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.”