Ciara moved through the Festival, godless and alone.
The Festival of Four was in full swing. People bustled around watching exhibition matches between disciples or spending their money on fried bread or sweet tarts. Disciples made offerings to their gods, and storytellers recounted their Faith’s best tales. Representatives of the four gods worshipped in the village called out looking for potential new disciples, and everywhere sellers of food and trinkets hawked their wares.
Back when the Festival had started, it was confined to the town square, or the circle of hard-packed dirt that passed for a town square. But, over time as the local Faiths competed to outdo one another, the event had spilled out to encompass most of the town center. So now, many of the stalls and displays were abutting the village’s permanent fixtures.
Ciara found she couldn’t enjoy the spectacle.
She was sixteen, a good age to take on a patron deity. She was strong enough and quick enough to take a Trial, of that she was sure. What she wasn’t sure of was what it would get her. Sure, a god could give her a Blessing. She’d have power. But the disciples of the gods worshipped in the village stayed in the village. What good was power if it just chained you to where you didn’t want to be?
She walked among the disciples anyway, looking over their powers with a strange mixture of jealousy and pity.
Titus, Force of a Mountain, was god of the Titus Mountains that ran for miles to the north of the village. His disciples took up a position near the center of the Festival, and they were using their Blessing of Stone’s Might to smash through bits of wood with their bare hands. It was impressive enough, Ciara supposed. She could see how being able to turn parts of your body into stone could come in handy. But all they ever did was spend their time gathering minerals from the mountains for the village to trade. It was no life for her.
Ven, Spring’s First Bloom, was a renewal god whose followers helped grow food for the village. They had set up a demonstration area on the south side of town within a fence usually used for keeping horses. Ciara didn’t know where the horses were today, but Ven’s disciples were showing off their Blessing of Bountiful Growth to grow a garden of flowers right there on the day. It was pretty and all, and it made the paddock smell a lot better than it usually did, but Ciara didn’t have much use for fast-growing plants. It certainly wouldn’t help her get away from her village. Worse, the First Bloom Faith would have her married off and having children before she could get two words out, which held exactly no appeal.
The followers of Terisen, Wisdom of Warriors Past, had set up a stage on the northwest side of the village, between the smithy and the bakery. They were using the Blessing of Ancestor’s Prowess to show off some excellent fighting techniques. Terisen was a warrior god, which interested Ciara, but she had no great warriors in her family in living memory, so his Blessing would be wasted on her. She’d as well have the plant-growth powers for all the good it would do her in combat. Plus, he followed Terisen.
Avash, the Breaking Wave, was a sea god who presided over the rocky bay to the east of the village. His followers manipulated the waves with the Blessing of the Crashing Tide to catch fish for the village. They had set up a demonstration of their power on the far east side of the village, where the packed earth of the town center gave way to the softer ground of the greater village. There, they had brought great tubs of water and were using their Blessing to hurl waves at each other. It looked impressive, but it was far too restrictive in its need for a large body of water in order to be useful. Plus, Ciara didn’t fancy being a fisher for the rest of her days.
None of the Faiths from nearby villages had made an appearance this year, not that they would help her much. That would just be trading a small life stuck in a small village for a small life stuck in a different small village. No, what Ciara needed was a patron deity that would get her away from her home and out into the wide world. One that could make her a true Champion like they tell stories about. The only problem was that those gods paid no mind to nothing little villages in the first place, so she couldn’t take a Trial for them unless she had already gotten out. There was no way she would survive the pilgrimage to one of their temples alone without a patron deity. What she needed in order to get out could only be found once she had already gotten out. In short, she was trapped.
There was a commotion near the middle of the Festival. Everyone seemed to be gathering around a spectacle of some sort. Ciara, as curious as anyone else her age, made her way through the crowd to see what it was. She was tall, especially for a girl, and she looked over the heads of even many of the men there, so she didn’t have much trouble finding a spot to watch what was going on. A heavily muscled man knelt in supplication on the main stage in the Titus disciple area, and the other disciples seemed to be waiting for something to happen, their heads bent in silent prayer.
Ciara caught the eye of Stella, the miller’s daughter, and smiled at her. Stella was about as different from Ciara as two people could hope to be, at least physically. Which meant that Stella was petite, elegant, and beautiful. She had bright-red hair, mischievous green eyes, and a light dusting of freckles on her cheeks that all the boys in the village found highly appealing. She was also one of the only girls Ciara’s age in the village, and Ciara’s only real friend.
