This is a short story written for a class, and set in Aserra. I did a number of short stories for Dollmaster characters in an effort to further cement their identities. This one is one of the most complete, and though originally written for Thalia’s backstory, it also ties her to three of her peers who are important characters; Lianora, Nshara, and Ialin.
Lianora stumbled along the back alleyways of Ingusto’s Holy Quarter, leading a handsome young man she barely knew by the hand. The great white moon, Nirya, waxed high in the clear night sky, accompanied by the smaller, blue-hued Marebi that was just rising over the mountains to the south and offering a faint blue cast to Nirya’s illumination. Torchlight was sparse along the service alleys, so Lianora had to rely solely on the moonlight to make her way.
The man trailing behind her was unfamiliar with the back alleys in this part of the city, but Lianora had become quite familiar with them in the months since being raised from initiate to acolyte. With the freedom granted by that progression through the training ranks, Lianora was allowed to leave the temple grounds, a privilege she took full advantage of and pushed the limits of the few rules that she and the other girls had been required to adhere to. The curfew was one of those rules, but that time had long since passed this evening. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to stay in the temple, she simply felt… itchy after being cooped up for the last two years as an initiate.
Another rule she was flouting tonight was the requirement to remain chaste from the time she was sworn in as an initiate until graduating to a priestess. While priestesses had the freedom to take lovers and even marry, initiates and acolytes were to focus on their education and remain apart from the distractions of the heart until they had mastery of it—or something like that. When had sex ever had anything to do with her heart?
The man she was bringing with her—what was his name? Rolas? Rolland? Rollen?—she couldn’t remember except that it had sounded like “roll,” to which she added, “in the hay,” and in her stupor, that was hilarious—was tall, square-jawed with a roguish scruff of a beard, with thick honey-brown hair and sharp blue eyes who recognized her robes and the holy icon of Erada nestled between her breasts and immediately brought her a drink as soon as she entered the tavern. He was handsome, though marginally older than her seventeen years. He was old enough to be married, at least, but she never asked and he probably wouldn’t have told her. She had no interest in marrying him, or any other man, herself. It was clear that a shared bed for the night was their mutual goal and after several ales, he confessed that he could think of nothing he wanted more than to have sex with one of the priestesses on the temple grounds. At first, Lianora had resisted, suggesting that they take it up to a room in the tavern, or his home, or anywhere else. Yet, after another ale down and a covert hand up her skirt, Lianora was convinced to give him the thrill he was seeking.
Lianora’s blurred vision made finding the rear entrances to the Temple of Love challenging amongst the other temples that neighbored it. The walls that hemmed in their campuses were all so similar, aside from the icons carved into the stone above the doors. She had almost made the mistake of trying to break him into the Courts of Acoassa, but quickly realized her mistake when she saw the scales above the doors in the moonlight. Giggling at her mistake, Lianora pulled her lover onward around the curving walls until they reached another pair of solid wood doors, this time marked with the crescent icon of Erada above them. Lianora spun to face him, nearly losing her balance in the process. In response, he wrapped an arm around her narrow waist and pulled her body close to his. Lianora laid her hand on his firm chest, partially bared by the unlaced opening of his tunic.
“Mmm…” she intoned, savoring the sensation of his warm skin and solid muscle beneath her palm. “Jusss wait here, I’ll lesshu in.”
“Can’t wait, my little Priestess of Love,” he purred him response and placed his fingers under her chin, trying to pull her face in, closer to his. Lianora leaned in, then playfully nipped at his lower lip just before they would have kissed. She pulled away, and with a drunken sashay, she made her away around the wall to the west door, leaving Roll-whatever-his-name-was to wait for her return.
* * *
Nshara leaned out of the doorframe of the small room that she shared with Lianora to look into the main room of the cottage. Her housemates sat at either end of the table in the center of the room where they studied and took their meals. All three of them had dressed for bed in the same plain, white nightgowns that the temple had provided them with, but Thalia and Ialin had chosen to distract themselves with their readings while Nshara had abandoned her studies in the fruitless pursuit of sleep.
“She hasn’t come back yet?” Nshara asked, in the vain hope that she had missed Lianora’s return.
Thalia raised her head, waves of her golden hair falling away from her serene, diamond-shaped face. The candle-light danced across her pretty features, creating shadows and highlights while obscuring the freckles across her cheeks that evidenced her rural upbringing. Even after the three months they had lived together, Nshara was often struck by how much Thalia resembled the sculptures and paintings of Erada that adorned the temple. Thalia’s original intention had been to serve the Goddesses of the Seasons, but she believed that her resemblance to Erada was a sign that the Temple of Love was where she belonged. Yet, as Nshara had observed Thalia’s discomfort with being a goddess’s doppelgänger, she wondered if perhaps it had just been an accident of birth, rather than any sort of divine intervention.
