The cold winter wind stung the faces of those sitting in the grassy field. The first snow would begin to fall within the week and soon enough they would no longer be able to take their lessons outside. If it had been up to the small group, they would already be doing their lessons inside, but the Mother had ordered them out, and so they went out.
Isiah sighed and leaned back against the soft grass. His robes billowed around him, allowing the cold air to tickle his skin. It stung and he longed for the warmth of a real fire, not the meagre heat his powers allowed him. He would have to rush his students if he wanted to get back in time for a warm supper with the others.
He’d asked the Mother many times why she made him teach the youngest of their flock how to use their powers. He’d gotten the same answer every time. “All must work in the eyes of the Gods, Isiah. You must do your part like everyone else,” she’d tell him. He never did see the point. His powers could barely keep him warm in autumn. It made no sense that he should be the one to teach a group of children how to use theirs.
“Sir?” a small voice called. Isiah looked up from the long grass to smile curiously at the young girl before him. “It’s not working. I’m freezing.”
“Do it as I told you. Close your eyes for me,” he told her. “Now picture something warm. Picture that warmth enveloping you, like a hug. Do you feel anything?” He never had been the best at explaining how to use the powers the Ishini were blessed with. How could he explain something he could barely use?
The young girl was silent for a moment, the six other children around her watching with mixed expressions of boredom and curiosity. “I feel a little warmer, not much though. Are we going inside soon?”
“Soon, I promise. Just a few more minutes.” She either needed more practice or she wasn’t as strong as the others, who had learned the skill in only a few minutes. It wasn’t any fault of hers if it was the latter, some people were stronger than others. Isiah had learned that quickly when he was a child.
A figure waved to them in the distance and Isiah stood, gesturing for the children to follow him. With whoops of mirth, they dashed through the field, seemingly oblivious to the freezing bite of the wind. Isiah smiled at them but said nothing. Watching them run brought him back to a time when life was simpler.
The Mother stood at the edge of the field, watching them with her usual calm expression. They stopped when they reached her and bowed lowly before bounding off again. Isiah would have to teach them a little bit more respect when they saw their leader, but at least they knew to bow.
His grey robes brushed against the dirt and grass as he walked towards her. She seemed unmoved by the wind, the only sign of it touching her was the flap of her robes, fanning out like a ballgown around her ankles.
He bowed when he reached her. “Greetings, Mother,” he said, a shortened version of what they were usually supposed to say, but he knew she wouldn’t mind.
“Greetings, Isiah,” she replied, the hint of a smile on her lips. She glanced over her shoulder at the children as they raced each other towards the Sanctum if Ishin. “How did they go?”
“Most were able to keep themselves warm enough. Ashera struggled,” he answered with a frown.
The Mother hummed and clasped her hands behind her back. “I will tell her tutors to keep an eye on her,” she said in her deep voice. Her dark red eyes met Isiah’s yellow ones. “You are paling.”
“You are the one who sends me out in the cold when you know I can barely keep warm,” Isiah said, not even bothering to try to hide the irritation in his voice.
The Mother looked through her dark fringe at him and he bit down hard on his lip. “Come. Give me your hand.”
He followed her instructions and she grabbed his hand with her own. She ran her soft fingers down his palm and instantly he was warmer. It was as though he were sitting in his quarters by the raging fire. He had always wished, ever since he was a child, to have powers as strong as the Mother. He was sick of the cold.
“Better?” the Mother asked as she dropped his hand.
“Much, thank you.” It wouldn’t last for long, barely a few minutes, but it was just enough time to make it back to the Sanctum.
They walked down the hillside by side, watching the children duck into the main hall. It was their last session together before he left, but they hadn’t seemed to care at all. They probably didn’t, they were young, after all. They only cared about being the best in class and who could make it to supper the fastest. Isiah doubted they would notice his disappearance.
