Ynys’s departure, Eirene was the most silent anyone had ever seen her. It was a silence that puzzled the rest of her classmates, that drew looks of concern from the rest of the priestesses and priests at the Eistr Mariskh. Just what had happened to free-spirited, fiercely tempered Eirene Nielaa?
Eldwin, Jhamy and Maridi for their part granted the young girl as much space as they deemed necessary. Maridi especially felt Eirene’s distress deeply, so much so that she felt distressed in knowing she could not ease the heartbreak that had taken place. The other priestesses and priests who Maridi called friends, thankfully, were understanding and often reminded her that she was doing what most mother’s would do: support their children, but from a safe distance.
One afternoon, Maridi walked down the corridors of the Eistr Mariskh after an exhausting day of healing and weaving robes, finally returning to her quarters with an initial of relief, which quickly left her when she saw Eirene had not come back from her lessons. Sighing heavily, she decided she would search for her daughter. However, after she left her quarters and took a right, it wasn’t long before she happened upon Eldwin staring out of the window.
“What is she doing?” Maridi asked as she quietly placed herself beside the High Priest, relieved when she saw Eirene come into view.
“She has not moved from that spot for a while, it would seem. All she seems to stare at is the ocean.” Eldwin murmured in reply, his eyes never leaving the young girl.
Maridi thumbed the chain around her neck and shook her head. “If not drowning in her own sadness, there is the ocean. It is not right that she is so sad. That boy-”
“Was a good friend and made the right decision.“ Eldwin reminded her gently, taking her arm with a soft hand. “She must learn to get through this.”
“But I do wonder if he should have known better. Eirene has never been quite engaged with the opposite sex as the other girls her age. He must have known that.” Maridi protested a little.
“No, she never has been much interested in boys, that much is true.” Eldwin agreed. “But equally I would not treat her as though she was ignorant. I think she was aware that this might have happened, but perhaps she did not understand the consequences.”
“It is hard to know.” Maridi sighed. “She keeps herself so contained that one can hardly tell what is going on that mind of hers.”
“Indeed.” Sighing together, the adults watched Eirene for a little longer, until she rose to her feet and wandered off.
She barely registered the time and days that passed now. Even the grass, cool and slightly damp in the autumn weather, felt strange under her feet, as though just through the numbness within her body, there was a small semblance of the world outside that had not stopped turning, despite the heaviness in her heart. And even though her studies for now were a perfect distraction, it was outside of those studies that Eirene felt truly alone.
Bless her mother and High Priest Eldwin, but they could not remotely understand. It was clear to Eirene that why they fell short of really knowing how she felt was because they themselves had forgotten heartbreak. And then there were the rest of the residents of the Eistr Mariskh, who looked upon her with either pity or bewilderment. How she wanted to tell them to stop looking at her at all.
Soon enough, her mindless walking brought her to the Ootoe beach, a place where Eirene hoped to one day be annointed as a High Priestess, an accomplishment that few had the honour to receive. Yet other than it being the hallowed grounds for which the legend that the Grey Lady, the first healer of Astrum, had arrived and discovered the Isles, the Ootoe beach was exquisite to the eye.
The sand was softer than sugar, ivory coloured and speckled with stray seashells, rocks and seaweed. The cliffs surrounding the area were also pale rocks that almost sparkled if the sun caught them and curved around the beach like a mother’s welcoming arms, to receive the grey-blue ocean that ebbed and flowed to the beach every day. Eirene made a reminder in her head to visit the beach more often from now on. Nothing that the Eistr Mariskh or anywhere else on Astrum could offer was better than Ootoe beach and the eery peacefulness it held.
Sitting down on a spot far enough from the water’s edge, Eirene inhaled the ocean air and savoured the salt of it. Ynys would have loved to have been here. They would surely have tried their hands at cards, maybe drawn images in the sand, or gone near enough to the nearby coves to see whether there laid bones or treasure, yet they would never have dared venture in. The salt in the air then began to taste a little bitter and also sting Eirene’s already watery eyes as the wind blew against her face.
