Construction of the Temple had begun within weeks of the Battle of Kingsbury. Cvinthil had wanted to build it within the city walls (or what was left of them, after the Grayface jets had had their way) but Dindrane prevailed upon him to place it instead on a nearby hilltop where, she said, worshippers would have a better view of all their Goddess's creation. Cvinthil, still uneasy in his relations with the emissaries from Vaylle, had agreed, and had left the details of its construction to the priestess.
The great granite standing stones were excised from a cliffside quarry in the mountains north of Bandon. For years after, the stoneworkers of that quarry spoke in hushed voices in their village pub of how easily their chisels had slid into the stone, how every cut into the quarry face had run true and straight from the first blow to the last. Each of the great stones was dragged on sledges led by a team of a dozen horses who, though they strained against their heavy load, did not break a sweat or become winded. At their destination, the Vayllen delegation directed workmen in positioning them. Once, when the workmen were struggling to haul a plinth upright, it overbalanced and fell -- but miraculously didn't strike anyone when it crashed to the earth. A construction effort that should have taken several years took fewer than nine months.
The Temple was completed by the end of April, with the dedication and consecration held on the first of May. Hundreds of people from Kingsbury and the surrounding villages attended, including the surviving members of the First Wartroop and the kings of both Gryllith and Corrin.
The sun shone in a cloudless blue sky as Marrha dismounted, leaving her horse with an attendant at the bottom of the hill. Her husband offered his arm, and together they strode up the grassy slope with Santhe and Kyria following, making their way through the crowd that had gathered for the event.
At the top of the hill, the four paused. "It is the Circle built anew," Marrha murmured, pale with the memory of past battles fought and lost. Karthin's hand squeezed hers comfortingly.
"It is the Temple," Kyria corrected her. "It is a place of power, true, but with a different genesis and a different purpose than the Circle you knew."
"Forgive me, Marrha," Santhe said, flushing with embarrassment. "I thought you knew. Dindrane said that all the largest temples in Vaylle are thus... open to the air and sun, free for all to come and go at will."
Marrha composed herself with visible effort. "I have been busy with my daughter," she said. "This is the first I have come to the site."
"Look, there are Wykla and Manda," Karthin said, pointing. Marrha smiled at her husband gratefully for changing the subject, and they moved together into the circle of standing stones, joining their friends.
As the group passed the outermost ring of stones, the spring breeze became still and a feeling of peace descended upon them. The tension in Marrha's shoulders eased; though the Temple was imbued with an energy that reminded her of the Circle, she could feel the warm and loving presence of the Goddess surround her, soothing her fears and worries.
"I thought the dedication wasn't until noon," Santhe said, looking around him with an expression of awe and wonder.
"The dedication is a mere formality," a voice said. The four turned and saw Dindrane, clad in her white robes and golden torque. "The Goddess is with us always and in all places."
Kyria stepped closer to the center of the hilltop, where a low altar sat at the feet of a marble statue of a woman, one hand upraised in benediction and the other resting lightly on the pommel of a sword -- the Dragonsword, if she was not mistaken. Marrha followed Kyria, and stared up at the familiar features of Alouzon, the goddess.
"Is it my imagination, or does Alouzon look a bit..." Marrha began.
Kyria smiled wryly. "Embarrassed? Aye. I think the artist captured our Alouzon perfectly."
After the dedication ceremony, Wykla and Manda sat together on the grassy hillside outside of the circle, watching the long line of worshippers and dignitaries make their way back to Kingsbury.
"It is strange, is it not, to finally have a name and a face to put to our gods?" Manda said.
Wykla nodded. "I feel lucky to have known her, though. She helped me when I thought all was lost."
"And what else is a goddess for?" Manda said, smiling gently at her lover.
"Would you... do you think that she would change you back to a man if you prayed for it?" Manda asked hesitantly.
Wykla's head snapped around. "No! I mean... no. I am as I am now, and I would not want to lose..."
Manda stroked Wykla's cheek gently. "Forgive me. Only, I know it has been difficult for you to adjust to your new form. But you would not lose me. I fell in love with you, the gentle spirit with a warrior's heart."
Wykla spoke softly. "And Alouzon taught me that Tireas' spell changed only my body, not me. But it would be unseemly, I think, to disregard those lessons by making such a request of the Goddess."
Manda leaned forward and kissed her gently on the scalp. "I have upset you."
"No. Well, a bit, perhaps, but it is no matter." Wykla looked over her shoulder, at the trilithon behind them. "Do you think She is watching us now?"
Manda kissed her again. "I'm sure of it."
"Tell me, Manda," Wykla asked after a moment. "How are marriages arranged in Corrin?"
Manda cocked her head to the side. "Two who are in love and who wish to declare their union go before the magistrate. How is it in Gryllith?"
"Under the old laws, if a man was unmarried, he told an unmarried woman that she was his wife, and it was so."
"And had the woman no say in the matter?"
"Under Cvinthil's rule, women may refuse."
Manda smiled sympathetically, "But only if they are a good hand with a cobblestone, no?"
Wykla laughed. "Indeed."
"Why all this talk of marriage?" Manda spoke gently.
