Warning - This excerpt contains plot points that may be considered spoilers to those who have not read the first book in the Elysium Texts Series, The Hermetica of Elysium.
Read at your own risk.
“Finally, you come before us.”
The voice was soft, yet piercing. Nadira strained her eyes to see the source, but all around her the flickering torches revealed no presence beyond her own. She did not know what was proper in the presence of a priestess. Kneel? Curtsy? She shifted uncomfortably, unable to answer, confused and she admitted to herself, frightened.
“You are smaller than we imagined, yet you are strong of heart and mind. Come forward into the light.” This instruction was accompanied by a flare from the flaming brazier.
Nadira did not hesitate but stepped forward; relieved to be given a command she could easily follow.
After a long silence, punctuated only by the popping and crackling of the fires, a figure stepped out of the shadows and into the light. Nadira knelt and bowed her head, afraid to meet the woman’s eyes. Her bow doubled as an excuse to hide her fear but it was foolish considering to whom she was presented.
“Nadira. You do not escape so easily. Stand and look at me.”
Again, Nadira obeyed. The priestess was tall and slender. Only after the second look did she see the woman’s great age. Her long hair was white, caught in a beautiful deep blue veil that covered her head to foot over a shimmering white stola. Deep wrinkles creased her face, and the hand she extended to Nadira was thin and fragile looking.
Nadira leaned forward to take the hand, which was dry and cool to the touch. She allowed the older woman to lead her up the shallow steps to an opening in the stone wall which had been hidden in the deep shadows.
“Please. Sit here.” The priestess led her to a marble bench, then released her hand. “We have much to talk about and I would have you comfortable.”
She shook her arm and the tinkle of tiny bells echoed in the chamber. Her bracelets summoned a young girl with an ewer and goblets, followed by another with a tray of fruit. The priestess said nothing until the girls had retreated, then she gestured toward the tray.
“Eat and drink while I look at you.”
Nadira was too nervous to be hungry, but there was no thought of disobedience. She plucked a grape with one hand and lifted the goblet with the other. The liquid was sweet, almost cloying, and the grape was sharply tart. Her eyes watered at the contrast. The priestess laughed softly.
“Nadira. A beautiful name. ‘The precious one’. Lovely. You glow with cerulean light, my daughter. A rare precious light. A thousand stones of lapis lazuli could not compete with your radiance. It pleases me so much to have you here and to have the promise of your many years with us.”
Nadira set down her glass. “Many years?” she asked.
The priestess raised an eyebrow. “You have come to stay with us, of course.”
“I came because I was summoned by a beautiful voice in my head. I came because I was brought here by a man I respect and admire. I came because I am curious, and I want answers to my questions. I do not intend to stay beyond my purpose.”
“And you shall not. Though I see your purpose has not yet been revealed to you.”
The priestess interrupted, “You believe you are traveling. You think you are passing through. You have an idea of a life with a man,” she paused and her eyes appeared to look inward.
“A dark man,” she smiled. “Handsome and strong.” She frowned. “And damaged. His body and his soul. Violent. Even vicious…”
“Not vicious!” Nadira’s hand flew to her mouth in horror at the rudeness of her interruption. “Not vicious,” she whispered. “ Forgive me,” she mumbled from behind her fingers.
The dark eyes focused on her. “Do you deny his fervent desire for a vengeance even I tremble to describe?”
“No.” Nadira wiped her eyes. “No. He will not release the idea that he must punish his brother’s murderer.”
“Do you deny that this brutality lives in his heart? That it consumes his mind and tears at his soul?”
Nadira blinked, for she could not deny this truth, as much as she wanted it to be false.
The priestess continued, “Do you think that linking your life to the life of this vicious man will not consume your own soul? That you will escape corruption? You must break that bond to save yourself. He is beyond your help. Your ties to him are based on false emotional beliefs.”
Nadira whispered, “No…” She took a few deep breaths to calm herself, but found they only made her lightheaded. The thought of leaving Montrose forever caused a great pain in the center of her body. She put a hand over it, but the pain did not abate.
The voice of the priestess became soft and cajoling.
“Then let us think together, my dear. All the evils of the world are caused by men. The story of Pandora was created by men to deflect the truth. The story of Adam and Eve was created by men to deflect the truth. One does not need a story to see what is clear before one’s own eyes. Who starts the wars that lead to famine, disease and grief? Who takes the lives of young men and boys and puts swords in their hands and orders them to take the lives of other young men and boys? Who takes girls from their mothers and forces their legs apart in agonizing subjection? Will you answer that it is women who perform these evils?”
Nadira could not respond. The images the priestess evoked twisted her heart and clutched at her throat.
