[The Road to Mercurio, 7,320 Words, Genre: Fantasy]
* Photograph courtesy of Lilith Prins
Cassandra was a young child and her world was very small. She grew up in a village, in the middle of nowhere. She lived on a farm looking after farm animals. Ensuring that the cows were milked in the morning, the sheep were shorn and the pigs fed. It was a simple life that she led. She wore the same style of clothes as all of the other girls in her village. That being a plaid skirt, with simple coloured top and a bonnet on her head to keep her ears warm on the cold nights. Her family would light a fire every night to ensure that she and her siblings were all kept warm and fed. Every Sunday she and her family would attend the temple of the Great Goddess. There they would meet with other members of the community where they would all discuss village matters and have their say. They would all be given instruction by the Priestess of the Great Goddess where they would pay their dues and attend worship. The Priestess was garbed in a white gown with blue undergarments underneath. And wore on top of her head a cloth hat that peaked in two places, one side of the hat blue, the other white. The people of the village would offer their prayers as sanctimony in the Great Goddess’s ways. “The Great Goddess,” her father had explained, “has always been kind to us. She offers rain for the harvest and for this we give her what is due of our harvest. She has blessed your mother and I with all of you children. And for this we should always offer thanks.”
Cassandra was different from the other girls in her village for she was forever asking questions about the ways of the Great Goddess. She wanted to know where the Great Goddess lived and how she spent her time. For in Cassandra’s mind, she could not wrap her mind around the Great Goddess’s ways. Each time they attended their temple, they would be offered a new story of the Great Goddess. How the Great Goddess had competed with all of the other Gods and won her victory so that she could protect and nurture the innocent. Or how the Great Goddess had ensured that the plague that had swept across the country many years ago had ceased spreading. Or how the Great Goddess had led her armed forces to a great victory in a land far, far away. These were all stories that the Priestess had told of the Great Goddess’s virtuous ways. Cassandra could not get enough of it. She was beyond entertained and enthralled by the stories. She was inspired. She knew that one day she would have to visit the Great Goddess in order to receive her blessing.
After the ceremonies were completed on each Sunday, Cassandra would corner the Priestess and they would talk away from the others’ about the Great Goddess. “Where does the Great Goddess live?” Cassandra had asked.
“She resides in the capital Mercurio, in the Temple of Attrition.”
“Have you ever seen her?”
“I haven’t… It’s odd… The Great Goddess is not one that one actually sees. But she resides there.”
“How do you know that she resides there if you’ve never seen her?”
“A Great Goddess such as she does not simply live on the mortal plane, you understand. Her spirit envelopes the temple, that much is true. And sometimes the High Priestess gets visions from her in order to best help the people.”
“Do you get visions too?”
“No, I have never been blessed with a vision. However, the Great Goddess has gifted me with other attributes in order to help out the people.”
“Like what?” Cassandra asked.
“Well, the power to deliver my sermons to you and the others for one.”
“I see…” Cassandra pondered for a moment, “Do you think she will bless me with something if I go and see her?”
“If the Great Goddess sees fit, then that is what she will do. The Great Goddess does as she wills, child.” After the Priestess had said that, Sandra produced sounds of glee and they embraced one another in a hug. They held each other for a moment in that prolonged embrace before the Priestess whispered into her ear, “If the Great Goddess wills child, if the Great Goddess wills…”
As Cassandra grew in years she went to the local school as all girls and boys of her village did. She concentrated hard on her studies, whereas all the other children wanted to do was play and gossip about one another. While the other students were outside playing, Cassandra would bury herself in all the literature that she could find concerning the Great Goddess. There were many things that she already knew that the local priestess had already told her, but there were other things that she found that not even the Priestess knew. Stories, old and forgotten, things of a miscellaneous nature.
One boy who was two years older than Cassandra began to build up a fascination with Cassandra. Why did she not play like all of the other girls and boys? These were questions that he asked himself and so directed his line of questioning towards her. And all Cassandra could do in reply was to say, “Go away, I’m busy.” And that was the end of that conversation.
