Authors: Elisabeth Waters
Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust
Copyright ©1994 by Elisabeth Waters
Akila finished stirring the mixture in the cauldron and set it on the windowsill to cool overnight. She was very anxious to see if the potion would actually do what it was supposed to. According to the scroll she had found the formula in, it should have some very interesting, and maybe even useful, properties.
It was quiet in the tower, and the late afternoon sunlight flowed across the four-foot wide stone windowsill. Akila perched on the sill beside the cauldron, enjoying the feel of the sun's warmth on her sore shoulders. It felt as though she had been stirring that potion for hours.
Since the room's only window faced away from the rest of the castle, noises from the courtyard or the other buildings were only faint echoes. Akila savored the quiet, knowing that it couldn't last.
She had no need to look out the window; there was nothing there to be seen, nothing but lots and lots of empty space. She and her twin brother Briam shared the top floor of a simple stone tower which had been old when the rest of the castle was built. From her window the tower dropped to the edge of a cliff which dropped in turn about 800 feet straight down—the legacy of a long-ago earthquake. Fortunately Akila was not troubled by heights.
She sighed, getting reluctantly up from the windowsill. Enough self-indulgence—time to get back to work.
The twins’ father had, as usual, gone off early in the spring, taking with him most of the castle guard as well as an entire troop of mercenaries, in his constant quest to add yet another estate to his already too vast domain—much too vast to suit Akila, who wound up with the administration of it. Just because their mother, no doubt hallucinating from the drugs they had given her to ease the birth of the twins, had murmured something about the child ruling over a kingdom, her husband had set to work building the kingdom for his son. It was really too bad, Akila thought, that Mother hadn't lived long enough to realize that she was badly mistaken.
By now it was obvious to anyone willing to admit it that Briam had neither the brains nor the inclination to do more than ride, hunt, dance, and play any musical instrument he could get his hands on. Even their father, although unwilling to admit that his son was not the perfect young lord and heir, had turned a blind eye as Galin the Steward trained Akila to run the estates that would one day be her brother's. Now, at the age of eighteen, she was very good at it. The domain their father was amassing would remain intact—assuming, of course, that Briam had a child capable enough to hang on to it after Akila was dead. Their father occasionally spoke of finding a suitable bride for Briam, but he had not yet actually done anything about it.
Music had always been Briam's main passion and interest; even when he started to notice girls he spent more time singing ballads of courtly love to whomever he fancied himself in undying love with that month than he did doing anything else.
So while Briam was nominally in charge of the estate during his father's absence, everyone, including Briam, went to Akila with any problems. By now, Akila could run the place better than her father, who wasn't there very often anyway.
Picking up the scroll she had been using for her potion, she headed toward the stairs, closing her bedroom door behind her.
Eagle's Rest, named after her father's device, an eagle flying toward the sun, had started out as a temple, consisting of a single unfortified square stone tower. The sanctuary on the ground floor was still used as the chapel, although her father was religious only when it suited him. He preferred to leave religion to the women of the family, which was one of the reasons why Akila was the priestess of the Lady of Fire. Her father had turned her over to the Goddess when she was two—or at least not objected when Marfa suggested it. (The other reason was that the Maiden had chosen Akila, but her father didn't know that and would neither have understood nor believed it if he had.) Marfa, the housekeeper, served the Earth Mother, and Galin, the Steward, served the Lord of Water. The old man who had been priest of the Sky Father had died during the winter, so He was without a priest at present. Marfa, the eldest of the remaining three, told Akila that the Sky Father would call a new priest to himself in his own time.
The tower's second floor, which had originally been the quarters for the priests of the Earth Mother and the Sky Father, was used now only for storage. Both Galin and Marfa, due to their mundane duties, found it easier to live in the main keep. The twins had the third floor (properly the quarters of the priests of the Lady of Fire and Lord of Water, which meant that Akila belonged there and Briam didn't). This gave each twin a bedroom in addition to the common sitting room. Akila had the room to which she was entitled as priestess of the Lady of Fire, and Briam the room which should by rights have been Galin's. The sitting room faced south and was the most comfortable room in the castle, although extremely shabby in its furnishings. Akila noticed as she passed through it that its softwood floor was getting quite a track worn in it between the stairs and the bedrooms. She resolved to see if she could find an old rug in one of the storerooms. Her father would object if anything valuable made its way into the tower, but he wouldn't care if she found some old castoff from one of the guests rooms.
The guest rooms hadn't been used since she could remember in any case; her father was not a hospitable man. Her mother's family had considered hospitality a virtue, which had enabled her father to visit, spy out the layout and defenses, and come back with an army to take the place. He had married his wife, the only known survivor of her family, to strengthen his claim to the property. Then he strengthened the castle's defenses and used it as a base from which to conquer everything else in range.