“Who enslaves the ‘other’?” the priestess continued. “Who preaches from the churches that innocent people do not deserve to live and must be cleansed from the earth like rats? Do women go house to house and demand poor peasants give up their few coins in the name of the king, or take their stored food and leave whole families to starve even though they worked day and night all summer in preparation for the icy blasts of winter? I ask you. Do you see women with long hair and flowing gowns baking bread that is full of sawdust, selling sacks of rotting vegetables to the unsuspecting? Stealing, raping, beating…”
“Stop. Please stop.” Nadira wept, thinking of Alisdair and his laughter, Garreth and his strong arms, William’s soft eyes and gentle voice. She met the priestess’ gaze. “Not all men…”
“No. And there are evil women, too. I have met them, I know. But we are talking about all of this world. Not one individual or another. Men cause the suffering we try to ease. You cannot be the servant of a man, a violent man, and be a priestess. It is impossible.”
Nadira closed her eyes. How could I have not seen this coming? Because I saw myself as the wife of a man, with the duties of a wife. That is why. She opened her eyes.
“I did not think I was to be a priestess,” she said truthfully.
“I thought I was coming here to learn, to be taught. To finally understand what the Book was trying to tell me.”
“And you will. But first you must be rid of this man.”
Nadira clutched her throat and the tears came again. “I cannot.”
“Do you not carry a great secret?”
She sniffed, “What?”
“Do you not know exactly what this man needs to ease his pain, yet you withhold it?”
“Ah. Yes.” Nadira blinked her tears away. “I will never tell him. Never.”
“Why? You are his woman? Then he owns you. You break the bond of man and wife by withholding this knowledge.” The priestess turned her head with a sly smile. “You defy your own logic.”
“I…I am not his wife, exactly. I am his, uh…well…I am his…”
The priestess pointed a long finger at her.
“Exactly. You are ‘his’, as he is so fond of explaining endlessly to all who will listen, but he has not claimed you as other men do their women.”
Her eyes became far away again.
“He has not pierced you with his body and forced his seed within you.”
Her face twisted with puzzlement.
“He desires your body as fiercely as he desires vengeance, but has shown remarkable self-control.” She raised her eyebrows.
“And you have desired to have this man’s body be joined with yours…”
Nadira felt her face get hot and she fidgeted on the cool bench, wondering just what exactly the priestess was seeing and in what detail.
“…but both of you have denied the yearning of your flesh. Why?” The priestess turned questioning eyes upon her and they demanded an answer.
Nadira met her gaze.
“He will not take my body. He fears my death. I will not take his body, for I will not torment him with his fear. I will say to you, now, that I know I will not become with child unless it suits me, and I know I will not perish bringing it into the world. He will not hear these truths, though. His fear screams too loudly in his ears.”
“Remarkable.” She turned her head away and frowned. “He will die in agony…”
“No!” Nadira leapt to her feet. “No prophecies! Please! Please, no…” She fell to the floor and covered her ears, but the priestess’ voice was inside her now.
“Let me finish, girl. He will die in agony if he is not released. He will destroy himself from within if not joined with you. Is one man’s life worth all the goodness you could do with your own?”
Nadira rolled herself over on the stone floor and gazed with exhausted resignation at the dark ceiling.
“Can we not do both?” she sighed. “Is there no compromise? Why must it be one or the other? Surely there are priests who have concubines in their chambers. Cannot a priestess have her own? Are men the only ones who are permitted some comfort in the night? If all things are possible, why must we follow rules blindly?”
The last word echoed off the walls and faded to silence. Nadira closed her eyes and breathed the perfumed air into her body. She did not expect an answer from the priestess. She was too busy asking herself what it was she really wanted. Do I give up my love and my friends to focus my life on the pursuit of knowledge? Do I return to the world of violence and greed to exist as a servant to others? Even as a free woman I would be servant to customers. As a wife to a man, as mother to a child. There is no true freedom outside these walls.
Her reverie was broken by the soft laugh of the priestess.
“’Cannot a priestess have her own?’” She laughed again, harder this time. “In all my years no novice, no acolyte, nor priestess, has ever suggested she needed a kept-man in her quarters. Never.”
Nadira sighed again and shook her head.
“It has happened now.”
“Yes. And I have an answer for you. No man may stay in the temple, for it is certain the women and girls will fear him. But this does not mean that he cannot be kept in the city.”
She extended a hand to help Nadira to her feet.
“You know that he will not stay with you until his enemy is dead.” Nadira nodded, reluctantly acknowledging the truth.
The priestess continued, “Tell him, or not. The decision is yours. You can do remarkable things, Nadira the Precious One. But you cannot turn a wolf into a lap dog.”
“No. Indeed, I cannot.”
“This small brown one, however.” The priestess paused. “This one…he is yours as much as the tall dark one. He is a lap dog that you are turning into a wolf. He loves you and cannot have you. He takes risks and his soul becomes darker with his need and frustration,” she smiled, “ yet he will not place his seed inside you either. What is it with you, Precious One, that these men withhold their manly desires when you are present?”
