The Choosing Ch. 07bydarcysweet©
The Mother waited not in the Council Chambers or her personal suite as I had expected but in the Bathing rooms. Askel led us across the baths, weaving through the women sitting in different pools. They watched us and I wondered what they thought, of me dressed only in a diaphanous robe, Hatha in her leather vest and Askel in his suede breeches. We were a bizarre parade as we stepped slowly across the slippery rocks.
"Where are the children?" I asked, noticing that there were only women in the pools.
"They bathe in the family quarters. This is only for women who are of age," Askel said, shooting a grin at me over his shoulder. It was the first time he had smiled since leaving my chambers. I was glad to see it. He seemed anxious. His conversation was nervous and stilted. I wondered if it was Hatha who made him nervous, she watched him with a hawklike gaze. The sight of the naked women seemed to clear all that away. He was cocky now. Strutting like a peacock.
"And why then are you here?" I asked, matching his wicked grin.
He sighed, full of pathos. "I am on a mission for the Mother. A difficult mission that takes me through these," he said sweeping out a hand and meeting the coy gaze of a nubile bather in the nearest pool, "beautiful and uncharted waters."
The bather giggled. Hatha snorted and pushed him from behind. Askel slipped and lost his footing, almost ending up in the pool.
I laughed. Hatha turned and frowned. Askel met my eyes and then petulantly screwed up his face like a child behind Hatha's back. I laughed again. Hatha turned back and Askel comically wiped his face clear of all expression.
"Let's go," Hatha grumbled.
Tempting Hatha's wrath Askel risked another wicked grin and started to move again leading us past the pools to a room at the back.
Hatha stopped short, holding out her arm to stop me.
"The Tattoo room? This is where the Mother has beckoned us?"
"Yes," Askel replied, his smile faltering slightly at Hatha's withering glare.
"Why?" Hatha asked, voice hard and teetering on the edge of anger. What's the problem? I wondered. I'd always anticipated that at some point I'd be tattooed, I was Sarran after all; I did not expect my skin to remain unmarked. Why did Hatha object?
"I do not question the Mother. I simply do her bidding."
"Her bidding," Hatha murmured and shook her head as if it made no sense.
"What is it?" I asked Hatha, pushing against the hand she still held out to keep me from entering the room. I was curious to see what had aroused Hatha's suspicions. What she sought to keep from me.
Curious and stubborn right to the bone, as soon as Hatha held me back I burned to see it for myself. My Mother, when she lived had told me often that curiosity was my downfall. I stepped forward.
"Wait," Hatha said, as impatiently I tried to push past her into the room. "Mistress Vessel you should let me go first. I should talk to the Mother."
Her words grated. They stiffened my spine. Maybe if she'd asked. Not ordered. Not told me what I should do. Maybe then I would have agreed.
"The Vessel comes alone." Askel's easy grin had flattened into a thin line. He stood in front of the doorway barring Hatha entrance.
"The Vessel does not go alone," Hatha matched his tone. They squared off, like fighters readying for battle. Lithe young beauty and sturdy maternal force. Shoulders set and eyes matched with steely determination. It was almost laughable. If I hadn't felt so trapped by their decisions, perhaps I would have indulged a smile at the situation. Again I was faced with people bickering over my choices.
I would make them. Not one in service. Not Askel. Not the Mother. Or the Coven. Me, because it was always me alone who faced the consequences.
"The Vessel is always alone." I did not intend to speak the realization aloud. It bubbled up, spilling over from the reservoir of sad truth that lay wthin.
Feared, desired worshiped, the Vessel stood apart. An object. An altar. The center of their desires, they circled me but I never joined them. I was always apart.
"Always alone." I repeated sadly.
Hatha broke free from her glare at Askel. Her head snapped around to face me. "That is not true Mistress." She sounded exhausted and frustrated as she said, "I am always with you."
"Well, yes," she frowned, obviously perplexed by my dead tone, "In service."
I pushed her hand away. "I wish to go alone."
She pushed back, placing her forearm square on my chest, barring me from moving forward. "Alone? I do not think..."
"No! You don't think Hatha, you serve. You only serve."
She flinched, dropped her arm and stepped back. "Mistress, I do not know why you're..."
"You don't know. You can't know. There is only me and only I know—and I go alone." Before she could stop me I stepped past her and beckoned Askel, "Take me to the Mother."
He nodded and turned to Hatha. "You are dismissed."
