Mistress of Dragons
By Weis, Margaret
Tor Fantasy Copyright © 2004 Weis, Margaret
All right reserved.
Every morning, before the sun rose to gild the white marble columns of the monastery with flecks of gold, the High Priestess went to the Chamber of the Watchful Eye to perform the Rite of Seeing. She alone could conduct the ancient ritual--that was her duty, her privilege.
As the other priestesses murmured morning prayers in their cells, Melisande, the High Priestess, walked the chill, dark pathways that led from the monastery proper to the small temple where she would perform the rite. Built out on a promontory overlooking the valley and the city below, the Chamber of the Watchful Eye was circular in shape, constructed of black marble, its domed roof supported by black marble columns. The temple had no walls. Standing within its columns, Melisande could look out to the fir and cedar and hemlock trees that formed a natural wall around the monastery.
Another wall--this one of stone, man-made--surrounded the monastery, its extensive grounds, and outbuildings. The Chamber of the Watchful Eye lay outside this wall. Melisande let herself out through a wicket gate every morning to perform the ceremony. Female warriors atop the wall kept close watch on their priestess, prepared to hasten to her defense, should that be needful.
The temple housed one sacred object--an enormous, white marble bowl. Inside the bowl, lapis lazuli had been inlaid into the marble to form the iris of an Eye. The Eye's pupil, inthe very center of the bowl, was jet. Every day at noon, the youngest acolytes, virgins in both mind and body, came to wash and polish the marble Eye. Every dawn, before the sunrise, the High Priestess came to see what the Eye saw.
Though the sun's dawn colors smeared the eastern sky with pink, those colors had not yet driven away night's shadows that clustered thick and heavy, tangled in the boughs of the fir trees. Melisande brought no lamp with her, however, but walked the path in darkness. She had no need for lamplight. She had walked this path every morning for the past ten years, ever since she was eighteen. She knew every crack in the flagstone, every dip and rise of the hillside, every twist and turning of the ridge along which the path led. When she stepped out of the shadow and into the fading starlight, she was close to the temple. Four more steps along the path, round a small coppice of pine, and she could see it silhouetted against the gradually lightening sky.
Melisande wore her ceremonial gown, put on in the morning to perform the ritual and removed on her return, to be smoothed and neatly folded and laid at the bottom of the bed in her small cell, in readiness for the morrow. Handwoven of angora yarn, the gown was dyed black, then dipped in purple. Melisande was one with the night when she wore the gown, another reason she preferred not to carry a light. When she removed the sumptuous gown every day, exchanging it for her daily garb, she shed the sacred mysteries of the night and took on the mundane chores of the day.
Arriving at the temple, Melisande slipped her feet out of the leather sandals before entering. The marble was cold, but she had grown used to treading on it barefoot, even enjoying the thrill that went through her body as her flesh touched the chill stone. Whispering prayers, she ascended the three steps that led to the dais on which stood the Eye. Melisande knelt before the bowl, said the ritual prayer, then lifted up the flagon of holy water that rested on the floor beside the Eye.
She poured the water into the bowl. The blue iris shimmered in the expanding light of the dawn. The Eye shimmered with unshed tears.
Melisande waited until the ripples ceased, the water was still and smooth, to say the ritual words, taught to her by the Mistress of Dragons on the day Melisande had been named High Priestess.
"Open wide, you that guard our realm, and let my eye see what you see."
Every morning for ten years, Melisande had looked into the lapis lazuli iris and every morning she had seen what the Eye saw: the valley in which nestled their realm; the mountains that surrounded and guarded and sheltered it; the city of Seth at the northern end of the valley; the farmlands that surrounded and supported it; the castle of the king built in the foothills of the mountain; and ruling over all, the monastery of the Sacred Order of the Eye, perched atop the mountain known as the Sentinel.
This morning, Melisande saw all that and more.
She saw the dragon.
Melisande gasped, stared in disbelief. Though the daily ritual was designed to keep watch for dragons, she herself had never see one. Twenty years had passed since the previous High Priestess had looked into the bowl and seen eight dragons descending on the valley. Melisande recalled that event clearly. She had been eight years old at the time and she could still recall the thrilling terror and excitement as the warriors carried all the little girls to the catacombs beneath the monastery, to keep them safe and out of the way.
The other girls had been in tears. Melisande had not cried. She had crouched in that whimpering, stifling darkness, feeling the ground shake from the powerful forces being unleashed above, and in her mind she was in the Sanctuary of the Eye, alongside the sisters, using her magic to drive away the ferocious beasts bent on destruction. She had not been formally taught the magic; her instruction in that would not begin until she was twelve. But she knew the words from listening to the sisters' daily chants and she had repeated them then, whispering them to herself. The colors of the magic spread in vibrant sheets across her mind--luminous reds and flaring orange, meant to dazzle and confuse the dragons, lure them into range of spear and arrow, or send them crashing into the mountainside.