Nadira struggled with an answer before she realized the older woman was teasing her. She let her breath out slowly. “Please, it is no laughing matter to either of them.”
“No. Forgive me. I see the scars on the back of the brown one, the scars on the soul of the dark one. It is no laughing matter. But I will tell you that I have never seen this before, and I have lived nearly ninety years. I have never seen men deny themselves a thing that they wanted. In this world, men struggle to take what they want. They lie, murder and steal to get it. Those that don’t get their desire regret that they have been bested by others and mete out their anger and frustration on the weak and innocent. This is what I have seen. You come here to learn the knowledge of the ancients, Precious One, and on your first day you teach the ancient one a new lesson. Go now. Come back on the morrow. Come back. We will share what we know. Both of us.”
When she emerged from the cave entrance, Garreth stood and held a hand out to her. He smiled.
Nadira took his hand and he led her down the path to the sea and along the shore back to the city. As they walked in silence she looked up at him. He had aged more than the others since Richard’s death. Gray hairs were entwined in his golden braid that hung down his back to his belt. Deep wrinkles creased his eyes and the skin on his arms was no longer tight, but seemed to cover his flesh like a loose tunic.
She could not look at him and think of the evils of the world. His body was still hard and strong, his pace steady and a bit too fast for her. She trotted along beside him until the sounds of her panting slowed him out of courtesy. He looked down at her and grinned, pointing to the buildings in the distance.
“Yes. I am eager to get there, too.”
He pointed back toward the cave and raised his eyebrows.
“I met with her. It is good.”
He nodded and turned his attention to the path on the rocky beach. Those few words were enough for him. He was not a man of complicated ideas. Nadira squeezed his hand with affection and was rewarded with a smile and a grunt.
Montrose was alone in the room when Garreth pushed the door open for her. He was sitting on the low stool, his weapons laid out in a series of shining lines on the bed beside him. It was warm in the room and he had removed his shirt, it lay folded neatly beside his horn cup on the table.
He had a soft cloth in his hand and was rubbing the steel of his broadsword that lay across both knees with a mixture of olive oil and beeswax he had melted together. The sweet honey scent permeated the room.
He looked up as she entered and gave her a soft smile in greeting, but did not cease the back and forth motion of his hands.
Nadira could see the evil of the world here, in her own room, and wondered at it.
“Did you meet with her?” His voice was low and deep, slow and steady. He did not look up for her answers, concentrating his cloth on the joints of the steel where the hilt joined the blade.
He glanced up for a moment, the blue eyes merry, the black lashes framing them in peace now. He was happy. This work with the instruments of death gave him peace. Nadira wondered at such a thing. He returned to his polishing, turning the blade to work on the other side. He dipped his cloth in the small bowl beside him.
“Did she love you at first sight, as I did?”
Nadira laughed softly. “She did.”
“I had no doubt.”
She watched him work for a long moment. The warm Mediterranean sun had bronzed him about his shoulders. The muscles of his arms and back moved to and fro with his work. The dark curling hairs of his chest and arms glistened with the heat and with his labor.
Nadira lowered herself to the other stool and rested her chin on her hands, elbows on her knees. She smiled as he pushed a lock of hair up and over his forehead; it immediately fell back over his eyes. He made a grim line with his mouth.
She had promised to cut it weeks ago, but loved the curls that only appeared when it had grown long enough to touch his shoulders. With a twinge of guilt, she saw now that the length annoyed him. I will cut it for him soon, she promised herself. It gets caught in the links of his mail.
He raised his arm to rub the blade and she saw the thick scar that seamed him from high under his arm down over his ribs to end on the bone of his hip. She let her mind wander back to the day he staggered under that blow. She didn’t realize she had sighed until he stopped rubbing the steel and looked up at her through the ropes of his hair.
“What is it, Little One?”
“I am looking at you and thinking how happy I am.”
He smiled, flashing his white teeth. “As am I. I never want to shut a heavy door against the freezing rain and biting wind again. This weather is delightful.”
“I wasn’t thinking about the weather,” she answered dryly.
He went back to his polishing.
Can I send him to Egypt? Can I bear it? Perhaps he will forget his anger.
She looked at the little arsenal on the bed. No. Three daggers of different lengths lined up beside a shorter and lighter sword, all waiting for their turn to be lovingly polished and protected from rust before one day fouling themselves in the gore of an unlucky man.
She turned her head.
His mail shirt hung over the back of the only chair in the room, its glittering links testifying to the care he had already spent on it. It had to be continually oiled to protect him from the blows from other men who would try to take his life. Her throat tightened. This wolf will never be a lap dog.
