The temple plaza was deserted, already ankle deep in snow. White flakes of the stuff still fluttered down, sparse for now, but the clouds were heavy with the promise of more to come. The thickness of them hanging low over the city was more threat than comfort. Still, they reflected enough light that she could see where she was going as she ploughed and kicked her way across to the Temple of Arandarta.
The girl’s presence lent no extra colour to the plaza – grey stone where it was not white. Bundled up in a silver fur that was so large she nearly vanished entirely inside it, not much of her could be seen. Just hair so fair as to nearly match the fur, pale cheeks without a hint of red roses despite the cold, and at the other end of her, black boots kicking at the snow. Even her eyes were pale grey.
The final approach to the temple – steep steps so swathed in snow they had become a slope – nearly undid her. She managed to flail to the top without falling and bashed her fist against the temple door. It opened in short order, sending a line of golden light across the smooth surface of the snow. The falling flakes twisted and danced through the beam.
‘You.’ The voice was male. ‘I should have known.’
The girl poked her head a little further out of the enormous fur. ‘Hello, Brother Renard. Can I come in?’
‘I suppose you had better. How would I explain to your parents if I left you out here to freeze?’
The door creaked open a little more, enough that she could squeeze through the gap, her fur catching on the rough wood, and out of the cold. When she was through, Renard pushed it shut again with a grunt of effort. He turned to her, wiping his palms on his red robe. ‘What do we do with you, our Caitria? You just won’t stay away.’
Caitria smiled and blinked, dislodging a few melting snowflakes from her eyelashes. ‘Find me something to do?’
‘Come then, silver girl. Let us find you a warm drink, and something to do.’ He headed off down the corridor, the death’s-head pendant round his neck swinging in time to the swish of his red robe around his ankles. She left wet footprints on the floor as she followed.
Behind the altar that stood at the south end of the sanctum of Arandarta there was a door, the barrier between the public temple and the private quarters of the priests. In other temples this door was carved, or gilded, or flanked by pillars, or watched over by statues. Arandarta brooked no such pretensions in her servants, and this door was plain wood, the kind that might lead into a walk-in cupboard, with a black iron catch to keep it closed. It led to a complex network of small rooms and twisting corridors. The architectural arrangements of the priests’ living and working areas held no logic whatsoever, having been expanded into neighbouring buildings three times with no regard for differing floor levels. There were steps up and steps down, dead ends and corridors that doubled back on themselves, and the bare stone walls looked the same in every place and from every angle. Caitria prided herself on the fact that she never got lost – not any more. A childhood of hide-and-seek with her cousin had seen to that. Now he was a brother in Jenta, a man a long way from home; but she was still haunting the corridors of the temple here in Arraven. No more hide-and-seek for her, but enough chores and odd jobs to keep her here, among the storerooms and the workrooms and the cells. The smell of the stone was as pleasurable to her as the smell of baking bread was to her mother. This was her favourite place in the whole world.
But cold. There were no fireglasses, not in the Temple of Arandarta. She thought of the fireglass panel in her parents’ kitchen with only a touch of wistfulness, and shuffled her chair a little closer to the brazier. Not so close as the endanger her precious fur, but enough to feel the heat on her hands and hear the crackling of the coals.
One at a time, a line of silver goblets was transferred from the bench on her left to the bench on her right, unpolished to polished, tarnished to gleaming. Her hands were black with muck from the cloth.
Her back to the door, she was unaware for several minutes that she was observed. The row of dull silver shortened, and the row of shimmering silver lengthened. She hummed a little tune to herself now and again as she worked.
Only her reflexes stopped the goblet in her hands from clattering to the floor. She looked over her shoulder at the man who had spoken her name, a line of anger between her eyes. ‘Don’t do that!’
‘I am sorry.’ He ducked under the lintel and took a step into the room. Against the black of his skin, his red robe seemed to shimmer. ‘Though it would fit you well to learn your manners when an elder enters the room.’ His Koradi accent marked him out as another man a long way from home; but then, that was not unusual for priests of Arandarta.
Belatedly, Caitria got to her feet and dropped a perfunctory curtsey. ‘Brother Imemi.’
‘Better. Though you could look more cheerful about it.’
Light grey eyes glared at him.
‘I am teasing, little Cait.’
‘Oh.’ She was still holding the goblet, and absently began to rub at another patch of tarnish on it.
‘Brother Renard told me you were here. Do you enjoy polishing the silver, Caitria?’
She shrugged without looking up. ‘It’s better than mopping floors.’