“No, nothing yet,” Thalia answered softly. Her gaze drifted to the candlesticks at the center of the table. To track the time, they marked the tallows in increments that were roughly an hour’s length. The candles were melted almost down to the base, now.
“We can’t wait up for her all night,” Ialin declared and flipped shut the tome she had been trying to read. The Marital Practices of the Women of Ertia, Nshara noted the title on the leather-bound cover. A personal study, she realized. Ialin must not have been able focus on the assigned texts, so she had returned to the book that truly intrigued her; a treatise on a culture where women marrying each other was common-place.
The frustration with Lianora’s absence was evident on Ialin’s rounded face. Her thick brows were knitted together, and her shapely lips pursed. She stared toward the door, as though Lianora would walk through it and right into whatever words were occupying Ialin’s thoughts.
In resignation, Thalia nodded and gently closed her own book, Hymns to Erada, KCY 100-350. “I’m sure she’ll be back in the morning,” Thalia said. She sighed heavily and turned her gaze to the front windows of their cottage. With the candle light, it was nearly impossible to see out, but she still seemed to be looking for a sign of Lianora.
“This has to stop,” Ialin added, shaking her head of short, black hair. “She’s taken it too far this time.” As soon as they moved into the cottage together, Lianora had taken full advantage of the privileges of acolytes. It had reached the point to where she was more often off the temple grounds than on them.
“She has never been out this late,” Thalia agreed. Lianora had pushed her excursions just to the point of breaking curfew, but now she was hours overdue.
Nshara had done her best to keep the knot of anxiety in her stomach from overwhelming her, but her housemates’ conversation had just brought the fear to the forefront of her mind again. What if Lianora had been kidnapped? Raped? Murdered? Ingusto was a far safer city than Gites, but Lianora had a bad habit of finding trouble. Nshara steadied herself by gripping the doorframe and took a deep breath to suppress the fear for her roommate’s life. Lianora wasn’t the easiest woman to live with, but Nshara couldn’t bear the thought of losing another person in her life.
Ialin seemed to pick up on the surge of anxiety from Nshara. She rose from her seat and bustled over to Nshara, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Come now, let’s get some sleep,” she kindly murmured to Nshara, motherly, in her way. Behind her, Nshara was aware of Thalia rising as well. Two successive puffs from the other acolyte diminished the lighting of the room to the moonlight pouring in through the east windows.
Nshara couldn’t help but smile as she shuffled back to her bed with Ialin’s hand on her back. Though the plump Agenomian girl was shorter than the rest of them—and the same age—her presence felt larger and mature. Nshara allowed Ialin’s kindness to do its work of soothing her nerves as she settled back into her bed. “Don’t worry about Lia, she always comes back, just like a cat. You are safe here, with Thalia and me,” Ialin assured her.
Nshara drew her blanket over her body and allowed Ialin space to sit beside her. The other girl seemed to know what she needed to hear. Nshara had long since forgotten how to find peace in sleeping alone. Even if Lianora was a frustrating and thoughtless roommate, knowing that another person who would do her no harm was sleeping across the room from her brought Nshara comfort. Ialin rubbed Nshara’s shoulder and smoothed her hand over her kerchief-covered hair. With this comforting touch, Nshara breathed deep, trying to exhale her worries.
Ialin and Thalia sleep only a room away.
As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she saw Thalia’s willowy robed form leaning against the doorframe, silhouetted by the moonlight.
Only a thin wall separates us, nothing more. I am not alone.
Nshara exhaled one more breath and let her eyelids fall. Ialin remained beside her for a little longer, gently rubbing her shoulder and head. Thalia’s voice whispered a prayer of peace and Ialin began to hum along to the cadence. Soon, with the kindness of her sisters enveloping her, Nshara found sleep.
* * *
Lianora staggered to the back entrance of the temple grounds alone. The west entrance had city guardsmen stationed there at all times, as the door was intended for those in the service of the temple and women seeking shelter, either after service hours in the main chapel, or for their safety. No men were allowed entrance without approval of the high priestess. The two men standing watch wore matching breastplates and helmets that obscured their identities in the darkness, but as she approached, one recognized her.
“Sister Lianora, not again,” groaned a familiar voice. “It’s damn near two in the morning this time!”
