Elia almost cried with relief when she finally reached the oasis. The last stretch of her journey had been the hardest and felt the longest, and she was more than ready for it to be over. She had been honoured, and beyond ecstatic to be chosen for pilgrimage, but she had underestimated the hardships of traversing the open plains by herself. She was not the first, and surely not the last to do so, but that thought lifted her spirits only marginally.
With a tired sigh, Elia slid out of the saddle and patted her camel.
"You did well, Surefoot. We're finally there."
She allowed herself this moment of respite before straightening her dress and steeling herself for the conversations ahead. Her journey may be over, but the hard part had only just begun. She had heard many stories of the challenging trials each pilgrim had to undergo before they were allowed to petition the oracle. First, she would rest, if only for a while, before surrendering to judgement. She led Surefoot to the well to have her drink, and washed her hands and feet before she sated her own thirst.
“Welcome to Sanctuary, sister.”
Elia startled. She had been so deep in thought that she had not heard anyone approach, but there was a woman next to her, dressed in a blue robe that reminded Elia of traders from the south, with an embroidered shawl that covered her hair and the lower part of her face. The corners of her eyes were wrinkled in the way of women who laughed often and liked watching the sunset.
“My name is Aʒina. I can show you around when you are ready,” she offered.
Elia splashed a handful of lukewarm water and turned to face Aʒina.
“I am ready now.”
The Sanctuary was much larger than Elia had expected. Nestled between the grassy hills hid a sprawling city whose actual size was impossible to guess from the outside. The dirt-coloured houses blended in with the dry steppes that surrounded them, and the green trees and gardens were hidden from sight. A serpentine path led to the centre of the settlement. Aʒina nodded and smiled when Elia admired the inconspicuous defensive labyrinth and its simple architectural elegance out loud and extensively. The layout was a relict of more trying times, when the Sanctuary was the last refuge of women who had to flee an abusive relationship and defend their freedom with subterfuge and violence. The very existence of the Sanctuary was one of the main reasons why things had changed so drastically in the meantime.
“We live in peace and as equals, now, but we must not forget that it is a hard-won equality. But you understand that only too well, little sister, don’t you?”
Elia squirmed uncomfortably under Aʒina’s scrutiny, and nodded. She felt strangely exposed under the older woman’s knowing gaze, as if she was naked and her secrets were written on her skin, visible to all.
“Come. Ialani is ready to see you now.”
They had arrived in front of the temple, the oldest and largest structure in the city. There were more people around, too. They had only passed few women on the way, obviously busy with one errand or another, but the temple and its forecourt was a centre of activity. Elia saw women of all ages, from toddlers that were clinging to their mother’s skirt to old crones with bent backs and a few boys among them. Adult men were entirely absent. They wore garments of different styles, some familiar, others completely foreign. A few wore eclectic combinations that looked even stranger. All of them had blue sashes or shawls. In fact, Aʒina was the only one Elia had seen who was dressed entirely in blue. Astonished, Elia turned towards her, but Aʒina took her by the hand and pulled her bodily into the temple.
Inside, it was cool, and silent. Chants were echoing in the wide chamber, and every step resounded. At the back of the hall a woman sat cross-legged on a carpet, meditating. She had long white hair and was wrapped in a deep blue cloak that covered her from her neck to her toes. When Elia came to stand before her, she opened her sky-blue eyes, and smiled.
“Welcome to Sanctuary, Elia. Sit with me, little sister, and tell me of your worries.”
Aʒina knelt down next to Ialani while Elia bowed down in supplication, and the two of them looked right next to each other in a way that she could not imagine verbalising.