It is time something is done,” the high priest of Ariel said to himself as he paced his bare cell. “It is time to act.” The thick candle guttered in the swirls stirred up by Biorkis’s passing to and fro. A stack of parchment scrolls teetered precariously upon the table, clustered and rustling like autumn leaves in the breeze.
“It is time . . . It is time,” he said, heaving himself through the door of his cell and into the darkened passageway through a side entrance used only by the priests. He hobbled across a moonlit courtyard and through a narrow portal in the wall, then stood at the edge of the plateau and looked out across the silent valley below. He turned and cast his old gaze, still sharp as blades, toward the eastern sky.
The moon was overhead, but in the east a star blazed brightly—more brilliant than any of its sisters. And around the glowing star a film of light seemed to gather, streaming out from the star’s core. The portion of the night where that star was fixed shone with pale radiance, and wherever the eye roamed in examination of night’s black dome, it was drawn back to that star—the Wolf Star.
“Yes! It is time to act!” shouted Biorkis. His voice was echoed back to him from the empty courtyard and the temple colonnade beyond the wall. He turned, fled over the jumble of rocks, and swept back through the courtyard and into the temple once more. He made his way, puffing along on short, stout legs, to one of the temple’s many summons gongs. He picked up the striker and, pausing one final instant for reflection, banged it into the gong several times in quick succession.
“That will bring them running,” he said, and he was right.
In a moment the vestibule was filled with sleepy priests who rubbed their eyes and groaned at the disturbance to their slumbers.
“Brother priests!” Biorkis’s voice sounded loudly in their sleep-dulled ears. He shouted on purpose to bring them fully awake. “My bed has remained empty these two nights running; you can bear with me just this little while. I wish to speak to you.” There were groans among the general body of priests.
“What is this, Biorkis? Why have you called us from our devotions?”
“Your snoring vespers are not important,” Biorkis snapped at his insolent questioner. “It is time to act! The star which shines without, growing bigger with each passing night—I know what it means.”
“And this could not wait until morning?” The speaker was Pluell, the under-high priest, his own assistant. He, at least, had the privilege, as Biorkis had once had, of questioning the high priest.
“I think not. It has waited too long already. While we have blindly contemplated its meaning at our leisure, the star has grown large, and with it the strength of the evil it betokens. Mensandor is under siege by forces from far countries. The world we know is trembling on the brink of destruction.”
There was a murmur among the priests. Pluell bent to confer with several of his brothers. “I am surprised to hear that you are so concerned, Biorkis. It is not like you at all. You are the one who has ever instructed us of the folly of considering the commerce of mortal kings and their petty concerns.
“It does alarm me to hear you speak so now. Should we not draw aside, you and I, and discuss this together?”
Biorkis bridled at the suggestion. “Why, Pluell, do I sense in your tone the shriek of ambition? Why should not our brothers hear what I have to say?”
The under-high priest stepped toward his mentor, placing a hand on his arm as if he would lead him aside. “This is not the time to display such ill-founded airs before our assembled brothers. Come aside. You are tired, and your vigil has made you somewhat—shall we say, irrational.”
“Irrational, indeed! I have never been so lucid in my long and eventful life. But I do not understand your manner at all. Why do you look at me so?”
“It is late, brothers. Return to your cells and to your rest. We will no doubt have a more fruitful discussion tomorrow.”
Some of the priests made as if to leave; others stood hesitantly, uncertain whether to stay or go as instructed.
“I am high priest!” shouted Biorkis angrily. “Have you forgotten? All of you stay where you are and hear me! I propose to send King Eskevar word of our discovery.”
“Your discovery, Biorkis. You cannot expect us to endorse it, surely.” Pluell’s voice was smooth, and there was not a trace of sleep or fatigue in it.
Suddenly Biorkis realized what was happening: Pluell’s overreaching ambition, long held in check, was now released. He was making his move to take over the high priesthood. Biorkis trembled with rage as the realization knifed though him. What a fool I have been, he thought. While I have lain awake seeking an answer to the riddle of yonder star, he has been scheming for my rod.
“It shall not be, viper!” Biorkis shouted. His unexplained outburst brought wondering stares from the assembled priests. “Take your hand from me! Hear me, brothers. I am high priest, and long have you known me. When have I ever proposed a thing unwisely, or brought dishonor to the god whom we serve?”
There were doleful looks all around and much foot shuffling. No one ventured to speak. Pluell fumed silently at Biorkis’s right hand, his eyes narrowed with hate.
“Why should the suggestion of a message to the king cause such concern for some of our brothers?” As he spoke, the high priest gazed about him and recognized some who must belong to Pluell’s faction. He knew he was fighting now at a great disadvantage, but his heart warmed with anger, and his thoughts became crystalline.