The tattoo room glowed pink. The rock walls not black and smooth like those of the bathing pool, but quartz like, flecked with rose gold and bronze. There was nothing to fear here, nothing to justify Hatha's concern.
"Beautiful," I sighed, as I turned in a circle to catch the full range of color that bounced from the glowing walls.
"Yes. And sacred. Can you feel its power?" Askel asked.
I stepped to the nearest wall and raised a hand to touch its smoothness. Yes. Power. My skin began to sing with it as my fingers neared the pink surface. The moment I touched the soft wall, the bones of my hand, then my entire arm began to hum. It spread into my chest, sweet and intoxicating, I swayed feeling for a moment as if I'd imbibed too much wine.
The sensation came too hard, too fast. I dropped my hand, the connection broke. I sucked in a breath to steady myself. It tasted of herbs. That's when I noticed the smoke. I pointed to one of the whisping plumes of smoke coming from each corner and Askel said, "They're incense Mistress. For the marking ceremony."
I coughed, the smoke tickling my throat.
"It takes some getting used to Mistress. Let me get you a drink." He shifted to a dais at the back of the room. I watched him pour from a gold decanter into a goblet. I took the cup from his outstretched hand. It was wine. Heady and sweet. I gulped it down and handed him the empty goblet. He discarded it at his feet. It tipped, the last of the liquid spilled out on the smooth pink floor in blood like swirls at his boots.
"I'm to be marked? Tattooed?" The intoxicated feeling was back. A wave hit me and I fought not to sway. Was it the wine? Or the smoke?.
He nodded. "Lined with power. Marked with spell."
"Who does this? The Mother?"
Askel shook his head and gave a little chuckle. "No, not the Mother. You've never seen a marking then?"
"It's quite physical. Both strength and delicacy are required. Even when the Mother was younger it was not her calling."
"Strength? Does it hurt?"
"The marking?" He stepped forward as he spoke. His voice deep and as intoxicating as the sweet scented smoke filling my lungs. "Yes Mistress Vessel, It is quite... painful."
Painful. He'd made the word sound so erotic. So appealing. My nipples beaded hard beneath the thin fabric of my robe. My reaction did not go unnoticed. His eyes flicked down and settled on the points. He ran his tongue along the seam of his lips. My back arched, my body moving without thought instinctively pushing my aching nipples closer to that tongue. When I realized what I'd done I squared my shoulders and took a step back.
"Where do I wait for Mother? Will she arrive soon?"
"She has given me instruction."
I nodded. My head felt fuzzy. His voice seemed further away, it echoed as if bouncing down a long hallway.
"You should wait here." He pointed to a flat stone in the centre of the room. An altar stone.
He took my elbow and guided me to it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw others slip into the room. A wiry man, corded with lean muscle. He carried a tapered stick about the length of his forearm and a bowl. Two women followed him a step behind on either side.
"The Marker," Askel whispered in my ear as he nudged me into shrugging out of my robe. Nude, he helped me lay flat on the stone. I looked up at him, his face hovered above me, he trailed a finger across my lips and then down the length of my body. At the peak of my nipple he paused and flicked his fingertip across. My back arched up to meet his touch.
The cool of the stone at my back, the heat of his fingertip. The ache of my breasts, skin taut and hungry— I swam in sensation. I was primed. Ready. For what?
The Marker joined Askel followed by the two other women. Young. Beautiful. Hair shining blond. Their faces swam together, images of beauty, swirls of pale and flushed pink skin through the smoke.
"The Mother?" I rasped, my voice rough. It hurt to speak.
"Shhh, all in good time Mistress. All in good time."
I had questions. I was sure of it, but I could not think of them. Hatha. I wanted Hatha. She would know. And then I remembered how I had dismissed her. How I had let Askel send her away.
"Turn Mistress." Not Askel's voice. The Marker's. Hands gripped my shoulders and rolled me over until I was my belly was flat on the warm stone. My head fitted into a carved recess, a hole in the stone. I closed my eyes.
"Relax. Close your eyes," Askel's breath blew warm on my throat as he brushed my hair off my neck."
