Regardless of when Sammy would have woken up, the bells tolled at sunrise. However, she didn’t mind, Julie pampering her oh so much for the rude awakening. A kiss, a cuddle, a flirty back-and-forth—and that was all before leaving their pushed-together beds.
What a perfect start to the day, Sammy thought.
But life had its ups and its downs and the next part of her morning was spent doing laundry while avoiding the polite friendliness of the female apprentices. Churches and such didn’t exactly permit guests who were menstruating, something about not inviting sin into the home of the gods, so she didn’t want to risk being made to wait a few days to do what she needed to do here.
By the time Sammy returned to the room, Julie was back too. It was clear to Sammy that Julie had both worked up a sweat and wiped it off, a familiar smell in the air. Enticed by it, Sammy greeted Julie with a hug and buried her face into Julie’s shoulder, letting that scent fill her nose.
“D’you want me to bring breakfast here?” Julie asked.
Sammy almost chuckled at the misunderstanding, instead addressed it with a kiss on Julie’s neck, holding back the sudden urge to nibble. Vampires made a lot more sense to her now, necks so very tempting.
Julie let out a weak moan, her hand that had been on Sammy’s back climbing up to the back of Sammy’s head, fingers curling, loosely holding her hair. But that only lasted a couple of seconds before Julie’s senses came back to her and she started to overthink.
“Not now,” Julie mumbled.
Bringing her lips to Julie’s ear, Sammy whispered, “Really?” Julie shivered, and Sammy felt an incredible thrill at that.
“I don’t think… I could… look anyone in the eye,” Julie said, choosing her words carefully.
This time, Sammy did laugh, soft giggles that tickled Julie’s ear. As far as answers went, she thought that one was fair enough.
Besides, Sammy still wished to keep Julie’s cuteness to herself, so it wouldn’t do to show others those shy expressions.
Their breakfast was as simple as their dinner had been, the thin soup not exactly filling. However, it was easy to eat and cut through the morning chill, Sammy thankful for that. And despite their delay in coming, they still finished before Yewry had even arrived.
“I wonder if her father will be thankful we wore her out,” Sammy whispered, tone light.
Julie snorted, thankful she knew better than to take a sip when Sammy was speaking.
As it was, they ran into Yewry and Yo’can on the way out, arranging to meet a little later. Sammy then took the alone time she had with Julie to wander around the grounds. She had something in mind, but was happy to just walk. There were plenty of little things for her to explain and many little things to see and that all kept her distracted from the grumbling aches and pains.
“It’s actually quite common for churches to rent out scrubland to farmers for goats and sheep to graze,” Sammy softly said, watching some sheep plod around the pasture.
But Julie couldn’t help herself from asking, “D’you need to rest?”
Sammy shook her head. “Honestly, I feel better from this gentle exercise.”
Though Julie took Sammy at her word, that didn’t stop her from checking again every ten or so minutes—much to Sammy’s amusement. After a few more checks, they finally found what Sammy had been looking for.
An orchard of plum trees, hidden behind a small hill, was in full bloom. It was like the trees had the most beautiful, white leaves, every branch covered in blossoms, swaying in the wind. From a distance, they looked fluffy; from up close, they looked incredible, so very fragrant too.
Sammy delicately raised a branch for Julie to sniff. “Shall we have plum trees in our garden?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Julie said without thinking, and then she thought, quickly overwhelmed with a blush. “Yeah,” she said again, little more than a whisper.
Sammy smiled. “I have read a few stories of pink plum blossoms in the snow—wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Julie nodded, not trusting her voice right now.
After admiring the blossoms a little longer, they headed back, easy to find their way with the cathedral and its bell towers to guide them. Once they reached the courtyard, Yewry was already there and walked over with a huff.
“Where have you been?” Yewry asked, only to shake her head. “Actually, I do not wish to know.”
Sammy’s slight smile made Yewry feel she had made the right choice in saying that.
In a more subdued tone now, Yewry said, “You wish to make your offering now?”
“Yes,” Sammy said.
Yewry took a deep breath, then turned around, nodding.
Sammy translated for Julie on the way to their room. With the box of incense in hand, they returned—but not to the courtyard. Tucked away behind the cathedral was a small chapel, not even a spire atop it. It was not at all similar to cathedral, made of rough, simple bricks, thick grooves of mortar between them, the roof tiles aged and mismatched, some replaced over the years.
What was interesting about the chapel was that the double doors had a cut-out where a large bell hung.
The head priest awaited them outside, a grumpy look to him despite his small smile. An old man even by church standards, his wrinkles had wrinkles, his liver spots had moles, but he didn’t look particularly frail or weak, standing tall.
