When King Arum comes to the priestess Ayita of the goddess Tiva, he is arrogant. He states his demands, looking not at the woman he addresses, but around the beautifully decorated temple they stand in. In a room adjacent to the sanctuary, girls spin and whirl in the sacred dances. King Arum stares particularly hard at a beautiful young maiden.
“Who is that?” he asks.
The priestess frowns at the inattentive royal. “Her name is Goma,” she says. Arum steps closer to the door, his eyes still trained on the dancer. “She is one of our most promising novices. The goddess favors her for the next priestess.”
King Arum waves a lazy hand. “I want her. Bring her to me.”
“No, my lord,” the priestess says.
For the first time, Arum looks at her, and his gaze is fierce and implacable. “No?” he repeats. “And the rituals I ask for?”
“Your demands will not be met,” the priestess tells him. Her goddess’s presence is warm in her heart, but she still feels a trickle of fear down her spine at the way Arum’s face darkens. “We are not a marriage mart, to provide you with a bride. And the goddess would never use her powers to wage war. Tiva is a gentle goddess, concerned with movement.”
“I want,” Arum says deliberately, “the movement of my armies to be supported by your goddess.” He steps closer to the priestess, using his height to loom above her. “I am king, but all my life, women have insisted that the true power in the land is Tiva. Even my own mother told me this, in my father’s hearing, and he merely smiled.” Quick as a flash he grabs the priestess by the throat, and she beats at his hands as he applies pressure, cutting off her air.
Heavy, rhythmic footsteps fill the air, and armored men charge into the temple, scattering the now screaming dancers and minor priestesses. The priestess’s vision is starting to darken, her struggles becoming weaker.
Arum lets her go and she falls to her knees. “I am not my father,” he says, and sneers down at her. “My kingdom has been in thrall to a weak, powerless goddess for long enough. No more.”
Ayita coughs, hand massaging her abused throat. “You cannot deny the goddess her tribute,” she says, her voice scratched and rough. “Tiva must have the dances, or the kingdom will fall, denied her protection.”
“Protection?” he barks out a laugh. “What protection has Tiva ever offered us?” Arum draws his sword and stands over the priestess. She sees death in his face and closes her eyes, thinking on the movements of her favorite dance.
She cannot perform a final time for her goddess, but at least her devotion will be clear.
“No!” Goma shouts, and Ayita feels arms wrap around her as the younger woman drops beside her, sheltering her elder with her own body. “You must not hurt the priestess! Please, my king, mercy!”
“Goma, no,” Ayita says, trying to slip free. “You must not throw away your life.”
“Peace, woman,” Arum snaps, and sheathes his sword. “You, girl. Goma. What is your family?”
Goma, still clutching Ayita close, blinks up at him. “They are merchants, my lord. My father deals in cloth and shoe leather.”
King Arum rubs his chin. “A baronetcy would be easy enough to endow. You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I would marry you.”
“I am sworn to the goddess, my king,” Goma says, and casts her eyes down. Arum barks another laugh and pulls Goma to her feet by her elbow.
“The goddess can spare you,” he says. An armored man with intricate scrollwork on his breastplate stands nearby, and the king looks to him.
“Destroy it,” he says. "Destroy the temple."
“No!” Ayita and Goma cry as one, and Arum kicks at Ayita, catching the priestess in the ribs as he gives Goma a shake by the arm he still holds.
“My king, you mustn’t, you mustn’t!” Goma cries. Ayita curls around the pain in her side. “Tiva protects us, guards the kingdom-”
“Be quiet, Goma,” Arum snaps. “I will wed you, and your family will be nobility, but you must give up this ridiculous obsession with a false religion.”
Already, sounds of tearing and clattering fill the air, as the soldiers strip the temple of its treasures. The screams of the temple women have gone quiet, only a small, muffled weeping breaking through the chaos.
Arum motions a soldier over. “Why is that woman crying?” he demands. “I gave strict orders, none are to be damaged.” The irony of his attack on the priestess is lost on him.
