Even at night, the Temple of the Great Mother Goddess was never still. Bells tolled the hours, calling the priestesses to prayers. Of course, many slept. But there were always at least a handful in the sanctuary, making sure that words of praise echoed ceaselessly between the stone walls and keeping the candles fresh and burning.
Outside the Temple, its guards kept a different kind of vigil. With their great double-headed axes held at ready, they watched the streets closely for any sign of intrusion. Many considered the position largely ceremonial. There was little risk of seeing serious combat here, at the heart of Tortall's capital, after all. But Alanna, once Alanna of Trebond, took her duty very seriously indeed.
Standing at the back gates to the Temple, she frowned at her fellow guard. Even in the midnight dusk, she could see that Jillian was using her axe as a support for her drowsy body. That was no way to treat a weapon--and no way to be prepared for a fight. She hissed a warning, but the woman, clearly dozing, did not hear.
The bells chimed the midnight hour softly, saving Alanna from further consideration of the problem. Jillian jerked awake at the sound. The butt of her axe rattled against the cobblestones as she fumbled with her grip, making Alanna wince. Before she could say anything, the next shift of guards trotted out of the Temple, moving at a brisk pace despite their heavy mail. They, at least, were awake.
Alanna nodded to them before filing past them through the gate. Jillian stumbled after her. They drew abreast in the corridor outside the sleeping chambers, and Jillian uneasily tried to catch Alanna's eyes.
"You won't tell the Mother Superior, will you?"
Alanna bit her lip. She had done little to make herself popular since arriving from the Mother of Mountains convent six months ago. But she also hated to see anyone shirking at their duty, especially one as important as standing guard.
"I'll see you in the morning," she said gruffly, avoiding the question. Before Jillian could say anything else, she ducked down the corridor to the west.
That path took her away from her sleeping chamber, but truth to tell, she wasn't all that tired. And it did take her in the direction of the refectory. It would be empty at this time of the night, but there should still be a few bowls of fruit and loaves of day-old bread left out, and after a day of practice and a night of guard duty, Alanna was hungry.
Only a few flickering candles lit the long hallway, leaving most of it in shadow. Arched windows high up on the wall let a few rays of moonlight through, but they did little to lighten the gloom. Alanna moved quietly. The lay servants slept near here, and it wouldn't do to disturb their sleep just because she'd had a long night.
If she hadn't been so silent, she would never had heard the faint thump of feet striking the stone ahead. She froze, straining to see into distant darkness at the end of the corridor. One of the shadows moved.
Without thinking, she raised her axe above her head and pelted down the corridor. The intruder had a head start, but she knew these hallways. After two quick turns, she had the intruder cornered inside a storeroom with only one door. She kicked the door open and tightened her grip on her axe.
"Who are you?" she demanded. The storeroom was darker than the halls, and she could see only a faint outline and the flash of hazel eyes.
"No one important," he--it was definitely a he--murmured.
With a snarl, she brought her axe closer to his throat. "No man is allowed in these walls. You know what the penalty is."
"Better than most," he said. His gaze flickered from the edge of the axe to her face, but he made no other motion. "But I had to come. I had to return this."
For the first time since she'd cornered him, he moved, holding out his hand. Wrapped between his fingers was a silver chain from which hung a crystalline disk the size of her palm.
She recognized it, of course. Every Temple dedicant would. It was part of the Mother Superior's regalia, brought out only for solstice and equinox and other great ceremonies.
"Where did you get that?" Her fingers, trembling, tightened around the axe haft.
"Now that I can't tell you, lass." His teeth flashed in the dim light. "You work it out."
He tossed the disk at her. As she lunged for the delicate crystal, axe held loosely in only one hand, he tucked his chin into his chest and rolled past her. By the time she had regained her balance, he was gone.
Dawn found her, bleary-eyed, in the office of the Mother Superior, reporting the intrusion and returning the sacred relic. She thought the Mother Superior was shocked to see it, but in her tired state it was difficult to tell.
"You should have raised an alarm when you first saw him, my child," the Mother Superior murmured.
Alanna flushed. "I know, Mother," she managed to say. "But I didn't want to be--"
"The girl who cried wolf?" the Mother Superior finished.
