“This is a waste of time, they won’t see us and they have no reason to help us,” Brandon scowled and cast an angry look at the entrance to the temple. “This nonsense of threads and tapestry, you know it’s not real don’t you? All foolishness from the time before.”
Penolina closed her eyes, struggling to bring her emotions under control. They’d already been through this argument, several times if the truth be told, yet here they were again thanks to the words he’d heard time and again from their uncle. “They will. They have to. It’s part of the old laws and since the Raiders were thrown out of the system, the old laws are now adhered to once more.” Old laws, they had both been born after the Raiders had taken control. Now, with the Queen back in place on Chronos, the temples were open again, the laws back in place and they had a place to take their problems. “Everything changed when we regained control of our world. The Queen…”
“Is on Chronos.”
“Yes, but she brought back the old ways.” With a few minor tweaks but they were still, according to many she’d spoken with, in the spirit of the laws that had governed their world before the invasion. “Those laws give us a chance to seek help, something he has no right to deny us.” Though he had tried his best.
“It won’t help. He’ll have been here and spoken against us. I mean, we’re kids and…”
“We won’t be soon, which is why we need to speak out now.” Within two months she would be of age, and he would follow suit within fifteen months. “Once we’re eighteen we have the right to see to our own holdings. The temple is the only hope we have without going to the capitol and you know he’ll never release enough money to allow us to travel that far.” She nodded at the white stone building with its heavy black doors. “He wouldn’t think that we know about this option. Why would he? It’s only recently that such information has been taught in the schools again.” Schools they had been pulled from not long after the Raiders had left. An attempt to keep them ignorant of the changes that were occurring all around them?
What else could it have been?
The man was intelligent, she’d never denied that, but his motives… she shuddered at the thought.
“Fine, but when they laugh at us don’t expect me to take it well, sister mine.” Brandon grumbled and ran a hand through his sandy hair. “It will only be worse when we return home and Uncle Jacob is waiting for us.”
“They won’t laugh.” Please let me be right, please goddess let your servants listen to us and aid us. Was it a formal prayer? She didn’t know, that knowledge had also been denied them. What little she’d been able to find out had been through quick talks with older men and women and stolen knowledge from other sources. Even the servants at home were wary about sharing information with them, knowing if they were caught then they would be out of work.
It would have been, she believed, different in the capitol. Here the families, and through them the heads of families, held sway over the small communities. If you were let go from service to a family, without a reference, the odds of finding decent work without moving away from the area, were slim at best. It was a harsh, cruel way of existing, one that Penolina had never agreed with.
She grasped her brother’s hand and smiled. He was taller than she was, and hadn’t yet reached his full height, yet he would always be her little brother. “We can do this, have faith in yourself, in us. We’re stronger together than he has ever been willing to accept and that is to our advantage.”
He looked down at their linked hands even as his shoulders slumped. “Let’s get this over and done with.”
He didn’t believe her, didn’t want to have faith in what they were about to do and she knew why. If it didn’t work, if they were turned away or worse, reported to their uncle, then their lives would become a living nightmare. He would separate them as a means of punishment, keep them apart until they were adults, but then what?
As adults he couldn’t control them, not in the same way, unless they failed to grasp their power and make use of it before he found a way to strip it from them. Any attempts that Brandon had, quietly, made to find out more about the changes ahead of them, had been met with subtle dismissals and changes in topic. She, of course, hadn’t approached Jacob directly. Her careful probing questions from those who had been in service with the family since before the invasion, had revealed just how little the siblings had been taught about their rights.
It was one thing to have rights and protections, it was another to know they existed so you could actually use them - and Jacob had taken steps from the very beginning to prevent them from learning about their family, the history of their holdings and then the return of the old laws of inheritance.
He will have us signed into service somewhere. Maybe the temple for me, and military service for Brandon? No, not the temple, but a marriage I want nothing to do with? What will happen when I fight such a marriage? Will he kill me or find another way to silence me? Could he simply kill me off and be done with me?
No, he didn’t have that power anymore. Not with the change in laws, but did he know that? More importantly, did he accept it?
Yes, of course he knew and refused to accept the change in laws. His true power rested in the understanding that the siblings remained ignorant.
They paused at the base of the steps. For years the white stone had been left untended, those in service to the temple had kept to the shadows knowing that their lives were in danger if they made themselves known. The stories of the invasion were still a part of living memory for many, and she recalled more than one priest or priestess dragged out of hiding to face punishment.
She shuddered at the memory of the one execution she had been forced to witness. A middle-aged man with wild hair and sorrow filled eyes. He’d screamed, oh by the gods how he’d screamed. It hadn’t been a quick death, no such mercy had been granted him and she, like all of the others commanded to stand through the event, had heard every blow, each cry and the final announcement that life had been extinguished.