“Jusss lemme in, Oren,” Lianora replied, rubbing her head. She didn’t realize it had gotten to be so late.
Oren shook his helmeted head, the moonlight gleaming on the polished steel as he turned to unlock the door. “You can’t keep doing this if you want to be a priestess. It’s what you want right?”
Lianora’s anger was quick to rise. “Izsss not your problem,” she snapped, her head wobbling on her shoulders in an attempt to appear assertive.
Oren only sighed as she swayed through the door. There was nothing he could do, he was only a gatekeeper. As the door shut behind her and the lock clicked, a distant thought echoed through her mind, You’ve gone too far this time. Lianora sighed and turned her blurred vision to the temple grounds. She saw no glowing windows in either of the seven cottages that were scattered throughout the manicured gardens of the temple, and very few lights in the lay house across the campus to the west, or in the priestesses’ apartments in the east corner. The rear entrance of the main temple was illuminated with torches all night, but there were never guards within the walls. Who was foolish enough to bring in someone they would need to protect against?
Lianora turned back toward the rear-east corner where her guest awaited on the other side of the stable doors. Her trek along the back wall was a treacherous one—she staggered and stumbled over the pea gravel paths, nearly falling several times, until she was able to enter the stable’s frame and steady herself on the posts. Finally, she reached the service door and fumbled over the latches until she could open one just enough to admit Roll…whatever. As the door creaked open, the charming face of her lover broke into a mischievous grin. He slipped in and quietly pushed the door shut behind him, at which point Lianora threw herself into his arms, pressing him against the door momentarily.
“Hey, Rollar,” she slurred, then jerked her head to the left, toward a stack of loosely bundled hay bales and scattered hay intended for the horses and other livestock kept on the temple grounds. “Izss hay… eh?”
“It’s Rollan,” he corrected her, but he seemed to have no interest in her humor. His arms draped around the slender girl, but his eyes were searching for something beyond the stable windows and doors. “And let’s take it somewhere more private, eh? You got a room?”
Lianora’s narrow brows furrowed. Even in her current state, she knew that taking him back to her lodgings was a bad idea. The stables were more private than the grounds. Who would the horses and goats tell?
“No no no… there’s no privacy,” she said. She shook her head empathetically. “Thizis still the temple! C’mon Rollan,” Lianora plied, tugging at the lacing of his breeches.
He snatched Lianora’s slender wrists and held them close to his chest, pulling her in. “Look, fuckin’ in the barnyard of a temple isn’t my idea of a good time,” he said. “Where can we find a bed?”
“I’unno…” Lianora murmured. The sudden violence of his grip baffled her. Her gaze diverted to the ground, terrified of meeting his eyes now. Second thoughts were flitting through Lianora’s inebriated mind. Maybe this was a mistake. She had gone too far.
Rollan released her wrists and he gently slipped his fingers under her chin to lift her face again. A grin touched his lips as he leaned in to hers. “I can be quiet… if you can,” he purred against her lips. “Find a place that isn’t full of animal filth.”
Warily, Lianora nodded, then gave him the sweetest, most naïve smile she could muster to cover up her concerns so that she could assure him; “I can find somewhere.”
* * *
Thalia’s mind remained burdened with concerns for her roommates, which was why she resisted sleep. She and Ialin had managed to soothe Nshara to sleep, knowing that the girl’s anxiety was a heavy burden. She had come from a troubled background that still haunted her, a past so traumatic that Thalia couldn’t comprehend how Nshara could move forward at all. Thalia, Ialin, and even Lianora had chosen religious devotion over traditional marriage, but Nshara chose it because it was the only option that was available to her. A continent away from her culture, a family murdered, and an adolescence filled with making sacrifices to survive, Nshara had no other means to live a fulfilling life here in Kalesten other than taking the fortuitous opportunity the Temple of Love had offered her. The more Thalia pondered Nshara’s troubles, the more irritated she became with Lianora’s wantonness. Did Lianora even care about the effect she had on Nshara?
Thalia’s line of thought had only forestalled her attempts to sleep. So, when the front door of the cottage began to creak open, she was still awake. Though momentarily startled, Thalia breathed a sigh of relief. Within the secure confines of the temple, the only person she expected to be entering their home was Lianora.
A snort came from the bed beside her. Ialin jerked awake. “Huh?” she grunted. “Is it Lia?” Ialin asked into the darkness.
“It must be,” Thalia replied.
“Finally.” Ialin collapsed back onto her pillow.