Alanna nodded. She was already unpopular here for her dedication to training, her fierce need to prove she was the best dedicant at all the arts of combat they studied. The last thing she wanted was to give her new associates something to tease her for.
The Mother Superior studied her. "Alanna, you are still new here. In time, you will settle in. Your dedication to the Goddess is unquestioned, and it will be valued. Only learn to treat your fellow dedicants with a little more ease, and they will warm to you. I know your path has not been easy, but truly, it need not continue thus."
Alanna stammered her thanks for the advice and backed respectfully out of the room before fleeing to her own small chamber. Maybe the Mother Superior was right. She had struggled every step of the way to bring herself here--to a place where she could use and hone her skills, not waste her time with embroidery and preparation for a marriage she did not, would never, desire. It had cost her the few friends she had made in the convent--and her title. Her father, never pleased to have his desired thwarted, had formally disowned her the day news reached him that she had taken full convent vows and begun training as one of the Goddess's own guards.
But she was here now, with all she desired. Perhaps it was time to relax, to drop her guard, to try to get to know the other young women who surrounded her. Or maybe it was too late. Maybe, after six years of walling herself off from the world, she'd forgotten how to let it back in.
She shook herself, setting aside her maudlin thoughts. She was tired. Mechanically, she stripped off her armor and slid into her night shirt before climbing onto her cot and blowing out the single candle that lit her cell.
As a night guard, she had no duties in the morning. But afternoon found her assigned to accompanying two of the kitchen staff to the market. Privately, she thought it a waste of the Temple guard's time. This was the capital, well-patrolled by city guards, and the markets were not so far from the Temple quarter. But Corus had been restless since Duke Roger took the throne three months past, and the lay servants, uneasy, had demanded protection.
If nothing else, it was a chance to see the city. Alanna, who had once sworn never to be trapped within a convent's walls, was glumly aware that her chosen path in life had tied her even more tightly to a single stone edifice. The only difference was that it was a path she had chosen--and one that would allow her to pursue her vocation in arms.
As she watched, bored, the servants haggle over a bale of potatoes, a familiar voice whispered in her ear. She spun, startled, reaching for the axe she did not carry in the city before settling her hand on the hilt of her knife.
"I thought I ought to thank you," the hazel-eyed man from the previous night said, "for sparin' my life and all."
She grabbed for his collar, drawing the knife.
"You don't owe me any thanks," she told him.
"But I do," he insisted, slipping free with casual ease which she envied. The Daughters of the Mother taught armed combat, but little of hand-to-hand. "The trinket. It's unharmed?"
"Yes," she said, then bit her lip. There was no reason to tell this stranger details of Temple business.
"Good. My mother would never forgive me if I'd broken it."
"Your mother?" she asked, confused. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the bargaining wrapping up.
"She was a priestess, once," he confided. "Gave it up for love. But she remembered the trinket. Told me about it. That's how I knew, when she fell sick from treatin' the Sweating Fever, that it was the only thing that could save her. The only thing that could break the link."
Alanna stared at him blankly. She knew about the Sweating Fever, of course, which had returned to Corus for the second time in a decade and swept through the Lower City just a month past. But what it had to do with the Mother Superior's crystalline disk she couldn't guess.
His own regard was more measured. "I'll be seein' you, I think," he told her. "My Gift says as much. Besides, I owe you a favor."
Before she could say anything, he vanished into the crowd. She wanted to follow, but the servants were ready to go back to the Temple and clamoring for her attention. Cursing under her breath in a most un-ladylike fashion, she led them out of the market, craning her head back in hopes of catching a glimpse of the strange man. But he had vanished as quickly as he appeared.
The Mother Superior's office was starting to feel as regular a part of her daily rounds as the refectory and her own chambers. Hands clasped behind her back, she described the encounter at the marketplace, and was surprised by the Mother Superior's pensive look.
"So Eleni Cooper had a son," she mused.
"Mother?" Alanna asked respectfully when the silence lengthened. The Mother Superior shook herself.