The heat slowly seeped from his pale orange skin as they walked and he began to shiver. Next to him, the Mother was fine, walking with her usual quiet grace. He’d been told by his tutors as a child that she had been beautiful in her youth. To him, she had always looked elegant, but old. Her skin, only a shade darker than his, was wrinkled and sagging, but still, she stood with confidence.
He had no idea how old she was. She’d been old for as long as he could remember, but he’d always been too scared to ask. The Mother was someone to be respected, she led them all, every single follower of the Old Gods. He’d been lucky to get away with not greeting her correctly.
The Sanctum of Ishin was a short walk from the field and soon enough they stood about the strange mix of ruins and buildings. The fallen stone buildings made paths between the wooden homes. The only thing left standing from what the Sanctum had been centuries ago was the tower the teen followers lived in, and the main hall, a great stone lump of a building only used for communal meals.
In the distance was the statues and the crystal, the main place for prayer. The crystal cast both light and heat around the Sanctum, barely enough to battle against the biting wind, but he could feel it to an extent as he got closer to where his dinner was waiting.
It was far warmer in the main hall than it was outside and Isiah sighed in relief. The Mother let out a quiet huff of laughter. “I will leave you now, Isiah,” she said, glancing at the table at the back of the room. “But we must speak later tonight about your travels. There have been some changes.”
“Changes?” Isiah said, worry churning in his gut.
The Mother shook her head. “It is nothing bad, my child. Just something… Different. You will find out tonight. For now, eat and be warm.”
“Of course, Mother, thank you.” He bowed again and bid her farewell.
Supper was, as usual, a quiet affair. All of the people at the table with him were younger than him and talked among themselves. He had wondered what it would be like on the days before he left the Sanctum, but it was nothing like he had pictured. He had thought that people would be talking to him constantly, asking him about what he was going to do. Instead, he was treated with silence, as though they already thought him gone.
When he came back in a year, he would be sitting with those older than him. The monks on the other side of the hall, eating just as silently as him, would be his future. He would join them in prayer later that night as he would not get another chance before he left. He had only ever watched before, it would be his first time praying with them.
Like most beginner monks leaving for their pilgrimage, he would pray to the five Gods for safety and strength on his journey. He would pray for happiness and wealth while he was working. He would also pray for warmth, for it was going to be a harsh winter and he would spend most of it travelling and working.
Either the monks or the Mother would gift him with a block of Fyrite to channel his powers, but he knew it would only help a little. His journey was going to be a cold and harsh one, but it was his time. He could not prolong it to the summer, not without going against the centuries-old traditions of his people.
His Gods would see that he would have a safe journey, and if it wasn’t safe, then that was their will and he must accept it. It was rare for a beginner monk to die on their pilgrimage, but it was always possible, and it was growing more and more likely. It had done since Vishera’s harshest winter, ten years prior.
He would be alone on his journey, but there weren’t many people who dared to attack a follower of the Old Gods. Isiah, like all the others, was a pacifist, as stated by his Gods. Only the truly desperate would attack a peaceful man, but more and more people were growing that desperate.
He finished his supper quicker than most, a mix of nerves and the need to get away from the silence. The children paid him no mind as he walked by their table, yelling excitedly to one another. Even the Mother, sat at the table at the front of the room with the other head monks, was too focused on her conversation to look at him.
He shivered in the cool air as he left the main hall and ran to the tower nearby. It only had four floors, four rooms on each, barely enough to hold all the monks in training. The younger ones shared rooms on the bottom two floors, while the older ones had rooms to themselves.
Isiah, being the oldest now that others had become monks, had a room on the top floor to himself. It was furnished with only the bare essentials, most of what was his had been packed away for his journey. The things he couldn’t take with him would either be given to those below him or saved for his return.
The first thing he did when he entered was light a fire and drop a couple of logs into the flames. He sighed and sat in front of the fireplace, his mind reeling. He had no idea what the Mother wanted to talk to him about. His pilgrimage would still go ahead, despite whatever she said. It had to. It was against tradition if he didn’t leave within the month after his twentieth birthday. He didn’t know what would happen if he didn’t, but he didn’t want to find out.
