Chapter One
A Scar Lost

Talons plunge, unfurled wings, storm clouds blow,
slow, the flow, the fall of the reign amidst the rain, 
strike the eye and emblazon the beak, 
death first takes the timid and weak. 
Feed and fed, the eagle leaves you dead, 
be thankful to never know the vulture’s breath.

—Tomes of the Touched

Seven Days to the Eve of Snows

Meliu handed the Codex of Sol to Woxlin with profound pride and loss. For days she’d dreamed of a glance into the relic’s pages, but its lock confounded her. She’d learned from her mother how to slip past a lock on the Raging Dragon’s liquor stores at an inappropriate age, only months before being shipped to Istinjoln on her fifth birthday. Locks abounded in Istinjoln, guarding famous brew or forbidden libraries, but not one she dared defied her.

The tiny tumblers on an invaluable manuscript thwarted her efforts.

And now it sat in a high priest’s hands, his knuckles whitening with an iron grip. She smiled at his crooked teeth set in a crooked grin, unable to look him in the eye. A priest with their face buried in a bowed cowl stood to his side holding a lantern, and Woxlin held out the tome for this other to take, and whispered: “For Lord Priest Ulrikt, immediately.”

The other nodded. A feminine hand with fingers long enough to grasp the thick tome with confidence snatched its bindings and shoved it beneath the folds of her robes. This priestess disappeared with long strides as Woxlin held Meliu’s cheeks with both hands and kissed her forehead, his lips forming into a smirk after. “Get yourself to the healers, my girl.”

Meliu trotted after the other priestess without so much as a glance back at the Choerkin and Wardens, catching a door to a small outbuilding before it closed. But the room was already empty. She glanced into the hollow shadows and set her gaze on the trapdoor in the floor. “What in the hells?” The priestess must’ve passed straight through the next door and closed it behind her, or she was shittin’ quick. And in a hurry. If she knows what she carries, I don’t blame her.

She tugged the rope on the trapdoor and eased down the ladder, nodding to a young monk’s bow before realizing she didn’t know where she was going. The Hall of Erginle, where healers practiced their arts during the day, would be empty after sundown. Any young priest dedicated to Life might improve the mending of her scalp, but with Little Sister’s herbs and her own half-baked healing already having built layers of scars, she needed experienced prayer.

Meliu’d always been pretty, beautiful some said. The notion of folks looking at her ugly scar didn’t wrench her gut, or so she tried to convince herself, it was the pity she expected to see in their eyes for what she’d lost.

She recalled her bloody-fisted pa standing above a man groggy on his hands and knees, streams of blood from his nose and mouth: “If you pity a man ya’d might as well be pissin’ on ‘im.” Trime kicked the beleaguered man in the face and drug him out of the inn to lie in the dirt street where local miners laughed and urinated on the poor bastard. Insulting Trime’s cooking was one thing, if done with a smile, but taking pity on all the miners who had to eat his cooking wasn’t a trifle her pa took as a joke.

Meliu didn’t have a lot of memories of her father before she moved to Istinjoln, but every one left their mark on her attitude, good or bad.

She huffed as she tromped down the hall. Pity was only good when it was a tool, and even then hard to stomach. She fought angry tears by the time she reached the Hall of Erginle and screamed when the lanterns hanging from the walls revealed no one. The echoes of her voice faded, and she wandered crestfallen to the Goddess’ shrine, staring at the stone beneath her feet. Her eyes rose to gaze upon the Tree of Life, the constellation of Erginle, here depicted by polished oak inlaid into the granite wall and set with twenty round diamonds, all bigger than her eyes.

“You’ve done well, my child.” 

The voice came from behind and she recognized the tones. She didn’t turn to face her Lord Priest, she knelt, eyes pinned on the highest diamond in the tree. “Have I? I wonder.”

Ulrikt strode in front of her and turned so she stared into his eyes. Soft blue, caring, but without pity. “A frightful wound.” His fingers brushed the bulge of her scar.

“There’re Shadows at the Shrine.” But he knew already; she felt foolish.

He leaned like a tree in a strong breeze, his palm covering the side of her head. “We shan’t worry about Shadows this evening, shall we, my girl?” He smiled, and tingles wove into the scars hugging her skull, wiggling through the muscles of her face so close to her nose she fought the urge to sneeze. “We will contain the Shadows as before, destroy them if need be.”

If need be? You shittin’ me? “As you say, my Lord Priest.” 

“You have questions. I understand. But you must trust in me, and trust in Sol, and in his Codex.”

Heat flared through every creeping tingle in her head, but she forced herself calm until the threat of a pain that never quite came faded. He stood straight, a cocksure grin on his face. As the beat of her heart turned to a whisper through her veins, she realized that all her aches faded into pleasant warmth, and the sense of bulged scars unhealed and promising to remain forever… disappeared.

“Lovely as you ever were. Lucky for you I am an old man whose flirtatious days are passed.”

The flirty smile spoke otherwise, but she didn’t care a wit. Her hand shot to her scalp. The skin was smooth, the hairline even, and there wasn’t a hint of heat from infection. “Holy heavens.”

“Indeed. Erginle smiles upon she who returns the codex of her father. No man will pity you, they’ll simper at your feet. Every woman will still wish she looked like you.”

Meliu blushed. Too old to flirt, the hells. “I’ve no words to thank you.”

“No words are necessary for me, my child. Pray to Erginle to give thanks, and to Tulule for making her kindness possible.” The twinkle in his blue eyes made her wish he wasn’t too old to flirt with, but he pulled his gold-threaded cowl over his head and strolled from her. She turned to watch him saunter away. “We will speak again, my child. Soon.”

A few days later he was dead, without her having heard his voice again. She prayed then, too, and thanked his soul for the kindness he’d done for her.

Background Art by Jon Gibbons

© 2018 L. James Rice