In Dworfen and with a thick accent, he said, “This aged-one is told this girl wishes to make an offering?”
Sammy listened to him, then pointedly turned and spoke quietly to Julie. Once she was done, she turned back, smiling, and said in Dworfen, “Yes.”
He met her stare for a long second before speaking. “This shrine is not opened but at the behest of the gods,” he said, tone measured.
“Well, the gods have behested this child, so this child shall leave it in the gods’ hands to open the shrine,” Sammy replied, then turned to tell Julie what had been said.
In that pause, Yewry stepped forward and spoke once Sammy had finished. “This daughter is the third-born of King O’keynocker and has witnessed the gods’ blessing on… this guest,” she said, gesturing at Sammy. Yo’can, Go’eh, and Kaygo then offered simple affirmations of Yewry’s words.
The head priest scrutinised Yewry, paying attention to the signs of nobility that adorned her—the fabrics used, the craftsmanship, the bits of jewellery, and the coat of arms on the guards’ coats.
From the loose crowd of clergy, the head priest pointed out a few sturdy-looking men. “The Divine Bow and Arrow.”
A murmur of excitement passed over the small crowd, only to be silenced by the priests and priestesses. So they all stood in silence for the minute or so it took the chosen men to rush off and then come back.
They brought with them a large bow, heavy enough that it took two to carry it, a little taller than Sammy. The limbs were thick and shaped like a longbow rather than like a recurve bow (different to the war bow), wood simply carved—no decoration to it. The bowstring was more like twine, thick and with hints of fraying, yellowed with age. As for the arrow, the third man held it in both hands like it was an offering, bigger than any arrow Sammy had seen before.
“Be it not for this aged-one to decide, if the gods wish to accept this girl’s offering, let them give strength to raise the bow and skill to ring the bell,” he said, gesturing to a spot about thirty paces from the chapel’s door.
There was a hint of theatre to his voice, or perhaps Sammy had heard what she’d chosen to hear. Regardless of his intentions, she had no intention to back down, accepting the bow and arrow.
However, the bow was heavy. Julie was surprised to see Sammy actually, well, not struggle, but there wasn’t the usual effortlessness, Sammy letting the bottom of the bow rest on the floor while she nocked the arrow. When Sammy raised the bow, it also looked more like a heave, her feet adjusting and body weight shifting back.
Still, Sammy cleanly pulled back the bowstring, bow creaking, holding it there—
And the bowstring snapped, lashing across the back of her hand and wrist. Julie flinched, but Sammy didn’t, still holding her posture.
All around them, there was the heavy silence of a bunch of clergy who had just watched one of their precious relics be broken. Even the head priest was lost for words, mouth open as he stared. However, Yewry was very thankful it wasn’t her bow, feeling like she’d really dodged an arrow that day back at her home.
Before anyone had recovered enough to say anything, Sammy pulled her arm back and then snapped it forward, throwing the bow like a giant dart.
Gong went the bell, bow cracked in half.
“You are most welcome—how embarrassing it would have been if someone important had shown you that your relic was not truly divine,” Sammy said to the head priest, then turned to Julie to take the box of incense. “I shall try not to be long,” she whispered.
Julie dumbly nodded, somehow still surprised despite everything going about the same as always when Sammy was involved.
Without waiting for anything unnecessary (like permission), Sammy strolled to the double doors and pulled the one open to slip inside, closing it behind her. She found herself in an entrance hall, another set of doors a couple steps in front. So she went through those too.
As soon as those doors shut, a stifling kind of silence fell, helped by the thick darkness of the room. It wasn’t a large chapel, but—being a shrine—there were no benches to fill it up, no altar or podium.
No, there were simply twelve statues for the twelve gods. Even in the darkness, Sammy could see them, not quite glowing, but simply existing as things that could be seen. The floor around them was darkness, the walls behind them darkness, the doors behind her darkness, but she could see them like they bathed in the sun’s light.
Trusting her feet, Sammy walked to the middle of the room and ran her gaze across them. However, she found herself stopping on the statue of Liliana, meeting the empty stare of those marble eyes.
Without looking away, Sammy opened the box. Like she’d said, it was full of incense sticks, just that they were rather cheap and she purposely hadn’t brought anything to light them. So what she did was take one out, walked over, and poked it up the statue’s nose, making sure to really rub it around.
There was no flare of light or heavenly hymn: one moment, the statue was still; the next, it was alive. Its marble lips pursed, unseeing eyes narrowed, before finally it spoke.
