Sir Thierry of Helden stared at the blank page of the Temple journal. The events that occurred at Dragonsteeth needed recording, but how to start? Tealvia demanded her priests be true to details, but she wasn’t opposed to the occasional personal opinion while elucidating on the incidents. “People in general are happy being ignorant & blind. How often have I looked beyond the face of a beggar when I entered a village upon Tealvia’s business? Did I actually offer that scruffy person a piece of bread or fruit, maybe even passing a copper or silver piece before moving to another place? The eternal pessimist needs concrete proof in the sincerity of mankind before he lends a hand to that beggar, preferring those who have less go to the Temples for help. It’s easier to pretend the problem doesn’t exist and ignore that disheveled drifter with the hopelessness in his expression. Making eye contact forces us to consider the possibility we could someday be that person in worn out clothing with no shoes to cover their feet.”
Sir Thierry rubbed his forehead. “How could those people not see was going on?” He bent back to his journal. Dipping the quill in the ink pot, he stated writing.
It started simple enough.
Arias Westleigh was eighteen, and three years past due to be married. Her parents, Sean and Mary Westleigh adopted her as a member of their household when she was an infant. The local temple priestess said she had been abandoned at the temple door over night. No one could say where she’d come from or who my parents were. She looked out of place when she stood with her family, being of average build and medium height wit ash-blonde hair and black eyes. Their true son, Jonas took his role as an older brother to heart, pushing her away until Arias started to grow up, then he wouldn’t let his little sister out of his sight.
Arias loved swimming. Around the village, it was common knowledge that if Arias was missing, one only need check the closest body of water. Even as a toddler, Arias could swim almost as well as one of the river otters.
Dragonsteeth wasn’t just a place of beauty. The region had been blessed by the Goddess, Chanxeri. Hot springs were nestled among limestone caves dotted throughout the outlining hills. The tree-lined valley was abundant with game: Blue Eagles, Red Deer, and Golden Pheasant were found in abundant supply. The mountains were said to be home to dragons, although no one had seen any in decades. On days when the clouds are blown clear of the mountain tops, it is easy to tell how the highest peaks influenced the mountain’s name. The tops are jagged, and white with snow that never melts. When the sun rises or sets, the colors reflect an eerie reddish glow, as if a massive dragon had opened its mouth to show its teeth.
Jonas became fed up waiting for Arias as normal. Graime needed every able-bodied person to help with the grape harvest. Since he hadn’t found Arias, Jonas went in his sister’s place instead of tending to his expected duty to apprentice at his father’s blacksmith shop. She didn’t care; Arias was too busy exploring an underwater shelf, trying to tempt an octopus to come out of a small crevasse when it happened the first time.
Arias felt an incredible urge to swim out further, beyond what she would normally consider the ‘safe’ zone. Going up to take a breath, she went back under and continued past the surf, going under the bigger waves.
First, her body started to tingle all over, and then her legs cramped. Arias knew she was in trouble, so she tried to swim to the surface, but the rest of her muscles locked up, not painfully, just momentarily froze. Then she felt a strange sensation and suddenly Arias wasn’t herself. She tried to swim with her arms, but Arias’ upper body wasn’t responding at all. Turning, her whole body felt wrong. In fact, her vision looked different; she could smell and feel the fish around her.
When she moved her back, Arias shot forward. She opened my mouth and closed it. Wait, something was really wrong. Arias twisted around to look at her feet and saw a fish tail, well make that, a shark tail! She twisted the other way to check again. There was that shark tail.
Sweet Thaelia, it really was a shark’s body! How was that possible? Arias’ heart beat faster. Was she forever stuck in a sharks’ body? This was not the life I had planned on, not had my parents. Am I stuck this form, or is this a temporary state?
Swimming slowly, the girl in the sharks body moved along the water. The fish ignored Arias. Either they knew she wasn’t a real shark or they believed themselves too small to be of interest. It took Arias a bit to learn how to use her torpedo-shaped self. As she began to relax, it actually started to get fun. Her new shape was fast once she figured out the right way to swim and it was nice not having to come up for air.
As she explored the underwater world, a sudden sense of excitement rushed over her skin. Her senses kicked in, and Arias just had to see what was causing her skin to dance in ecstasy. Diving deeper, she slowed down, letting her instincts telling her what to do. Arias knew she was getting closer when the sensation became stronger. Starting from the bottom, she felt the need to suddenly swim up, opening my jaws as she came underneath a figure near the surface. She grabbed and held on to the slippery dark creature. The two of them crashed back to the water, the Arias shark shaking her head and biting down hard.
