The air in the clearing was still; silence hung like a heavy drape over the circle of women. Any differentiating characteristics that might have broken the uniformity of the women were hidden with heavy cloaks, dyed a deep, midnight blue. All twenty of the Dedicated priestesses had their attentions fixed, unrelenting, on the two motionless figures in the center.
The taller woman, hood of a cloak of the deepest crimson thrown back to reveal sharp, aquiline features, stood with arms raised, hands poised in a fixed gesture of breathless anticipation. Her cool gray eyes never moved from the girl crouched at her feet.
The girl, who could not have been older than fifteen, gulped silently. Her eyes, the blue-gray of a stormy sea, were fixed with intense concentration and fear at the hands above her. Out of the corner of her eye she recognized the forms of many of those she had grown up with, and many who had watched her grow.
She knew no parents; those in the Service never learned their parentage. All older women became "Mother"; the only male allowed to see the girls before their Dedication, the Mage, became "Father".
"Rayne of the Unknown," the tall woman spoke suddenly, in a clear, cool voice that cut crisply through the night air, "Today is your Dedication. Before now, you have merely learned the basic principles of your faith. Now the spirit that has been chosen for you will be revealed."
And then she began the chants, the speed and intensity behind her words increasing as she spoke. She spoke in the language of the ancients, a chant of supplication Rayne had heard many times before; she knew the meaning only through repetition. But the woman continued past the familiar prayer, into an unfamiliar chant that Rayne understood very little of. What she did understand, however, and the simple power of the even unfamiliar words, sent chills up her spine.
The chant continued nearly a full five minutes, and then the woman slid back into the first, familiar supplication, the chorus of women surrounding them adding their voices in a rising crescendo. By the time they had finished, Rayne's fearful anticipation was nearly panic; her entire training up to this point had simply been preparation for this moment.
The chanting stopped abruptly; it seemed to Rayne as if the very air had stilled in her lungs.
With a whoosh of air, the tall woman's hands dropped.
And everyone waited.
Rayne closed her eyes tightly, waiting for something- anything- to happen. But nothing did.
It seemed an eternity. The members of the circle began to murmur, casting knowing glances at one another. They had known she was an outcast from the beginning, that she didn't belong. They had known...
A tingle ran unexpectedly up Rayne's spine, then traveled to the rest of her body. She almost cried with relief as she felt her skin begin to tighten across her bones, which were shifting with a sickening crunch. Her body was shrinking, arms and legs getting shorter as she fell onto all fours. Her face elongated, stretching into a snout, and her eyes narrowed into the cunning gaze of a predator. Her ears sharpened and moved, and all over her body, golden fur began to sprout, itching unbearably beneath her white Dedicant robe. With now clumsy hands, Rayne ripped it off.
All around her, there was a startled ripple of gasps as the change completed. Even the tall women, whose cold gray eyes had betrayed nothing to this point, looked nothing short of shocked. What this could mean... but she was Head Priestess, and the ceremony must continue, no matter what.
"I, Myati of the Black Panther," she continued in a voice that bore no trace of the fear inside, "Welcome you, Rayne of the Golden Wolf, into the ranks of the Blessed."
The ceremony lasted nearly until dawn, but Rayne could not sleep. Never, to her knowledge, had one in the Service been revealed to have the spirit of a wolf. In fact, Rayne shivered at the mere thought. Wolves were thought to bring bad luck; they were harbingers of death and disease, famine and murder. To have the spirit of a wolf was simply unheard of.
She did not want to think about what this could mean for her future as a Priestess. Or what it simply meant about her.
After a morning of fitful sleep, Lyona, a girl who had been Dedicated a few months before, shook her awake.
"Myati requests your presence," she told the bleary-eyed Rayne with a disdainful smirk. As if she were sure I was to be punished, Rayne thought with a flare of anger.
She dressed quickly, throwing on the beige everyday robes of a undedicated priestess without thinking; then, with a moment's reflection, she changed into the heavier forest green of a Dedicant.
Myati was sitting in reflection when Rayne entered the Head Priestesses hut a few minutes later. She closed the door softly behind her, and stood silently waiting, as her training demanded.
Just when Rayne was wondering whether the woman even realized she was there, Myati spoke. "Sit down," the clear voice said softly. "And pour yourself some tea."
Rayne obeyed, taking a wooden footstool across the table from the Head Priestess as her seat. Myati's raven hair, shot through with streaks of silver that were the only betrayal of her age, rippled as she handed the jar of herbal tea across the table. She sipped in silence for several seconds before speaking again.
"I am sure, Rayne," she said finally, "that you know all of our superstition about wolves." Rayne nodded acquiescence- the knowledge that wolves were considered bad luck, along with the dozens of myths that accompanied these fears, were widely known among those in the Service.
