I was marked at the moment of my birth. My mother lay screaming on her birthing blanket, tears leaking from her eyes, her forehead beaded with sweat, my slimy head dangling from her body while the priests placed the tattoos on my cheeks. She wanted to keep me, my mother, wanted to take me and run, but the elders caught her as they almost always do, and they took me from her.
The moment I was pulled from her body, my mother was killed. She had birthed a fatherless babe. She was unclean and could not be allowed to corrupt the other girls. Her body was burned with cleansing fire and her ashes scattered in the Valley of Shame. There was no grave, no place for me to visit in remembrance. I don’t even know her name.
I think of her sometimes, when I am alone. I wonder what she was like. Was she pretty? Was she kind? Do I look like her? Would she have loved me? I do not discuss these thoughts in our daily cleansings. They are my secret shame.
Upon my mother’s death, I was taken to the temple to be raised by the priestesses. I was not neglected, but they were not kind caretakers. I was fed well and clothed in the finest silk but I was not allowed to play with the other children. My training began from the moment I was able to walk and talk. I learned early on to always do as I was told. The consequences for disobedience were severe.
I did not have any friends. Anybody for whom I showed affection was beaten before my eyes before being forever removed from my presence. I soon learned to bury my emotions deep within and was careful to give no indication of favouritism.
At first my training was simple. Not easy, of course, never easy, but simple. I was shown meditation techniques, the names of the Twenty, how to walk, how to talk, how to act. On my seventh birthday, I was baptised and my lessons became more difficult. I was taught the proper rituals of sacrifice; how to give thanks when butchering animals; how to torture; how to maim; how to kill.
I began to attend daily cleansings with the other neophytes. We would each take a turn standing before the group where we would tell our thoughts, our dreams, our secret desires. Nothing was to be held back. We were part of the Twenty and we belonged to the Twenty and we were allowed to keep nothing for ourselves.
At the end of each session we would gather in a circle, take a silver dagger and cut the arm of the neophyte on either side of us. As the dagger passed around the circle, our blood would mingle, cleansing us of our individuality and making us one under the Twenty. Yet even amongst these children I stood out. I was different. I was other. I was marked.
On my thirteenth birthday I endured my Initiation. Each of the other neophytes chose one of the Twenty for their ritual. In everyday life they would serve the Twenty, but on holy days or in times of conflict their hearts and minds and bodies would belong to the One.
This choice, the choice of whom to serve, was denied to me. It was taken from me on the day of my birth. The moment I was marked it was decided; I would forevermore belong to O’lim, first amongst the Twenty. My Initiation was not an easy one, nor was it short. This was to be expected. One could not expect compassion when dedicating their life to O’lim. I cannot tell you the details of what I suffered. It is forbidden. Only those few who dedicate to O’lim are permitted to know what happens during the ritual. There are few who do so. While the rest of the Twenty demand your mind, heart and body, O’lim also requires your soul. A servant of O’lim will live a long and powerful life, but they will never again engage in the cycle of rebirth.
For three days after my Initiation, I was confined to my chambers. Forbidden to speak or engage in strenuous activity, there was little to do save eat and sleep. I was given healing teas for my throat, which was sore and swollen from hours of screaming. Twice a day, I bathed in healing herbs to soothe my aching muscles.
Those three days were the first time in my life I had been allowed to relax, to do nothing, to just be. Despite my lingering pain, I found that I enjoyed this time alone and I dreaded the end of my confinement. However, three days do not last forever, and I eventually found myself bathed and scented and dressed in the formal robes of an Initiate.
As I left my chambers, I found myself facing an older Adept, come to fetch me to my new home. I was led through a set of ornate silver doors to a part of the temple I had never before visited. Past unfamiliar corridors, I followed my guide; up and down staircases; through numerous twists and turns until it would be impossible for me to find my way back.
Eventually, I found myself standing alone before a door unlike any I had seen in this lifetime. Every other door I had ever seen had been ornately carved, decorated with gold or silver, with a beautiful handle moulded to represent one of the Twelve Virtues. This door was nothing more than a plain slab of wood, straight from the tree, with a simple, round handle of what looked to be bronze.
