The girl approached the lakeshore, uncertain.
“Is there something worrying you?” Eris asked, noticing her hesitation.
The novice did not answer, but did not advance either.
“Liryl, if you have doubts or fears, you should not be afraid of voicing them,” the head priestess encouraged her. “We are in no hurry, and nobody forces you to do it if you don’t want to.”
Eris’s words managed to cheer up the girl a little.
“You know, I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life,” she finally said, trying to find the best words to express her inner turmoil. “But, I was thinking … the priesthood of water exists to lead and support their sisters. What sense is there in me, an outcast, becoming a priestess of water?”
Eris smiled and sat down next to her, hinting her to sit as well.
“But I…” the girl tried to object.
“Come on, will you have me speaking the whole time with my neck bent like this?” the woman prodded her, looking at her from below. In the end, Liryl gave up and sat down by the lakeshore, next to the priestess.
“That’s better,” she commented in a satisfied tone. “If we are to speak calmly, there’s no reason to do so while standing.” Then, after a short pause, she continued. “During your journey, you surely must have met other priestesses. Tell me, dear: do you think that even one of them would be troubled or tipped if you were initiated as a priestess on this day?”
“… No,” Liryl conceded. “But … what right do I have to become a priestess, after having caused the death of so many sisters?”
“Have you forgotten what I told you before, about spirits?” Eris asked her in return. “They do not care about our daily matters, about our tribulations, about our very lives. The terms on which you enter in a relationship with spirits are ever changing. It is never up to us alone to decide the terms of our bond between them and us.”
“For what reason, then, should I become a priestess?” the girl asked.
Eris let out a sigh. “It’s the question which is ill-defined, little one. Think about it – why do priestesses put themselves in the service of their communities? Why do sentinels swear to defend their sisters, no matter what?”
The girl shook her head, perplexed.
“Because they want to, Liryl, that’s why,” the head priestess explained. “If you keep looking for reasons to relieve you from the responsibility of making your choices, you won’t find any, because they don’t exist. Reason can help us understand the consequences of our own choices, but it can’t choose in our stead. In the end, when it comes to making a choice, it’s our will which has to decide. And the only question which can give you an answer to your conundrum,” she concluded, “is if you want to become a priestess, or not.”
Liryl peered in silence at the surface of the lake.
“Do you mean,” she then murmured, “that I could refuse, as well?”
Eris nodded. “Nobody will force you to become a priestess if you don’t want to – least of all me. If I came all this way, it’s just because I believe that, after everything that happened to you,” she said, with a shade of regret in her voice, “you had at least the right to choose on your own, this time.”
The girl turned to meet the priestess’s eyes. Indeed, ever since she started her journey, she had been living all as if she could not do otherwise. Even when she did take a decision, part of her felt nonetheless constrained by circumstances to act like she did. Perhaps, what scared her the most in this moment was not the considerations she had expressed aloud, but the deep-seated fear that, this time, her choice was entirely in her own hands. No duress, no justification would have sealed her path. No other person but herself would have cared about what decision she would have taken on this day. Her mere act of will would have shaped her own destiny.
The girl turned again towards the lake. Then, after seconds of breathless silence, she rose up and took off her clothes.
Liryl’s foot touched shyly the surface of the lake, drawing subtle ripples in the water. It was not the first time she was about to walk on water, she had done so many times with the other novices in Fys Dhara during the last months of her training.
Why, then, does this step scare me so much now?
Her eyes searched for the priestess’s.
“Think back to how you met the people you love,” Eris suggested her. “Remember when you found the courage to rely on somebody else for the first time.”
Her memory ran back through time, to her first meetings with Eris, Sanya, and the other villagers, but as much as she struggled, the outlines of those memories remained blurry and undefined. Then, all of a sudden, a voice seemed to be calling her, from afar.
“Don’t be afraid. We’ll go in together, okay?”
Instinctively, Liryl’s hand closed, even if this time there was nobody to grab it. Her foot sank a couple inches under the surface, then it stopped, sustained on the liquid by an unseen force. The novice laid down the other foot on the water, too, then she started moving forward, slowly. A breeze stirred at some point, blowing in the girl’s hair, caressing her skin. Liryl was on the verge of losing her balance for a moment, but she held her position and kept walking.
As soon as she reached the center of the lake, Liryl stopped and looked down on the pool of water before her. The rune on her forehead was glowing faintly. The novice’s lips opened slightly, but no prayer came out of them.
What could I pray for? Who could I pray for? I can no longer help any of the people I love, with or without the might of the spirits.
“What does it mean, for you, to be a priestess?”
Liryl’s heart skipped a beat. Was that … my voice?
“How would you feel about … a test?”
The girl shook her head, confused. No, that’s not mine. But then who …? However, she still nodded reflexively.
A stronger gust of wind hit her, almost knocking her back. Then, a huge pillar of water rose from the lake, towering over the little nymph.
The spirits … are beckoning me?
The girl felt fear for the first time since she began the ritual. No novice was allowed to tell what happens in those moments, inside the water vortex. The girl heard that this was the place where the spirits would come in contact with her directly, putting her motivations to test. But she had no idea of what this actually meant. Liryl thought back to the contacts she had with the spirits of water, the feelings she experienced, but this did not ease her concern. Then, a voice called her once more.