“What does anyone have to fear of my sending word to our monarch? Unless there is a reason why they would keep all knowledge of events to come to themselves. Unless they would remove the high temple from its place as servant to the subjects of the realm.”
Pluell laughed, but there was no mirth in his voice. “How you do go on, Biorkis. There is nothing at all to prevent your communication with the king if you like.”
“Of course not. I am high priest. A journey to Askelon is within the authority of my sacred vows, for I will it to be so. I would grant this same authority to any who served me in the matter.”
“Why not go, then, and make the trip yourself ?” Pluell hissed.
“I? I am too old, and a younger man could travel faster. I will set my seal to a letter to be carried by one whom I will choose.”
“I do not think you would find any who would as eagerly cast aside their vows as you would have them.”
“They would not violate their vows. I have already said as much— why do you persist in this?” Biorkis felt suddenly weak and sick. Somewhere— though Biorkis had not seen it—the crafty Pluell had turned the discourse to his advantage. The high priest knew he was doomed, though he could not see how.
“Who better than the high priest to go and speak to a king? Let your own lips bear your tidings.”
“Very well,” said Biorkis angrily. “I will go. Who will come with me?” He glared around the circle of bewildered faces.
No one volunteered.
“What? Will no one accompany the high priest on this arduous journey? I could order all of you to go!”
“Maybe now we should come aside and talk,” suggested Pluell once more. He seemed to glow with satisfaction.
“I have nothing more to say to you!” Biorkis raised his rod and brought it down with a crash upon the stone floor at his feet.
“As you will, brother. Then I have no other choice but to inform the priests of Ariel of the transgressions committed by the high priest and ask for their recommendation.”
“What transgressions? Name them—I am not afraid. In all my life as a priest I have ever been faithful to my vows and to the god.”
“You force my hand. Hear then, all priests,” Pluell said, nodding to a priest who had drawn close. The priest handed over a scroll that Pluell took and made a great show of unrolling. In a strident, accusing voice, the under-high priest began reading off a list of imaginary crimes that Biorkis was alleged to have committed against the temple and his vows. The priests looking on appeared divided; some nodded their agreement with the charges; others wore looks of astonishment and disbelief.
When Pluell was finished, he turned to Biorkis. “What do you have to say to these indictments?”
“Azrael take your indictments! There is no truth in them; any who know me can tell you that. But I do not think it matters at all what I say; you have already made up your mind how this will end. Get on with it.”
Pluell turned to the assembly and with his easy and unperturbed manner said, “You have heard with your own ears that he will protest the charges no further. There is but one recommendation we can bring: Biorkis is to be stripped of his priesthood and a new high priest should assume his duties. Biorkis is to be cast out from among us. Are there any who would gainsay these recommendations?”
The room was silent as a grave. No one moved a muscle.
The moment passed, and Pluell, speaking with calm assurance in a voice tinged with false sadness, turned to Biorkis. “I am sorry it had to end this way. It would have been better for you to have gone away alone while you had the chance. I would have spared you this indignity.”
“Don’t spare me, foul friend! I will go at once, but hear me before I leave, all you priests of Ariel.” He gazed at each man, many of them close friends who turned away from his burning stare in shame for their silence. “Evil has this night entered this temple. It will destroy each one of you if you do not pluck it out and cast it aside at once.”
In response to a signal from Pluell, four temple guards came forward with torches. They took Biorkis by the arms.
“I am going,” the high priest shouted. “But remember my words, all of you. The land is fallen under a shadow. Soon no place will be safe— not even the High Temple of Ariel. If you will not follow me and do what must be done, at least look upon the one whom you have chosen, and know him for what he is.
“The people of the realm will seek your protection and bid the gods to defend them. You will not be able to do it, for your prayers will not be heard.”
“Take him away!” shouted Pluell. “He is raving again.”
The guards moved to take Biorkis out; the great wooden doors of the temple were already swinging open. The night air blew in among the assembled priests as a sudden chilling reminder of Biorkis’s dire predictions.
The temple guards hauled their former leader down the long stone steps of the temple and pushed him into the courtyard. Biorkis stumbled a few steps away and then turned toward his accusers, who had spilled out upon the steps to watch him go. The white-haired old man raised his rod of office, which the guards had neglected to wrest from him, and said in a voice strong as cutting steel, “The end of this age is upon us. Look to yourselves for your salvation; the gods will not help you. This temple will not stand!”
So saying, he threw the rod to the ground, where it burst into a thousand pieces. Then he turned and hobbled off into the night.