“Still dwelling on the boy?”
She should have risen to acknowledge her elder, but Eirene did not move or turn to High Priest Jhamy. It was taking a great deal of her will power not to burst into tears in front of the older woman.
“Are my mother and High Priest Eldwin looking for me?”
“I should think you know the answer to that, young mistress.” Jhamy replied curtly, cursing inside her head as she knelt down on the sand to join the young girl.
Eirene bowed her head. “I cannot believe that he has gone.”
“Yet he has.”
“Yet he has.” Eirene then took a handful of sand and let the grains fall through her fist onto her feet. “I was stupid to believe it would last.”
Whether the girl was referring to her friendship or the potential love that could have blossomed, Jhamy felt only the tiniest pang. She was not an empathetic nor sympathetic woman often, and not to many either, but Eirene’s plea was true and poignant. It was the voice of many girls, perhaps including Jhamy herself, who had once found love and hoped, so desperately, that the illusion wouldn’t shatter. It was a voice that resonated, strongly and so powerfully.
Jhamy however resolved to be wise and not to give in too much to Eirene’s sadness. The priestess knew that the girl was strong and capable beyond her years; she would not let such potential fly off in the wind. If ever there was a time to properly teach Eirene to focus, to really hone in all the energy, sad, happy, good, or bad, it was now.
“You are anything but stupid, Eirene. That is the first notion I would like you to be rid of from now on.” Jhamy started firmly, catching Eirene by surprise. ”Now your mother and High Priest Eldwin have felt that kindness is what you need, which I agree with in part. But I also think you need to be given some home truths - some you may not like, but you need to hear nonetheless.”
“Such as, Lady Giolha?” Eirene asked, almost nervous to discover what Jhamy had to say.
“Your moping is not doing you any good.” Jhamy said bluntly. “Your studies are still to reasonable standard at the moment, but I believe even you can admit that you are not trying as hard you might have done before, because you are allowing your feelings to get the better of you.”
It was true, and Eirene looked down to the floor, biting her lip.
“You should also consider treating your classmates with a little more regard than you do currently. Ynys is a very intelligent and witty young man no doubt, but you would do well to mingle better with others. Perhaps you might find more kindred spirits if you do so.”
“Even with Annexa?” Eirene answered back a little and with slightly narrowed eyes. Surely Jhamy would not suggest that she befriend such a vindictive girl like Annexa?
“You may never become friends, but the best lesson we may learn is to work with those we disagree with. You know I criticise Annexa on many an occasion, but I will say this for her, she is determined and quite adept at her studies. You two together would make quite the pair.”
Eirene did not agree entirely with Jhamy on that notion, but she accepted the general message: it was time she ventured beyond the comfort of friendship that Ynys had provided over the years.
“And one last thing: you are more than capable of living without the boy.” Jhamy looked at Eirene very pointedly this time, as though she had sniffed out what had been the young girl’s true desire for the past few days.
“I did not realise my countenance gave away such a message. I have already accepted he is not coming back.” Eirene replied quietly.
Jhamy nodded approvingly. “Perhaps I judge you a little harshly on that point.”
“You did say you would impart some home truths to me and I cannot disagree with any of them.”
“I say them because otherwise so young a mind might forget all the life and potential you have ahead of you.” Jhamy put a callused hand softly on Eirene’s hands in her lap. “You may think me cold and an old hag now, but you will one day believe me when I say this: there are greater tragedies that can happen in this world, and heartbreak only lasts if you let it. This is one, small moment of your life that you will forget, and if and when you do remember, it’ll be almost as if it never happened, because you will have moved so far from it.”
