WARNING: This post is more than 1700 words long.
Ashsula walks down a path lined with granite slabs. Trees stand around her at intervals, seeming to beckon her forward with their branches. A light breeze catches at the long, brown tresses beneath her hood and plays with the hem of her gray robes. At the end of the path stands a marble courtyard in which two small, white marble basins stand. Light reflected in them tells her there is water in both. A small girl child stands between the two basins also garbed in a long gray robe, identical in all respects to the one worn by Ashsula, save that the hood rests against the child’s back rather than being up, as is the custom. The breeze tugs at the blond curls she has allowed to obscure her face and at the fabric of the gray gown she wears. Behind the child is a statue, a tall man with a determined look on his face and his hands stretched out in a gesture of invitation to the basins of water. A plaque set into the base of the statue reads “Firozhan.”
“Welcome, my love,” the child greets her, running forward, seizing Ashsula’s hands and kissing the palms. “You have served me well.”
“I am your servant, beloved Mellifri,” Ashsula responds, carefully pulling up the child’s hood as she has done each time she and this child have met, so that her face is completely in shadow. “I only wish to continue to serve you.”
“You have served me well for many years,” Mellifri replies, turning away, “that is why, today, you will be given a choice.”
“What choice?” Ashsula inquires, surprised at the child’s strange behavior.
“You are the last of my servants,” Mellifri continues sadly. “All the others have been killed, but you have always been my favorite one, so I have been allowed to warn you.”
“Warn me?” Ashsula asks, her heart suddenly jumping into her throat.
“One will come,” the child explains, gesturing to the statue, “this one. He will ask a question of you. This time, though, you are not required to answer it. You may choose to remain silent.”
“What will happen if I do so?” Ashsula wonders.
In response, the child gestures to the basin on the statue’s left. Ashsula approaches it and looks in. Lying at the bottom of the basin of water, there seems to be a slender, young maiden dressed in a gray robe with a hood. Her long, brown hair sprays out from beneath the hood in a tangled mass. The breast of the robe is stained by a red substance which seems to be welling up from within her and pooling around her on the bottom of the basin.
Ashsula stumbles back in shock. “What if I choose not to speak?” she gasps.
Mellifri turns to the basin to the right of the statue. Hesitantly, Ashsula moves to the basin. In the depths there lies the city of Melantho, built around the Temple of the Oracle, with Ashsula standing untouched in the doorway. Around her, armed men rush throughout the streets of the city while the inhabitants scream and run or try to fight. Lying vacant-eyed on the paving stones surrounding the temple are many men, women, children and even animals.
“I am sorry, my love,” Mellifri’s voice says in her ear. “It is a hard choice and I am not allowed to make it for you.”
Ashsula awoke with a gasp. She tried desperately to believe that this was only a dream. She’d often had dreams with the child goddess in them. These, however, were mostly pleasant dreams. Dreams of playing with the girl-child; tag, hide and seek, dolls. This dream refused to fade, though. The great marble statue and the visions in the two basins remained in her mind as if etched there.
Shaking, the young priestess stood and moved to a chair. How long had she been at the Temple of the Oracle? She’d been brought here at eleven years old when, at the orphanage where she’d spent her first few years, she had her first real vision. A vision that had saved all the other children living in that orphanage from a fire started by a careless worker in the kitchen. After that, the temple had been her home. The previous oracle, a woman called Belell, already old beyond imagining when Ashsula first met her, had raised and trained her protege well. Now, six years later, Ashsula was the oracle and priestess of the child goddess, Mellifri, the gods’ messenger. During her years of service to the temple, she’d been visited by men and women, rich and poor, kings and queens, all of them desiring her to intercede with the goddess and give them word on what must be done. She had made it her business to only speak the truth and, since the words she was giving them did not come from her, never to accept payment in return.
She didn’t need to walk through the streets of Melantho to know all the inhabitants. Each of them had come to her with a question or been seen by her in visions. She felt almost as though she knew them personally. They were like the children she’d never had. As priestess, she hadn’t had time for marriage. Technically, she was already married to the temple. A serving girl, one of many who had pledged to serve in the temple, entered bearing a tray of food and set it on the table nearby, then went to the wardrobe and began to pull out fresh clothing for her; a gray robe with a hood, but no shoes, the same as always.
While the girl made up the bed, Ashsula got dressed then sat patiently while the girl brushed her hair. When the girl was done, Ashsula left the bed chamber and headed for the temple’s main room. Unlike most temples, this one had no altar. Instead, it contained a large, white marble chair, like a throne, which sat on a dais shaped like a tall flat pyramid made of stairs. Ashsula seated herself here and waited, considering the warning she’d been given. Before long, however, another serving girl came to the door of the chamber.