It seemed that the more her fascination became with the Great Goddess, the deeper the boy’s fascination became with her. It was as if they were two linear events that somehow coincided. One force pulling her towards a normal life and the other force pulling her towards the Great Goddess.
Then came the day of the harvest festival. On the day of the harvest festival the village would gather and indulge themselves in a heavy intake of cider and other refreshments. There would be a great feast and those of the village would celebrate to bring in the winter, knowing that their work as farmers and cultivators had been completed for that seasonal cycle. The boy, Nicholas was his name. Gave chase to that of the virginal Cassandra. Nicholas was tall and lean, with reddish-brown hair and a stubborn jawline. Cassandra showed little interest in Nicholas’s longing gaze. But when Nicholas asked Cassandra to dance with her, she saw it only fitting that she should accept and indulge in the festivities.
And so, like all of the other girls and boys, men and women, they all lined up and partook in the action of a hoedown. The men and women, boys and girls, coupled off and lined up. Some of the older men and women were drunk. But everyone was laughing and having a ball. They would link arms, twirl one another around, and then proceed to the back of the line where the process would be completed once more. Everybody was having fun, including Cassandra.
After they finished a series of dances, Cassandra and Nicholas retreated outside where they could talk to one another. It was a warm night with a gentle breeze and as they exited, Nicholas snuck two glasses of cider for which they could both partake. Cassandra sat on a barrel of hay with her cider in hand as Nicholas stood before her, gazing up and into her vivid green eyes.
“I’ve never met anyone like you before,” Nicholas proclaimed.
“What do you mean by that? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Cassandra replied in question.
“Well,” Nicholas explained, “You’re always studying. Always caught up in one book or another. All of the other girls aren’t like that.”
“You never answered me, is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“Well, I think it’s a good thing at least. It gives you character. Most of the other girls don’t have anything special to say. Whereas you, you’re different.”
“Really?” Cassandra took slow sips on her cider, for the first time in her life she began appreciating Nicholas’s affections. Nicholas got up on the barrel of hay and sat beside her, placing an arm around her shoulder as Cassandra continued sipping on her cider. “So what is it that you want from me?”
“Well then, it’s a kiss you shall have.” Cassandra leant over and pecked Nicholas on the cheek.
“No, not like that.”
“Show me then…” And Nicholas seized her gently, cradling the back of her head and tilting his own to the side so that their lips met. He opened his mouth slightly, as did she, and they massaged one another’s tongues ever so lightly.
“Cassandra!” It was the Priestess. She had stumbled upon the collusion by what appeared to be mere chance. At the sound of the Priestess’s voice, Cassandra pulled away from Nicholas and stood at attention, standing down from the barrel of hay and smoothing her skirt as she did so.
“A word if I may…” And so Cassandra followed the Priestess as she walked away from where the festivities took place. “You, Cassandra, are different from the others. Don’t let them reel you in as they do. The Great Goddess has a design for us all, you especially.”
“Yes, but what sort of plan is that?”
“Only the Great Goddess knows.”
“So what should I do?”
“Go to the capital Mercurio as I once did. Find the Temple of Attrition. Only there will she unravel your destiny before you.”
Cassandra agreed that that was the best course of action. And that evening, after the festivities, began to make plans to go to Mercurio. She found a map of the country amongst her father’s things. She plotted a route that avoided trespassing the neighbouring countries’ territories. And found that it would be four days worth of walking involved. She didn’t tell her parents or siblings what she was doing, she knew that they wouldn’t allow her to do it if she told them. She was only fourteen years old after all.
There were other things that she needed. But she couldn’t find them amongst her parents’ things. So she decided to go and see the local guardsmen about what she needed. There were only two or three guards in the local guardsmen. And for the most part they spent their time training, preparing for the worst situation. When she was younger, she once saw them put out a fire in one of the neighbouring homes. They would help out sometimes, doing odd chores for the people of the village in order to keep themselves busy. But she had never seen them engaged in combat.
