Temple of Fyre
121 pages
English

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Temple of Fyre

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121 pages
English

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Description

Sold by her family to the priestesses of the Temple of Fyre, Ria soon masters using each of the four fyrestones, white, yellow, orange and scarlet. Her curiosity leads her to the archives and there, she learns things that disturb her. There are no men serving as priests but in the past there were. Men are kept in the harras where the priestesses visit. On the day of her testing she is ordered to perform a task she dislikes and refuses to destroy a town. Many of the priestesses fall into unconsciousness. Melera, the chief priestess, beats and banishes Ria for the carrion crows to consume. Ari was abandoned as a child and found by two elderly firestone miners. He has pursued this and is the best of the finders. He goes to the temple to sell the stones he has gleaned. On leaving, Ria attempts to steal the fyrestone he has worn since the day he was found. He thinks she is a boy and a thief and he takes her to his room at the inn. On discovering her identity, he refuses to turn her over to the priestesses and they leave town. They are searching for the fabled blue fyrestones. They also learn to use them they must be bonded physically, emotionally and spiritually. Can they learn to master the blue stones and defeat Malera so they can rule the temple with love and understanding?

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Publié par
Date de parution 09 août 2015
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781773620404
Langue English

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Exrait

Temple ofFyre
Island of FyreBook 1
 
By JanetLane-Walters
 
Digital ISBNs
EPUB978-0-2286-0078-7
Kindle978-1-77145-376-9
Amazon Print978-0-2286-0079-4
 

 
Copyright 2015 by JanetLane Walters
Cover Art by MichelleLee
 
All rightsreserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reservedabove, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in orintroduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, orby any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, orotherwise) without the prior written permission of both thecopyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Dedication
 
To Denny whosays when I speak of my writing, “She just makes them up.” Thanksfor allowing me to pursue my dreams.
Chapter One