The sweet taste of blubber and blood overwhelmed her. She bit down until her jaws tore a huge chunk of meat from the seal. Swallowing the flesh, Arias came back for another bite. The seal, his mortal wound gushing out blood, desperately tried to escape his fate. She was faster this time, and was able to get another bite. Going back for another, Arias halted. A second shark, one larger than her, showed up at the kill.
Arias held back, letting the bigger shark have her seal. Swimming away, her head was buzzing from the experience. Arias took her time getting back.
As she approached the beach, Arias wondered if she would be able to change to her real self. Nothing happened. Arias thought about how her parents would feel. Mom would cry, thinking she’d been killed or stolen. Da knew there were worse fates than death.
Just as she thought about the family, the tingling started again. Within seconds, Arias was back to her regular self. Surprised, she almost choked on a mouthful of water. Sputtering when she reached the surface, she coughed as she headed back to shore, flattening out on the cool, sandy beach. Arias couldn’t say how long she was out, but Jonas was pretty mad when he found her coming down the road to their house.
“Arias, where have you been? We need to get home, it will be dark soon.” He glared at his sister. “Did you go meet a boy?” He peeked over her shoulder, watching to see if another figure snuck out of the water after she did.
“No, I went swimming, just as I told you.” He’d never believe my story. Arias followed Jonas home. She couldn’t wait to see if she could change again.
“I tell you, it was a female shifter. I saw her take a seal.” Sir Garan of Alline insisted. “I know a true shark from a shifter. I tell you, Thierry, that female was not a natural born fish.” He shifted from one foot to another, too anxious to sit down.
“There are no female shifters. Our kind only breeds males.” Sir Thierry of Heldin, the leader of the Temple of the White Sharks, one of the guardian orders paced the length of his chamber. He would be 50 on his birthing day, yet his appearance was that of a man half his age. Thierry’s body was warrior-lean, his brown hair still without a sign of grey. Thierry carried himself with the wisdom of his age, only the scars of many battles betrayed his years.
“Sir Breri, what have you found out in the archives? Prove to us all that what I saw wasn’t my imagination.” Garan asked another knight who sat in a corner sipping on a goblet of wine.
Sir Breri gave the younger man an indulging look before he answered. “At first I believed as Sir Garan, that only males carried the ability to shift.”
Sir Garan started to speak until Thierry held up a hand to silence him. “Please, continue on Breri.” Thierry said.
“Thank you milord” Sir Breri said tilting his head slightly in acknowledgment, “I said at first, but I went to the older records. It is written by Sir Naevin of Iraedonia, when he was Keeper of the Archives at the Temple in Zhalki that our Order was down to six female members. The women were as active as the men, patrolling the shorelines and dealing with pirates.”
Sir Garan puffed out his chest as he let out “I was right! She must be a shifter. I wonder where she came from.”
Thierry had had enough of the young knight’s arrogance. “Garan, sit down, for Tealvia’s sake! I, too, have the same thoughts.” Thierry went to stand by a large window, the top half a beautifully colored stain glass depiction of the Goddess Tealvia standing on a shark, holding a triton in one hand and a handful of water lily blooms in the other. She was wearing clothing in storm black, river green, and her hair was the blue of the warm seas of Livanya. Tealvia was decorated with turquoise and pearls, both precious stones sacred to her. The water under the Goddess was teaming with sharks and otters, the two animals sacred to her. The bottom of the pane had kelp rising up from the bottom depths to stop at the watery surface. Where the stained glass stopped, a clear window began.
Thierry took peace from the Goddess’ portrait. He started at the colors until his head cleared and he had made a decision. Without turning around, he stated his instructions. “Did you follow the female?”
“I…nay, Sir Thierry, I am sorry to say I forgot myself in my rush to come tell you of my discovery.”
“That is no help to us. How can we consider bringing this young woman in to our order if we do not know who she is?”
Garan flushed bright red with shame. “I apologize for my short-sightedness, Your Grace.”
“Take Sir Dagonet of Anglesey with you. Find out all you can of this woman but don’t approach her. I will decide if she is to become one of us, or if she is to be exterminated. We can’t have rogue shifters casing problems. Report back every night with your findings. Now go.”
After Garan had left the room, Sir Breri stood up. “If there is one female out swimming around, there might be more. I thought our line was restricted to males. This news bothers me, Thierry, only the Grey Wolves and our order have shifters among their members. Any other shifters were long banished to Joslurek.”
“That is not quite true. Recall the tale of Averell? The favored knight of Jenslu rescued stolen children of shifters.”
“Averell’s story is told to every boy growing up. Averell and his companions searched for two years until they located all of the kidnapped young of the Joslurekens.”