Squashing my nervousness, I schooled my features into a blank, emotionless mask, and knocked firmly upon the door.
“Enter,” a quiet voice called from the other side.
I took a deep breath, opened the door and stepped into the room. Once again, I was surprised. My previous quarters had been lavishly decorated with a huge, soft bed, cushioned chairs by a large fireplace, beautiful tapestries on the wall, lush carpets covering the floors, everything my physical self could desire. This room could not have been more different.
Simple wooden bookshelves laden with books were set against bare stone walls. A thin red rug lay upon the stone floors. The fireplace was small but was enough to warm the small space. One corner held a simple wooden bed. In the other corner there was an unadorned table and two wooden chairs. This was the barest room I had ever seen.
“Ah, you must be my new Initiate. Welcome, welcome. Come in, come in.”
The voice was soft and calm. I turned to face the direction from which it had come.
A man stood beside me. He had dark hair, tied back in a low ponytail. His skin was pale but not sickly. He was dressed in a simple cotton tunic that appeared to be homespun. He was neither tall, nor short; neither old, nor young; neither handsome, nor ugly. He was entirely unremarkable save for his eyes. He had the bluest eyes I had ever seen and they pierced through me as though he could see through to my very soul. Yet, as our eyes met, I was filled with a sense of peace and well-being such as I had never felt before. I knew instinctively that this man would never allow me come to harm if it was within his power to prevent it.
I bowed and spoke the traditional greeting of a student to a new teacher.
“Greetings Tanár. I humbly submit myself to your will.”
His eyes gave a glint of amusement as he gave his reply. “Greetings Elév. I will endeavour to be fair and just.”
“Now,” he said, “The formalities are out of the way, so why don’t we take a seat and discuss what we expect from each other, hmm?” I followed him to the table and waited for him to sit before taking the chair opposite him.
“The first thing you should know,” he began, “is that my expectations are very different from what you are probably used to. Up until now you have been forbidden from feeling. Your – caretakers,” he spat the word out as though it were a curse, “have done their best to beat the emotions out of you, to turn you into nothing more than a controllable weapon. This is unconscionable and it is a situation I have no intention of allowing to continue. I understand that it will take some time before you are able to re-connect with yourself, but I do not think it is too late for you. I detect a glimmer within you, a small pocket that you have managed to protect from their abuses. It is that small seed that I intend to nurture. Are you with me so far?”
I nodded. “Yes, Tanár.”
“Good. Now, your schedule. You will rise at five for physical training until seven, when you shall have an hour to freshen up and break your fast. From eight until one you will begin your magical training. You will then have an hour for lunch. For three hours after lunch, you will have academic classes on Firstday, Fourthday and Fifthday. On Seconday, Thirdday and Sixthday, you will study theology. At five, you will perform the evening sacrifice, and then join me for dinner. I will spend a half hour after dinner helping you to find and express your emotions. After that, you will have free time before retiring to bed at ten. You will no longer be attending Restday services with your peers, but will instead spend the morning meditating in your room. You may do as you wish in the afternoon. Any questions?”
I shook my head. “No, Tanár.”
“Very well. If you do think of any, please feel free to come to me. There will be no taboo topics here. If I do not wish to answer a question, I will tell you so. I will not get annoyed with you for asking questions and I will never strike you. Do you understand? You are safe here, Elév.”
I looked at his earnest face and knew that I could trust his words. “Yes Tanár.”
“And what do you expect from me? Is there a particular skill you wish me to teach you? Are there boundaries that you wish to set? Is there something you wish me to do, or not do?”
I stared at him in astonishment. Never had I been asked such a thing! “No Tanár.” I said.
He looked at me intently for a long moment before he sighed. “Very well. Perhaps when you are more comfortable, we will revisit this conversation.”
He stood and led through another simple wooden door. “This was once your mother’s room. It is now yours for as long as you want it.”
