It was a night of celebration in the wharves. Although we were still inside the small temple, I could hear the outside cheer. The small square beyond our door, where the ramshackle market was usually held, had been cleared and made ready for the festivities. Our gifts of garlands and fodder for the bonfire had been received warmly. It was the most important day of the year – a time when we gave each other a kindness. Many in the poor quarter had nothing to give except themselves and their time, but it was enough.
Kneeling beside me, Daralis fidgeted, distracted by the start of quick, happy music. The Giving Day celebration had dominated her talk all day, and I suspected it would be like nothing else we had seen before. With a small nudge, Daralis encouraged me to look her way. Her pale eyes were amused: not long now, she mouthed, turning once more to face the altar. I turned my head to hide my own amusement, forcing myself to focus on the last of the prayers.
Alda, our lead sister, chanted the final lines of the Giving Prayer. Rising to our feet, we presented a small gift, a token to the Gods: something from our heart and made with our hands. Alda went first and, being a herbalist, she placed a special brew she had made for the Giving Day, on the altar.
Lila went next, presenting the Gods with a prayer written on vellum. She had a flair for words and fien penmanship, so I knew it would be beautiful. With no exceptional talent for writing nor great knowledge of plants and healing, my token was modest, and I had to remind myself that the sentiments behind the gift were important, not its material value.
Next was Gelda, whose gift was a square of embroidery. The ancient woman knelt when she presented her token and she touched the Gods’ stone feet with reverence. When guardian Harra helped her to her feet, I went forward and recited a prayer of gratitude in my head. I carefully laid the three small candles I had made before the Gods’ feet and looked up, my eyes lingering on the bird-like face of the God Tyrus. I sensed movement and the lamp light reflected alert, liquid-silver eyes. Every time I had one of these episodes, I wondered if my gift of sight had also caused an affliction of my mind, but it did not worry me for long; instead it gave me some comfort to know the Gods I served were true and real.
When the guardians had offered their tokens, Alda turned to us.
“It is time to go out and celebrate with the people. Tonight is an evening of hope, of selflessness, of happiness and celebration for each other. We can forget the dark things in this world and thank the Gods for the lives they have gifted us…”
I felt a shiver dance over my skin at her words. I knew of the dark things to come, of the plague and death that winter would bring, but Alda, bless her, had encouraged me to enjoy this fleeting night and not wallow in the despair I sometimes experienced. There would be pain ahead, but she reminded me that there was goodness and happiness despite it.
“Before you go, take a drink of the wine I have made in their honour and don’t forget,” she said, smiling kindly in my direction, “find happiness – we are fortunate enough to give ourselves to a greater purpose.”
I nodded and followed the priestess; at the door, she offered us the wine. Orange peel and cinnamon were the lingering tastes in the back of my mouth as I stepped out onto the cobbled and hay-strewn street. The shanty town had an odour of rotting seaweed through it, but there was the added scent of roasting pig. The street and small square were packed with people and our garlands were a mix of bright colours, a contrast to the sea of brown and grey clothed men, women and children. We too stood out in our red robes: but the people of the wharves were well used to our presence and accepted us into the celebrations.
Alda and the older members of the temple went towards the pig roasting on the spit to help dole out the most important gift we had given to the wharves area. Many here would be lucky if they saw one meal a day, and any morsel they received this night would be a feast.
Daralis took my hand and pulled me into the crowds. I bumped against men and women, apologising as I was dragged behind the blonde guardian.
“Daralis! Slow down!” I laughed.
“Come on Esther, the music and dancing’s ahead.”
I didn’t care much for dancing, but I went with her anyway. Before we arrived, I lost her hand and the crowds came between us. I laughed when an elderly man spun me about, taking me into the circle of his arms to dance. Clumsy and awkward, I followed his moves as well as I could, but I stood on his toes at least three times before I was gratefully released.
“This way, priestess!” Cilla’s freckly face appeared in front of me as she tugged at the hem of my sleeve.
“Thank the Gods!” I said, pleased to find a face I knew. Little Cilla was a cheerful soul and her infectious smile warmed me, but when she took my hand and that shiver of premonition danced over my skin, I espied her future: one where the plague marked her face and made her eyes bright with fever. In a blink the image was gone. I shuddered.
When her bright face turned to me, her smile wide and innocent, I smiled back. The best gift I could give her tonight was to remain silent and let her enjoy the festival. She was only twelve and did not need the burden; I could carry it alone.
Reaching the bonfire, we found the crowd had cleared somewhat. The heat from the bonfire was scorching. A stall holder from the day market insisted I take the cup of mead he offered.
“Drink priestess and smile,” he laughed as we passed.
We continued through the crowds and I finally saw the top of a blonde head and a splash of red. Daralis was dancing with a tall youth, whose face was earnest with the effort to impress her.
“Look at guardian Daralis… She dances so elegantly,” Cilla sighed, her hazel eyes shining with excitement. “I’d love to dance like a fine lady, well, as fine as any guardian …”
“She dances very well,” I said, brushing the hair from her face in an affectionate gesture. We were all very fond of the child. “Do you know, priestess Lila was hoping to find you? I’m sure I overheard her saying she had something for you.”
Cilla’s eyes opened wide.