She went to their headquarters in the village where they spent most of their time and revealed her plans to them, “I’m going to Mercurio.”
“Are you now little missy,” it was old Hal, the oldest among the three guardsmen. He had a moustache and his hair had gone grey, “Now why would you want to go and do something like that?”
“On the Priestess’s instruction. She says I should go to the Temple of Attrition, where the Great Goddess will reveal my destiny before me.”
The three guardsmen were silent for a moment. Almost awestruck, then Glenn the youngest of the three who recognized Cassandra began to speak, “Cassandra, honey… Mercurio isn’t like that. The Temple of Attrition isn’t what you think it is.”
“I don’t care. This is my destiny.” Cassandra replied.
“The city’s full of ratbags and thieves,” Glenn explained, “it’s not a place where a sweet girl like you should go.”
“If the Priestess guided you towards this then let her go,” Adam, the other guard stated, “The Great Goddess obviously has a plan for her.”
“Have you ever seen the Temple of Attrition? How many people go there seeking out their destiny?” Glenn gave complaint.
“Aye,” Adam responded, “But it’s not for us to question the Great Goddess or the High Priestess or even any of the Priestesses.” The other two submitted to Adam’s reasoning. “Now sweety, what do you need from us?”
So Cassandra brought out her father’s map and showed them the route that she had drawn out and asked if there was anything that she was missing. They explained that a few of the roads that she had chosen were plagued by bandits and the like and helped her plot out an alternate route away from the extreme dangers. Then they gave her a list of things that she should take with her on the journey: food stuffs; a compass; oil; a knife; and other things. They also provided her useful advice for the road ahead and what she should do when she arrived in Mercurio. They also donated a small batch of currency to her endeavour and wished her the best.
Cassandra then went around gathering all of the items the guardsmen had suggested she take with her without too much notice from any of the other villagers. After that, she was set and ready for the journey ahead.
With a satchel full of the items that she needed, Cassandra took out her map that had the route outlined upon its paper surface. She was set to go to school like all of the other children that day. Her parents and family entrusted her to make her own way to the school. But instead of going to school as she normally would, she set off down the road, the road to Mercurio.
Winter was just coming in and she was hoping to make her four day trek before it would really set in. The sun was still shining in the sky and although it was cloudy with a cool breeze, she didn’t have much cause to pause from the natural elements. The satchel was full of different items and the guardsmen had ensured that her purse was heavy enough. At first there was not much in terms of other traffic. She had to distance herself from her home village before she began to see any of the other travellers on the road. The path made out of dirt was used to people travelling by horseback along the road. She didn’t have a horse, but her feet appreciated the worn down track.
She travelled along the horse beaten track for a few hours before she needed to take a break. There was a small creek that was running adjacent to the path that she was walking along. So she decided to stop and rest her feet in the creek’s waters. She took off her shoes and socks, her feet were very sweaty. They had built up the sweat from the time she had spent walking along the rough track. She dipped her feet in the waters of the creek. The stream of water as it ran over her feet was very relaxing and it was washing off the sweat and grime of her feet. As she rested her feet in the creek, with the waters running over it, she noticed a few frogs in the area. They were jumping around on the muddy banks of the creek bed. She noticed the colour of the frogs. They had fluorescent markings up and down the top of their bodies. Cassandra had once read somewhere that animals in the wild that have fluorescent colours are warning their would-be predators of their own dangerous effects. If she had not read that somewhere, she would have picked the frog up and played with the creature. Instead, she watched from afar as the small amphibian jumped around. She did not dare go and pick up the thing for its skin could be toxic and poisonous. She marveled at the small creature with its fluorescent colours and when she had had enough of the creek’s waters washing away her feelings of weariness in her feet, she dried her feet and placed her shoes and socks back on. Then started walking down the rough, horse beaten track once more.