 
Ria stuffed thescroll she’d taken from the shelves beneath her caftan andtightened the sash to make sure the cylinder holding the rolledpapyrus remained hidden. Beads of perspiration covered herforehead. She rubbed the sleeve of her robe over her face. Thenight air held sultry remnants of the heat of the day. Usually, thethick walls of the temple complex kept the rooms and corridorscool. Tonight was different. The usual night breezes were absent,so the heat remained. Perhaps the approaching solstice was thecause?
Or, maybe herfear of discovery caused her heart to thump against her chest andher muscles to tighten into confining bands? She was in a placewhere she had no right to be without the presence of one of thepriestesses. Acolytes were forbidden full access to the scrolls inthe scriptorium. She drew a deep breath. She’d acted out ofnecessity. The scroll beneath her caftan was one she’d discoveredduring another of her night searches. She wasn’t permitted to readthis one, but she had, and the words stirred questions her tutorsrefused to address.
On the morrow,her ability to control the flames of the fyrestones would betested. She would be ordered to call flames from a pair of scarletcrystals and blend her blaze with those raised by the priestessesof the circle. Then, the chief priestess would assign her a task.Ria believed the things she’d read in this particular scroll wouldhelp her during the ordeal. The test was not without risk. One slipand the flames she sought to control could turn her into a livingtorch.
She crept tothe scriptorium door and peered into the hall. With senses alert,she listened and searched the shadows cast by the flickeringtorches on the white plaster of the walls. Sensing no one wasnearby she scurried along the corridor toward the living quartersof the priestesses and acolytes. With luck, she would reach herroom without being discovered.
Her handpressed against the scroll she wanted to read again. The words ofthis particular one were vastly different from the lessons she’dbeen taught by the priestesses. Had they lied? Were the ways to usethe fyrestones described in these writings true, or were they onlya fable invented by some ancient scribe?
There wereother scrolls which told tales that seemed unreal. The agedpriestess in charge of the scriptorium had laughed when Ria askedabout dragons with eyes the color of the scarlet fyrestones. Theold woman scoffed when Ria showed her passages describing wandswielded by wizards that sent lashes of bright or dark flames tocontrol people.
There was noone she could ask if this scroll contained truths. Questionsweren’t encouraged. Still, she wanted to believe what she’d read inthis scroll about the uses of the stones. They told of helping thepeople, and that appealed to her.
Ria sighed.Since the day she’d been bought from the slavers by the chiefpriestess, her life, though interesting had been lonely. Not forher the crowded classrooms, or the dormitory where she could formfriendships with the other acolytes. She had her own chamber and aprivate bathing room. During her lessons, she’d been the onlystudent. Even her meals had been taken with the priestesses, notthe other acolytes.
Why had shebeen kept isolated from the other acolytes? What make her sodifferent? Like Ria, most of the others had been brought to Rostiby the slavers. At twenty, she was a year or two younger than mostof the young women who had entered the temple with her.
She’d learnedto call fire from every color of the crystals and learned how toblend the flames to form sheets of fire. She could impose maps andpictures on the sheets and knew the ways of sending spears of flameto various places. From the tiny flames of the white, to yellow,orange, and scarlet fyrestones, her progress had been steady.
A peal oflaughter made her stiffen. She ducked into a shadowed alcove. Afterthe evening meal, acolytes were to be in their rooms, not wanderingin the halls. A pair of senior priestesses, their orange robesgleaming in the light from the hall torches, appeared. The womenhurried past Ria’s hiding place and entered the harras.
Ria trailedbehind them. The noises from the studs’ quarters stirred hercuriosity. The men seldom left the harras, except for exercise inthe garden, or when they were summoned to the room of one of thepriestesses. Until Ria passed her final test, she wasn’t allowedinto the rooms where the men were kept. Several times, she hadspied on the studs, but only during the day, and never in theevening when the priestesses visited. She paused beside the beadedcurtain and peered inside.
Her eyeswidened. Most of the men were nude or scantily clad. Priestessesreclined on low couches. Studs offered beverages and finger foods.Ria watched as one of the men fondled a priestess’ breasts. Anotherman swayed to the sound of a flute. He held his organ in his hand.Ria felt a stirring low in her belly. Her breath caught in herthroat.
Malera’s huskylaughter rolled toward Ria. Before the chief priestess coulddiscover her, Ria ducked into the hall leading to her chamber. Whenshe reached the doorway, she carefully parted the beaded curtainand slipped into the room. If she’d been caught, Malera would havebeen furious. The chief priestess’ temper outbursts often ended inan injury for the culprit.
Ria sank on thebed. The scene in the harras filled her thoughts and stirred hercuriosity. What would have happened next? Though she’d beenbetrothed before her clan had sold her to the slavers, he had died,and the women hadn’t yet instructed her on the ways of a woman anda man.
A frownwrinkled her brow. The lessons of her teachers arose. Acolytes wereforbidden to interact with men, except for official business. Apriestess was permitted encounters, but she must never allow aman’s organ to enter her body. Such a surrender would destroy herability to control the flames she drew from the fyrestones.
Memories of herfirst training session with the chief priestess had been a seriesof commands. Once again, Ria had heard Malera’s throaty voiceraised in warning.
“A priestess isnot permitted to bear a child. To give birth means the loss ofpower. She must find a daughter among the acolytes. For thatreason, I called you from the plains before your clan brought youto the marriage bed. If I hadn’t, your talent would have been lost.When my days as chief priestess end, you will take my place. Thoughyou are not of my body, you are the child of my spirit.”
At first, thosewords had brought Ria pleasure and a sense of smugness. Of all theacolytes in the temple, she was special. Lately, she’d begin toquestion her mentor’s motives. Ria remembered no call. All she knewwas her betrothed died suddenly, and the next day, her clan soldher. Had Malera sent the slavers?
Ria pushed herquestions aside. She lifted a white fyrestone from the bedsidetable and gazed into the multi-colored depths. With care, shecalled a flame and lit the candles on the low table. She drew thepurloined scroll from beneath her caftan and extracted the rolledpapyrus from the metal container. After finding a comfortableposition, she carefully unrolled the scroll to read again the wordsthat had intrigued her.
Since the primetemple in the hills was abandoned, a circle has been established ineach hamlet. The circle of fyrestones and their wielders will callforth the flames to protect the people. These crystals should beused to heal, to cleanse, and to bring peace and plenty to thehamlet. Male and female will be trained to use the stones for thebenefit of all.
Ria sighed.Should she believe her mentor or the words of the scroll? How oftenhad Malera told her the commoners were there to serve thepriestesses? Ria ran her finger along the next lines.
There are fivevarieties of the opaline crystals bearing fire in their depths. Allhold the power of the sun. The smallest is the white. This stoneholds all the colors of the flames in its core. Any of the peopleof the land can use this fyrestone to kindle a blaze on the hearthand to light candles to illuminate the darkness.
To use theyellow, orange, or scarlet, the wielder must be trained. The rareblue stone needs two to call the flames, Male and female who mustbe united in body, heart, and mind. Woe comes to the person whotries to use the blue crystal without the triple bond.
What did itmean? Until she’d seen this scroll, she’d never heard of a bluefyrestone. She lifted the white she’d used to light the candles andstudied the swirl of colors. She saw yellow, orange, and scarlet.She also saw blue.
Unable toanswer the questions plaguing her, she hid the scroll beneath herbed. After bathing, she sought sleep. Tomorrow for the first time,she would take her place in the circle and play a role in thetemple rituals. She would control the flames raised by thepriestesses who drew on the yellow and orange, and blend them withthe fire of her scarlet. Curiosity about the coming test surfacedand colored her dreams.
 
