The sun skimmed over yellowing leaves and filtered through the branches. Birds darted amongst the trees, passing from shafts of light into shadow, their feathers catching silver. Too hot, too close, the woods themselves seemed restless. Under our feet, the leaf litter crunched, and our white robes rustled as we wound along the path.
I was focussed on my breathing. In and out, in and out. Nice and slow and easy. Keep my mind on the immediate and tangible: the warm air brushing the nape of my neck, the loose, brittle earth under my shoes. Cicadas hissed, and I set my teeth. It had been seven days since I had last seen Finn, and I could feel the pressure building behind my eyes.
Concentrate, I told myself. Leave no room for panic.
In some respects, I had been lucky. The Moon Pillar pilgrimage was the shortest; only a day’s journey from the city. Unfortunately, this trip had taken far longer than usual. Herald Vay Lusor had directed the cohort to stop at every settlement along the route; we were to bless the citizens, listen to their grievances, and collect any petitions or entreaties. Excessive? Probably. But with the drought dragging on, the Council had deemed our support for the farmers a top priority. If they turned on us, the city would starve.
That was all very well. I just had far more pressing personal concerns.
Before every Pillar pilgrimage, every errand that took me beyond the Fields, I arranged to see Finn. While the journey to the Mud Pillar had cut it fine—six days there and back—the others had proved manageable. Not this time. Work had overwhelmed me, and then an Acolyte broke her wrist during a Renewal. I was suddenly called to serve as her substitute.
So here I was. Day seven, and in deep shit.
The trees thinned and the path grew wider, the dry undergrowth giving way to short, softer grass. We had arrived.
The Moon Pillar stood in the middle of the clearing, the massive granite column split down the centre by the roots of a long-dead beech tree. White and leafless, the branches threw jagged lines of shadow over the stone, and in the shade gleamed thousands of names. Every Sister throughout the history of Aytrium was memorialised here. When we died, the Order carved our names into the Pillars and filled in the letters with gold.
The cohort fanned out to ring the monument. I knelt and laid my forehead against the dark earth. Dirt anointed my face, blades of grass brushed my cheeks. I rested the pads of my thumbs against the base of my skull, pressing my other fingertips together to gesture submission.
Calm down. Just get through it.
Deep within my chest, my mother’s power quickened. I stilled, letting the rhythm of my blood drown my other senses. The woods grew silent. Faintly, I could hear the slow breathing of my Sisters. Beneath that, quieter still, the sleepy heartbeat of Aytrium itself. Not a true pulse—it was only the echo of our ancestors’ power. I drew out the store of lace nestled within my core, and coaxed the warm thread to twine with the Pillar’s glacial current. Within seconds, my skin grew cold as the monument pulled lace from my veins.
On my first pilgrimage, I’d instinctively recoiled and severed the connection. The older members of my cohort had laughed at me.
The air around the Moon Pillar hummed as power drained into the ground. Deep vibrations rattled my teeth. Once my lace was spent, I sat back on my heels.
A six-legged goat stood tethered to the tree.
The animal had not been there when I started the rite. It bleated and tugged at the rope, straining to free itself. Its eye sockets were empty and lidless.
I did not allow myself to react. The goat tossed its head. Its fur was ink-black, except for the two white stripes running from its nose to its horns. Its nostrils flared.
Other members of the cohort began to sit up, their lace spent. Some gazed absently at the Pillar, while others watched the Sisters still occupied with the rite.
The goat struggled. Its legs moved awkwardly; a stray hoof drew blood from a rear shin. I sensed it too, the prickling dread. Beneath my knees, the earth trembled.
The last of the Sisters completed the rite. I stood, brushing dirt off my robes. I did not rush or speak. My face remained impassive. As usual, I allowed the others to lead the way, dropping to the rear of the cohort. The goat, now frenzied, scrabbled in the grass as the heavy footfalls grew ever louder, but I betrayed nothing, not a flicker of fear. I kept my gaze fixed on the ground and followed the Sisters ahead of me. I did not look back.
The goat screamed once in terror. Its hooves scrabbled against the earth and there was a sickening crunch, like bones crushed beneath the wheels of a cart.
The women ahead of me whispered to one another. Herald Lusor, at the head of the column, recited a ritual devotion to the Eater. Her voice rang sweet and clear.
“For your nourishment, for our nourishment, for the absolution of our mistakes, we give thanks. For your grace, for your sacrifice, for your wisdom, we give thanks. Let us lay our bodies beside yours, let us serve as we may.”
Step by step, the pressure inside my skull eased. I relaxed my jaw. I was clear; we had moved outside of the vision’s range. Not that I could see how I would ever make it back to the city like this.
Sunlight scattered through the branches overhead, warming my face. The low conversation of the Sisters blended with birdsong and the rhythm of our footfalls.
Copyright © 2021 by Kerstin Hall