Eventually the path that she had taken intersected with a larger road. She looked at the map and the path that had been plotted out. The shorter path was to the left, but the guardsmen had told her of bandits in that area so she turned to the right as they had instructed. As she walked along the road, she saw another traveller. This man was much older and had a hunch in his back. He hobbled along the road with a walking cane in hand, putting pressure on the cane as he took his steps. He was walking at a much slower rate than Cassandra was and soon, Cassandra found that she was catching up with the old man. But she was scared, she didn’t want to overtake him and her parents had always instructed to be careful of strangers. And this man was strange. She could hear him mumbling to himself as he walked. Saying, ‘Bloody this…’ and, ‘Bloody that…’. He was always cursing to himself as he made his journey towards his own destination. Cassandra trailed behind him, careful not to gather his attention, she walked in the shadows of the surrounding trees.
And then the old man up ahead of the road stopped. He pulled an apple from out amongst his things which he carried in a knapsack that was worn to the side of his body. He stopped and looked back at the road behind him, taking a bite of his apple as he did so. Cassandra was quick to freeze and hide in the shadows. But she did not escape the old man’s attentions. He called out back to her, “You best come out from the shadows where I can see you. I have a sling and I’m able to use it.” And so Cassandra stepped out of the shadows into full sight of the old man. She stood there and presented her person. “What’s this? A little girl I see… You’re probably more afraid of me, than I of you. Come now girl, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m an old crippled man and any trouble I would present, you would be quick to escape it. Come now, I’m harmless. Keep an old man company on this road to Mercurio, it would ease my weary heart.” And so Cassandra walked up to within arm’s reach of the old man and he confirmed, “See, there’s nothing to be afraid of. All of the bandits are on the quick route. Best we keep each other company so the road does not become a crashing bore.”
And after the old man had finished eating his apple, the two of them walked side by side one another. Cassandra shared her story of being on her way to Mercurio to seek guidance from the Great Goddess at the Temple of Attrition. To which the old man replied, “Ah, I see. A worshipper of the Great Goddess. Many go to seek her favour in life. I hope that she blesses your life, she certainly hasn’t mine.”
“What do you mean?” Cassandra asked.
“Look at me girl! I’m an old man! A cripple, no less! I’m also a widow and any joy that I once shared with others is long gone. In my day I would take the quick route to Mercurio, fearing no man. But now I’m lame and feeble and must take the long route. I was once a seasoned merchant and a warrior. And now look at me, look at what I’ve become.”
Cassandra looked at the old man, the crook in his step as he eased his weight onto his walking cane. She began to feel sorry for the old man and saw the pain in his eyes that he experienced with each further step that he took, “Don’t worry, the Great Goddess will show you mercy, of this I am sure.”
The old man looked at her from the side of his eyes, then rubbed his chin, “Ah, maybe she does, maybe she does.”
Night descended down upon them both and they both mutually agreed that they better set up camp for the night. So the two of them went off the road and found a place where they could settle down for the night. Cassandra busied herself with collecting firewood and starting a fire. A place where they could warm each other during the night to beat off the cold that the lack of sunshine would bring. The old man had some dried meats that he shared with her. After collecting the wood from the surrounding forest, they had a fire going. The old man entertained her with tales from his youth. Stories about taking the short route and fighting off bandits. She fell asleep listening to the soft voice of the old man.
She awoke with a hand on her thigh and the fire playing light in the night. The hand was caressing her thigh, slowly making its way towards her crotch. Through the flickering of the light that the fire provided she saw the old man. His face was filled with lust and with his other hand, he had placed it beneath his slacks and he was fondling himself. He was drooling and his eyes were focused in upon her person. In a knee jerk reaction she kicked out at him, then brought herself to her feet and grabbed her satchel of things. Then ran away, running into the night frightened and disturbed.
