She has the power to change the course of a river with a few lines of song, but she couldn't save her own husband from his fate. Lhennuen Damaiud, sorceress and priestess, leaves her temple for the northern forest in order to escape from humanity and figure out her life's purpose.
Yet as it turns out, escaping from humanity is harder than she expected. And escaping the designs of God and her goddess...well, she should have known that was impossible.
When the head priestess came to tell Lhennuen that her husband had died, she already knew. In fact, she had known since that night, when she had awakened in the pitch black and had barely made it to the chamber pot before being violently sick.
Since she was a Siol and a priestess of Hadhera, and could be neither pregnant nor ill, the cause had to be outside of herself. A moment's searching through her mind produced the answer.
She wept only very briefly, on the floor beside the chamber pot in the dark. Her husband had told her the first time they had met that he would not live out four years; and she, Seer, had seen the truth of it. Davrith had told her that he would not court her if she did not want to marry a fated man. She had married him anyway.
She had done all of her weeping at the time. There was no need for any more.
Just after dawn, the head priestess knocked on the door to her room. Lhennuen was sitting on the bed with her back to the door, turning over in her hands the painted bone comb her husband had given her as a betrothal present.
"Come in," she said in a low even voice, without turning.
The head priestess put her head around the door with a tentative manner unlike her usual self.
No one knew how old Hapato was. A hundred years was a common guess. So old that her back was stooped, her face a walnut of wrinkles beneath a thin white fluff of hair, her voice trembling—all despite her power as a Siol, which could hold off such things for a long time. But then, most Siols died for their work, and never had the chance to grow old.
"Do you know?" Hapato asked.
"I know," Lhennuen said calmly.
"I share your grief," said Hapato, speaking the truth rather than just the traditional condolence.
Lhennuen looked around at her mistress—her friend. Lhennuen's face, narrow, dark-eyed, composed, and very white, was a pale blot in the dim room lit only by the soggy light entering through the window. Lhennuen was a young woman, but her eyes were not and never had been the eyes of a youth.
Hapato noticed that she had not covered her hair today as a married woman did.
"Thank you, Hapato," said Lhennuen. "That means much to me." She shifted her position sideways on the edge of the bed to look at Hapato steadily. "Come in," she said a second time.
Hapato entered, and closed the door, but stayed near it.
"How did he die?" Lhennuen asked.
If Hapato was surprised that Lhennuen had not seen that as well as the death itself, she did not betray it. Prophecy and the sight of distant things were fickle gifts.
Hena friends do not spare each other truths. "Disembowelment," said Hapato.
Rather than horror, a small flash of understanding passed across Lhennuen's face. The reason for the stomach cramps, then. Then her face closed, keeping her feelings inside, though her eyes were more shadowed than usual.
"Ah," she said.
Then a moment later, she said: "Is the name of the one who killed him known?"
A pulse jumped in Hapato's throat. Revenge was forbidden by the Hena religion, which was not to say it was not widely practiced.
"If it is in your power," Lhennuen said, "will you try to see that my mother does not find it out?"
"She will not ask," she said, speaking truth, though the elder Damaiud had not yet been informed. If any among them would pursue vengeance over the adopted son of her house, it was she.
Lhennuen smiled faintly. "Good for her," she said. "Personal growth for Hamyenev Damaiud."
It was only because she was a Siol, and Lhennuen Damaiud, did she say such a thing to someone who was not a member of her family.
"How did he die?" she asked again. A different question, this time.
"The post was ambushed at night. He was the one who raised the alarm, saving others. Other than that, I don't know."
Lhennuen nodded, with relief.
"Good," she said in a low voice, as if to herself. "He was always afraid his death would not be useful. He can rest in peace, then."
Then she looked at Hapato. She started to ask something; then stopped herself visibly, and bit her lip.
Hapato guessed. "He was elsewhere, I imagine," she said gently.
There were thousands of miles of border along the river Zhelne, and only three or four hundred Siol—priests and priestesses serving the gods Hadhera, Baros, Seddes, and Ainos—on regular guard rotation. Lhennuen was on that rotation herself, but she was in the middle of her yearly four months' temple duty. Even a Siol must rest.
And even a Siol cannot be in two places at once. Not Lhennuen, and not the one who worked in the area where Davrith had served.
"I've certainly killed enough men on my watch," Lhennuen said in a calm voice, "by not being in the right place at the right time. Don't worry, Hapato, I bear no one a grudge."
