Friday, 4 January 2013

#FridayFlash - The Supplicant


The shrine to Beseda lay deep in the bowels of the Underground City. It could only be reached by a twisting staircase that cut its way through layers of black and grey rock, a staircase frequently blocked by the sheer number of supplicants trying to enter or leave the shrine. Its lack of natural light made time irrelevant in the Underground City, and traffic to the shrine was almost constant. However, Arabella determined that many of the slum dwellers would be packed into taverns and other drinking dens on the Feast of Rogues. As a result, the staircase to the shrine was mercifully quiet as she picked her way down the steps towards the hallowed doors.

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.

19 comments:

Tony Noland said...

A potent gift!

Larry Kollar said...

I'm rather hoping for retribution. Beautiful sketch, here.

ThomG said...

Really wonderful detail. Drew me in completely.

ganymeder said...

Very emotional. I'm hoping her bastard husband gets what he deserves, but she has choices now. Poor woman!

John Wiswell said...

Very creepy intentions, but I still liked her smothering the statue in kisses. It's the behaviors I never see that speak to me most these days.

Sulci Collective said...

Fabulous Icy, loved the fact that the poison could be either her or her husband. Particularly liked the image of pain like hieroglyphs

marc nash

flyingscribbler said...

I'm going to read the others straight away. One of the things I've missed during my sabatical is your writing Icy. I loved the line about the priests not having decided about the statue yet: it suggests decades or centuries of slow pondering. And they gossip too! A great read.

flyingscribbler said...

I just read the other two, and realised I had read the second one already. I love the general tone of them and look forward to a lot more.

jimdens said...

I too like the image of "pain like hieroglyphs", and I especially enjoyed Arabella's voice - you nailed her character here.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Tony - Indeed!

Larry - Yeah, Arabella doesn't seem the 'release' type.

Thom - Thanks.

Cathy - Choice is probably the more potent gift than means!

John - I wanted to show her relief in a physical way.

Marc - Thanks!

Justin - Ah, my writing is always here, waiting for you!

Deanna - Thanks!

Steve Green said...

It's heartening to see help given to those truly in need of it, I hope she chooses retribution over release, I think her husband needs some schooling.

Sonya Clark said...

The world building drew me in but it was the emotional wallop that really floored me. So, so excellent!

Richard Bon said...

That husband deserves whatever comes to him, in this life or the next. I liked how the vial appeared for her.

modscheherzade said...

Icy - happy new year! I loved this - especially the Owl goddess and her gift - Arabella deserves to be happy and that husband sounds like a git!

storytreasury said...

I am thinking release over retribution! Should be interesting either way

Icy Sedgwick said...

Steve - So do I!

Sonya - Glad you liked it! We'll be seeing more of Arabella...

Richard - Have to love a spot of magic.

Brinda - He's a bit of a meanie!

Sonia - Ah we'll see...

Katherine Hajer said...

A sad predicament, but a beautifully-drawn scene. I'd love to find out what happens next.

Kevin Mackey said...

This is a marvelous glimpse into world that has this Underground City. And the depth you wove into the sketch of Arabella is masterfully done.

I'm thinking retribution. There's too much real strength in this woman to take the easier way out.

Really nice work.

jackkholt said...

Fantastic stuff, Icy. I'm leaning more toward retribution than release! "bedraggled bunch of liberated nightblooms" loved this description. ;-)

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