Kazari had dreamed of being called by the Lady. But had never thought the Lady would select her as a Hunter – one of the elite few who guarded Albatar against the gorgones.
Now Albatar is under attack, and Kazari must use the gifts the Lady has given her. But can she master them in time to defend Albatar and play her part in the coming fight?
Wonderfully imagined - C Scott
Beautifully written - a must read! - Brenda
Loved it!!! - Matthew Carey
A spectacular adventure with wonderful 'companions'- Lisa H
I love this book & can't wait for the next one - Lynne L
Great characters and a fascinating new world - David Watson
A Captivating Story with Complelling Characters make Frontier Incursion a great read - Chuck Gallagher
Terrific world building with great characters ... can I have a Starcat?
Christina - Ensconced in YA
Five out of five - an amazing 'be absorbed by this world' book ... I am so happy there is a sequel coming out and I really look forward to reading it. It takes a very good author to do that to you.
Janis Hill - author of Bonnie's Story - A Blonde's Guide to Mathematics
A tear tracked slowly down Kazari’s cheek, as she picked up the leather belt she’d been working on the night before and began to carve the flowers onto its well-tanned length. Under her hands the leather was soft and supple, the metal tongue and buckle perfectly matched to it. Each was evidence of her father’s careful skill, and her mother’s touch with metalwork. And now as Kazari engraved each flower with delicate precision, she knew each was a farewell kiss to the family who’d decided to abandon her on the Day of Choosing.
She kept her eyes on the belt, blinking to clear her vision, watching the tiny curls of cut leather curve away from the belt, as if each was a piece of her regret sliced free.
She remembered last night’s argument. Her mother’s voice, clipped and icy – “You want to shut yourself up in an Abbey, Kazari? Forever? For the rest of your life? Away from your family and your friends?”
Kazari had been so angry. “But it’s my choice, Mum, mine, and the Lady’s.” And then her voice had wobbled, annoying her with its weakness. Even now she was embarrassed she hadn’t been able to remain calm. She knew she was doing the right thing, no matter what her parents wanted. “It doesn’t matter what you want, not this time! I’m of age. Everyone has the right to commit themselves to the Lady’s service once they turn fifteen.”
For a moment the flowers blurred again, and Kazari blinked her eyes furiously, trying to ignore the hot sting as another tear tracked after the first.
She recited the words of The Book of Service in her mind. ‘She who is called is certain, and I will not forsake her should she bend her will to Mine. When you hear the call, choose to bend and not break. Submit your will to Mine, and walk My path all the days of your life.’ They calmed her, but not as much as they should have, because when she’d quoted them the night before, her mother had spat them back at her.
“I notice you didn’t finish your quote,” her mother had said in those same icy tones. Her mother’s blue eyes had matched the coldness perfusing her voice. “It goes on: ‘And though My path may lead you into darkness, and your very life become forfeit, I will walk beside you always. Those who lose their lives in My service will walk with Me all the days of eternity.’ Some of those who pledge to the Lady die, Kazari – they die, or fall into darkness!”
Kazari knew her mother was worried for her. But it was her decision, and her own anger bubbled, struggling to escape. Her mother had no right to deny her her path.
“Didn’t you listen to the last part of the quote, Mother? ‘I will walk beside you always. Those who lose their lives in My service will walk with Me all the days of eternity.’ Does that mean nothing to you, Mother? Not everyone who pledges to the Lady walks close to the darkness or loses their life. Very few of the septs ever have to confront danger. Most of the Lady’s servants become Growers, or Judicars. It’s possible I might become an Adviser, or a Healer, but can you see me as a Hunter, or even a Navigator? You know what my teachers have said about my schoolwork –”
The words had poured out in a torrent, stopped only when her father held up a hand.
“But some do, Kazari. Some always do,” her father had told her sombrely, “And isn’t it also said that ‘The path of the initiate is determined only by the Lady. No-one knows your path but Her, until the moment of awakening?’”
“Of course it does, but you know what I’m good at, and pretty well everyone knows what they’ll become on entry to the Lady’s service. Look at Enda last year – she was a born Healer. Everyone knew it, and now she is. You saw her on her home visit last month, didn’t you? And Harrod? He knew he’d be a Judicar, and he is. I’m sure the Lady knows best, but there are patterns, and they’re followed in almost every case.” She could have mentioned more names – people known by her family both before and after choosing the Lady’s service, but she hadn’t, hoping they’d begin to calm down and see reason.
She’d watched her parents exchange glances and seen their anger start to ebb. They knew they couldn’t deny her her choice the following day. Tomorrow was the Abbot’s annual visit, and anyone over the age of fifteen was required to present themselves to answer the Abbot’s question. It was the law, and with her school friends, she must present herself for the choosing. Fifteen-year olds had more than one option, though. When the Abbot posed her question, Kazari could choose to declare herself for service, in which case she would leave with the Abbot; she could choose to state that she was abstaining from choice, in which case she was free to present herself in any following year; or she could choose to close the door completely on serving the Lady in one sept or another, by declaring she was not called. Most of the attendees the next day would choose one of the latter two.
Only one or two fifteen-year olds would choose to serve, but it was likely that some who had abstained in previous years would present themselves ready in the morning.
“Couldn’t you just abstain, tomorrow?” her father had asked. “Take some more time to think. Give yourself a year.”
But Kazari had heard his unspoken words – ‘Give yourself time to grow up and forget all of this nonsense’ – and they had firmed her determination.
Her mother had said nothing, just looked away from her daughter, to where Kazari’s two brothers were playing on the hearth in front of the fire, pretending to ignore the argument. Kazari wondered how her parents’ anger now, might affect their own choices in a few years.
She carved the last flower carefully. Despite her mother’s anger, and her father’s regret, she was determined to choose for the Lady. She’d had long nights to wrestle with her decision, and despite her parents’ opinions, she knew her choice was the right one.
Lady, how can they not see? Why don’t they understand? It seemed she’d prayed the same thing over and over the last few months, as she’d tried time and again to raise her upcoming pledge with her family. Her mother had begun by ignoring her efforts. Her father had discussed her thoughts and quotations as an intellectual exercise, and her brothers hadn’t been particularly interested.