The man bows. “My apologies, your Majesty,” he says. “A girl scratched one of the footsoldiers, and he broke her nose.”
“Take it out of his pay,” Arum instructs, and turns back to Goma and the priestess. “I will let your order, and you, live, if Goma will wed me.”
“I will,” Goma says, before Ayita can refuse. “Please, don’t hurt anyone else.”
Arum gives her a wide, wolfish smile, and releases her arm. Already bruises bloom on her fair skin, and Ayita fears for Goma’s future. “That’s more reasonable.”
“But, please, my king, please, leave the temple in peace.”
He shakes his head. “No. The temple has always taken too much of the country’s wealth to itself, and offers nothing in return. Tiva’s time is done. But I shall allow the temple girls to return home, or wed, or find what work a woman can.” Arum sounds satisfied, as if he has thought of everything. Ayita struggles to her feet, thinking how typical it was of a man, who knew little of how women truly struggled.
King Arum and his troops herd the women outside, gathering them next to huge wagons slowly filling with the temple's treasures. The temple women clutch each other, watching as their home is destroyed. Ayita cannot turn away.
As a final insult, Arum has the unwanted furniture piled in the temple and burned, blackening the painted walls and weakening the structure. “And so it ends,” Arum says, and mounts his horse, pulling Goma on before him. “Old priestess! Be warned. If I hear of your order performing their rites, if I am told stories of girls dancing endlessly for no reason, I will have you all killed. Tiva is gone. I will keep her that way.”
Goma meets Ayita’s eyes, and moves her hands in the graceful dance language never shared outside the temple. My daughters will dance, she says, and Ayita feels a tiny seed of hope take root in her heart.
King Arum spurs away his horse, and his mounted troops follow, leaving a contingent of foot soldiers to shepherd the former temple women away from the burnt temple. Ayita takes the slim silver circlet from her head and throws it in the nearest wagon, adding her contribution to Arum’s loot. She is no longer the First to Dance, the high priestess of Tiva.
Now she is an old woman with cracked ribs and a bruised throat, and she must find a new way to live. She takes the hand of the youngest of the temple maidens, and walks away from the past.
Goma has no daughters. It pleases her husband, who surprisingly is kind to her, in his own way, but it tears horribly at her heart to be unable to fulfill her promise to the goddess. On a moonless night when her husband is away hunting, Goma clears her solar of furniture and dances until she falls into the trance where she can walk with Tiva.
Tiva looks old, and tired, and Goma wants to cry when she sees her goddess for the first time in years.
“My lady, my lady,” she cries aloud, and the guard outside her solar shifts his grip on his weapon and fingers the gold she gave him to ignore what he heard and saw.
“Forgive me!” Goma cries, and Tiva gives a slow, sad shake of her head.
“There is nothing to forgive, my daughter,” she says, and Goma misses two steps in pure relief. “But my power wanes. In a handful of years, I will lose it all, and then your kingdom will fall.”
Goma focuses harder on her dance, each step placed with precision. “What of the others, the dancers of Fae? Don’t they support you?”
“They’re not enough, not alone,” Tiva says. “I need both the dances, the female and male, or the two combined into something new.”
“I know what to do, then,” Goma says, and wakes from her trance with a plan in her heart.
From that day on, the kingdom was known for its dancers. Folk dances of all kinds sprang up around the countryside, were brought to court and refined, and then danced by high and low alike. Arum at first was resistant to the idea, but Goma convinced him it pleased the people. And as no trace of anything sacred appeared in the new dance craze, Arum settled and allowed it.
All of Goma’s sons were fond of dancing, except her eldest (also called Arum), who was too much his father’s son. He would dance, but not with any pleasure, and when Arum I, after many years, died, he took the throne and at once declared that dancing was banned from the court. None of his mother’s pleas would move him.
“I don’t dance, Mother,” he would say.