“The stories leave out a key element: a few of the older children had sired children of their own. Not all of the half-breeds were accounted for. Shifters breed true. Any babe born to a shifter mother or sired by a shifter male will be a shifter as well. There is one other fact not mentioned in Averell’s legend. Two of the young males sired offspring while in their primary animal form. Those babies were also able to shift.”
“What happened to those born with the ability to change shape?”
Thierry stared at his fellow knight. “Need you ask?”
“They became founding members of the Knights of the Grey Wolf or the Temple of the White Shark.”
Sir Thierry nodded “Aye, although our Order has become water-based creatures only and the Wolves land-based. I shall seek the counsel of Tealvia and pray she answers my questions on how to proceed from here.”
Sean Westleigh shut the door of his house, weary from a day in the smithy workshop. “Mary, have you seen Jonas today?”
“Aye, my love, he was searching for Arias.” She said as she set a bowl of thick lamb stew in front of her husband. “She didn’t show up at the vineyard again.
“For Goddess’ sake, Arias is no longer a child.” He ate his meal, one eye watching the front door.
Jonas came in first. “Sorry Da, I couldn’t find Arias. I went in her place to help harvest grapes.” He sat down at the table. Thanking his mother when she placed a bowl of stew in front of him.
“I heard. Thank you for going in your sister’s place. We’ll share in the profits for our assistance. Does Graime need another day’s help bringing in the grapes?”
“Nay, we picked all that’s ripe. Graime said to wait for three days before we need to be there again.”
Sean was interrupted by Arias walking inside. She saw the anger on her parents face and almost turned around to leave.
“Oh no you don’t, Arias.” My father said with a stern look, “I told you to be at the vineyard at daylight. Every villager helps with the vineyard work: we plant, we prune, and we harvest. When Graime asks, we help and in return, we all share in the profits from the wine he sells. Jonas took your place today, which left me a pair of hands short at the smithy. I have a big order to fill for the Baron of Elkondera. For your punishment, I expect you to help out Mistress Delvour in the dairy all day tomorrow. ”
Arias felt trapped. All day meant bending over milking cows and goats, twice each, mucking out goat corrals and cow pastures, churning butter, and any other chores that gloomy widow could dream up for her to do. “Aye, Da.” She said, refusing to make eye contact with her father.
“Look at me when I speak to you, girl!” Sean bellowed, allowing his anger to spill out. When Arias didn’t immediately correct her behavior, he pushed his chair away from the table, lunging towards his wayward daughter.
She had no time to evade her father as he backhanded her across her cheek. “I said look at me while I am talking to you! Do you understand me?”
“Aye, Da, I do.” She said to her father.
“Good, now get out of my sight.” Sean watched his daughter leave for her bed. Satisfied she would obey him, he sat down to finish his meal in peace.
Sir Garan and Sir Dagonet waited in a copse of scrub oak. Garan resented having the older knight oversee his watch for the young girl. It had taken him three days to discover the identity of the girl. Waiting for Arias Westleigh to make another attempt at changing had been a game of cat and mouse. Garan and Dagonet had yet to see her enter the water, yet the village fishermen spoke of three more seal carcasses found in the bay over a week’s time. The old men nursed their ale as they reminisced in the tavern. No one could recall a Great Shark hunting this close to shore.
Dagonet yawned, cracking his neck. “If we don’t see the girl before the sun hits mid-day, we’re done. My legs are cramping and my belly aches for food.”
“I think Arias pass by us today. It’s been three days since the last seal carcass was discovered. The urge to hunt can’t be ignored.” Garan said.
Sir Garan’s word proved true when Arias walked by just before the sun had entered its highest point in the sky. Keeping enough distance behind not to be seen, Garan and Dogonet stayed on the girl’s trail. They hid when she shed her clothing, quickly running down across the beach and in to the water. A brief flash of a fin cutting through the water’s surface was enough temptation. The two knights followed suit, removing their clothing, hiding it under a cloaking spells, and entering the water.
Both men instantly changed forms, becoming great sharks. A plan agreed to in advance had Garan and Dagonet splitting up, each to check different areas of the Dragonsteeth waters. Garan lost sight of his fellow knight but he did spot Arias ahead of him, swimming beyond the protected waters of the bay.
Arias swam deep, passing by rocky shelves that were home to eels and octopus. A scent of blood caught her attention. This time the creature wasn’t a seal. She swam faster, feeling other predators in the general vicinity. I don’t know what the animal is, but it smells better than seals!
Arriving within visual distance, Arias was dwarfed by the shape of a dying Silverback Whale. The remnant of a harpoon was sticking just in front of the whale’s right front fin. The great animal exhaled a bloody spray, its movements labored.