Cilla turned and was gone, her auburn hair disappearing into the grey and brown. I sipped my cup of mead, which was sweet and strong. It wasn’t long before my mind was beginning to swim.
When I set aside the cup, another man took me up in his arms and danced with me. Faring better than I did the first time, I laughed when I was twirled around, and then I ended up in the arms of a man with a toothless grin and wicked tongue. I knew insinuations when I heard them, and when the next song ended I extricated myself and went searching again for Daralis.
I was jostled between bodies and laughter as I made my way through the crowd. I had never been to a Giving Day like it. Those I had attended as an initiate were restrained and formal: this was wild. They had little to give to one another, so the joy that spread through the celebration was a reward in itself.
“Another cup?” I found myself back near the bonfire, and the stall holder thrust another cup of mead at me. I took it with a smile and a promise to myself to drink it slowly this time. I wandered through the thinning edge of the crowd and stopped when a dark movement caught my eye. Standing beneathr the overhang of one of the shanties was a man dressed in black, with a hood covering his face. No one seemed to see him standing there and I was sure it was the shadow-man. Daralis and I had seen him haunting the square the last couple of moons.
He was about ten paces from me. He towered a head or more above my small form and seemed to grow taller, straightening when he noticed my attention on him. Was he looking at me? It was difficult to tell when his face was in darkness.
“Ah Esther, I’m sorry I lost you!” Daralis laughed, sounding breathless. I looked up and forced a smile.
“You were enjoying yourself,” I replied.
“It’s been so long since I had a good dance. The fiddle music is the best I’ve heard! No palace musician could better it.”
She was flushed with drink and dancing, but she sobered when she noticed my expression. “What is it?” she asked.
I turned back to the place where the shadow-man was standing. Or where he had stood, for there was no sign of him now.
“That man – the one we think watches the temple… I – I thought I saw him, but I could be wrong.”
“He didn’t come near you did he?”
“No, of course not. He just stood there, watching…”
Daralis’s blue eyes raked over the crowds. There was no sign of him. She sighed.
“Well, you’re not to leave my sight.”
“I’m fine, Daralis. I could have imagined it.”
“Still, we’ll be careful, but we won’t let it mar our night.” Then she grinned and took me by the hand again. “Come on Esther, forget about him and dance with me.”
“We are both women!” I laughed.
“So,” she replied. “What does it matter? Ladies always dance together when they’re practising and I saw you – abysmal. You need a lesson. Think of it as my gift to you.”
I expelled a deep breath and glanced about again. Calling him the shadow-man seemed to fit. After we had spied him out our first day in the wharves, we had felt the shadow of his presence just as I felt it now, though I wasn’t sure whether to be afraid of him or not. He would remain a mystery, I thought, until he was ready to show himself.
“Come on then ,” I conceded, following Daralis into the crowd.
We returned to the temple in the wee hours of the morning, before dawn broke. I knelt beside my bed, saying my final prayers. The celebrations still continued, though they weren’t quite as loud as earlier; many of those with families had returned to their shanties when the bonfire had burned low.
I attempted to block out the sounds outside the window. Streetwalkers called lurid temptations to drunk men for a meagre fair and other drunken people were laughing and talking nonsense in voices far too loud. I expected little sleep, but I wanted one moment of quiet to focus on my prayer.
The Gods must have heard my silent plea, for everything went quiet. I began reciting words of praise and gratitude when I heard soft footfalls outside the window. I heard such noises all the time and thought little of it, but when a firm knock sounded on the wooden shutters, it startled me out of my prayers.
My heart thumping wildly from fright, I wondered if I should check the window. It was no doubt a drunk resident of the wharves, I thought. Then I went cold when I heard:
It took me another moment to regain my composure, with dread giving way to annoyance. I went to the window and pulled it open, ready to scold the person. There was no one in the street.
“You’re going mad,” I told myself and was about to close the shutter when I saw something small upon the sill; it was a parcel, wrapped in brown paper.
I reached for it. On the brown paper, my name was written neatly. It felt heavy and solid. I carefully unwrappedit and inside was a stone. It fit into the palm of my hand and, taking away the paper, I gasped and nearly dropped it. Etched carefully on the stone was a miniature of my face.
“Blessed Era,” I murmured, running my thumb over the image. The sensation of a vision prickled my scalp and my mind left the room. I could not see the person carving my face into the flat river stone for I saw from his point of view; I marvelled at the man’s large hands as they etched something so delicate. I sensed emotions of warmth and regard emanating from him. Stunned by this revelation, my mind retreated and returned to the little room.
I lifted my head, shaking off the strange feelings stirring within me and looked at the piece of paper which had been around the stone. It said, ‘Esther – my gift to you.’
My eyes went to the window and, moving closer I glanced outside again, my breath hitching when I saw the tall form standing across the street. It was the closest the shadow-man had come to the temple and yet, despite his proximity, I still could not discern his identity. Though I was still wary and afraid of him, I felt compelled to lift my hand to show him I had received his gift. I wondered where I had met the stranger and what I had done to inspire e such feelings and to receive such a gift.
The shadow-man dipped his head, recognising my acknowledgement. Perhaps he had been waiting for my response because then he turned away, melding into the shadows.