The wind on the beach began to slow and so did the sting of tears that burned the backs of Eirene’s eyes. Harsh truths, indeed, that came from High Priestess Jhamy. They struck a chord within Eirene and they would be hard to swallow, the more she thought of the advice she had just been given. But she accepted them nonetheless, just like the fact that Ynys wasn’t coming back, and that she needed to move on.
Turning to look at Jhamy with drier eyes, Eirene said, “Thank you, Lady Giolha.”
Jhamy couldn’t help smiling a little. “Come, young mistress. Let us relieve your mother and High Priest Eldwin of their worries.”
Eirene obeyed immediately, helping the High Priestess to her feet and then walking back from the beach to the Eistr Mariskh. Behind her, the wind on Ootoe beach had died and only the faint sound of the trembling ocean remained.
The next day during her healing lesson with Jhamy, Eirene sat scribing as the High Priestess lectured to her class. She felt more motivated than she had done in days and was already working more readily in her lessons. Jhamy, forever observant of Eirene and with eyes like a hawk, was pleased to see that her advice had sunk in. It was only the start however, and now Jhamy was ready to really test if Eirene was making the right changes.
“Mistress Nielaa, I see that you have been deprived a study partner.” She announced out loud, looking around the room for someone suitable. Her eyes landed on a young girl who went by the name of Kermaca Zearyai. A quiet little thing, Jhamy thought, wondering if a bit of fire from Eirene would encourage the timid young girl out of her shell. Deciding this would work, Jhamy pointed to Kermaca.
“Mistress Zearyai, move yourself to Mistress Nielaa’s desk, quickly now!”
Jumping out of her seat nearly, Kermaca near soiled herself. High Priestess Jhamy could truly be terrifying when issuing orders. Whispers around the classroom, especially from Annexa and her gaggle also confirmed another thought that had worried Eirene for years: some of her classmates, like Kermaca, were intimidated by her.
Whether or not this was because of her temper, or simply because she outperformed in the classroom, Eirene remembered what Jhamy had said and was determined to set things straight, starting with this girl who she had barely said a word to.
As Kermaca approached the desk, Eirene offered a small smile and greeted her with nonchalant, “Mistress Zearyai.”
Clearly surprised to have been addressed as such, Kermaca stammered in reply. “M-mistress N-Nielaa.”
Once the girl was settled, Jhamy returned her attentions to the rest of class.
“Today we shall be brewing a more complex version a poison healing potion. As you know a simple brew is effective for milder cases, but for the more severe poisons, we would need to apply something more potent and long lasting. A complex poison healer is tricky to concoct, I warn you, so I will need to you all to pay close attention to the fine balances I shall be applying to make this brew. I should like one of you in your pairs to observe and follow my lead, the other to make notes.”
The classroom quickly bustled to follow the instructions from the High Priestess. Eirene turned to her new partner and saw that Kermaca had still not relaxed from sitting next to her. Deciding that gently-gently might be the best approach, she kindly offered, “Would you like to do the practical?”
Kermaca looked almost beside herself at the suggestion, tucking a stray hair nervously back behind her ear.
“Surely you would be more proficient than I to follow Lady Giolha’s instructions? You are, after all, a great favourite.” The girl replied, her voice still somewhat trembling.
“A favourite I may be, but that does not mean I am any more or less proficient to do what I am told.” Eirene replied ruefully when she spotted Jhamy watching them carefully.
“But you are most proficient, perhaps the most of all of us.” Kermaca still protested, her cheeks pink from blushing. “I would not want to serve as a poor partner.”
“I would not believe that of you, Kermaca, for you are too attentive and very eager to please. I am sure you will do a fine job. In any case, it is not often I offer to do the boring part of experimentations, which is scribing.” Smiling, Eirene handed her partner an empty vial. “Think of this as a welcome to our new partnership. I hope we work well together”
To Eirene’s surprise, Kermaca finally lost the nervous glint in her eye and smiled. “You know what, Eirene, I think we might.”