"Even the Tsiani?"
Lhennuen's eyes unfocused as she thought about it in silence, testing to see if what she had previously decided was still true.
"They're fools to fight this war," she said at last; "and I don't understand why they do. But then, I'm sure they think we're fools not to go south and kill them all, and end it. No, I don't hate them."
Hapato was silent, not disagreeing.
Lhennuen's eyes grew sharp again. She leaned toward the head priestess, resting one hand on the embroidered bedspread. "Hapato?"
"I don't feel quite human," Lhennuen said frankly.
Hapato caught the meaning under the words. Not today, Lhennuen meant, but always. She was astonished, but only for an instant. At the end of the instant, after the history of her experiences with Lhennuen had unraveled back through time and rewritten itself forwards once more with this new knowledge, she realized that the astonishment was not because of the statement but because it had been said aloud.
Hapato, for all her power, had always felt human: had felt as intensely as anyone the pains and joys of the heart, if not the body.
"When I was young," Lhennuen said, "I thought that what was lacking was the fact that I was not a Siol, but was supposed to be. After I became a Siol, I realized that the grey robe gave me permission to act as I felt, and that was a relief, a great comfort. Nevertheless, I understand what it means to be human, and I'm not quite it. Am I." She smiled a little, wryly.
Hapato was almost frightened. She had known Lhennuen ever since the young woman had come at age thirteen, a new-minted Siol, to become a priestess. No, she would never have said that Lhennuen was usual; but what Siol is?
The answer came to her thickened tongue of its own accord, not through any thought of her own.
"That's your power," she said.
Lhennuen looked at her, questioning.
"You told me how you became a Siol," Hapato said, her tongue in her own control again. "You leapt, and flew. Did you ever think that anyone who could fly so easily could ever be entirely human?"
Lhennuen looked amused. "Well...."
"But tell me this. Do you love?" Hapato asked.
"Yes," Lhennuen said.
"And are you ever afraid?"
Lhennuen looked thoughtful, and didn't answer for a moment. "Only in matters of love," she said after a while, "and not for long."
"That's enough," Hapato said.
Lhennuen smiled wryly. "Do you think?"
Hapato at last came and sat beside her on the edge of the bed. "What matters," she said, "is that you find the proper use for that power, which has burned through you for many lifetimes, making you what you are."
Lhennuen was still; then she nodded slowly. Her eyes, clear and dark and without age, held Hapato's gaze. "You're right. Thank you, Hapato." She paused, looking almost ashamed. "I wasn't going to tell you this now, but...I'm leaving."
Hapato was so startled she drew back.
"Leaving the priesthood?"
Lhennuen shook her head. "No. I've no desire to do that. But I am leaving here—leaving the temple, leaving rotation." The shame was gone from her face as she said, "I'm sorry to leave you short. But I have to go. I've known this for a while, halfway, but now with Davrith gone, I can, must, leave."
"Go where? Home?"
"No. I...have to wander. I have to move." She raised her hands and dropped them helplessly, unable to explain with words. Then she said in a clear voice: "I have to discover what use this power is for. Because it's too big for what I'm doing with it."
She did something Hapato had never seen her do; she held up her hands and without any hesitation or effort raised a ball of crackling blue power between them, a barely-contained sphere of light and heat, silver-blue streaks skimming and jumping on its surface as if it might explode at any second. Hapato's eyes were cut sharply after the dull light of the day, and she looked away in shock. No one did magic like this. Magic, to the priests and priestesses of Hadhera, was the magic of war: shields for defense, and silent death (why waste one's time and energy with any other kind?), and little tricks with the wood of wagon wheels to ruin supply lines, and healing when no priest of Isura was near.
It was true that Hapato or any Siol could raise a light. It was true, indeed, that any streetcorner magician could raise a light. But Hapato's senses beyond the power of sight told her that the light in Lhennuen's hands was not just a showman's trick, but the raw power of universes.
The light went out.
"So I have to go," Lhennuen said. There were tears in the corners of her eyes as she looked at Hapato, but they never interfered with her ability to see. "I'll miss you. And the temple, and all of you."
It occurred to Hapato that it was possible to be both human, and not. She reached out to touch her friend and take her hand, because no priestess of Hadhera is a coward, in either matters of war or friendship.
"Where will you begin?" she asked.
"In the woods," Lhennuen said. "That is, after all, where our people were born. Maybe I will be, too."