I drew in a quick breath. “You knew my mother?” I asked.
He looked sad. “I did. She was my student, as you are now. She was very dear to me. It was I who assisted in her escape. However, we were betrayed and your mother was caught. She was questioned, of course, but she never gave me away. The traitor died that same night. I made sure of that.”
And for that one moment, all of my training fell away and I was nothing more than a vulnerable child who wanted her mother. “D…Do you think she would have liked me?” my voice was almost pleading.
“Your mother loved you very much.” He replied, sadly. “She wanted you more than anything else in her life. She was willing to renounce her name, leave behind the only life she had ever known and risk her life in the Wilds in order to keep you. She tried so hard to save you from your fate. The last words from her dying lips were curses on the bloodlines of those who took you from her. It is why you were treated so cruelly and why there are so few priestesses left. Your mother was a very powerful woman. I sense that same power in you.”
“You think I’m powerful?”
“I know you are. You have to be powerful to survive dedication to O’lim.”
I stared at him, my face a blank mask once again.
Tanár did not comment on this, though I could tell that it bothered him.
“It is time to get some sleep,” he said, instead. “You may take tomorrow to get used to your new surroundings. We will begin training on Thirdday.” And, with those words he left me alone.
I began my training that Thirdday, as Tanár had promised. The first two days were spent assessing my abilities. He did not say anything, but I could tell he was pleased by my level of competence. After that, my training began in earnest. It was difficult at first. Anything worth learning always is. However, I soon became used to my new routine and found that I enjoyed it.
Every day Tanár helped me to seek out and express my emotions. It was a long time before I saw any improvement, but eventually I began to feel curiosity and surprise and then joy. It was a new experience for me, joy. I was unused to such a positive emotion. I had felt nothing at all for the longest time and before that, I remember only pain and anguish and fear.
After that, it was as though I had opened a flood-gate. It seemed every day I experienced some new feeling or emotion. I shocked myself, the first time I yelled in anger, but Tanár merely smiled at me, praised me for expressing my emotions and proceeded to show me better ways to do so.
And so the days bled into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into seasons and the seasons into years. It was on my nineteenth birthday that I discovered I had learned a new emotion. We were eating dinner while discussing what I had learned in that days training. It was a time of day I had come to value, a time when Tanár’s attention was focused on me and me alone. A time when I could speak on any topic I desired, a time that filled my heart with a strange mixture of happiness and longing that I had long since become addicted to. It was an emotion that confused me, so I did what I always did when I was confused. I asked my Tanár.
He looked at me then, with a strange expression in his piercing blue eyes. “It is love, Elév. The emotion you are describing is love.”
I was still processing this statement when Tanár stood abruptly and left the room. I was worried. Had I done something wrong? Was he angry with me? I stood and followed him, determined not to let this fester.
I found him in the small bathroom, his forehead resting against the wall.
“I am sorry Tanár.” I said. “I did not mean to make you angry.”
“I am not angry Elév.” He said softly. He turned to look at me and I was shocked to see his face was wet with tears. In all the years I had known him, I had never once seen Tanár cry.
“I am so sorry, Elév. This is entirely my fault. I will find you another tutor tomorrow, one who will be kind and will not betray your trust as I have done.”
Wait, what? He was sending me away? I felt fear greater than any I had known so far.
“Bu…But you said you are not angry! Please, Tanár, please don’t send me away!” I pleaded. “I did not mean to feel love! I will stop it! Please, I am sorry, please keep being my Tanár!”
“But don’t you see?” He cried. “This cannot be! You are an Initiate of O’lim. You belong to Him, mind, body, heart and soul, you belong to Him!”
I was losing control of my emotions as I panicked. I began to hyperventilate, tears streaming down my cheeks. Suddenly I was enveloped in the comforting arms of my Tanár.
“Sshh,” he crooned, “Hush now, Elév. I will not send you away. I will never send you away. I will always be your Tanár.” And he held me and rocked me gently and spoke soothingly, until my panic calmed and my tears began to dry.
