Midwinters 2623

Dearest Kisa,

This day is done, my first Midwinters outside the beauty of Dawnview Vale. Nothing can compare to the bright, cold, white morning with Her light shining across the snow making it sparkle like the finest gems of the Nobles.

I imagine the whole Vale was abuzz with speculation when two stars appeared in the Dark Patch just before Midwinter. Knowing what I know now, I can guess that Kassia passed the barest facts of the matter along to Priestess Karina, and I hope that our High Priestess made known the names of our Sister and her heart's true love... Starlord Priestess Tashka of Darkdown and her love, Coven Priestess Linette of Corliss Fields.

I promised Tashka I would share their tale. I promised to remember them and their bravery always. This letter is the beginning of the first part of the promise. Perhaps it will be sufficient; perhaps the Priestesses in Dawnview will have more questions. But I will begin by sharing the tale with you, my love. Share it as you see fit, with whomever you think should hear it. If Kassia will hear it, append one small additional note: that I have come to understand her methods of training and I thank her for being hard with me. I will not fulfill the second part of my promise to Tashka as easily had she been even the smallest part more gentle with me.

Why then is the remembering of their bravery so easy for me? Because... excuse the water droplets on the paper, Kisa, but I can't stop tears from flowing. My partner, Morning Star, suggested that two stars — representing Tashka and Linette — be our sigal; he granted me permission to paint their representation on his neck. Had I ever doubted it, his suggestion and his willingness to bear this mark would prove without a doubt the true nobility of the great immortal unicorns.

I think my sister is the only person who truly is not surprised that I have attracted the attention of a unicorn at such a young age. I am still in shock.

In my last letter, I wrote that unprecedented events seem to gravitate in my direction. This, beloved, is more of a curse than the seeing that has been passed down from one of our common ancestors.

When Kadri, Romana and I descended into the well so long ago — yet not even a handful of nights have passed — we did not find the den of badgers I had been expecting. Instead, we found a nightmare, a horror so profound that my breath was stolen from my lungs. The main Temple hall had been turned into a chamber of torture so foul that the only reason I was able to continue moving, the only reason I was able to keep my meager dinner in my stomach was that the abomination had been perpetrated generations ago, at the very end of the Second Age.

Sounds were coming from the west chapel, where we proceeded with caution. What we found there... oh, Kisa! The revulsion, the anger I felt cannot be described. There were four Eastern Hunting Beasts tearing to pieces two women who had been chained in darksteel bindings; one wore the garb of a Dayalan Priestess. I hesitated only the blink of an eye before striking out at the largest one, the one who had been feasting upon the one who was evidently my Temple-Sister. Kadri — so small and yet so brave — lashed out with only her dagger at another while Romana called forth a fire elemental to dispatch a third. Though I gutted the largest of the foul beasts, the smallest attempted to make its escape while the one Kadri fought was flinging her about like a rag doll. Romana, when she had first seen these beasts, had said that all of them will see what one sees so I could not risk allowing that small one to escape and perhaps share the fact of our presence with any others that might be in the Temple. While I chased it down, pinning it to the floor by the tail with my sword, Romana's fire elemental make quick work of the beast that was trying to do serious and permanent damage to Kadri; though in the process of doing so, it flung her away damaging her shoulder. Still, she was able to call one of her own small shades of darkness, to dispatch the last of the beasts just as Mikal arrived.

Then the most peculiar thing I have ever seen or heard of happened: the two women, whose bodies had just been torn apart — oh, and Kisa, I fear so greatly that they were both very much alive when the beasts began their feeding, a fact that was later proven to be true — reappeared in their chains, whole and undamaged.

At that moment, I understood your gift.

Time and Beast.

Dayalan and Covener.

Beast and Time.

The foul eight-legged lizards and the perversion of Her Orderly passage of Time.

How can I tell you of all I learned in the depths of our ancient Temple? This Temple was known as the Temple At The Border, for it stands at the very place where She marks the zenith of Her journey from dawn to dusk. It is midway between the two Temples that once stood at the Starwatch Reaches and the Port of Lys, and these are the only three places where the secrets to the creation of ironsilver may be fulfilled. Priestess Verchovai Tashka of Darkdown and Priestess Linette of Corliss were the last defenders of this Temple.

