Marrida shudders at the thought of the Wolf Riders, hurrying home as fast as she can. She has heard the rumours that they are coming closer to Ruh'nar; every day the people of the city grow more fearful. Some have even started to make up retellings of having encountered the Wolf Riders, and many merchants who'd normally be busying themselves in the central market square now stay away.
The city feels so empty these days.
The pain of the impending incursion, whether or not the rumours are true, is visible on the faces of those Marrida passes in the streets. Even she is feeling fear in the deepest recesses of her heart, but it's not so much fear for herself. If the Wolf Riders are going to attack, what will happen to her younger brother?
"They'll snatch you too," she'd shouted at him in her latest fit of anger when he'd again mentioned his chosen vocation to her. Her brother, in turn, had stomped off to his room, slammed the door shut, and stayed there for hours. Not even a meal would tempt him out.
Another shudder of fear runs through Marrida. It is too risky for boys to be outside these days. The Wolf Riders are renowned for snatching them to be trained in the ruined city they claimed as their own centuries earlier. No one really understands why the Wolf Riders do this. Some say it is related to their own legends – although you can hardly call the retellings of a brutish group of men 'legends'. And now these men are targeting her city to plunder and destroy, taking even more power for themselves.
Marrida is a young, headstrong woman, only a few years beyond her woman initiation, First Rites. She and her younger brother and sister occupy a small but luxurious house on the most north-easterly street off the central market, just a few streets past her uncle's shop which sells exquisite pottery, leather wares and stone works. The district she lives in has been notable for centuries for its artisans, but even those are fewer these days as the residents of Ruh'nar seek safety in the untouched cities on the western coast of the vast continent. Although Marrida's district is still considered among the wealthiest parts of the fast diminishing city, even grandeur can pay the ultimate price.
Marrida sincerely hopes one day to convince her uncle that they too should leave, but he is probably as stubborn as she is. He tells her the family has lived in Ruh'nar for more than nine generations since leaving their original home behind, so they will stay in Ruh'nar.
* * *
Deep in thought, Marrida passes her uncle's shop. She can hear noises from within, indicating her uncle, Joharan, and his five young apprentices are hard at work.
Years ago, she was in the shop as a young child. A group of seven cloaked women and a solitary man, who acted as their guard, entered and asked for her. With some reluctance, her uncle called her from the back room. When the women explained to him that they were looking for a stone of innocence and only a young girl could see its innocence, he agreed to the process, and let them use the room behind the storage area for privacy. Why he so readily allowed his young niece to be alone with this group of strangers is still a puzzle to Marrida.
Once they were alone, Marrida watched as the women took off their long, dark grey-blue cloaks and revealed themselves – the guard had gone outside by now. She realised from their appearance they were from the Temple – the mysterious building at the south end of the central square which only a few can enter.
The most striking thing about the group, at least in Marrida's young mind, was how wealthily dressed they were. The leader, whom she would come to know as Elder Sharriba, wore her silver-streaked hair tied back with a clasp studded with small gems, and her dress was the richest dark red. Sharriba's face was heart-shaped, and as a young woman, she must have drawn plenty of interest from men looking for a life partner. Her only piece of jewellery was a gem in the shape of a rubha apple hanging from a beaded chain around her neck, and Marrida couldn't keep her eyes off the gem however much she tried.
Sharriba's piercing green-grey eyes seemed to stare right through Marrida as she spoke to her. She told the young girl that she had observed Marrida in a dream, and like them, Marrida was destined to be a Keeper of Truth. At the time, Marrida did not understand what all this meant, but as she started her extensive training with Sharriba, she was quick to learn.
The first thing the Elder told her was that no person, not even her family, should ever know that she was a Keeper of Truth. There would be dire consequences if it was ever discovered she had revealed this information. The punishment would be severe, but Marrida was not told how it would be 'imparted', as Sharriba put it.
Was that a bit of a play on words? Marrida thinks now, chuckling at the irony of dealing with truth while lying to kith and kin about what she does in the Temple. Sometimes the humour of the situation is easier to consider than the consequences of what she's doing in secret.
Three days after the fateful day in her uncle's shop, Marrida became an initiated Acolyte. That day, her destiny altered, giving her life a new meaning. But what Marrida didn't know was that this destiny would lead her towards another.
She was so innocent back then.
* * *
Marrida soon noticed Elder Sharriba singled her out for in-depth training and discussion. After a time, the other Acolytes started to treat her differently, to the point where she sensed their resentment as soon as she entered a room. It left her with no friends at the Temple, and at times loneliness overwhelmed her. There were three slightly older Acolytes who liked picking on her whenever she was alone in a room with them.
In her private history lessons with Elder Sharriba, Marrida learnt that the First Elder created the Order nearly a thousand years ago, at a time now commonly referred to as 'The Old Days'. The First Elder possessed the rare ability to see not only into the past, but also small fragments of the future, and that Elder was instrumental in entrusting two brothers with the task of creating a force of peacekeepers who could keep the world safe. Sharriba told Marrida never to mention any of this to the others in the Temple.