* * *
 
Ria stood atthe window of her chamber and stared into the inner courtyard. Sheglanced at the sky. Before long, the sun would approach midday.That moment marked the time of her final challenge before becominga priestess of the Temple of Fyre.
Though she’dbathed before going to bed, she smelled the scent of fear on herskin. She wet an herb-scented sponge and washed. As she donned thewhite caftan worn by all acolytes, her hands shook. Once shecompleted the test, she would be entitled to wear the scarlet robesof a high priestess. Only Malera, and the two priestesses too oldto work in the circles, were so honored.
Her stomachclenched and she feared she would be ill. She rubbed her hands on atowel and sat on the edge of her bed to await the summons to jointhe circle. Once she reached the temple’s inner chamber, she wouldtake her place on the topmost tier and direct the flame as Maleraordered. For a moment, the room wavered. She inhaled deeply andsought to calm her stuttering heart.
The whisper ofsandals on the stones of the floor brought Ria to her feet. Shestared at the doorway. Malera parted the beaded curtain. “Come.‘Tis time.”
Ria’s handstightened. She walked toward the older woman. “Are you sure I’mready for the trial?”
Malera smiled.“I chose you from the slavers’ pens. For five years, I’ve nurturedand honed your abilities. You are the daughter I dared notbirth.”
Ria took thechief priestess’ hand and brushed her lips across the back. Shetasted anger roiling inside her mentor. A part of Ria recoiled fromthe strength of Malera’s emotions. Who had angered the chiefpriestess? Would the fermenting fury guide Malera’s choice for thetest?
“When I callfire from the stones, how will I use it?”
Malera’s thinsmile increased Ria’s inner quaking. A glint of smug satisfactionin the chief priestess’ dark eyes tinted Ria’s thoughts withuneasiness. What did Malera plan? Suddenly, Ria was afraid. Shelooked away to keep her mentor from reading these emotions.
“Do not fret.The task will be within your abilities.”
“When youjoined the circle for the first time, what was your task?”
Malera pursedher lips. “A most enjoyable one. My mentor bade me cleanse thetemple of the malcontents who tried to destroy the rights of thewomen who use the fyrestones. Though several of the women escaped,I succeeded in destroying most of the rebels, leaving only thosewho had fled years before for my mentor to purge.”
Ria frowned.“What did the malcontents do?”
“They gavefyrestones to men who were unfit to use the crystals, and to womenwho were untrained in the proper ways of this temple.”
“How couldanyone not trained here use any crystal other than a white?”
“The rebelpriestesses diluted their power. They joined with men. Theypermitted studs to use the stones. They were fools. A wise womannever cedes her power. She does not share control with anyone. Asthe only temple in the land, all must obey us.” She lifted Ria’schin and gazed into her eyes.
Malera’s eyesnarrowed. They compelled obedience. Something inside Ria made herresist the compulsion. Confusion filled her thoughts. Acid flowedin her gut. A need to rebel arose, but how could she act againstthe chief priestess’ guidance? The older woman rescued her fromforced service in one of the pleasure houses. Malera had shown thekindness Ria’s mother had withheld. Ria’s hands clenched. Justbecause the old man chosen as her betrothed died under mysteriouscircumstances, she’d been declared cursed and sold to the slavers.No one had cared about her fate until Malera.
The chiefpriestess released Ria’s chin. “’Tis time for you to face the test,as all who are selected to serve the temple must.”
Ria nodded. “Iam ready.” As the knowledge of how she wanted to use the crystalsolidified, her stomach fluttered. Even if she must defy hermentor, she would use the stone to help, not harm.
Malera led Riainto the large rotunda where those who came to petition thepriestesses waited for a summons. Tiles reflecting the colors ofthe fyrestones covered the floor. Benches lined the side walls.Tables where the petitioners placed gifts of food, cloth, spices,and gems, flanked the doorway to the inner chamber. Here also, thetithes from each hamlet were collected.
When Maleraparted the curtain made from strings of white crystals like the oneRia had used to light the candles, her stomach clenched. Shestepped inside and faced the circle. Three priestesses stood on thefirst tier and Ria studied the fyrestones in the depressions carvedin the limestone of the circle. They glowed with power.
The chiefpriestess led Ria to the topmost tier where a single scarletcrystal glittered in the cup. With a flourish, the chief priestesshanded Ria the scarlet stone. “This is the one you used in practiceand have imprinted with your spirit. Use the crystal well.” Sheretreated to the base of the tiered circle. “Prepare for thetesting.”
Ria drew a deepbreath. She noticed a glint of scarlet in Malera’s hand andwondered why. Ria raised her crystal. The sun edged over theopening in the roof above the circle. “Let us begin.”
The three womenholding yellow fyrestones called fire. Then two spires of orangeappeared. Ria stared at the stone balanced on her palm. The suncentered in the opening. She basked in the warmth. Her crystalglowed and a flame rose. With care, she blended the yellow andorange tongues of flame with those from the scarlet.
“Seek thehamlet of Gydon,” Malera said.
Ria molded thefire into a sheet. A map of the land from the ocean shore in thesouth to the northern mountains appeared. Using a finger of fire,she sought the farming hamlet near the hills beyond both wastes andthe grove. Houses appeared, then people, mostly women and children.Three elderly men and several youths led scraggly beasts to apasture beyond the walls. Some of the buildings looked as thoughthey’d been scorched by fire in the past. The gardens were illtended. The people looked beaten. Ria smiled. She could helpthem.
“This is yourtask,” Malera said. “For years, the hamlet of Gydon has failed tosend the tithe to the temple. You will destroy the fields, theflocks, the herds, and the orchards, to force the people toleave.”
“Where are themen?” Ria asked.
“Sold intoslavery to pay the tithe. Twenty years ago, there were those livingnear Gydon who attempted to use the fyrestones in ways opposed tothe chief priestess’ dictates. I cleansed the temple of their ilk,but three remained until my predecessor challenged them and won.Gydon must become a lesson for all the people of Fyre. They mustsee what happens to those who defy me.”
Ria held theflames steady. “How can those who remain pay the tithe? Don’t yousee how poor the people are?”
“They havechildren to sell. Young girls for the temple. Older girls, women,and boys, to serve in the pleasure houses. Destroy the flocks,fields, herds, and orchards. Lay waste to all. Show the hamlets ofFyre what happens to those who refuse to pay the tithe.”
Defiance builtwithin Ria. How could she use the flames to punish the innocent?“Do any of the rebel priestesses still live?”
Malera smiled.“They are dead and their studs with them. Do as I command.”
“Priestessesshould use fire to help. I’ve visited the scriptorium and have readmany scrolls. What you tell me to do is wrong.” Ria saw the thinline of scarlet flame flow from Malera’s hand. Ria felt the chiefpriestess’s attempt to use the fyrestone she’d been given. “No.”Ria braced and fought her mentor.
The gatheredflames coalesced. The pictures faded. Spires of yellow, orange, andscarlet, shot higher and higher until they filled the opening inthe roof. For an instant, Ria faltered. A blazing arrow of scarletshot toward her. She felt a burn along her skin. Withdetermination, she gathered her waning strength and held againstthe battering of Malera’s mental thrusts.
Ria staggered.Screams echoed in her head, as one by one, the priestesses fellfrom the link. When the flames died, she saw the fallen women. Werethey alive, or had her defiance killed them? She held her breathuntil they stirred. She looked down. The crystals in the cups ofthe circle were blackened cinders.
Malera movedtoward the circle. “Traitor. Even before the slavers brought you toRosti, I chose you as my successor. When you were a child, Iwatched you in the flames. I saw you grow. I sent fire to kill theold man they wanted you to marry. And so, you came to me. I havenurtured and cherished you, and betrayal is how you repay mycare.”
Ria left thetop tier and made her way down the levels. “I cannot harm theinnocent for any reason. You are evil.”
Malera fistedher hands on her hips. “You have betrayed not only me, but thetemple. There are no stones to replace the ones you turned intocinders.”
Ria met theglare from the chief priestess’ dark eyes. “I did what I was meantto do.” She stepped through the beaded curtain and strode acrossthe rotunda. The slap of sandals on the tiles came from behind her.Gooseflesh rose on her skin.
“We have beenbetrayed,” Malera cried. “Acolytes and priestesses, join me. Driveher from the temple. Stone her. As was done in the past, the templemust be cleansed of those who deny the proper ways.”
Terror grippedRia’s shoulders in a vise. She heard the footsteps of those whofollowed. Though cries for flight beat steadily in her thoughts,she refused to show her fear. Ria reached the outer door andstepped into the lane. The first rock thudded against her back anddrove the breath from her lungs. She staggered, but managed to stayon her feet.
As though theflames she’d sent skyward had triggered a solar flare, the sunbrightened. Ahead of her, the wide lane leading to the temple wasdeserted. She glanced over her shoulder and knew she would neverreach the market square before the women were upon her. Panicengulfed her. She ran. Rocks slammed into her body. One smacked herlegs. She fell. The caftan tore. On hands and knees, she slidacross the rough cobbles of the path.
 