Oh, Kisa... so many, so very many of our Sisters were sacrificed in our own Temple by the foul Eastern mages; a sacrifice that called the Mother and the Horned God to our plane. This part of the tale has been known; that the Goddess and the God of the Coven were called forth, and made to come at the bidding of the mages. But they were not killed here, Kisa. Nor had the mages planned on merely killing them.

"A big enough sacrifice will summon anything."

That is something Romana had said. It is something Verchovai Tashka had heard Davidson the Black say.

They planned to sacrifice the Mother and the Horned God, Kisa. They planned to summon something so dread, so abominable that it would take the lives of two deities to bring it forth.

Brave Tashka... oh, beloved, I had never been prouder of a Sister than I was that day when she told her tale... she mounted her fine steed — and his name must also be remembered... Evening's Star — and drew her sword, intent on preventing such a sacrifice. A young newly-made Priestess of the Coven stayed by her side, a youngling who stayed only because she thought Tashka should not be alone.

Tashka did, indeed, disrupt the ceremony of sacrifice, killing five of the Chosen of He of the Red Scarf... and then five more before Her rising, yet in the end... in the end, even the bravest and strongest of us is doomed to fall when faced with such odds.

They were taken to the west chapel and bound in chains of darksteel. And when night fell, the Eastern Hunting Beasts came.

And when the following night came, Tashka and Linette... alive once again to be devoured by the fell creatures... knew they had deeply and desperately hurt the Easterners, had utterly laid waste to their plans. We only survive to this day because of their nightly sacrifice. Oh, and Kisa, I arrived after they had both died, and even then it was such a horrible thing that a sane mind could not imagine.

Romana also had said that the fact of the well still being tainted after a fullhand plus two generations betrayed a great hatred. It was then I understood what she had meant, for He of the Red Scarf was keeping his hatred burning with his curse on Tashka and Linette.

But I saw something else there. Two strangers who had been captured and bound, two women cursed to die each night, cursed to watch by turn the other torn asunder, two people alone and desperate and likely at times mortally afraid...

I saw between them the heartfelt love that you and I share.

I thought of you, then, my dearest. How would I feel to be forced to watch you die, unable to reach out and touch even your fingertips?

What else could I do, beloved, but vow to free them from their curse?

It did not take me long to realize just what freeing them from the curse would mean for them, though I'm not certain my comrades ever understood until the end. I saw the Path, Kisa. For the first time, I saw the Path going backwards into the past. Yes, it moved a short distance into the future as well, but such a short distance that I was not certain it would even be enough for the two of them to touch once before passing into Krysta's embrace before Tashka was to be seen as a new star in the night sky.

You must tell Priestess Verchovai Karina about Tashka, Kisa. Please do this for me. She and her companion, Evening's Star, must be remembered by all our Sisters. Even if we, the followers of Dayala, are the only ones who ever know of her sacrifice, we must remember her. It is not necessary, I think, for her to be enshrined in a ballad as her friend Jeminy and Jeminy's youngest Initiate, your namesake, were. But she must be remembered for her sacrifice.

There are things I must say to Priestess Karina when I return, things best left to her ears alone. But of Tashka... I write to you of her, for every person who follows our Goddess should know her name.

Tashka of Darkdown, home of the Konstantines, last of the Wild Dayalan Priestesses.

And Linette of the Corliss lands, who was just a young girl, a Coven lass made Priestess but a few days before, who thought a Dayalan should not be alone to face her fate.

Time and Beast. Dayalan and Covener. To hear Romana talk of it, to hear Tashka talk of it, Dayalans and Coveners are not found one without the other.

Time and Beast.

Is it not peculiar, though, that none of my Temple-sisters ever mentioned meeting a Covener? Yes, they are — or should be — well hidden. But Dayalans know we are to give aid to a Covener who requests it. Are Coveners not taught this as well? Or are they truly as scare in the world today as they seem to be? Are they truly more scarce than women who have taken vows with Dayala?

Time and Beast.

