Feb. 27th, 2012

applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([game of thrones] dany blue)
She woke to bells ringing. Far off, at the top of High Hill, skinny church boys were pulling on the ropes, the sound rolling down from the crown of the city into every sleeping ear. It was not yet dawn.

Katina went immediately to the window. Against the bruised sky the processional torches stood out like stars, a glittering constellation around the foot of High Hill Cathedral. As she watched, first one light then another separated from the glowing knot and began the slow march down from the peak of the hill, like beads sliding down a string.

“Katina! Are you up?” Her mother’s voice, sleep-fogged, on the other side of the door.

“I’m up.”

“Dress quickly so that I have time to do your hair.”

The pale blue dress hung from a hook in the wardrobe. Katina ran her fingers over the light fabric and lace trim. In a secret corner of her heart, she was excited to wear the dress. She imagined walking through the streets in her bare feet, hem skating the pavestones, flowers woven into her hair. It was her first year to wear blue. At sixteen, she was no longer a child, so the old white dress that had been stretched and added to until it was patched and ragged was put away forever.

The dress fit perfectly, fluttering around her like a breath of wind. The dress fit close in the bodice, accentuating the curves that had begun to rise from her slender shape. Even her mother couldn’t resist reaching out to feel the soft cloth between her fingers, though her mouth did not curve into a smile.

“You look beautiful, Katina.” But her eyes were dark and sad. She wound flowers into Katina’s black hair, heavy blue blooms that tugged at the intricate whorls she crafted so carefully.

Almost as soon as she had finished, bells rang again. These were deeper than the waking bells, rich and dark and full of meaning.

“Come, Katina,” her mother said, pulling on a black veil that matched her somber dress. They went out into the street.

Around them flowed a river of people dressed in all the colors of sky and sea. White, palest blue, true blue, navy, indigo, black, each according to age and status. Most women wore flowers in their hair though some wore ribbons, and Katina knew that once they reached the palazzo they would see the richer women bedecked with jewels and precious metals.

Most people were silent as they walked, though some of the children chattered or cried and there was always the wind-rustle of whispering in the crowd. Katina was quiet until she felt the pressure of another hand on hers.

“Eloise!” Eloise was her best friend: tiny, blond, and bold. Her dress was a confection of airy ruffles and her blue eyes seemed to glow. Katina lowered her voice. “You look amazing!”

“So do you,” Eloise said in a voice that was not quite a whisper. “That blue looks perfect against your skin. D’you think some of the boys from our class will see us?” She was struck with a sudden gale of giggles – not unusual, in her case. “I know it’s awful, but I really hope they do! I don’t think I’ve ever looked this good in my life!”

Katina shushed her friend. Eloise never took anything seriously, and the insistent piping of her voice was sure to draw the attention of Katina’s mother. Katina doubted she’d be amused by Eloise’s irreverence.

They didn’t speak again, but held hands all the way to the palazzo. Katina wondered if her friend’s heart was beating as rapidly as her own.

Katina’s home wasn’t far from the palazzo, but the crowd was thick and many people had already arrived. Eloise gave her a quick hug and dashed off to stand with her parents, leaving Katina with her mother. Not for the first time, Katina wished that she had the kind of mother she could confide in – someone she could tell about her conflicting feelings of fear and excitement. Her mother would never understand. Her mouth was a thin, tight line under her veil, and she clasped her hands so tightly that her knuckles turned white.

The palazzo was enormous and the crowd even more so, but it wasn’t long before everyone had found a place. It seemed only the space of a few moments before the priests filed out onto the raised platform at the front of the square. Silence fell like a stone; even the smallest child felt his breath stolen away.

The priests wore robes of rich, saturated purple and their necks were draped with gleaming silver chains. Each wore a heavy hood that drowned his features in shadow. Only the hands were visible – surprisingly young hands, all unblemished by age or scar. They formed a semicircle with a gap in the middle and stood with their heads bowed.

Then came the High Priest, in robes of deepest black. Even his hands were covered by soft black gloves, leaving him completely shrouded in darkness. He moved to fill the empty space at the front of the platform. Every person in the press seemed to be drawn onto their tiptoes, connected to him by an invisible, unbreakable thread. There was no rustling of fabric or shuffling of feet – only silence, thick with meaning, until he began to speak.

“Children of Sanctuary,” he said in a booming, resonant voice that carried to even the farthest ears, “I welcome you in the name of the Lord God, who is our shelter in times of trouble.”

There was an outbreak of pious muttering at this pronouncement, which the High Priest seemed to have expected. He paused magnanimously. When he spoke again, the voices immediately ceased.

“I am confident that I need not remind you why we join together on this, the first day of summer, but lest the absence of words leads us to forgetting, I will speak briefly of our meaning here.” Even though everyone in the palazzo, from the oldest to the youngest, knew why they had gathered, they all listened silently with their eyes wide and attentive.

“Many generations ago, our ancestors came here fleeing the horrors of war. The very earth and sky had been rent by man’s violent machinations, but while many had turned away their eyes from God’s light, some yet hungered for peace. In God’s name they built Sanctuary, our beautiful city. They wished only for harmony and brotherhood, and to make an end of war and pain.”

The High Priest’s tone turned somber. “Sadly, those whose hearts burned already with the flames of Hell were too caught up evil’s grasp to allow even this one haven of peace and fellowship. They surrounded the walls of Sanctuary, vowing to slake their thirst on blood and tears. The people despaired, fearing that the city would be destroyed.”