* * *
 
Malera stoodover Ria’s body. “Traitor.” The chief priestess turned to theacolyte who had been the last to join the stoning. “See whathappens to those who defy me. Next time, do not be so slow or youwill face the same punishment.”
Another of theyoung women shrank back. A third knelt beside the body. “She lives.Should we call the alders to take her to the slavers?”
Malera ran herhands along the handle of her flail. “Let her lie.” She pointedupwards. “The sun will drink her essence and the carrion crows willdine on her flesh.” She indicated the dark forms that circledagainst the blue sky. “See, they gather for a feast.”
Two huge birds,the color of the midnight sky, landed on the path. Their orangebeaks gleamed. One hopped forward and focused its gaze onMalera.
The chiefpriestess laughed. “Soon you will eat.”
The bird’swings spread like ebony fans. “No,” one of the acolytes cried.
Malera pointedto the temple. “Since you have no stomach for what must be done, goto the temple and tend the priestesses the traitor harmed.”
The young womanbacked away. “What about the fyrestones she destroyed? What will wedo for the solstice rites?”
“Soon, thestone seekers will arrive.” Malera stroked the thongs of the flail.Most years, they arrive before the solstice.” She raised the flailand lashed Ria’s back and legs until blood seeped through thecaftan.
The acolyte whoknelt beside Ria jumped back to avoid the thongs. Something flewfrom her hand and skipped across the cobbles. “Why did you beather?”
Malera laughed.“How else will the carrion crows know a feast awaits?”
The young womancovered her face with her hands. She scurried to the temple.
Malera spat onRia’s body. “I am the chief priestess, the chosen leader of theTemple of Fyre. This land is under my control. The commoners bow tome. Rewards and punishments are mine to mete.” She spun, strode tothe temple and hurried to the harras. The fires raging in her bodyneeded to be quenched as only the studs could do.
 