Myati pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Then you know why it came as such a shock last night that the gods had chosen the wolf as your spirit. And one of such an unusual color."
Again Rayne nodded.
"I thought you should know," the older woman continued. "Before you heard it whispered in rumors, that there was a meeting of the Council this morning. Some of them had certain... concerns... about the appearance of your spirit. And some of those same Councilors wanted," she paused a brief second as if she was reflecting on the wisdom of telling the young Priestess what she herself hated to think of, then continued. "Some of them want to banish you."
She stopped, studying Rayne's face intently. Fear lurked threateningly behind those stormy eyes, and, though all training forbade emotion, Myati was sure she detected the beginnings of a tear.
"I'll fight for you," she said gently.
Rayne looked up in surprise and gratitude. The Head Priestess would fight for her? Not only was that unusual, favoritism was looked down on in the Service, particularly in those as high ranking as Myati. She didn't know how to express the overwhelming emotion she was feeling, so she settled for a simple, "Thank you."
Myati acknowledged it with a slight nod. "Tread lightly," she warned gently. "You could have potential, Rayne. Don't allow it to go to waste. Don't allow them to turn you out because of superstition and myth."
Stunned beyond words at the emotion Myati was allowing her to see, Rayne merely nodded. Myati motioned for her to leave. "That will be all," she said quietly.
Rayne's foot faltered as she passed through the doorway. There was something she wanted to ask, a question that burned her lips every time she saw that too familiar passion light Myati's eyes. A passion that reminded her all too much of her own.
But the question of one's parenthood was forbidden. In fact, even speculating about it as Rayne did was a punishable offense. So she pushed words to the side. Thoughts were best kept to oneself.
Startled, Rayne was shaken out of her reveries to find she had nearly run into the Mage. Tall and frail, with kind brown eyes peering out of a face heavy with the crevices of age, he easily stopped her with the simple force of his gaze. Her training automatically cutting in, she bowed her head in reverence and dropped to her knees with a murmured, "Sir."
Annoyance flashed through Rayne like lightning as a deep, resonant laugh came from above. "You sure have them well trained, Mage."
The booming voice belonged to another man, Rayne realized with a sudden curiosity as she noticed a large pair of booted feet before lowered gaze. For a moment, the fear shooting through her overshadowed her musing; until she remembered, as a Dedicant, men were now allowed to see her. So it was with the intense curiosity of a child that she ventured a glance at the stranger.
He was enormous, she realized with a start, towering at least two heads above the mage. Nearly as wide as he was tall, his round face was surrounded by a wild mane of auburn hair and an equally wild extended to touch the top of his wide chest. Jolly hazel eyes twinkled beneath his thick slabs of eyebrows, scrutinizing the kneeling girl with a curiosity nearly equal her own.
Her eyes traveled south, and she noticed with interest the clothes he was wearing- a far leap from the robes all those in the Service wore on a daily basis. A heavy leather tunic, reaching just to the knees, covered his top; a pair of similarly made leggings were laced over his legs, along with a pair of fitted dark leather boots that reached the tops of his calves.
"...a new Dedicant, just had the ceremony last night," Mage was saying to the man. "Now, Yosev, if you'll just step in here, the Head Priestess is expecting us..."
The men passed, and Rayne rose slowly, gazing after them with eyes full of wonder. With clothes and people such as she had just seen, the outside world must be an unusual place. Unlike some of the other girls, Rayne had been born and raised in Rastyi, the village of the females in the Service. All males lived across the river, in Byria. Which, she thought with yet another shock, she would soon visit for traditional Dedicant rites.
But if Rayne had thought being a Dedicant would change anything among the girls, she was sadly mistaken. As soon as she reached the hut she now shared with three other Dedicants- her things had been moved out of the long children's home the day before- she was pulled into a flurry of chores and chiding.
She watched with a significant amount of jealousy as her three roommates giggled and talked as they worked. Isolated, she worked quickly, hoping the day would end soon. Although she had been here as long as she could remember, she had never been accepted by the other girls of her age. Forever the outcast, she thought with a sullen glance in their direction.
By the time she had finished all of her chores and forced down a few bites of food, it was nearly dark again. She crawled gratefully into bed, falling asleep almost immediately.
With a jolt, Rayne awoke.
She sat up, surveying the beds of the other three girls. They lay peacefully, their soft breathing the only sound in the room. Outside, the monotonous chirrup of crickets and other night insects formed a gentle hum. Nothing seemed to be out of place.
Yet something had woken her up. Vainly she tried to remember what she had been dreaming about, but drew only a blank. If there had been a loud noise, it would have disturbed the other girls. So what...
