The last light of day splashed crimson into the sky and tinted the edges of lingering clouds violet and blue. Quentin walked easily, though nervously, between Mollena and Toli. Ahead of them loomed the graceful silhouette of the Ariga temple.
Mollena was dressed in a long flowing robe of white, edged in silver, and her gray hair was pulled back straight to hang down her back. Quentin gazed upon her as he walked, thinking that something of the woman she must have been was revived in her this night. She appeared much younger than her years, her skin smoothed, the wrinkles eased with a radiance he had never seen in her countenance.
“Yes, it is Mollena and no other,” she replied to his wondering glance. Her eyes twinkled brightly as they approached an avenue of torches leading to the temple entrance.
Quentin, embarrassed and enjoying it at the same time, said, “You are beautiful tonight, Mollena.”
She laughed. “You say that now because you have not met our young women.”
Quentin realized with a wince that he would not be meeting any young women at all—he and Toli had made plans to leave in the morning. His gaze slid from Mollena’s laughing mouth to Toli’s deep-set dark eyes. He, like Quentin, was dressed in a sky-blue mantle that covered a white tunic embroidered with silver at the neck. Toli looked like a Pelagian prince with his brown skin and gleaming black hair. For all the trouble they had faced in getting him to give up his rough skins, Toli appeared quite used to such finery.
Quentin, though, was too nervous to enjoy himself—except in fleeting moments when he forgot what was about to happen. For he was about to be presented in a special temple service given in his honor. Quentin was to receive a special gift, as Yeseph had explained it; he was to receive the Blessing of the Ariga.
What that might be, Quentin could only guess.
“Here you are,” said Yeseph. Quentin did not see him at first. He was gazing up at the sweeping lines of the temple’s narrow, finger-thin central tower. People dressed in the same simple elegance as Mollena and Yeseph streamed into the temple. “Follow me—and I will lead us to our places.”
Quentin obeyed mutely. He was much too busy taking in all the sights and sounds—a chorus had begun singing as they entered the vestibule of the temple.
Yeseph led them along quickly. Quentin could see through the spaces between the great hanging tapestries they passed that the sanctuary of the temple was already mostly filled with worshippers. They moved around the semicircular auditorium and arrived at a side entrance where three men in long white robes waited with a half dozen young men carrying large candlesticks of burnished gold.
One of the priests, for so Quentin took them, held out a white robe for Yeseph, who slipped it on over his other garments. “Now,” he said, “we are ready. Quentin, you follow me and do as I instructed you earlier. Mollena, you and Toli may take your places in the front row. You may watch from there.”
The three priests, or elders, turned and formed a single line. Yeseph stepped into file behind them and Quentin behind him. The fire bearers stood on either side of them, forming, Quentin thought, an impressive procession.
Then they were moving down a wide aisle toward a raised platform, behind which hung a great golden tapestry that glittered bright as the sun in the light of hundreds of candles.
There were seats arranged in a semicircle on the platform behind a large stone altar. Upon reaching the final step, the elders went to their seats and the fire bearers placed their candles in the receptacles around the altar. Yeseph took a seat near the center of the circle, and Quentin sat at his right hand.
“Listen carefully and do as I say,” Elder Yeseph instructed. “There will be an invocation—a calling of the One to hear our prayers. Then Elder Themu will deliver a short message to our people. When that is done, it will be our turn. We will enter into the holy place. I will lead; you will follow.”
Quentin nodded his understanding, and the choir began a short verse, which was followed by one of the elders ascending to the device Quentin had taken for an altar—it was a large stone cube set in the center of the platform with steps at the rear, allowing the speaker to climb to the top. Around it in a circle burned the candles placed by the fire bearers.
“Mighty Perun nim Perano, King of Kings, you who ever hear our prayers, hear us now . . .”
The invocation continued, and to Quentin it seemed somewhat similar, and yet very different, from the invocations he had heard in the temple at Narramoor. Similar in the style of speech and the words used, but very different in the way in which it was delivered. There was no fear, no self-consciousness or ostentatious display of humility. The elder spoke simply and with assurance that his voice was heard by the god, as it was heard by the hundreds who filled the sanctuary. Quentin shifted nervously in his chair, a little unnerved by the idea that the god was actually listening to them, watching them.
Quentin imagined that he could actually feel the god’s presence and then surprised himself when a real surge of emotion welled up within him in response to his imaginings.
He puzzled on these things as the ceremony moved along its determined course.
Quentin started to his feet at Yeseph’s example as the words of Elder Themu’s message died away in the vast hall. He had daydreamed through the entire speech—it seemed like only moments since he had been seated, and yet he had a vague recollection that there had been more singing and the reading of the sacred text. But it all ran together in his mind as one brief event. Now he was standing and moving toward the stone with Yeseph.
