Asphodel watched Carthinal as he strode away after leaving her on the steps of the temple of Sylissa. She could still feel the faint touch of his lips on her hair. Suddenly she felt very alone. She may never see Carthinal, nor Bas or Fero again. She pushed those thoughts aside as she climbed the steps. This is what she had always wanted to do. Be a healer in the service of Sylissa.
She entered the temple through the great double doors. Inside, the main room of the temple was circular. There were seats all around a central altar, and the windows around the walls and in the dome high above, concentrated the light so that it fell on the altar and also on the alcove opposite the doors where there was a life-sized statue of Sylissa. The temple was built of white marble and the floor was paved with a beautiful mosaic, showing Sylissa giving the gift of healing to her first priestess. Asphodel stopped to admire the beauty.
‘Yes, it makes everyone stop the first time they see it, sister.’ The voice came from by her elbow.
Asphodel jumped. ‘Oh! I didn’t hear you coming,’ she said, adding “Minister” and bowing her head as she saw his deep orange sash, indicating his rank.
‘Sorry, sister,’ replied the minister. ‘I’m Minister Micory, and I’m on duty here today. Is there anything I can help you with?’
‘I have a letter for the Great Father, Minister Micory,’ replied Asphodel, bowing her head to a superior. ‘Could you tell me how to get it to him please?’
‘If you give it to me, I’ll get a novice to take it to him. Do you need a reply?’
‘Yes. I will need some response from the Great Father.’
‘If you wait here,’ continued Minister Micory, ‘The Great Father will send a reply to you as soon as he is able. I’ll let him know where you are. You could use the time in meditation and prayer, sister.’
With that, Minister Micory called a passing novice and Asphodel gave her the letter to take to the Great Father. She then went and sat down in one of the seats surrounding the altar to wait for some response. She had no idea how long she would have to wait for an answer to the note that Mother Caldo had given her for the Great Father, so she settled down for a long wait. As she sat there in the magnificent temple Asphodel framed a prayer to Sylissa to thank her for allowing her to reach Hambara safely, and also added a prayer for the continuing safety of her travelling companions. She then tried to meditate as Minister Micory had suggested, but found that it was almost impossible. Her mind kept wandering and she found the time was passing all too slowly. The duty minister changed. When they changed, Minister Micory said something to the new minister, and they both glanced over at her. She guessed that Minister Micory was telling the new minister who she was.
The new minister came over and spoke to her. ‘Good afternoon, sister. I am the new duty minister for this afternoon. I assume that you have not eaten your noon meal. You may go to the refectory with the other acolytes and get something to eat. The Great Father will not be responding until after he has eaten.’
‘Thank you, minister,’ replied Asphodel, again bowing her head.
The protocol and hierarchy were very strict in the various religions of Vimar, and Asphodel, being of the most junior rank, that of novice, equating to apprentice in most other callings, was outranked by just about everyone she met in the church. The highest ranked cleric of each god was known as the Most High, but each church and temple had its ruler known as the Great Father or Mother who were answerable only to the Most High of their specific Church.
The minister called over a novice and asked if she was about to go to the refectory. The girl replied in the affirmative, and was given instructions to show Asphodel the way.
The girl introduced herself as Chejorie, a new acolyte, and she chatted on as she led the way to the refectory. They passed through a door to the right and along a corridor to a large door at the end where there was issuing a smell of cooking. Asphodel realised that she was very hungry, and she relished having a meal.
After eating the food served in the refectory, and listening to Chejorie’s chatter, Asphodel made her way back to the main temple. She sat down again to wait. Again time passed and eventually a door opened near to the statue of Sylissa, which was situated at the opposite side of the great rotunda from the big main doors. A procession of initiates then made their way in single file around the temple. They were singing a sunset hymn, which made Asphodel realise that much of the day had passed. The singing was beautiful. There were at least eight parts, Asphodel realised, and instead of each part being grouped together, as in a conventional choir, they were spread around. This gave a very beautiful and melodious sound as each group of eight people made a chord and this chord was spread all around the temple. She was entranced. People were sitting in the seats of the temple now. Some were initiates and acolytes of Sylissa, but many were ordinary townsfolk, come to pray for sick relatives and friends or to give thanks for a recovery.
The officiating cleric entered through the same door as the choir, and began to conduct the service. It was a beautiful service, Asphodel thought. The choir sang all the rest of the service in praise of Sylissa with as much feeling and beauty as the hymn at the beginning, and everyone in the congregation joined in for their parts.
Eventually the sunset ceremony was over, and the Minister on duty came over to her.
‘It’s obvious the Great Father won’t be seeing you today,’ she told Asphodel. ‘You’d better stay in the guestrooms tonight. If your letter needs a reply, I expect the Great Father will send a message tomorrow. Follow me, please.’
