Daughter of the Sun
Effie Calvin © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Even from a distance, Orsina of Melidrie could tell something was wrong.
The little village of Soria appeared to be a typical Vesoldan farming community. A field of green barley stretched toward the south, almost ready for the springtime harvest, and the farmers raised their hands to Orsina in greeting as she rode past. Down in the olive groves, trees were beginning to put out tiny, cream-colored blossoms while Sorian youngsters rested beneath the branches and tended to flocks of fat sheep.
But when Orsina inspected the fields more closely, she saw the crops were choked with weeds and beginning to rot. It was as though they had been neglected for weeks, despite the presence of the farmers.
Orsina also didn’t fail to notice that all Soria’s sheep still wore their heavy winter coats, though all the surrounding communities had held their springtime shearing days nearly a month ago. Most passersby would probably not notice such small details, but Orsina had dealt with situations like this before. She knew the signs of a village in thrall.
According to storytellers, the correct attire for a paladin was heavy plate armor, and a matching set for her horse. Orsina supposed none of those storytellers ever visited southern Vesolda, for even in early spring it was too hot to even contemplate wearing anything heavier than her chain mail and tabard.
Still, when she rode into Soria, children dropped their toys in the dust and abandoned their games to follow her. She doubted any of them had seen a paladin before, and so she gave them warm smiles and tried her best not to look intimidating. She did not know how successful she was.
A temple of Eyvindr, God of the Harvest and Third of the Ten, stood at the center of town. But as Orsina rode past, she noted that the windows were dark and the orange trees in the garden were beginning to wither. Despite her curiosity, she did not linger there.
Orsina dismounted in front of the tavern and tied Star, the gray Vesoldan mare that had been her mount for the last four years. The children were upon her in a moment, asking thousands of questions simultaneously. Was she a paladin? Was she from the Order of the Sun? Had she ever spoken to Iolar? Or one of the other gods? Was she from Bergavenna? Had she ever killed a dragon? A demon? A chaos god?
Orsina answered the questions as best she could, but she wasn’t even sure if the children heard her replies. Finally, a man stepped out onto the front steps of the tavern, drawn by the noise.
“Here, leave the poor woman alone!” he yelled to the children. “Go on, back to your chores. Get!”
The children backed away reluctantly, and Orsina gave the man a grateful smile. He smiled back, but she could see the tension in his shoulders and the fear in his eyes. He did not want her here.
“Do you have a room?” asked Orsina. “I was hoping to stay the night.”
“Just the one. It’s not much, though,” he glanced at her armor. “Count Doriano’s manor is only a day’s ride from here. If you hurry, you might be there before dark, and not have to sleep on a straw mattress—and don’t tell anyone I said so, but his wine is better, too.”
“I have endured worse than straw mattresses,” said Orsina pleasantly, wondering if the man would outright refuse to serve her. But instead, he turned back and yelled into the tavern.
“Benigo!” he called. “See to the Dame Paladin’s horse, and bring her bags upstairs.”
A young child, probably the man’s son, rushed out to take Star’s lead. Orsina let him do his work and went inside.
The tavern was nearly empty, save for a few old grandfathers sharing stories. When they saw her, their conversations ended abruptly. Orsina looked around, taking in the ancient wooden furniture and dust collecting in the corners. Open windows let in the midday sunlight, and a massive empty stone fireplace took up the entire north wall.
“It is an honor, Dame Paladin,” said the tavern-keeper, speaking too loudly as he moved around the back of the bar and fumbled for a tankard. “What brings you to Soria?”
The question was innocently posed, the sort of question anyone might ask a strange traveler. But it was well known that paladins from the Order of the Sun were forbidden to tell lies. The tavern-keeper wanted to know how much she suspected, how much she knew.
The old men were all watching her as well, their filmy eyes locked on her.
“I am in search of a prophecy,” said Orsina. “Two years ago, my Baron, Casmiro of Melidrie, received a vision from Iolar. I was informed that Iolar meant for me to leave Melidrie immediately and defeat a great evil. I obeyed, of course, and have been in search of it ever since.”
The tavern-keeper looked uncomfortable. “And you believe that evil is here?” he asked uneasily, his eyes darting back to the old men.
“I do not know,” admitted Orsina. “Unfortunately, the Baron’s vision was sparsely detailed. I have destroyed many evil creatures in Iolar’s name since I left home, but never have I received a vision telling me that my quest was complete. While I am proud of all that I have accomplished, I admit I will be glad when I am finished.”
“But you believe there is evil here?” the tavern-keeper pressed.