She tidied the scraps of leather from her desk, smoothed the belt, now covered in delicate carvings, and set it gently on the desktop.
And now she was leaving, perhaps forever. She’d hoped against hope her parents would have become resigned to her choice. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t mentioned it to them over the years. Ever since she’d been tiny she’d known that the Lady had called her. She’d never suffered doubts about the reality of the Lady who looked after them all, as some of her peers had, and had never struggled with a connection to her. Kazari had no doubts that the Writings were a true record of her words at the founding of Albatar.
Some days she’d felt the Lady so closely she could have sworn if she’d turned her head she would have seen her, walking by her side. It happened most often when she was outside, but every now and then, Kazari would feel her presence as she carefully engraved another piece of leather, or rejoiced with a friend. She knew most of her friends thought she was silly, but she knew what she felt. At least her closest friend, Dari, understood, but her sister was Enda, who’d seemed destined since birth to join the Healers.
From the shelf built into her bedroom wall, she took a small bag and began to fill it with a few possessions. Information about what would happen when she arrived at the Abbey was sketchy, but she knew she’d need underwear for the journey and a couple of clothing changes. She tucked her copy of the Writings away in her bag along with the leather belt her parents had given her at her last birthday, and the bookmark Dari had woven for her from wool from her family’s sheep. Its textured surface reminded her of the hours they’d spent together, helping Dari’s parents with the shearing. It still had a faint lanolin smell. She breathed it in deeply, and let the scents of happy hours soothe her.
She made sure that her shelves were dusted, that her collection of leather scraps was boxed, and that the clothing she was leaving behind was neatly folded. At the last moment she stuffed her four treasured books into her bag. They just fitted, although they made it heavier than she’d have liked. Finally, she washed and dressed for the new day.
Thoughts chased themselves around her head like a cat after mice, mixing with the remnants of her confused dreams. Over the last couple of months, it seemed that Kazari’s nights had only left her tired and grumpy.
Yawning, she made her way downstairs to an empty kitchen. The house was quiet and felt empty, as if her parents’ disapproval had drained it of all homeliness. The morning was chilly, and Kazari stirred the embers inside the stove, feeding them another piece of wood, before filling the kettle and popping it on to boil. She drank her tea when the water boiled, before setting a pot of porridge simmering for the rest of the family. She grabbed a piece of cheese and an apple, and let herself outside quietly.
She sat on the bench seat outside the leather shop, eating her breakfast, and after delaying for a few more minutes, came to the weary conclusion that neither of her parents was going to make an appearance before she presented herself to the Abbot. The early morning light usually left her feeling energised and refreshed, but not this morning. She wasn’t normally a depressive personality, but the spring in her step was missing, and the lack of the warm farewells she’d fantasised about for years left her feeling empty and teary.
She hefted her bag, settled its weight onto her shoulder, and began the lonely walk to the town centre. Her footsteps echoed hollowly as she made her way down the cobblestoned road, past the familiar houses and businesses of her childhood, and towards the unknown. As she approached the town square, others began to join her one by one. Familiar faces from her lessons in the chapel walked with family members beside them, leaving Kazari feeling even more alone as she trudged along with her bag over her shoulder.
Kaz!” It was Dari, dodging through the growing crowd around the square. “Stand with me! Oh.” Her friend’s eyes widened as she took in the lack of family walking with Kazari. “You told them? And it didn’t go well?”
Suddenly choked up, Kazari shook her head. She felt her friend thread her arm through hers and tug her to one side. “You can stand with us until it’s time then, come on.” As they neared Dari’s parents, she saw Gweda, Dari’s mother, raise her eyebrows slightly as they neared, before breaking into a smile.
“Kazari! You’re planning to declare?” She motioned towards the bag over Kazari’s shoulder.
Kazari nodded, not trusting her voice.
“And your parents?” Gweda left the question hanging.
“I hope they might be along shortly.” She was proud her voice stayed steady, although it nearly undid her.
“I’m sure they will,” Gweda replied brightly. “It’s such a proud day for a parent. Of course we miss Enda, but we know that the Lady has great plans for her. And once she’s assigned to a chapel or a hospice, we hope to be able to visit.”
Despite pledging to serve for a lifetime, the Lady’s servants lived full lives, marrying if they wished, and serving as their vows to the Lady required. Early initiation and training kept them sequestered for long periods of time, however, once a certain point had been reached, visiting home was possible, and even encouraged. Despite what her parents had insinuated, Kazari knew the Lady’s servants were a vibrant part of Albatar, seen and welcomed across the land.
Kazari wondered if she’d ever be welcome at home again. Sometimes it went like that, although most families came around eventually. She hoped hers would, but she couldn’t stop herself looking around every few minutes, hoping for a glimpse of her mother or father. The crowd was growing rapidly, and it was becoming harder to see through it.
She warmed as Dari tucked her arm through hers, and for a few moments, she no longer felt abandoned.
“I’ve had the weirdest dreams, Dari,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Dari replied.
“Rainbows, stars, colours. It was like I was drowning in them. And inside the rainbows, feelings. So many feelings that I’ve been waking up ill, or crying, or so tired, I’ve barely made it through the day.”
“Do you think it’s because you’ve been worried about your Mum and Dad?” Dari asked. “I mean, you always knew it was going to be hard telling them.”
Kazari shrugged, and then shook her head.
“No, it’s not that. Those dreams are pretty obvious. I just see their eyes.” Tears threatened again, and Kazari gritted her teeth against the sadness that once again, seemed ready to overwhelm her. She breathed in and out, deeply, and went on.
“These are . . . different . . . somehow. It’s as if there’s a message, or a sign, or – I don’t know – something that I’m missing.” She hitched her bag a little higher on her shoulder. “I think maybe it’s the Lady. Did . . . did Enda mention anything?”
“Nothing, and do you really think the Lady sends dreams, Kaz?”
Dari opened her mouth to answer, but a gong rang out, and the crowd stilled. Kazari and Dari exchanged glances. It was time.
“Leave your things with us, Kaz,” Gweda said. “You can get them after the ceremony. There’ll be time.” Kazari nodded gratefully. Standing on the dais with a bag over her shoulder would only emphasise her lack of family support. Lady, please stand with me, she thought. Give me the courage I need, and the comfort too.
