Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.
The wind knew. It was the first of June, but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.
For good or bad, the hours were closing in. I closed my eyes against the thought, knowing that soon the day would cleave in two, forever creating the before and after of my life, and it would happen in one swift act that I could no more alter than the color of my eyes.
I pushed away from the window, fogged with my own breath, and left the endless hills of Morrighan to their own worries. It was time for me to meet my day.
The prescribed liturgies passed as they were ordained, the rituals and rites as each had been precisely laid out, all a testament to the greatness of Morrighan and the Remnant from which it was born. I didn’t protest. By this point, numbness had overtaken me, but then midday approached, and my heart galloped again as I faced the last of the steps that kept here from there.
I lay naked, facedown on a stone-hard table, my eyes focused on the floor beneath me while strangers scraped my back with dull knives. I remained perfectly still, even though I knew the knives brushing my skin were held with cautious breaths. The bearers were well aware that their lives depended on their skill. Perfect stillness helped me hide the humiliation of my nakedness as strange hands touched me.
Pauline sat nearby watching, probably with worried eyes. I couldn’t see her, only the slate floor beneath me, my long dark hair tumbling down around my face in a swirling black tunnel that blocked the world out—except for the rhythmic rasp of the blades.
The last knife reached lower, scraping the tender hollow of my back just above my bu**ocks, and I fought the instinct to pull away, but I finally flinched. A collective gasp spread through the room.
“Be still!” my aunt Cloris admonished.
I felt my mother’s hand on my head, gently caressing my hair. “A few more lines, Arabella. That’s all.”
Even though this was offered as comfort, I bristled at the formal name my mother insisted on using, the hand-me-down name that had belonged to so many before me. I wished that at least on this last day in Morrighan, she’d cast formality aside and use the one I favored, the pet name my brothers used, shortening one of my many names to its last three letters. Lia. A simple name that felt truer to who I was.
The scraping ended. “It is finished,” the First Artisan declared. The other artisans murmured their agreement.
I heard the clatter of a tray being set on the table next to me and whiffed the overpowering scent of rose oil. Feet shuffled around to form a circle—my aunts, mother, Pauline, others who’d been summoned to witness the task—and mumbled prayers were sung. I watched the black robe of the priest brush past me, and his voice rose above the others as he drizzled the hot oil on my back. The artisans rubbed it in, their practiced fingers sealing in the countless traditions of the House of Morrighan, deepening the promises written upon my back, heralding the commitments of today and ensuring all their tomorrows.
They can hope,, I thought bitterly as my mind jumped out of turn trying, to keep order to the tasks still before me, the ones written only on my heart and not a piece of paper. I barely heard the utterances of the priest, a droning chant that spoke to all of their needs and none of my own.
I was only seventeen. Wasn’t I entitled to my own dreams for the future?
“And for Arabella Celestine Idris Jezelia, First Daughter of the House of Morrighan, the fruits of her sacrifice and the blessings of…”
He prattled on and on, the endless required blessings and sacraments, his voice rising, filling the room, and then when I thought I could stand no more, his very words pinching off my airways, he stopped, and for a merciful sweet moment, silence rang in my ears. I breathed again, and then the final benediction was given.
“For the Kingdoms rose out of the ashes of men and are built on the bones of the lost, and thereunto we shall return if Heaven wills.” He lifted my chin with one hand, and with the thumb of his other hand, he smudged my forehead with ashes.
“So shall it be for this First Daughter of the House of Morrighan,” my mother finished, as was the tradition, and she wiped the ashes away with an oil-dipped cloth.
I closed my eyes and lowered my head. First Daughter. Both blessing and curse. And if the truth be known, a sham.
My mother laid her hand on me again, her palm resting on my shoulder, maybe offered as a gesture of comfort, but my skin stung at her touch. Her comfort came too late. The priest offered one last prayer in my mother’s native tongue, a prayer of safekeeping that, oddly, wasn’t tradition, and then she drew her hand away.
More oil was poured, and a low, haunting singsong of prayers echoed through the cold stone chamber, the rose scent heavy on the air and in my lungs. I breathed deeply. In spite of myself, I relished this part, the hot oils and warm hands kneading compliance into knots that had been growing inside me for weeks. The velvet warmth soothed the sting of acid from the lemon mixed with dye, and the flowery fragrance momentarily swept me away to a hidden summer garden where no one could find me. If only it were that easy.
Again, this step was declared finished, and the artisans stepped back from their handiwork. There was an audible gathering of breath as the final results on my back were viewed.
I heard someone shuffle closer. “I daresay he won’t be looking long upon her back with the rest of that view at his disposal.” A titter ran through the room. Aunt Bernette was never one to restrain her words, even with a priest in the room and protocol at stake. My father claimed I got my impulsive tongue from her, though today I’d been warned to control it.