And of the Covener I have met... these tiles you so painstakingly painted for me would also point to the Dayalan Knight of yours and the Covener I have met. They should point, shouldn't they, to the pairing of a Dayalan with a Covener? But that was not meant to be. Beyond all else she had done, upon meeting the Lady Linette, she drew out her knives and demonstrated her Dance with them. I could not, and still cannot, fathom her reasoning for doing so as I was too preoccupied with not being sliced with a knife, or tripping over a dead body, or slipping in a pool of blood. Despite her belief that I am clumsy and lack grace, it was my excellent balance and gracefulness that allowed me to remain on my feet!

You have seen me dancing the reels at Midwinter and Midsummer... did I ever look clumsy or graceless, Kisa? Ah, can you see me smiling now, knowing you have, indeed, seen me dance them well? I will give you ample warning now, beloved: when next I am in the Vale at Festival time, I will insist on at least one dance with you before I allow you to retreat to the fringes of the room again to watch and observe.

Even now, I still cannot conceive of any reason for her to have behaved in such a manner, though perhaps Kadri's explanation comes closest: she was not content to know that she had knowledge or skill, she felt she must force upon all around her the fact that she had that knowledge or skill.

She is gone now, though. She rests with Krysta, or her spirit simply awaits its next birth, or whatever is the truth of existence after death. Even in her final moments, she felt the need to do something she was told not to do; she felt the need — I would guess — to prove again that her knowledge and skills were exceptional, and — perhaps — she thought to help in the fight against these beasts by showing us her skill. We'll never really know.

I'm not sure how I feel, Kisa. As a Warrior, as your Knight and your student, I know that people die in battles. That gives me no comfort, for hers was a senseless death. Yes, many deaths are. But I keep wondering if there might have been a better way, a more commanding way, simply ANY way that would have had her listen. She attempted to speak to the Eastern Hunting Beast that faced her, rather than use her knives. Such folly, Kisa! Had Romana not said that what one Beast sees, all Beasts will see? Had she not said that what one Beast hears, all Beasts will hear? Had she not said that the Beastmasters begin strange and only become stranger, often to the point of needing to be put down like animals themselves?

Like bees are said to have but one will that follows the directive of the hive queen so too — it would seem — are the Beasts. There is but one mind, and each Beast simply moves at the will of that one mind... perhaps as you or I might blink an eye or wiggle a toe. I do not wish to know the truth of these Beasts, for Celi saw the truth of them and tore out her own throat because of it. There was nothing either Bekkah or Linette — a battle healer! — could do to save her. While I think they might have mended her body, I suspect her mind was shattered like an icicle that drops from the highest eaves of the keep to the courtyard below. She had been well and truly touched by Chaos, and it would be no kindness to reanimate her body only to be forced to burn her at the stake. No, we bore her up to leave her empty shell with the Priestess of Krysta.

Should I feel angry because she did not follow my instructions? Should I feel grief that she is dead? Should I feel sadness that a person so young has no chance to find her place?

I don't know who said that it takes three nights to break a curse, but it does indeed take three nights.

The first night was counted when we killed the Eastern Hunting Beasts, even though they had already accomplished their foul task for the night.

The second night was counted when we defended Tashka and Linette against another horde of beasts.

And the third night... I find this so difficult to write, Kisa. The third night we fought the most foul evil of all, the Avatar of the One Who Is Not Named. We were unaware at the time that the Bordertown elders had met to decide whether or not our band should be allowed to proceed in our attempts to break the curse. It is fortunate for us, I think, that they chose to refrain from interfering.

The Jvrillians did more, however. Oh, Kisa! Such brave men! Yes, it is true that they were hired by Bordertown to protect them. I cannot tell this tale, however, without acknowledging the fierce bravery of Mohlkavin's Heavy Horse and Donner's Sword as they stood their ground and fought the rampaging swarm of followers of He of the Red Scarf, while the most hideous and huge demon towered over the field of battle.

But I, your Knight, was destined to stand my ground against the Avatar himself. I will not lie to you, Kisa... I was not confident I would live to see Her rise. But I was determined to stand my ground and use every skill I had been taught, every blessing of Dayala I had, to keep the Avatar from entering the Temple before Her rising. That I pen this letter now, it is obvious I did survive, but it was not a certain thing, Kisa.