She smiled back at Ciara and gave a little wave.
Titus, Force of a Mountain, appeared on the stage.
A figure made all of granite with eyes of agate, he towered over the humans, ten feet tall or more with shoulders that you could stand beer barrels on. His disciples dropped to one knee immediately. Even those sworn to other gods, or to no god at all, bowed their heads to the deity that suddenly stood among them.
“Jerad,” Titus said in a voice like stones grinding against each other. “You have brought glory to my name. For this, I bestow upon you the second Blessing of Titus.” He stood over the man, whose impressive musculature looked hopelessly insufficient next to the mountain god. Titus touched a hand to his head, and the man collapsed to the stage.
“Arise,” Titus said. “And go with the Blessing of Earth’s Power.”
Jerad rose to his feet and bowed low to his god, who nodded back and then vanished as quickly as he had come. There was a chorus of applause from the crowd. A second Blessing was a rarity these days, and it had been years since anyone had so much as heard of someone attaining a third. Ciara had heard rumors that people in the big cities had more than three Blessings, but mostly from drunks at her father’s inn.
Jerad bent down and grabbed a rock that looked just shy of a boulder. He heaved it over his head, barely letting out a grunt of exertion. Several people clapped, one even cheered, but Earth’s Power wasn’t so rare as to keep the crowd’s attention, and mostly they started to disperse.
Ciara made her way over to talk to Stella. The Festival might not help Ciara get the kind of god she wanted, but it could be a fun place to explore with Stella, especially since the other girl seemed not to have a boy on her arm for a change. But, before Ciara could get to Stella, she bumped into someone much less pleasant.
Allister, a disciple of Terisen, firstborn son of the village sheriff, and Ciara’s fiancé.
“Ciara,” he said. He gave a half bow. He was tall and muscular, with a face that looked to always be healing from a fight.
“Allister,” she said.
“Have you decided to patronize a god?” His stare was a little too intense, and she wasn’t sure what answer he wanted. Ciara had never understood his awkwardness around her. With others he was normally direct, if a bit formal. Then again, she supposed he might just be uncomfortable with the idea of having to marry her. She couldn’t say the feeling wasn’t mutual.
“Not yet,” she said. “Not sure who I would pick.”
“Very well.” He gave her a tight nod by way of goodbye and walked off. Ciara was left feeling less excited about talking to Stella.
Allister was half the reason she wanted to get away from the village in the first place. He wasn’t that bad, as potential husbands went, her father had done his best in that regard, but he held absolutely no appeal to her. He seemed to take everything too seriously and acted strange and wooden around her. Plus, his friends seemed to be louts at best and thugs at worst.
But all of that was secondary to the fact that he was a boy, which meant he was precisely not her type. Not that she could tell her father that.
That was why she had considered the other gods in the first place. If she got a patron deity that was different from Allister’s before she turned seventeen, she would be released from her betrothal. A man can’t be expected to marry the disciple of a competing god after all. But, as much as she didn’t want to marry Allister, she didn’t want to commit herself to a life of service in this village either. That would only lead to her being married off to some other man according to the wishes of her superiors in the Faith. That would be slipping one trap only to fall into another.
Ciara left the Festival in a dark mood.
She went home to her father’s inn and found him hauling a cask of wine up from the cellar. Ignas the innkeeper was a large man, broad of shoulder and round of belly. He hummed a half-remembered song to himself as he worked.
“Have a good time at the Festival?” he asked when he saw her.
“It could’ve been better.”
“No closer to choosing a Faith, then?”
She shook her head.
“I know you’ve heard this before, but you don’t need a Faith to be happy. Lot of good people never pledge themselves to a god, and they live long and happy lives.”
For a moment Ciara’s mood got the better of her and she nearly snapped something about that not working out too well for her mother, but she thought better of it. She was just frustrated, and that wasn’t her father’s fault.
“I know,” she said instead. “But I want more than that.”
“I know you do, daughter. I just want you to be safe. Dreams of adventure in far-off lands are all well and good, but you have a lot of life ahead of you. Gods only know where it will take you, with or without a Faith. You don’t have to be in such a rush.”