"I asked Dindrane how it is done in Vaylle. She said that there, a man asks a woman or a woman asks a man, and they are united by a priestess and her harper in a temple." She looked up. "But Gryllith has never had a proper temple, until now."
Manda's breath caught. "And after so much effort to build it, it would be a shame if it were to go to waste."
Wykla flushed. "Would you... would you be my wife?"
Manda leaned forward, touching their foreheads together. "But we are in Gryllith... have I a choice?" she teased gently.
"I am not a man. Not any more."
"But I would not refuse you, man or woman... not if I had every cobblestone in Kingsbury."
"This is an abomination!"
Cvinthil rubbed his forehead wearily. The Council meeting had been going on for nearly an hour. "I am the King. And though this wedding is... untraditional... I am inclined to allow it. Few have served their nation so well as Wykla, and I would not insult our new Corrinian allies by rejecting this union of our two of our most honored citizens."
Timbras spoke again. "Wykla is a child of Burnwood. Since her father's death, I am responsible for her welfare, as the mayor of Burnwood."
Marrha frowned. "She is a member of the First Wartroop, and in service to the crown. You have no authority here."
"The customs and laws of Gryllith prohibit this unnatural behavior. For a woman of our country to lie with some Dremord slut and call it love... the gods will abandon us, as they did when they sent the Grayfaces when you overturned all ancient custom by letting women leave their homes... to say nothing of speaking in Council!" Timbras stared contemptuously at Marrha.
Cvinthil was appalled at this reinterpretation of recent history, and pounded the arm of his throne angrily. "Enough! I am king, and my word is law. And I know that the Goddess loves Wykla and Manda both, and would want them to be happy."
Timbras snorted, and made to leave the chamber. Before he left, he spoke again. "Goddess? Demon, more like. Gryllith will not stand for this Vayllen heresy... or the Dremord takeover of our land. Gryllith must remain for Gryllithans!"
The rest of the Council seemed to hold their breath as Timbras stormed out.
Santhe was first to recover. "One would have thought -- after all the damage Helwych caused to Gryllith by perverting the old ways and customs -- that the people would be more accepting of the changes that have come since the end of the war with Corrin."
"The Goddess healed the land from the damage the Grayfaces left behind," Marrha added. "What more evidence do they need?"
Kyria sighed. "Change, even change that comes under such extraordinary circumstances, is difficult for some to accept. It may take time for the Gryllithan people to adjust."
Cvinthil frowned. "I fear we do not have such time. If Timbras is any indication, my authority may not extend far beyond Kingsbury these days."
"This wedding may stoke the fires of rebellion among those in the villages who hold to the old ways," Santhe said, looking concerned. "Perhaps it would be best..."
"No," Cvinthil interrupted. "Wykla and Manda are in love, and I'll not stand in their way. More, I would not so insult Corrin and Vaylle. The wedding will proceed."
Marrha was first to leave the Council chamber. In the anteroom, Wykla scrambled to her feet and saluted her former captain, her face pale and streaked with dried tear tracks. Marrha drew her into a quick hug. "Timbras spoke to you, didn't he?"
Wykla nodded wordlessly. Manda, at her side, said, "It nearly came to blows, but Wykla said that Timbras had been kind to her when she was a child, and would not let me defend her honor."
"As well you did not," Marrha said. "You would not want to have bruised knuckles on your wedding day."
Timbras reined in his horse before an inn several hours' ride outside of Kingbury. He would not stay another moment in that den of sin and iniquity. The nameless gods must be weeping in despair at the "reforms" that Cvinthil had instituted since attaining the throne. Why, King Vorya would never have allowed women on his Council, to say nothing of women presuming to marry one another as if one were a man! The Dragonmaster, at least, would never have allowed it. Timbras had met the Dragonmaster once: a fine man, and a brave warrior. Too bad that demon Alouzon had had him killed at the Circle before he could beat the Dremords back to the sea.
There was no one in the stable to see to his steed. Even now, almost a year after the war, not everyone from the villages had returned to their old places. There were turmoil and change everywhere even now. Timbras saw to the stabling of his horse himself, and then stepped into the inn. He would have preferred to travel farther, but it was growing dark, and just because the Grayfaces and hounds had not been seen in nine months did not mean that they could not return.
The inn was all but empty. Though many had journeyed to Kingsbury for the Temple's dedication, most were staying in the town for a few more days; Timbras was ahead of the crowds heading away from town. The innkeeper, a thin older man with gray hair and eyelenses held in a thin wire frame, stood stiffly behind the counter. Beside him, a plump woman on the early side of middle-age polished the countertop with a wet rag.
"Welcome, traveler," the man spoke. Timbras shivered; there was something distant and cold in the innkeeper's tone that was at odds with the words of welcome, something faintly disapproving.
"Good evening. I will require a room, and some dinner."
"Of course," the innkeeper said. The woman -- perhaps his daughter -- stopped polishing and turned away wordlessly, stepping through a door into what was probably the kitchen. The innkeeper stared at Timbras, who shifted uncomfortably under the level gaze. The silence hung in the air until the woman returned, bearing a wooden cup -- a goblet, really, with a wide brim. The cup was full of a clear liquid, and the woman walked toward him slowly, so that not a drop was spilled.
