Nausea roiled through Belihn. For days, cold had assailed him, but he was not allowed to have anything warmer than a thin blanket. His cell–the room was too small to be anything but–had a balcony door that looked out onto Draemin Cathedral’s lush gardens, although this late in the year, the gardens were covered by a thick blanket of pristine snow.
How long had Belihn been sequestered in this tiny cell? The days seemed to blend into each other until he lost count. He was allowed to drink water but no food had touched his lips in a long time. Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli spent most of the day in prayer with him. Then they would go to a steam room and Belihn would sit in the small room with the Prei-Serren and sweat the impurities from his system. The steam room was often followed by terrible purges, during which Belihn had to drink horrible tasting teas, followed by bouts of vomiting or diarrhea. The Prei-Serren assured him the Goddess would send him a vision before the end of the purification period, but as the days and hours passed, Belihn began to have his doubts.
When he prayed, he was earnest. He did as the Prei-Serren had instructed him and did not ask for anything, merely whispered the poetry of adoration from the Holy Book. Belihn had always believed in the Goddess, although he had been lax about attending weekly services. He had always paid his tithe to the Church. He wondered now if his lax attitude towards his faith meant the Goddess had abandoned him.
The cell held a cot with a thin pillow and blanket (which he now wore around his shoulders), a desk and chair and a waste bucket. The smooth wooden floors were bare, as were the pale walls. The only book he was allowed was the Holy Soulkah. He had also been given a notebook and a pen and inkwell to record his visions. The notebook remained stubbornly blank.
He licked his chapped lips and stared at the notebook as if it would reveal secrets to him. Despair threatened to overwhelm him. How many days were left before he was allowed to lead the troops west to the Khaine River Valley?
A knock at the cell door made him turn, expecting the High Priest. Two serrens entered instead and bowed to him.
The older one on the right gave him an encouraging smile. “We must induce a trance, your Majesty. For that purpose, we have prepared a tea infused with special herbs. You must drink the tea and nothing else.”
Belihn nodded, disliking the smell wafting up from the teapot. He watched silently as the serrens set the tray with the teapot and the mug on the desk.
The younger serren turned to him. “This has been steeping for the correct amount of time now, your Majesty.” He took the full mug from the older priest and handed it to Belihn. “Please drink the tea.”
Belihn sipped the tea and his mouth suffused with saliva at the intensely bitter taste. He swallowed with difficulty as his stomach threatened to upheave its contents.
He sat down on the chair and took deep breaths of the cold air as sweat broke out on his skin.
“It’s an unpleasant taste,” the older priest said, sympathy limning his words. “But you must imbibe it to encourage visions.”
Belihn bit back an angry retort. He was getting tired of being told what to do, of being watched as if he was not trustworthy. He glared at both priests as they hovered nearby and watched him sip the horrible tea until the mug was empty. At least the tea was hot and warmed his insides nicely. When he was done with that mug, the older priest at once refilled the mug and handed it back. Belihn grimaced and meekly drank that, too.
“We’ll be back, your Majesty,” the younger priest promised. “The Prei-Serren is on his way to pray with you.”
When they had gone, Belihn rose and returned to the balcony door where he spent most of his days gazing out of the glass pane and into the gardens. His stomach gurgled and he swallowed convulsively as nausea filled him. His desire for food had long ago fled, leaving behind a sense of freedom that was close to euphoria. He now understood the looks of ecstasy on serrens’ faces when they fasted and prayed. He knew the Prei-Serren fasted at least twice a month for a week at a time. His fervor for fasting was something that Belihn now understood. The sense of emptiness was freeing somehow.
The door opened and Lahn walked in, dressed in a simple tunic and trouser ensemble. His feet were encased in ankle boots. His hair was plaited into one braid down his back. He seemed much younger than his forty odd years, his hair untouched by gray, his skin untouched by lines. He was willowy and graceful with a serene look in his gray eyes.
“Belihn,” he said and smiled. “We will pray until the visions come.”
Two new serrens walked in after him and set incense holders on the desk. Soon, the sweet musk of the incense filled the small space.
The priests unrolled a large, thick rug on the floor.
“We will sit on the rug,” Lahn told Belihn. “And we will pray.”
They sat facing each other, knees touching as they sat crosslegged.
The Prei-Serren waited until the priests departed, closing the door behind them. Then he looked intently at Belihn.
“You have been fasting for a fortnight now. I don’t know why She has not touched you, but we will give Her a push now.” He took Belihn’s hands in his warm ones. “Your eyes are dilating nicely and soon you will be open to Her presence.”
“What if She doesn’t come?” Belihn asked.
Lahn frowned. “She is always here. Her grace will touch you, Belihn. Fear not.”
Belihn closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over him. He struggled to remain sitting up when the overwhelming desire to lay down overcame him.
Lahn tightened his hold on Belihn’s hands. “You have had the courage to face down Kah’len Tjashensi, which is not a feat to be scoffed at. You have sent away most of your family and now are the King of North Torahn. Already, things are in motion that you do not know about. In the holy plane, all things are possible. She guides actions in your favor, Belihn. You must have faith. If you question Her, She may turn from you. Let us pray.”
Belihn allowed the High Priest to buoy him as he began to echo his prayers.