By the end of the lesson, together Eirene and Kermaca had not only made an almost perfect complex poison healer, but they had also made the tender beginnings of an amicable relationship. Throughout the experimentations, Eirene was pleasantly surprised to learn that Kermaca wasn’t so different from her as she initially though they might be. Kermaca excelled well in healing, loved to read scrolls on the histories of the twelve kingdoms, and very much preferred to be outdoors. All these things Eirene would never had known, had Jhamy not been so brave as to tell her the brutal truth, which was that she had never looked beyond Ynys because he was the closest to her in kindred spirit, that she never thought anyone else could be remotely the same.
Kermaca was not like Ynys in plenty of ways, and Eirene was beginning to see why this was the best thing that could happen now that Ynys was away from her. It made her appreciate the differences that her classmates could offer her, how they could teach her different ways in which they looked at the world. It was to be one of the most valuable lessons Eirene would ever learn.
As Eirene went to leave the classroom, Annexa also reached the doorway. Annexa then saw Eirene and stopped. The two stared at each other for a moment and then the whole class froze, ready to see if there would be another duel between two girls. Was this a trick? Eirene thought initially, surprised that Annexa had not already sneered or made some remark. Then she kept looking and this time, perhaps for the first time in years, she saw there was no malice or anger in her nemesis.
“Mistress Mathara.” Eirene said politely, stepping to one side to allow Annexa through.
Instead of taking the opportunity to leave, Annexa also took a step away from the doorway and extended her hand to gesture Eirene forward first. “After you, Mistress Nielaa.”
It wasn’t a truce, it wasn’t a surrender, and it certainly wasn’t a white flag. Eirene understood Annexa perfectly. They would never be friends, too much had been said to ever warrant such an idea. Yet they had learned now that they could be civil, for since the day Ynys had left, it seemed futile to bring about and rejoice each other’s misery.
“Thank you.” Eirene said to Annexa, then sweeping through the doorway and into the corridors, with her head held high. As she walked back to her quarters, the priests and priestesses all looked to her with a concealed smile and murmur of approval. Little Mistress Nielaa was back with a fire in her belly, and everyone, perhaps even Annexa, was pushing her to succeed.
Eirene would remember this day for the rest of her life.
She paused to admire herself slightly in the mirror in her new robes. Not a girl who was usually inclined to think of herself as pretty, or to indulge in beautifully woven fabrics, she allowed herself this moment to gaze upon the reflection looking back at her. She had moved on in great strides since the incident with Ynys two years ago, and she could safely admit to herself that she had never been stronger, or more proud to reach this stage.
The cloth was the lightest silk, coloured a dark gray blue like her eyes and lined on the seams with silver thread. The sleeves were split in half from the shoulder to wrist, as was the front skirt down the middle from her mid thigh to her feet, leaving both her arms and legs exposed. Her only other extravagances were the silver diadem on her head, from which one single sapphire hung between her eyebrows, and a necklace bearing a silver mould of a horse. This necklace was her mother’s heirloom, from her mother and mothers before her. It felt almost heavy on her neck to think that many great priestesses and more have once possessed this beautiful trinket.
Sighing to try and ease her nerves, Eirene practiced her bow and ran over the words she was to speak at the ceremony. Today was to be the day she would begin her journey to becoming a High Priestess of the Eistr Mariskh temple, one of the greatest honours one could achieve as resident on the Isles of Astrum. The day could not have come sooner now she was fourteen in years. She had learned much about the arts of healing, she had mastered most languages known to the world, practiced the basics in sorcery, and her most favourite ability she still used to date: speaking with nature.
A knock on the door startled her. She turned and breathed with relief. It was only her dear mother. Maridi’s hair was now as silver as her own eyes, her face lined with joy and sadness. The years had wizened her and more than ever, Eirene wanted to prove her mother proud.
“My child, my…beautiful little girl.” Maridi whispered as she came and took her daughter’s face in her weathered hands. “Not a girl any longer, I suppose, but still mine.”