She walked quickly to the raised area in the centre of the square, slightly awkwardly taking her place beside her friend. Dari gave her hand a quick squeeze. “You’re doing the right thing, Kaz. I know you are.”
“Thanks, Dari.” She squeezed back and then turned her eyes forward. There was quite a large group on the platform, mainly fifteen-year olds, but there were also a few of those who’d abstained from decision-making in previous years. They stood in a clump rather than in lines, waiting for the Abbot to appear. This Abbot had only been raised to her position four years before, when her predecessor had stepped down citing old age. She was a tall woman, competent looking, and raised from the Hunter sept, as evidenced by the amethyst pendant glowing purple on her chest.
A stir in the crowd heralded the Abbot’s approach, and Kazari’s stomach wondered if she was going to be sick. She took one more look around, hoping to see at least one of her parents standing in the crowd around the square, but their familiar figures were nowhere to be seen.
The Abbot climbed the stairs to the platform, followed by a member of each of the Order’s septs. Their multihued robes spun a rainbow of colour, against which the Abbot’s black robes stood out starkly. Her brown eyes wandered across the group, pausing briefly here and there, before resting momentarily on Kazari where she stood to one side with Dari. She thought the Abbot’s eyes tightened slightly, but immediately dismissed the idea as the woman’s eyes passed on to the three standing next to her.
A few moments later, the gong spoke again and the square quietened. In the silence the robed figures chanted the ages’ old song of declaration:
With the morning light
Comes the dawning
Of the Lady’s day
To dispel night
Sing the songs of praise
In the morning
Of the day of choice
Coming of age
Set the pathway still
Your choice is here
To declare or not
Follow her will
Kazari exchanged a nervous look with Dari. The moment was finally here, and now, in front of her whole village, she would declare for the Lady. She knew Dari’s decision, just as her friend knew hers, decisions that would set them on completely different paths. Tearing, she squeezed Dari’s hand, and then turned her face resolutely towards the Abbot.
“It is the Day of Declaration,” the Abbot announced. “Most of you have already decided what your choice will be, but if anyone hasn’t, place your trust in the Lady, ask for her help, and follow the guidance of your heart. One by one, you will approach, lay your hand upon the Writings, and state your choice. Speak clearly, so that all may know your mind. Those who declare for the Lady will stand to my right. Those who abstain to my left. Those whose choice is to decline, will make their way back to their families after they speak.”
The Abbot looked at the assembled villagers, and then swept her arms wide.
“Whatever the choices made, respect those who make them. Those who choose not to declare for the Lady still do her will. Those who abstain, know that she may yet call them to Her service. Those who declare for the Lady today may take the most difficult path, yet it is a path of joy and one that should be celebrated.” She picked up an ornate copy of the Writings and called the first name in a clear voice. “Dari.”
Kazari let her friend’s hand go with a sense of loss, watching her walk forward and place her hand firmly on the Writings.
“I choose to decline service with the Lady.” Dari’s said clearly.
Kazari could hear the ring of certainty in Dari’s voice as it rang clearly out across the square, and knew her friend spoke with a conviction as strong as her own. It didn’t stop the feeling of loss though because, for the first time, their lives would take different paths. But knowing her friend was doing the right thing made her more certain about her own decision. Besides, she reminded herself firmly, their friendship would not be less, just different.
Name after name was called, and one by one, each person walked forward and made their choice. Kazari watched those around her chose to either abstain or decline. Time wore on, until only Kazari and one other, older woman remained. Kazari couldn’t remember who she was, but her face was vaguely familiar. When the Abbot called her forward, she remembered. The woman’s name was Quisil and she’d managed a vegetable stall in the market for many years. It must have been a long time since her abstention, but the woman now walked forward to place a trembling hand on the Writings.
“I declare for the Lady.” A stirring of surprise swept around the square like a sudden breeze, and Kazari let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. Relief followed as she breathed in again. She wasn’t to be the only one to declare for the Lady today.
“Welcome, Quisil, the Lady is pleased with your choice. Take your place on my right,” the Abbot said. Quisil walked to the Abbot’s right side and stood, looking nervously relieved, while her work-worn hands clutched at her tunic. “And now, Kazari.”
Kazari’s stomach flip-flopped, and then she was walking forward, uncertain of how her legs had started moving. It seemed a ridiculously long walk, and she was very conscious of everyone watching her. And very conscious of those who weren’t. She couldn’t help glancing around one more time to look for her family. She didn’t see them.
Taking a breath, she raised her hand and placed it on the Writings. “I declare for the Lady.” The leather cover, ornately tooled, and inlaid with the tiny gems that signified each of the septs, warmed under her hand and she looked up, startled, straight into the Abbot’s eyes.
“Welcome Kazari, the Lady is pleased with your choice. Take your place on my right.” The woman’s dark eyes crinkled at the corners as she spoke, and Kazari made her way to Quisil’s side, wondering as she did so. The other woman smiled at her, and she managed to smile back as the Abbot spoke again. “Join me as we commit these two to the Lady.”
The ceremony was short, and practical; a simple laying on of hands by the sept representatives while the Abbot prayed. Then, the ceremony over, the Abbot dismissed the crowd and requested Kazari and Quisil to make their goodbyes, collect their belongings, and meet her on the edge of the square. It felt almost perfunctory, but in a strange kind of way easier.
Kazari stepped off the platform and made her way slowly towards Dari’s family. Her friend rushed forward and hugged her.
“You did the right thing,” she whispered into Kazari’s ear. Gweda also hugged her, tears glinting in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry they weren’t here, Kaz, but we’re proud of you. And if you see Enda, give her our love.”
“I will,” Kazari said, accepting her bag back from Dari’s father.
“You take care, now,” he said. “And give Enda this from me,” he told her, giving her a hug.
Kazari nodded. “I – I’d better go.” And with one last hug from Dari, Kazari turned and walked with resolute steps towards the waiting Abbot. She could see Quisil standing there already, bag slung from one shoulder, looking excited and nervous, and occasionally waving to a group of people Kazari supposed were her family.
“You’re Enda’s sister?” Quisil asked as she approached.
“Ah, no. Dari is, but she’s my best friend,” Kazari stammered.