“If you would stay your hand.”
Sammy didn’t jump or flinch and even kept the stick of incense in the statue’s nose for a moment longer, making it seem like it was of her own choosing when she did lower her arm. The statue tall, she took a few steps back to see its face comfortably.
“I am afraid I had no means of lighting it,” she said, the feigned contrition far from convincing.
The statue that had become Liliana’s avatar sighed, but moved on. “Hero, we gods have observed thy pilgrimage and see fit to reward thou with a boon.”
“Nothing better to do?” Sammy said, sweetly smiling.
Liliana cleared her throat. “To aid thou in thy coming trials and tribulations, we shall bestow thou with the ability to heal wounds, particularly those inflicted by wild beasts.”
“I want divine fire.”
This time, Liliana reckoned Sammy. And Sammy didn’t falter. She met the unseeing gaze, standing tall with an air of calmness. There was no show of regret or subservience or reverence.
Liliana, seeing clearly her own position, moved to reasoning. “Has thou not seen the damage such beasts cause? It is in thy interest to have means to address any such incidents,” she said.
“I am confident in my abilities,” was Sammy’s answer, given without hesitation.
“As thou should, yet who can tell when an accident may happen?”
Sammy didn’t reply right away, but she didn’t look away, staring at the marble eyes with a renewed intensity. “Tell me, did you have Amélie suffer just to show me that ability?”
After a long second, Liliana asked, “Why would thou say that?”
“Sister Tutty claimed she could only perform such miracles at the gods’ behest,” Sammy said slowly. “Was she lying or did the gods leave a child in suffering?”
The calm Sammy spoke with belied the venom behind the words.
Liliana gestured with a hand as she said, “We work in ways that are, at times, unclear for even the most learned.”
Then, in a whisper, Sammy said, “It would do you well to remember that you are the ones who chose me—who need me. I had no say in this nor did I desire it. And I know you know this, so you must truly have no one else to burden. Now, will you give me the boon I demand, or shall I end my pilgrimage right here?”
Seconds trickled by until Liliana finally spoke. “If not for this burden, would you have your relationship with Julianne?”
Sammy stood still; after a moment, she began to flare, divine power aimlessly writhing out in all directions, some tendrils glancing off the statue. As quickly as it had begun, though, it died down to a glow, Sammy’s face scrunching up. In a stalemate, the divine power waxed and waned, never quite reaching its initial intensity nor dying down entirely.
A long minute later, Sammy relented. Even though her chest burned, she controlled her breaths; even though her head was pounding, didn’t so much as wince; even though she’d lost, no one who heard her would think it.
“Let that be your warning. If anything should happen to her, know that I will have no need to save this world,” Sammy said, her tone no different to earlier.
No matter how long Liliana stared, Sammy never faltered.
“Is that so?” Liliana said, measured.
But Sammy heard the challenge behind the words. “Make no mistake, when you chose me, you did not choose a pawn. Although my father may rule by your grace, I reject you and everything the gods stand for. I will rule by relying on the strength of the people. Whether or not that will be enough, I cannot say, but I would not have this world beholden to those who cannot care for it.”
A moment passed, then Liliana said, “If you rule, not when.”
Sammy smirked, gesturing with her hands. “Do you truly think anyone could stop me from claiming what I desire? If you have been watching me, then you know full well the extent of my dedication.”
Silence settled. It was neither heavy nor light, simply the silence of one side having said their piece and the other side considering. And the minute it lasted was simply as long as it took for the considerations to take place.
“It is humorous to me how little and how much you have changed since our last meeting,” Liliana said.
With that, the statue stilled, looking exactly as it had before, no sense of life to it.
But Sammy didn’t look the same, her eyes suddenly wide and hand reaching out. “What do you mean?” she asked, voice hurried.
She stopped herself there, seeing that Liliana had left. However, those parting words pounded in her head, unsettling her. She’d never met Liliana before, yet Liliana had apparently met her. And her hyper-focused mind started picking out other things: how she had chosen Liliana’s statue, how Liliana’s voice had sounded exactly as she’d imagined it.
Her thoughts quickly reached an end, though. With nowhere else to go, she calmed down, regaining her composure. It was enough for her to know that the gods couldn’t truly read her mind.
Now, all there was left to do was to see if she had been given a boon.
She closed her eyes and gently felt for the intangible parts of herself that made her muscles move. The longer she focused, the more of these parts she found. She could easily move her limbs and fingers and toes, could comfortably control her breathing, could eventually even make her heart slow or race. Beyond all that, she felt the divine power. She knew it had always been with her, that she derived her strength from it, that her body healed so quickly because of it. But it had only been on her fateful birthday that her anger had let her yank it out. Since she’d found it before, it was easy to find again.