Smiling, Eirene took her mother’s hands and kissed them. “Do you think I’m ready, Mama?”
“Of course, my sweet girl, of course. But remember what I taught you -”
“There is always much to learn?”
“There is always much to learn.” Maridi repeated, smiling sadly as she tucked a hair behind her child’s ear. “I should think you will not have much time for me after this day, now you have been set on a great path.”
“Never, Mama. I will always have time for you.” Eirene replied seriously, still holding onto her mother’s hands. Maridi chuckled and took her hands back.
“You always have been a dutiful girl, my child. You must know how proud I am of you.” Maridi’s eyes watered, looking over again at the budding young girl stood before her, almost ready for womanhood. She remembered all those years ago when Eirene had asked about her papa, and all the times since then where her temper had gotten the better of her. Oh, she was a stubborn and wilful child still, but she had learnt to be mindful of her temper and that, above all other traits which may have served against her before, had transformed the ungainly foal into a majestic and graceful mare. The horse sigil on Eirene’s neck was most becoming on her now she was of age.
Eirene turned back to the mirror, uncomfortable at the sight of her mother’s tears. Maridi came from behind her daughter, wrapping her arms around her and bestowing a comforting kiss on her sweet scented hair. Eirene must have been in the fields early this morning, for she still carried the smell of grass and wildflowers around her.
“I hope to keep making you proud, Mama.”
“You always have, and always will, my girl. Always.”
Finally breaking the embrace, Eirene turned and took her mother’s arm. She couldn’t help thinking, what might have happened if Ynys had not left the Eistr Mariskh? How would they have spent the time before and during the preparations? Yes, they still wrote to each other, now that the water had been cleared from under the bridge, but it could never be the same.
Then Eirene looked at her mother and remembered who had been there for her all along these years. Ynys would always have a special place in her heart, but her mother far more special than that. She was the one person, apart from High Priest Eldwin, who had never let her down. With this in mind, Eirene forgot her sadness about Ynysy and focused on the present, which was the joy of being chosen to be a High Priestess, just like her mother. Together, mother and child walked out of their quarters in the temple, towards the beach where Eirene’s fate would be forever changed.
They ran past her in terror: village women, nymphs, priests and priestesses alike desperately scrabbling up the road away from the sea shore, kicking up dust with their frantic feet. Eirene came to an abrupt halt from her peaceful walk down towards where the revellers should have been celebrating. Her mind then became wary and alert, wondering what danger must be approaching. Shaking herself away from her mother’s grip, she took a couple more steps onto the cliff’s edge, she could feel a faint, constant rumble under her feet. Slowly, her eyes averted from the ground to what was up ahead in the distance and then found that her heart had frozen in her chest.
A massive tsunami wave was rushing towards the shore, a colossal wall of water that Eirene found strangely mesmerising to watch. Her thoughts snapped back to reality when she spotted a nymph struggling to pull a young girl to her feet where she had tripped and started wailing with fear. Adrenaline kick starting inside her, Eirene raced towards the beach, ignoring the cries from those behind her who could see that she was running into even more imminent danger.
Up ahead, Eirene could see High Priest Eldwin roaring to the wind, his arms held above him as he cried ancient spells she had not ever read in her scrolls. He was trying to stop the waves. Eirene cried out to him but it was too late and even the great Eldwin was no match for the great wave. He turned back to Eirene’s call with a sad smile on his face, before he was swept away from her forever.
Gulping her grief, Eirene carried on towards the nymph and her daughter. She would not allow another one to be taken on her watch.
“No! You mustn’t! Get yourself to safety!” The nymph protested, though her words were to no avail as Eirene picked up the young girl with all the strength she could muster and grabbed the nymph’s hand to start them running back towards inland with the tsunami close on their tail.
“Oh by the Gods, we won’t make it – it’s too powerful!”