Goma accepted this with what grace she could, and sent letters to certain noble houses of her acquaintance. Soon noble ladies and even a few princesses flocked to the palace for various parties and gatherings, and the young king was meeting many eligible women of every possible appearance. He took his time making his selection, but when he chose a bride and presented her to his mother, Goma nodded happily in approval.
His wife to be, unbeknownst to the young King Arum, was the daughter of a former temple dancer, and had been instructed from a young age in the sacred forbidden rites of Tiva. Goma went to her deathbed with the news of her granddaughter’s birth, and the sure knowledge that someday, somehow, her children’s children would restore Tiva to her proper place.
Arum the Second’s daughter died in her fifth year, and her younger brother took the throne at age eighteen when his father died. The new king, Ruma, had been close to his mother, and from her he learned to dance, despite his father’s dislike of the practice. His court was again full of dancers, and he took to wife a woman named Tivali, the most graceful dancer he had ever met. Like so many other women of her generation, the new queen was a devotee of the goddess she took her name from.
Together, they had twelve daughters: Goma, the eldest, named for Ruma’s grandmother, and then twins, Eve and Dawn, triplets, Pearl, Opal and Ruby, singles Rose and Jasmine, and a final two set of twins, Hope and Faith, and Morgana and Elspeth.
At six, each girl began dance lessons, and they all loved it. It gave Ruma no end of pleasure to watch his twelve beautiful daughters dance with properly vetted sons of the courtiers, and the king threw many balls to let the girls do so.
When Goma was twelve, her mother drew her into the queen’s private solar. “You are finally old enough, my daughter,” she said, and embraced a puzzled Goma. “Let me tell you of the goddess, and what we must do to keep the kingdom from falling.”
That day was the first lesson of many dedicated to teaching Goma all about the worship of Tiva. As her sisters aged, they joined their mother and elder sister in their secret rites, and soon all twelve could dance the sacred dances as well as any temple maiden before the destruction. They would sneak off together, and dance as long as they could, and sneak back before they were missed. The princesses still enjoyed the country and courtly dances at the balls, and now they could see the patterns underlying the steps, the way the new dances were adaptations of the old.
But then the king was injured, during a skirmish with raiders, and his knee no longer let him dance as he once had. He still enjoyed watching others dance, but the balls were less frequent, an occasional treat rather than a common pastime.
Goma, the eldest, watched as war loomed on the horizon, threatening to spill across their borders from the feuding neighbor lands, and knew the decreased dances were sapping the goddess’s strength once more.
She snuck out that night, away from the huge room with twelve beds where her sisters twirled in their dreams, and found a quiet, empty room in the palace. She closed the door, and locked it, and pulled the heavy blinds across the windows. Goma set the candles out in the sacred shape, lit them, raised her arms to the ceiling, and began to dance.
Like her great grandmother of the same name had, so many years before, Goma was going to dance herself into a trance. She was a brilliant dancer, the best of her sisters, but she found the trance dance more difficult than any of the others, and this, unlike most of the others, had no adaptation. It took her a long, tiring time, before, between one step and the next, Goma lost herself, and was elsewhere.
A woman stood there, grey streaking her fiery red hair, lines on her fair white face, green eyes cloudy, limbs bent and twisted with age. “Welcome, my child,” the woman said, and Goma realized she spoke with the goddess. Tiva, who her mother was named for.
“My lady,” she said, and Tiva smiled. Goma bowed and twirled in the dance, and Tiva took her hands and joined her, the two of them moving in intricate patterns around one another. As she danced, the goddess’s limbs grew straighter, the grey faded from her hair, and her eyes brightened. She laughed, and the sound was the music Goma always heard in her dreams, and she laughed with the goddess, and danced as she never had before.
“Oh, my dear child,” Tiva said, and they drew to a halt. Goma was aware on some level that her body was panting, dripping with sweat, weakness trembling in her arms and legs. But her overused body felt far away, the sensations distant and dreamlike. “I haven’t felt this good in ages.”
“Our kingdom is threatened, lady. My father no longer encourages the dancers as he once did, and the towns and cities follow suit. Please, how can we help? I know my sisters will feel as I do, and will do anything we can to restore you.”