How many others had died in other communities and cities around the planet? Had the same horrible fates befallen those of the Orders on the other four homeworlds? Chronos, she knew from stories, had suffered terribly beneath the yoke of the Raiders. Gaea and Thanatos had survived but it had not been an easy thing. Mars had fought, every step of the way, but they were a warrior people born and raised. The Raiders had controlled the system but Mars, out of all of them, had defied them.
A small door, within the left hand side of the large double doors, opened before they reached it and a man in a white robe stepped out into view. The cowl covered his features in shadows, his hands hidden within the sleeves but somehow she knew he was looking at them, observing their approach in silent patience.
“We could turn away, no one would say a word about it.” Brandon leaned in, his voice a low whisper.
“No, we’re going to do this.” She tightened her grasp on his hand.
“Welcome, enter and ask, we are here to help those who serve our Lady of Fate. She of the spinning wheel, loom and shears.” The priest stepped aside, lifting his right hand to bid them enter. “All are welcome here as long as they enter in peace and respect our Lady.” His voice was calm, warm and welcoming, not at all what she thought a priest would sound like.
He’s a man, just like any other man.
Young, by the sound of the voice, or at least not old. His face was still hidden by the cowl but his hand lacked the wrinkles that might come with age, nor did she see any sign of liver spots. Not that age mattered, but there was something about his voice that pulled at her.
“Thank you,” she murmured and glanced back at her brother. “We’ll be safe here, I promise you that. They won’t hurt us.” Let him believe me. If he didn’t, she’d find a way to calm him down, but if she was wrong about the situation, about how they would be treated, then - well, she didn’t know what she would do.
“Your sister is right, young lord. You are most welcome here and you will be safe among us.” The priest followed them into the temple, pulling the door closed behind them.
Darkness consumed them and her heart skipped a beat in the moment before a dozen soft lights flickered into life ahead of them. She blinked adjusting to the change in illumination, thankful for the gentle glow offered by the candles. Few places used candles or lamps these days, why would they need to when power was so easy to use. Yet the temple was old, predating the time of power lines. Now, of course, technology kept most things hidden out of the way, but with buildings like the temple would it be easy to lay the lines needed to bring the power into the building?
“We use the older methods out of respect to those who built the temple, though there are small modern lights offered in some of the offices. Those are, of course, seldom used. We keep them only for visitors who would be ill at ease with candles or oil lamps.”
She frowned at the words, trying to think of who might have a problem with candles. Perhaps those who were unable to move without assistance? The lack of light might make it difficult to see where they could put their feet, or use their mobility devices. She nibbled on the inside of her lip as they followed the priest further into the temple.
“We are here for…”
“Wait, you will be able to explain once the senior priestess is able to speak with you.” The man looked back over his shoulder, his smile warm and genuine. “She may, of course, already know what the issue is and have answers waiting for you.”
She swallowed hard and looked away. Of course, she should have remembered that from the little she had read about the temple.
“How could she know?” Brandon pressed.
“Because she is the priestess. Our Lady Fate may have shared that information with her, it happens from time to time.” The priest shrugged. “I am, I’m afraid, still in the middle stages of my training so it will be some time before such information may be shared with me.”
May? “Thank you, we - we’ve not been well taught about the functions of the temple or the way you serve.” Penolina admitted and squeezed her brother’s hand.
“That, sadly, is not uncommon, though we are working with the schools once more and our doors are open to all who might seek answers.” The priest stopped by a simple door and looked back at them. “Are you ready?”
Brandon tugged on her hand. “We should leave.”
“No, we shouldn’t. He will know we have come here. If we leave we place ourselves back in his grasp and you know he will have no mercy to show us.” Brandon would be safer than she would be as their uncle had fallen under the sway of the raiders. At least that was the impression she had gained in meeting and talking with others of their age range in the past six months.
“He won’t hurt…” Brandon’s words trailed off. “He would - wouldn’t he?”
Brandon pulled his hand free. “No, I don’t want to hear that, don’t want to believe it.”
It didn’t matter what her brother wanted, the truth was undeniable. He’d been sheltered, in many ways, but she hadn’t. Their uncle had embraced the Raider’s beliefs of women being secondary, lesser and not worthy of succession, rights or even a say in their own lives. That had been one of the reasons they had attacked the temples. Women had equal power within the temples…
“She will see you now.” The Priest smiled and opened a heavy wooden door.
“Thank you,” she couldn’t trust their uncle the way Brandon wanted to.
“Penolina, you can’t be serious about this.”
She didn’t stop, didn’t look back at him as she walked into the room.
He’d either follow her or he wouldn’t, it no longer mattered.
