The deep, calm snows of winter had been falling for weeks without end. Rowan sat by the fire in great hall and spun wool. He was one of the many men who were working the spindles and wheels. Tarwen was standing at the lectern by the two large candles and he was reading an epic to the assembled. The verses and the repetitive nature of his work almost made Rowan fall asleep.
His hands were calloused now all over, not only where they had been from the spate and the reigns. He also knew his letters and numbers now and had so many ink stains on his fingers that he had given up of ever scrubbing them off entirely again. But mostly he had learned to feel gratitude. Gratitude for each and every teaching he received; gratitude for each skill he mastered and gratitude for each mistake that taught him something new, either about the process he dealt with, or himself.
Tarwen had excelled at all the tasks from the beginning. Rowan had glowed with envy. Lady Beatrice had taken him aside one day and had made it clear that the successes of his brother were not used as a measuring stick for his work. After he had realized that he could not gain anything from competing with Tarwen, but only lose his good spirits, he had let go of those poisoning feelings. Shortly after, his own skills had begun to flourish.
They had spent many a day in the gardens, especially during the harvest. Now it was dreary cold and all they could do was focus on staying warm and secure and expanding their minds with the books from the library. Brian was still struggling with reading and Werner had broken more nibs than everyone else combined.
Mortimer stood up as Tarwen turned the page.
“I have to stretch my legs a little. This constant snow is taxing my enthusiasm.” He nodded at Rowan. “Care to join me?”
Rowan was happy to put the spindle aside. He followed Mortimer out into the cold. The two of them could not go very far. Only the short ways between the hall, the chapel, the barn, the wheat house and the smithy were shoveled. The rest of the castle was almost sunken in snow. Rowan doubted that anyone could even see it from afar. The towers and turrets and roofs and gargoyles were covered just as much as the walls and grounds. As much as this place seemed like a mountain, winter had decided to bury this mountain. Mortimer clapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s time for spring. I adore this temple and its teachings, but I want to go back again to my town and apply all I have learned this time. I can’t wait for the snow to melt and the first blossoms to break through the earth. What about you?”
Rowan rubbed the cold from his upper arms. He looked at the white masses in front of him.
“I don’t know. I don’t feel ready. I mean, when we get back, will people even listen to us? Sure, Tarwen and I made some plans to increase food production, but will that change peoples believes? I don’t think having more food will make people treat others better.”
“That’s true and it won’t be easy. I think that is why the Goddess marked the two of you, so that you could work together. You will encounter resistance, but I am certain that you will find at least a few kindred spirits.”
“So that’s it then?” Rowan asked. “We go home as soon as spring comes and maybe, just maybe we get to come back here one or two more times. What if I rather want to stay here? I like it here.”
He stomped around on the flattened snow. It was only partly to keep his feet warm. Cat came running out of the great hall and jumped on his shoulder and Rowan felt immediately better. Mortimer blew on his hands before he spoke.
“You have learned how it is in the temple of life. You know how it feels when your life is in balance. You are not losing any of the feelings, or the knowledge, or the experiences when you leave here. You take them with you and you can bring the temple of life to any place you will ever go from now on.”
“So, this is not THE END?” Rowan asked.
“No,” said Mortimer. “This is merely the beginning.
Beatrice sat down with Rowan after dinner. She had been talking one on one with most of the men during the day. Tarwen had been talking to her already, but when Rowan had asked him about it, Tarwen had just clamped up. There was no getting out of him what he had encountered, but he had been pensive ever since. So now Rowan’s stomach did somersaults, his hands were sweaty and his heart beat in his throat.
“Do you know why you are here?” Beatrice asked.
“Because I’m supposed to be learning something?”
“That is true. You are supposed to learn many things. One of the most important things you will learn is how you and your village will survive the next years. It won’t be easy, mind you, but we should at least try.”
“What is wrong with my village?”
Beatrice leaned back in her chair. Her dark brown eyes looked so friendly, so open and so sad.
