The Stone by the Stream (Part 31)
The Priestess awoke the next morning, trembling all over with her right hand curled into a fist as if around an invisible dagger. In the darkness of her chamber, the vapors of a fading dream drying up in her memory, she half-believed it was years ago.
“Sofia…?” she whispered into the black morning.
But there was no answer.
The weight of the night before crushed her thoughts and a hopeless lethargy spread through her limbs. Three dead last night — and how many more by now? Anything could have happened in the night… although it was a hopeful sign that no one had woken her up already.
As she sponged herself and dressed in preparation for morning prayers, Cynthia’s face rose up in her imagination. She tried to push away the image, its eyes both reproachful and accusatory. Sofia’s face also bubbled into her consciousness, the same look painted across the specter’s eyes. The Priestess shut her eyes, but the image did not vanish.
She tried to focus her attention on the feel of the sponge against her skin, the smoothness of her white robes. No use thinking of what remained out of her control for now — or so far in the past it felt like someone else’s memory, someone else’s act… someone else’s guilt.
The nails of her right hand dug into the skin almost to the point of drawing blood before the pain made the Priestess realize she’d tightened the hand into a fist.
Under normal circumstances she’d have tried to even her mood with some silent prayers to the Huntress… but now? How to pray with any conviction when She was out there, somewhere, wandering the forest and doing — who knows what?
For the good of the Temple, though, she walked out into the Chamber of Initiation, smiling as the women gathered for the procession to morning prayer.
After not much looking, she found Agatha helping a trio of Initiates prepare the statue for this morning’s prayer — the Goddess in her aspect as Mistress of the Hunt. A quiver at her back, the marble Goddess held her bow drawn back and ready to fire. The look of her face as she took aim impressed the Priestess this morning — a look not cruel, but serene with necessity and intense concentration.
Her arrow would fly, bringing death. Death not with malice, not with harshness, not with malevolence, but with the necessity of the Hunt.
“Just be careful not to drop it — carry it as a team if you have to. We’ve already had to get repair work done on that bow twice this year, so — ”
“We’ll be careful, Agatha.”
“Just mind you pay attention to what you’re doing, Initiate.”
“Excuse me, Agatha?” the Priestess said, gesturing for Agatha to follow her.
With a few parting words to the resentful Initiates, Agatha approached with her birdlike step, asking, “What can I do for you, Priestess?”
“Did anything further happen in the night?”
Agatha shook her head. “No, Priestess. All we know for now is that she’s no longer at the clearing. We have units combing the forest, but there’s no sign of the girl or the Naiad yet.”
“Has anyone checked her family’s home yet?”
The Priestess nodded. “I thought not. Once morning prayers are over, I think you and I should pay Cynthia’s family a little visit.”
Agatha nodded. “I’m sorry no one thought of that already, Priestess.”
The Priestess smiled. After a few irrelevant pleasantries, she dismissed Agatha, who returned to lecturing the Initiates about proper statue-handling.
A few minutes later, the women lined up and processed out for morning prayers.