Perhaps the Mother had changed where he was to work for the first three months. Like most people of their pilgrimage, he was to work in the castle at Ishmar, under the instruction of the King’s staff. But King Harudan had only been in charge for a little over a year, perhaps he had changed things.
Isiah had never been to Ishmar. In fact, he hadn’t been to many places outside of the Sanctum. It wasn’t heard of. The pilgrimage was the time for travel and discovery. And even then, they barely left the country. Not a single monk had travelled over all of Vishera and only a few had gone past Brenmar’s border and into Minisia. When Isiah was young, he’d wanted to be one of those monks. After everything that had happened ten years prior, he’d rather stay where it was safe.
A knock at the door startled him from his thoughts. He jumped from his place on the floor and brushed down his robes. The Mother stood on the other side, a serene smile on her face.
“Greetings, Mother. How may I serve you?” Isiah said, the complete and formal greeting. He allowed her to walk into the room, watching nervously as she surveyed her surroundings.
She huffed and pulled the chair out from the desk in the corner of the room. She sat down and stared at him silently for a long minute. “As I told you before, Isiah, there are to be some changes to your pilgrimage,” she said.
“Am I no longer going to Ishmar?” he asked, fingers playing with the edges of his robes.
The smile never dropped from her face. “You’re still going, but you won’t be going alone,” she replied, her hands clasped tightly together in her lap. The nearby flames made her normally pale orange skin glow. “King Harudan has called for a treaty with Minisia. The Princess Sharina is on her way to sign that treaty.”
“A treaty? But there wasn’t even a war.”
“It is to stop a war from ever happening,” the Mother explained. She sighed and her smile finally dropped. “I do not know if it will work. Minisia and Brenmar have been threatening war for so long now. Their relationship has shattered. But we can hope.”
Isiah frowned, teeth biting hard on his bottom lip. They may never have gone to war, but the tensions between Minisia and Brenmar ruined Vishera. It made it dangerous and dreary, even in the isolated Sanctum.
“But what does this have to do with me, Mother?” he asked.
“Princess Sharina is stopping here for a night, out of courtesy, I would imagine. She arrives tomorrow afternoon and leaves the next morning for Ishmar, you will travel with her party.” Travel with a foreign Princess? He was just a lowly monk, not even that. A follower of a religion slowly dying. He had no place with a Princess and her party.
The pilgrimages were meant to be done alone. They were meant to give him a chance to be independent and learn how life is meant to be lived. It was meant to give him a chance to decide for himself if he wanted to follow the Old Gods or the New Gods. There weren’t meant to be any outside influences unless he chose it, especially not foreign royalty.
He wrung his hands together and looked anywhere but at the Mother. “Surely a Princess would not want to travel with me. She believes in the New Gods, does she not?” he asked.
“She is still a royal and she finds it right to visit those who believe in something different from her,” the Mother explained, standing and walking towards him. “This is also the safest place for her to stay. Brenmar does not take kindly to the Askari now. It will also be safer for you to travel with people who can fight. The roads to Ishmar can be dangerous, my child. Sometimes people do not return.
“It will only be for a week, at most. You will not see her again once you get to Ishmar. She will sign the treaty and leave. You will work for three months and leave. By that time, relations between our people will have eased. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to go to Minisia and dine with the Askari.”
Isiah let out a huff of laughter. “I think you are getting your hopes up, Mother. I may not have seen much of the world, but even I know it will take longer than three months for the Ishini to trust the Askari again,” he said and smiled at her. He didn’t have much of a choice, he had to listen to her words. She was the Mother, her opinion was almost as important as that of the Gods. “I will go with Princess Sharina to Ishmar.”
The Mother placed a hand upon his shoulder. “Thank you, Isiah, my child,” she said. She drifted away from him and the door creaked open. “You needn’t pray with the monks tonight. Pray with them tomorrow. Do what you wish tonight, but be ready to greet the Princess tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mother,” he replied, bowing as she exited. “I am pleased to have served you.”