“I’m not in a rush,” Ciara said, which she knew was a lie. She could practically feel the noose of a life stuck in her village and married to Allister tightening around her neck. She was already thinking of how she could try to get herself attached to a trading party next time there was one in the area.
Her father looked at her for a moment, seeming to sense the direction of her thoughts. “Okay, I’ve said my piece. I know you will do what you think is best. But the search can continue after chores, eh? People will come by for a drink once the Festival winds down.”
Ciara got to work. Her chores included clearing out the hearth, chopping vegetables for the stew, and cleaning the previous night’s spillages off the tables so they were ready for another round. As she worked, she thought on her problem. She had been chewing it over for most of a year, ever since her father had found her a match in Allister, and she had gotten no closer to a solution.
As the afternoon progressed into evening, the line between chores and training blurred. The inn was on the western edge of the village, and the forest wasn’t far from her back door. There, she chopped wood until her arms burned, ran buckets of water back from a stream until she could barely breathe, and scrabbled up trees to pluck their fruits. By the time it was dark, Ciara was exhausted and covered in a sheen of sweat. She was fitter and stronger than any other girl in the village, and many of the boys besides, but she kept pushing herself to get stronger. Ciara may not have any good options for getting out of the village right now, but she was damn sure going to be ready if any presented themselves.
That being said, she wasn’t an idiot. Staying in the woods after dark was a good way to get yourself eaten, so she stayed close to the village and went home as soon as night fell.
Ciara and her father lived at the inn above the taproom, which she had to go through to get to her room. Filthy, sweaty, and smelly, she was more than a bit self-conscious about her appearance, and she scoped out the room before she entered. She was both relieved and disappointed that Stella wasn’t there. But she was just plain disappointed to see Allister sitting at a table by the hearth with a couple of his loudmouthed friends from the Faith of Warriors Past. She would have to walk past them to get to her room.
Still, no use fretting about what had to be done. Ciara wasn’t willing to wait around until they left. She marched through the taproom with her head held high and her eyes focused on the stairs.
“Isn’t that your bride-to-be?” one of the loudmouths said, nudging Allister. The speaker was a short, wiry boy with a scarred face and short black hair. Ciara didn’t know his name and didn’t much care to.
“It is,” Allister said awkwardly, as though embarrassed by the state of her.
Ciara may not have wanted to marry him, but that didn’t mean she was okay with him being ashamed of the pairing.
The wiry disciple hopped down from his seat and strolled over to Ciara. He seemed to be trying to act tough, but the effect was ruined somewhat by the top of his head only just coming up to her nose.
“How your family made such a poor match for you I’ll never know, Al,” the boy said, hooking his thumb at Ciara and talking as though she weren’t there. “Perhaps they think getting some troll blood in your family line will make your sons extra strong.”
Ciara had been content to leave Allister and his friends alone, but she wasn’t content to stand by and be insulted by a little snot that she could lift with one hand.
She punched him in the face.
The hit was solid, and the boy hadn’t been expecting it. He went down, but he sprang back up again immediately. Drawing on the skill granted by Ancestor’s Prowess, he made several throwing knives appear in his hands as if from nowhere. They hadn’t of course, as the boy only had Terisen’s first Blessing, but he was just that quick.
Ciara realized what a poor decision she had made. She couldn’t win a fight with someone from a warrior Faith, even if he was half her size. She settled into a fighting crouch anyway and tried to think of a way to get out of this without getting cut.
“Enough!” Allister commanded. “Symon, you disgrace our Faith acting this way. You have offered insult to a woman while under her roof, and then drawn steel when she defended herself. Go, or we will settle this between ourselves.”
Ciara was grateful to Allister for his help, though mostly she was just frustrated that she had needed it.
He spoke to her as his friends left.
“That was reckless. You cannot attack a disciple. Symon would have cut you down, and the law would have seen it as a justifiable response. You must think before you act.”
Ciara would have liked to have said something back to that, but he was right even if she hated to admit it. She had been reckless and could have gotten herself seriously hurt, or worse, for no reason other than her temper. Stupid.
Ciara went to her room and washed herself off with a bucket of water and a rag, then changed into clothes to sleep in. It was still early, but Ciara was exhausted and angry and just wanted to go to bed. The taproom downstairs was noisy, but she had slept through worse. She crawled into bed and offered her nightly prayer before she slept.