They scrubbed me first. The women. I knew it was them as I felt the soft brush of their breasts on my back and sides as they worked. Razors came next. The feeling of the blade familiar, from when Hatha had stripped me of my body hair. First the back of my legs then my arse spread, the sharp blade scraping gently at the soft skin between. They worked fast, two sets of hands in perfect unison. No words were spoken, no commands issued, they moved as one without direction. Together they turned me over to lay me on my back. One brushed the hair from my face, leaning in to me her nipple stroking my cheek while the other worked the razor stripping hair from my legs and sex. Front and back they worked fast, two set of hands cleaning and shaving the length of my body.
A soothing rinse with warm water was followed by soft hands rolling me over to lay face down. My head returned to nestle cushioned in the recess. The process had been hypnotic. The rhythm of their hands, the wine, the incense, even the oddly comfortable altar stone had lulled me into a dream state. I fought to stay conscious. Sweet sleep beckoned, I teetered on the abyss of dark comfort.
The Marker's raspy voice broke in through my thickening daze, "It begins."
Askel stroked the back of my head gently. "Sink into the pain Mistress. Center it."
The first prick stung, like an angry wasp I remembered stepping on as a child. The needle's stinging briefly gave way to burning just as the Marker sank the needle a second time. And another. Now a steady beat. A tap, a burn, then more stinging. Biting across my skin, burning a trail of angry fire. Needles at my spine, at the base of my neck. Again and again the tapping, the burning, it seemed ceaseless—the Marker pausing only to press a soft damp cloth to the skin that he'd pierced. It hurt most on the bone as he pressed the needles into my spine. I gripped the edge of the rock at each pierce of his relentless needle.
I tried to sink into the pain. To accept the needle. But I couldn't. It was more than the press of the needle, the burn of the ink, beneath the pain, there was something else. Something wrong. Very wrong. With each sting, I grew smaller somehow. Less. Weaker. It was not what I expected. I could not say how but I knew, through the fog of the incense and pain that this was not right.
I shifted, rolled my shoulders trying to get up from the altar. Hands pressed me down.
"She is strong." A voice I had heard before, a man, not Askel but I could not place who it was. I knew him. Who?
"That's exactly why she needs to be tethered." A woman now. A spiteful woman. Words laced with hate. What had I done to her?
Tether? I'd heard the word before. It was wrong. The Mother did not want me tethered. I should not be tethered. I pushed back against the hands that held me, trying to rise up on elbows.
"She needs more. I need her kept still."
"Spell her, spell her, quickly." The woman again. I did not like her. I wanted her gone. Gone.
Adrenalin spiked in my veins. Animal instinct, a primal urge shrieked at me: Fight! Flee!
I brought my arms to my sides and heaved upwards as hard as I could. My head pounded, my heart thudding wildly. At both sides the women came, soft voices in my ear a tuneless chant and smoke swirled around my head.
The fight drained away, seeping from me.
Heavy. I felt so heavy. I tried to fight it. The smoke, the sound, the markings on my skin, but I could not. It covered me, smothered me and I sank down, weak, tired. The room swirled and went dark.
"Talia my darling Talia."
This voice I knew. Nadar. He wasn't with me. I wasn't with him. I knew that, he was between. We were between worlds. The dream and the now.
"Save your fight, Talia."
Fight. Yes I had to fight. Flee. But I was tired. So tired.
"Rest. I will find you."
Why? Why would he find me.
His laugh filled my head. A soft, beguiling chuckle that rolled over me. It cushioned the pain. Surrounded me with comfort.
"Why? Oh my sweet, how could you not know?"
I could not see his face. I wanted to see him. Touch him. I reached forward, with arms that were not real, fingers that could not feel. I tried, tried to touch him, find him, but he was gone. Gone.
And I slipped into the black. Over the abyss into the nothing.
* * * *
I awoke to sunlight on my skin. My cheek hot with the harsh beat of the midday sun. A feeling I had not had since before the circle in the swamp. I was outdoors. Above ground. I opened my eyes, red hot light made me clamp a hand across my face to shield against the sun.
"Askel?" My mouth felt like it was stuffed with dirty cotton. Rotten and dry.
"Yes." He did not sound happy.
I sat, dragging myself up on unsteady arms. Hard wood scraped my back. We were rocking. Moving.
We were in a cart, an open cart. I looked forward. Two men drove the horses, across from me sat Askel and one other. I hurt all over. My head. My throat. My back. Then I remembered. My hands flew to my neck, to the bandage that covered my neck and upper back.
"Tethered." I whispered the word. Fearful even though I did not know what it meant.
Tethered—the word itself meant tied. I was somehow tied. To whom? Who held this tether? I looked to Askel who shook his head, "Not to me. Not to anyone—yet."