She did not stop running until she was out of breath. And as she paused in the dead of night, sweating and catching her breath. Her body tilted above her knees, she heard the wild howl of animals in the night. It sounded like wolves. She was still tired, but ever so frightened. She saw a tree with branches that she could climb. And once finding her footing, she ascended up the tree and nestled midway up the tree. With her feet firmly placed on branches and her body supported, she found the rest that she longed for. It took her some time to find sleep, but her body was weary from walking all day and when she found sleep, it took her.
She awoke to the sun shining down upon her. The heat caused her to sweat and as she opened her eyes, she realized where she was. It was a rude awakening and as she looked down from up the tree, she realized how far she had climbed up it before she had found a place where she could nestle. She looked down at the ground and gave herself a slight case of vertigo. She felt sick about what had occurred the previous night. She had attempted to make friends with that old man and he had tried to take advantage of her… She felt queasy and sick. Then she pulled herself together and made the slow descent to the ground floor surface.
When she was on the ground, she realized that she still had her satchel. She was smart enough last night to grab that before she ran into the wilderness. She looked around and realizing where she had come, she started walking back to the road. She couldn’t get the image of the old man with his hand down his pants out of her mind’s eye. It was a disturbing image that kept on repeating itself within her recent memories. She felt burdened by the experience. She walked past the fire encampment that the two had made the previous night and found that the old man had long ago deserted the area.
Then she was back on the road. Walking and trudging away. The road to Mercurio. It was a lesson, she supposed, to be weary of strangers no matter how harmless they appeared at first. As she continued walking there was no-one else in sight and she was glad of that. Then behind her, a horse and cart, pulling a stack of hay in the cart, were closing its distance in upon her. Sitting on the horse cart was a father and son. The son maybe ten years old, slightly younger than she. The boy called out to her. “Hey, you! Where you going?”
She looked around and decided not to answer at first, but she realized that they were father and son, realizing that they were part of a family, she called out in response, “Mercurio”.
“That’s where we’re headed. Do you want a lift?” The young boy called out as they were closing their distance in on her. “You can sleep in the back amongst the hay.”
She didn’t know how to respond at first. Her latest experience had made her paranoid about such things. But that experience and the previous night’s sleep had also made her tired. So when the horse and cart pulled up beside her. She jumped in the back amongst the hay without saying a word. The boy was excited to find company along the road and asked her a series of questions. She gave one word answers that lacked enthusiasm. The boy was upset about this, but then the father told him, “Shut up! I think something’s happened. Best we leave her to her own thoughts.”
And as she nestled in the hay, the feelings of the cold world brought out a bitter attitude. She fought off such things by finding sleep in the stack of hay in the cart.
Two further days of travelling down the road in the horse and cart brought back her trust. At least she could trust these two, this father and son. She warmed to them and shared some of her food stuffs with them, playing games with the boy in the back of the cart. Along the road, there was no sight of the old man who had molested her.
And without further strain on the body, they arrived at the gates of Mercurio. Cassandra thanked the father and son for their passage and went off into the city to find the Temple of Attrition.
The city streets were caked in mud and sewerage and as she walked along the streets, her shoes gathered mud on the soles. She was almost sliding along the path as she travelled. She stopped at one of the small barbecues that the locals had set up along the streets. She purchased a skewer of meat with her pouch of coins and sat down beside the street to watch the local traffic go by. It was unlike anything she had ever seen before. There were so many different types of people, travelling in different directions, all making their own way through the city. She saw one man with a leather skull cap, bent over carrying an enormous cinder block on his shoulders. It looked so heavy and the man didn’t appear muscular in the slightest, but still he bore the weight of the cinder block. She saw a teenage boy, a little bit older than she, walking past her and she called out to him, “Hey! Do you know where the Temple of Attrition is?”
The boy turned around, he had a giant scab on the right side of his face that she couldn’t see before. She was almost frightened by the sight of it. But his voice reminded her that he was no monster, just the victim of some terrible accident, “You have to walk up this road for another kilometre or two. You’ll see the Red Raven bank and you have to take a left there. Then ask someone else for further directions along the road.”