“Any gods that are listening, I need a way out of this village. I’m not afraid of hard work; all I need is a chance. Please, help me.”
She had prayed for the same thing hundreds of times with no answer. But this time, someone was listening.
When Ciara woke the next morning, she was still feeling all knotted up about the night before. Stewing on it wasn’t going to help though, so she went for a run. She ran from her home and out into the forest along the path to Forge Town before looping back through a wide clearing and coming back through the forest to emerge closer to the center of the village. As always, the running helped. She liked the sound of the forest waking up, the heat of the early-morning sun on her face, and the heave of her lungs as she pushed herself to be better. It cleared her head, and when she got back, she was feeling a lot better.
That is, until she saw the banners.
Orange-and-black banners bearing a symbol made up of flowing curves stood over the buildings on the northeast side of the village. She could see people making their way over to see what was going on, and she joined the crowd. As she got closer, she saw a procession of armored warriors in the same orange-and-black color scheme as the banners. They carried strangely shaped swords and wore what could loosely be called helmets but were so open that they must have been purely for decoration. They stood around a man who made Ciara’s blood run cold.
He had a third Blessing.
While Blessings varied from deity to deity, the third Blessing a god bestowed always reshaped the disciple’s body in line with their Faith. The most obvious indicator was his eyes, which were the same black and orange of the banners and slitted like a cat’s. But as Ciara studied him more closely, she could see that every part of him had been Remade. Every plane of this stranger’s body seemed to have been smoothed out while every angle was sharpened until he gave the impression of a knife in human form. Every inch of him radiated grace and deadly elegance.
This was bad. Neighboring villages or towns would sometimes send envoys over to trade or propose contests between Faiths but, as far as she knew, none of them had anyone with a third Blessing. These strangers must be from beyond the forests and, by sending a representative with a third Blessing, they were making a powerful statement.
The knifelike stranger waited until the crowd had grown large before speaking, and when he did, he spoke with a voice like an old warrior drilling new recruits.
“I am Demos of the War Dancer Faith. My men and I have been sent to offer towns and villages a chance to be a part of the Valvezian nation. If you join, you will need to pay taxes to the crown and provide men for the army, but you will be under our protection. If you do not, we will do nothing to aid you when the Ingathinians come, and they will lay waste to everything from the sea to the Shining Desert. Peoples in our nation will of course be allowed to continue the worship of their gods, though you will build a temple to Valvez here and provide sacrifice to his greatness at least twice a year. I can assure you the Ingathinians will not be as generous. The choice is yours, but you must make it quickly.”
Whispers ran through the crowd. As far as Ciara knew, none of the larger countries had ever paid any attention to what was going on in her little village, which made her think that the threat of a conflict with them in the middle was all too real. This could be bad.
But it could also be an opportunity. If the Valvezian army was recruiting, she could get out of her village once and for all. They might be hesitant to take girls for their military, but if she passed the Trial of their god, then they could hardly deny her.
She rushed off to tell her father what had happened, her mind afire with half-formed plots and schemes. Though, before she left, she caught a glimpse of a girl who seemed to be travelling with the Valvezians. She stood behind and to the side of Demos and his soldiers. She was around Ciara’s age, with purple eyes and purple hair, which had been cut short to sit just over the tops of her ears. She wore black accented with silver, and she seemed entirely unimpressed by the powerful disciples arranged around her.
Ciara’s steps faltered for a moment. The girl was beautiful. Like something out of a storybook.
Ciara shook herself and ran off. It was no time to be going all goofy over a pretty girl. She needed to inform her father of the situation.
He was at the inn baking bread, working with the pleasant efficiency with which he did everything.
“Daughter,” he said by way of greeting, smiling at Ciara as she came in. “Did you have a pleasant run?”
“Never mind that. Some people from one of the big countries have come into town. They want to absorb our village into their nation. They sent a disciple with a third Blessing to bring the message.”
“Gods all around,” her father swore. “Has that fool Gregor made a decision yet?”
“It only just happened. I’m not sure he even knows yet.”
Her father made a face. “Well, we’d better prepare for a big night. One way or another, a lot of people will want a drink.”
Ciara nodded and set about bringing up extra drink from the cellar. That was her place after all. As much as she dreamed of more, this was the life she led.
At least for now.