Katina risked a quick glance around the palazzo. Nearly everyone in the crowd was staring at the High Priest, their expressions rapt. But only a few yards away, Eloise caught her eye, grinned, and winked. Katina turned her head away quickly, hoping no one else had seen.

“The priests of the city gathered on the High Hill, then crowned only by grass and wildflowers, and begged God upon their knees for mercy and redemption. For seven days and nights they prayed constantly, never eating, surviving only on water.”

Katina felt herself leaning forward. She knew what was coming – had heard this story every year since she could remember – but it still moved her, even now. Even despite her own growing fear.

“On the eighth day, at sunrise, one of the priests rose from his knees. ‘Brothers,’ he cried. ‘I have heard God’s voice in the deep, and I know how we may be saved.’ The other priests rejoiced, and they moved through the city, calling out the news to the people they passed. Soon every man, woman, and child was following the priest who had heard God’s voice as he moved toward the city wall, his face alight with rapture and joy.

“When he reached the wall, he climbed to the place just above the gate and looked down on the evil horde massed below. ‘Brothers,’ he cried again, for though they were the enemy, they had indeed once been brothers to those holy men and women who lived in Sanctuary. ‘Will you not cease your war-mongering? Will you not leave this place?’ And the horde answered, ‘No!’ And they laughed at the holy brother and threw filth at him, though he did not flinch away. ‘We have no riches to loot,’ the priest called down. ‘Or food enough to feed such a host.’ ‘It is not riches or food we want,’ replied the horde.
‘Blood is what calls us. Death is all we want.’ And the priest looked grave and sad, but he had known all along that this is what the evil army would say. ‘Then I come down to you, my brothers,’ he said. ‘And give you what you desire.’

“The priest climbed down from the gate and spoke to the gathering of God’s people one last time. ‘I heard my name in God’s voice,’ he said, and his voice was full of light. ‘I go in God’s name, and God shall save us all.’ And before the people could understand his meaning, he opened the gate and slipped out.”

Here the High Priest bowed his head, and Katina felt herself doing the same. “The horde fell upon the priest like vermin and tore him to pieces. But even with his last breath he prayed for their salvation, and when the deed was done they felt ashamed. God’s arrows pierced their hearts, and they left Sanctuary in disgrace.”

The crowd drew a shuddery breath. For now was the moment they had waited for – the moment they most feared.

“Evil has not left us entirely,” the High Priest said grimly. “Every year, on the first day of summer – the day of the holy man’s sacrifice – darkness gathers at our gates and bays for blood. Every year the emissaries of Hell require a sacrament of blood and tears so that we may live in peace.”

Katina could feel her hands begin to shake.

“Every year, the priests gather on the High Hill and pray for seven days and seven nights. On the eighth day at sunrise, God’s voice sounds in our ears to tell us who shall be the avatar of our salvation for the year to come.”

Now Katina felt her entire body trembling. She had been safe as a child – God never required the sacrifice of an innocent. Now she was a woman, wearing her first blue dress. The color of the sky, of Heaven, of healing and mercy. Her lips began to move, and silently she prayed.

“God has spoken through us,” the High Priest said. The priests around him linked hands, reaching out at last to touch the night-black gloves. “He has chosen.”

Silence. Tears welled in Katina’s eyes. Around her, the crowd stopped breathing, stopped moving, stopped praying.

“Eloise Marvall.”

There was a shriek. Eloise’s mother stood with her hands over her mouth, her face white as bone. Eloise’s father fell to his knees, trembling. Katina felt her mother grip her hand, but it felt as though her body was far away from the rest of her. Eloise? No, no, not Eloise.

“No!” Eloise shouted. Her face, usually alight with fun and laughter, was wild, almost bestial. “No! I won’t go! It’s not right! It’s not –“ She spun on her heel, tried to run. Hands reached out from every angle, holding her in place.

“Eloise,” said the High Priest, his deep voice carrying over the tumult. “God has spoken. You will keep us safe.”

“I don’t want to!” Eloise screamed. “No!” But the hands pushed, pulled, dragged her forward. Her eyes were wide, the beauty of the blue lost in terror. “No, please!”

When she reached the foot of the platform, the priests reached out and grabbed her wrists. Those hands, so young and smooth, held her in a grip of iron. “Noooo!” Eloise screamed. Her voice had grown ragged, but she continued to struggle. “This is wrong! This is evil!

Katina tasted bile. She wanted to scream, too. She wanted to run forward, grab her friend, tear her away from the priests’ horrible, grasping hands. But she did not move. She did not scream. She felt sick. She felt as though her heart had shattered and sent razor-sharp splinters into every nerve of her body.

And deep down, in the secret place of her heart, she felt relief.

It had to happen. Though she ground her teeth to think of Eloise turned out of the city gates into the world beyond – the world that had been ravaged by war, populated by the descendants of evil men, their souls mutated until they barely resembled the humans they had once been – it was the only way. It was God’s way.

So when they dragged Eloise, screaming and weeping, her hands twisting in the priests’ impossible hold, Katina stood still and watched. God’s ways were unchangeable. He had kept them safe for generations, hundreds of years. Who was Eloise to question the way things had always been done? Who was she to question Him?


applespice: it is a sparkly fairy (Default)
How About Them Apples?

June 2015


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