Cassandra nodded, finding his answer satisfactory. She finished eating her skewer of meat and finding nowhere to place the rubbish, left it where she had been sitting amongst other items or articles of rubbish that had also found their way to nowhere in particular. She set down the mud encrusted street. Staring up at the two storey villas with people emptying their chamber pots out onto the street from their second storey. There was a stench that permeated throughout the air as she walked. It was of urine; horse shit; cooked meat; and the sewerage from those chamber pots. Cassandra preferred not to breath through her nose as she walked, but she could taste the different fragrances on the tip of her tongue as she made her way. The air was stale that way.
She kept on walking down the street. Then some unknown assailant seized her by the back of her shirt, placing a hand on her mouth so that she couldn’t scream, and dragged her into one of the empty side alleyways of the street. When she faced her perpetrator, he was a tall, lanky man, clothed in green cloth with mud and sewerage marked on his clothes. He had a faded green cloth hat that pointed at a peak. His teeth were rotten and his breath smelt of stale fish. He had one hand on her shirt so that she couldn’t run away and in the other hand brandished a small rusted knife, with the blade sharpened and the steel showing that it could cut. “Listen, yar little shit! I don’t want ta rape yah! I just want yer coin! I saw you buying a skewer back on the road there, so I know yer have it!”
Cassandra felt like she was going to cry. Those coins were the only she had. She reached inside her satchel and pulled out the small pouch of coins. The assailant plucked it out from her hands, then tripped her up and pushed her to the muddy ground. There she fell to her hands, falling into the mud, leaving her in a crouched position as the assailant ran down into the alley and out of sight. At that point she did cry. With streams of tears running down her face, she pouted and guffawed, not knowing what to do with herself. As she lay there crouched in the mud that was half-sewerage, half dirt, she prayed to the Great Goddess, ‘Great Goddess! Why are they all doing this to me? What should I do now?’ She crouched down in that position for quite some time, without any answer or direction from her prayers.
Then, as she lay in the mud, a black and white alley cat jumped down from one of the surrounding buildings. Cassandra was in tears and the animal, at sensing this, went over to soothe her. It wandered up to her face and started rubbing its body against her arms that were holding her up in the mud. At the presence of the animal, Cassandra ceased her tears. The animal purred and nestled in towards her. She sat in the mud, removing her hands from the surface and drying off the mud on her pants. She patted the animal and it purred some more. It wasn’t until Cassandra was calmed and reminded herself of her destination of the Temple of Attrition, that the alley cat decided it best be on its way and its work was done. Cassandra pulled herself to her feet and went back to the street. Her face was marked with the tears that she had just shed, but not one of the other people noticed her or cared what she had just been through. She continued on, putting one foot in front of the other, towards the Temple of Attrition.
She came to the Red Raven bank, where she had to turn left. There on the corner of the street, opposite the bank, was a man dressed in rags with horrible boils that scarred his face. He had a giant pot in which he burned wood and incense. The smell that the fire gave off was of burnt sandal wood and it was a pleasant change from the fragrance that the rest of the street gave off. He had a small crowd gathered around him and he was preaching to them, “This is the end times! Not the king, queen, or high priestess will save you! Men rape and murder through the city and the guardsmen do nothing to stop it! Hear me! Hear me! I, alone, speak the truth. Those who do not listen will be chastised and punished for their ignorance! The banks are corrupt, they horde the wealth amongst the aristocracy while we, the people, are forced to feed on their scraps!”
Cassandra stood there and listened to the man preaching his sentiments of doom. She stood by a tall, muscular man with his arms crossed who had his gaze intent on the preacher of doom. Cassandra half believed the mad preacher. Everything she had experienced from after she had left her home seemed to support it. The tall, muscular man beside her towered above her and she pulled at his shirt. The man turned and looked down towards her, “Hi, do you know where the Temple of Attrition is?”
The tall, muscular man gave her a series of directions. From the initial turning left at the Red Raven bank, to a series of left and rights. She paid careful attention to commit all of the directions to her memory. And then she continued walking, following the man’s directions, towards the Temple of Attrition.