The battle of the Sacred Order against the invading dragons had been hard fought. Eventually, the powerful magicks of the Mistress and her priestesses and the arrows and spears of the warriors had driven the dragons away from Seth. Emerging from the catacombs that night, Melisande saw splotches of gore being cleansed from the flagstones. Reaching down, she dipped her fingers in it--dragon's blood.
Melisande placed her hands on the rim of the stone bowl, stared into the center. The Eye vanished. The blue iris was blue sky, clear and cloudless. The dragon's green scales glittered in the newly risen sun; the eyes, set on either side of the massive head, seemed to look straight at her, though Melisande knew that this was a trick of the Eye. The dragon was still far distant. He could see the mountains of Seth, perhaps, but nothing more. Not yet.
Melisande sat back on her heels and drew in a deep breath to stop herself from trembling. She was not afraid, for there was nothing to fear. The trembling came from the shock of seeing what she had not expected to see. Rising swiftly, she left the temple, running back up the narrow, flagstone path that led to the monastery. As she ran, she went over in her mind what she must do. There were many actions to be performed and she could not do all of them at once. She had to prioritize, determine the order of importance of each, and this she did as she hastened up the path.
Reaching the gray stone wall that surrounded the monastery, Melisande drew forth the iron key that hung from a silken cord around her waist and used it to open the lock in the wicket gate. She was pleased to see that she had so far disciplined herself that she had stopped trembling. She opened the gate with a steady hand, shut it behind her, and ran through the garden. She could hear a stir on the battlements.
The warriors had been standing guard all night. Their shift was almost over and they yawned as they walked their beat, looking forward to a meal and then their beds. The astonishing sight of their normally dignified High Priestess running barefoot through the wicket gate (she had forgotten her shoes), startled them into wakefulness. An officer called down to her, demanding to know what was wrong, but Melisande did not take time to answer.
She did not enter the monastery. She continued at a run through the garden that completely encircled the four white marble buildings and passed through another iron gate that led to the barracks--a large block house made of the same gray stone as the protective wall that surrounded the monastery. The flagstone path between the monastery and the barracks had been worn smooth by centuries of booted feet. Reaching the barracks, Melisande pushed open the huge wooden doors, and entered into darkness that smelled of leather and steel and the almond oil the women rubbed onto their bodies. Bellona, as commander, was the only warrior to have a private chamber, located in the front of the barracks, so that she could be wakened quickly at need.
The room was small, square, furnished with a wooden bed on which was laid a goose-down mattress. The mattress was a present from Melisande; warriors usually made do with straw. Bellona's polished steel cuirass and helm had been hung neatly on a wooden stand near the bed, her sword and shield placed alongside. A table and two chairs beneath a slit window were so placed as to catch the first rays of the sun.
Bellona was still asleep. She would not waken until the bells rang the end of night, the beginning of the day. She lay on her back, her head turned sideways, her dark hair mussed and tousled. A restless sleeper, she had kicked off the light woolen blanket that had also been a present from Melisande. As usual, the blanket had slithered to the floor. Bellona slept naked, for at any moment the alarm might sound and she must be up and armed and armored.
"Bellona," Melisande called softly from the doorway. She entered the room, shut the door carefully behind her. She had not wanted to startle Bellona, but the timber of her voice must have given her away.
Bellona jolted awake, sat bolt upright, her hand already reaching for her sword. "Melisande? What is it? What is the matter?"
Drawn to strength, drawn to warmth, Melisande sank down on the bed beside the warrior, who regarded her with concern that was starting to deepen into alarm.
"By the rod, you are shivering!" Bellona put her arm around Melisande, held her close. "And your feet! They're bleeding. Where are your shoes?"
"Never mind my shoes. Bellona,"--Melisande drew back to look into the woman's dark eyes--"a dragon is coming. I saw it."
"Melis!" Bellona gasped, gripping her arm tensely. "Are you certain?"
"I am," said Melisande firmly.
"Have you told the Mistress?"
"No, I came to tell you first. I knew you would need time to ready your defense."
Bellona smiled, her dark eyes warmed. "I thank you for thinking of us. Not many of your sisters would have."
"None of my sisters have been instructed by the commander," Melisande answered. She slid reluctantly from the warrior's warm, strong, and reassuring embrace. "I must rouse the Sisterhood, then go to the Mistress."