The sound of Lianora’s uneven footfalls followed the sound of the door shutting. There was no grace to her step. So, she was out drinking. Considering the other rules that Lianora had skirted and broke, being out past curfew for no other reason than slumming around the local taverns was the line for Thalia. In the morning, she would report this transgression, and she was sure that Ialin and Nshara would support her.
A voice murmured. A deep voice. A man’s voice: “Is this it?”
“Ya, thissis where I live,” Lianora’s voice responded, a few octaves louder than the other.
Thalia and Ialin shot up in bed and exchanged a glance through the darkened room. Thalia and Ialin sprung out of bed and ran for their bedroom door. Ialin, being closer to the door, flung it open into the main room of the cottage. There stood Lianora, her robes falling off her narrow shoulders, in the arms of a strange man. He was kissing her fiercely, his hand on the back of her head with a fistful of her dark curls.
“Lianora!” Thalia gasped incredulously.
“What in the Seven Infernal Chambers of Malbolge is going on?” Ialin spat.
Whether it was Lianora who pushed him away, or he that pushed her, the couple parted, but the man kept a grip on her head. “What is this? I thought this would be private!” he growled at Lianora.
Lianora said nothing, but her pale eyes darted between Thalia and Ialin, then to Nshara’s still-closed door, In the faint light, Thalia could see the terror on her housemate’s face—not of being caught, but of something more sinister.
“Damned little trickster,” he cursed, then his hand released her hair only to snake down around her arms, holding them behind her back. Metal glinted in his other hand and flashed in the moonlight as a knife found Lianora’s throat.
Thalia gasped sharply and threw her hands over her mouth while Ialin cried, “No, stop!” and reached toward Lianora.
Her captor held the blade to her neck, pressing into her soft skin. “I should have just left you in the stable,” he hissed in her ear, then looked up to regard the other two girls. His gaze darted to the closed door. “Is that all of you?”
“Yes, it’s all of us,” Ialin replied. If they could keep Nshara out of this, she could get help for them.
Unconvinced, he pressed the knife into Lianora’s neck just a little harder, eliciting a whimper from the girl. “Open the door.”
Reluctantly, Thalia side-stepped to Nshara and Lianora’s bedroom door, keeping her attention fixed on the intruder. Hopefully Nshara had hidden herself enough for him to be satisfied that it was only the three of them. Unfortunately, before she could turn the handle, Nshara herself opened the door, a candle-stick in hand for self-defense. Sweat gleaned across her dark brow, but her jaw was set and ready to fight.
“Drop it,” he demanded, pressing Lianora’s throat again. The candlestick hit the floor, but the fury did not fade from Nshara’s face. “Alright girls, if you want your friend’s blood to stay inside her pretty little throat, you’ll take me to where the lay women are kept.”
Without thinking, Thalia shot back, “We don’t ‘keep’ people.”
“I don’t care,” he replied, thoroughly unimpressed with Thalia’s semantics. “Just take me to the lay women.”
Thalia bit her tongue, fearing that her brazen defiance could cost Lianora her life.
Ialin placed herself between Thalia and the stranger. “Fine! Fine! Please, don’t hurt her!” Ialin pleaded. The man’s blade moved back perceptibly. “Is there someone that you’re looking for?” Ialin edged closer to Lianora and her captor slowly.
“No questions, just take me to them.”
“Well, sir, if I know who you’re looking for it would make it easier for everyone.”
That gave the man pause. “I’m looking for my wife, Rina. She’s pregnant. I just want her to come home,” he replied. He was obviously obscuring facts, though. Women were taken into the laity for protection, and considering how he had behaved thus far, his wife was behind the walls for good reason.
Ialin nodded, giving the impression of understanding his predicament. “I see. And what’s your name, sir?”
“Well, Rollan, let’s let Lianora go and we’ll go over to the lay housing,” Ialin replied with a smile. Lianora was drunk, but this man seemed sober. He had used her inebriation to gain access to the temple grounds to get to his wife, and perhaps to take further advantage of Lianora’s foolishness as well. For now, Ialin had ensured Lianora’s safety, even though she had brought him into the grounds in the first place.
“No, I keep her until I have my wife,” he declined.
Ialin sighed. She hadn’t expected him to make that concession. “Fine, Lianora and myself will accompany you to the lay house. We can get Rina and send you two home, is that acceptable?”
Rollan was debating Ialin’s offer. His eyes flitted from her, to Thalia, to Nshara, all the while keeping his knife at Lianora’s throat. Lianora’s breaths came heavy, trembling through her chest. Her other hand was gripping Rollan’s knife-arm, trying to pull it away, but she couldn’t wrestle against his strength. His forearm muscles were tense, veins popping out beneath the skin.