Arias circled the whale, other smaller sharks keeping out of her path. Letting her instincts take over, she approached the large creature’s abdomen. Her eyes rolling back, Arias bit down, her ferocious jaws holding tight as she shook her head and forth. Tearing off a hunk, she swallowed. Arias came back to eat her fill. Done, she casually left the whale just as a feeding frenzy erupted. Seagulls and fish gathered eager to reap the benefits of an easy meal, no longer concerned about the other sharks.
Garan was not stupid, ever ready to take advantage of a quick meal. Zabe’s Blood, I wish you’d stick around long enough so I could check you out with the ruse of eating as my cover. Garan couldn’t quite help himself, tearing off a hunk of whale meat before swimming after Arias. When he saw the girl leave, it only took a few strokes of his powerful tale to catch up to her.
She continued exploring, going deep as she followed the coastline. Garan stayed within range, tracking her movements. When Arias decided to run back, Garan was behind her.
When Arias approached the beach and changed back to herself, she was surprised when Garan popped up next to her. Dagonet stood on the beach holding two bundles of clothes. The older knight handed a pile to the knight and the girl.
Dagonet had a stern look on his face as he watched her put on her clothing. “We know what you are, Arias Westleigh. You will accompany us.”
What will the knights do with me? Arias’ heart threatened to burst from her chest it was beating so hard but she remained quiet as she dressed.
The march to the Temple was somber. Neither of the knights said a further word to her. Entering the Temple of the White Shark, Arias was directed to a small chamber, where she was left alone. The room had a wooden table and two chairs. A tiny window, good only for letting in light kept the room from being dark. A candle in a sconce hung from the wall opposite the door.
After being alone for a lifetime, the younger knight walked through the door with two older men. Arias guessed they were Temple members from the similar outfits: a blue surcoat with a white shark worn over a gray tunic edged in white. One of the men had a black leather belt decorated with silver sea shells, with matching scabbard & knife sheaths. His knife and sword had mother-of-pearl inlaid to the hilts. The second of the two men wore a plain black belt, his sword bearing a large turquoise in the hilt.
“I am Sir Thierry, he is Sir Breri, and you have met Sir Garan.” The oldest of the knights explained as he pointed out to Arias which man was who, “I’m the High Priest & Knight of our Temple, Sir Breri is our historian, and Sir Garan is a Knight of our Temple. It is he who discovered your ability to change form from human to shark.”
Arias started to deny Sir Thierry’s statement.
Sir Thierry took two large steps, stopping to stand inches from Arias. “Don’t bother to deny the facts, girl. Sir Garan and another Knight, Sir Dagonet, witnessed your transformations. We are here to determine your fate. Villagers have complained about the seal kills. They are nervous. This week finds harbor seals washing up on shore, next time it could be a child or fisherman. As it is, the seals are leaving.”
Arias jumped to her feet. “I would never attack a person, I swear it!”
“One can never be sure what an untrained shifter, especially a predator, will do when under the influence of a blood lust. How can I be certain you speak the truth?”
“I will do my best. I stay away from other sharks and big kills.”
“Do you now?” Sir Garan spoke up, “I saw you eat your fill of the Blue & White today.”
“Oh, well I couldn’t help myself, I’ll admit, but I’d NEVER attack a person. I know who I am when I’m swimming.”
“Yes, that will be true for we have decided to admit you to our ranks. It will be the only method to keep close watch on your behavior while we teach you proper control. The Goddess Tealvia has given her consent. Sir Garan will escort you to your family, where your parents will be told you have been accepted to our Order. You will return back tonight where you shall take your acolyte vows.”
Not live at home? Become a priestess? That means I’ll never have a family or be free again! “If I refuse, then what happens?”
Sir Breri glared at her. “You will disappear; your family and all that know of you will forget you ever existed.”
“Some choice, die or join you.” She snorted, dropping to sit in the chair. “I’ll join the Temple. It can’t be that bad. At least I won’t be working in the fields or forced to marry a man I don’t love.”
“Go with Sir Garan to make a visit to your family. We’ll be ready for the ceremony when you return.” The priests turned and left Arias with Sir Garan.
“Our life isn’t bad once we complete our training. I think you shall enjoy yourself. We travel the lands as part of our duties.”
“I’ve always wanted to see more than this small village.” Arias replied. “Lead the way, Sir Garan. Let’s hurry up and get back here.” I’ll do anything to have the chance to swim freely again. With a bounce in her step, Arias left the room, a smile on her face. A Knight/Priestess of the Temple of the White Shark; I like the sound of that.