“Your village, among so many others is dying out. It is on the brink of collapse and total extinction because the priests of Gammon have wrecked havoc for nearly two centuries now. They came to our lands with their fighting, their disregard for nurturing and their hatred of women. How many girls are in your village right now? Half as many as boys? Less? How many women have died in childbirth without the company of mothers, sisters, or aunts? How many people in your village have died from illness or injury, because Gammon’s will was fate and not to be interfered with? How many crops have failed and gardens have withered, because hunting and killing were the only honorable pursuits and anything else was heresy? How many books have been burned to take away knowledge from anyone who wanted to pursue it? And all in the name of a god, who is foreign to our lands and our customs, who only values blind obedience and who wants to kill off everyone who isn’t male.”
Rowan felt an ache in his chest. He looked down at his hands. His mind went to his mother, who had died when his youngest brother was born. She had been all alone in her room, because it was a sin to help a woman in labor.
He thought about his sister who was not allowed to leave the house, unless it was in his father’s presence. He thought about the day the village priest had come into their house and taken every scrap of parchment they had, because their house needed to be purified. He thought about how the mayor had sent them off in the depth of night and under sworn secrecy. He had known that something was wrong in his world, but he didn’t think it meant total destruction of everything he knew.
Beatrice touched his hands.
“We will teach you all the knowledge that is deemed forbidden now. You will learn about wound care and healing. You will learn about crop rotations and gardening. You will learn how to make garments and how to cook decent meals. And you will learn how to value the Goddesses in every form. You have already succeeded in the first lessons of respect, for you followed Raina here.”
Rowan looked up and wiped a solitary tear from his eyes. He could not understand why Beatrice was giving him an encouraging smile. Why wasn’t she mad at him? Why didn’t she scream and yell, but talked in quiet tones? He felt so miserable; everything would have been better than her loving understanding. His knees shook. He wanted to run away.
“Lady Beatrice, I didn’t know. I mean, I never thought, I didn’t realize. I never questioned the way things are. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” she said. “And now you are here and you can listen and learn. You have a chance to fight the rules of Gammon, to return to the way of the Goddesses and to restore balance. This is the temple of life. We are here to turn the world away from death, darkness and destruction. You can do your part by gracefully accepting all we have to offer.”
Rowan scratched his head.
“How do you know I am worthy? How do you know I am not a spy of the church of Gammon?”
Beatrice got up and winked at him.
“You didn’t burn to a crisp in the ring yesterday, did you?”
The edge of the forest revealed a field planted with grains. Behind that a castle like structure rose to the sky. Heavy, gray stonewalls ended in turrets and towers. The castle was at least five ordinary houses high and ten wide. It loomed like a mountain. A heavy, dark wooded gate barred entry and a bell as big as an oxcart hung in the uppermost tower.
Raina sighed in relief and there was a new spring in her step. Rowan followed with his mouth agape. He let his gaze wander from one part of the castle to the next: The walls, the slate roofs, the metal clasps on the door hinges, the arrow slits and the gargoyles on the towers. He had never seen anything like it.
“Welcome to the temple of life,” said Raina.
They marched up to the heavy gate. The men hung back and Raina pulled the little green bell on the side. A wooden square was removed from the gate and a friendly face looked them over. Raina bowed and introduced the group. The women closed the little window and a few moments later one side of the gate opened with a screech.
“Welcome, welcome! I am Lady Beatrice,” said the woman who had looked at them before and was now holding the gate in place. After everyone had gone through single file, she pressed herself against it until it shut and two other women moved a metal rod through several metal rings to secure the gate. All of them were clad in simple brown dresses with aprons. The blinding white of these aprons stood in such a stark contrast to the dirty, smelly clothes of the travelers, that Hartmut took off his hat and turned it round and round.
Beatrice bestowed a gentle hug on Raina and then led the group into a high domed building. It was laid out in black and gray marble and had stained glass windows that broke the light in exquisite colors. Rowan held out his hand to see the sunlight dapple in dark reds and blues and greens on his skin. Cat took his extended arm as an invitation and walked down his arm from his pack and jumped to the floor with nary a sound.
In the front of the domed building was a dais and outlined in marble blocks there was a circle. Raina and Beatrice bowed and stepped inside. Rowan watched as Mortimer followed and then everyone else made their way in the stone enclosure. He followed reluctantly. His spine tingled in anticipation.
“Let us cleanse ourselves from all outside influences,” said Lady Beatrice and bowed her head. Just a moment later a wall of flames rose around them from the marble circle.