"Yet." My throat tightened. I couldn't breathe. Fear gripped me with an iron clasp squeezing my chest until I had no air. My vision blurred, rimmed with red. Askel reached forward and shoved my head between my knees.
"Calm, Mistress—breathe. Breathe slowly." He kept his hand lightly on the back of my head, his fingers threaded in my hair. I closed my eyes and forced myself to calm, concentrating on each slow breath. When my breath came without pain I opened my eyes. At my foot, around my ankle was an iron band. I was chained to the cart.
Fear became anger. In a hot flash of hate I wrenched free of Askel's hand and glared at him.
"So, Askel, I no longer have to ask which school of the desperate to which you belong."
He flushed red.
"Not as much as I am."
"It was necessary."
"Necessary? To drug me, tether and tie me down? Necessary?" I laughed. Like a madwoman, an ugly fierce crazy sound.
"For all the Sarran, sacrifices must be made."
He looked away. He could not meet my eyes. Askel was soft. Weak, he was a minion, a foot soldier. No way had he planned this.
"Haakon," I said, finally placing the voice I had heard in the tattoo chamber.
Askel did not answer but met my eyes with a look of shocked surprise that said far more than words. "And Audhild. I heard them both in the Tattoo Chamber."
"You weren't supposed to."
I laughed again. "Supposed. I had once supposed many things that did not turn out as I wished. Is that who you're taking me to now? Audhild and Haakon?"
He shook his head again. Looked away. Guilty. Unable to meet my eyes. So, it was worse than Audhild. Worse than Haakon. Who did he sacrifice me to? Anger edged with icy fear of the unknown.
The cart came to a halt. We were at a clearing that lead into a rock quarry. Askel jumped from the cart and pulled me forward. The chain scraped against the wood, dragging as I shuffled forward on my buttocks. When I reached the end of the cart Askel released the iron band from my ankle. I stood and stretched out my back. They had dressed me at least. Small mercies, I supposed I should have been thankful I did not have to suffer the indignity of being naked as well as chained.
I was dressed in a dark long sleeved bodice and skirt, similar to my everyday clothes that I wore in Hawthorne. A white apron covered my front and I wore ankle boots. Functional clothes. Suitable for a long journey. By horseback, in a carriage or on foot. Which was it to be? And with whom would I travel?
I briefly considered running. I looked around and worked through the odds of escape. They had chosen a good place to stop. The clearing was wide and flat. There was a good three miles of nowhere to hide. My skirts were heavy and even if they weren't there was no way I could've outrun Askel or the guards he had brought to reach the forest rim. They knew it too, that's why I had been left unchained.
We walked towards to the mouth of the quarry, leaving the cart behind with one of the guards.
Askel lead the way, no deferential holding of my elbow now. I was not to be escorted, but to be lead. He walked in front while the guards pushed at me to hurry from behind. The ground was crushed gravel, it crunched under our feet. The only sound in the silence of the clearing. The walls of the quarry loomed in front of us; we walked a good fifteen minutes before coming under their shadow. The ground became rockier here; I had to look down to watch my step. I gripped my skirts in one hand and held out the other for balance.
Because I looked down I did not see him, and I was not prepared for the voice. The laugh. It chilled me.
I knew it at once. My head shot up, I almost lost balance. The guard behind stopped me from falling with the butt of his lance.
"I told you it was not over Talia."
Behind his vicious smile stood my Uncle and four guards in the colors of Hawthorne Shire.
I stepped back. Escape. Escape. The need to flee echoed in my head, surged through my veins. Run. I had to run. Now. I stepped back into the arms of Askel's guard. He held me fast, one arm cinching my chest. I struggled. The bandage at my back rubbed at the newly tattooed skin. Newly tethered skin.
Tether. The remembrance chilled me enough to still my struggle.
They could not mean Bandar. No. I was not to be tethered to him.
Bandar laughed again. The sound echoed off the quarry walls surrounding me.
"No. No. Not you. Never you." I could not stop the words, they gushed from me in shock.
Askel raised a hand to Bandar. "She is not to be harmed."
"I'll be less inclined to harm the bitch if I can't hear her."
Askel flinched, looked at me with brief flash of regret and then nodded. Bandar's guards came forth and wrapped tight a length of cotton around my mouth. I bit into it, closed my eyes and fought the urge to weep. I would not give him that. I would not cry.