‘I suppose it probably is.’ He rubbed his hands together. ‘The temple Father received a letter yesterday, from your father.’ Imemi gave Caitria a chance to speak, but she merely placed the polished goblet in line with the rest of them and took another tarnished one. ‘Unlike the many letters we have received in the past from you father, requesting that we take you on as a novice, this was not in your handwriting.’ Still she made no reaction. ‘He says that you are fledging. And that you have your mother’s aspect.’
That at last drew a response. ‘It’s not true!’ She did not look up, but polished savagely.
‘Which is not true? That you are fledging as a mage, or that your gift is the same as your mother’s?’
He reached out his hands to cover hers, stilling her vicious polishing. ‘Careful, little Cait. Do not rub the plate off. The Father would not be pleased.’
‘Sorry,’ she whispered.
‘We are the priests of Arandarta, Caitria. We deal with the dead, not the living, and while we do not seek to hasten death, nor do we attempt to prolong life. The goddess comes for all of us when she will, and the Book of Twelve states that she has no need of healers among her servants.’
‘Then I shan’t use my magic.’
‘That in itself would be an affront to the gods. For why else would they have given you your aspect but for you to use it?’
‘But you said – the priests of Arandarta – ’
‘ – do not attempt to prolong life. But not everybody is called to be a priest of Arandarta. Are you cold?’
For a moment Caitria thought that he had asked are you called? and she was about to protest that of course she was, how could she not be, she had been drawn to the temple as long as she could remember, as though the goddess had her on a short leash like a vicious dog. Then another part of her realised what he had actually said, and she nodded. It was a better reason for bundling herself further into her fur than that she was trying not to cry.
Imemi merely looked at the brazier and the flames crackled higher, despite being nearly out of fuel.
‘Why couldn’t I have been a fire witch?’ she muttered. ‘I don’t want to be a stupid healer; I don’t want to be a servant of stupid Rosmenos.’
‘We are not going to send you away,’ said Imemi. ‘We are your friends here, truly. Besides, it is still snowing. You should stay here tonight. I have no wish to find you frozen on the temple plaza in the morning.’ He took her silence for assent. ‘Come, then. It is late, and the silver will wait to be finished. I will send a message through the flames to your parents, so that they will not worry.’
‘They won’t worry. They’ll realise where I am.’
‘I am sure they will, little Cait,’ he said drily, and she couldn’t tell which of her statements he was answering.
He settled her down in a spare cell, with another thick fur for her to sleep under. He lit a candle – ‘to keep away the night demons’ – and brought a cup of hot milk for her to drink. ‘And when the snow stops, I will take you home.’
It snowed for six days.
In the morning, Caitria was woken by the sound of chanting. She crept down to the sanctum and watched the morning ritual from the gallery, the brothers and sisters in serried ranks of scarlet robes. When she peeked outside, the snow lay as high as her knees and still fluttered down from the heavy clouds.
That afternoon, the dead began to arrive. Old folk, mostly, for whom the cold was simply one trial too much to bear. Found by neighbours, brought by family on sleds or carried through the snow. Even when all commerce had ceased, everybody knew how important it was that the dead be brought to the goddess. The funeral pyres could not be lit for their final journey, not when the courtyard was smothered, but the bodies could be prepared and the rites spoken for them. There were twenty, that first day. The next day, seventy. The day after, two hundred.
An incense-laden brazier smoked in each corner of the laying-out chamber. Brother Imemi led four other brothers in the rites; Caitria had become his pale shadow over these last days. There was no longer any space for idle hands at the Temple of Arandarta – even a fledging healer must be put to work at something more useful than polishing silver.
Imemi had walked her round the chamber that morning, pointing out each jar of oil and explaining its use. This one for cleansing, this one for purification, this one must always be used straight after that one, and always before this other one. Only Imemi must use this one, and that is the jar for wastage. She inhaled the scent of each one deeply, committing it to memory.
‘Can you do this, little Cait?’ His dark eyes were sharp, looking for her uncertainty.
‘I can do it,’ she said.
‘Then light the candles.’
And the first body was brought in. Caitria concentrated as she never had before, not when she learned history and mathematics at school, not when her mother taught her the art of healing. Imemi’s rich voice underpinned the entire rite, each phrase of the chant prompting her for what was required next. This jar of oil to the brother at the foot of the table now, then this one to Imemi, then take this jar from the brother at the left hand and pour the wastage out. The ritual was only a few minutes long, but that first one seemed to last hours for Caitria. Finally she heard the end words of the chant, and unfolded the winding sheet, passing it between the brothers so it could be stretched out, ready for the wrapping of the wrinkled corpse.