“By the sorcerer’s tail!” exclaimed Brian and all the men besides Mortimer moved inward and closer together. But even though a wall of men-high flames surrounded them, the air was quite cool and there was not even a singed hair on anyone. Raina and Beatrice intoned the first few notes of the cleansing song and soon the dome was filled with a multitude of voices, rejoicing in the feeling of renewal that the flames brought them.
They had been walking for two days and the mood among the men was dipping ever lower. Partly it was because they had been rained on about every half hour since they crossed the stream, while the sun was still shining right ahead of them, so that they were soaking wet and blinking in the sun rays at the same time. Partly it was because their ration bags were nearing emptiness.
Tarwen and Rowan trotted behind Brian. Their feet made squelching sounds on the muddy ground. Rowan tried to ignore his rumbling stomach. Cat, the cat was following, a little to the side. Behind them, Rowan heard Hartmut grunting along. When Rowan looked up front, he could see Raina leading them up a little hill.
“About time we get to that blasted temple,” said Hartmut. “My stomach is rolling in on itself. To tell you the truth, that cat of yours is beginning to look like a decent meal right now.”
Rowan looked at the wild fen cat. He felt a pang of fear, but then reassured himself, thinking that there was no way that Hartmut would ever get the cat, or if he did, that Hartmut get out of the encounter alive. Rowan had seen the cat’s claws up close when it had been kneading his pack. He had a healthy respect for them.
“It’s not my cat. It’s just walking with us,” he replied.
Tarwen turned around.
“Is that why you don’t want to name it?”
Rowan nodded. He had no right to impose his idea of a suitable name on a wild creature like that. Of course, he was immensely pleased that the cat liked him and stayed with him, but he had no illusions about ownership of this particular creature.
Tarwen turned again and almost bumped into the man in front of him. They had stopped and now the group gathered around Raina.
“I am sorry it has been such a slow trek. The stream stole a day from us,” she said. “Let’s make camp for the night.”
The men made a flimsy lean to and went to gather wood for a fire. Rowan had little hope that it would be a warming one, because all the wood around was either fresh or wet, or both. He reached out to stroke the cat’s fur. But instead of butting its head on his hand and purring, the cat pricked its ears forward and slinked into the underbrush.
“All right then,” Rowan said.
Not long after, he heard rustling sounds in the underbrush. Mortimer, who was close to him, heard it too. He unsheathed a large knife and raised a hand to signal quiet. He tiptoed to the underbrush. It rustled then there was quiet; then more rustling. Rowan felt a shudder going down his spine. Who or what was making that noise?
Another noise of cracking twigs and leaves was followed by a sound that was a cross between a strangling scream and the squeak of and old, uneven barn door. Something brown broke through the bushes and flattered about.
“Sweet mercy, exclaimed Mortimer. “It’s a chicken!”
The chicken clucked and flapped around and stepped gingerly out of the way. Cat, the cat came out of the bushes after it. It had a few feathers near its whiskers. Cat crouched down in a waiting stance and watched the chicken intently.
Hartmut came forward with his knife.
“Let’s kill it! Let’s eat it!”
Mortimer grabbed Hartmut’s arm.
“No, we need not do that. Chickens come in groups. Where there is one chicken, there are many chickens. Let’s see if we can follow this one home.”
“All right, then we have more chickens to eat.”
“No, Hartmut. Think about it. Where there are chickens, there are eggs!”
The waters were rushing just as strong the next morning. Rowan wondered if they hadn’t even swelled overnight. The stream rushed muddy brown; and in the early morning fog it looked cold and deadly.
Mortimer clapped Rowan on the shoulder.
“We’ll be on the other side in no time.”
Raina checked the bindings of the raft one more time before the men carried it to the shore. She unrolled the end of a long, balled up strand of stripped vine and knotted it around a large tree trunk. With the ball of vine in hand, she stepped on the raft.
“Brian, Edward, shall we?”
She called and two of the men, each big and burly and carrying a stake to ford the raft joined her. The rest of the men stood aside to watch. Brian and Edward pushed the raft off and Mortimer gave it another push from the shoreline.