Though her vows forbade her to lie, even Iolar could understand the occasional need to be obtuse. “There is evil everywhere, sir,” she said. “But we are only vulnerable to it when we tell ourselves otherwise.”
The atmosphere in the room became oppressive, but Orsina was not worried. After all she had faced in the last two years, she could hold her own against a handful of villagers, even ones in thrall. The real challenge was always when she happened upon a foe clever enough to use the villagers themselves as weapons, forcing them to throw themselves at her blade until she retreated or managed to subdue them.
At her request, the tavern-keeper led her upstairs to the tiny bedroom where his son had delivered her traveling bags. His assessment of its quality had not been wholly incorrect, but after two years of constant travel, Orsina was used to uncomfortable conditions.
Orsina went to the window and looked out at the neglected temple below. Regardless of whether this village was the home to Iolar’s prophesized evil, there was something amiss here. Even if she had been blind to the little signs, the protective tattoos on her arms were slowly growing warm, reacting to the presence of something wrong.
Men’s imaginations could get the better of them, and stories became wilder after every telling, so Orsina was careful to keep an open mind whenever she first heard a new rumor. Demons and chaos gods did walk on Inthya, but it was infinitely more likely that any given problem had nothing at all to do with the forces of chaos.
For example, ten months ago some terrified villagers had begged her to come investigate the nearby forest where, at night, young women could be heard screaming. The villagers suspected murder, sacrifices, obscene rituals. Orsina had marched in, ready for a fight…only to find out that the source of the noise was a single red fox.
And last winter, she’d gone to confront a werewolf that had been taking sheep and found only ordinary gray wolves who had become hungry enough to forget their fear of men.
But the most memorable occasion was when she had received word of a manticore terrorizing the southern shore. Manticores were native to Aquiim, but they were capable of flight, so it was not impossible to believe one made it across the Summer Strait. Orsina had prepared for the fight of her life, joining with five other paladins to track the beast down. But when they finally cornered the monster, they found that their ‘manticore’ was actually a rabid brown bear.
The fight had not been pleasant, but it was certainly an improvement over what Orsina imagined a battle with a manticore might have been like. After it was over, the paladins had wondered to each other how anyone on Inthya could manage to confuse a brown bear with a venom-spewing winged lion.
Orsina stepped away from the window and closed the shutters. The sun was still high, and the day was fair. Tonight she would confront whatever evil had taken root here, but in the meantime, her letter to Lady Perlita was incomplete. Orsina gathered up her writing instruments and went downstairs, intending to compose her letter at the long table just in front of the tavern’s sunny windows.
Lady Perlita was the daughter of the Baron of Melidrie. In childhood, they had played together when none of Perlita’s noble friends or cousins were around. Perlita called for raids upon the kitchens, or the cherry trees, or the Hedoquan cactus pears that had flourished in the warm Vesoldan climate, and Orsina carried out her orders without question.
Years later, Orsina returned home from her paladin’s training in Bergavenna to find that Perlita had transformed from a wild, skinny girl into an elegant, olive-skinned beauty with topaz eyes and a waist so small Orsina thought she could have encircled it completely with both her hands (she was mistaken on this last point, as it turned out, but only just).
Orsina regularly wrote letters to Perlita, detailing her adventures. She never received anything in return, but Orsina knew that Perlita was very busy learning to take her father’s place. Replies were probably too much to expect.
Orsina also occasionally wrote to her parents, assuring them that she was still alive and well. They did respond, but Orsina moved around so frequently and unpredictably that it was usually months before the letters found her.
As she wrote, Orsina was struck by the sensation that she was being watched. Without looking up, she folded the letter into thirds and packed her ink and quills away.
Moving at a leisurely pace, Orsina left the tavern and walked across the town square to the abandoned temple. It was one of the only buildings in town with glass windows, and it was dark enough within that Orsina could see her reflection in them.
Orsina did not spend much time in front of mirrors, but she recognized her own face: oval, sun-darkened, with a strong nose and stubborn lips. A few wisps of dark brown hair had escaped from her braid to cradle her face.
But something was amiss with her reflection. Orsina quickly tried to divert her own gaze, but her reflection smiled broadly, and she knew she had been caught.
“Will you meet me in the village square, or shall I hunt you through the forest tonight?” Orsina asked the presence in a low voice.
“You’re so pretty,” breathed her reflection in a soft voice that was not her own. “Do you really wish to destroy me? We can have such fun together.”
“Who are you?” demanded Orsina. Her reflection only laughed.