She began to walk away to the door that Asphodel had gone through with Chejorie earlier, and this time opened the second door on the right. ‘You can rest here tonight. You’ll find an evening meal will be served in the refectory in about an hour, and breakfast at the second hour in the morning after the dawn service. I expect you’ll want to attend that. It commences at the twenty fourth hour of the day.’
She stood back to allow Asphodel to enter, and then closed the door behind her.
‘Well, that sounded more like a command,’ muttered Asphodel. ‘I’ll get a wash and then go and eat. If I am to be up before dawn, I’d better get an early night.’
The water for washing was cold, and the bed was harder than the ground she had been sleeping on recently. She sighed, put on a clean robe and went out for some food, which was just about sufficient for her hunger, but not for her palate as it was very basic. Asphodel went to bed feeling unsatisfied at her first experience of the Temple of Sylissa in Hambara.
The next morning, Asphodel awoke feeling stiff. A bell was being rung somewhere nearby to wake the faithful for the dawn prayers. She washed in cold water again, and dressed before making her way to the temple. The service began with the same polyphonic choir, this time singing a hymn to the dawn. Then the rest of the service commenced. It continued with praises and thanks to Sylissa, and the officiating cleric, a deacon this morning, spoke at length about how all should be striving to eliminate evil in both themselves and the world. He spoke of injury and disease as evils that had been brought upon the races of the world by their evil ways and how they were the punishment of the gods. He explained how the Most High wanted to eradicate all evil beings in order for the gods to lift their punishments on the peoples of the world.
His talk was long, Asphodel estimating an hour at least, and she wondered how anyone could manage to talk for so long about the need for the elimination of evil, and her mind wandered. She began wondering where the others were and what they were doing. Was Carthinal getting ready to take his tests? She realised that she had no idea when the tests were to begin. Would he have to wait in Hambara for a while or would they begin straight away, today? She thought that Basalt and Fero would be seeking work, and sent up a little prayer that they were both successful.
After the long sermon there were prayers to Sylissa asking her to help them to overcome their faults, and then fifteen minutes were set aside for the congregation to meditate on their own evil and to ask for forgiveness. By the time the service was over, Asphodel’s stomach was beginning to rumble, much to her embarrassment. The service had taken well over two hours. She left for the refectory where she was given a bowl of porridge and a glass of water. She sighed as she took it to a table and began to eat. Was this how Sylissa wanted her servants to live? Surely not! All these rules and abstinence, even having to eat poor quality food. It had not been like this at the temple in Bluehaven when she left, and she found herself wondering if this was the only temple where such abstemiousness was practiced.
After her breakfast, such as it was, she returned to the temple to wait, again admiring its beauty. Just before the sixth hour, a novice approached her with a message to follow him. She was taken along a corridor off the first one she had gone down, with the refectory at the end and the guest rooms, until they came to a door on the left. A Temple guard dressed in white, the colour of Sylissa, guarded it.
The novice knocked and a harsh male voice called, ‘Come in.’
Asphodel opened the door, and at once saw a rather large man in front of her with gold-edged white robes. The Great Father. She immediately fell down onto her knees as she had been taught, and kept her eyes on the floor. All she could see was the carpet beneath her feet, which was a very rich one, in deep blue and gold. The voice spoke from somewhere above her head.
‘I have read Mother Caldo’s letter, child, and I find it most disquieting. She thinks that you would be better here and that I can do more with you than she can. I think that maybe she is right there. Firstly, I think that we should effect a means of teaching you discipline; a virtue that you seem to be sadly lacking if Mother Caldo’s letter is anything to go by. So I have decided that you will join with the Daughters of Sylissa. As you know, they are an order who devote their entire lives to the service of the goddess and others. They are an order who do not mix with outsiders, who have taken vows of chastity and obedience and who spend their days in quiet prayer and contemplation. They only have contact with the general public during their times on duty as healers in the infirmary.’
Asphodel stifled a cry at this. The life of the Daughters was not one that she had ever contemplated, knowing instinctively that she was not cut out for such a life.
The voice went on, ‘I do not think we will expect you to take the vows and become a full Daughter, unless, that is, you decide that you are called to them, but as long as you remain with them, you will abide by their rules. You will have no contact with anyone other than your fellow sisters except when you are healing. Of course, as far as the other Daughters are concerned, you are going to become a full member in due course. Only the Mother will know that it may only be temporary. Do you have anything to say, daughter?’
‘H-how long will I be with the Daughters, Great Father?’ Asphodel stuttered, appalled at the idea.
‘That depends on you, child,’ came the reply. ‘You must show that you have learned the discipline required of a true cleric, which includes obedience to your superiors. Now I will call for a novice to take you to the House of the Daughters.’