* * *
 
Ari paused atthe edge of the grove and peered at the sky. The sun stood justbeyond midday. Stay or go? If he pushed the burros, he could reachRosti just as the sun set. Should he take the chance? The rockyplain between the grove and the hamlet was home to the lopestasthat emerged to hunt after the sun set. One stumble on the rockscould turn a profitable season into a disaster. Tomorrow would besoon enough to head for Rosti. He would have a ten-day to sell thefyrestones and depart before the solstice began.
He staked theburros and lifted the near empty panniers from their backs. Hepiled digging tools and the tent beside the wicker baskets. Beadsof sweat collected on his forehead.
The scarletfyrestone he’d worn on the day the pair of stone seekers had foundhim pulsed. He pressed his hand against the lump beneath his tunic.What did it mean? He stared toward the distant walls of the hamlet.His eyes widened. A plume of fire rose toward the sun. What werethe priestesses attempting? Had one of their fires escaped fromtheir control?
Not hisbusiness. The only traffic he had with the temple was for the saleof the opaline crystals he carried in his haversack. With thefyrestones he’d found, he would have enough coins for supplies andto buy some answers to the questions that had bothered him foryears. Who was he and why had he been abandoned in the grove? Whichhamlet had been his birthplace?
He started afire and ate the remainder of the lopear he’d snared that morning.After setting several snares, he dozed until sunset. He checked hissnares and cooked two grass hens, ate one, and slept.
When pre-dawnlightened the sky, he loaded the burros. He set off across therocky plain, taking care to avoid large piles of rocks where thelopestas burrowed during the day.
At the gateinto Rosti, he paused to pay the entrance fee. “You’re in early,”the guard said. “Any luck?”
Ari nodded. Atleast the guard asked out of curiosity, and not the pryingquestions asked when a man left the hamlet. Ari often wondered ifthere were bonds between the guards and the thieves who preyed onsolitary stone seekers.
“A bit,” hesaid. “Found whites and a pair of yellows before the site playedout.” That had been the first of his finds, but he wouldn’t mentionthe others. “Sale will bring me enough for supplies and a fewnights at an inn.”
The man steppedcloser. “You’re the first stone seeker to arrive. With crystals inyour pack, the priestesses will welcome you. Did you see the flameyesterday at midday, the one that rose above the temple? Heard oneof the priestesses tried to kill Malera. Someone said all but thewhite fyrestones turned black and have no power.
Ari laughed.“Then mine should bring a good price.”
The guardnodded. “Might reward you with more than coins. Could offer a nightwith one of the priestesses. Or you could be chosen to join themfor the solstice celebration. Hear they like the things a mandoes.”
Ari forced agrin. That was one reward he had no intention of collecting. If hegave a priestess too much pleasure, he could become a prisoner inthe harras.
He led theburros past the guard and turned into the first lane where stablesabounded. He stopped at the one Jorg had always used. His thoughtsturned to his dead partner, and once more, he regretted beingunable to save the old man’s life. Jorg had clutched his chest andfallen to the ground. Ari hadn’t known what to do.
The stablemanaccepted enough coins for a ten-day. Once again, Ari thanked Jorgfor teaching him to keep a secret stash of coins. Ari led theburros into a stall. He draped the blanket roll over the gate andhung the tent beside it. He hung the panniers on hooks and set thedigging tools on a ledge. The stableman lifted a stone block andthe trough filled with water. While the man brought hay and grain,Ari curried the burros. Once he finished, he hoisted his haversackand lifted a sack of dirty clothes.
After leavingthe stable, he sought an inn. In the choosing, he heeded Jorg’sadvice. Never stay at the same one you used the last time. Alwaysseek one with a ground floor chamber and a private bathingroom.
The second onehe visited met his requirements. “You’re in luck,” the skinnyinnkeeper said. “In a few days, the place will be crowded withfolks arriving for the summer solstice. Five coppers a day for theroom. Meals are extra. For one silver, the laundress will see toyour clothes.”
Ari nodded. Hecounted out the coins for the room and laundry. Though he had nointention of remaining for the solstice, he paid for a ten-day, twobeyond the festival. Once he sold the fyrestones and boughtsupplies, he would seek Jorg’s old partner. Besides the twentycoppers Ari gave the old man on each visit to Rosti, this time Ariwas determined to purchase information. Once he knew all theparticulars of the rescue, he would leave the hamlet. Being nearthe temple during the twice-yearly rites made him uncomfortable.The scarlet crystal, his heritage, always reacted. He feared oneday, the stone would raise a flame and consume him.
He followed theinnkeeper down a narrow hall and noticed two exits he could use tocome and go without crossing the common room. The thin man opened adoor at the end of the hall. Ari noted the heavy bar he could useto keep people out. He nodded. “This will do.” He dropped the sackof dirty clothes in the hall. “Have these washed. I’ll add othersafter I’ve been to the temple.”
“She’ll havemost ready by morning. Will you take your meals in the common roomor have them brought here?”
“I’ll have theevening meal brought, but I’ll decide when later.”
“Will you needa companion? I’ve a connection to one of the pleasure houses.”
“Perhaps.First, I have business to conduct.”
Once theinnkeeper left, Ari barred the door. He dropped the haversack onthe bench beneath the window and secured the shutters. He openedthe pack, and one by one, extracted the fyrestones from the pack’sfalse bottom. As he touched each stone, the core color flickered.He placed each of the colors in a separate pouch and placed them inthe large leather one he hung from his belt.
When he leftthe inn, he strode down the cobbled lane to the market square. Henoticed his mentor’s aged and crippled partner beside one of thefood stalls. Though Ari wanted to question the man, he knew hecouldn’t until after the crystals had been sold.
What would Biltell him? The man had been Jorg’s partner when they’d stumbledacross the small boy near the edge of the grove. The scarletfyrestone and the copper necklace had been the only clue to Ari’sidentity, a clue he didn’t think the men had pursued.
Ari’s handsclenched. Who had left him there? Who had given him the stone? He’dnever heard of a man being able to use any of the fyrestones,except the white. Though several times, he’d dreamed Jorg had usedone, Ari couldn’t remember finding one when the old man died.
The savoryaroma of meat pies made his stomach growl. He purchased one and amug of ale. The nutty flavor of the beverage soothed the fieryspices of the pies. Around him, conversations flowed. He atequickly. Once the stones were sold, he would order a feast and awoman from one of the pleasure houses to share the food and attendto his needs. He’d been without a woman’s company since the weekbefore the winter solstice. As he sauntered toward the temple,snippets of words reached him.
“Flame neartouched the sun.”
“Saw that.Could have ended the world.”
“Heard thepriestesses took sick. They’re not hearing petitions.”
“After thesolstice when the rites are changed.”
Ari reached theedge of the square and followed the fyrethorn hedge to the archedentrance to the temple lane. The hedge lined both sides of the widecobble-paved path. The brilliant scarlet blooms on the bushes hiddeadly red thorns. Ari frowned. The odd thing was nowhere but herenear the temple had he ever seen fyrethorn growing. He oftenwondered why.
Chapter Two
 