Normally the body would be left on the laying-out table until the funeral pyre was prepared, but they had run out of space. Benches lined the walls, some of them already filled with bodies, and the shrouded corpse was lifted reverently on to one of these.
Another body was brought in, and another, and another. Caitria became not just capable of her role in the ritual, but superb. Imemi nodded at her as she curtseyed her respect to the statue of Arandarta set into the wall. Before each rite she lined up the jars neatly, already in the order in which they would be required. She could snap the shrouds out with a flick of her wrist, turning them so they settled straight and uncreased across the bodies. They worked all day and into the evening. A brief, quiet meal was followed by a few hours sleep, and then it began again.
They stood, and they waited. Four brothers, and Caitria. Waiting for Brother Imemi. It was growing late; the sun had set, and there were still a dozen rites to be spoken before the end of the day.
‘I’m going to find him,’ announced Caitria when her patience ran out. Leaving the room, she traced the quickest route she knew through the maze of stone to the storeroom where the sacred oils were kept. Imemi was one of the few brothers who held the key; he had gone for more jars.
She smelled something wrong before she could see it. A heady scent of lavender fragrance, underpinned with a whiff of something much more unpleasant. Caitria ran down the last corridor.
‘He’ll live.’ Brother Renard wiped his hands with a damp towel as he stood beside Imemi’s bedside. ‘Just a little food poisoning.’
Caitria had found Imemi on the floor of the storeroom, lying in a pool of vomit and oil spilled from a broken jar. Her shouts had brought other brothers running, and she had followed them as they carried him to his cell. She hovered in the doorway now, moving from foot to foot uncertainly. ‘He’ll be alright?’
‘He will. But we must let him rest.’
‘What about the rites?’
‘The rites will have to wait. There are no other senior brothers. Tomorrow will have to be good enough.’
Renard looked sternly at her and opened his mouth with a ready rebuke, but she cut him off.
‘The Book of Twelve says that the rites must be said within a day. They must be said, or the souls won’t find their way to the otherworld!’
‘Arandarta is merciful, our Caitria. She will understand.’
‘What if she doesn’t?’ Caitria pushed past Renard, to stand beside Imemi. ‘So.’ She reached out a hand, but Renard was just as quick to grab her wrist.
‘No! You will not heal him. The Book of Twelve forbids it.’
Caitria glared up at him. ‘The Book of Twelve forbids a servant of Arandarta to use magic to prolong life. I am not a sworn servant of Arandarta, and you said yourself he will not die from this. I am not averting death.’
Renard stared back at her.
‘My mother has shown me how to do this, Renard. There are rites that need to be said.’
Slowly, he released her hand. ‘Arandarta forgive me.’
‘You said yourself, she is merciful.’ Caitria turned back to Imemi, reaching inside herself for her flowering magic. The illness was easy to find; a shadow sitting in his stomach. She burned it away in a single flash that showed as silver to an inner sense she didn’t know how to name. ‘There.’
Imemi’s eyes fluttered open. His face was still sheened with sweat, but already his breathing was steady again.
‘Stop malingering,’ said Caitria. ‘There’s work to be done.’
He met her level gaze for a long pause, then smiled. ‘Little Cait. You are quite the determined one, aren’t you?’
The snow stopped. The sun shone, melting the top layer of snow, then set, and the meltwater froze. On the third day of this, Imemi declared that it was time for Caitria to go home. The constant intake of the dead had dried up, and she had been working in the kitchens, helping to keep the brothers fed as they cleared the inner courtyard of snow in preparation for the funeral pyres.
Brother Renard produced a set of spikes for Caitria to strap to her boots. With them, she could walk on the ice without slipping.
Be-furred and be-spiked together, Caitria and Imemi left the temple. There was a quiet in the crisp air that Caitria had never witnessed in Arraven. The sun sparkled silver off the ice-covered snow on the rooftops, icicles several feet long hanging from the eaves, while inside folk huddled round braziers and fireglasses and prayed to Morrigan for spring to come.
‘They fear Arandarta because she is death,’ said Imemi, a slight flash of white teeth showing. ‘But she is also fire, just as the sun is. She is also life. Do you understand, little Cait?’
She nodded, ice crunching beneath her spikes.
‘So babes in the cradle are taught to fear Arandarta, but you and I know that is wrong.’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘And young novices are taught that healers may not serve Arandarta. I wonder, little Cait. I wonder.’