As predicted, that night was busy. Gregor, the mayor, had capitulated to all demands almost immediately and agreed to join the Valvezian nation, so the bar was alive with rumors and gossip about what exactly that would mean. Joan, the smith’s wife, was talking up a storm about how all the young boys would be sent off to fight in some far-off war. Herbert, a disciple of the Titus Mountains, was telling anyone who would listen how this would give them all sorts of new trading opportunities for their minerals. Old Bernard, who ran a small farm, was convinced it was all a lot of bother over nothing, people working themselves up when all it really meant was a few extra sacrifices a year.
Ciara heard it all but listened to little of it. She was focusing on how she could get the Valvezians to take her on as a disciple of their Faith. She wasn’t sure what Blessings the War Dancers had, but they were bound to be amazing.
She was thinking on this when Stella came in with a boy she had been spending some time with lately.
“Hey,” she said when Ciara came over to see what they wanted to drink. “I was hoping you’d be working tonight.”
Ciara’s heart skipped a beat, and she reminded it sternly that Stella liked boys and that this little crush was pure foolishness.
“Why’s that?” she asked, her voice as disinterested as she could manage.
“Well,” she said, a sly smile lighting up her eyes. “I need to test Tom here. Make sure he can tolerate a good bit of gossip between girlfriends. He’ll have to if he wants to go around with me.”
Ciara’s smile might have been a bit strained, but Stella didn’t seem to notice. “I assume you have some gossip, then?”
“Getting absorbed into a large country not enough for you?” she asked. “Very well, I like a challenge. Did you hear the Valvezians are going to be holding a tournament here between our young disciples and those from all neighboring villages? Apparently, they want to determine which Faiths are worth bringing back to their capital. First prize is a temple in the capital and a powerful sacrifice to the winner’s god.”
Ciara’s eyes lit up. She forgot all about her work and sat down next to Stella. “Really? When? Where did you hear this?”
Stella smiled broadly. “I knew that would get your attention. I heard the Valvezians talking about it. It’s going to be announced properly tomorrow and then held in a month’s time.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have heard how one enters this tournament, would you?”
Stella gave Ciara a worried look. “You can’t enter. It’s for disciples only. You’d have to be pledged to a god. Even then, there’s no way a Faith would select you to compete if you had only just joined up.”
“Yeah,” Ciara said, trying to act nonchalant and failing. “I just meant, you know, as gossip. I figure Allister will want to join up.”
Stella looked immediately suspicious. “I thought you didn’t like him.”
“I don’t,” Ciara said, though Stella smiled knowingly as though she protested too much. Ciara had never understood that. How much protesting was just enough?
“Ciara,” her father scolded as he passed by. “Work now, chat later, yes?”
“Yes, Father,” Ciara said, getting back to serving drinks, though her mind was still on the tournament. A chance to get a position in a big city, far away from arranged marriages, sounded like a dream come true. Much better than joining the Valvezian military where she would probably end up guarding one of the nearby villages anyway. She had heard that people in bigger cities weren’t as uptight about people like her, and the idea of being able to live her life openly thrilled her to no end. But to get in, she needed a god. Maybe she could pledge herself to a god tomorrow and then prove herself over the next month. That didn’t seem terribly likely, as they had a great many strong candidates already, but she wasn’t going to give up before she had even tried.
She planned and schemed and plotted until business had died down and her father let her off, then she retired to her room.
And found a strange man standing by her bed waiting for her.
He was at least ten years older than her and dressed strangely in a tunic and long trousers of a style she hadn’t seen before. They were finely made, but dishevelled and dirty, like a rich man who had taken a tumble off his horse and had to walk home. He might have been handsome once, but now he looked malnourished and weary, and he gave off an odd smell. Not bad, per se, but odd.
“Ciara, daughter of Ignas,” he said. His voice was like the rest of him: rich, but strained, and a bit off. “I want you. Kneel and be mine.”
Ciara might not be able to take on a disciple from a warrior Faith, but she could certainly bounce some rich, drunken buffoon who had stolen into her bedchamber. She advanced on him.
“I think you’d better leave.”
The man looked alarmed. “Didn’t you pray for this?”
That brought Ciara up short. “What?”
“Perhaps I should have introduced myself,” he said, dropping into a shallow bow. “Alix, god of tense alliances, at your service.”