“Mistress,” she whispered, “you have a visitor.”
“I’m ready,” Ashsula replied, looking up from her musings. As she watched, the living man that had been represented by the statue in her dream entered followed by a number of soldiers and a skinny, bald man dressed in a long, robe of midnight blue trimmed with black ermine. “Firozhan,” she said, without thinking. The statue man stopped in the doorway, startled, and the skinny, bald man behind him narrowed his eyes in such a way that Ashsula was reminded of a poisonous snake.
“How do you know my name?” Firozhan asked, stepping into the chamber. Here was a man Ashsula was having difficulty being afraid of. He bore the symbol of the god Daedin the Just on his tabard and his eyes were honest. It was the skinny one Ashsula distrusted, though why that should be so, she had no idea. Still, she hadn’t spent six years learning to trust her feelings only to distrust them now.
“Stay where you are,” Ashsula commanded. “How I know your name is unimportant. Why have you come?”
“I desire wisdom of the goddess,” Firozhan intoned. “Yours is the last Temple of the Oracle still standing. The rest were destroyed during the Goblin Wars.” As he spoke these words, they suddenly felt false to her, though Firozhan clearly believed them to be true. However, when she went to open her mouth to point this out to him, she suddenly felt a tiny finger touch her lips. It was not yet time for her to speak. Instead, she gestured to him to continue.
“Seeress,” said Firozhan, clanking into a kneeling position at the base of Ashsula’s dais, “what I desire to know is this: If I unite the four kingdoms, what will be the outcome?” Here, then was the question that either she or Melantho would die for. The more she thought about it, the more certain she was. The decision was no decision at all. As the thought passed through her mind, a delighted giggle sounded in her ear. It was hard not to smile.
“Firozhan,” Ashsula replied, closing her eyes to receive the words of the goddess, “your intentions are noble. However, if you force the four kingdoms to join, your entire empire from the borders to the very capital will consider you a tyrant and will forget your devotion to the god you serve.”
“She lies!” the snake faced one exclaimed suddenly, “she is no Oracle, but the puppet of our enemies who wish to make you fear to do the right thing!”
“Down, snake!” Ashsula declared in tones that made the skinny man shrink back. “You speak words put into your mouth by the foulest source imaginable! You will one day live to regret this decision! Then you shall learn who is the puppet here!”
“Kill her!” he shrieked. At his words, a volley of arrows shot from the doorway. Ashsula barely felt the heads as they bit into her flesh.
“I have one thing more to say,” Ashsula choked, blood dribbling from the corners of her mouth as she struggled to speak. “One day, Firozhan, the hands of the half-blooded will bring you down from your throne. Then you will remember the words I have spoken to you and wish you had listened.” More arrows arched through the air. She felt a thud as one of them landed in her head.
Suddenly, she found herself on a grassy hill and a girl-child dressed in the robes of the Oracle was approaching her.
“Welcome, my love,” the child said, looking into Ashsula’s face with a smile like a sunrise after a storm-tossed night. As she spoke, she lifted her blond head and Ashsula saw that her eyes were the beautiful blue of the deep sea.
Instantly, Ashsula covered her face with her hands. “I must not look at your eyes, beloved Mellifri,” she cried. However, she soon felt gentle fingers pull her hands down again.
“You’re not my servant anymore, Ashsula,” the child smiled, her golden curls framing those impossibly blue eyes, “Now, you’re my friend.” With that, she caught the taller girl in her arms. Suddenly, Ashsula realized that she and Mellifri seemed to be the same height. Laughing, they rolled down the hill together.
This story is actually based on something jaklumen and I are working on together. If you read the haikus from last week, you know who Mellifri and Daedin are. Firozhan and his snake-faced companion are the story’s antagonists. Anyway, with the writing exercise given, jak suggested I pick the first of the two options. From there, I tried to figure out what kind of dilemma might be difficult for an oracle. However, wanting things to end well, I chose to make things easier for her in the end. After all, heroes always make the right decision in books, even if it costs them their lives. Also, this is the first instance of Mellifri showing a mortal her eyes. She usually hides them (read her haiku). I figured, if someone was dead, seeing her eyes wouldn’t matter as much.
What do you think of the story? Would you choose the same is Ashsula did? How would you react if you saw someone in real life that you’d only ever seen in a dream?