“My good friends,” said Yeseph to the congregation. Quentin looked out at the hundreds of bright eyes glittering in the light of the candles. All he saw were the eyes. “We have come tonight to confer upon this young man, a sojourner among us, the Blessing of the Ariga.” Nods of approval rippled through the auditorium. “Attend us now with your prayers.”
Yeseph signaled the fire bearers, who came forward, each carrying a candle in a shallow bowl.
The fire bearers filed to the rear of the platform, followed by Yeseph and Quentin and then the remaining elders. As they approached the wonderful golden tapestry, two of the fire bearers stepped up and drew the tapestry aside, and Quentin saw a narrow doorway.
Yeseph entered the doorway, darkened but for the flickering glow of the candles, and they passed through a short corridor into an inner chamber.
The chamber was much like the inside of a tomb, thought Quentin. Bare. Cut out of smooth stone with a stone ledge running the length of the farther wall. No symbols or ornaments were to be seen as the fire bearers silently began placing their candles about the room.
Quentin heard the gentle splash of water and saw at one end of the oblong room a small fountain playing peacefully in a hollow bowl set in the floor.
The elders took their places along the stone ledge, and Yeseph drew Quentin toward the fountain. “Kneel, Quentin.”
Quentin knelt down before the fountain and felt the smooth stone cool against his legs. In the quiet he heard the breathing of the elders behind him and the burble of the fountain dancing in its bowl. Then Yeseph, standing over him, said, “This is a place of power, the center of the Arigas’ devotion, for in this room each young Ariga received a blessing when he came of age.
“They received many blessings throughout life, but this was a special one, delivered not by the elder or priest, but by Whist Orren, the Most High God himself.
“This special blessing they carried throughout life, and it became a part of their life. They did not earn it, nor did it require a ritual of purification or obedience. The blessing is a gift of the god. All that is required is a true heart and a desire to receive it.
“Now then, is there any reason why you should not receive the Blessing of the Ariga?” Quentin, his eyes focused on the fountain while Yeseph had been speaking, turned to look into the elder’s kindly eyes.
“No,” he said softly. “It is my desire to receive the blessing.”
“Then so be it,” said Yeseph. Raising his hands above Quentin’s head, he began to speak. “Most High God, here is one who would be your follower. Speak to him now, and out of your wisdom and truth, give him your blessing.”
Again Quentin was struck by the bare simplicity of the prayer—an unadorned request, spoken with calm assurance.
Yeseph stooped to the fountain and cupped his hands in the water. “Drink,” he commanded, offering Quentin the water.
Quentin took a sip, and Yeseph then touched his forehead with damp fingertips. “Water is the symbol of life; all living things need water to live. And so it is the symbol of the Creator of Life, Whist Orren.
“Close your eyes,” Yeseph instructed and lifted his voice in an ancient song.
At first Quentin did not recognize the words; the elder’s quavering voice echoed strangely in his ears as it reverberated in the stone chamber. Yeseph’s song seemed to swell, filling the chamber, and Quentin realized the others were singing too. It was a song about the god and his promise to walk among his people and guide them in his ways. Quentin found the song moving, and as the simple melody was repeated, he recited the words to himself.
Gradually Yeseph’s song died away, and Quentin heard a voice. Was it Yeseph’s or another’s? He could not tell—it could have been his own. The voice seemed to speak directly to his heart, to some part of him that he carried deep within.
Quentin then entered a dream.
In the dream he still knelt upon the cool stone floor, but around him lay a bright meadow of limitless size. The lush green valley shimmered in honeyed light. The light itself seemed to emanate from no single source, but rather hung over the meadow like a golden mist.
The air smelled of pine and the lighter fragrance of sweet grass. Overhead the sky formed an arc of delicate blue iridescence, which fairly rippled with subtle shades of changing color, yet appeared always the same. No sun roamed the sky, but the heavens, as the whole of the valley, seemed charged with light.
A crystal brook burbled close by, joyfully offering up its music to his ears. The water seemed alive as it splashed and danced along, sliding over the smooth, round stones.
An air of peace breathed over the scene, and Quentin felt a surge of joy spring up like a fountain inside him. His heart tugged within him, as if struggling to break free and soar aloft on light wings of happiness.
The voice he had heard before called him again, saying, “Quentin, do you know me?”
Quentin looked around somewhat fearfully. He saw no one nearby who might be speaking to him; he was utterly alone. But the voice continued.
“In the still of the night you have heard my voice, and in the depths of your heart you have sought my face. Though you searched for me in unholy temples, I cast you not aside.”
Quentin shuddered and asked in a small voice, “Who are you? Tell me, that I may know you.”
“I am the Maker, the One, the Most High. The gods themselves tremble in my presence. They are shadows, faint mists tossed on the breeze and dispersed. I alone am worthy of your devotion.”
As the voice spoke, Quentin realized he had heard it many times before, or had so longed to hear it—in the dark of his temple cell when he cried out alone. He knew it, though he had never heard it this clearly, this distinctly, before.
