Sanctuary

A Steering the Craft exercise where you try to weave a large lump of exposition into a story.

The crowds stared and whispered, as they did every year. At least it was a different crowd this time. Country folk, gawping and gasping, instead of the sniggers of the city’s thieves and merchants.

In all, Queen Belandra was glad her prison had been moved, and that her annual outing to the Great Ritual of the Goddesses gave her time among trees instead of stinking streets. Lord Jussa had, of course, returned to the capital for the Ritual. It was more important for him to be seen, than to participate in the ceremony at the origin point of the Church of the Nine Goddesses.

She wondered how it had come to be, that a country so devoted to female deities, was so hostile to female humans.

The cart she’d been bundled into slowed, and stopped at a high stone archway. She remained where she was, on the front bench next to the driver, until one of the guards came around to help her alight. It was a small rebellion, but that was all she had these days.

She walked slowly towards the entrance to the Origin Shrine, her guards forming up around her as she went. For her own protection of course.

She’d heard that before, many times, and usually from Jussa. It was his favourite reason for taking away yet another activity, another freedom, another companion. This latest start of his, removing her from the Capital, ‘for her safety’, was laughable. He’d put her in an isolated tower, a mere stone’s throw from the Ennedi border. It would take nothing for a team of their battle wizards to cross, snatch her from under the noses of her guards and spirit her away, never to be seen again. Just like Pell.

Except of course her husband had disappeared in the middle of a battlefield. She hoped he was having fun, wherever he was. He’d never wanted to be King and had clearly taken an opportunity to get out.

She looked around at her guards and snorted to herself. It wouldn’t need battle wizards to get past this lot. All the Ennedis would need would be a half-trained apprentice with a fire-cracker and she’d be away from the suffocation of the Nine Goddesses and their divine disapproval of all things magical.

Maybe that had been the problem. The magic. After all, Harath had been ruled by queens for time beyond time until one of them married a foreign prince with wizardry in his lineage, and a Crown Princess was born a mage. The throne went to her brother. She went to an order of penitent nuns, forever begging forgiveness for a gift she’d never wanted.

Belendra paused, making the guards behind her stumble and swear. In fact, the girl had lived out her days here, at the Origin Temple. She smiled to herself and set off again, this time with a determined stride that threw her guards off yet again.

They reached the entrance to the Great Hall. She made a perfunctory genuflection towards the nine statues adorning its front, and kept moving, faster now, heading for the shrine itself. It wasn’t in the plan, she knew. Her guards were told to bring her to make her obeisance to the first level only, but they couldn’t bar her way. Not here, not in front of these crowds, they scurried along around her.

The captain hissed. “Your Majesty, this is unseemly, and unsafe, you cannot go further.”

Belendra stopped again, this time the guards behind her fell. “Did you just tell me I was unsafe? That I am unsafe here? In the very laps of our goddesses? On the anniversary of their ascension?”

Her voice rang out, and the people around started, and murmured and cast suspicious looks at the guards. They weren’t locals, and their surcoats, in Jussa’s personal colours of orange and black, stood in harsh contrast to muted forest tones of both the temple and its visitors, including her. Some imp of genius had prompted her choice of a simple, sage green dress that day, and she looked like one of the comfortable matrons, holding the arms of husbands or sons around them.

The captain glanced around and hissed. “Lord Jussa will not approve.”

“Lord Jussa will not approve of my wish to visit the Shrine itself? When I’m here and may never be given the chance to worship at it again? That is a scandalous accusation, Captain.”

The murmurs grew louder, and the guards shifted uncomfortably under the condemning stares of those matrons and their families. The voices came clearer. “Shame, she’s our own queen and yet being bullied by these city boys.” “Some Captain you be, sir, unable to defend a single woman against a peaceful crowd of pilgrims.” “Heresy is what it is, denying her the right to worship, and right in front of the goddesses at that.”

Belendra turned away from the captain, and began to walk again, the guards following in a ragtag stumble of hunched shoulders and sideways glances. Hah! The Ennedis wouldn’t even need a wizard.

She made her way through the temple crowds, managing to lose most of her entourage along the way. When she reached the entrance to the inner shrine, only the captain remained, still remonstrating with her, trying to convince her to stop, to turn around and return to the strict isolation of the tower. She ignored him, and bore down on the Head Priestess, standing to one side of the Shrine’s inner entrance, impassively watching the crowd.

She bowed her head, and the Priestess returned the greeting. Belendra took a breath, and wondered how to phrase her request. The Priestess beat her to it.

“I hear your guards are preventing you from worshipping our goddesses as you would prefer.”

The captain opened his mouth to protest, but was withered to silence by a glare.

Belendra replied. “That is correct, Your Grace, I have long wished to study the history and writings of the temple, in the hopes I may one day be allowed to join the ranks of its sisterhood. But it has been denied me. Now, I am not even permitted to pay my respects to the goddesses themselves.”

The Head Priestess watched her for a moment, then a spark lit in her eye and she turned, so the captain could not see her smile. “This is a grave offence against our church, Your Majesty. It will have to be brought to the attention of the High Council.”

She stepped forward, between Belendra and the spluttering captain. “In the meantime, I grant you sanctuary. Come.”

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