“Let us run,“ I whispered. “Let us leave and live in the Wilds as my mother once planned.”
“It would be a harsh life. You would have none of the comforts you are used to here.” He warned.
“I would be with you. That is enough.”
“And what of O’lim? Don’t you see, no matter how much I wish it otherwise, you belong to Him fully, now and forever.”
“I will face the consequences with O’lim when I join Him in His halls. An eternity of torment is a small price to pay for a lifetime with you.”
His resolve was faltering, I could feel it, and so I pressed my advantage. “Please, Tanár. I may not have known the name for what I feel, but I know that the very thought of being sent away, of never again seeing you or hearing your voice or feeling your power as our magic joins together, the very thought of it saps my desire to live.”
And with those words his decision was made. He tenderly brushed the tears from my cheek with his thumb and my heart sang as his lips pressed softly against my own.
“Tonight,” he whispered, as he pulled away, “We will leave tonight.”
Later that night, I hummed happily as I gathered supplies for our escape. I was tense and afraid, but I had never been happier. I joined my Tanár at the door. He smiled and kissed me softly. “Are you ready Elév?”
He opened the door and checked the hallway. After indicating it was clear, we left our home for the last time. Silently, we made our way through the sleeping temple until we reached the door to Outside. Outside, a place I had never been, a place that I longed to see.
Heart pounding, I stepped through the doors and stared in wonder at the little lights in the sky that I knew were called stars.
“Welcome to Outside, Elév.” Tanár whispered. “Come,” he said after a moment. “We aren’t safe yet. We have to keep moving.”
He took my hand as we made our way quietly toward the gate. It was there, just five more steps from freedom that they caught us.
Emerging suddenly from the shadows beside us, I was the first to be grabbed. We fought, of course, attempting to win our way to the gate. At first, it seemed as though we would succeed, until my captors got in a lucky shot. Once I was in custody, it was an easy thing for them to take my Tanár. All they had to do was threaten my safety and he surrendered.
Once we were both secured, we were dragged before the Elders. It seemed they had been suspicious of Tanár since my mother’s death, and had been keeping a close eye on him. So long as he remained obedient and did nothing more than train me, they allowed his little idiosyncrasies. However, the moment we snuck out in the middle of the night, they knew their moment had finally arrived.
After much posturing and gloating, the Elders sentenced my Tanár for crimes against the Twenty, with his punishment to be carried out immediately. He looked over at me, gave a sad smile and said “I love you, Elév, always and forever.” Then, right before my horrified eyes, they ended his life.
My heart shattered and for the first time in my life, I wished Tanár had not re-awakened my emotions. What good were they, when they hurt so much? I barely heard when the Elders began to address me, to berate me and call me names. I heard nothing but his soft voice, saw nothing but his kind eyes, felt nothing but the pain of his loss.
I came back to reality when one of my captors slapped me. Doing so was a mistake on their part for now my anguish was overtaken by an all-consuming rage. Seeing the pain and anger in my eyes they laughed and taunted me. They thought themselves safe since I was shackled and without a weapon. Did they not realise how powerful I am? After all, you don’t need a weapon at all when you were born one. And I was born one, they made sure of that.
I lashed out with my magic, breaking my shackles and instantly killing my captors. I turned my gaze to the Elders before me. A glimmer of fear flashed in their eyes. Nonetheless, they sat arrogantly on their thrones and ordered me to stand down, as though they truly expected me to obey. I laughed mockingly and killed them where they sat, before setting fire to their bodies.
I was far from finished. I strode towards the doors, intent on sowing chaos. My Tanár taught me surprise and joy and love. The servants of the Twenty had taught me hate. I faced an eternity of suffering when I journeyed to the halls of O’lim, but I had a very long and powerful life to live before that – plenty of time to make the world pay.
O’lim ⇒ Uzbek word for death.
Tanár ⇒ Hungarian word for teacher
Elév ⇒ Haitian Creole word for student