Orsina had not really been expecting an answer, for that would have made her job too simple, but sometimes her adversaries liked to brag. She waited, but after a few minutes, it was clear that the presence—whatever it was—had gone. Orsina turned and walked away from the glass, determined not to show any sort of reaction.
Dusk came soon enough, and the tavern filled as the people of Soria began returning from their day’s work. Most were farmers or shepherds, but the village also had a carpenter, a miller, a few tailors, and a blacksmith. Orsina sat in her corner, simply watching, and most of the Sorians refused to make eye contact with her.
She could see they were not too deeply in thrall. They could still speak, and reason, and apparently retained a good deal of their own will, quite unlike the shuffling, empty-eyed thralls she had encountered in the past. But in a way, this was almost more insidious, for it gave the illusion of freedom.
Some of the younger Sorians could not resist approaching the paladin in their midst, and she was happy to oblige them with stories of her past adventures. The tale of the manticore-that-wasn’t got a particularly good reception and by the time she was finished, the smiles of the young shepherds were genuine.
There had been no sign of the village priest yet. Nor had she met the administrator assigned to manage the village and send reports back to Count Doriano. Orsina knew better than to ask after them, unless she wanted every villager in the room to turn on her.
As the last traces of sunlight slipped away, the tavern-keeper’s son came to light the fire. Curiously, many of the villagers were already beginning to leave. Orsina stayed seated but watched out the window as they vanished into the darkness in the direction of the olive groves.
Orsina rose to her feet, and remaining patrons fell silent.
“Benigo!” yelled the tavern-keeper. His face was bright red, and beads of sweat dripped down his nose. “Show the lady to her room.”
Orsina drew her blade, and little Benigo froze mid-step. Before any of the villagers had time to react, she was already out the front door and moving in the direction of the olive groves.
The village was dark and unfamiliar. As Orsina walked, she raised her blade to her lips, murmuring a prayer. The sword began to glow with a steady golden light, enough to guide her way.
Like all paladins, Orsina was blessed by Iolar—a rare thing, for a woman, but certainly not unheard of. She had spent years memorizing the many, many Order-specific rituals and prayers that she channeled her magic through. Orsina’s blessing was not terribly powerful, but she had never felt as though she was at a disadvantage. The Order of the Sun had always emphasized the importance of physical might, and the dangers of becoming overly-reliant upon magic and therefore complacent. Those with stronger blessings were usually better suited for the Temple of Iolar.
An idealist at heart, Orsina lacked the contempt for the Temple of Iolar that many of the senior paladins had. She did not see why their organizations frequently viewed themselves as rivals. Their methods might differ, but they had the same mission—to protect innocents from the forces of chaos.
Orsina was aware of the villagers leaving the tavern behind her, but she ignored them. None approached her, or even called to her, but she could hear their shuffling footsteps in the shadows.
By the time Orsina arrived at the olive grove, a mass of villagers had already gathered there between the trees, standing in a circle. She pushed her way through the crowd, and they all parted to let her by easily. None looked her in the face.
At the center of the circle was a woman. She had long, dark hair that gleamed violet and midnight and emerald in the torchlight. Her face was round, her lips stained dark, her eyes glittering amethysts. She wore a simple dress, the sort a Vesoldan peasant might, except for the fact that it was completely black.
Orsina could see no runes on her bared arms to mark her as a demon, and there seemed to be intelligence in her eyes. A goddess, then.
Most chaos gods that Orsina encountered took bodies that were tall and thin, with pronounced neckbones and cheekbones and ribs. Some displayed unnatural characteristics, like curling horns or bestial claws or leathery wings. But this goddess looked like an ordinary woman, more or less. She was only average height and had soft curves to her silhouette.
Of course, the body was merely an avatar, created to hold her spirit while she interacted with Inthya. Still, the sight of it, so unlike the other chaos gods Orsina was familiar with, was surprising.
Orsina tightened her grip on her blade. “Tell me your name, and I will tell you mine,” she said.
The woman threw back her head as her lips split open in a bubbling laugh. “You think I do not know you, Orsina of Melidrie?” she asked. “My pets have spoken of nothing else since your arrival.”
“If you will not tell me your name, I will have to guess,” said Orsina. “Are you Issapa?”
The goddess laughed again. “I am flattered,” she said. “But I do not think Issapa has to entertain herself with forgotten villagers in the Vesoldan wilderness. Guess again.”
“Are you Rikilda?” asked Orsina, naming the Goddess of Alchemy who was sometimes associated with dark practices. Rikilda was extremely powerful, and this goddess, whoever she was, would enjoy the comparison.