“O Most High, let your servant see you,” Quentin pleaded. Instantly the peaceful meadow was awash in a brilliant white light, and Quentin threw his arm across his face.
When he dared to peer beneath his arm, he saw the shimmering form of a man standing before him.
The man stood tall, with wide shoulders, rather young, but his features bore the stamp of a wise, seasoned leader. The man’s form seemed to waver in Quentin’s gaze as if Quentin were seeing a reflection in the water. The man appeared solid enough, but his outline grew fuzzy at the edges as if made of focused beams of living light, or clothed in an aura of rainbowlike luminescence.
But his face held Quentin’s attention. The Man of Light’s eyes gleamed like hot coals, and his face shone with the radiance of glowing bronze. Quentin could not remove his gaze from the dark, fathomless depths of the man’s burning eyes. They held his in a sort of lover’s embrace: strong yet gentle, commanding yet yielding. Hunger of a kind Quentin could not name burned out from those eyes, and Quentin felt afraid for presuming to exist within the sphere of the radiant being’s sight.
“Have no fear,” said the man. The tone was unspeakably gentle. “Long have I had my hand on you and upheld you. Look on me and know in your heart that I am your friend.”
Quentin did as he was bid and experienced a sudden rush of recognition, as if he had just met a close friend or a brother who had been long absent. His eyes filled with tears.
“Please, I am not worthy . . .”
“My touch will cleanse you,” said the Man of Light.
Quentin felt a warmth upon his forehead where the man placed two fingertips. The shame vanished as the warmth spread throughout his body. He wanted to leap, to sing, to dance before the Man of Light who stood over him.
“You seek a blessing,” said the Man of Light. “You have but to name it.”
Quentin tried to make the words come, but they would not. “I do not know how to ask for this blessing . . . though I know in my heart that I need it.”
“Then we will ask your heart to reveal what lies within.”
A sound of anguish and sorrow such as Quentin had never heard ripped from his own throat. It was as if a stopper had been removed from a jar and the contents poured out upon the ground in a sudden flood.
The cry ended as suddenly as it began, though for a moment it lingered in the air as it faded. Quentin blinked in amazement, shocked by the intensity of his own feelings—for that was what it was: the raw, unspoken emotions wrenched from his heart.
“Your heart is troubled about a great many things,” said the Man of Light. “You cry out for your friends. You fear what may happen to them if you are not with them. You seek the assurance of success in rescuing your king from the hold of the evil one.”
Quentin nodded dumbly; these were his feelings of the last few days.
“But more than this you seek higher things: wisdom and truth. You would know if there are true gods men may pray to who will answer their prayers.”
It was true. All the long nights alone in his temple cell, the anguished cries of longing came back to him.
“Quentin.” The Man of Light stretched out a broad, open hand to him. “My ways are wisdom, and my words are truth. Seek them and your path will know no fear. Seek me and you will find life.
“You ask a blessing—I will give you this: Your arm will be righteousness and your hand justice. Though you grow weary and walk in darkness, fear nothing. I will be your strength and the light at your feet. I will be your comforter and guide; forsake me not, and I will give you peace forever.”
Quentin, looking deeply into the Man of Light’s eyes, felt himself falling into the limitless void of time—as if through the dark reaches of starless night. He saw not through his own eyes, but through the eyes of the god, the orderly march of the ages, time stretching out past and future in front of him in an unbroken line.
Then he saw a man he seemed to recognize. He was arrayed for battle, and his armor blazed as if made from a single diamond; he carried a sword that burned with a hungry flame, and a shield that shone with a cool radiance, scattering light like a prism.
The knight spoke and raised his sword, and the darkness retreated before him. Then the knight, with a mighty heave, flung the sword into the air, where it spun, throwing off tongues of fire that filled the sky.
When the knight turned again, Quentin recognized with a shock that the knight was himself—older and stronger, but himself.
“I am the Lord of All,” said the voice, “maker of all things.” Then the vision faded, and Quentin was once again staring into the Man of Light’s eyes. But now he knew them to be the eyes of the god himself, whose voice he had heard in the night, who had called him by name.
“Quentin, will you follow me?” the Man of Light asked gently.
Quentin, bursting with contending emotions, threw himself at the Man of Light’s feet and touched them with his hands. A current of living energy flowed through him, and he felt stronger, wiser, surer than ever before in his life. He felt as if he had touched the source of life itself.
“I will follow,” said Quentin, his voice small and uncertain.
“Then rise. You have received your blessing.”
When Quentin came to himself, he was lying on his side in the dark. A single candle burned in its shallow bowl. Before him the fountain splashed; the sound made the chamber seem empty. Quentin raised his head to look around and saw that he was alone.
As he got up to leave the inner room, he noticed that his right arm and hand tingled with a peculiar prickly sensation: both hot and cold at the same time. He paused to rub them and then went out.