She held the cup out to Timbras, meeting his gaze as if in challenge. Her facial muscles were slack and empty of expression, but there was something in her eyes -- sadness, perhaps, or pity. Or maybe disappointment. Timbras was suddenly and inexplicably reminded of his mother, though he was older than this woman by a decade at least.
"Drink," she said.
The word seemed to echo in the room, in his head.
He took the cup, but hesitated.
"Drink," she said firmly.
The cup was warm in his hands, but the liquid cool. He took one mouthful of the cold water, and let it trickle down his throat. He had been thirsty, and dusty from the road. A tension in his chest unknotted. He handed the cup back to the woman.
"Have you ever been in love, Timbras?" the woman asked.
"No," he replied softly, his eyes suddenly welling with moisture. He did not think to wonder how she knew his name.
"Have you ever been loved?"
He didn't answer, couldn't; to answer would shatter his heart. The woman stared intently at him, the rest of the room seeming to recede as her gaze filled his view. The woman's eyes were blue like the sky. Like his mother's.
You are loved, he heard distantly, and he slid off the barstool to the ground, darkness sweeping over him. He felt something warm envelope him, like a blanket or a lover's embrace, and heard a rhythmic thrumming as a babe might hear his mother's heart beat in the womb.
Three days after the dedication, the road to the Temple was lined with people; it seemed as though the entire population of Kingsbury had come to see the procession. Kings Cvinthil and Darham rode side-by-side, taking the lead; behind them rode the king's Council and twelve wartroops of Gryllith and Corrin. The two brides rode separately in closed carriages; Dindrane said that in Vaylle it was considered ill-luck for a husband and wife to see one another before their wedding, and that she supposed the same applied to two wives.
When the procession reached the side road that led up to the Temple, they found the road was blocked by a group of twenty old men. Several held whitewashed placards crudely lettered with slogans; the others held rusty pitchforks and short knives. Marrha reined in her horse beside Cvinthil, whose face was red with fury, and read the signs. "Gryllith for Gryllithans," one said, and "Women cannot marry women" read another.
Marrha scowled. "Make way for your king!" she called out. She heard Relys order the wartroops to spread out to either side of the road, and found herself wishing that she still carried a sword herself. The protestors did not yield.
"You would rebel against your king, and face twelve wartroops? Return to your farms; this dishonors us all." Cvinthil declared incredulously.
"The unnamed gods are on our side," one of the men replied.
"This is not bravery; it is sheer foolishness," Cvinthil said.
"Indeed it is," a voice cried from behind the procession. A man rode forward, and Marrha was surprised to see Timbras approaching at a gallop.
"Timbras?" one of the protesters said, appearing as puzzled as Marrha at the man's appearance. "But you said..."
"I was wrong," Timbras interjected, making a half bow to Cvinthil and Darham from his saddle. He seemed out of breath, as though he'd ridden hard all morning. "The Goddess favors this union. Look!" He pointed up the hillside.
As they watched, the hillside began to transform slowly from green to white, as thousands of daisies pushed buds up from the earth and blossomed before their eyes. The protesters muttered uneasily, exchanging looks of confusion.
"Return to your homes," Cvinthil said gently. "We would not mar this day of happiness with violence."
"It does make some things easier, having a Goddess who keeps an eye on her people, does it not?" Kyria murmured softly to Marrha as the crowd dispersed.
"Aye," Marrha replied, breathing a soft prayer of thanks to Alouzon for interceding.
The wedding was held on May 4th, a date which tickled something in the back of Kyria's mind, though she couldn't quite place it.
Dindrane had explained the traditional Vayllen marriage ceremony of the cup and the knife. They had adjusted the ceremony, so that the two women shared a drink from a single cup. The symbolism of the knife penetrating the bowl of the cup was not appropriate to the new ways of worship. As Dindrane said, all that really mattered was making the commitment before the eyes of the Goddess; the form of the ritual would not matter to Alouzon.
Kyria watched the ceremony from one side, standing in the shadow of one of the great plinths. As she watched Wykla and Manda gaze lovingly at one another and exchange their vows, she smiled softly. It was hard to believe that Solomon's subconscious mind could have brought forth something so pure and true as these two, even if harrowing this much wheat from the chaff had taken a heavy bride's price of blood, sweat and tears. But it was a good world, and Kyria thought it would likely go in quite a different direction than the world where Helen and Solomon and Suzanne had been born. It had taken the people of Earth more than six millennia of civilization to find feminism, after all, and the people of Gryllith had gotten there in fewer than a dozen years.
Kyria placed one hand lightly against her belly, which she knew would soon begin to swell, though she had not yet told her husband. Twins, she thought. She might name them Solomon and Suzanne; she hadn't decided yet.
Yes, this was a good world for second chances.
As the priestess announced the union of the young couple, Kyria caught a glimpse of motion from the corner of her eye, a flash of bronze-colored hair moving at the back of the crowd. She took her husband's hand and squeezed it gently, turning back to the ceremony with a smile.
A good world, indeed.