10th day of Jenslu’s Moon, 1178
Seven year old Niobe of Wygest moaned, her body thrashing as if in pain. Her older sister, Gretal woke when she was kicked in her lower back.
“Niobe, wake up! You’re dreaming again.”
Sleepy hazel eyes opened wide. “Is it time to get up already?”
“Not hardly, Mouse. I should be sleeping if not for your battle maneuvers in our bed. I will be sporting bruises by daylight! Da will believe I’ve been attacked.” Gretal said with a sniff. “How shall I hope to attract a husband if I look like I’ve been attacked?”
“I’m sorry, Gretal. I don’t mean to flail about. I’ll try to be more careful.” Niobe said to her sister in her best contrite voice.
Gretal sighed, “I know you don’t hurt me on purpose, but I’m tired of being beat up at night. In the morning I’m asking Mother to assign me a new sleeping companion.” Gretal rolled over, punching her pillow in frustration.
Niobe lay back, staring at the thick stone ceiling of her bedchamber. She tried to remember what the nightmare was about, but all she could recall was the feeling of death around her. Niobe drifted back to sleep, a soft voice in the back of her head calling out “You’re mine, Niobe.”
17th day of Thaelia’s Moon, 1178
Niobe gently blew upward, trying to get wisps of brown hair moved from in front of her hazel eyes. She carefully crawled in the tall grass of the meadow never taking her eyes off the still figure of water snake curled next to the berry bush. She stopped inches from the deadly viper’s head, to stare at the reptile.
“Niobe, don’t move!” Sir Garloun, one of her father’s knights whispered urgently. “I’m going to slowly move close enough until I can kill the snake.”
Annoyed that her sire’s man would interfere with her experiment, Niobe replied, “I don’t need help, Sir Garloun. Just leave me alone.”
The snake turned its head towards the knight and hissed. The animal slithered away without harming the girl.
Taking no chances, the knight grabbed Niobe. “You little fool! What were you thinking getting close to a dangerous snake?” He held up Niobe, her face a breath apart from his, “That animal must have eaten, to not have attacked you. Your parents will not be pleased, young miss.” Tucking the girl under his arm, Sir Garloun stomped to his horse and quickly mounted. He wasted no time riding back to the keep. Finding Sir Orlege, the Duke of Wygest in his solar, Sir Garloun related the story of Niobe’s encounter. Her father waved all but his Second, Sir Arnas, out of the room. He walked over to his daughter.
Niobe stood straight, refusing to apologize but trembling all the same.
“You dared to lay nose-to-nose with a poisonous water snake! Zabe’s Blood, girl; what the hell is wrong with you? Thaelia Herself must have held that viper back from striking you.” His jaw tic’d with fury. Orlege slapped his child.
“Arnas, hand me the whip.” Without further speech, Niobe’s father gave her five lashes on her buttocks. When he was through, he sent Niobe to bed. Once she left the room, Orlege turned to Arnas. “Damn, if Niobe had only been born a son.”
10th day of Chanxeri’s Moon, 1179
Niobe’s dreams of being surrounded by death had increased. She dared not tell her parents, especially her mother Ingrid. Niobe knew the Duchess would march her to the nearest Temple of Jaira for a healing. The thought of swallowing cupful after cupful of nasty-tasting herbs made her stomach churn. I’m not crazy. That voice calling to me isn’t made up.
That afternoon, Niobe went for a ride, followed by two guards. Using a well-travelled path, she enjoyed the sun on her face. The path meandered along an ancient pine forest bordered by a broad meadow. Half-way to her destination of a lake rumored to be the home of a griffin, four men attacked. Her guards drew steel, one yelling at Niobe to turn rein and gallop for home.
Obeying the command, Niobe leaned in close and spurred her horse, urging the grey gelding to a gallop. A man dressed in nondescript brown clothing drew close. Reaching over, he grabbed at Niobe. Whether it was panic and some deep instinct, Niobe couldn’t say. But her actions saved her life. Pulling out her belt knife, Niobe slashed at the would-be-kidnapper, miraculously making contact and cutting his throat. Uttering a quick scream, the man lost his balance and fell amid a spray of blood.