These two brothers lived in a city now lying in ruins, used as a base by the Wolf Riders. Why and how they changed from being peacekeepers to the warmongers of today is something the Keepers of Truth do not understand fully. One afternoon, while they were alone, Sharriba told Marrida her family came from that ancient city, but they fled and settled on the south coast. There, many generations later, her mother started her life. As Marrida learnt what her own uncle had kept hidden from her, she realised she had a further reason to hate the Wolf Riders.
The Elder explained about Marrida's merchant father's journey south to Marridina. When he saw Marrida's mother, he asked her to become his life partner, and she agreed. They bonded in a traditional ceremony after only knowing one another a single day, and this part of her family's history moved Marrida beyond words. It brought genuine tears to her eyes – both of remembrance and sadness.
Marrida wonders if she'll ever meet someone whom she can love so genuinely, and so quickly. And whether she'll be able to learn more about her parents' traditional ceremony, as Elder Sharriba never spoke any more about it.
This ceremony forced Marrida's mother to leave her duties as a Keeper. Several months before she'd died, her mother had come to see Elder Sharriba in person and asked the older woman to initiate Marrida into the Temple. Although it went against tradition, Elder Sharriba had agreed.
When the time came for Sharriba to honour her promise to Marrida's mother, it was necessary to test the girl's skills. Untested, she wouldn't be welcome at the Temple, even if the Elder insisted upon it. Marrida's mother had made Elder Sharriba a secondary guardian for her young daughter, Marrida's uncle being her other guardian, in case anything should happen to her and her life partner. They would remain her guardians until Marrida came of age and took over the duty of care for her two siblings.
Sharriba knew little about Marrida's father. He had been an affluent merchant who journeyed far and wide, selling the wares that Ruh'nar produced. This meant his growing family could live in the wealthiest parts of the city, and his children could attend the best school the city offered.
Marrida knew from Sharriba that her parents loved one another deeply. She loved both her parents with equal devotion, and hers was a close-knit and happy family. When the news arrived that her father had been killed on his travels, her mother had taken it badly. Heavily pregnant with the couple's third child, she had gone into early labour. Marrida's younger sister, Kalisa, had been born healthy, but her mother did not survive the birthing.
The rift between her two older children started that day.
* * *
Ruh'nar is a city of about two hundred thousand people, the population swelling by more than fifty thousand on market days, such as the spring market, and even more when the annual Festival of the Rites – the initiation of youths into young adulthood – takes place. Some say the city once had over five hundred thousand residents, and at the time dwarfed the city now lying in ruins; the city whose name had been lost to the Wolf Riders. Some say that at that time, almost everyone in the two nearby provinces came to visit the city for the Festival. To Marrida, that explains the size of the Temple, which looks so large and ill-suited to Ruh'nar now.
Ruh'nar was the capital city in The Old Days. Situated in the centre of the tranquil province of Sabeya, a rich agricultural region famous for its rubha apples, Ruh'nar now feels more like an average provincial town. The smaller cities of the west coast have taken its place in size, appearance and grandeur.
Half of Sabeya is covered with dense forests of rubha apple shrubs. The shrub grows not into a tree, but into a thick rounded bush with dark green leaves. The tiny apples cover the bush, and when they ripen, they are pure white in colour and smell of honey. The citruses from the nearby Azamella province, some of which grow into fruits double the size of a man's fist, are sometimes mixed with rubha apples to make a tart spread eaten with bread. Both are harvested in the second month of the autumn season and placed into large wooden vats in readiness for the drying process that takes most of the cold winter months.
The other province is Marridina. On the coast, it is known for its delicious seafood which is brought back to Ruh'nar by merchants from the city on an almost daily basis. One such merchant was Marrida's own father, and it was on one such journey that he met Marrida's mother.
* * *
Marrida is shivering.
Either there's a chill in the air, or those Wolf Riders are making me feel edgy, she thinks, frowning. Her duty as a Keeper of Truth – even just an Acolyte – is bearing down on her more and more each day, but the rumours about the impending incursion by the Wolf Riders have got her scared for her whole family.
Today, after a long day of training, all the Acolytes were sent home for their own safety when the gong at the gatehouse struck. Marrida's uncle is only aware she works as a Temple Maiden, and prior to her First Rites, that was exactly what she did. Thus, up until the Festival, she was telling her uncle the truth.
Now we no longer speak, she thinks sadly, so I don't have to tell him anything.
But Marrida is someone with a guilty secret. She has been doing visions by herself, even though Sharriba expressly forbade her to do this, and recently, a dangerous plan has started forming in her mind.
Little does she know as she walks towards her house that her plans are about to alter radically. Fate will soon set her on a path that will for ever change her life.
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