“I’ll stay by your side the whole time, so don’t be afraid.”
The girl heard those words echoing faintly in her head, over and over again. Then, she loosened her fingers and entered into the column of water.
The surface beneath her feet, turbulent until a few instants before, seemed to have calmed down once inside. All around her, she could not see anything else. Given that water is transparent, she had expected to be able to see the undefined shadows of the surrounding landscape. Instead, beyond the water there was only an endless blue gleam, cold and gentle. Small drops fell from above on her shoulders, amid her hair, streaming down her body.
I’m here, now.
Suddenly, an image gradually took form on the water to her right.
Her village. Sanya. The rest of her sisters. Voices and words chasing one another, as the years flew erratically under her eyes. A feeling of sadness and nostalgia lumped the novice’s throat. That used to be her world, her home, the place which raised her. And which she would never see again.
Other, more recent memories started surfacing to her left. Her journey, the people she met, the shadows of her dreams. The smiles, the screams, the tears. The girl could not watch those images without feeling a pang of sorrow. Each of those images recalled a regret, a wrong path taken, something she would have wanted to go differently.
And yet …
Liryl could not help thinking back to something else, as well. To what she experienced despite those regrets. To the people she met thanks to those mistakes. To the smiles born of those mistakes. And to her surprise, the thoughts and the memories which she was struggling to dig up started forming under her eyes, painted on the water surface.
But then … you can hear me?
Eris’s words echoed in her head. Gradually, Liryl regained control of herself and, closing her eyes, she started searching again. Not in her memories, not in her thoughts, but in those of the party she was negotiating with. When her lids slowly opened again, she laid her eyes on an endless series of ever-changing landscapes. Rivers, lakes, mountains, oceans, rains, waterfalls. And deserts, and forests, as far as her eyes could see.
I … whenever I am to these places, I’ll be there by your side. Because I can’t lie to myself anymore, because I shall never be alone again. Will you be by my side, too?
Liryl’s lips, almost unconsciously, slowly began to move, whispering to the wind the same words which had echoed in the deepest corner of her heart. In response, the pillar of water started flowing quicker, until it suddenly closed down on her. Liryl barely managed to hold her breath and close her eyes once more, before the whirlpool hit her.
Where am I?
Liryl gradually opened her eyes. The world around her was blue, now. A dark blue, cold, yet quiet. She could feel the beat of her heart slowing down, easing as her muscles relaxed and gave in to this calm.
Will you … always be with me, now?
The girl was herself unsure about whom she was asking that question to, but a hand gently took her own in response to that prayer. A warm, tender and affectionate hand that woke up deep emotions inside her, all the feelings which the traumas of the last days had suppressed.
From above, a faint and suffused light shone over the girl’s face. Liryl stared at that distant light, intrigued. The hand seemed to lead her towards it. The girl held that hand more intensely, and nodded. A thousand gentle waves cuddled her from all directions, embracing her quietly and carrying her up. Liryl calmly closed her eyes and emerged.
She was back in her world, floating in the middle of the lake. A light drizzle fell from above, ticking on the surface like notes from a melody. However, in between her fingers she no longer held a hand. Instead, she was wielding a thin staff of gnarled wood, topped by a gleaming stone. The gems she saw in the past, mounted atop the staves at the end of initiations, were often dyed the colors of water – sapphires, turquoises, emeralds. Her own, though, was a polished and glowing amber stone, of a yellow as warm as the sunrays.
Liryl turned and looked for Eris. The priestess was watching her from the shore, and returned her look with a nod. The nymph started swimming towards her, when a soft and happy laugh echoed distantly in her head. Liryl looked up to the sky, surprised, then she nodded and smiled.
I’m happy I trusted you.
The girl finished dressing up without speaking, then she collected the staff she had left on the ground and turned towards Eris.
“Am I … a priestess, now?” she asked, shyly.
Eris confirmed. “It’s not the parties, the dances, or the consensus of other sisters which make a priestess out of you. It’s the pact you signed with the spirits of rivers, lakes and the sea which makes you what you are. They are the ones who chose you as a priestess, and you are the one who accepted.”
Liryl nodded. Then, she looked around. “What shall I do, now?”
The head priestess pointed towards north-east. “Fys Kharia should be that way, an hour of walk from here. Stock up on supplies there, because the journey through the Great Barrier can last even longer than two weeks. Then …” Eris sighed ruefully. “I don’t know what awaits you, then. You will be on your own.”
“Don’t worry, Eris,” Liryl comforted her, though. “I’ll be fine, I promise.” The girl bowed, out of gratitude. “Thanks for having believed in me, master,” she said, hugging gently the elder priestess. A moved Eris embraced her as well.
“Whatever you do, know that I am proud of you, little one.” Then she pulled back and showed a faint, sad smile. “Go now, Liryl. Your master won’t manage to hold back her tears much longer.”
Liryl smiled as well and nodded. Then, she started running north-east, without looking back.