 
Ria huddledbeside the bushes near the wall of the Temple of Fyre. How long hadshe lain here? Hours? Days? She had no notion of how much time hadpassed since the duel with Malera. Ria’s memories were filled withthe confrontation, the stoning, and the strident case of thecarrion crows. She’d expected the birds to attack. Instead, theyhad used their beaks to drive her through the hedge where thethorns had torn her caftan and the flesh of her arms. Once beyondthe hedge, agonizing pain had driven her into darkness.
Her body achedfrom the blows of the rocks and the slashes of Malera’s flail.Tears welled in her eyes. She could no longer be one of thepriestesses who called fire from the opaline crystals.
Hunger gnawedin her gut. Fever from the poison of the thorns flowed through herbody. She wrapped her arms around her middle. What would she do?She had succeeded and called fire. She had blended the flamesraised by the other women. Malera’s choice of a task had beenwrong. So was the punishment the chief priestess had meted.
Ria had beenunable to destroy Gydon for its failure to pay the tithe. Malerawas evil. How could women, children, and the elderly, plow thefields and bring in the harvest? Ria shuddered. To sell children tothe slavers was wrong. Though she’d been treated with care by thosegrim, swarthy men, she’d seen how the others had fared.
The scuff ofboots on the stones of the path drew her toward the place whereshe’d broken through the hedge. A man strode toward the temple. Hisclothing was dusty and rumpled. A hunger different from her needfor food arose. He carried fyrestones in the pouch dangling fromhis belt. The first of the seekers had arrived, but what he carriedcould never be hers. Malera would buy all for the temple.
As he drewcloser, her breath caught in her throat. Though unkempt, he washandsome. Tall and lean, with muscles honed by labor and sundarkened by the sun. Like hers, his hair was rich with the colorsof the fyrestones.
Her bodytingled with awareness. For him, or for what he carried? He pausedbeside her hiding place and stooped to examine the stone. Shetensed. Would he discover her and drag her to the temple whereMalera waited?
 
* * *
 
As Ari nearedthe temple, he noticed a place where the hedge had been broken.What had happened? He crouched to examine the cobbles. Dark stainsspotted the pale surface of the lane. He rose. Whatever the eventhad been, why should he care? He had a single purpose for beinghere. To sell the fyrestones for as many coins as possible.
He paused inthe entrance to the rotunda. Though he’d heard the things the gateguard had said and had listened to the rumors in the market square,the absence of petitioners surprised him. He’d never come to sellstones when there had been less than a handful of people waiting tospeak to one of the priestesses.
His bootsclicked on the colored tiles. He glanced toward the beaded curtainthat shielded the inner chamber and saw no lights. The rumors mustbe true. He walked to one of the tables flanking the doorway andlifted a hand bell.
The mellow tonesummoned a girl dressed in a white caftan. She emerged from one ofthe halls at the side of the rotunda. “No petitioners will be hearduntil after the solstice.”
“I’m a stoneseeker with crystals to sell.”
Her eyeswidened. “I’ll bring someone.” She scurried away.
Ari slumped onone of the benches. He closed his eyes and drifted in a half-sleepuntil he heard the slap of sandals on the tiles. He looked up. Awoman dressed in a red caftan glided toward him and paused in frontof the bench. He noticed the passion mark on her neck just abovethe necklace of white fyrestones dangling from gold, silver, andcopper, wires. She wore bracelets and anklets of the same stones.Who was this woman? Though he’d been the seller since Jorg’s death,he had always dealt with an old woman.
The priestess’dark eyes swept over him in swift appraisal. “Come and show me whatyou have.” Her gaze slid from his face, across his chest andsettled on his groin.
The huskytimbre of her voice made him wonder if she meant the fyrestones orhis body. Her eyes examined him the way he judged the quality ofcrystals he found. His rod stiffened. The stones in his belt pouchpulsed in rhythm with his heart. Ari clenched his hands. He wouldtrade crystals for coins, not for pleasure. For less than the valueof a single scarlet, he could have the services of five women for aten-day. “Who are you? I usually deal with an older priestess.”
“I am Malera,the chief priestess. The acolyte said you had stones to sell.”
“I do.”
She placed herhand on his arm. “Bring them to the table. I want to see what youhave.”
The heat raisedby her touch threatened to burn away his intentions. “Here?”
“Yes.” She slidher hand along his forearm and made a crooning sound. “There isstrength in you.” When she stroked his upper arm, her tongue playedalong her lower lip.
Ari sucked in abreath. She smelled of desire. If he surrendered to her lures, hewould be lost and his quest for his identity would end. He presseda hand against the crystal beneath his tunic. His thoughts cleared.After evading her grasping hands, he rose and strode to one of thetables. There, he spilled the contents of the first sack on the redcloth. “Fifty whites for ordinary tasks or ornamentation.”
She lifted one.“One copper for each.”
He saw thelight of greed flash in her eyes. She wanted these stones. “Ten foreach.”
“Three,” shesaid.
“Seven,” hecountered.
“I’ll give youfive.”
“Agreed.” Hekept a smile from forming. The guard had been right. Stones wereneeded here. The coins for the whites would more than pay for thenecessary supplies.
Malerastraightened. “Have you more?”
“First thecoins.”
She clapped herhands. The acolyte who had greeted him soon arrived with a chest.The young woman placed the box on the table. Malera countedtwenty-five silver coins. Ari stashed them in his belt pouch. Hedrew five yellows from a second sack.
She studiedthem. “Enough games. Show me all you have. Ten silver for eachyellow.”
Ari nodded hisacceptance and produced four orange and two scarlet. “Ten gold foreach.”
She shook herhead. “Ten silver for each orange, and two gold for each scarlet.”She lifted one and stroked the surface.
Ari watched theswirls of red in the center of the stone. His own scarlet pulsedagainst his chest. “Two gold for each orange, and four for eachscarlet.”
“We have adeal.” After she counted the coins, the acolyte carried the chestfrom the room.
Ari smiled. Hehad enough coins to discharge the debt to one of the men who hadfound him. Perhaps Bil would finally tell all he knew about thechild Ari had been.
Malera glidedto his side. “My handsome stone seeker, come with me to the harraswhere a life of ease and pleasure awaits.” Ari’s pendant sent joltsof heated warning through his blood. He shook his head. “I have nodesire for ease. If I enter the harras, who will bring the stonesyou need? There are but a dozen stone seekers. Some seasons, nocrystals are found. Only twice did my partner and I fail in thepast twenty years. Ask the priestess who usually buys thefyrestones about a seeker named Jorg. He trained me.” Ari steppedback. Thoughts of being intimate with this woman made his skin feelas though insects crawled over the surface.
She reached forhis hand. “Why do you hesitate to accept what men so eagerlyseek?”
Ari drew a deepbreath and searched for an answer that wouldn’t stir her simmeringanger. “Seeking stones is in my blood. I’ve been one since I was achild. The harras would become a prison and I would be a sullenfailure as a lover.”
She clasped hisforearm. “Good stone seekers are hard to find. A sullen studfoments trouble and must be destroyed. Still, I want to sharepleasure with you. Your scent, your body, and your voice, call tome. Return to the temple after the solstice ceremony. On that day,the priestesses and the men they choose to honor may freely delightin the appetites of desire.”
Ari hesitated.How could he refuse, yet how could he accept? He had no desire toshare anything with her except the stones he sold.
Without a wordof dismissal, she gathered the cloth and carried the stones to theinner chamber. The movement of the beaded curtain produced acacophony of sound
Her departurebrought Ari a welcome relief from the tension and discomfort thatflooded his body. He sank on a bench and closed his eyes to purgethe desires she had stirred.
Once he felt incontrol again, he strode to the rotunda door and stepped outside.The sun moved toward the horizon. In the morning, he would purchasesupplies and speak to Bil. Then he would leave and be far fromRosti on Solstice Day. He had no intention of being near the hamletor the chief priestess during the celebration of the year’s longestday.
 