The raft bounced on the stream and whirled around its center until Brian and Edward found purchase for their stakes. Raina stood like a rock in the center and unrolled the ball of vine she was still holding. All three of them were soaking wet when they reached the other shore. Raina jumped off as soon as the raft hit the mud and anchored the vine around another large tree trunk.
“Now they’re there and we’re here. What good will that do us?” asked a fellow named Werner. Rowan wondered how particularly bright he was, but Mortimer explained in a calm voice.
“We now have a line to hold on to. Once the raft is back, it will be a much safer and easier passage.”
“Mrow!” The cat agreed.
Brian and Edmund returned with the raft and the rest of the men loaded up and joined them. Mortimer and Hartmut manned the stakes this time around. The cat jumped on the raft as if it had gotten a written invitation and perched on Rowan’s pack. Werner held on to the line with white knuckles as soon as the raft hit open water.
“Easy he said? What a pack of lies! This is horrible!”
The raft shook and swayed and took on water whenever a side dipped down. Everyone had wet feet at least and most of them got a good soak. However, none of the men were lost, nor their gear. The cat jumped off Rowan’s pack on the shore and purred content. It was the only one who had managed to stay completely dry.
Raina greeted them with a freshly kindled fire.
They departed in the morning after a lovely breakfast. Raina held Patrick’s hands before they left.
“Are you certain you don’t want to join us this time?”
“I am certain. I feel with all my heart that I am called elsewhere. Something is afoot, but what, I do not know yet.”
The air was warming up quickly. The fog and morning dew had vanished and curious squirrels were inspecting the slop buckets by the Inn’s back door.
“Let’s get moving,” Mortimer called out. “Make sure you don’t forget anything. We cannot return. Hartmut, Bertrand, what’s taking so long?”
The men, thusly addressed grunted and packed away the little pouches that made clacking noises. Rowan shouldered his pack.
“What does he mean, we cannot return?”
“Let’s just go.”
They marched through mossy underbrush. Raina led them at a quick pace. Rowan was glad that his coat was rolled somewhere into his pack, for soon sweat was running down his face. Still, the forest was not nearly as hot and dry as it had been on the way to the Inn. The trees were dark green and full of life. Moss covered many a trunk and stone and little gurgling sounds told of creeks and brooks just out of view.
It was much after midday when they stepped carefully down a steep hill, covered in pine needles and ferns. The sloshing of water drew ever nearer and soon Rowan’s feet were sucked into the forest floor by underlying mud. Walking turned into a knee-bending chore and one of the older men slipped and sat down hard on his rump. It earned him laughter all around.
“Dear Brian, you better watch out, or you shall be know as Soggy Bottoms from now on,” Mortimer joked.
Rowan looked through the trees and saw the roiling stream that had played its music in his ears for quite a while now. He saw swift moving, brown waters, capped with white bubbles and spiked with occasional branches and other flotsam it had picked up along the way. It was easily as wide as the length of a full-grown pine and Rowan thought it looked rather deep to boot. There were clean-washed boulders leading into the stream from each side of the shores, but Rowan could not see any of those in the middle of it. Raina raised a hand and the group gathered to a halt around her.
“This is most unfortunate. I see no way that we can use the stepping-stones. I fear we have to build a raft.”
Some men grunted. Others unpacked their woodsman axes and went to suitable trees. Raina pulled at clinging vines and used a small dagger to cut them. She instructed Rowan and Tarwen to do the same. Hartmut stomped through the soggy ground over to Raina and worked on pulling the leaves off the vines.
“It’s of no use, you know. The stream is too swift. We’ll drown one and all.”
Raina focused her large, green eyes on him.
“It’s the doing that changes the world, not the complaining.”
Rowan continued to cut vines. He silently agreed with Hartmut. He didn’t want to be stuck on a slippery raft with a bunch of men he didn’t know in the middle of a forest he had no idea how to get out off and or knowledge of where it would lead. His prospects seemed dire. If he didn’t drown or get clobbered by the raft or the boulders, he would still be lost and die of hunger or find death being prey to a hungry bear. He didn’t like any of these worrisome futures one bit.