"Tell her we will be ready," said Bellona, reaching for her armor.
"You must make certain that the little girls are safely removed to the catacombs," said Melisande, still feeling close to those memories.
Bellona nodded absently, her thoughts on all she needed to do. "You can count upon me, Melis."
"I do," said Melisande, squeezing her hand. "Always."
The two exchanged a parting kiss.
"Should I send a messenger to the king?" Melisande asked, turning back as she reached the door. "I hate to disturb him. His youngest child is ill, they say, and not doing well. Both he and the queen are frantic with worry."
"His Majesty should be informed, nevertheless. I will send a runner," said Bellona, lacing up her boots.
"Reassure His Majesty that he need not be concerned," Melisande said. "We are well prepared to deal with the dragon."
"Of course," said Bellona, matter-of-factly.
"I will not ring the great gong, though," Melisande continued, thinking aloud. "Not unless something goes wrong. The people in the valley will still have time to flee if we fail."
"Nothing will go wrong," said Bellona, standing up. "You will not fail."
Her brown-skinned body was all muscle, lithe and powerful, with small, tight breasts. Her body differed from Melisande's, whose was soft and delicate, with the pale skin of one who spends her days inside walls among her books, working her mind, not her muscles.
"You and the Mistress hold us in your care, Melis," Bellona added. "Our trust is in you."
Hastening off to summon the Sisterhood and wake the Mistress, Melisande wished she had as much confidence in herself as her lover had in her.
* * *
The kingdom of Seth, in the valley of Seth, was nominally a monarchy, ruled by either a king or queen, as determined by the sex of the eldest child born to the ruling family. The monarch was nothing more than a figurehead, however, someone for the crowds to cheer on festival days. The Mistress of Dragons was the true ruler of Seth and had been for three hundred years. Everyone knew and acknowledged this fact, including the monarch.
Three hundred years ago, the kingdom of Seth had been held in thrall by a dragon, who had taken up residence in the Sentinel Mountain. The dragon had repeatedly attacked the kingdom, stealing livestock, setting crops ablaze, slaying or carrying off to her lair any person unfortunate enough to be caught out in the open. Hundreds fell victim to the marauder. Hundreds more fled the kingdom, traveling to distant lands. Seth came perilously close to being wiped out of existence. Then came a savior.
One of the festivals still celebrated in Seth commemorates that blessed event. The townsfolk construct a dragon in effigy and carry the huge wooden monstrosity through the streets, accompanied by players dressed in black wearing skull masks, to represent the dead. At the end of the festival, a player clad in white, with the golden mask of the sun, fights the dragon in a mock battle. The figure in white is the Mistress. She destroys the dragon, using a golden sword. The effigy is then burned in a huge bonfire in the middle of the fairgrounds to great rejoicing.
This was symbolic of the event. In reality, the Mistress fought the dragon in a less dramatic but more effective manner, using magic to drive away her foe. The dragon was vanquished, never seen again. The grateful citizens offered the Mistress the wealth of the kingdom. They offered her the kingdom itself, but she refused.
She would not become their king. She would become their goddess. She built a temple on the mountainside and placed inside it the stone bowl known as the Watchful Eye. She asked for nine maidens, virgins all, to volunteer to serve in the temple and learn the art of dragon magic, so that when the Mistress died, she would leave another to keep the kingdom safe.
Down through the centuries, many women assumed the mantle of Mistress, ascended to godhood. The monastery grew in size and in power, so that now twenty-five women, sixteen of whom were virgins, served in the temple. The most senior of the Sisters of the Eye, as they were known, was the High Priestess, the woman responsible for keeping watch for the ancient foe. When the Mistress died, the High Priestess would assume that position.
Her services were still needed. Several times, over the years, the kingdom of Seth was attacked by dragons. The worst assault had been twenty years ago, when eighteen enormous dragons had laid siege to the monastery itself. The battle against them had been fierce. Many of the Sisterhood had died, as had many of the valiant warriors. Dragon blood fell from the skies on that day and so it was known in the annals of history as the Day of Black Rain.
In the end, the dragons were repelled. Never again had the dragons attacked in such numbers, but, every so often, one or two would appear.
"They come to see if we maintain our vigilance," said the Mistress.
The vigilance of the sisters never faltered. The people of Seth lived in peace and prosperity in their isolated valley, looking to the Sisterhood to guard them.
Ten years ago, the Mistress of Dragons had chosen Melisande to be High Priestess. At eighteen, Melisande was the youngest to be selected for the honor, but few disputed the fact that she deserved it, for she was reputed to be the most powerful in dragon magic of any woman yet born in the monastery. The current Mistress was very old, nearly seventy, and in poor health. Melisande was aware that the mantle of godhood could fall upon her at any moment and she strove always to be worthy of the honor.