"Eleni Cooper was a priestess here, once, and by far our strongest healer. She never held my office, of course, but I'm not surprised my predecessor let her experiment with the Mother's Tear, not if she thought it had healing properties. I am surprised she didn't leave notes." Her gaze sharpened, studying Alanna. "But that's more than you need to know. If you meet this young man again, talk to him. Find out what he does know about the Mother's Tear. If it can help with the Sweating Fever. . .well. I fear we haven't seen the last of it yet. And if you can arrange for Eleni Cooper to return here, I would very much like to meet with her."
Alanna was confused by the instructions, but at least they meant her first impulse, when she saw the intruder a fortnight later outside the fishmonger's, wasn't to go for her knife.
He noticed that her hands were kept loosely at her sides. "Growin' to like my company, are you?" he asked with an easy, roguish smile.
"No," she snapped. "What do you want from me?"
"Isn't the pleasure of your company enough, lass?"
She flushed. Years in the convent and as a maiden dedicated to the Temple had given her little experience with coquetry and flirting. Uncomfortable, she tried a different tact. "The Mother Superior would like to meet with your mother," she announced.
"Well, now," he murmured. "That's quite a change, after they threw her out and all." He studied Alanna. "I'll let her consider it. She's not well enough, yet, to go gallivantin' around. You'll be hearin' from me, though, once she answers."
"Lovely," Alanna muttered under her breath as he walked away. She thought he was out of hearing range, but he looked back and flashed her another quick smile.
She expected another clandestine market meeting, or even another window entry. Instead, she was surprised by his appearance, alongside a bent and cloak-wrapped woman, outside the front gates to the Temple. It was a blustery spring morning, and she had been on guard duty for an hour already. They were the first visitors of the day. She perked up at the thought of a break in the routine, only to groan under her breath when she recognized him.
"Why the long face, lass?" he asked. "I've brought my mother."
The woman beside him was leaning against him for support, but she managed to straighten enough to dip her head in a regal nod to Alanna.
"Harine, will you tell the Mother Superior she has a visitor?" Alanna asked the other guard. She didn't trust the woman to be alert enough to catch the man if he got up to one of his tricks--not that she'd had much success herself. She glanced at the old woman, and at the threatening clouds, and changed her mind. "Or maybe it would be better if you took her straight in."
Harine nodded, happy to escape guard duty in the face of what looked to be an incoming downpour. That left Alanna and the man standing outside the Temple. He was careful, she noticed, to keep his feet well away from the line that separated the Mother's holy land from the streets that men could trod.
"You never did tell me your name," he told her.
"Nor you, yours," she retorted.
"It's George," he offered smoothly, with a small bow. "I'd kiss your hand, but, well. I'd have to step across the line to do that, and beside, they seem a mite filled by that big axe of yours."
"Alanna," she admitted grudgingly.
His brows rose. "The noble lady? I've heard of you."
"No," she snapped. "Not any more." She hated the thought of others telling stories about her, though she knew she'd been the subject of gossip across the court. Her father might have disowned her, but her brother still spoke with her, or had. She'd not heard from him in three months.
"As you like it," he agreed. "I've never been much for titles."
She squinted at him, trying to tell if he was making fun of her, but his easy-going smile betrayed nothing, though there was a hint of shadows in the corner of his eyes.
"How did you steal the disk?" The question bubbled out of her, and she bit her lip, wishing she could take it back. But he didn't seem to take offense. And he was the first person in months who seemed to genuinely want to talk to her--not just for the sake of gathering more gossip on the scandal, but for her own sake.
"Climbed in through the window and nicked it off the table," he said. "Smoothest job I'd ever done, truth to tell. Smooth enough I was careless, goin' back. And there you were, popping out of the shadows like the Goddess herself. Gave me a fright. I wouldn't want to be at the wrong end of your axe again, let me tell you."
"Then you stay out there," she told him firmly.
The sky flashed, and the clouds broke open. Alanna stepped back under the gate's overhang, though the wind still swept water into her eyes. George pulled his hood up, but he stood, uncomplaining, in the rain, until Harine at last returned with his mother.
"Pleasure chattin' with you," he told Alanna, as though they hadn't spent the last half hour standing in perfect silence. "I'll be seein' you again."
She had the uncomfortable feeling that he was right--and the even more uncomfortable feeling that a part of her was looking forward to it.