Asphodel felt faint. She could hardly believe what was happening. Not to have any contact with anyone except the Daughters for an unspecified length of time. She felt as though she had just been sent to jail, but worse was to come. When she arrived at the House of the Daughters, which was connected to the temple by a windowless corridor, she was horrified when she was taken into a room, told to sit down, and the Mother cut off all her long black hair. Her protests that she was not actually joining the Daughters permanently fell on deaf ears.
‘As long as you are within our walls, you are a Daughter. The Daughters all have their hair cut off. It’s a temptation sent by Allandrina, that evil goddess of deceit, to tempt men into lustful thoughts and deeds, and young women into the sin of pride and vanity. No, it’s better that the hair be removed. It’s obvious that you’ve already fallen into the sin of vanity by your objection to having your hair cut.’
And removed it was. Asphodel watched as her raven tresses fell down to the ground. Afterwards, she put her hand up to her head to feel her hair. It had been cut off to her ears. She almost asked for a mirror, but two things stopped her. Firstly she was not sure that she really wanted to know what she looked like, and secondly, she thought that Mother would accuse her of the “sin of vanity” once more.
After that, she was shown to a cell in another part of the building. If she thought the guestroom was primitive, it was luxury compared with what she now had. There was a narrow bed with a blanket over it, but no pillow and only a very thin mattress, which would do nothing to soften the hardness of the bed. There was a small shrine to Sylissa in the corner of the room, with a statue and a triskel, and a tallow candle in a candlestick. There was no cupboard for any personal items, nor any chair or chest: just a bed and the shrine.
‘I’ve been given permission to speak to you,’ murmured the novice who showed her to the cell, ‘So that you’ll know exactly what to do. The wash place is at the end of the corridor. You’ll wash at night, before retiring and in the morning on rising. No other time is permitted.’
‘Is there no bath house?’ asked Asphodel. ‘I do like to bathe sometime to get properly clean.’
The girl looked shocked. ‘No! Bathing is strictly forbidden. It’s a luxury, and we eschew all luxuries as they can lead to the sin of avarice. We always wash in cold water too for the same reasons. We’re not allowed to converse with one another except for one hour after the evening meal. We attend all services in the temple. On alternate days, we work in the infirmary, and the days we’re not there, we spend in meditation and prayer. We’ve been instructed by the Most High to pray for the eradication of evil from the world, and for the help of Sylissa in doing so. I think that’s all that you need to know. If there are any other things you want to ask, you can ask me now, or after the evening meal.’
She paused and then remembered something else. ‘Oh, yes. We are allowed no personal property except our robes and triskel, and a cloak for if we have to go out to attend a sick person outside the temple. Any other property you have you must hand over to Mother.’
Asphodel told the girl that she thought that she had explained well, and that if there were nothing else she would like now to go into her cell and meditate. The novice then smiled and left. Asphodel entered the room and sat down on the hard bed. Tears pricked at her eyes. Her head felt wrong without the weight of her hair, and she felt ugly. She rose and closed the door. She would not let them know how she felt. She felt violated. Her hair had been taken away without her volition, and she had had all contact with the outside world removed from her, and her few meagre possessions were forfeit. How would she find out about her friends? They would think that she did not care about them. She wanted to know if Carthinal had passed his tests, if he had survived them even. What about the others? Bas and Fero? If they got jobs that took them out of the city, she would not know, and may never see them again. The tears began to flow, and she turned onto her stomach and allowed them to continue. She cried until she felt wrung out, then, still sobbing, she turned to the shrine and the statue of Sylissa. She spread her hands and prayed.
‘Why are you letting them do this to me? Deep down inside me I know this is not right. Most of what is happening here doesn’t feel right. Even praying for the eradication of evil doesn’t feel right. Surely you and the other gods put evil here as well as good for a purpose? We don’t know why you did so, but I feel inside that it’s necessary. I know the Most High is the leader of your clergy, but could he not be wrong in this? Or is it blasphemy to think that he could be fallible? Give me the strength to get through this ordeal. I’ll do my best to do as they wish so that I can once again go out into the world and heal as I wish to do.’
The rest of the day was spent in attending services and meditation and prayer. The Daughters were allowed to do their meditation in their cells, or in the gardens in the centre of the House. Asphodel decided to go into the gardens, as it was the nearest she could get to the open air and a feeling of freedom. Elves loved the natural world and felt stifled if they could not get outside into the woods and open country. The gardens were beautiful even this early in the season, with some early spring flowers already beginning to bloom in the sheltered garden surrounded by high walls and covered walkways. There were also flowering trees putting out their blossoms and the scent of spring was in the air, but even so, Asphodel found the atmosphere oppressing, so after a while she went back to her little cell.
After the evening meal, many of the Daughters wanted to talk with her as they were allowed speech at this time, but she pleaded tiredness and went to her room where she sobbed herself to sleep.