“And your family?” the Abbot asked.
“They weren’t able to attend this morning,” she replied, embarrassed, and dropped her eyes. A warm hand on her shoulder made her look up.
“Some families take a while to understand the Lady’s call,” the Abbot said. “But your friends are pleased for you.” She motioned to where Quisil’s family had been joined by Dari’s, and all of them were now waving at her. Kazari’s eyes misted, and she waved back, thankful she wasn’t completely alone at this moment, although inside she still felt the absence of her family like a gaping hole in her middle.
“Come,” the Abbot said, “it’s time to go. Give them one last wave, and a smile, and we’ll be off. It’s best not to draw these things out.”
Kazari waved vigorously, dredging a smile up from somewhere, and turned to go. She’d only taken one step when she was struck in the middle and a pair of arms went around her. It was her brother, Jaden.
“Kaz! I’m sorry! I missed it, but I’ll miss you too!” He wasn’t really making sense, and his eyes were full of tears and his nose was running, but she hugged him back wordlessly, grateful for his warm presence, but still wishing the rest of her family was there as well. Then the Abbot touched her arm gently, and she began to disentangle herself from him.
“I have to go, Jaden, but I love you, and tell Piddy I love him too – and Mum and Dad.”
“I will.” His small face was determined as he sniffed, and then rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand.
“And I’ll be back sometime.” She saw Gweda put her arm around Jaden and apply a hanky to his face as she turned away and walked with the Abbot and Quisil to the others waiting for them. There were two small wagons and a group of horses in the convoy which had stood unnoticed at the side of the square.
“Bags in the wagons, Quisil and Kazari, and then we’re off. Andiss has your horses.”
“Horses?” Quisil said.
The Abbot smiled. “If you can’t ride, don’t worry. You’ll have learned the basics by the time we reach the Abbey.” She took her own horse from another black clad Hunter, and swung easily into its saddle, waving an arm towards the wagons. Kazari hurried over and stowed her bag as she’d been instructed, and then looked around. She had no idea who Andiss was until she heard her name being called again. She hurried over to a well-muscled man, also clad in Hunter’s garb. He was shorter than she expected, given his voice, but exuded an air of calm competence.
“Quisil, Kazari, I’m Andiss. Meet your mounts.” Two short, shaggy horses stood behind him. They looked placid, Kazari thought hopefully, as Andiss explained the basics of climbing on and steering.
“Don’t worry,” he said, as he gave Quisil a leg up. “These will follow the others, that’s their job. Yours is to learn to stay on top. We won’t be moving fast, just walking steadily, but all the Lady’s servants learn to ride. We believe the sooner you learn, the better. By the time we reach the Abbey, you’ll have the basics. When we stop, I’ll show you how to care for your mount and its gear. Kazari, yours is called Stumpy, Quisil, yours is Happy.”
After a struggle involving much hopping on one leg while the other was stuck in a stirrup, coupled with some ungainly heaving at the saddle on Stumpy’s fortunately patient back, Kazari found herself looking down at her horse’s neck. She perched awkwardly on the saddle, smelling the horse’s rich scent and feeling the warmth of its body beneath her. She wondered what it might feel like when the beast began to move. Despite feeling as if she was going to immediately fall back off, the warmth of her horsy companion was quite comforting against the chill in the air.
Without warning, Stumpy moved, and she wobbled, reflexively grabbing for the front of the saddle. There wasn’t much to hang onto, but he’d only changed his weight from one side to the other, and she relaxed her hold slightly, grimacing at Quisil, who looked almost as alarmed as Kazari felt. There was a whistle from the front of the group and Stumpy lurched forward. Kazari grabbed for the saddle again, fumbling with her reins, and only relaxed when she realised Stumpy was just following the tail of the horse in front of him, and not bolting off into the distance as she’d feared. The rocking motion was soothing, and as they wound their way out of the village, she felt brave enough to turn slightly for one last look at her home.
The pain from her parents’ absence was still there, but her memory of the warmth beneath her hand as she declared for the Lady, filled that emptiness a little. Resolutely, she turned her head away, a hot tear sliding down her cheek. She was on her way. The first step of her journey as one of the Lady’s servants had begun. Stumpy made a grab for some grass and Kazari instinctively tightened her knees to avoid falling off, as her body tried to balance itself on top of the movement beneath her.
Two days later she wasn’t sure if she was going to survive that journey. She groaned as she crawled out of her bedding. The muscles in her legs screamed loudly at her, and she was forced to walk her hands up her thighs just to straighten up. Rather than being a faster, simpler mode of transport, Stumpy seemed more an instrument of torture. She crawled exhausted into her bedding each night, feeling as if she could have slept on rocks, and then struggled her way out of it, inch by painful inch the next morning.
“Can you give me a hand,” Quisil groaned. The older woman had levered herself to a kneeling position, but seemed uncertain how to proceed next. Kazari reflected that perhaps fifteen-year-old muscles were easier to cope with than, what, forty-year-old ones? She hobbled over and stuck a hand out, groaning herself as her muscles protested further abuse. “Thank you,” Quisil said, as she hobbled forward. “I think I’m broken. You’d have thought that years growing vegetables and lifting crates would have left me more prepared for this.”
“I don’t know that anything could have prepared us for this,” Kazari replied darkly. She sighed, and attempted to bend over in order to roll up her bedding so that she could stow it in the wagon. Each day began the same way. They packed their bedding, ate a simple breakfast, prepared by an initiate from the Growers sept, while the Abbot read from the Writings. Then they mounted their horses and travelled to the next village. There was now a small group of potential initiates travelling with them. Kazari still spent most of her time talking to Quisil, clinging to the one last familiar part of home, but she’d gradually met all of the newcomers.
All of them seemed pleasant, but there was a sense of incompleteness, and shyness. They’d declared, they were on the first steps of their journey, but as of yet their futures were still undecided. Kazari wondered which sept she’d end up in. The Lady’s servants were a colourful lot, she reflected, with their formal robes declaring the sept they belonged to for all to see, while their jewelled pendants in the same colour as their robes sparkled on their chests.