* * *
 
Malera caressedthe scarlet fyrestone the seeker had brought. The swirling colorsraised a need to call the flames, but this pair was too precious towaste their power on a whim. Until the other seekers arrived, therewould be no stones to use for the pleasure of basking in the heatand light of a crystal.
She drew a deepbreath. Even if she had a dozen scarlets, today wasn’t one when shecould safely draw the blazes contained in the opaline stones. Ifshe waited, the flames she called would burn higher and wilder thelonger she denied the pulsing rhythms flowing through her body.Just as the fires in her belly brought juices to her nether lips,so would the heat of the fyrestones flood her spirit. Her laughterflowed deep and full.
The stoneseeker had ignited embers only his fluids could quench. In eightdays, he would be hers for a day and night, and she would bathe inhis essence. Her breasts felt heavy. Her nipples tightened intoaching buds. Malera tore her thoughts from the man.
She poured thewhite fyrestones into a golden dish and added a handful from a boxon the curved table across from the circle. Of all the templecrystals, only the whites and the stones held by the oldestpriestesses, had survived Ria’s rebellion. Malera claimed thewhites as her own to be used as items to be traded to the slaverswhen there was a need for new males for the harras or girls aspriestesses. Not these stones. These whites were hers. She wouldcall a gem setter to fashion a girdle for her hips to match thebroad collar necklace. On Solstice Day when the stone seekerarrived ripe with desire for her and tore the caftan from her body,the necklace and girdle would be revealed. She shivered withanticipation for the fulfillment to come.
Gathering herrampaging thoughts and emotions into a coil, she placed the yellowand orange crystals in the depressions. The extras were placed onthe table to be claimed by the other priestesses. ‘Twas not enoughfor a full circle, but these were enough to light the solsticefire. Other seekers were due to arrive before the day of theritual. If the fates were kind, those men would have fyrestones tosell.
Malera left theinner chamber and entered the hall leading to her suite. Her bodypulsed with the desire to call the flames. She had to subdue thaturge. She dare not lose control before the solstice. On that day,her full powers were essential for the change she intended to makein the ceremony. She parted the beaded curtain and stepped into thereceiving room.
Her maidservantleaped to her feet. “Mistress, what is your wish?”
“A bath.”
“Yes,Mistress.”
“Before youdraw the water, bring me a matched pair from the harras and fetchwine and honeyed dates.”
The maid bowedher head. “All will be as you wish. What scent for the bath?”
Malera pursedher lips. Musk would enhance her lust and she would spend all herpassion on tame studs instead of waiting for the stone seeker.Thoughts of his muscled body and sun-tanned skin brought her desireto life. She needed a calming scent. “Lavender. After I’ve bathed,have a gem setter attend me.”
The woman left.Malera removed the scarlet silk caftan and dropped it on the floor.Not for her the cotton, linen, or find woolen cloth, worn by theother priestesses. Only the softest fabric ever touched herskin.
She opened thewindow shutters. The afternoon breeze wafted the scent of roses andhoneysuckle into the chamber. The air caressed her skin. She closedher eyes and imagined the soft touches belonged to the stoneseeker. Her nipples peaked. She pressed her hands against them andrubbed.
“Mistress,” themaidservant said. “The bath is prepared and the studs await.”
How long hadshe drifted in a fantasy? Malera turned. Two males knelt with theirforeheads pressed against the floor. Their long golden hair pleasedher. She stroked their buttocks. “Rise. Come and bathe me.” Whenthey stood, she smiled. Though not as muscular as the man shecraved, their rods were erect and ready for her hands and mouth.And her body wanted theirs.
 