“My love.” Something in her voice must have startled him for he immediately laid the sword down and stood, alarm on his face.
“What is it? Tell me.”
Nadira had meant to calmly explain her thoughts, but the sight of him looming over her, so concerned, brought tears to her eyes. Instead of the reasoned conversation about vengeance and grief and duty that she had planned, she found herself sobbing.
He picked her up and carried her to the bed. She curled in his lap and sniffed until he handed her a clean cloth for her face. He smelled of honey and warmth and his arms were solid against her body. She put her arms around his neck and pressed her cheek against his, feeling comfort in the rough stubble.
“What is it? What did the witch say to you?” he asked again, this time low and soft, his voice a soothing rumble in his throat.
She answered him, “I must lose what I found to gain it back again. It makes no sense, yet it is a real truth.”
“Tell me what you need and I will provide it.”
She tried to smile, but her face was too tight. “It is you who needs what I have to provide. Giving it to you, I may kill you. But not giving it to you, I will certainly kill you.”
His hands tightened around her waist as he pulled her away from him so he could look her in the eyes, confused. “What are you saying?”
“I love you.” A tear tracked down her cheek.
“I love you, but I must send you away, and I cannot follow to protect you.”
“Protect me?” His eyes moved up and down her body and his voice told her how foolish he thought her words were. Then the blue eyes darkened.
“Send me away?” Now the voice was hard, and his hands tightened even further on her waist.
Nadira took a long slow breath, looking deep in his eyes, which shone with profound hurt and confusion. She forced the words out slowly.
“Massey,” she breathed, “is in Alexandria.”
She had expected to be thrown to the floor and that he would, in her imagination, leap up, seize his sword and brandish it over his head with a roar of triumph. But he did not. He brought her to his chest again and kissed the top of her head, but she heard his heart galloping inside him.
“Alexandria,” he murmured.
“How do you know this?”
Nadira paused. It was too late to pretend a lie to save his feelings. “Richard told me,” she said in a broken whisper. “I traveled to the land of the dead, and he told me to tell you.”
She held him tighter, not knowing what his response might be. He made a strange choking sound, so she clutched him with all her strength, thinking now he would fling her to the floor as he leapt up, but again he did not. He did not rise from the bed. Instead, his chin dropped to his chest.
She twined the curled ends of his hair around her fingers and waited for him to calm himself. When his shorts breaths faded to an even rhythm Nadira took her cloth and gently wiped his eyes. The blue in them was like the sea after a storm, and his voice was as rough. “Did he say anything else?”
“He does not blame you for his death. He knows what he did.” Montrose nodded, his gaze unfocused. She continued, knowing he was thinking of Richard. “He is content there. He says there is a library the size of the whole world and he is reading every book.” This brought a sad smile to his face. “But…” She hesitated.
Nadira squirmed. “Must you go to Alexandria, then? Must you return violence with violence?” Was he as vicious as the priestess said?
He narrowed his eyes. She thought he must be imagining having Massey in his grip because his hands squeezed her painfully. She wriggled on his lap until he released her.
He said slowly, “I cannot let him live.”
She expected this answer and made a strangled sound in her throat.
Montrose continued, “He will wreak havoc on the lives of many more, killing, stealing, cheating until he is stopped. Can you think of it that way? Does that give you comfort?”
He is trying. Nadira looked up at him. Not vicious then. Righteous, perhaps, in his ignorance. He will not understand until he has experienced this worldly violence and is sated with it. In her head she heard the priestess’ soft voice. Let him go.
She nodded. “Go then. Will you take Alisdair and Garreth?”
“They would not stay behind.”
“No. Of course not. No. That was a foolish question.”
“Not so foolish. It tells me you will be afraid without them.”
“No. I will go to the temple while you are away.”
This brought a frown to his face. “Are you to be a priestess?” She saw his mind work around the assumptions and she saw clearly that he did not like them.
“I have only been invited to learn and study.”
He was relieved. “Good. You are my wife, not a priestess.”
“I am not your wife.” She tipped her head sideways, challenging him with this fact. “I remain, these many months, a reluctant virgin.”
His face hardened. “It is difficult.”
“But it should be easy.” She kissed him and ran her hands over his body, feeling both his reluctance and his desire.
“Make me your wife before you go.” She did not say ‘you might not return’. But he heard the words in the silence for he put his lips on hers and kissed her hard.
The sword and knives fell to the floor with dull clanks as he swept them from the bed with one arm and lay her down with the other.
“Will you honor me by becoming my wife?”
“I will,” she told him, digging her fingers into the thick muscles of his arms.
He drew back from the kisses, “Now we are man and wife.”
“Almost,” she whispered. “I can feel it…”
“Not yet, you can’t.” He leaned on one elbow and with his other hand he slid her gown up around her hips. “But it is imminent.”