Around her, she could see that most of her fellows were also having the same issues that she and Quisil were struggling with. Those who’d already been part of the group when she’d joined it had assured her that the soreness would pass, but Kazari wasn’t certain she wasn’t becoming crippled for life. She’d slowly become accustomed to Stumpy’s gait, and she could feel the beginnings of some of the understandings of the art of riding tickling her mind, but when she watched Andiss, or the Abbot, she realised that what she thought she knew was barely scratching the surface.
Each day, Andiss spent some time instructing the group of new declarees. It had never occurred to her that she’d need to learn to ride to serve the Lady, even though each year she’d seen the Abbot arrive on horseback. She’d always assumed that she’d be sitting in a wagon. Clearly, she’d been wrong.
“The Lady’s servants must be able to go wherever she requires, sometimes at speed,” Andiss had explained when Quisil had asked. “Horses are the best way. They’re fast, efficient, and friendly.” And then he’d demonstrated just how fast they could be, and that they could jump. Kazari couldn’t imagine how he stayed on. Even the thought of moving that fast hurt her sore muscles.
Slowly, she began to warm up, and her limbs moved slightly less stiffly. She still stifled a groan as she heaved her bedding into the wagon before she joined the others for breakfast. After the morning reading, the Abbot addressed them all.
“We’ll be spending another four days on the road. By then most of your sore muscles will have settled.” She smiled, and Kazari realised she must have been observing the new declarees. Not much escaped the Abbot. “We have another three villages to visit, and then we’ll head for the Abbey. You’ll meet the rest of the group there. In the meantime, I’ll be riding with each of you at some point during the next couple of days. Don’t be concerned, it’s part of the process. We like to get to know our new initiates.”
After breakfast, Kazari noticed a new rider approaching. A Hunter, she swung her horse in beside Andiss and handed him a message. Andiss broke its seal while Kazari looked on curiously. She wondered idly how Andiss managed to stay in the saddle and steer his horse, all the while not touching the reins, as he read the message. A moment later, he sent his horse cantering ahead to the Abbot’s side.
Half an hour later Kazari saw the messenger with the Abbot. The Abbot was talking, and with a nod the messenger left the column on a branching side road. She looked tired, Kazari thought, wondering what might have brought the woman to the Abbot out here in the countryside.
Later that day, the Abbot’s bay horse drew alongside Kazari’s shorter horse. “Kazari, how are you?”
“Sore,” she admitted, looking up at the Abbot.
“Well, as I said, that will pass.” There was a moments silence. “Declaration day was a bit of an emotional upheaval for you, wasn’t it?”
Kazari dropped her eyes. “Yes.”
“The Lady says in her Writings: ‘The one who follows Me, though forsaken by their loved ones, will be repaid a thousandfold on the day of reward. She is steadfast and true, and beloved of Me.’ That probably seems little comfort for you now, but I promise you that the Lady is true to her word.”
They rode in silence for a few moments, while Kazari tried to figure out what to say. So many things flashed through her mind – her parents arguing with her, her little brother’s hug, and Dari’s friendship.
“Thank you, my lady Abbess,” was all she could manage.
“Kazari, although you are correct to use my title in public, among ourselves you may call me Ailani. Ailani means ‘first’ or ‘chief’. But it’s an informal title, and it’s to be used only when you’re with others of the Order, and at all times at the Abbey.”
“I would be privileged, Ailani,” Kazari said carefully. “And I’m usually called Kaz, by my friends.”
The Abbot, though garbed as a Hunter, was much warmer in person than she could ever have imagined. Kazari had always imagined that Hunters would be taciturn and reserved, possibly unfriendly, because of their role as Albatar’s protectors.
The Abbot smiled. “I hope you’ll find a true home with us here, Kaz. Now, have you thought about the sept that you believe the Lady has in mind for you?”
“I’m pretty good at growing things, and I have done well in reasoning and logic at school, however, I haven’t had any firm indication from the Lady.” She frowned worriedly. “Should I have had?” She played nervously with her reins, and when Stumpy snorted she relaxed her hands.
“No, not at all. The Lady will make it clear before the day of your initiation. Sometimes our initiates come with a clear leading from the Lady, and occasionally an initiate thinks they should be in one sept but the Lady has other ideas.” She smiled, and Kazari had the impression she was enjoying a private joke.
“She will? How?”
“We’ll explain when you arrive at the Abbey, but the Lady always ensures you end up in the right sept, even if it’s not quite what you expected. In the meantime, I can see that you and Stumpy are getting along well. Make sure you take every opportunity to learn more about riding from Andiss. And please, feel free to ask him any questions you might have, or address any concerns.” She smiled once again, and then rode off towards Quisil.
Kazari’s heart felt lighter as she watched the Abbot’s mount move away. The Abbot wasn’t what she’d expected, but she seemed somehow more . . . real now. She wondered how the Lady would show her her sept. She ran them through her mind. The Hunters, charged with the protection of Albatar, and the fight against the gorgones. The Judicars, who administered justice across the land. The Growers, who tended to the fields and orchards, and grew the medicinals. The Advisers, who taught and sat at the right hands of the city and village lords, and even the Kings and Queens of Albatar. The Navigators, who explored the lands and seas, and guided caravans and travellers. The Intercessors, who prayed, often administered the Lady’s chapels, and were frequently teachers; and the Healers who, in the Lady’s name, ran the infirmaries and ministered to the sick.
She’d always felt somewhat inclined towards the Growers or the Judicars, but apparently the Lady would make it obvious to her somehow, probably within the next few days. She wondered how she’d know. Although the process of declaration was well known, how people ended up in certain septs was unknown to the general public, apart from ‘the Lady directs us,’ which Kazari had always felt was somewhat vague. She supposed she’d always thought it would be something like a personal choice or more likely perhaps, an examination of some sort during the early days of initiation.
She rode on, looking around, as Stumpy’s familiar pace slowly began to soothe her sore muscles. It wouldn’t be long now, and all the speculation in the world wouldn’t change the outcome. She did wish she had some kind of inkling about her future though.
Kazari woke in a strange bed. She woke instantaneously, feeling rested and alive, but wondering what had woken her. Then the bell rang again, and she realised she’d heard it on the edges of the strange dream she’d just had. The dream had been full of confused colours – rainbow hues swirling around her. It had been similar to, but more vivid than the dreams she’d had before declaring for the Lady. There’d been a voice too, but she couldn’t understand what it had been saying, and just when it seemed to have been on the verge of becoming understandable – the sound of the bell had woken her.