The woman gasped and clapped her hands. “Oh!” she cried in delight. “How sweet you are. But no. Try again!”
“Cytha?” This time, Orsina’s guess was genuine. Cytha was an extremely minor goddess, associated with revenge. Her worship was outlawed, but that had never been an obstacle to the sufficiently determined.
“Ah, now we are moving into the obscure,” said the goddess. “How nice to speak to someone who is educated in matters of theology. These villagers are such poor conversationalists. You are incorrect, by the way.”
This goddess was not powerful at all. It was likely that the village of Soria contained the entirety of her worshippers. Still, unlike demons, a god could never be fully destroyed. For the weaker ones, there were rituals to trap, to banish, to scatter. But eventually, they would return. They always did.
“A hint, then?” suggested Orsina. “Your domain?”
The goddess smiled languidly. “Caprice.”
“Aelia,” said Orsina immediately, years of rote memorization under the tutelage of Order scribes paying off.
The goddess strode forward.
“Two years, since you last saw your home?” Aelia’s violet eyes were searching. “You must be terribly lonely.”
“Enough. It is time you made your return to Aethitide.” Orsina raised her glowing blade.
“Wait!” said Aelia. “There are things I can offer you. I can find out the purpose of this mysterious quest Iolar has sent you on. No more wandering around little villages, searching for monsters to slay. If you work quickly, you could be home before summer’s end.”
Orsina hesitated, though her grip on the sword did not weaken.
“I will make no pact with you,” she said.
“No?” But Aelia’s form was shifting now. She became shorter, thinner. Her hair shifted to an ordinary shade of brown and coiled itself into a coronet. Her peasant’s dress transformed into a lady’s crimson gown. Orsina gritted her teeth and looked away, for Aelia was now a perfect replica of Lady Perlita.
“You have done enough,” said Aelia, in Perlita’s voice. “More than enough. You do not deserve to spend your days wandering Inthya in hopes of stumbling upon your destiny. You have slain more monsters, destroyed more demons, banished more chaos gods than any other paladin your age. Nobody could fault you for your homesickness.”
Aelia moved closer and rested one hand against Orsina’s face. When Orsina did not rip away, Aelia pressed their lips together.
Orsina could taste the chaos magic in her kiss, and her protective tattoos blazed in warning. Without taking a step forward or back, Orsina raised her blade and stabbed through Aelia’s chest.
Perlita’s form began melting away as Aelia screamed in pain and outrage. Orsina ignored the noise and chanted the prayer that prevented her from retreating to Aethitide, her plane in Asterium. Once bound to Inthya, Orsina could destroy her form. It would take years, perhaps even decades, for Aelia’s consciousness to regenerate.
“No!” snarled Aelia as she realized she was now trapped in a mortal body. She staggered backward, into the olive trees and away from the torchlight. Orsina moved to follow the weakened goddess, but hands grabbed at her, drawing her back. Orsina tried to wrench free, but the villagers were so numerous—and so horribly fragile.
Orsina twisted around to face them, bringing her sword about in a wide cleaving motion. Fortunately, the villagers still retained enough control over themselves to recoil from the gleaming edge of the blade. That moment of delay was enough for Orsina to turn on her heel and go running into the trees after Aelia.
The villagers were already pursuing her, but their movements were awkward and clumsy. She could tell Aelia’s hold on their minds was waning. With only her sword lighting the way, she smashed through low-hanging branches, boots skidding downhill.
Aelia moved in an erratic, unpredictable path, swerving this way and that in hopes of losing her pursuer. She leaped ancient stone fences in a single, effortless bound, darted around trees, vanished into long shadows. Now thoroughly lost, all Orsina could do was stand still and wait to hear the goddess’s footfalls.
Someone tackled her, and Orsina went sprawling across the dirt. The blade fell from her hand, and someone struck her across the face. Orsina drew her knees to her chest and kicked outward with all her strength, sending the unfortunate villager back into darkness. At the sound of rustling branches, Orsina grabbed her sword and lurched to her feet again, intent upon following the noise.
Aelia was beginning to slow, thanks to the massive wound in her midsection. An ordinary woman would have been dead ten times over, but goddesses, even obscure ones like Aelia, were significantly more resilient.
She caught up to Aelia shortly, bringing her sword’s hilt down on the back of her neck. Aelia fell, crumpling as though she was made of plaster. By the light of her blade, she saw Aelia struggle to push herself back upward on her palms, and that was when Orsina struck her head off at the neck.
Slowly, slowly, her protective tattoos returned to their normal temperature. Orsina swallowed and looked around at the unfamiliar trees. She could very well be a mile away from Soria at this point.