Had Morning Star not arrived when he did, I most assuredly would not be alive... and I am not certain my companions could have prevented the Avatar from entering the Temple. I would like to believe they could have done so, but it took my Lady Dayala's very Presence in my sword to vanquish the Avatar.

Kisa, I tell you true... I stood and faced that Avatar knowing that I might never see your face again, but I still stood. I know you understand that I had to do what was right.

I am confused by my own emotions regarding this entire undertaking, however. I feel more grief for the loss of Tashka and Linette, women who truly died fifty plus three hundred years ago and were brought back to life each day only because of foul magics, than for Celi. Rather than anger at Celi's senseless death, I feel a deep sense of resignation. Rather than grief, I feel... nothing. Rather than sadness, I feel... I am almost ashamed to write this, beloved, but I feel relief. I fear that this does not reflect well on me as either a Dayalan or as your Knight, and that thought pains me greatly. And what does this say about me as a leader, Kisa?

You have been raised to know you will one day be the Khorall of Dawnview (and may that day be far off!), so you understand more than I about leading people. I had learned many things before I left the Vale... from Kassia, from Gilly, from Reena and her lieutenants, and from you. But leadership is not something that can be taught like reading or writing, like horsemanship or sword work, or even like the lessons you taught me about people and our gift. It is something, perhaps, that can only be learned by following a good leader. I have never had that opportunity. Yes, I believe Reena is a good leader, but I was not part of the Guard despite having shadowed her on many occasions. Verchovai Dandelion said that bossing people around isn't quite leadership, and I do understand that. She went on to speak of building trust and loyalty. Perhaps... perhaps that is the unease I feel about Celi. With all the others in this small troop of mine, I am at least starting to find my footing and establish a relationship with each person. I still do not know Cesare well enough, but he seems steadfast and has been willing to follow plans that have been devised. Nor do I know Dean well, or even Camelia, despite a few good conversations she and I have had. But Camelia, at least, I do understand is going through a difficult transition of her own.

If we are to stay together as a group, I must learn to be a leader. I have, over the past week, found myself thinking, "I wonder what the Khorall would do in this situation." Though, again being completely truthful, in battle situations, I have no real idea what she would do; in every other situation, however, I am finding it useful. Your mother is fair, she is protective of her people, she thinks before acting. But in a battle... I have no guide, no role model, and I feel lost and confused much of the time. I must trust that between us, Mikal and I will find appropriate strategies and tactics. I have yet to discover what Squire Dean has been taught about such things; an oversight I will attempt to address in the coming days.

The Paths have become so hard to read, Kisa. Yet my Path seems clear. I must continue westward.

I've made the acquaintance of young Dominic Korie, a scamp and a rogue and lad with a good heart. Who would ever have thought I would find delight in the company of a Korie? But he brings out the whimsy in those around him... when he's not twisting their brains in knots, which I'll admit he's done to me.

He has asked that Bekkah attend to his brother — not the Heir, of course — in his small village as he calls it. It is hard to say just how far to trust him, but he does seem genuinely fearful for his brother. I doubt I will be especially welcome in Talantal, but as I have recounted in my letters, occurrences that are less than usual seem to surround me. We have spoken several times now, and he has the temerity to call Verchovai Dandelion 'Aunt Dandy'. I am not certain if he means it in a teasing way, or if there is kinship between them. It would not surprise me any longer to learn is a kinship; the world is certainly small enough for such a thing to be possible.

And so, when we venture forth from Bordertown, it will be in with the intent to make Talantal a place to visit on our journey to see the Sea of Opals.

I have had barely enough time to come comfortable with my newly conferred, and now legitimate, status of Knight... I will write further of Morning Star in the days to come.

I miss you, dear Kisa. Although this letter will not reach you until after the spring thaw, know that I was thinking of you at Midwinters.

The Paths change so quickly, but I tread them with as much as I can while holding true to my oaths.

Love always,

© Kelly Naylor
The Heartwood and all characters not otherwise expressly stated are © Kh'Lyh'ra Press / Mike Naylor