The tower had another floor, cut into the rock beneath it and entered through a hidden entrance built into the altar. It was a secret known only to the priesthood: Akila, Galin, and Marfa. Akila had not told even Briam about it. (She had tried, but she found that when he was in the room the entrance refused to open for her.) The secret room contained the temple's only remaining treasure, its library. Briam wasn't particularly bookish, and their father, Akila knew, would have seen the library only as a source of revenue. He had already sold off all of the temple's other treasures, or melted them down to pay the mercenaries he hired each year to help him amass more land and more treasure to hire more soldiers.
Akila went down the stairs to the sanctuary, closed and bolted its door behind her, and went to the south side of the altar. The altar was an octagon made of stone, standing as high as Akila's heart. The south face of it showed the Lady of Fire in human form at the left, holding a lightning bolt that stretched from sky to earth. The next carving, at the center, showed Her in the form of a salamander, basking in fire, and the carving at the right showed her as a bird, taking wing out of the fire with flames trailing from the tips of her wings as she flew toward the Sky Father's section of the altar. The top of the altar held the few implements used in the daily ritual, and each section was carved with appropriate symbols. The Maiden's section was covered with dozens of stylized flames. Akila set down the scroll and reached out to press her hands against two of the flames and chanted softly. The triangle between the fire and air sections of the altar slid out of the way, revealing the ladder to the library below. Akila grabbed the scroll and went quickly down, knowing that the opening would close automatically in only a few seconds. She never had been able to figure out how the entrance worked, or why it would work only for one of the priesthood and not for anyone else. Presumably it was some sort of magic, but Akila didn't perfectly understand its rules.
The altar closed above her, and a soft light began to glow in the darkness. The light had no apparent source, but it always seemed to be brightest where it was needed. It was never bright enough, however, to illuminate the entire library at once. As a child Akila had asked why this was so, and Galin had told her that bright light was bad for books; it cracked bindings and faded print.
The light was so dim that Akila had never been sure just how deep the library went into the bedrock. The library had the same width and breadth as the tower above it, but its height was unknown. The ladders from the four corners of the altar led to a wooden catwalk that enabled one to reach the walls. The walls had shelves full of books and scrolls alternating with ladders which ran down the corners where the walls joined together. At six-foot intervals going down the ladders a platform stretched across between them, allowing just enough room for one person to stand or kneel and examine the contents of the shelves. The ladders and the platforms were made of wooden strips smaller than Akila's wrist, and often creaked alarmingly as one traveled along them. Between the feeling that one was about to fall into an apparently bottomless abyss and the dim lighting, only the most dedicated of book lovers would have wanted to be in the library, Akila thought. She knew that there was a bottom because she had been down there, but no matter how many times she tried, she could never seem to count the levels between it and the top. The more frequently used books were at the top anyway.
Akila had spent as much of her free time as she could exploring the library and had discovered that when she was just browsing, the light would follow her around, but if she were looking for something specific, the light would lead her to it. She had discovered the scroll she now held while browsing on the very bottom shelf.
The light led her down a ladder. Akila tried, as always, to count levels, and soon lost track. By the time she reached the bottom, it seemed as though time had stopped. This was not uncommon; the library often seemed to be a place out of time. Akila would think she had spent all day there, but when she emerged she would discover that only an hour or so had passed.
The light illuminated the space from which Akila had taken the scroll. Whatever its source, the light always knew where the item one was replacing belonged, and any attempt to put it elsewhere would extinguish the light instantly until the item was picked up again. Marfa and Galin suspected that this was the work of some long-ago librarians who knew only too well the rule that a book mis-shelved was a book lost and wanted none of that in their library. And they certainly succeeded, Akila thought ruefully, rubbing her sore arms. If I had a choice, I'd leave this scroll up in the top level, not bring it all the way back down here.
The light started fading slowly as soon as she replaced the scroll and grew steadily dimmer as she climbed. By the time she reached the point where the ladder to her section of the altar joined the catwalk the room was dark again, but as soon as she put a foot on the bottom rung the entrance opened, giving her light from above by which to climb back to the chapel.
Akila looked at the angle of the sun through the small high windows of the sanctuary and went to open the door. Galin and Marfa would be here at any moment for the evening ritual.
In fact, Galin was waiting just outside the door when she opened it. Galin was in his early forties, but his short stocky frame and round face made him look younger, even though his brown hair was starting to turn white. He smiled at her, obviously knowing why the door had been closed and where she had been, but said only, “Good evening, Akila. Did you have a pleasant afternoon?"
Akila grinned at him. She was a good deal fonder of Galin than she had ever been of her father. “Yes, very, and if you had anything to do with my being undisturbed for a change, I thank you."
Galin patted her lightly on the shoulder. “You work too hard, child."
Akila nodded ruefully. “We all do. You and I and Marfa must do at least six or seven people's work between us."