Pushing her hair off her face, she struggled to a sitting position, seeing the others around her doing the same thing. They were her travelling companions, those she’d met along the way since her declaration for the Lady. Her eyes were caught by her bed’s curiously carved bedhead. Seven gems, obviously representing the seven septs, made an arc across the top of the wood. Last night they’d sparkled in the lamplight as she’d collapsed tiredly into the bed’s soft embrace. This morning they flickered and glowed in random patterns. She wondered what they meant and, if they continued, how she’d sleep with their flickering. Looking around the bunk room, Kazari could see that each of the other bedheads was the same.
“Up, please,” said a commanding voice. “Use the washrooms, and then dress. You’ll follow me to breakfast once you’re all assembled. Quickly please, you have a lot to learn in the next few days.”
Kazari looked around for Quisil as she headed for the washrooms to make her ablutions. It had been late when they’d arrived at the Abbey, and during the confusion of arrival, she’d lost track of the woman. She couldn’t see her anywhere, so washed quickly.
Rummaging through her meagre possessions, she realised she was on her last set of clean things. Everything else smelled strongly of horse and woodsmoke. She made her bed, tucking the white sheet and grey blanket in neatly, and fluffed up the pillow as her father had taught her. A pang of homesickness and regret struck, and she tried to distract herself by re-plaiting her curly hair. As she separated the strands and wove them together, she felt as though the last vestiges of home were deserting her. The memory of Jaden’s arms tightening around her threatened to bring her to tears again.
“Follow me,” their guide said, attracting their attention. “And as you walk, look around, read the stories on the walls, and feel the history of your people surround you.”
The walk was quite long, but Kazari didn’t notice, fascinated by the unfolding story in the wall art. Some of it was ancient, worn down by the passing of time, while other parts seemed quite new, all done in a variety of styles. Through it all, the rainbow hues of the seven septs shone. Gems hung at the necks of the major characters, and their faceted faces bathed the candidates in many hues. She wondered how the gems maintained their steady glow, but eventually decided that it didn’t really matter, and allowed herself to be drawn into the familiar story.
She saw the creation of Albatar, born of the destruction of the world during the Gorgone War, and now protected by the Lady. She was reminded of the great battle that had raged between humanity and the gorgones – destroyers of minds, souls, and physical bodies. The War had occurred because humanity had lost its way after the founding of the world, had forgotten the Lady’s gentle songs and her loving kindness; and had brought destruction upon themselves by craving things and power rather than following the Lady’s teachings.
The first mural reminded the candidates that greed was born of selfishness. That the gifts of the Lady were for the good of all – wealth and prosperity were there so that all might share – not so that one might rise above another, controlling and manipulating those beneath them for their own profit. Personal wealth was not wrong, but it was important it was to be used for the good of all.
The next mural showed the Second King. He’d begun as a ruler adored by all, but that very adoration had led him to believe that he was better than everyone else. In his quest for aggrandisement and more power, he’d opened a gateway to Beyond, allowing the first of the gorgones into the world.
A stark painting showed the beginnings of the disaster. It was charcoal black, full of hidden ghouls and ghosts, preying upon the unprotected minds of an unsuspecting people. It was followed by a montage of the creeping danger, as greed and hatred spiralled out of control, right up until the reign of the eleventh King, when the rampant greed of the people allowed the first of the greater gorgones through from Beyond. It was quickly followed by others who took corporeal form, and the Gorgone War began.
Against the backdrop of disaster, the gem pendants of the Lady’s servants shone brightly. Where the gorgones marauded, the Hunters and Navigators fought them and guided those who wished to follow a better way to safety. Where people turned from their wickedness, the Judicars, Growers, and Intercessors led them into the Lady’s ways. The Advisers remained to guide them. The Healers strove alongside the Hunters and Navigators wherever there was need, often giving their lives to protect the sick and injured.
A final montage showed the Navigators leading the faithful through the mountains and into the Lady’s sanctuary – Albatar. There, the faithful built a home far from the ravages of the gorgones, but even Albatar was still assailed by the gorgones at times, despite the mountainous boundaries and icy passes that protected it from the outer world. Rarely did Kazari’s people venture into the outer world. They hadn’t abandoned it, Kazari knew. Every ten years, a group from the Abbey left Albatar to serve in the wider world, seeking those who wished to learn a better way. Some returned; most did not, but some of those they’d contacted did. Small trickles of people regularly found their way through the mountains to safety in Albatar, guided by the Lady and her Navigators and Hunters who patrolled the borders.
As the group entered the dining hall, Kazari saw that the walls were covered with images of those rescued. They were depicted in general terms – tall, short, fat, thin, old and young. People of many races and many ages, yet all one within the Lady’s domain.
At the head table, the Abbot rose. “Join me in giving thanks to the Lady for her bounty.” All those in the room stood and sang their thanks. Kazari was swept away in the sound of the massed voices. The words were familiar but the tune was not, so she didn’t sing but just listened and let the words run through her mind, conveying her own gratitude.
As they sat, she found herself seated between two other youngsters, and opposite a man wearing the aquamarine pendant of a Navigator. He was old – very old, she realised, but clearly not decrepit, as she found his keen blue eyes surveying her and her companions with interest over the large porridge pot on the trestle table.
“Welcome, candidates,” he said, smiling at them. “Don’t stint on your breakfast. You’ve a busy day ahead.” He picked up a ladle and began filling bowls. “And I’ll be spending part of it teaching you what you’ll need to know in three days’ time when you’re initiated. Here – eat.” He waved a bowl at the boy on Kazari’s left, and then filled another.
“Thank you,” she said as he handed it to her. “I’m Kazari.”
“Oh yes, the Abbot mentioned you,” he said. “I’m Elliam.”
The Abbot had mentioned her? “Mentioned me?” she asked nervously.
“Yes, said that you’d had the gumption to declare even without your family there.” He ladled another bowl and handed it to the girl on Kazari’s other side. She could feel both her companions listening avidly to Elliam. “Well done. You must feel the Lady’s call very clearly.”