Tiva laughed again. “You can dance,” she said, and then instead of a locked and empty room, she and Goma stood in the bedroom where Goma’s sisters slept. Only now they were awakening, rubbing the sleep from their eyes and climbing from their beds to join Tiva and Goma at the foot of Goma’s bed.
“My dear girls,” Tiva said, and the princesses exchanged looks of wonder and surprise. “Is it true, what Goma tells me? Will you dance to save me, to save your kingdom? Will you dance to make me whole?”
“I will,” said Goma, and one by one her sisters echoed her. Tiva laughed and they all spun together, compelled by the music of the goddess’s joy.
“Watch,” Tiva said, and clapped her hands. Goma’s bed sank into the floor and a trapdoor appeared, with steps leading into the ground. “Down the stairs there is a path, leading to a forest of silver. Pass through it, and you will come to a forest of gold. Through that, a forest of diamonds. After the last forest, you will come to a lake. The Fae princes who are my devoted priests will await you there, and bear you across the lake to their temple.” Elspeth, the youngest, gasped, and Goma gave her a quelling look. Tiva continued as though she hadn’t heard. “You can dance there, and all of you together will help heal me.”
“We will!” cried Ruby, and Eve shushed her. Tiva smiled at the princesses.
“Your great grandmother swore that her daughters would dance, when her husband took my temple and my votives from me. I am pleased to see her word will finally be kept.”
“We won’t fail you,” Goma said, and the others all agreed.
A mystery sprang up in the kingdom. After the first few nights the princesses were found exhausted in their beds with their dance shoes worn out, the king ordered the princesses locked into their bedroom at night.
But still, the worn shoes continued. The princesses were questioned, but feigned ignorance. “I miss our balls,” Goma said, when her father asked her.
“I dance in my dreams, and you watch as you did before your knee was hurt, and you smile like you did then,” Elspeth told him.
“Sometimes I think up new dances while I sleep,” her twin Morgana chimed in.
The king sent them away and made it known throughout the land that whoever could find out where the princesses were dancing, he could marry the princess he liked the best. But if he failed, he would die after three days.
The princesses were most distressed when the terms of the proclamation were made known to them. “But mother,” Opal said, “what if we don’t like the one who finds out?”
“Bother that!” her sister Pearl said. “How do we keep from being discovered? The goddess said we must dance.”
“But they’ll die,” said Elspeth, and all the princesses went still. “If we make them fail, Father will kill them.”
“If they don’t fail, the kingdom dies,” Dawn said.
The arguments raged long and heated, but in the end, each princess felt herself bound to the oath she had sworn to the goddess. Though it caused them distress, they and their mother concocted a plan to give the questers sleeping draughts, in wine to mask the taste, to keep their secret from being discovered.
They had hoped that their father, normally mild and forgiving, would forgo the death part of the threat, and merely send the unsuccessful prince away after the first quester failed. Instead, the prince was beheaded, and the princesses spent the rest of the day numb with horror. And then the next prince arrived, and the debate raged again, with the same outcome.
Tiva was more important, not the arrogant men who eyed them like housewives at a market, trying to pick their prize before they had succeeded. One by one they failed and were killed, and the princesses grew more jaded.
The Fae princes they danced with at night helped soothe their fears, encouraging them to consider themselves, and the goddess, and the good they were doing their kingdom. And so a year or a little more passed away, and questers came, drank their wine, and slept the nights away while the princesses danced to keep the kingdom safe and whole.
And then it chanced one day that a stranger came to the castle. He was dressed as finely as any other prince, but his clothes fit him not as well, and he was scruffy where the princes were smooth. Goma brought him the wine as usual, but he slept before she got there, snoring loudly in his bed.
Grown callous by this time by the endless parade of men coming to try to claim her or her sisters, Goma jeered, and rejoined her sisters to get ready for their night. Elspeth had taken a pet into her head, and was jumpy all the night long, but none of the others noticed any strangeness other than the Fae princes enchanting the winecups to always be empty. As they had played that kind of trick before, the princesses merely scolded them and kept dancing.