This day would see if the Mistress's faith in her protégé was justified.
The monastery proper, consisting of four buildings, was built in a square around a central courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard stood two gongs--one enormous gong made of iron and another, smaller gong made of silver. If the iron gong were sounded, the deep booming call would be heard in the city far below and in the farms and forests beyond that, warning the people of Seth that they were under attack, giving them time to flee for their lives into the caverns in the mountains. The other gong was smaller and made of silver. This gong alerted the Sisterhood to the coming of their foe.
Melisande lifted the silver hammer, prepared to strike. She could hear, in the distance, Bellona bellowing commands. Feet pounded as the warrior women raced to their posts. A few of the Sisterhood, hearing the unusual commotion, peered out their windows, wondering what was going on. Melisande did not leave them long in doubt. She struck the silver gong, sending a shivering peal of alarm through the monastery.
More heads looked out the windows of the monastery's east wing that was the dortoir, where the sisters lived.
"Make haste!" Melisande called to them. "I am going to the Mistress."
The heads disappeared, as the women hurried to don their sacred garments. Melisande returned the silver hammer to its stand. The gong continued to vibrate, the notes dying away slowly.
Warriors ran past her, heading for the south side of the monastery, where lived the nine mothers. The mothers--or "cows" as they were known disparagingly among the warrior women--were those sisters chosen by the Mistress to bear children, sacrificing their virginity in order to perpetuate the Sisterhood. Babies were taken away from the mothers shortly after birth. The male babies were given to families in the kingdom who had been denied a male child and needed an heir. Girls were kept in the monastery to be raised by the Sisterhood as sisters or mothers or warriors, depending on the bent taken by the magic in their blood. This wing also held the "mating" rooms (used once monthly) and the birthing rooms.
The warriors emerged from the south wing, escorting the children and mothers to the catacombs beneath the monastery.
Melisande hurried past the west wing that would be empty now. Here were classrooms, where the sisters were taught the sacred magic that kept their kingdom safe. This wing also housed the kitchen and dining hall, the schoolrooms and playrooms for the little girls.
The fourth wing, the north wing, belonged to the Mistress. Here were her chambers. Beneath this wing was the Sanctuary of the Eye.
The Mistress of Dragons lived apart from the Sisterhood, as was right and proper for a goddess. She came among them only rarely. Her life was devoted to the magic and she spent a large part of every day in the Sanctuary, working her powerful magicks that kept the kingdom safe. Two bronze doors barred entry to everyone in the monastery except the High Priestess and chosen members of the Sisterhood, and even they could enter only by invitation. The eilte of the warrior women stood guard.
The warrior women saluted as Melisande approached. They had heard the silver gong and, although they had not received direct orders from the Mistress, this was an emergency and they had standing orders to allow the High Priestess to pass. Melisande was not strong enough to shove open the huge bronze doors; the warrior women performed that office for her.
"Good hunting, High Priestess," said one, as Melisande entered the Mistress's residence.
Daylight entered with her, shining down a long narrow corridor of wood and painted murals. The eyes of the dragons portrayed in murals gleamed with borrowed life in the sunlight. The light vanished as the bronze doors closed with a dull boom, stealing away the life briefly granted them. Windowless, the corridor was lit only by small cresset lights placed at intervals along the wall. Part of the task of the warrior women was to lower the lights, fill them with the oil that kept them burning. The darkness was redolent with the scent of incense, and had a thick, warm, comforting feel.
Running was not permitted in the chambers of the Mistress. Nor was shouting or talking. One was expected to enter with bowed head and sacred thoughts, move with seemly decorum. Melisande had to force herself to slow her steps. She wished that she had not forgotten her shoes. The Mistress would think she lacked discipline. Calming herself with prayer and the thought that the dragon was yet far distant, she decorously walked the shadowy corridors to the Mistress's bedchamber.
She was surprised to find the Mistress's door closed.
The opening of the bronze doors tripped a wire that rang a bell in the chambers of the Mistress, alerting her to the presence of a visitor. Ordinarily, she would open the door in preparation of receiving a guest. Finding the door still closed, Melisande assumed that the elderly Mistress was still sleeping and had not heard the bell's clang. Melisande raised her hand to the bronze knocker, which was in the shape of a dragon, but at that moment, the door swung open.
The Mistress stood within. The golden threads embroidered into her ceremonial robes shone in the light of an oil lamp that stood upon a richly carved wooden table. Her seventy years had sapped the strength of her body. Her hair was snowy white, her face wizened and deeply lined, her thin body bent and stooped. Her voice was strong, however; eagerness flickered in her dark eyes.