But more shapes were moving toward her now—the villagers, now free of Aelia’s manipulations. Irritation flared up in her chest. Aelia had not been a powerful goddess, and there were at least thirty of them. The goddess should not have been able to take advantage of them so easily!
“Dame Paladin?” one of them called anxiously. “Is she dead?”
“Dead enough, for now,” said Orsina, pointing her sword at the now-lifeless avatar, casting enough light upon it that the villagers could see what had happened. “Are any of your people injured?”
“I don’t know,” he said. More shadowy figures were coming forward, but now their movement was natural and free. They gathered around in a half-circle, none approaching her directly. When she looked into their eyes, they glanced away.
“Where is your priest?” she demanded. Nobody answered immediately. “Where is he?”
“Alive,” said one of the village men. “She told us to lock him up. We put him in the granary.”
Orsina breathed a sigh of relief. “And Count Doriano’s man?”
“With the priest,” said another villager, this one a woman. “Please—you have to understand! She said, she said—”
“I know what she said. I will hear your excuses tomorrow, if that is what you require. Right now, I need someone to burn this avatar,” she pointed at the body. “And then I need someone to lead me back to the village.”
A handful of villagers were already constructing a pyre as she began the trek back to Soria.
Her first stop was the granary, since it seemed none of the villagers wanted to face the men they’d imprisoned. When she unbolted the door and threw it wide open, both the priest and the administrator flinched. But their expressions turned to relief as they caught sight of the golden sun emblazoned on Orsina’s tabard.
“Oh, thank the gods!” gasped the administrator. “What day is it? I swear we’ve been in here for months! Did the Count send you?”
“Yes,” said Orsina. “He found your letters concerning.”
“I thought he might.” He cast a glance at the priest of Eyvindr. “There, see, I told you he’d catch on.”
“Yes, and it only took him two weeks,” said the priest dryly.
The other man ignored the jibe. “We owe you our lives, Dame Paladin. I expect the villagers planned to sacrifice us sooner or later.”
Orsina very much doubted that. There was more carelessness in Aelia than spite. It seemed more likely that the two men would have starved to death once the goddess forgot about them. But she did not bother to contradict him. “The villagers have been freed, and they will no longer threaten you. In fact, I believe they are all quite ashamed of their actions. And you do not have to worry about the goddess, either. Her avatar was destroyed, and it should take years for one as obscure as her to regenerate.”
The administrator seemed pleased by what he heard, and set off for the tavern, declaring that everybody would be buying him drinks tonight if they wished to keep their names out of his report to Count Doriano. But the priest of Eyvindr stayed behind.
“I do not know how this happened,” he confided to Orsina. “I have heard tales, but…I never believed my own people could be so foolish, to fall under the spell of a chaos goddess.”
“I expect I will find out the answer to that tomorrow,” Orsina agreed. “Nevertheless, I believe that this is a lesson your villagers will not soon forget.”
The priest bid her a good night, and Orsina stood alone in the shadow of the granary. She closed her eyes and raised her face to the night sky, waiting to see if Iolar’s approval filled her mind with golden light, followed by an affirmation that her work was done at last.
It did not.
To her great surprise, tears sprang to her eyes. What was this? She raised a gauntlet to her face in confusion and stared at the teardrop gleaming on the silver metal. A paladin did not fall into despair! She had never received a direct, personal acknowledgment from Iolar before, so why did its absence suddenly feel like a rejection?
Her mind flashed back to the moment that Aelia, wearing Perlita’s body, had pressed their lips together.
“You must be terribly lonely,” she had said.
I’m not, Orsina wanted to say, but she was forbidden to lie—even to the quiet darkness of a tiny, forgettable Vesoldan farming village.
Why had Perlita not written to her? Her heart ached at the question she’d refused to consider for two years. If Perlita missed Orsina even a fraction as much as Orsina missed her, she should have at least one letter!
She closed her eyes again, remembering the kiss. It had not been the real Perlita, but it had apparently been enough to awaken the longing that she’d thought she’d successfully buried.
Orsina felt her contempt for the villagers’ weakness fade to something softer. It was so easy to judge them for their failings, but she had failings too. Even now, she still carried a glimmer of curiosity in her heart. What might have happened if she had accepted Aelia’s offer to determine the true purpose of her quest?
Well, it hardly mattered now. Aelia was gone from Inthya and could not be expected to return anytime soon. Orsina would have to seek Iolar’s destiny in the way he had intended: slowly, and with a paladin’s patience.