There was the very faint sound of a creaking door from outside; Rayne froze, then softly swung onto the floor. In fear of the squeal her door would make if she used it, she slid her slender body through one of the large, open windows of the hut.
Once outside, it was fairly simple to locate the source of the sound. Across the courtyard that marked the middle of the circle of priestess huts, a light shone in the window of the Head Priestess' hut. And the only reason there would be a light on there at midnight, Rayne thought with a hint of panic, was a serious problem. And that would call for the Council.
The Council. And the only reason the Council had to meet now, the only thing they could be discussing... was Rayne. Rayne and her spirit, the unheard of wolf.
Bringer of bad luck, thought Rayne with a grimace.
Without thinking, she crept closer. It was almost subconscious- had she truly thought about it, she might have simply returned to bed and discovered her fate in the morning. If caught eavesdropping on the council, the sentence would be worse than banishment.
But her heart was pounding wildly in her throat, and the thought did not even occur to her. So closer and closer she crept, until she was crouched on all fours directly beneath the window.
Inside, she could hear a murmur of mingled voices, and strained to distinguish one from another. Although it was difficult, she thought she heard the faint murmur of the Mage. She knew that, besides Myati and the Mage, there were six other members of the council- three men and three women. The women she knew; in fact, one of them had been her teacher in the use of herbs and plants. The men, however, she had never seen, although she knew them by name.
"One at a time," Myati's voice cut coolly into the din, and it immediately subdued. "Fryen, you speak first."
One of the male members, Rayne remembered.
"Head Priestess," Fryen's voice was nearly a hiss, as slippery and guarded as the snake that was his animal spirit. "Mage. Councilors. I trust you know that this girl's spirit violates all of our principles. A wolf?" he laughed coldly, and goosebumps raised along Rayne's skin. "She will be nothing but trouble. To keep a girl with a spirit of a wolf, which we all know are bad luck, would be an offense to the very gods we honor."
"Oh, come, now, Fryen," cut in the airy voice of Jervia, the woman who had been one of Rayne's teachers. "It's not as if she chose her spirit. She's just a girl..."
"It doesn't matter how old she is," cut in Fryen. "The simple fact remains that wolves are bad luck, and so is she."
"But to banish her, from the only home she has ever known..." another voice answered, and Rayne recognized the rich, powerful voice of one of the other women, Lova.
"Would be to save both Rastyi and Byria."
"It could be a sign from the gods," agreed another female voice. Sylvi, Rayne thought with disgust. She'd always hated Rayne, although why, she didn't know. "To keep her could be to seal our fate."
"I've never met the girl," cut in a booming male voice, "but to banish the child? I don't know, Fryen."
"It's the only choice we have," Fryen hissed. "Unless, of course, you would like to bring down bad luck on us, Trell?"
"Of course he doesn't," another man said. "He's just letting his emotions take control. Really, Trell, even 'just a girl' can bring down trouble. In fact, she could probably do it more quickly and more painfully than a fully trained priestess, with all of her inexperience."
"What's one when so many are at stake?"
"Just a girl, barely fifteen..."
Rayne sunk to the ground, hand pressed desperately against her head. Her head was full of angry words and arguments, and she was completely torn. Maybe... maybe if she was going to be bad luck, she should leave. Maybe it would be better for everyone.
But where would she go? She had never left Rastyi in her life. She knew nothing about the outside world. She wouldn't know where to go, how to act.. She didn't even have any possessions other than her priestess robes.
The hut had gone quiet, and Rayne strained once more to listen. The Mage's tremulous voice was quietly and powerfully heard above the absolute silence that had fallen over the others.
"Usually," the Mage was saying. "This would be a time for the Head Priestess and myself to put in our thoughts on the matter. But considering the... circumstances... of Myati's relationship to the girl, the laws of the Blessed forbid it. No, Myati, don't protest- there is nothing to do about it. Therefore, we'll put it to a vote. If there is a tie, the Head Priestess and I will act as tie-breaker. All those in favor of allowing Rayne of the Golden Wolf to stay amongst us."
There was a faint rustling as hands were raised in the affirmative signal, and Rayne wished vainly that she could see what was going on.
"All those in favor of banishment."
Rayne's breath caught in her throat. Whatever the outcome, her life was forever changed. If she stayed, she would be hated by the Councilors who had voted against her and their supporters; she would fall to the lowest rank amongst priestesses, no matter how talented she proved to be. But if she was banished... gods, to be banished. It was a fate worse than death, in Rayne's mind. To leave was to face the unknown.
The Mage was speaking again, and she listened, eyes squeezed shut in silent supplication to the gods.
"The vote is two to four. Rayne of the Golden Wolf is banished."