“Oh, Divine One. Great and Holy Mother and Warrior. Your sword and shield keep us safe from our enemies. Your holy strength wipes from the world those who question Your grace. Hold me up, Atana, when I falter.
“Sorrow for the doubters. Joy in Your victory. The dance of days and years that uphold Your holy might! Oh, most beautiful Mistress. Keeper of time, Mother of all things, Hand which grasps pretenders and shakes them senseless.
“We praise You. We avow You. We love You, Mother of all things, without whose grace we would not exist. Atana, most holy presence, most pure and good spirit! Touch us and cleanse us!“
They repeated the prayer so many times, the words began to lose sense in Belihn’s mind. He was aware of the soft rug beneath him, the cold air around him, and the warmth of the High Priest’s hands. Soon, though, he got the sense of floating up from the floor and into the air. He kept his eyes closed and had a moment of panic.
“Be at peace, Belihn,” Lahn murmured. “It begins.”
Within the darkness of Belihn’s closed eyes, gold flashes erupted. A cold-hot sensation washed over him, left him feeling wrung out and weak. He began to shiver and shake uncontrollably. He was terrified of opening his eyes, even as tears leaked from their edges and down his numb cheeks.
“Do not be afraid,” the High-Priest intoned. “Child of the Goddess, chosen one.”
A warm hand caressed his face. “Open your eyes.”
Belihn opened his eyes. Lahn knelt next to him and held him close as Belihn shook.
“You will go into a trance,” Lahn warned him. “You must not fight it, for it can get unpleasant if you do. Allow the visions to come and do not block them, even if you don’t want to see what She gives you. These are things She needs you to know, for whatever Her purpose may be.”
Belihn was shaking so hard, he felt like a dosi calf in the maw of a tash-tash. His teeth rattled and he bit his tongue. Slowly, Lahn lowered him to the rug.
“Do not fight it, Belihn,” Lahn said softly. “Be calm.”
Belihn’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he was gripped in the fist of a fit. He felt spittle leak from the corner of his mouth as his entire body shook like a leaf in a gale. He heard Lahn speaking, but he could not make out the words as a roar of wind filled his mind and ears. Points of light appeared within the darkness that filled his sight. One such point began to grow. As it grew, the light began to coalesce into a form. From within the light, an exquisite woman stepped through. She wore gold armor studded with jewels. Her arms, legs and torso were bare. Her small, pert breasts were that of a young girl’s. Her graceful left arm held a gold shield and her right hand held a golden broadsword. Her muscular legs strode across the space with purpose. Her black hair fell loose to midback. She wore a blood red cloak fastened at the collarbone. Her fierce gray eyes were filled with a fire that blinded him.
I am here.
Son of the Tash-tash. Your sire forgot his purpose and his promise and has fallen from grace as a consequence. Do you understand?
I do, Queen of Heaven.
You must see what you must do. If you forget your promise, I will visit pain upon your scions unto the future. Do you hear me, Pup?
I hear you, my Queen.
If you forsake me, I will wipe your line from the face of the world, never to return. In the afterlife, they will suffer for your wrongs. Do you ken?
Aye, Wise Mother.
She swept her sword arm and he saw before him a great battle roiling with many different forces. He saw his standard as it flapped in the wind. The battlefield was vast and the cries of the dead and dying filled the air. In his mind’s eye, he saw his father as he sat astride a bahil next to the Queen of Tjish.un. Darkness roiled at their backs. Strange creatures spilled from the darkness and created havoc among Belihn’s men.
Do not falter. Lead by example. Fear cannot take hold of your men. You must be brave, son of the Tash-tash. Your sire has turned from the way, from me. Watch.
A great, strange, fearful beast rose from the north and strode over the bodies of the dead and dying. Its strange skin was filled with weeping fistulae. From its horrible fanged maw rose a vapor that felled the strongest of men. As it swept past the forces, whole segments of the armies fell.
Belihn gasped, What is that?
Fear not, son of the Tash-tash. Nothing will touch you. You are safe as long as you pray to me. Look.
As Belihn watched, his standard grew until it filled the sky. As he watched, the beast strode past his father and his father screamed and fell to the ground, the Queen of Tjish.un following suit. Screams of terror filled the battlefield. In the next moment, a stillness had fallen upon the tents that filled the grassland. No one moved about. The stench of death filled the air.
Is the battle over?
The battle is over, son of the Tash-tash. Keep your eyes on me. Believe.
Will I win?
Belihn blinked his eyes and reached a shaking hand to his face. He wiped at the tears and spittle on his chin.
Lahn raised his head and fed him clear, cool water to wash away the taste of blood and bitterness from his mouth.
He blinked up at Lahn. “I don’t understand.”
“You will, in time,” the Prei-Serren told him. “Listen to her. If she gave you a directive, you must follow it at all costs.”
“But will I win?”
“Have faith, Belihn,” Lahn told him.
Belihn swallowed and looked away, afraid and frustrated and weak as a newborn.
He was assisted to his feet by Lahn and another serren, who led him to his cot and allowed him to lie down.
Lahn covered him with the blanket and a large swath of fur. “Sleep now, Belihn. Trust in Atana and all will be well.”
Belihn sighed, filled with a sorrow he could not understand. He closed his eyes because he could not stare at the High Priest and his damned serenity any longer.