As she gently tugged on it now, she felt that it was different—probably from the battle. Like any muscle, it felt stronger from the exercise, but also weak, overworked.
She took in a deep breath, then let it out while trying to bring out divine power, her mind focused on that ethereal flame she had seen when arriving at Dworfen. For a moment, the glowing light coalesced and writhed, only to then fall into itself and burst out into a tiny flame, floating above her cupped hands.
Her eyes still closed, she couldn’t see it. However, she could feel it—could feel the heat, feel the trickle of diving power flowing through her, the intangible muscle tensing. So she held on for a few seconds longer before relaxing; the flame flickered away.
Satisfied, she turned around, looking for the door, a trickle of light showing her the way. The first door broke the thick silence, her ears instantly greeted by muted chatter and twittering and the whispering wind. The painfully bright light, dim as it was, stilled her, free hand coming up to shade her eyes. After a moment to get used to it, she carried on to the second set of doors.
The bell tolled again and all turned to see the hero emerge.
To them, Sammy had not the look of one who had gone through an ordeal, smile gentle and back straight. However, that didn’t stop Julie from rushing over to her side.
“Are you okay?” Julie softly asked.
Sammy held Julie’s hands and squeezed them, whispering, “I am fine for the moment.”
Julie squeezed back, her own tumultuous heart finally calming. “That’s good.”
Reinvigorated, Sammy turned her gaze to the others present, ending up on the head priest. “I spoke with Ocka Yewry. She did not give any instructions for the church,” she said in Dworfen.
He bowed his head with an almost sad smile. “Understood,” he said.
Nothing more to say, Sammy began to lead Julie away. But, remembering something, she led them past Yewry. “If I could have some of your time.”
Without waiting for a reply or to see if Yewry would follow, Sammy continued on. It was a quick walk back to their room and, once they were inside, Sammy let go of Julie’s hand and fell onto the bed, letting out a long sigh. Julie fretted about, hesitating before closing the door, then hesitating before sitting down next to Sammy and holding her hand again.
“Was it hard?” Julie asked.
Sammy chuckled, not as elegant as usual, but still a pleasant sound for Julie. “The gods are rather bored.”
Julie didn’t understand and she guessed she wasn’t supposed to, smiling in lieu of a reply. A curiousness caught up with her, though, and she asked, “What did you tell that old man about Yewry?”
Caught by surprise, it took Sammy a moment to realise what Julie was talking about. Humour in her voice, she said, “That ‘old man’ is the head priest, and I told him about Ocka Yewry—Mother Lily.”
“Oh, Liliana?” Julie said.
Sammy nodded while still lying down. “Yewry is the Dworfen word for lily and a popular name for noble daughters, especially if they have an older brother. And the wild lilies here often grow at the edge of a tree’s shade, so there are sayings about how there should be just the right distance between such siblings, neither too close nor too far apart. With how formal Dworfen is, they really do use a lot of euphemisms to say the things they cannot say clearly, but it makes for beautiful reading and adds a lot of nuance to the romance. I rather enjoy it. If only I had discovered it earlier, I would have had the time to learn the language better,” Sammy said, ending her monologue with a sigh.
As usual, Julie followed as best she could. “That sounds… oh, we also think of Liliana and lilies? I remember, we had a flowerbed of them by Liliana’s statue at the Royal Palace.”
Sammy tittered. “That’s right, but I think it’s far more interesting than just that. Liliana and Lilith both share that part of their name, and it was common for the old gods to take on new names upon their marriage, so I like to think that they were once called Ana and Tha. Perhaps Tha proposed to Ana with a lily and they immortalised it in their names—wouldn’t that be romantic?”
Julie frowned, her face scrunched up, until she said, “You’ve said about Lilith a couple of times, but who is she?”
Sammy’s turn to frown, she really was confused. “Lilith is the fallen god who brought corruption upon us?”
“She is? That’s not in the bible,” Julie said softly, more talking to herself than to Sammy.
Before Sammy could reply, a knock rang out. “I have some time for you,” came Yewry’s voice.
Sammy sat up with a sigh, some of the fatigue from her late night remembered, rubbing her writing hand. But that brought Julie’s attention to Sammy’s hands and, actually looking this time, she noticed the puple mark, a small gasp slipping out.
“Is it okay? Does it hurt?” she asked, touching it.
Sammy was lost for a moment, then noticed the nearly-faded bruise. Smiling, she said, “It is fine. Rather, I wrote a lot last night.”