"You have seen a dragon," she said.
"I have, Mistress," said Melisande, ashamed to be unable to control a tremor in her voice.
In this sacred place, the enormity of the situation, the danger and the peril for her people, and her own responsibility fell suddenly upon her and she faltered beneath the crushing weight. For a brief moment, she wished fervently that she was once again that eight-year-old girl, being carried to safety in the strong arms of a warrior.
"Just one, Mistress."
"The dragon is coming here? Are you certain?"
"The beast was still very small within the Eye, Mistress. But he grew larger as I watched. He is coming closer. And his gaze looked straight at me."
The Mistress smiled. Her smiles were rare and always inward, so that Melisande was never certain if the Mistress was pleased with something she had done or if her joy rose from some secret held within.
"I knew you would be among the blessed," said the Mistress. She moved toward the door, grasped hold of Melisande's wrist. "I knew when you were small. I could see the magic dancing in your mind. You must describe the dragon to me."
"A young male by his bright coloring, golden green on his back and shoulders and mane, tending to blue scales on his belly and his legs and tail. Should I summon the sisters--"
"Yes, summon them." The Mistress's hand was skin and sinew and bone. She clasped Melisande's wrist tightly. "Send them to the Sanctuary. Alert the warriors--"
"I have already done that, Mistress."
"Ah, yes, you would." The Mistress smiled again. "Then it seems you have done what is needful, Melisande. I will go to the Sanctuary to prepare. You return to the Eye to keep watch. When the dragon's head fills the bowl and it seems that you cannot hide from his sight, the beast will be nearly upon us. Come to the Sanctuary, for we will have need of you."
The Mistress did not let loose her grip. She kept fast hold of her with her hand and her dark, bright eyes.
"This will be your test, Melisande. I have faith in you. Have faith in yourself."
"I will try, Mistress. I have much yet to learn."
The Mistress's hand relaxed, her touch grew gentle, caressing. "Your time will be soon, Melisande."
"No, Mistress, do not say so," Melisande said, truly grieved. "You will be with us many years--"
The Mistress's smile grew sad, poignant. She shook her head. "We are always given to know our time, Melisande. So it will be with you, when your hour comes."
The Mistress gave Melisande's hand a brisk pat. "Still, that hour will not come today. Now we must prepare to meet our foe. Go do your duty, Daughter. I will take up mine. And remember, as you can see the dragon, so he can use his magic to see you. Do not let him intimidate you."
The Mistress gave a gesture of dismissal. Melisande bowed her way out and the Mistress shut the door behind her.
Melisande paused a moment in the fragrant darkness. As she closed her eyes and prayed silently to the Mistress for courage, the thought came to her that soon she would have no one to pray to. She would be the Mistress and all prayers would come to her. The thought was startling, daunting. She wondered why it had never occurred to her until that moment.
"Probably because I assumed the Mistress must live forever."
Her prayer ended suddenly, half-spoken. If her time to be a goddess was coming soon, she had best get used to acting on her own.
She pulled the bell rope to alert the guards to throw open the bronze doors. Blinking in the bright sunlight, she drew in a deep breath of fresh air. The warriors had manned the battlements that ran along the tops of all four walls. Other warriors were carrying the last of the children to safety. Melisande saw the little girls clinging to the warriors, their arms clasped around them tightly, their sleep-drenched eyes wide with the novelty of it all, and she smiled at them reassuringly. The "cows" followed closely, soothing those children who were fearful, telling them to pray to the Mistress.
The members of the Sisterhood were waiting outside to be admitted to the Sanctuary. At Melisande's nod, they filed past her, out of the sun, into the darkness. They wore their white robes, their cowls cast over their heads, their eyes lowered, their hands clasped in prayer.
Absorbed in their prayers, they did not speak to Melisande, nor did she speak to them. She continued on her way, hastening back to the Chamber of the Eye. As she passed out the wicket gate, she saw Bellona, walking the battlements, inspecting every warrior, making certain that all were ready. Glancing down, Bellona caught sight of Melisande and the two shared a smile and a loving glance, then each went back to her duties.
Walking the path in the sunlight, Melisande looked back at that little girl, who had summoned the magic in the darkness. She looked back at the little girl and her self-doubt vanished. She sent her blessing to that far distant child, and went with confidence to face the dragon.
Copyright 2003 by Margaret Weis
Excerpted from Mistress of Dragons by Weis, Margaret Copyright © 2004 by Weis, Margaret. Excerpted by permission.
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