Eirene ignored the female running beside her, clutching the infant in her grasp tighter to her chest whilst sprinting forward with even more urgency. She knew by the all means that it was no ordinary wave. She herself had seen some storms conjured up and the waves that were rocked by them did not even compare to this one devastating force of nature.
The trio could then hear the wave crash onto the beach behind them, followed by the screams and the yells from those behind them who had not quite made it, where the water swept up everything in its path and continued towards them.
“Mama?” The young girl whimpered as she looked at her nymph mother, tears spurting helplessly from her eyes. Her mother slowed down and dropped to the ground with exhaustion, unable to match Eirene’s stamina. Seeing that the nymph needed help, Eirene skidded and turned sharply on her heel to run back towards her, still holding the child whilst holding out a hand.
“Take my hand – come on, we can still make the hill if we keep pushing.” Eirene stated shortly, aware that the wave was getting closer and they were getting no farther from it. But then she saw the look in the older nymph’s eye and knew what she would have to make a pain-staking decision.
“I’m sorry.” The nymph cried out, no longer having the strength to rise. “Keep running, and don’t look back. May the Gods keep you
Eirene shook her head, not wanting to believe that this might be the end of the road for this nymph mother. But after taking one more look at the young, frightened girl she held in her arms, she saw why she would have to turn around once more and just keep on going.
“Mama? MAMA!” The girl screeched when Eirene took off again, crying even more noisily than before as her mother waved at her forlornly, getting visibly smaller whilst the two remaining female’s on the beach kept running for dear life.
Eirene could only have wished to offer something more comforting to the young girl. So many people were dying where the tsunami was drowning them, but she forced herself focus on the precious time that was rapidly slipping away for them to make it safely onto high ground. It was too late for everyone else and she was left with no other option other than the one thing of her mind. Keep running.
And that meant no looking back if she could help it.
Until she could hear voices whispering her name. As if by hypnosis, Eirene could feel the voices slowing her down, slowing down time whilst calling her name, drawing her attention from behind her.
She turned around and her mouth dropped open in disbelief when she saw the first most unprecedented occurrence she had ever seen in her life. The screams around her faded into the background. She even couldn’t hear the girl sobbing at her to run for the hills. Nothing could tear her eyes away from it: the giant wall of bright blue water had formed into the shape of a creature too terrifying to name, a deathly roar echoing from its depths as it sped towards Eirene.
She was completely transfixed. What force of the world, or maybe even the universe, could possibly have created such a fearsome mass of destruction? The very place she had lived on since she was born was being ripped to pieces, and yet she did not tremble. She did not feel anything but a dumbing numbness that blocked any sort of emotion or feeling that could’ve helped her run away from it.
By the Gods we won’t make it –
No. Eirene was determined to keep her and this young girl safe. Even if the wave did take them, she knew they would be alright. It was almost upon them now. There was nowhere else to run or hide. Whatever was in store for them next, Eirene threw caution to the wind and stood firm facing the water, stroking the girl’s head with one hand and holding her close to her chest to soothe her.
Kissing her on the forehead, Eirene looked into frightened eyes with a calm stare hoping that this girl, no matter how young she was, could see and understand that they would be alright. Whether they stayed alive or not.
The next thing Eirene knew, she was knocked from her feet as though she were flying in midair. The force of the wave was so powerful that she lost her grip on the girl, the two of them struggling to hold onto to each other as the violent swirls of water tossed them around and kept them apart. She tried to grab the girl but to no avail as the water swept her away even further, her hands outstretched powerlessly in struggle against the tide.
Eirene could feel her consciousness fading, her body giving up the fight whilst the waves began to settle. It was no use fighting it. She let herself go to float on her back, the sun shining dimly through the ripples from where she was deep down underwater. In this odd state of tranquillity, she began to think of her childhood…of her home…of her mother…
Eirene’s eyes began to close as she floated up towards light, unsure that her world she was returning to would be the same…or if it would now have changed forever…