She slipped between the iron gates and padded along the hallway towards the inner sanctum. There were no guards, for everyone guarded the shrine in their own way, and the priests were more fierce than anyone the City could appoint. Arabella clutched her meagre offering and bit her lip - would it be enough? She hoped that sincerity would hold more weight than quantity when it came to matters of supplication.
Arabella ducked under the low beam and stepped inside the shrine. Priests sat in alcoves set into the walls of the circular room, bent over scrolls or tablets. Only one looked up as she entered, and after passing a disinterested gaze over her, he returned to his work. Arabella took that as an invitation to enter fully, and she ventured further into the shrine. The centre of the room was dominated by a tall statue of a slender woman, arms held aloft as her owl wings curved around her body for either protection or modesty - the priests could not decide. Two long, elegant feathers formed eyebrows, and talons tipped her fingers and toes. A range of offerings occupied the plinth at her feet, with prayers written in either childish handwriting or simple pictures.
Arabella knelt before the giant statue of Beseda, the owl princess deity of vulnerable women and legal affairs. She placed her bedraggled bunch of liberated nightblooms on the plinth and bowed her head. She kept her voice low so as not to disturb the priests in their work, or indeed to provide them with new subjects for idle gossip.
“Lady Beseda, I need your help. I know I don’t come often but that’s ‘cause I don’t like to bother you none. But right now I can’t do much more on my own. I tried to be good, see, I tried to do what I were told, and I tried to always take each beatin’ with a smile in my heart, but it ain’t no good.”
Her fingers strayed to the array of bruises on her left arm, fresh purple flowers amid blooms of dull brown and vicious yellow. The words that accompanied each blow were like daggers to the heart, imprinted on her mind like hieroglyphs of pain.
“I never wanted to marry him in the first place but Mama said I had to leave, give her more food for the rest o’ the family. She knows he hits me, but she says I must deserve it.”
A stray tear escaped and slid down Arabella’s cheek, tracing the faint shadow of an old bruise usually hidden by her curtain of hair. Her husband didn’t hit her face any more; he wouldn’t be able to sell her to the men at the tavern if she looked damaged.
“I know what he’s got planned for me, and I don’t want no part of it. I’ve only got a few days until my cycle ends, and then…”
Arabella sniffed back another tear. She closed her eyes and continued her prayer to Beseda inside her head. The priests, recognising true need, left the weeping young woman alone in the shrine. However, Arabella was not quite alone. Something soft brushed her face, and she opened her eyes to see a long white feather, spotted with black, lying on the plinth on top of her bunch of nightblooms. Better yet, a small glass vial stood beside the feather.
Arabella snatched up the gifts and threw her arms around the legs of the statue. She smothered the cold stone with kisses, and her words of gratitude tumbled out in a rush. She slipped the vial and the feather into her pockets and bolted out of the shrine, almost colliding with the priests in her hurry to leave.
The young woman thought of the gifts as she scrambled up the twisting staircase, the flaming torches throwing flickering shadows across the walls. She smiled; everyone knew that owl tears were poisonous. The vial contained either release or retribution, depending on how she used it.
“And the feather will take the sting away,” she sang as she climbed.
Praise be to Beseda…
* * *
This story is set in the Underground City, part of the universe for my dark fantasy/horror novella, The Necromancer's Apprentice. Two of the other stories so far are The Vault of Lost Voices, and The Fishwives.