* * *
 
Ria woke in apanic. She hadn’t meant to sleep. Had she merely drifted off, orhad she slept for long hours? She looked up. The sun neared thehorizon. She rubbed her eyes and peered through the gap in thefyrethorn hedge. A sigh of relief escaped. She hadn’t missed thestone seeker.
He stood in therotunda doorway. Had he sold all the fyrestones he’d brought? Afoolish question considering how she’d destroyed the stones in thecircle. Maybe he could tell her where to find the crystals. Shewould welcome the chance to possess even a white. Some of thecommoners could use that color. She’d seen her mother light candlesand fires with a pale fyrestone.
As the manstrode past her hiding place, she heard the clink of coins in thepouch dangling from his belt. Her hopes faded. He’d sold themall.
When he dreweven with the gap, she pushed to her feet. Her body swayed and shegulped deep breaths. How had Malera missed one of the fyrestones?Ria felt a powerful pull from a crystal. Surely ‘twas a scarlet.She slithered through the narrow opening in the hedge and hobbledafter the man. She would have that stone and she would call fireagain.
Once she hadthe stone, where could she go? The temple was no place for one whohad rebelled against the chief priestess. Ria knew she couldn’tallow Malera to control her actions. Thoughts of using a stone toharm the innocent made Ria feel ill. During the confrontation, shehad learned the truth about her betrothed’s death. Though shehadn’t wanted to marry him, his death had been a murder. Was therea way to avenge him and the deaths of others the chief priestesshad killed? Could Malera be defeated?
The stoneseeker reached the market square where people thronged. She triedto keep pace with him while skirting the clusters of people whomoved in erratic patterns. Her body ached. She felt as if theflames she had called were lodged beneath her skin.
The babble ofvoices and the shifting patterns of the brightly colored clothesmade her dizzy. She gulped deep breaths laden with perfumes andspices. She halted and frantically scanned the crowd. Her quarryhad vanished. A sense of desperation filled her. She had to findhim and the fyrestone he carried.
A tremor spreadalong her body. She shook. She fisted her hands and fought thedarkness threatening to swallow her. She couldn’t succumb to theconvulsions that occurred when a priestess lost her crystal. Forsome, death occurred.
When she sawthe stone seeker near a seller of ale, she nearly collapsed asrelief swept through her body. He drank the liquid in severalgulps. She tried to swallow, but her mouth and throat were dry.Hunger pangs stabbed her gut. The sun slid over the horizon and thesky grayed. Men with long sticks lit the torches near the stallsand around the periphery of the square.
Ria pulled asmall knife from the sleeve pocket of her tattered caftan. Had theblade been a gift? Did the acolyte know she had dropped it? ‘Twouldserve now. Ria crept toward the stone seeker. Surely the fyrestonewas in the pouch with the coins. She didn’t care about the money,just the crystal. She had called fire from a scarlet. To be withouta stone could mean her death and she was determined to live.
He headedtoward a lane where a number of inns and pleasure houses stood.Once he left the square, her chance to steal the stone and vanishinto the milling crowd lessened. She moved closer, reached for thepouch and slashed. He wheeled and grabbed her arm.
“A thief.” Heglared. “Who beat you, boy? Is your master heartless?”
How would heact when he learned she was a woman? Ria stared at the ground. Herlegs trembled. How could she answer? If he learned her identity, hewould take her to Malera.
“Nothing tosay? Shall I call the alders?”
She shook herhead. “No, please.” Fear caused her voice to crack. If he broughther before the hamlet leaders, she would be sent to one of thepleasure houses to earn her fine. Unless she was recognized andreturned to the temple.
Fear, fever,and hunger joined. Her body shook. His face blurred and shecollapsed.
 
* * *
 
As the boycollapsed, Ari caught him. He hadn’t meant to frighten the lad, butthe sight of the dried blood on the back of the caftan had stirredanger. Though Ari had never lived on the streets, he could imaginethe youth’s terror. Ari thanked the fates for his good fortune.When the pair of old men had rescued and brought him to Rosti,there’d been no talk of selling him to the slavers. Instead, he’dbecome their apprentice.
When he liftedthe boy, Ari noticed the lad’s delicate features. He clenched histeeth. If he went to the alders, the youth would spend years in ahouse where he’d be used by men and women for their pleasure. Arishook his head. He wouldn’t subject the boy to that fate. Instead,he would offer the lad the same choice as he’d been given.
The lad’s skinfelt as though coals burned beneath the surface. Some of thescratches on his arms had festered. With a rueful grin, Arishrugged. He hadn’t expected to spend his first night after sixlunars in the hills caring for a sick boy. How long before theyouth could travel? Though Ari had planned to be away from Rostibefore Solstice Day, he wouldn’t leave until the lad could travel.The fates had brought him an apprentice.
Ari carried thelad through a side entrance into the inn. As he passed the doorwayto the common room, he glanced inside. The innkeeper stood behindthe bar filling mugs with ale. He was too busy to notice thepresence of his guest. Ari reached the room and slipped inside. Heplaced the boy on the bench beneath the window. The lad’s face wasflushed. Alarmed by the fiery skin, Ari leaned closer. The youth’sbreathing sounded normal.
After secretingmost of the coins in his haversack, Ari mentally listed the thingshe needed to treat the boy’s wounds and fever. He strode to thecommon room and paused at the bar. “Innkeeper, do you have aservant who can go to the market for me? There are some things Ineed.”
The man wavedto a younger version of himself. “My son will do what youwant.”
Ari drew theyoung man away from the noise-filled room. He handed him threesilver and one copper coin. “The copper’s yours. There’ll beanother when you return. Buy two caftans, one large and one a bitsmaller than your size. Purchase bathing soap and these herbs.” Helisted them and listened while the innkeeper’s son recited thelist.
Ari returned tohis rented room. He used the fyrestone to light the kindlingbeneath the drum of water. He paused to check his guest. The boy’ssoft snores made Ari smile. Perhaps the lad wasn’t as ill as heseemed. Ari paced the room. There was nothing he could do until theinnkeeper’s son returned.
A tap on thedoor and the appearance of the young man was welcome. Ari steppedinto the hall and took the package and change.

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