When they got back to their room, just before dawn, they could hear the latest quester still snoring, and they undressed and fell gratefully into their beds.
The same thing happened the next two nights, only this time during the final dance of the evening, Goma found herself suddenly not in the arms of her prince, but face to face with Tiva.
The goddess looked younger than Elspeth and Morgana, and her smile was like sunlight itself. “Goma, my dear daughter,” she said, and touched Goma’s face. “You and your sisters have done all you promised, and the mystery of your dancing has made dancing more popular in the kingdom again. You need not work so hard anymore.”
“But my lady,” Goma said, “you need the dances. And the Fae say-”
Tiva’s face darkened. “ Yes, the Fae,” she said, and her voice was like the clashing of cymbals. “They have given me much power, but now they seek to take it all from me. They plot to trap you and your sisters in their world, and make you dance for their sake instead.”
“Truly?” Goma said, not sure if she believed it. But the princes had been more eager to see her and her sisters of late, and Ruby and Pearl had both come to her, confused over offers of marriage from their partners. “But what should we do?”
“This will be the last trip you take to this place,” Tiva said, and squeezed Goma’s hand. “I have sent your savior already. I would ask, when you are queen, that you bring back my worship. Perhaps some of your sisters would like to be my priestesses.”
Before Goma could ask more, the dance ended, and her vision faded. The Fae princes took them back across the lake, as usual. Goma realized how low the boat she rode in was in the water, and how her prince struggled to pole it, as though it weighed more than usual. She kept her vision to herself, planning to tell her sisters when they woke.
But the princesses overslept, and there was no time to tell her sisters of the goddess’s visit before they were hurrying down to the antechamber outside of the throne room. The latest quester was due to tell their father what he had found, and the princesses liked to hear the various tales the unsuccessful men came up with.
For the first time, Goma felt that the scruffy noble had not failed. She stood next to Elspeth, who was holding herself, and wrapped her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “I am sorry, that I made fun of your worries,” she whispered, and Elspeth sighed and rested her head on Goma’s breast.
“Forgiven,” she whispered back, and their sisters shushed them. “But I wasn’t imagining things this time.”
“I know,” Goma said, and they all listened as the man speaking to their father described the path through the forests, and the palace where they danced. Bravest of them, Opal peeked in through the open door.
“He has branches,” she hissed, and Goma felt the goddess’s presence in her mind.
“Tiva came to me,” she said hurriedly. “She was young and strong, and said we had done enough. She said she sent someone to end it, before the Fae stole us.”
“Girls!” their father called, and Goma squeezed Elspeth tight before she moved to the door. They lined themselves up by age, and Goma led the way into the throne room, bowing as they approached their father, and the stranger they had all underestimated.
“Is it true?” King Ruma demanded. “Is this soldier right when he says you leave by a secret way and go to a Fae palace to dance?”
A soldier? No wonder he was scruffy, Goma thought, and bowed her head.
“It is, Father,” she said.
“Why?” the king asked, but his wife laid her hand on his arm.
“Surely that can wait,” the queen said. “Jordan, you have solved the mystery. You may pick your bride.”
The soldier looked them over, and Goma clenched her fingers into fists hidden by her skirts. She hated when the men looked at them like they were objects, rather than people. But his gaze flickered from face to face, and he smiled gently at them all.
“I would ask for the eldest to let me court her, Your Majesty,” he said. “Marrying a stranger can be hard, and as I’m an old man myself, I don’t need a very young wife. Perhaps we can find if we will suit.”
“That sounds sensible,” the queen said, hand still on the king’s arm, and Ruma nodded his agreement.
It took another year and many conversations about dancing, but in the end, Goma was happy to wed Jordan. He promised that they would restore Tiva’s temple, and send their daughters there to dance if they were so blessed as to have any.
Goma danced slowly with her husband on their wedding day, and smiled as her sisters whirled around her.