“I’m sure it was no clearer than anyone else’s,” she mumbled, and then blushed again.
“Ah but it takes a bit of gumption to declare and not abstain,” Elliam went on. “Most years we get abstainers from prior years joining us. A lot of them bowed to their parents’ wishes and abstained, and then declared a few years later. What about you two?” He waved the ladle at the boy and girl on either side of Kazari.
“I abstained last year,” the boy said. “But this year my parents realised that I wasn’t going to change my mind. I’m Abel, by the way.”
“Charla,” the girl said, pointing to her chest. “Mine were just proud. It must have been hard for you two.”
“This year was fine,” replied Abel, “But if I’d gone last year it might have been very different. Good on you, Kazari.”
“Call me Kaz,” she replied, and looked up at him. “It wasn’t much fun. I’m hoping they’ll have forgiven me by the time I get to see them again.” She spooned up some porridge and blew on it to hide her embarrassment. It was thick, filling, and warming. She smiled at Abel and Charla; it was nice to talk to someone her own age. Further down the table, she could see Quisil, chatting enthusiastically with several older candidates. She liked the woman, but she was a lot older than Kazari. Perhaps she, Abel and Charla might end up in the same sept. The thought warmed her.
As the morning meal drew to a close, Andiss stood. Kazari wondered where the Abbot had gone. Her place at the top table was empty. “Welcome to our new candidates. Today marks the first of your three days of preparation. After breakfast, you’ll join us all in the sanctuary for Morning-song, and then you’ll proceed to orientation. Elliam, would you stand up please?” The elderly Navigator stood and waved a hand. “Elliam will take you through the procedures for the ceremony itself. For now, you just have to know one thing. Many of you will have arrived with preconceived ideas of which sept you will join. This is not a foregone conclusion. You may have noticed the bedheads in the candidates’ hall?”
Kazari nodded with the other candidates.
“The Lady chooses your sept, not you, nor even any of us. It may well be the one you’ve wanted or believed was for you – it often happens like that. However, just as often, the Lady has something else in mind. She knows your path, and she will not choose wrongly. Over the next days, you will dream – dreams of colours – rainbows perhaps, or gem studded jewellery, or even the night sky sprinkled with multihued stars. It varies from person to person. But one morning you will awake, knowing your sept. Your dreams will have told you, and the gemstone above your head will be lit so that all will know that the Lady has spoken.”
Well that explained the dream, then, Kazari thought. She wondered what the Lady would choose for her. She’d thought perhaps she was suited to be a Grower, or a Judicar, but it didn’t sound that simple. And what if she ended up in a sept she didn’t want? What if she ended up as an Adviser? She couldn’t imagine being confident enough to provide advice to anyone, let alone Albatar’s secular rulers, despite what she’d told her parents. Heavens, she wasn’t confident enough to advise herself half the time.
She exchanged surprised glances with Charla and Abel, and wondered if they felt as unsettled as she did.
A mug of something hot was placed in front of her as Andiss continued. “Be aware that the Lady’s choice is final. You may withdraw from the Abbey if you find her choice unpalatable, but if you do, it is as if you have chosen not to declare. You are still part of the Lady’s people, but you will not become her servant.” There was a finality in his voice that surprised Kazari, but which she supposed was appropriate. And then she began to worry what she might do, if she found the topaz, or the amethyst, or the aquamarine glowing above her bed. They were septs she’d never considered. Andiss spoke again.
“Each intake, the Lady makes certain choices. There are patterns. There is always at least one Hunter, and always two or three Navigators. Do not be fearful if these are choices you’ve not considered – the Lady only gives the choices you are suited for. The rest are usually evenly distributed between the other septs, except for the Advisers. The Lady chooses them most carefully. Sometimes it is several years between choices. And throughout Albatar, in all the Lady’s Abbeys. the same proportions hold true.”
All around her, Kazari could hear hushed whispers from her fellow candidates. Clearly, it was not what they’d expected either. Lady, help me dream the right dreams, she thought. And help me want the right things. And what would her parents say if she reappeared only a week or two after she’d left against their wishes? She almost panicked at the thought.
Lady help me! The prayer became a mantra as she moved through the day. Every time she was with one of the other candidates, the subject came up. It flavoured every conversation, and as they prepared for bed that evening, Kazari could see more than one candidate apprehensively eyeing their headboard.
“I think I’m almost scared to go to sleep,” Charla said as they washed together. Her bed was several rows over from Kazari’s, somewhat to her regret, because she’d found the other girl’s company reminiscent of Dari’s.
“I’m tired though,” Kazari said. “Do you reckon they worked us so hard that we’d have no choice but to sleep?”
“I think you’re probably right,” Quisil said, passing behind them. “I can’t imagine why they’d have us doing some of the things we’ve done today otherwise.”
Kazari nodded, smiling ruefully. They’d been taken for a long walk around the Abbey – several times. And they’d been marched through the Abbey’s winding corridors and twisting passages from one end to the other. After that they’d scrubbed the sanctuary and polished all the candlesticks, despite their already gleaming cleanliness. That had been between the lessons provided by Elliam. And the meditations! Every two hours, they’d been required to sit quietly in the sanctuary for half an hour, praying and asking the Lady’s guidance.
She was almost as tired as she had been when they’d arrived the previous night. She brushed her hair again, enjoying the feel of the brush moving through her long locks. It wouldn’t be long until they’d be gone. It was part of the ceremony, now only two days away.
“We won’t be as tired tomorrow, though, Elliam said we’ll spend most of the time in quiet contemplation instead of working all day,” Kazari sighed. “What if we don’t find out tomorrow – how will we sleep then?”
“Who knows,” Charla said. “Maybe the meditation will help?”
“Hmm,” Kazari replied, slightly sceptically. “Did you dream last night?”
“Sort of. It was a bit confused though.”
Kazari nodded. “Mine too. It was full of colours, and a voice.”
“Did it say anything?”
“The bell drowned it out,” Kazari made a face. “I’m guessing that I didn’t miss anything because nothing was glowing in the morning.”
“I wonder if anyone already knows?”
“If it didn’t look so obvious, I’d take a quick jog around the bunk room now,” Kazari said.