After half a day’s walk, she finally found herself at the Temple of Attrition. The Temple itself was a grand achievement of architecture. At the top was a grand spire of chrome with a spike that pointed up towards the heavens, there were a series of pillars that supported the roof and a series of stairways that made its way up and towards the Temple itself. There were guardsmen who lined up and down the front of the Temple, preventing any of the peasantry from entering its grand design. Off towards the side of the Temple was an encampment of beggars and impoverished people. There were several male acolytes serving them, making sure that they were fed and if they had any wounds, that they were cared for.
Cassandra went towards the Temple of Attrition. Hoping to gain entrance into its pearly interior so that she could visit and see the High Priestess with her own eyes. But as she made her way towards the great and grand Temple, she was pulled aside by one of the guardsmen. “Where do you think you’re going?” The guardsman was clothed in leather studded armour, he held a three foot spear that towered above his head and wore a short sword to the left side of his body.
“To the Temple,” Cassandra answered, “To see the High Priestess.”
The guardsman looked at her with cynical and discerning eyes. He surveyed her clothes, her mud and shit stained clothes, ascertaining that she was not part of the aristocracy. “If you seek guidance. Go to the camp, you’ll get the help that you need there.” The guardsman dismissed her and Cassandra was forced to make her way towards the encampment that sat beside the great and grand Temple.
And so Cassandra went to take her place amongst the other peasantry, the beggars and those in squalor who camped next to the Temple of Attrition. There were rows of people, all lined up, with woollen blankets that were charcoal in colour, wrapping themselves in them to escape the cold. She saw small toddlers running in-between the rows of people, their faces covered in dirt and laughing. Being far too innocent to realize the reality of their own circumstances. Cassandra interwove through the rows of different people, looking for an empty space where she could sit and take rest. It had been an exhausting day, full of calamity and precarious circumstance. She was tired and her belly ached. But she did not have any coin to buy herself any food and the food stuffs that she had taken with her from her home village were long gone. She began to worry about where she would get her next meal. As she walked past the different rows of people, she saw a small child that was almost skeletal in nature. The child was not clothed and his ribs jutted out from his body. The small child looked at her with a look of pain on its face, but unable to have the strength to express its pain vocally. The mother attempted to keep the child’s body clothed in one of the charcoal covered blankets. The child was reaching out towards Cassandra, as if in askance of something. Cassandra continued to work her way through the rabble of poverty and then found herself an empty space between two makeshift tents. She sat between the two and rested her feet. Then closed her eyes and rested from a day full of misadventure.
She was woken up by one of the acolytes. She had read about them back in her home village. They were male counterparts of the priestesses and high priestess. Her home village didn’t have any, but it was said that some villages do. And now she was seeing one with her own eyes. He wore a grey cloak with a hood covering his head and his head was shaved bald. In his hands he held a charcoal blanket. He handed it to her, saying, “The nights get cold. You’ll need this. I noticed you come in. I’ll get you something to eat.”
Cassandra took the charcoal blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders. When he came back, he had a steel bowl with small dents in his hand. The bowl contained a soup that was of an orange-yellow hue, it had a few potatoes and pieces of pumpkin in the mixture. He gave her a wooden spoon and told her, “Hold on to the bowl and spoon. We feed twice a day. Once to break the fast and once at night.”
Cassandra ate greedily at her soup and although it wasn’t the most pleasant thing she had ever digested, she was still grateful for the meal. After eating, she hid the steel bowl and wooden spoon beneath her blanket and found more rest.
She was woken up later that evening by the call of nature. Her stomach felt quaint and she released gas that was unpleasant. She asked some of the other peasantry where she could relieve herself. The peasantry pointed her to a place at the back of the camp. There, at the back of the camp, were a couple of wooden shelters. And from them emanated the foulest stench one could possibly imagine. Bracing herself, she held her breath for as long as she could and went into the latrines. There were flies and insects in swarms buzzing around the area, she loosened her slacks and squatted above a hole in the ground. The experience was unpleasant, and her bowels gave way to liquid diarrhoea. It must have been the soup that she had had earlier. Nothing else could have made her feel that way.