Julie listened and nodded and still rubbed the bruise a little more. Sammy would have left her to do that as long as she’d liked, but, unfortunately, Sammy was sure another knock would be coming shortly.
“You may enter,” she loudly said.
Whether because of Yewry entering or because of the sudden noise, Julie jumped a little and let go of Sammy’s hand, moving away from the bed.
Yewry closed the door behind her, turned, took in the scene, and pursed her lips. “Am I not expected?” she asked.
Sammy tilted her head, still smiling, sending a chill down Yewry’s spine. “Even when expected, you are a surprise.”
Yewry took that as a compliment. “Well, what is it you wished to tell me? I suppose it is about the end of our arrangement.”
In a graceful movement, Sammy rose to her feet. She walked over to the writing table where a stack of papers was neatly bundled, the string holding them together tied in a bow, and picked it up. “These are, for lack of a better way to put it, a business plan,” Sammy said.
Equal parts surprise and confusion, Yewry looked at the bundle, not sure what to say. By the time Sammy brought it over and handed it to her, she found her voice. “What do you mean to say?”
Sammy giggled with her mouth covered. “In the years before my pilgrimage began, my family tasked me with building a relationship with Dworfen, so I have thought over this much in the past. You will see there is a design for a ro’can that well-to-do Hufens would find suitable, as well as how to market it. I dare not say it is guaranteed to be profitable, yet I dare say a king should know that profits come from more than just money.”
After hearing all that, Yewry stared at Sammy. She wasn’t brought up to be involved with the running of the petty kingdom, but she knew enough to know that—if Yewry was telling the truth—she had once again underestimated her strange companion.
No, they weren’t companions any more.
Still, she had one question to ask: “Why?”
Sammy let out a breath of laughter before catching herself, her pleasant smile lingering behind. “Well, you have covered our lodgings and meals these last weeks and provided us with much comfort, so it is only right that I provide something in return. After all, I would hate to be indebted to you,” Sammy said, ending with another giggle.
Yewry found the humour, but it wasn’t enough for her to laugh. “Very well,” she said softly, clutching the bundle to her chest.
“Keep it safe—I shan’t be around to write it out again.”
Yewry nodded. “I will,” she said.
Then silence for a few seconds until Sammy asked, “Is there anything else?”
All of a sudden, Yewry had a million questions, each promising to bring about a million more. But, ultimately, she only had one she needed answered: “Please tell me, what is your family name?”
Sammy smiled knowingly. “When you return home, I am sure the answer will come to you.”
If Yewry hadn’t lost to Sammy at every turn, she would have pushed, but, knowing better, she took Sammy at her word and sighed. “Very well.”
There was no promise to see each other again nor to write nor even an expression of sadness at their approaching parting. All Sammy said was, “Then this is goodbye,” and Yewry replied, “And goodbye to you both.”
However, hand on the door handle, Yewry turned back around. At some point in their conversation, Sammy had ended up next to Julie and held her hand. Seeing that again, an old curiosity rose up fresh.
“Now there is no need for secrets, would you tell me why you’re pretending to be lovers?” Yewry asked.
Sammy turned to Julie and quietly spoke. Julie didn’t reply, but a sudden nervousness overcame her, Yewry finding it strange to see someone usually so boyish showing such a girly side. Lost in that thought, she entirely missed Julie whispering.
However, Yewry did not miss how Sammy carefully held Julie’s chin and raised it until they were looking each other in the eye. Such tenderness there, Yewry could have easily mistaken them for lovers if she didn’t know better.
Then Sammy leaned in and gently kissed Julie and Yewry realised she didn’t know better.
The moment the kiss finished, Sammy pulled Julie into an embrace, hiding that cute face before Yewry could see it. “Safe travels,” she said to Yewry.
“Safe travels,” Yewry managed to say, fortunate she only had to parrot back what Yewry had said.
Once Yewry left the room (after fumbling with the door handle for a couple of seconds), Sammy relaxed, letting Julie go. It was just that… Julie stayed there, face buried in the crook of Sammy’s neck.
“Are you okay?” Sammy whispered, idly running her fingers through Julie’s hair.
“My heart is gonna burst,” Julie said with a hint of a whine to her voice.
Sammy giggled. “We’ll leave in the middle of the night to make sure we don’t see her again,” she said lightly.
Julie felt equally teased and relieved by that, a kind of nervous laugh slipping out. “Okay.”
While it was said in jest, Sammy wasn’t one to go back on her word and, after spending the day and night in the room together, they left in the first light of dawn, alone once more.