After Niobe and her guards made it home, Duke Orlege sent out patrols to search out any additional raiders. Not only were they unable to find any other strangers but the bodies of the dead men were gone. A letter was sent to King Raegrildt, detailing the kidnapping attempt. Niobe was praised for her reaction and allowed to stay up past her normal bedtime, sipping on watered ale, as she listened to her father and his men share stories of famous Helfain warriors until she grew sleepy. Instead of a servant, her sire carried her to bed, whispering “I’m proud of ye, Niobe. You’ve the courage of a full knight.”
Niobe dreamt of the moment when she killed the man, the images replaying over and over with one difference: a man rode with her heaping praise for her first kill. Each dream episode ended with him telling her “It is time, Niobe, for you to join us. Come to me.”
11th day of Chanxeri’s Moon
Niobe was restless. She felt the need to go somewhere, but wasn’t sure exactly where. She wandered the castle, unable to concentrate on any single task getting underfoot until her mother finally yelled at her to go outside. Not allowed to leave the confines of the keep’s walls, she aimlessly walked about ending up in the temple.
Eliwyd, the keep’s priest was in the middle of sweeping the floor. He stopped his chores when he saw Niobe. “Lady Niobe, can I be of assistance?”
Niobe thought a moment. Eliwyd has a kind face. Perhaps he might help me get rid of my dreams. She sat down on a bench. “What does it mean if I have the same dream over and over again?”
Eliwyd took a seat beside the girl. "How long have you had the dream, Niobe?”
“The dreams started when I was seven, a year and a half now.”
She is being called to a Temple. “Tell me about your, child.”
“The Temple of the Red Snake?” Duchess Ingrid moaned aloud. She half-fainted to her chair.
“Preposterous! No child of mine, of the Royal Family of Helfain, can be an assassin! I forbid it.” Orlege yelled at Eliwyd. “I’ll contain in her room, forever guarded. Hell, I’ll bind her to Arnas with metal rings and chains of necessary.”
“The voice within is strong. She can’t ignore the urges. Zabe will find a way to claim your daughter, my lord. Know this, the Lord of the Underworld already calls to her every night and it is only a matter of time before she leaves on her own to journey to the Red Snake Temple in Witcenogra. Is it not better to ensure she arrives safely?” Eliwyd replied.
Orlege closed his eyes. My brave child, my beloved daughter; how can I send you off to become a trained killer? Red Snakes didn’t get married nor have children – never. He’d be lucky to see her again. Life isn’t fair. Why Niobe? “Very well, I’ll arrange an escort to take her to the Temple. Maybe Zabe will reject her.”
“No! You can’t do this!” Ingrid screamed, “My baby can’t go to that ugly place.”
Orlege went to his wife. He wrapped his arms around her. “I’m sorry, my dear, but Niobe must go. You have a week with our daughter.” Orlege glanced up at Sir Arnas. “Have a servant bring Niobe here that we can tell her the news.”
The Temple of the Red Snake in Witcenogra was built of dark sandstone and marble. Tall columns covered in ivy lined the entrance to the main entrance. Each column was embellished with carvings of badgers and bears – the animals sacred to Zabe – performing mundane tasks. The top of the Temple had a bas-relief of a viper striking a man sitting with his back to the snake.
Duke Orlege dismounted. He waited for Sir Arnas to help Niobe from her gelding. The two men and the girl walked up the steps and through the Temple entrance.
Two Priests met the Wygest party inside the main lobby.
“Greetings, Your Grace, I am Grand High Priest John and this is Priest Alexi. We have been expecting your daughter, Niobe. Alexi, if you would take Niobe to the Sisters chamber, I will speak with her father.”
Alexi bowed to John. “Yes, Your Grace, right away. Niobe, would you like to see our Temple?” He held out his hand in friendship.
The aura of the Temple warped around Niobe like a warm blanket. She was home. With a large smile, Niobe accepted the Priest’s hand. “Do you have any horses here? I like to go for rides.”
He chuckled, “Yes, we have many horses. Do you know how to hunt?” The voices of Alexi and Niobe faded off once they left the main section and disappeared within the Temple halls.
Duke Orlege sighed. Niobe didn’t look back at him as she walked away with the Red Snake Priest. “I hate the idea of my daughter being here but she sounds happy.”
“I assure you, we will take care of her and she will become a member of our family.” John said to Niobe’s father. “It is best that you cut all ties to her starting now. Tell your family Niobe serves Zabe with honor.”
Orlege’s eyes filled with tears. “Take care of my baby.” He turned and walked out, Arnas close behind.
“Fear not, Zabe Himself has touched this youngster. We will cherish her." John relied.
Stay safe out there