The next morning, after another long dawn service in the temple, she was told by Archdeacon Jenoria, the Mother of the Daughters of Sylissa, to report to the infirmary for duty. She was accompanied in silence by several other Daughters of different ranks all going on duty, with bent heads in a gesture of humility and submission. Asphodel did so as well, but found that she kept glancing around her and it was almost impossible to keep her head in the bowed position. Eventually they reached the infirmary. It was a light and airy place. The floor was made of white marble, and the walls were also painted white. The whole room gave a feeling of cleanliness and efficiency. The acolytes were all given a number of tasks, or simple healing to do. Asphodel was told to clean a nasty cut on a child’s knee, and to bind it up to keep it clean.
While she was doing this, a vicar on duty came and spoke to Asphodel. ‘Sister,’ she said, ‘The Great Father told me that Mother Caldo said that she thought that you may be ready to finish your noviciate and become a curate. I’ve been asked to watch you and to ascertain whether this is in fact true. If you are indeed ready to become a curate, then Sylissa will grant you the power to increase your healing. I’ll watch you as you work if you don’t mind.’
‘Of course not, Vicar,’ replied Asphodel, her head bowed in the presence of a superior. ‘Thank you.’
During the course of the morning, Asphodel had to do some simple binding of wounds, but little actual healing. She did do a simple healing on one small boy with a head wound, got from falling out of a tree he was trying to climb, as he was obviously in pain, but there were no serious injuries to deal with. Vicar Helzel, she told Asphodel that was her name, said that typically as she wanted to assess the girl’s progress, there seemed to be less healing necessary than usual. In the afternoon, however, all seemed to change. A woman came in with bad a knife cut on her hand where a knife had slipped while she was gutting fish. She was in danger of losing the use of her fingers, and Asphodel was asked to see what she could do. Firstly, she gently removed the pad that someone had placed on the injury, and wiped away all the excess blood. Then she cleaned the wound as best she could, and prayed to Sylissa for healing. She felt the strength of the goddess entering her and then passing to the woman until the bleeding stopped, but the ligaments concerned were still in danger of not knitting properly, so she prayed once more to Sylissa for her strength. This seemed to be sufficient to ensure that with further natural healing the woman would keep the use of her fingers.
Shortly after this, a man came rushing in carrying a boy. He was in a panic. The boy had been bitten by a poisonous snake in the grass outside the city. The man, the boy’s father, had carried him to the temple as quickly as possible. Asphodel was told to try to help him.
She prayed for the goddess to slow the poison. She knew that she would only be able to carry sufficient power from the goddess to slow the passage of the poison, that she was nowhere near strong enough to break it down and render it harmless. The goddess granted her power through Asphodel, and she felt the strength going out of her once more. After that, a more experienced healer would take over, but the immediate panic was ended.
If she was truly of an ability to become a curate, then she should still have the strength to perform some further healing. She felt as though this was possible, for although she felt tired, she did not feel as drained as she did when she had used up all her strength. The next hour was quite simple, prescribing herbs for a cough, cleaning grazes on children’s knees and the like, but nothing requiring any serious healing work. Then a young girl came limping in on the arm of a young man. The girl’s ankle was swelling very badly and she could hardly bear to put it down.
‘She slipped down the stairs coming out of the temple of Parador.’ explained the young man as Asphodel gently felt he ankle.
‘Can you move your toes?’ she asked the girl.
‘Yes, I think so,’ she replied, trying.
‘Well, I don’t think it is broken, just a bad sprain. I’ll do a simple healing on it, which will help with the pain and then give you a poultice. You must rest it after that until the swelling goes down. I’ll give you some more of the herbs so that you can make another poultice.’
This she did, and felt the strength go out of her as the healing took effect. She felt some elation as it meant that she had now performed one more healing than she would previously have been able to do. Vicar Helzel also noted this, and wrote it down in her little book.
Finally, Asphodel performed a final, simple healing on a man with a bruised head, and at last was feeling exhausted.
‘Well done, Sister,’ Vicar Helzel said. ‘I will inform the Great Father that in my opinion, Mother Caldo was correct and that you are indeed ready for promotion. Go now back to the House of the Daughters and get some food and rest.’
Asphodel bowed her head and replied, ‘Thank you, Vicar Helzel,’ and gratefully left. She realised on her way back to the House that she had been happy during that day. This was what she wanted to do—heal people, not spend all day praying and meditating. Not that she felt that to be a waste of time, she prayed regularly to Sylissa and occasionally to the other gods, and on occasion she meditated, but a life of doing nothing but that was, she felt, not for her. Oh well, she would be healing every other day, so she would be happy half the time, which was more than could be said for some people. Also, it was not going to be forever, just until the Great Father decided to allow her out again. She decided that she must be seen to be submissive and obedient so that her time with the Daughters would be short.