He nodded in agreement. “But all three of you come with, or else—” He flicked his gaze down at Lianora. “Can’t have one of you running off to tell your superiors.”
Ialin nodded and exchanged a glance between her two sisters. Thalia’s dark blue eyes were steely and spoke of a silent agreement with Ialin’s plan. Nshara’s gaze projected confidence as well. Ialin had hoped that he was foolish enough to let Thalia and Nshara stay behind, but they could still end this before he hurt Lianora or his wife. Ialin was focused on placating Rollan, so she would have to rely on Thalia or Nshara to act. She could certainly count on them more than she could on Lianora.
* * *
The three girls led Rollan and Lianora out of the cottage and into the gardens. Nshara cast a glance to the eastern horizon as they stepped outside, but there was no hint of dawn yet. As the temple grounds were considered safe, there was no one patrolling or watching inside the walls, unless another acolyte or priestess happened to be suffering from insomnia. Lianora’s survival was entirely in their hands. Nshara knew that Ialin was counting on herself and Thalia, but how would they communicate without him getting suspicious? Nshara turned her gaze to the tall, slender acolyte beside her. Thalia glanced down at her, as if to say, ‘I know, and I’m thinking.’
Rollan insisted on walking behind them, holding Lianora at his side with the point of his knife pressing into the soft, olive-toned skin of her throat. Nshara cast a glance back at her. The normally arrogant acolyte was terrified. Tears were pouring out of her eyes and a trail of blood trickled down her neck to her collarbone. Nshara’s initial response to this sight was satisfaction, but she was ashamed to admit that to herself. Lianora had no small amount of responsibility for this violation, but there could yet be hope for her. Nshara knew that Lianora had come to the temple by choice, leaving behind a home village where her bastard birthright locked her out of a fulfilling future that she may have otherwise been entitled to. She had learned to use sex as a tool in a place where no one saw any other value in her. Nshara had to reluctantly accept that it was probably a hard habit to for Lianora to break. Nshara harnessed that sympathy to and convey confidence to her roommate through her gaze for the moment when their eyes locked.
Ialin was leading them along a winding garden path toward the two-level brick building that housed women and children who had come to the temple for protection. The place where Nshara had first found a bed and safety when she was brought to the temple.
“Hymn two-thirty-three,” Thalia breathed into the air beside Nshara. She glanced up at her, but Thalia’s gaze remained fixed on their destination.
If only I studied as well as she does… Nshara thought. What was Hymn 233? She wracked her brain, trying to skim through memories of the critical texts. She couldn’t risk asking for more clues. Oh Erada, please, help me.
As if heard by her goddess, or perhaps triggered by the words floating through her conscious mind, Nshara recalled the book that Thalia had been involved in earlier in the evening. Thalia had begun whispering under her breath, hiding behind a lank of blonde hair. A hymn recorded in KCY 233. A subdual spell.
“Oh Erada, please bring your peace and love upon troubled souls,” Nshara whispered. “Through me, let your power flow, Lend me strength to silence fury and wrath, To turn this threat from the warpath.”
As did Thalia, Nshara chanted this spell under her breath over and over, bidding their goddess to work through them.
Distantly, Nshara heard Ialin speaking, trying to cover up the quiet chanting by asking Rollan about his wife. Nshara continued to walk, her conscious awareness of her steps dropped away, and they became a mechanical process of her body. Meanwhile, her thoughts withdrew from the world around her and dove inward, welling up her strength in the core of her being. She knew Thalia was doing the same. She could feel that they were sharing this power, as though a tether had tied them together. Nshara could not hear Thalia’s voice, but she knew that they were chanting in unison.
“Wait…” Rollan’s voice filtered through her mind. He was onto them, but Nshara was ready.
The acolyte turned on him and cast her hand up in the air. Thalia mirrored her. “Turn this threat from the warpath!” they cried at once.
Both dropped their hands, directed at Rollan, and a brilliant light coalesced in an orb from just above his head, illuminating the garden for a brief moment as it washed over him. Nshara watched Rollan’s eyes roll back in his head. The knife slipped from his hand and thumped on the ground, soon followed by Rollan himself.
The intruder had crumpled awkwardly in the footpath and Lianora knelt on the ground beside him, panting and trembling. Again, the garden was dark, aside from the cold blue cast of Nirya and Marebi, and serenely silent. A chorus of crickets returned and Rollan snored gently. In seeing the result of their joined power, Thalia and Nshara looked at each other in wonder.