“Welcome,” a warm female voice greeted her. “Please, be seated. I welcome all here, especially those who need answers.”
Penolina’s gaze narrowed. The woman was small, slight, almost child like in size and build. She stood in front of a large fireplace, with a merry blaze crackling behind her. Her hands showed no sign of age, but were smooth and clear. Her voice hinted at youth but the cowl hid her features. This was no woman who had served for the years she assumed would be required in order to attain such a rank. How could this be the priestess?
“Do not be fooled, child. I’m far older than I look,” she gestured to the chairs. “You and your brother should sit, we will be a while, I think.”
Her brother? She glanced over her shoulder. Brandon stood awkwardly in the doorway, heat flushing across his cheeks. Fine, at least he’d made up his mind. Without a word she sat down, waiting for Brandon to follow suit and claim one of the other chairs. He did so, but only after scuffing one foot on the floor and slumping down into the chair near her.
“The Lady warned me that you would be coming and the matter is a troubling one.” The Priestess stepped away from the fire and settled into a large, well padded chair on the other side of the fire. “Penolina and Brandon Usher, only children of Lord Fion Usher and Lady Helena Usher. Currently under the care and guardianship of Jacob Usher, younger brother of Fion.”
Penolina gripped the arms of the chair. “How did… did someone warn you that…”
“As I said, the Lady told me that you would come. She has spoken, in length, of your problems and the turns that life has presented you, just as she is aware of the plans your uncle has for you.” The woman pushed back the cowl and met Penolina’s gaze. “You were brave to come here, knowing that he has you followed, but the Lady blocked his spy this time and has kept the man busy. That will allow us to speak without rushing, to explore the options and prepare you for the choices ahead.”
Penolina closed her eyes, trying to find a moment to bring her thoughts back into some form of order. The woman knew too much and it only made sense if she did, indeed, have a connection with the Goddess, but doubt clouded her mind. What if this was nothing more than a game begun by their uncle? Had he reached out to the temple in case the siblings sought assistance here? No, that wasn’t the sort of thing she’d have expected from him yet he had proven to be duplicitous in the past.
“You expect me to believe a deity told you all of this?” Brandon exclaimed.
“No, I don’t expect you to believe, I simply refuse to pretend that I learned this information any other way.” The priestess sighed.
Had she been faced with such statements before? After the way things had changed during the occupation it would make sense that people would question those serving the Gods. “Please, we do not mean to offend, Lady. There is much we have to learn that has been hidden from us. The invasion tried to destroy our heritage and we were born and raised after the invasion.”
“You are as new born babes in all of this.” The woman agreed. “I take no offense at your words. I simply ask that you both listen with open hearts before you make a decision.”
That they could both do, though Penolina knew she would have to guide Brandon in this. Out of the pair, he was the more hot headed, having been given far more leeway in his behavior and choices. “We will try, Lady.”
“I ask for nothing more than that.” The woman nodded, a small smile touching her lips. “Brandon, it will be harder on you in the days and weeks to come. You will have to come to terms with the changes that the return of the Queen has triggered. The rights of women have returned and there are those who fight it, who wish to keep their ties with those of Ontour, but that is not how we were before the invasion and not how we should be going forth.”
Brandon began a protest but Penolina reached over, took his hand and squeezed.
“No, let him speak, child. He is entitled to his words just as you are.” The priestess chided.
Brandon snorted. “This is ridiculous. You can’t expect me to take you seriously.” He rose and paced away from the chair. “Either our uncle has contacted you or someone working against him. With your words about women having a voice, and how that goes against everything he believes in, I’d say it was one of his rivals who has put you up to this.” He stalked away to the door only to return again. “Yes, the stories tell us that before the invasion things were different, but no one would have believed the words of a mystic.”
“Then why were we forced to witness the execution of a Priest?” Penolina struggled to keep her emotions under control. Didn’t he see what was happening here?
“That was a means of controlling the people. Uncle Jacob explained it to me. There had been attempts to overthrow the rightful rule of the Ontourians and…”
“Are you listening to yourself?” She turned to face her brother, taking a deep breath before she continued. “Rightful rule? It was either an invasion or it was legal. It can’t be both, brother.”
He paled and shook his head, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “I’m just - I’m too young to know everything that led up to the invasion, even Uncle Jacob said that. He told me I’d understand soon enough.”
“And in the meantime you were to listen to him, let him lead the family and keep me in line before I made the mistakes of my gender and believed myself equal to men. Is that it?” Oh, she knew the words. She’d been hearing variations of them for years now. “Things are much better here since they all left. Even you have to see that. There’s more food. People have returned from the camps - not all, because some died there.” Or had been executed but Jacob had denied such things had happened.