“Ha!” Charla said. “I bet it’s the first thing everyone does tomorrow!”
As Kazari pulled her covers up, the lantern light showed nearly everyone looking nervously around the room at the bedheads they could see. None of the ones near her were lit with anything more than random flickers. She tilted her head back and looked at her own – the same. Maybe she’d know in the morning.
“Lamps out, now,” Elliam said from the darkness. “You’ll be woken by the chime in the morning. Sleep well.” She heard the suspicion of a chuckle in his tone and as she blew out her lamp, she was tempted to make a face in his direction. Chiding herself for being childish, she rolled onto her back, and tried to compose herself for sleep. It was difficult.
Eventually, she rolled onto her side and tried not to look at the flickers of the multihued gemstones around her. It didn’t work, but she discovered that if she unfocused her eyes and relaxed her body, the shifting colours were mesmerising and quite relaxing. She sighed and hoped she’d eventually fall asleep.
The following morning, she struggled out of a dream of stars falling from the sky. They’d begun multihued, but towards the end of the dream, only one remained. It was purple, glowing and vivid. She sat bolt upright, sweating, and swung around to look at the gems on her bedhead. They were still flickering, and she sighed in relief. Perhaps she’d dream a different colour the next evening. Perhaps that was how it worked. In the next bed over, an emerald shone steadily from the headboard above the sleeping form. Clearly, the Lady had chosen the girl to be a Grower.
She looked around. About a third of the bedheads were lit with steadily glowing gems. She could see people stirring around her. Nearly every one of them twisted around to look at their own gems as soon as they were awake. She saw sighs of relief, occasional sighs of resignation, and once an exclamation of “Yes!” She looked around to see Abel, three rows over, grinning at her.
“What lit?” she mouthed at him, mindful that the waking chime hadn’t yet sounded.
He beckoned her over, and she slid out of bed and tiptoed towards him, trying not to wake anyone else. The aquamarine gem glowed brightly from his headboard. “Aren’t you a bit frightened?” she asked. Navigators patrolled the borders, close to any gorgone incursion, when they weren’t guiding caravans or traders.
“A little,” he admitted, “but it’s what I’ve always wanted.”
“I’m still waiting,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow.” And then tried to dismiss the purple star from her mind. It was only the second night anyway. Perhaps she’d dream of green trees, or the blue of a deep lake tonight.
As she breakfasted, the image of the vast purple star filled her mind. It had been a very vivid dream. “I beg your pardon?” she said in response to what had clearly been a question from Charla. “Sorry, didn’t sleep well.”
“I was just wondering whether you dreamed last night, Kaz. Abel said he dreamed of the ocean, and of glacial lakes, and then of starlight and storms. When he woke he already knew.”
“Sort of,” Kazari admitted, “but it was still confused.” Well it had been confused, until the last star. “Mine had lots of coloured stars,” she went on, deliberately avoiding mentioning the purple one at the end. “What about you?”
“Well, I did dream, and there were colours, mostly blue and white, and icy,” Charla frowned. “I wonder if that means I’ll become an Intercessor, or a Judicar?”
Across the table, Elliam was listening. “The colours can vary. I saw a glacial river, myself. But that was after two solid nights of dreaming of snow and ice and water. Until your dreams are consumed by the colour, you won’t know. I’d wake each morning horrified by the thought of becoming part of the Judiciary. I was extremely relieved to wake with the aquamarine lit.” He wriggled his eyebrows at Charla and Kazari. “Don’t worry. All the worrying in the world won’t hurry the Lady, or change her mind.” He applied himself to his porridge, and Kazari looked at the aquamarine suspended on its chain from Abel’s neck.
His hand kept reaching up to touch it, almost as if he was still surprised it was there.
“By the way, don’t worry about not being able to sleep again,” Elliam said. “We’re breaking your meditations up with shifting rocks today.” Charla groaned and Kazari made a face, while the old Navigator laughed into his porridge.
Later, she sat cross-legged in the sanctuary on a cushion as Elliam had taught them, trying to still her mind. A ring of gemstones behind the altar flickered with gentle light. She focused on them, then let her eyes relax, letting the flickers of light lull her slightly. Lady, she prayed, please . . . But the words seemed empty. She didn’t know what she was entreating the Lady about. Elliam had said that the Lady made her own choices, and that sometimes those choices didn’t fit a candidate’s expectations. She took his words as comfort – he’d thought he might end up as a Judicar, but instead he’d ended up as a Navigator. Perhaps the purple star meant nothing at all.
She wriggled slightly on her cushion, trying not to disturb Charla next to her. The other girl was motionless, eyes closed and face serene. She envied her composure. Sighing silently, she returned her gaze to the flickers again, letting the emotion within her take the place of a formal prayer. The Lady would understand. Of course she would, but even as she closed her own eyes, flickers of amethyst tickled the edges of her vision.
Later, at dinner, she looked around surreptitiously, trying to see what colour gems hung around her fellow candidates’ necks. Despite her childish awe at the Lady’s Hunters, she’d never considered that the Lady might want her as one. She hoped against hope that one of her fellows would already be wearing the Hunters’ amethyst, but no-one was.
Originally from Western Australia, Leonie now lives in NSW in the Upper Hunter. She is the author of Frontier Incursion, Frontier Resistance, and Frontier Defiant (YA Speculative Fiction) published by Hague Publishing, and also works part time as a physiotherapist. She dabbles in poetry, and has had a short story published in Antipodean SF, and another in the Novascapes 2 anthology.
The Frontier Trilogy is full of glow-in-the-dark cats who like to sleep on the bed, alien invaders, and a planet out to kill the unwary.
Now, in Amethyst Pledge, she has dipped her toes into the waters of fantasy.
She has a past life as a volunteer firefighter and SES member, and once trekked almost six hundred kilometres with eight camels and several other human beings. She is married with two adult children, two dogs and three cats, one of whom frequently handicaps her ability to use a laptop computer.
For more information visit Leonie's author page.
Book 1 of THe Albatar Chronicles
The moral rights of Leonie Rogers to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted.
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Copyright 2020 Hague Publishing
Cover: Amethyst Pledge by Jade Zivanovic http://www.steampowerstudio.com.au/
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