After relieving herself, she confirmed that it must have been the soup and so she made a promise to herself never to partake of it again. She made her way back to the area that she had made camp. And then curling herself up in her charcoal blanket, rested once more.
The next few days passed in a fever. She prayed and prayed for the Great Goddess to find her some way out of this hell hole that she had found herself in. She prayed and prayed. For a vision, for something, anything. And as the days passed a fever took possession of her body.
In her fever, she got up before the peasantry and began to preach as she had seen the madman preach of doom on her way to the Temple of Attrition. She called out to the peasantry and slowly the peasantry began to gather around her, “This is squalor that we live in and we have all deserved. For we have lost faith in the Great Goddess! Only the Great Goddess and her servants can save us now. Save us all from this hell and misery!” She continued on, the fever possessing her heightened state as she spoke of the madness of the city and how the Great Goddess would strike down all of the sinners. As she continued ranting, the crowd around her began to gather.
Inside the Temple of Attrition, the High Priestess bathed in her quarters. Her bathing room was a large ceramic bath, built into the architecture of the building itself. The bath was two meters by two meters in length and width. The bath was filled with warm to hot temperate in water. There were bathing salts added to the water and rose pedals covered the surface of the water in its entirety. The High Priestess sat within its waters, her head reaching above the surface of the water, the rest of her body enclosed. She was an old woman now, her days of youth had been left behind long ago. There was a fresh scent in the air. With oranges and other citrus fruits taking precedence in small shelves of the bathing room. The small fruits, oranges and lemons, had cloves punctured into their surface and the cloves were lit. Giving the air the fresh taste of forest fruits and cinnamon.
The High Priestess herself was haggard and old. A woman of age as she did not exist amongst the peasantry, they would pass away through disease and malnutrition in their later years. But the High Priestess was well cared for. And although her skin was wrinkled and there were rings around her eyes. All saw her as a woman of wisdom and experience.
One of the acolytes stood at attention beside the bath as she bathed. He diverted his eyes from his person as it was a sin to look upon the flesh of the High Priestess. He reported happenings from around the city and beyond. Other Priestesses had sent word by message of carrier pigeon to the Temple of Attrition and the acolyte reported all news to her as she bathed. She pondered different subjects and made decisions as she relaxed her age withered body beneath the warm waters of her bath.
After everything had been reported and all the decisions had been made that had to be made in regards to all religious affairs, the High Priestess exited the bath. She stood out of the bath and the acolyte with towel in hand diverted his eyes from her body. She was wrinkled, her skin bore liver spots and her tits sagged. The acolyte dried her scraggly legs as she stood on the marble floor of the bathing room. The air outside the bath was of a lukewarm temperate. He pampered at her legs, drying her skin. He continued to throw different things that had occurred across the city of Mercurio and she continued making decisions in response.
“Oh, and one more thing,” the acolyte spoke, “There’s a girl, an adolescent, couldn’t be more than sixteen years of age. She has begun preaching of the Great Goddess in the encampment beside the Temple. People are listening to her.”
“Ah,” the High Priestess rubbed her chin. There her jaw slackened and a grey hair stood out from her wrinkled chin, “Well, bring her into the Temple then. She shows… What’s the word? When you see something that must be done and no other will do it… What’s the word?” The High Priestess’s agility of mind showing the wear of her years.
“Initiative?” The acolyte responded.
“Yes, that’s it. Initiative. Bring her in and make sure she’s properly fed and clothed. We will train her as another Priestess and send her out to some village where she can preach the faith. As the Great Goddess sees fit.”
“As the Great Goddess sees fit.” The acolyte agreed and then went to see that the High Priesses’s orders were followed throughout the land.