Rowan turned around and looked into the eyes of a cat. At least he thought it was a cat. Its features were catlike, with the whiskers and the ears and such. Still, this cat was at least three times the size of the mousers he knew. It had silvery gray hair that stood up a hand width long in every direction. Its paws were as big as three average cat’s paws side by side. Its face was as wide as Rowan’s head and its orange eyes were inches away from Rowan’s nose. Still, it seemed friendly. Rowan did not know how he knew that this cat didn’t mean him any harm, but he was certain of it.
“Hello there cat,” he said. The cat purred and walked on its branch down to Rowan’s shoulder. There it bumped its head and purred some more. Rowan carefully lifted his hand and stroked the cat’s head. The cat sniffed and then leaned into his hand. She kept purring in a low rumble that made Rowan’s hand vibrate.
“What you got there?” Tarwen asked from behind. He came up to Rowan and caught a glimpse of the animal.
“Sweet undertaker, what is that?”
“It’s a cat.”
“It’s rather huge for that,” Tarwen replied. “You don’t even like cats.”
“I like this one.”
The cat nuzzled Rowan’s hand and jumped down from the branch. It circled around his legs and rubbed its head and side on his boots. Raina came through the underbrush and gasped.
“Rowan, you got yourself a wild fen cat! This is marvelous! They are such a good omen!”
Rowan grinned at his brother. The cat followed him around and played with the lose vines. It purred close to him and hissed at everyone else. By the end of the day they had built a raft and the cat had made a home on Rowan’s pack.
“Looks like you got yourself a pet,” said Tarwen at the campfire.
Mortimer sat down beside Rowan and Tarwen. “Who is going to be the pet of whom remains to be seen.”
A lady descended the staircase. She wore an emerald robe and her auburn hair was cunningly held in place by a number of small braids. She halted on the third-lowest step and smiled at all the men in attendance. She opened her arms and held her palms up in a gesture of blessing. Rowan could see her wearing the same pants and tunic under her robe that Mortimer wore. Only hers were embroidered with gold thread at their sleeves and collar.
“Welcome, indeed,” she said. Her voice sounded warm and soothing. “I see we have many of our stalwart and capable fellows come back this year; and also some new faces. Our quest for wisdom shall begin tomorrow when the first light hits the red window. For now, be merry and content.”
The men bowed and made room for the woman. She walked up to each of them in turn and clasped their hands. Rowan felt a rolling sensation of excitement and fear going strong in his stomach. The lady approached slowly, but surely. Each greeting bringing her closer to him. What if she wasn’t impressed with him and his unknowing youth? What if she expected him to speak in the complicated ways of Mortimer and Patrick? What if she laughed? Rowan swallowed his unsettling questions and hid his hands behind his back.
The lady approached Tarwen, clasped his hands and exchanged a few quiet words with him. Rowan saw his brother smile and reply to the lady. It could not be so bad then, he thought. But Tarwen had always been the braver one. Then there was no time worrying left, for the lady stood before him and held out her hands.
“My dear lad, my name is Raina and I shall lead our little party to the temple of the lights. Don’t be afraid. I have done so many times and not lost a single learner yet. You are in good hands. What is your name?”
“Rowan, my lady.”
He bowed and felt the red heat climbing up his neck and face. He would have liked to sink into the earth on the spot, but she was still holding his hands and offered him an encouraging smile.
“I gather this is all a lot to take in for someone who is not well versed in the old traditions. Your village was cut off from us for far too long. The goddess did not touch your people and I don’t know why. But we will take all care and precautions to prepare you for your task of learner of the great wisdom. We will answer all your questions as best as we can and we won’t let you despair in ignorance.”
Rowan gathered up all his pluck and went forward with the first question he could come up with.
“So, my mark. That is the touch of the goddess then?”
“Do you want to see it?”
Raina shook her head slightly.
“No, there is no need. You wouldn’t have made it all the way to the Inn if you hadn’t been deemed worthy.”
Rowan looked into Raina’s gentle, green eyes. There was a peace and warmth in her that radiated outward. He did feel safe and well cared for in her presence. His breath was slow and steady now and all the jitters of nerves had vanished.
“Why are you doing this? Why are you teaching us your wisdom and why are you sharing your secrets with us?”
Raina gave him a little wink.
“It’s the way of the north.”