“Very few died, only those too sick to save. Many left with the Ontourians, seeking a better life away from the system. They saw the troubles that would return when the Queen reclaimed her throne and…” he paused, frowning. “There haven’t been that many problems, have there?”
Relief washed over Penolina “No, dear one. There haven’t been. Those who supported the invasion have been the only real cause of trouble.” Did he see it or had he just stumbled over reasoning. “There’s so much that’s going on right now as our world, our system struggles to regain its path. People died, went missing, knowledge was denied to us as were the priests.” She nodded toward the Priestess. “The lady here will have spent time hiding as so many of those sworn to the temple did.”
“We fled but remained close where we could,” the woman confirmed, her voice tired and sorrow filled. “Then there were the servants of the temple. They were persecuted as well, hunted down as a means of tracking the priesthood down. Their families were removed from their homes, used as a means of pressurizing the servants and we lost so many of our number. Too many to count yet as the numbers are still being gathered.”
Brandon paled and sat down, the chair shifting as he dropped his weight into its confines. “I didn’t know.”
Silence claimed the room, giving them time to think. Wood crackled in the fire and soft sounds filtered past the walls but no one spoke.
“Your uncle wishes to keep your property, and thinks to use Brandon as a means to form a new bond with the Ontourians. He’s of age to enter their training program and he has the means to get him off world.” The woman explained. “His plans for you, little sister, are far worse. He had thought to wed you into a family that shared his leanings, but has found a means of disposing of you. He pushes to have you committed into the hands of less than ethical doctors, to have your mind stripped so he can continue to hold sway over the family. This will leave your body intact, fit for breeding - which he plans on using his own seed - but your mind reduced to that of a child so you cannot speak against him.”
Horror sliced through Penolina with a cold blade. Her stomach clenched, body tightened and throat closed. She brought her hands up to her face, covering it as she shuddered. No matter what she thought of her uncle, she’d never once thought he would debate taking such cruel and evil steps. To be stripped of her mind, of her ability to fight back, that was worse than any prison she could think of. Death would be a kinder fate.
“How can such a thing be legal?” Brandon, his voice a ghost of its normal youthful energy.
“It is not, but there are those who remain who have kept up some of the practices encouraged by the Ontourians. Though such mind stripping was rare even when they were here, it was used as a punishment or as a means of controlling a family and the lands they laid claim to without killing off the line and leaving it in chaos.” The priestess explained, her voice oddly calm. “This doesn’t mean that you will meekly accept the fates he has planned out for either of you.”
Penolina lowered her hands, still shuddering as she blinked away shocked tears and met the steady gaze of the older woman. “What can we do?”
“You have entered the temple, which places you under my protection.”
“I knew it, this is just another way of taking what is ours.” Brandon snapped and jumped out of the chair.
I swear, he does that once more and I’ll tie him down! She scowled at her brother. “Sit down. You’re being foolish. The priestess would never do such a thing, nor would we allow it.”
He frowned and looked back and forth between his sister and the priestess. “Then why bring it up?”
“Because you are safe here, and cannot be removed from the temple by force. That, at least, is something we have managed to reestablish since the departure of our unwanted guests.”
That was one way of describing the Ontourians.
“So, we can stay here but what good will that do us?” Penolina forced her voice to remain calm. She didn’t want to be trapped in the temple though she would be safer here than she would be if they returned to their Uncle’s house.
“You stay here until the authorities send someone, but you would have to send a request for assistance to the capitol.”
Brandon groaned. “If we had the ability to do that, we wouldn’t have come here. I don’t even know whom to contact!”
“No, but I do and I have the means. The temple, like all temples, has a communications room. We kept our equipment hidden during the invasion but they were returned to the temples when the invaders fled.” The priestess smiled. “Sometimes the power of the Lady comes not from foretelling and the tweaking of threads, but by the placing of options before an open mind, which I know your sister lays claim to. It is not all mystical words and powerful predictions, but the offering of knowledge and help with the first step.”
Communication. A computer terminal, or something older, it didn’t matter as long as it worked. For the first time true hope flowered and the weight of the walls their uncle had built around them, began to ease. “It’s that simple? A call to an office?”
“Simple yes, but it will also not be quick. It might take hours, or even a day before…”
“Only a day?” She blinked and squeezed Brandon’s hand. “That’s nothing, lady. Not after all we’ve been through.” A day, a single day within the temple and then it would be over.
Brandon swallowed hard and for the first time her younger brother let down the walls. Tears slipped down his cheeks, though he scuffed them from his face. “It will be over. We will be free…”
“Should you wish it.” The priestess bowed her head. “All I can do is lay out the option, the choice to take it is always within your hands.”
A call, a message, then at most a day of waiting within the walls of the temple and then they would be free to choose their own path, to spin their own threads for the great tapestry under the care of the Lady of Fate.